I recently published my first ebook: To Create a World. It’s a fantasy novel aimed at a middle-grade audience, about a young boy who has to enter a hidden magical world to find a cure for his sick sister.
The process of writing it has been an incredible adventure for me, not in spite of, but because of the many challenges that arose along the way. Not least of these was finding a meaningful reason to write in the first place.
I found I had to grapple with the most basic question: are fantasy stories worth writing?
I had struggled for years to write my own, and at one stage gave up entirely, deciding I simply couldn’t do it.
It wasn’t my fault: the effort of creating a make-believe world seemed pointless because it wasn’t real. After years heavily steeped in philosophy, ethics, politics, and history, how could a fictional universe add anything of value, especially one I created from my own imagination?
Fiction is just escapism. An alternative to TV and video games. And not just fantasy – the literary classics that everyone raves about are just higher quality forms of escape, not fundamentally different. They don’t solve real-world problems or teach us more about the world we live in.
In fact fantasy might be worse than other forms of fiction because it encourages escapism to a delusional, reality-denying extent. Other genres like romance might be escapist, but at least intimate human relationships are a part of reality. Science fiction might be escapist, but at least it provokes consideration of new technologies.
Worse still, some even argue that fantasy has sinister moral effects on impressionable minds, leading children to believe in magic and the occult, or to invest emotional value in something entirely unreal. Just think of all those poor children (and adults) wishing in vain that they could go to Hogwarts!
Maybe people would be better off reading real stories from the real world?
But for some reason I still felt drawn to writing fantasy. And now that I’ve finished, I think I know why.
A very special theme
What motivated me to write in the end was the discovery of a theme, an idea, that couldn’t be adequately expressed or transmitted directly in non-fiction form. It’s an ancient theme with profound spiritual significance that has been propagated and retold in various stories, often without our realising it.
It’s not my personal theme or my own idea, but it’s something that needs to be told and retold, and is therefore reflected in the many stories of our culture.
The theme is simple: the King’s advisor has usurped the throne, throwing the kingdom into chaos. The young hero must defeat the usurper and restore order, thereby finding his own place in the world.
It needn’t be a literal king – just the rightful ruler and authority. The usurper needn’t be the actual advisor, but usually someone in a formal role with its own, lesser power. The young hero could be anyone in the realm. It could be the rightful ruler’s own heir, or a completely unknown and lower class citizen.
There are some great examples of this theme played out in contemporary fiction. Some of the best come from Disney’s animated movies, with Aladdin and The Lion King providing especially clear examples.
In Aladdin, Jafar is the Sultan’s advisor who usurps the throne, while Aladdin, the boy he recruits to steal the magic lamp, becomes the hero who defeats Jafar, restores order, and marries the princess.
In The Lion King Scar is King Mufasa’s younger brother who kills the King and banishes the King’s son Simba. After years living as an outcast Simba returns, defeats Scar and becomes King, returning order to the land.
The Lord of the Rings (contains spoilers)
The theme appears in many other contemporary and classic works, but not always in a direct linear fashion. For example, The Lord of the Rings contains all the right elements, but they are separated out and multiplied such that there are more than one hero, King, and usurper across the many sub-plots.
For example, the relationship between Theoden and his advisor Grima clearly fits the pattern of the King and the cunning usurper. But since Grima is obeying Saruman’s orders, the betrayal of the rightful authority is two-fold: not only is Grima betraying his own King for the sake of power beyond his station, but Saruman is likewise betraying his own mission as an envoy of the Valar, and seeking personal power instead of remaining true to his purpose and the one who sent him.
Denethor already enjoys power beyond his station due to the long absence of the king in Gondor. His usurpation is less clear until he openly refuses to recognise Aragorn as the rightful king and the full extent of his corruption is revealed.
In Tolkien’s world, the usurpation of rightful authority occurs on many levels and in many characters, from the original corruption of Melkor in the beginning of Tolkien’s Legendarium, to the grubby betrayal by Ted Sandyman of his fellow hobbits at the end of The Return of the King.
What makes Tolkien’s vision so rich is that he recognised the hierarchy of authorities to which every individual is subordinate, as well as the universality of the temptation to seize power beyond our station.
The one ring acts as a catalyst of betrayal. But the sheer universality of that temptation points to a countervailing sense of order and of rightful authority that transcends the merely temporal authority of the Kings of Gondor and Rohan, or of the elves and dwarves.
Frodo has no king. But what rightful authority or order does he cling to so resolutely against the temptation of the ring? What nameless hidden authority does he refuse to usurp?
The spiritual significance of fantasy
The spiritual significance of this recurring struggle was clearly not lost on Tolkien. But even the more simple stories reiterate the same profound message.
The land that has been plunged into chaos is us, our own lives, our own inner world. The adviser or usurper is also us – a part of us that has gone beyond the limits of its station and attempted to seize control, gain powers that do not belong to it.
In the Christian tradition the act of usurpation is depicted in two instances: in the first humans’ desire for knowledge that was not supposed to be theirs, and prior to that, in the highest angel’s desire to be the author of his own greatness.
In both instances the rightful authority displaced was God – the mysterious, transcendent creator of all existence. The displacement happened in the hearts or wills of his creatures – angelic and human.
In other traditions the same phenomenon is described in different ways, but always with an emphasis on the human impulse to some kind of power or control that is either entirely delusional or at least beyond our capacities.
In Buddhism, for example, the usurper is the mind’s delusional impression of an ego that is in control of our life, and suffers accordingly from its own distorted thoughts and emotions. Similarly in the Hindu Upanishads, we suffer because our individual self lives in ignorance of the divine self within us, and blindly strives to find happiness and fulfilment from worldly sources. In Daoism, it is the human desire for knowledge and artifice, along with lesser appetites for pleasure and stimulation that disrupt our relationship with the primordial dao or Way.
In each tradition, we ultimately embody both the usurper, and the realm that is plunged into chaos by his rule. In our own lives we seize at power, glory, knowledge, and control that were never ours to possess. And so we await, as both the villain and the victim, for the innocent hero to rescue and defeat us, and so return our world to order.
It’s a stunning theme that goes right to the heart of the human experience and the ambivalence of our spiritual life, in which we find ourselves desiring liberation, restoration, and salvation, while also clinging stubbornly to the causes of our own disorder.
Our culture values this theme of the hero who defeats the usurper, restores the rightful authority, and finds his place in a newly ordered kingdom. Fantasy is simply one avenue of storytelling that keeps this theme alive in our minds, and for that reason remains a story worth telling.
Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet. His new fantasy novel To Create a World is available as an ebook from Amazon, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and other digital stores. He also blogs at zacalstin.com.