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The Integrated Imagination: Fantasy in the Real World

(This was originally published in The Molehill, but since that’s currently out of print and quite a few folks at this weekend’s Wilberforce Conference asked about it, I thought I’d post it here.)

My grandmother asked what kind of books I liked to read. “Fantasy novels,” I said. I probably had a Dragonlance book hidden in my backpack, next to the Walkman with the Tesla tape, the TransWorld Skateboarding mag and the Trapper Keeper with a Camaro on the front.

“Isn’t that sort of thing for girls?” she asked. She tilted her head back to better see me through her glasses.

“What do you mean? There’s nothing girly about them.”

“Hmm.” She went back to her game of solitaire while I tried to tone down my defensiveness.

“Granny, I’m serious. Lots of my friends read them, and I don’t know a single girl who does.”

“Well, I guess times have changed,” she said with a sad little shake of her head.

We went back and forth for a few minutes before I realized that when I said “fantasy” she thought I meant romance, the steamy kind—you know, the paperbacks with the scarlet covers and flowing scripts, always with a ravished woman wrapped in the arms of a blonde dude with breeches and riding boots and no shirt, muscles so big he could snap the ravished woman in half, and from the way she’s looking at him it seems she wouldn’t mind so much if he did. His name is probably Dirk. No wonder my grandmother looked worried.

“No, Granny,” I said with relief. “Fantasy novels. Swords and dragons and stuff. The less romance the better.” That wasn’t strictly true, because in Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Tanis Half-Elven and elf princess Lauralanthalasa (I’m not kidding) had a thing going, but they had to keep it quiet because her people mistrusted his half-humanness and it created all kinds of romantic tension, plus the War of the Lance interfered and all. But mostly there were dragons. And dwarves. And magic weapons and dungeons and taverns teeming with thieves and adventurers.

I remember Christmas morning 1987 when I tore the wrapping paper off of several Dragonlance books—books that I swore to my dad weren’t the same as Dungeons & Dragons games, though it turned out they were. Almost exactly the same, in fact, but in book form. Even more startling, I didn’t turn into a devil-worshipping delinquent, nor did the books spontaneously combust on the holy ground of the church parsonage. To the contrary, I’m in my forties now and I still remember the warm tingle in my fingers when I first held those pulp paperbacks. I can still smell them. If I close my eyes I can see the cover painting by a guy named Larry Elmore. It featured the aforementioned Tanis Half-elven, Caramon the warrior, Goldmoon the barbarian princess, Flint the dwarf, and Tasslehoff the kender standing in an autumnal vale with a red dragon coiled behind them. The whole gang was looking at the camera, so to speak, as if waiting for me to step into the book and join them. Now it all seems so cliché, but at the time I didn’t know and didn’t care.

I filled notebooks with drawings of those dragons, talismans, old stone doorways, and walking lizards called Draconians. I thought about those stories in class, and read them after I failed tests, and talked about them with my brother and our nerdy friends while we built skateboard ramps in the garage. The books lifted me straight out of the mossy pines of North Florida and plopped me down in a magical world, just as surely as Lucy stepped through the wardrobe and found herself in Narnia. My young mind crackled with longing, though I wouldn’t have known to call it that. I merely said to myself, “Man, that’s so cool,”in an awestruck whisper.

Not long after that, at my older brother’s behest, I read David Eddings’s The Belgariad, a five-book epic fantasy about a kid named Garion who eventually learns to speak a secret spy language with tiny movements of his fingers. If that weren’t cool enough, he also saves the world by recovering an orb. I wonder how many times an imaginary world has been saved by the recovery of an orb? I loved these books almost as much as I loved the Dragonlance Chronicles. Around the same time I read Stephen King’s It and The Talisman (which he wrote with Peter Straub), both of which ought to be considered fantasy novels, and neither of which are as good as I remember them.

My brother also got me hooked on David Gerrold’s The War Against the Chttor series, which launched me over to the somewhat parallel genre of science fiction. The Chttor books raised the bar and lowered it at the same time. Gerrold is, as they said in my neck of the woods, one smart dude. He used the Chttor books not just to tell a story with the usual spaceships but also to philosophize, which is one of the best things about sci-fi. The books explore everything from war tactics to ethics to religion to sexuality—but to my relief, there were also plenty of guns, zombies, and wormy critters that wanted to eat the world. I felt my mind expand a little while I was reading them, but it also sank a few notches into the gutter. Even so, there were moments of bliss when I closed my door at night, switched on the reading light, cracked open the paperback of A Rage for Revenge, and could almost hear the hiss of the pressurization system kicking on as I stepped onto the space transport. Gone were the humid bedsheets and the oscillating fan and the mossy trees of Florida, gone was my nascent fear that I would be miserable for the rest of my life, gone were my failures; I was saving the world, baby, and I might not make it back alive.

Then I’d wake on the ugly green couch in my room to the sound of my dad stomping through the house singing “Rise and shine, give God the glory-glory” in full preacher voice. It was time to embark on another day of school, another day of facing what felt like an enormous waste of time—except for those few minutes between failures when I could duck through the trapdoor of my book and emerge into a world of real beauty and real danger, which meant real heroism and the possibility of real purpose. I was hungry for it. Maybe even starving.

Every time we drove the thirty minutes to Gainesville, the nearest town with a mall, I headed straight for Waldenbooks. When I got to Waldenbooks I headed straight for the fantasy/sci-fi section, which at the time boasted only a few shelves. Always with a tantalizing fraction of that same tingle I felt on Christmas morning in 1987, I ran my fingers over the spines of all those paperbacks: Anne McCaffrey’s The Dragonriders of Pern, Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea Chronicles, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, an ever increasing number of Dragonlance books (now there are about two hundred), the D&D spinoff Forgotten Realms (which I never cared for, though the covers were killer), Stephen R. Lawhead’s The Pendragon Cycle, Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, Terry Brooks’s The Sword of Shannara, and of course, towering above them all, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings—a book I hadn’t read, which caused my brother no end of consternation. I had seen the animated films seven hundred times, so I didn’t think I needed to read it yet. (Don’t be angry. Tolkien, for me, came later.) But hobbits aside, I stood in the aisle at Waldenbooks and yearned, I tell you. I was drawn to those book covers like a deer to a salt lick, and like a salt lick they only made me thirstier. I couldn’t get enough.

In those days, I was restless without a book in my hands, without the hope of some new story around every turn to enliven my deadening senses. Unlike most of my friends, I didn’t want a truck or a job or a scholarship; I wanted a horse and a quest and a buried treasure. But there were no real quests anymore. Not in my town. So I had to make them up. And that led to a series of hijinks that I’ll write about when I’m old and most of the witnesses are dead and the statute of limitations has run out.

But I left out something significant when I told you about my conversation with Granny Peterson: when she asked me what kind of books I liked to read, the prevailing feeling I remember is bashfulness, just a few inches shy of outright embarrassment. I was standing in her front room with my hand on the table where the grownups always played canasta, and I stared at the linoleum floor, wishing she hadn’t asked me that question. Ask me about something else, I thought. Anything else. Skateboarding or girlfriends or grades or Jesus. Leave my stories alone. My craving for those tales occupied a private part of my adolescence; they represented my loneliness, the only antidote for which was the seemingly impossible dream that life could be lived alongside trusty companions and in defiance of great evil.

I looked out her window and saw crabgrass, old trucks, clouds of mosquitoes, and gravel roads, a rural slowth that drawled, “Here’s your life, son. Make do.” But my books said, “Here’s a sword, lad. Get busy.” A persistent fear sizzled in my heart, a fear that there existed no real adventure other than the one on the page, and that I was doomed never to know it. Doomed to a life of failure. There’s that word again. I felt called to adventure but saw no way to get there, so instead I read about adventures and kept that dream alive by keeping it to myself. How do you explain that to Granny? How, for that matter, do you explain it to anyone?

Sooner or later, I had to abandon the salt lick. I needed water. Sometime between adolescence and my diploma, I discovered music, and music was the horse that bore me safely out of town. Music was the call to adventure, however self-serving and reckless that adventure may have been. It was also the doorway through which the object of my quest entered my heart.

In the summer of 1993 I was a foundering young man chaperoning at a youth conference called CIY (Christ in Youth), when one morning on a hillside by the chapel, I watched the sun rise on the green mountains. They were more beautiful than any landscape I had imagined existing in Krynn or Prydain or even Middle-earth. They were real mountains. My CD Walkman was on repeat, and again and again I heard Rich Mullins sing the lines, “I see the morning moving over the hills / I can see the shadows on the western side / and all those illusions that I had / they just vanish in your light.” The sun was rising on me, pushing the shadows of my failure and fear farther and farther away until the whole world was bright and peaceful as only an Appalachian dawn can be when you’re nineteen and weeping with the surety of true forgiveness and true love. What I was looking for all along had found me instead.

Not once did I suspect in all my sketching and reading and aching to enter the stories I read that Jesus was calling to me through them. Jesus was mostly an idea. There was church, the life I was supposed to long for, and then there was the life I actually longed for. You see, I was the victim of what I call, “imaginational segregation.” On one hand there was my compulsion to be a Christian—a cultural and familial paradigm that I happily ascribed to and had little reason to resist—and on the other I nurtured a mostly secret affection for what were, more or less, fairy tales. Looking back, the same was true of my obsession with comic books and films and music. In each of those art forms I encountered a world that seemed more vivid than the one I was in. I wanted to enter that beauty. And I decided the only way to engage it, apart from my imagination, was to create it. I could draw, or play the piano, or write. If I could make something beautiful, maybe I could forget for a few moments how drab I was, how useless I felt, how lonely was this dull and lifeless life I had been given—and that dull life included Christianity as I understood it. I was, of course, projecting my disappointment with myself onto everything else—everything but the world in my mind, built out of song and story and that terrible, secret longing. The grass was oh-so-much greener on the Other Side. The mountains were taller and the water was sweeter and the stories were better, too.

But that morning when I was nineteen on the hillside in East Tennessee, things were different. Life itself—the one I was actually living—for once outshone the life I had yearned for. The Maker of this beautiful, broken world ambushed me. He had lain in wait for the perfect moment to spring: the perfect song at the perfect hour of the day, the contrition of my hungry heart, the intricate staging of the beauty that had led me to that dewy lawn, and his holy, brooding spirit draped over the valley like a mist. “Drink,” he told me, “and thirst no more.”

I’m not saying this was my actual conversion, but it was a salient moment that perhaps marked the end of a season of struggle. When the shadows cast by my disappointment and self-hatred were banished by the light of the forgiveness, the acceptance, and the infinite affection of Christ, I could see the world around me for the miracle it was. I could see myself as a miracle. Scripture tells that when God looks at a Christian he sees Christ’s righteousness—in a similar way, the Christian is now free to see Christ in everything. Even himself. I was gloriously alive, and I was at home in the palm of God’s hand.

So I abandoned fantasy. I had no need for it, so I thought, because the world I was in pulsed with loveliness. I was wide awake to God’s presence. I cried when I sang in church. That was a new one for me. The Bible became fascinating for the first time since I had read Revelation at church camp to see how imminent was the apocalypse in order to gauge my remaining party time. Now I read it because it felt alive. I read it to know the God Rich Mullins seemed to know so well. And you know what? It worked. During the first few weeks of Bible college the story of the Old Testament lit up my imagination with stories of battle, espionage, love triangles, deception, failure, heroism, and the promise of redemption; mine was an imagination well-prepared for the invasion of the Gospel story. The soil had been fertilized in my youth with a hundred tales that had taken root and grown but had born no fruit; those old stories withered, then decayed and composted, readying the ground for the life-giving seeds that were coming.

I feasted on the meat of the Bible for four years. I don’t want to give the impression that I was a model student, or that I rejoiced in writing papers on the problem of evil or the kings of Judah. In many ways I was still the bonehead I always was. And yet, I no longer felt that awful lack of purpose, which is, I suppose, a lack of hope. Now there were songs to be written. There were concerts to play. I wanted to tell people this story that had changed me, and through the lens of all my newfound hope, the world and every person I met seemed to shimmer with God’s presence. I read commentaries, I read every class syllabus, I read the Bible, I read papers. I was eating meat, meat, meat, and more meat.

Then at the beginning of my senior year, with a bit of leftover student loan money burning a hole in the pocket of my chapel slacks, I accidentally bought The Chronicles of Narnia from the college bookstore. I was hunting for the semester’s textbooks when I spotted all seven paperbacks in an attractive slipcase, much like the set I grew up with. I stood in the aisle with an unwieldy stack of textbooks and three-ring binders in one hand, while with the other I experienced a familiar tingle in the tips of my fingers as I ran them over the books that contained the magic of Narnia. I remembered the word I heard that morning on the mountain: “Drink.”

The books went home with me, and I showed them to Jamie (to whom I’d been married for about a year). “For our future kids,” I said, but that wasn’t the whole truth. I had read so much non-fiction in college that I was craving something light and non-required. Somehow, during my last semester of school, even though I was doing a steady stream of concerts and I needed to complete an internship and twenty-two hours of credit to graduate, I managed to read C. S. Lewis’s story of Aslan and Narnia for the first time since childhood. I read it all the way from the wardrobe to the last battle. I thought of it as a literary retreat, indulging some of my childhood reading tendencies to give my brain a rest from academia. But instead, I experienced something much deeper.

The reintroduction of fairy tales to my redeemed imagination helped me to see the Maker, his Word, and the abounding human (but sometimes Spirit-commandeered) tales as interconnected. It was like holding the intricate crystal of Scripture up to the light, seeing it lovely and complete, then discovering on the sidewalk a spray of refracted colors. The colors aren’t Scripture, nor are they the light behind it. Rather, they’re an expression of the truth, born of the light beyond, framed by the prism of revelation, and given expression on solid ground. My final days in college were spent studying the books of Ezekiel and James in class, writing song lyrics in the margins of my syllabi, and reading, at last, The Lord of the Rings, that exquisite spray of refracted light.

And now we come to the point. Tolkien’s story bears many similarities to those I read in high school (mostly due to their imitation of him), including the lure of escapism. In the same way the Dragonlance books had whisked me out of high school, Tolkien’s books transported me out of college for a few precious minutes each day. But whether it was because of my own awakening to the beauty of life through the saving truth of the Gospel or because of Tolkien’s own faith and attentiveness to the Holy Spirit while writing The Lord of the Rings, when his story ended the world around me held more possibility, not less; it was brighter, not duller; my eyes were clearer, not dimmer. Tolkien and Lewis, both in their own way, lifted me out of this world to show me a thundering beauty, and when I read the last sentence and came tumbling back to earth, I could still hear the peal. I hear it to this day.

God allowed the stories to lift the veil on the imaginary world to show me the real world behind it—which ended up being, in the end, the one I was already in. Tolkien and Lewis held the fabric of Narnia or Middle-earth in one hand and clutched ours in the other, building a bridge so we could set out for perilous realms and return safely with some of the beauty we found there. The ache we feel when we read about Frodo’s voyage from the Grey Havens, the ache we feel when Lucy hears the thump of solid wood at the back of the wardrobe is telling us that yes, there’s another world. But the stories that awaken us are meant to awaken us not only to the reality to come but to this world and its expectant glory. Too often we retreat into the pages of our longing only to return disconsolate to the kitchen or the classroom—we’re escaping from and not to.

A few years ago I dug out a few of the fantasy novels I loved and found them mostly empty. Not only have my tastes changed (the quality of the writing left something to be desired), but they strike me as a way to pass the time rather than enrich it. The accoutrements of fantasy and science fiction still hold their appeal for me; dragons and quests and epic tales are appetizing seasonings, but seasonings don’t make a meal. Nowadays I read more broadly—novels that take place not in Hogwarts but in Iowa (which I have learned is no less magical). I’ve been enraptured by stories about moths and watermelon harvesting and bridge building, and non-fiction about city planning and hurricanes and explorers of the Amazon. There’s so much out there to read that I’d never answer my grandmother’s question with: “Fantasy novels.” If I someone asked me today, my answer would be, “Good books.” The same is true of music: “Good music.” Is that a genre?

That doesn’t mean I don’t have a soft spot for dragons. I believe the Lord used those books to pique my desire for another world, to exercise the muscle of imagination (if not prose), and even to comfort a lonely kid. I’m sure God’s doing the same for kids all over the country, even now.

I’m not ashamed to admit that when I go to Barnes & Noble I still visit the fantasy section first. I still run my fingers along the spines and study the cover art. And I still feel that 1987 tingle. Sometimes I even read some of those books. I tell myself it’s just for fun, but I’ll let you in on a secret: I’m on the hunt. Somewhere out there, there’s another Tolkien. Somewhere out there, men and women with redeemed, integrated imaginations are sitting down to spin a tale that awakens, a tale that leaves the reader with a painful longing that points them home, a tale whose fictional beauty begets beauty in the present world and heralds the world to come. Someone out there is building a bridge so we can slip across to elf-land and smuggle back some of its light into this present darkness.

I’m always looking for that bridge.

If you wanted to, I suppose you could call it a quest.


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