My theme this month is Instant Plot ideas, but I thought I’d deviate this week. My post this week falls on September 11th, and I was thinking about how we struggle to cope with evil in this world. What I believe shocks people most about the event that happened back in 2001 is the sheer villainy required for anyone to voluntarily cause the deaths of so many people. We have our Hitlers and our Stalins of history, but it’s easy to put those in the past. They are part of history. This is still part of our present.
While not everyone ascribes to a set of beliefs in which there is a dichotomy of good and evil, instinctively, most of us still see it in the world. We can’t help it. It’s not enough to explain something away by pointing to psychological damage or confusion or perspective differences. We continually confront evil in the world, even if some of us don’t want to call it that.
This connects, in my mind, to why so many of us write stories, particularly fantasy stories, and why we are drawn to read them. Within many of those fantasy novels is the great struggle between evil, in some form, and heroism, flawed but irrepressible, and we do not tire of seeing our heroes win. We read those stories and in some ways, they help us come to terms with what we see happening around us.
A mistake many people make, however, is to view these forays into fantasy as mere “escapism”, as if reading about a world that isn’t “real” makes it somehow irrelevant to real life. The flaw in this reasoning comes when we set up false contrasts between truth vs fiction or fantasy vs reality. Fiction isn’t the opposite of truth because fiction can reveal truth through its story telling. And good fantasy certainly isn’t the opposite of reality because it has the ability to use the fantastic elements of its worlds to reveal profound and powerful meaning in our world. Now, to be fair, many of us do read in order to escape into another world, but we always return to our own and, if the book was good enough, we bring something back with us.
Tolkien set the standard, but the stories came before him – stories with monsters and dragons and evil knights and wicked kings. These forces of evil were not “real”, but they represented for their tellers and listeners a reality that was undeniable – Evil exists and we are fighting against it every day.
The most important truth and reality that we can draw from these fantasy villains, however, is that they are temporary forces and they are inevitably the losing side. A good fantasy novel also has heroes, and the heroes – at no small cost – are the ones who win in the end.
“Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten” ~ G.K. Chesterton
Now, I am generalizing fantasy novels in this post, since many have deviated from the traditional good vs evil to show less dramatically opposed characters or different scenarios, but I think that the idea is still there – rooted in the genre – and we still read it and write it quite often. We want to create a believable, shiver-inducing evil because we want to give our heroes something to defeat. And through the telling of a “mere story”, we also want to show our readers that evil is a real force in our world, but not the force that wins out in the end, even when it seems like it must. Tolkien called it the “eucatastrophe” of the fairy tale, and there is nothing quite so profound as that sudden turning point from darkness to hope. It is difficult to cope with the existence of tragedies on any grand scale, and yet our stories include them regularly, because in a story we get to see the ending, and the ending is good.
That glimmer of a picture of how this world’s story will end is nothing if not encouraging.
Just a thought.