Monday, October 15, 2007

Is Fantasy Literature Morally Corrupting?

Candice Waters:

Thanks to Ellie for taking the discussion to an even deeper level by mentioning Michael O'Brien, whose book, A Landscape with Dragons, is exceptional. In it, he shows that the problem with much of the modern fantasy genre is that it turns the moral universe upside down. Characters that were once, and always, evil, are now imbued with good and noble traits. His example is the dragon. Once historically and biblically the epitome of evil -- the dragon is now cast as savior. In the case of Eclipse, the vampire, traditionally an evil character, is cast as good.

It's as if the authors of such fiction want to numb their readers to the idea that real evil exists and is consistently recognizable. If you're convinced a dragon, or vampire, can only be deemed bad after you've gotten to know him, you're more likely to give all the dragons and vampires a chance to prove their character before making a judgment. Sadly, the time that passes between meeting a new and as yet unjudged dragon/vampire and deciding whether he's of the good sort, or bad, is a time of extreme vulnerability.

This is problematic because we know there is a dragon, Satan, who's goal is to devour what's good, all the while "masquerading as an angel of light." In the world we inhabit, even a dragon that appears good is evil. O'Brien writes, "Evils that appear good are far more destructive in the long run than those that appear with horns, fangs, and drooling green saliva."

Hat tip: Joe Carter


Divers and Sundry said...

1) Do you agree with the point of view expressed in this post and in _A Landscape With Dragons_?

2) We read a lot of Chinese fairy tales when my kids were little. How do Chinese dragons fit into this idea that _all_ dragons are the "epitome of evil"?

I enjoy your blog and read it regularly.

John said...

I haven't read the book, but from what Waters is depicting in her post...I'm not sure.

What I am sure about is that anti-heroes can be corrupting. Anything that glorifies or esteems evil debases us. Dragons, as they are often used in fantasy literature, are not inherently evil. But it gets shakier with other creatures.

This is one reason why I never really enjoyed playing the RPG Vampire: the Masquerade. No matter what changes you can make, your character is inherently, inescapably evil.

Divers and Sundry said...

I guess I've always looked at "good" vampires and such as examples of conversion. Vampires are, after all, vampires because they have been victimized by other vampires and are in a fallen undead state through no fault of their own. Some of these fictional vampires recognize their fallen state, repent of their evil deeds and join the forces for good. I see them as a sign of hope that evil can be overcome by good, a sign of hope that no matter how evil the sin the sinner can repent. I celebrate their repentance and conversion.

I do see the need for care in choosing literature for young children, but I don't see friendly dragons as a problem. I'm not sure what "other creatures" are seen as inherently evil.

John Meunier said...

I think the reason fantasy writers are doing things like writing about good vampires may have to do with looking for new ideas and new twists on old and well-tried story lines.

There have been good dragons in fantasy lit for a very long time. So, that is not new.

John said...

Good point -- there are only so many plotlines in fantasy lit.

I haven't ready any that genuinely glorify evil, although I don't read much fantasy lit.

Dan Trabue said...

There may be varied reasons for using anti-heroes or for finding heroes where we least expect them, and not all of those reasons are bad. Maybe not any of those reasons.

I suppose one could try to glorify evil and I reckon that happens occasionally.

I'd suggest the majority of the use of anti-heroes and "bad guys" as good guys are for very good literary and moral reasons.

The anti-hero gives us a real person, with all their failings, as being in someway heroic. And to look for a great anti-hero, we need look no further than King David, the murdering, lying, cheating scumbag who was a man after God's own heart, right?

Using untraditional heroes also reminds us that not to judge a book by its cover. It's not that monstrous dragon that's a danger, it's the murderous cheater. If a dragon happens to be "merely misunderstood," then perhaps it's poor Eustace who's repented from his wrong ways and just wants to be a boy again (Narnia).

I don't see much value in this kind of blanket argument. It would really depend on the use of the character, seems to me.

What great and noble characters some creepy types have turned out to be! What creeps some heroic types have turned out to be!

Dan Trabue said...

And I'm with Divers, who noted that dragons have not universally been "bad" creatures. Just because our Western roots often (but not always) portrayed dragons as evil, doesn't mean every culture has and it would be a bit culturally elitist, seems to me, to suggest that this is the only way to portray dragons.

Dan Trabue said...

Here's a bit of beautiful dragon-related poetry:

When I looked for good, then evil came unto me: and when I waited for light, there came darkness.

My bowels boiled, and rested not:
the days of affliction prevented me.

I went mourning without the sun: I stood up, and I cried in the congregation.

I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls.

My skin is black upon me, and my bones are burned with heat.

My harp also is turned to mourning,
and my organ into the voice of them that weep.

Dan Trabue said...

That was from Job, of course, and here's another, from Isaiah:

Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.

The beast of the field shall honor me, the dragons and the owls: because I give waters in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert, to give drink to my people, my chosen.

I don't know that one of her central tenets is correct: In reading the many allusions to dragons in the Bible (I hadn't realized how many there were), they are always described as evil, at least not obviously so. Here and in Job, at least, they appear to be representative of Wildness or Darkness (which is another ideal that we tend to associate with evil which is not necessarily so.)

Okay, I'm done.

Dan Trabue said...

d'oh! I meant to say, "They are NOT always described as evil..."

WTJ said...

Not to mention Psalm 148, when "ye dragons, and all deeps" are called to "praise the Lord". They can't be all bad.

More importantly, adult Christians ought to be smart enough to recognize when the morality being shown in a particular work of literature is not Christian morality, or that an author's cosmology is not a Christian cosmology. We can therefore read works of fiction we do not agree with without any harm.

Archbishop Rowan Williams read Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, publicly praised the quality of Pullman's writing, and then proceeded to deconstruct the philosophical basisis of the books. He then challenged Pullman to a public debate, which was broadcast on the BBC.