Thursday, December 20, 2012

6 Benefits of Fairy Tales

Dear Mandy,

In your last blog post, you said this:

"Some would say that living in fantasy worlds as a child doesn't prepare one for the real world. Maybe that's true, but considering that I am now an adult nerd, I don't see how that's such a bad thing."

While I agree with pretty much everything else you said, I should like to take a moment to delve into this particular subject a little more deeply. Especially since I've been wanting to for quite some time.


Sra, Supreme Chancellor of the World and Jupiter

Is Fantasy Escapist?

I think I'll let Mr. Tolkien answer that one for us.
Tolkien points to the resolution of fairy stories in happy endings, in the return at the end to a normal world. These aspects of fantasy, says Tolkien, are not escapist. They embrace that which we most yearn for- an acute awareness of the beauty of the real world- by leaving it, imagining richly, and then returning.
- Phillip Martin (paraphrasing Tolkien)

The well-intentioned mothers who don't want their children polluted with fairy tales would not only deny them their childhood, with its high creativity, but they would have them conform to the secular world, with its dirty devices.
- Madeleine L'Engle

Does fantasy destroy our ability to see the real world for what it is?

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time...
- T. S. Eliot

Once we believe..... we begin to see the forms of good and evil. First as children, later as adults, we come to believe that even creatures as small as ourselves can play a role, that the world is affected by the actions we take.
-Phillip Martin

And, of course, no discussion on fantasy is complete without the incomparable Mr. Lewis.

In answer to the question of whether fantasy will warp a child's mind to confuse fantasy with reality: "It would be much truer to say that fairy land arouses a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his lifelong enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth."
- C. S. Lewis

So What?

Poets are all fine and good. But let's leave off with the words of famous geniuses for a moment, and talk about it in layman's terms. Down to earth, plain old english. What does all of that mean?

As a certified non-genius, I've taken the liberty of breaking it down into six distinct categories. Six benefits of fantasy literature that show, without a doubt, that it is beneficial to the human mind and character.

1) Reading Makes You Smarter

What gets you ahead, when you're vying against 12 other people for that vice president's job? What makes the difference between you and the equally matched other guy, when you're playing chess, or football, or halo?


Outwitting someone in a game, or coming up with better ideas in an office, requires a little imagination. And reading fantasy not only helps, but forces you to develop said imagination.

You can't read about a dragon attack, and not come up with some kind of idea in your mind of what that was like. And the more you do it, the better your ideas become. The imagination is a muscle too. It needs frequent exercise, and reading fantasy is just the way to do it.

2) Deepens Beauty

This one is very closely related to the last. As Tolkien, Lewis, and Eliot all said up there, fantasy allows us to see things in our own reality that we never would have noticed, otherwise.

When we stretch our imaginations in a fantasy land, we are able to stretch them in real life, too. Okay, I'm going to cheat a little and use another C. S. Lewis quote here:

"No man would find an abiding strangeness on the Moon unless he were the sort of man who could find it in his own back garden."

Finding the magic in the world isn't about being able to travel to strange and distant places. It's about being able to see the beauty of the ordinary.

Reading does not dull the ordinary by introducing us to the fantastic. It teaches us, line upon line, how to see the fantastic. And once we can see it, we can find it in everything. Even our own back yard.

(Our own world is pretty fantastic without any help. => )

3) Gives Us Perspective

We can't appreciate what we have until we know what it's like to not have it. We forget how fantastic it is to be able to breathe through our noses until we have a cold that keeps us up all night from stuffy sinuses.

We don't taste the sour part of the orange juice until we take a bite of a donut first. We can leave our own world for a little while. Then when we finally come back, we see it in a new light.

See here for a post on how I learned to appreciate my place in life because of reading the Hunger Games.

One part of that new light is, just as Lewis said, "a new dimension of depth." We realize that there is so much more out there in the world than our tiny little sphere of experience. That we are capable of stretching and reaching and discovering. That if we only put out our hand, we can reach the stars.

We are no longer satisfied with mediocrity. We've glimpsed the wider world of possibility, and we now need to raise ourselves up to bigger and better things.

4) Is a Kind of Reality

"Of course it is happening inside your head, but why should that mean that it is not real?" -Albus Dumbledore

A football nut isn't actually playing football. All he's doing is sitting on a bleacher bench, wearing horrible fan-paint, and screaming at people. None of the action is happening to him. Often, it's not even happening near him. So, therefore, the intense emotions he feels must be fake, right? Unless he personally and physically experiences something, it's not real.

If you're shouting that I'm dead wrong here, you'd be right. But remember that truths don't only apply to actions of the popular majority. Truth is a universal thing.

Fantasy books are almost exactly like watching a football game. And personally, I'd rather second-hand-experience a dragon flight, than an overpaid beefcake in tights jumping on top of another overpaid beefcake in tights. Just saying.

In fantasy we love, we hate, we win, we lose, we live, we die. Those emotions are completely real, and become a part of our life experience, even if they came from words instead of actions. Just because we experience something in a non-physical way doesn't mean that the experience is somehow false.

As J. K. Rowling so brilliantly said here, (Watch the whole thing. It's worth it,) "Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared."

5) Teaches Us Compassion

And on that note...

Humanity, by nature, is imperfect. Every human being has flaws, and every human being has a backstory that explains those flaws (though it may or may not excuse them.)

When we become judgmental, which we all do at some point, it is nearly always because we forget that people have a past. We know we have flaws, but we also know why we have them, so we can excuse ourselves as not-quite-so-bad. But we don't see that deeply into others. We don't see their thoughts, intentions, and motivations, and so we forget.

But books remind us.

What is the difference between a book we read once, and a book we read five times in the same year? Good writing helps, but it's not essential. Many poorly written books have been national bestsellers. Plot? Certainly not. Even the best plots only work once. (The movie Signs, for example.) After we know what happens, the shock and surprise are gone.

Or are they? We return to the same books again and again, and we're scared and excited and devastated every time, even though we know what happens. Why? Because we're so in love with the characters. We can't bear to see them in pain, even when we know it will turn out right in the end.

And yet, all of the best characters are just as flawed and stupid as the people we meet in every day life, but we love them anyway. In our favorite books, we learn to love people despite their mistakes. We're reminded of those backstories, and the fact that we're only human.

The more we read and the more we remember our flawed humanity, the more we are able to forgive others in real life. The more we are able to find sympathy and compassion for those around us.

6) Moral Lessons

Most authors don't purposefully put lessons and symbolism into their novels. And the ones that do have to be truly masterful about it to avoid preachiness, which everyone hates. But even the most un-preachy of novels teach us a great deal.

In every great fantasy novel ever written, good defeats evil. The hero stands up for right, even when it would be easier not to. The characters are brave in the face of adversity and trial. (And that doesn't always mean battle.)

Oh, yes, there are evil characters too. But we know which is which. And we return again and again to those characters that uphold honor, virtue, and integrity.

Whether intentional or not, we learn to be better people from those heroes. They teach us, as Phillip Martin said, "that even creatures as small as ourselves can play a role, that the world is affected by the actions we take."

Fantasy reminds us that we can make choices, and stand strong when trials come. That we can be brave and kind and good, no matter who we are, or what we've done in the past.

Tell me that's not something worth keeping around.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Meh on the New Superman

This isn't just about superman, though. It's also my attempt at explaining why I, a dyed in the wool nerdbox, have not gotten googly-eyed over the past few years' veritable slew of supposedly epic movies, like everyone else has been.

Watch this trailer.

The music is spectacular.
His re-vamped suit looks pretty cool.
The guy who plays him is pretty awesome.
The graphics look good.
The trailer is REALLY well made.
The character conflict is actually real, as opposed to most of the older superhero movies.

So, what's wrong with it, you may ask?

Nothing, per se. Except for the fact that we've seen this exact same movie about 42 times already this year.

I'm just really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really,


tired of superhero movies. Really. Tired.

I wouldn't be, if there were a couple of little tweaks. Nothing major. I really don't ask for much. But as it is, I'm so done.

Let's break it down, shall we?

1) The darkening of the character was a really good idea...the first time it was done.

It made sense with Batman. The whole police not trusting him thing. The warrants for his arrest. The misunderstanding. In Gotham City, it's only to be expected. That's the way the world works in those stories. And aside from all that, Batman is one of the darker heroes anyway. He always was.

But these days it's like slouchy leg-warmers in the 80's. Everyone's wearing them around, and there's no good reason for them.

Take the Amazing Spiderman. There's a giant dinosaur man rampaging through town, facing down machine gun bullets, killing people for no good reason, and hatching a plot to turn everyone into creatures like him. But where are the cops? Oh, just busy setting up traps for some kid who likes running around in spandex. Because he's OBVIOUSLY the important threat to New York.

Tell me, how does that make any sense, except as a plot device for keeping Peter Parker away from saving the world until the last possible moment?

No really, if there's an actually good answer to this, do elaborate.

2) But that brings me nicely to my second point, which is infinitely more important, and which I shall also begin to elaborate on by using the Amazing Spiderman. I could forgive stupid mistakes like trying to copy someone else's style so they can be as cool as other people. I really could, if I actually cared about anyone in the movie.

But seriously, the main character is an idiot. And I don't mean that in the intellectual way. He's got a high IQ, and he's dating a girl who somehow knows the way to cook genetic mutation antidotes, although they're both still in high school. Whatevs. But I mean that in an an eye-rolling, "start thinking with your brain, please." way.

He crawls over the roofs of half of New York with one hand, trying to stop the bleeding in his bullet wound, and nearly falls to his death several times. But as soon as those cranes start moving, THEN he uses his webbing as a bandage, which miraculously allows him to run at a full sprint with no difficulties. Why didn't you do that like an hour ago?

We won't even start on that idiotic closing line he used to win his girlfriend back. Or the way that she's trying to clean this ginormous gash across his chest, to keep him from dying, and all he can think about is making out with her. *Puke*

Picky, picky, blah blah blah. I know. Those things aren't fatal flaws. Good characters should be flawed. But good characters also should have something really great going for them, that makes us like them anyway.

Harry Potter is an angsty whiny-baby sometimes. But he's got the courage of a lion, and the goodness of his mother, which make us root for him anyway.

Peregrine Took is a complete moron. He makes a lot of stupid choices, and isn't the brightest crayon in the box. But he's funny, and charming, and optimistic, and when he's called out to fight against orcs who are twice his size, he does it without a question. And therefore, we love him anyway.

Aladdin is a thief. So is Flynn Rider. Prince Adam (Beast) is an enormous monster with the patience of a nuclear bomb. Emperor Cuzco is a selfish, whiny brat. Aurora spends 3/4 of the movie asleep. Woody seethes with jealousy. Hercules is naive to a fault. Simba doesn't care about anything that he should care about until the movie is 9/10 over.

And yet, every single one of them has something about them that we love anyway. We care about them anyway. When bad stuff happens to them, we cry. And when good stuff happens, we cheer. And even if we've seen the movie a hundred times, the scary parts are still scary, because we love them so much that we're afraid for them.

THAT is what a good character should be. And that is what none of the main people in any of the latest superhero movies do.

Transformers movies? Ack! Please, just scour them from my brain. Please.

That part in Avengers where they thought Iron Man was dead? I gotta be honest, I was not all that bothered. If he had died, I would have felt exactly the same about the movie as I do now. *shrug*

I was a little, tiny bit almost sad when he shed one tear because he couldn't call Pepper before he sacrificed himself. But that was the first time Tony Stark ever did anything that made me feel like he deserved my sympathy. In general, he is not a likable person. He has no redeeming qualities. And therefore, I didn't care about his movies.

Same with the Hulk. Or Captain America. (He was kind of angsty. Which seems like NOT what Captain America is supposed to be.) Or Spiderman. Or Green Lantern. Hancock? One of the only Will Smith movies ever made that was plain old dumb. And that Catwoman one? Ooh. Oh, add that to the Transformers list. Just make it go away.

Am I too picky? Do you want a good example from the past few years? Alright. Here we go. Two days ago.

*SPOILER ALERT* If you haven't seen the Hobbit yet, skip this paragraph. Unless you don't care about me telling you something that happened.

There's a part where wargs are chasing the company, and they have to climb up trees to get clear of them. Then they're all stuck in trees, which subsequently catch on fire and trap the good guys with no escape.

This part is pretty much directly from the book. And if you've read it, you know they eventually escape by means of a flock of giant eagles swooping in to the rescue.

I knew this. I knew it well. I've read the Hobbit more times than all the other LOTR books put together. I knew that no one was going to die. I knew the eagles were coming. There was no question in my mind about it.

But, owing to the excellence of the movie making, I knew these characters better than I had done from the book. I was more attached to them than ever before. And though I knew it would end alright, I was Stressing. Out. The eagles did not come nearly soon enough for me. I needed them to be safe, and I needed it immediately.

That is what a good character should do to you. It doesn't matter how many times you've read/watched something. It doesn't matter how well you know the sequence of events. When it comes down to the danger, it's still scary every time, because you still love the people every time.

None of these superhero movies have done that yet. And since all of them are emotionless, and all of them are the same, I am SO BORED.

Now we'll return to Man of Steel. 

(I think they got the same guy to re-design his spandex, as did the spiderman getup.)

2) Superman is cool. I have no inherent problem with him, and he is a likable dude by nature. So I should be able to survive this movie without being annoyed.

1) But that's just the thing, though. Turning superman all dark and angsty takes away most of those things that make him superman in the first place.

It was never about the muscles and the powers. It was about his motto. Truth, Justice, and the American way. He was supposed to be the embodiment of good. Of helpfulness, and charm, and right. Make him angsty, and all of that is gone. Then what's the point?

1-B) The trailer goes on about "Oh, you have to hide, because they'll never accept you" and blah blah blah. And that's the whole basis for the angst. Sure, it's hard to not fit in. I would know. But the dude is basically immortal. He only has one weakness, and that's some mineral from a far-off planet. What are the people gonna do to him if they decide they don't like his powers? Shoot him? Imprison him? Big whoopdee-twee.

<= Seriously, what is this? Like handcuffs would ever stop superman anyway.

Now I could be wrong. Coming at it from that angle could work really, really well. It could be a fabulous learning-to-be-the-right-kind-of-man story. You know the type. Even though the world would have a hard time accepting him, he helps them anyway, because that's the kind of man he wants to be. And in the end, he finally overcomes his angst in coming to this conclusion.

In that case, it would be the only useful superhero movie of the past years.

But I have lost my faith in the superhero franchises. And in humanity in general. People don't like stories of learning to be good even when its hard. Not anymore. They just want to see things blow up. (I cite the Avengers as the poster child for this. They added just enough of the learning to be good to make people feel okay about life, but they didn't take it far enough to matter. People are scared of that these days.)

(And dang. They really do massacre these cities in every movie. Who pays for them to become un-demolished, I'd like to know. Not the superheroes, obviously.)

Because of that, I don't trust that they'd actually dare to take the movie in that direction. Or, like in Avengers, not far enough to matter. Although I really hope they do. 2) I'd like to have a superhero movie that actually means something, and that doesn't star some selfish, obnoxious dude who happens to have powers and condescends to save the world because no one else can.

I guess we'll come back to this post in 2013 and see what really happens. It has the potential to be excellent. But will they allow it to be? Probably not. Sadly.

PS. However bad the movie, though, I will buy that soundtrack. It's so good. Hans Zimmer. One of the best.