Matthew Civico

Matthew Civico studied History and Journalism in Montreal where he lives and sometimes speaks French. He tweets @mattCivico and enjoys living like a hobbit.

Fantasy and Motivation

Enjoying fantasy can be dangerous business. You enter into a story, and if you don’t hold onto a form of disbelief, there’s no knowing where you’ll draw parallels between the fantasy and reality. You might find something true amidst the unbelievable.

Charles Taylor, philosopher and author of A Secular Age, argues we live in an age of disenchantment. He describes a shift in our sense of identity, from the “porous self” of our ancestors to the “buffered self” of today. Taylor describes the shift as more than the shedding of  supposedly irrational beliefs, but as the “loss of a certain sensibility that is really an impoverishment.” As moderns, we have trouble getting our heads around things like faeries and visions, and Taylor points out how we explain psychologically what our ancestors took at face value: there are faeries in the forest. Today, we believe that “Whatever has to do with thought, purpose, human meanings, has to be in the mind, rather than in the world.”

Writing about the relationship between fantasy and the buffered self, Alan Jacobs summarizes this shift:

“…a person accepts a buffered condition as a means of being protected from the demonic or otherwise ominous forces that in pre-modern times generated a quavering network of terrors. To be a pre-modern person, in Taylor’s account, is to be constantly in danger of being invaded or overcome by demons or fairies or nameless terrors of the dark—of being possessed and transformed, or spirited away and never returned to home and family.

The buffered self believes that it has more control and is therefore safer than the porous self, which contends with this “network of terrors.” But there are two sides to this story. If the universe is as empty as our buffered condition would have us believe, then we are insulated from both the “network of terrors” and the possibilities of external good, even divine good.

However, our buffered selves can still act as tourists in an enchanted world. Jacobs argues that works of fantasy allows buffered selves to participate in the “enchanted world” of our ancestors without losing the safety of our buffered state. As a genre, fantasy doesn’t constitute the porous self that Taylor speaks of, but rather hearkens back to it. Without relinquishing any control, we suspend our disbelief and simulate the porosity of our former faerie-fearing selves.

Fantasy resonates so deeply with many because, often, we’re not yet resigned to a wholly silent universe. Indulging in fantasy requires the temporary adoption an enchanted vision of the world, whether our own or another. Fantasy winds its way into the cracks of our vision and illuminates alternative ways for how—and who—operates the universe. Covering our eyes does not preclude the shining of a light just as a bulwark of manufactured meaning doesn’t foreclose on deep, spiritual truth. Fantasy invites us to look at the world in the light of a strange, new sun.

For this reason, good fantasy, like The Lord of the Rings, can animate and enlarge life itself.

This hit me this autumn while going through the most difficult semester of my academic career. I began studying journalism with a desire to tell great stories but came up against structural restrictions and found myself disillusioned, overworked, and lonely.

In search of respite, my wife and I invited a friend over to watch The Lord of the Rings films. Our friend had never seen them, and we were excited to share the joy we find in the stories with her.

Down in the Mines of Moria, Frodo’s dialogue with Gandalf echoed my struggle to accept personal failures and an uncertain future:

“I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”

“So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil.”

An encouraging thought, indeed, but not an easy one. I cried. I cried silent tears and sat in the dark with Frodo and found truth under the mountain. Yet, beneath a mountain of doubt, a light broke through; here was truth or, at least, the promise of life beyond the present shadow.

Gandalf’s advice brought me to a place where I understood what it meant to say “I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way.” The givenness of life comes with the weight of responsibility, but it isn’t a weight that must be carried alone. When a burden is given it must have a purpose, and it’s by discovering this purpose that life’s joys are sweetened by its pains.

Further in their quest, Frodo and Samwise have what’s essentially a discussion on the relationship between divine will and human responsibility; the perennial question of determinism. “I don’t like anything here at all […] but so our path is laid,” says Frodo.

To which Samwise replies:

“Yes, that’s so,” said Sam, “And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo, adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on, and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same; like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?

The Fellowship of the Ring ends with a note on which most worldly quests fall apart. The fellowship breaks; the damage of Boromir’s betrayal can’t be undone despite his redemption, and the path before Frodo becomes even darker.

In spite of all that, when the credits rolled I found myself strangely resolved to my fate—whatever that may be. Instead of escaping into the story, the story had passed into me and overwhelmed my doubts.

If this world isn’t enchanted, then after the breaking of the fellowship, Gimli was right to say, “it has all been in vain.” Disenchantment has a diminishing effect; it makes us small, insignificant features of a quiet universe instead of participants on an awe-inspiring stage. Disenchantment leaves us to toil in obscurity or to grasp at power with what little agency we possess, often to the detriment of those around us. Disenchantment offers us fleeting, minor victories in the face of life’s daunting, and often crushing, trials.

Good fantasy, and the world it invites us into, animates because it presupposes a power both above and beyond us. It invites us into a universe that sings. A world in which we do not merely exist, but have being. Good fantasy can open us, make us porous to this divine good, which means we can work towards goals—our quests—with the hope that not everything will be in vain or, better yet, that nothing will have ever been in vain. After all, “despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt,” and we most certainly do not.

Good fantasy lets us see our lives aren’t wholly personal, or even how I might not be the hero of my own story, which frees me to ask this question: what kind of tale have I fallen into?

“I wonder,” said Frodo, “But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.”

If you enjoy a good story this is good news of the highest order. Our stories have purpose; there are more reasons to get out of bed than to hide in fear. It’s a mercy to our unyielding desire for meaning that we don’t have to save the world to find our purpose in it, or even to change it.

Experiencing the enchanted worlds of fantasy is not escapism. Rather than providing a hiding place, it can lay our world bare, stripping away the buffers of our self-justification. If my troubles are the result of my poor choices then I’m just a fool, but if my path has been laid before me—given to me—then there is meaning in my struggle, no matter the outcome.

The wisdom of elves reminds us that it’s often the small hands that move the wheels of the world, a truth, when taken with the givenness of our stories, simultaneously lays a burden of responsibility on us while ensuring its lightness. As enchanted creatures, what we decide to do with what we’re given will carry on beyond this life, but we aren’t left to make the most of our lives alone. There is good in this world, and beyond it.

The Lord of the Rings is not a story about heroes; it is a story about becoming heroes, and that makes a world of difference. An enchanted world frees me to be a pair of small hands that matter, a character in a story full of songs about great deeds, and not all of them necessarily my own. Good fantasy reminds me that the world is enchanted and that the real escapism is a cocoon of manufactured meaning, a retreat from the illumined universe where we imagine ourselves both the author and the hero of our stories. This is an escapism that crushes, and suffocates.

True freedom comes with risk, and if we live in an enchanted universe then the risk is real, but the burdens are light.

Featured Image: Tolkien’s Orignial Watercolor for The Hobbit

A Song of Ice and Fire, and Hope?

Editor’s Note: This essay contains spoilers from Season Five of Game of Thrones. 

I picked up A Game of Thrones, the first volume of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire in the sweet spot between the fourth book’s release and the announcement of HBO’s now wildly popular TV adaptation. It paralleled my junior high obsession with The Lord of the Rings, but felt distinctly true to what I was experiencing in university. At the time, the unfeeling indifference of university had replaced the wise counselors of my youth; the purposeful quest dissolved into a blur of struggles and skirmishes. I read, hoping for resolution.

The moment I knew Ned wasn’t coming back was formative to my reading life, and it still colours my reading of fiction. His unjust death showed me that A Song of Ice and Fire was different from what I’d read before. I realized Martin would’ve let Gandalf stay dead and that frightened me—but I couldn’t stop reading.

So began my time in Westeros, a world of small victories and devastating losses, and a place I never want to visit but can’t help exploring.

Game of Thrones (GOT) and The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) often get compared for the scope of their world-building, which are fleshed out with enough detail to fill encyclopedias. But that’s where the clear comparisons end. Spend time in both and you’ll soon find that there is no idyllic Shire, no selfless counsellors, and that in Westeros, Aragorn would have taken the Ring from Frodo, because that’s what people do: steal, oppress, and destroy—try as they might do otherwise.

GOT is an intricate world made more complex by its population of cripples, bastards, and other broken things. LOTR is as intricate, but often labeled as simplistic because of its supposedly straightforward narrative of Good versus Evil. Martin himself took a shot at Tolkien’s medieval philosophy in an interview with Rolling Stone, disagreeing with the assumption that “if the king [is] a good man, the land [will] prosper.” Despite his quibbles, Martin doesn’t think Middle-Earth is “a world where the good guys win and the bad guys lose, and at the end they live happily ever after.” Tolkien’s novels are deeply touched with tragedy, as Martin acknowledges in the interview.

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However, by the time Eddard Stark had lost his head, I’d seen enough brutality to know what I was reading—tragedy. For me, Ned’s death was a twist, a big one, and I was hooked. I kept reading, desperate to know what would become of the Starks and other characters. Now I’d like to know when killing off (and brutalizing) sympathetic characters stops being a twist.

The narrative role of betrayals and sexual violence is growing stale, in the TV show especially, as HBO’s desire for shock value trumps plot value.

HBO’s misuse of sex and violence (Episode 6: Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken) prompted Vox writer Zack Beauchamp to voice fears that Game of Thrones might become “the simple inverse of a boring morality tale.” Which would be equally as bland because “‘everything is terrible’ is just as boring and predictable as ‘everything is awesome.’” Since conflict is at the center of storytelling, there needs to be a balance of terrible and awesome; a real chance of defeat and meaningful victories. Without this balance, Game of Thrones’ grit is starting to chafe. The show runners new habit of bringing the peripheral terribleness of the novels to bear on the main characters is a big part of this.

Beauchamp goes on to list what the show does well, revealing his hopes for many of the narrative arcs. Of everyone’s favourite half-man he says: “Tyrion was genuinely trying to make things better, and it was damn entertaining to watch him succeed — if only temporarily.” Why not spare Jon and let him succeed where Ned and Robb failed? Why not have Sansa carry the Stark name as a strong, wintry queen? I’ll watch the news if I want to see well-intentioned efforts fumbled and frustrated at every turn.

Jon Snow now lies dead on the last pages and frames of GOT, and—if you believe the message boards—many fans either mourn him or await his resurrection. These Jon Snow evangelists appeal to theories about his true identity. Is Jon the ice to Dany’s dragon fire? For my part, I hold onto the supernatural, the magic that must manifest itself for the series to move towards a conclusion. I ask with Martin, “when can we be redeemed? Is redemption even possible?” But Jon’s death made it clear, Game of Thrones is due for a eucatastrophe—Tolkien’s conception of the happy ending, “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.”

I’m hoping for this turn—longing for a little bit of storybook in a story that cares too much about rough edges.

After her conquest of Meereen, Daenerys is faced with a choice: show mercy to former slave owners or mete out justice. She declares “I will answer injustice with justice,” and we love her for it, because we all hope for justice. We want to see the battered and broken Starks restored, and to rejoice when the noble intentions of Tyrion and Daenerys are successful.

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While there’s no doubt that moral ambiguity and intrigue (and gratuitous violence and sex) sell, the recent success of Mad Max has reaffirmed the popularity of simple stories. Furiosa’s War Rig ran on a clear hope as much as guzzoline, but her journey can’t be considered easy or painless. Frodo and Furiosa’s clear paths don’t make their journeys any less daunting.

Yet in Game of Thrones, those who try to do good are confounded at every turn while monsters like The Mountain and Littlefinger cheat the death they sorely deserve, but we hold on. This hope is not unlike the hope of the Ring-bearer’s quest to Mount Doom in The Lord of The Rings; we want to see good people triumph and evil defeated, even when we’re not given much grounds for such a hope.

The triumph of good is only boring when unrealistically easy. Victory in the face of darkness, evil—whatever you want to call it, is exactly what we want. Give me a hero—but give me a hero that bleeds.

Right now, because Game of Thrones is unfinished, it’s like following breaking news. We have our theories and, of course, hopes for how the story will end, but no one knows except the author. It’s easy to be cynical after all the death and injustice, but there is less room for despair in a world where magic exists. So we keep on dreaming satisfying, fanciful dreams, because it’s what we do.

Perhaps, when the final page is written, we’ll find out that Martin isn’t quite so at odds with Tolkien. The Lord of The Rings isn’t all second breakfasts and triumph, darkness descends and there’s real struggle, risk, and loss. The force that impels us to read stories to completion is hope, but we can only identify with hope in the midst of suffering. So yes, Game of Thrones is bleak, horrifying, and often reprehensible, and that’s why so many keep watching and reading.

The horror can’t go on forever, can it?

That’s why I can’t give up now, not yet. The bodies keep piling up, but I want to hold on despite the weight of the darkness. I’m hoping for an end to the vicious game of thrones, for a good king or queen for Westeros. If we, as humans, give up on the Seven Kingdoms, a place designed to display the complexity of the morass that is morality, how can we bear to live in this world, the one we see on the news and in our Twitter feeds?

Hope is categorically and necessarily human; we need it—I need it—to get up in the morning, and to sleep at night too. Will I wake up to another sunrise? Will everything sad come untrue?

I hope so.