Is there anything wrong with reading books with magical characters and fantastic settings?

“Is there anything wrong with reading books with magical characters and fantastic settings?” Ensign, Oct. 1988, 27

I have been criticized for reading books with magical characters and fantastic settings. I have been told reading them is a waste of time, at best. Is there anything wrong with reading this kind of literature?

Steven C. Walker, professor of English, Brigham Young University. It is sometimes difficult to decide how best to use our time. Certainly recreation is as important as work for a well-balanced life. But how one balances the two is the trick. I’ve heard complaints from parents who feel that their children spend so much time reading fantasy or science fiction that they neglect work and study and begin to avoid the realities of life. On the other hand, there are many adults who would find life much more joyful and productive if they allowed themselves more recreation.

As we attempt to balance our lives, we ought not impose on others the decisions we make for ourselves. Often I hear readers of fantasy affirm that their reading has contributed zest and energy to their lives and helped them develop a strong set of moral values.

What often confuses people is the presence of fanciful characters and settings in these books. They feel that since these characters and settings are unreal, they have little application to real life and are therefore a waste of time.

The thing to realize is that the characters and settings in fantasy literature are purposely imaginative. In other words, the fantasy genre uses “unreal” characters and settings rather than “real” characters and settings in order to engage the reader’s imagination more fully than does conventional literature in an exploration and reaffirmation of moral values and ideas.

One of the best ways to engage the imagination is to use symbols familiar to the imagination—unicorns and fairies, quests and fantastic experiences. These symbols have been around for a long time, and while they seem to have little application to real life, they actually have much to do with it. In many ways, they symbolize the struggle between good and evil and the challenges we all face as we journey toward maturity. For these reasons, I have found that fantasy literature, for the most part, is more optimistic and more explicitly moral than mainstream literature.

Still, reading fantasy literature can consume great quantities of time. For example, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, a masterpiece of the fantasy genre, stretches to 1,091 pages. Reading it requires a serious investment of time.

When I began teaching Tolkien classes at the university level, one of my colleagues asked, “Wouldn’t it be better for your students to be reading Shakespeare?” It would be better. It would be better still for them to be reading Genesis. The trouble is that if my students weren’t reading fantasy, they wouldn’t necessarily be reading Genesis. The choice for them is not between Tolkien and Tolstoy, but between The Hobbit and inane or immoral television programs.

My own route to The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream was by way of the Oz books, and I am encouraged by how often fantasy reading proves to be a springboard for my students into profounder literary fare. As educators and parents know, play is serious business, and one should never underestimate the power of interest in helping a person, young or old, to grow and mature. I would much rather have my child reading Tolkien or C. S. Lewis than watching television sitcoms.

Whether reading fantasy is a waste of time or not must ultimately be answered by the individual. The question we must ask ourselves in this, as in any activity of life, is where is it likely to take us? How conducive is reading the literature to living righteously and well?