I’ve received an e-mail from someone asking advice about the criteria for distinguishing between good and bad fantasy literature. The same correspondent also shares my admiration for the novels of Maurice Baring and asked me a supplementary question about his books. The relevant part of her e-mail is printed below, with my response following:
May I ask you for a little guidance (comments or titles of commentaries…) on the subject of fantasy literature for adolescents in particular? I work closely with Catholic schools and I have been asked to give a conference in November on the moral and intellectual implications of fantasy literature. A number of series are currently being devoured by many of our teenagers and pre-teens, and parents do not always feel equipped to judge the phenomenon.
I will be addressing the question from the point of view of principles, though I will try to address concerns about specific series, and I am trying to find a balanced view. I would like to get to the heart of the draw of fantasy books, their difference from fairy tales, their value and their dangers. I know that the question is vast, and I want to do it justice in the time allotted me. If you had a spare moment in your busy schedule, I would be grateful for any lines you could jot down to nourish my reflection.
On another subject, I have just finished your Literary Converts, which I found very beautiful. I likewise discovered Maurice Baring this year, after having heard his name for the first time at your conference. I read C and Coat Without Seam. I found his characters Shakespearean in realism and found the overall atmosphere providential and grace-filled in a way comparable to or surpassing even Waugh (to my mind), but was not sure how to judge the works’ overall value as novels. Is there a Baring title in particular that you would recommend – not only for me, but potentially for study in an 11th or 12th grade class?
Regarding fantasy literature, the principles are laid out by Tolkien in his essay “On Fairy Stories”, which I believe is available online. Clearly, however, any work of literature, of which fantasy is no exception, will reflect the theological and philosophical beliefs of the author (consciously and/or subconsciously). This being so, it is important to know something about the authors of the works. I would recommend the following fantasy authors as being essentially bona fide (though not necessarily in the technical sense of being orthodox and in communion with the Magisterium):
Tolkien (obviously!), C. S. Lewis and George Macdonald. Personally I would also be comfortable with children reading the novels of Ursula Le Guin and Brian Jacques, though I don’t believe that either of them are Christian.
Regarding Baring, I would heartily recommend Cat’s Cradle for you but this would be too difficult for 11thor 12th grade students. For the latter, the obvious choice would be Robert Peckham, which is set in penal times and is a much easier read.