Jeffrey Overstreet is an award-winning film critic, author, and editor. He is the author of a four-book fantasy series called The Auralia Thread, which begins with Auralia’s Colors and ends with the recently published The Ale Boy’s Feast, and a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly. His writing on movies, music, and culture has been published in Paste, Salon, Books and Culture, Comment, Relevant, and Christianity Today (where his work as a film columnist for almost a decade earned him two awards). Today he writes regularly about art, faith, and culture for ImageJournal.org and his own website, LookingCloser.org.
Recently, Mr. Overstreet agreed to answer my questions about the value of fairy tales and fantasy stories (with a heavy emphasis on The Lord of the Rings), why so many modern stories of this kind are failures, and how to cultivate discernment in young people.
CiRCE: In a 2008 article for Response Magazine, “The Eagles Are Coming”, you wrote that when you read The Lord of the Rings as an eight-year-old “hope took on a shape so powerful” that it helped combat the fear you felt at the scariness of the world. From where did this sense of hope spring?
OVERSTREET: It comes from the beauty that Tolkien’s masterful writing revealed to us. And I think he was able to reveal that beauty because he had encountered it through his own faith. He was clear-eyed enough to see that the history of human endeavor is a history of failures. And yet he saw that when we stifle our selfishness and make ourselves vulnerable, answering a higher calling of love, compassion, and humble service, we enable Providence to bring about a kind of redemption.
While he saw his readers and critics describing his books as stories about war and power, he saw them as stories about humankind’s unhealthy desire for immortality in this world.
He believed fairy tales are unique in the world of art, because they give us a way to imagine something that the world hasn’t yet experienced —a rescue, a redemption, a deliverance. And he was encouraged by the way that we respond to those moments; we’re captivated and thrilled, as if we are recognizing something that is true even though the world has yet to experience it. He described those moments as “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
CiRCE: As an adult, what role do stories like The Lord of the Rings play in your life?
OVERSTREET: It’s so bizarre that The Lord of the Rings is so revered, so celebrated, such a high standard in the fantasy world… and yet so few of the writers have learned the right lessons from reading it. Most fantasy writers who give credit to Tolkien will imitate him by constructing unnecessarily complicated worlds. They’ll include monsters that are a lot like Gollum and the orcs. They’ll include powerful talismans like the Ring. They’ll include heroic questions to overcome evil empires. But they’ll never grasp the central threads of Tolkien’s stories.
The Lord of the Rings reminds me that even though the “hooks” of revenge stories, lurid content, scary monsters, and sensational violence draw a lot of people to fantasy, the stories that will really stay with you are those that focus on more honorable subject matter.
Tolkien’s books are filled with battles and monsters and quests and talismans. But all of those draw us toward perceiving that we have a higher calling in this life. The characters who inspire us in Tolkien’s epic are saints—figures of humility, sacrifice, and selfless service to a higher cause. It’s not how they wield a sword that distinguishes them.
The series is a tapestry of stories about those who are willing to suffer, to carry a cross. They resist an impulse to “unleash hell,” and instead they dare to show patience and compassion to their enemies. The wisest among them refuse to carry weapons of mass destruction, unless they are on a quest to destroy those weapons. And through all of this, the stories show that humankind is doomed if we only have ourselves to rely in. We must look for hope beyond ourselves, in what Gandalf called “another will at work”.
But I read the stories so many times in my childhood that I don’t revisit them very often now. They’re a part of the way I think. When I do revisit them now, I’m thinking more about the craft of storytelling.
The Lord of the Rings probably wouldn’t be published today. The author had the luxury of years to craft it; he wasn’t writing like a madman to meet deadlines. And he was deeply concerned about the beauty of language, and about letting a story emerge at its own pace. He didn’t worry about losing readers because the story was challenging. He didn’t fill his chapters with gratuitous action and violence to keep readers reading. And he knew that the world doesn’t need stories of heroes as much as it needs stories of saints.
CiRCE: Why are fairy tales and fantasy stories so often associated with “childish things”? There is a certain negative stigma associated with adults who enjoy fantasy stories. Why is this?
OVERSTREET: I think there may be less stigma now than there once was. When I quit basketball in high school so I could spend more time writing fairy tales, that made a lot of my classmates look at me funny. But now, fantasy is such a regular part of our lives in video games, movies, and more, it’s probably a little less “geeky.”
Still, a lot of people think that “grownups” will put aside fairy tales. That’s probably because fairy tales require us to entertain a certain measure of nonsense. The only way to talk about certain mysteries is to invent a new vocabulary, and create a make-believe environment where it’s possible to ask “What if?” Fairy tales let us give voices and faces to forces that may not have them in the rational, visible world. They let us imagine things that reason and experience tell us should not be possible.
As a result, the mysterious hope that fairy tales can uniquely provide can seem like a threat to those who rely too heavily on reason and experience, those who value their own manufactured sense of authority and control. A lot of people are uncomfortable if you say to them, like Hamlet said to his friend, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Sure, fairy tales are full of make-believe and whimsy. But through that creativity, we can sense truths that are inaccessible any other way.
CiRCE: Our culture is overwhelmed with fantasy stories. Some of these examples are good, well crafted stories. Many are not. What makes a good fantasy story? And what makes a good fantasy story meaningful?
OVERSTREET: I think good fantasy stories observe the same rules as any good art. I’ll defer here to Flannery O’Connor, who said:
“The fact is that if the writer’s attention is on producing a work of art, a work that is good in itself, he is going to take great pains to control every excess, everything that does not contribute to this central meaning and design. He cannot indulge in sentimentality, in propagandizing, or in pornography and create a work of art, for all these things are excesses. They call attention to themselves and distract from the work as a whole.”
In terms of fantasy, writers are unwise to indulge in unnecessary flourishes of action, violence, magic, imaginary creatures, or anything that does not, in some way, enhance the story. I’m not saying we can’t be whimsical and playful—after all, it’s the whimsy, playfulness, and childlikeness of hobbits that makes us care about them. But that strengthens the story, and there’s just enough of it to bring the world of hobbits to life for us.
A great chef will take care to prepare only the finest ingredients. He’ll be as concerned about how the dish is prepared and presented as he is about the recipe. In the same way, fantasy writers should remember that the form of the story is as important as what happens in it. If a storyteller is concerned with action and magic and monsters, but isn’t concerned about writing beautiful sentences, then he’s telling us that he doesn’t care enough about his subject or his audience to bless them with something that will nourish them.
Also, the best writers are fiercely attentive to their own characters and environments. When they are, they discover stories that readers haven’t experienced before. That’s why most fantasy books seem so familiar; the writers are writing versions of things they’ve seen in movies and read in other fantasy novels. Most fantasy novels are just King Arthur stories or Hobbit quests or Skywalker adventures or Braveheart battles with fresh coats of paint. The more that writers listen to the characters and worlds they explore, the more they’ll find new stories to tell.
As I wrote The Auralia Thread, I kept testing my chapters to see if any event, any character, or any plot twist felt like a cliché. If it did, I backed up. I began to suspect that I was writing things that were familiar instead of what was really true to this story. So I tried to listen more closely to my characters until I sensed something that seemed right. And I often ended up discovering that the story wanted to take me in a surprising direction.
CiRCE: What about Hollywood? It seems like every weekend there is a new fantasy movie hitting theaters. Where does Hollywood hit the mark, and where does it miss?
OVERSTREET: Most fantasy movies are just excuses to dazzle us with special effects. And most of them tell audiences what they want to hear: That we can overcome evil with our own cleverness; we can break the spell if we just find the right boyfriend or girlfriend; we can find satisfaction through developing our own strength and finding a passionate romance. Few of them celebrate the calling of a saint, which is a calling to selfless love, sacrifice, and beauty.
One of the things that makes Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series stand out is its attentiveness to natural beauty, which speaks with more mysterious power than any special effects.
That’s why I spent so much time in Pacific Northwest forests, or walking beside the ocean, or wandering around the high plains on the edge of Santa Fe, or taking ferryboat rides out into Puget Sound, while I was writing The Auralia Thread. I wanted my world to be filled with vivid details from the world around me, because I knew if I could deliver those sights and sounds and smells to readers, that would be more effective and involving than any blast of battlefield violence or catalog of magic spells.
CiRCE: Since our children and students are surrounded by these many examples of fantasy stories – from Twilight to Harry Potter and everything in between – it is important to help them learn to discern between good examples of fantasy stories and poor ones. How can we do this? How can we help our children and students see the “sacred” and the “hope” in fantasy?
OVERSTREET: Parents and teachers who are discerning, and who read good stories to their children and their students, will give them an appetite for good stories. If they read musical prose, their children will learn to love musical prose. If they read stories about noble and admirable choices, those will shine brighter than choices motivated by selfishness and reckless impulse.
The missing piece of the artistic experience in American culture is the conversation after the movie, or the discussion after a chapter is read. If children learn to reflect on what they’re experiencing, to “chew their food,” they’ll become more discerning. After reading Twilight, how many young women discussed Bella’s character, her choices, what gave her a sense of value, what risks she took, and how so much of her well-being was wrapped up in winning attention from a super-cool strong man?
I’m grateful that I had teachers who encouraged me to read excellent books.
CiRCE: Are there any examples of fantasy stories or fairy tales that might not be commonly read that you would recommend to parents and teachers concerned about providing their young people with examples of the true, good, and beautiful?
OVERSTREET: Michael Ende’s Momo has been overlooked for too long. One of these days, someone will discover it and make it into a movie. I hope they do a good job.
Everything by Kate DiCamillo is worth reading, especially The Tiger Rising and The Tale of Despereaux.
I haven’t read it in several years, but T.H. White’s The Once and Future King caught and held my attention during my sophomore year of college.
Most children experience Peter Pan as a movie, but we really need to focus on J.M. Barrie’s original story. And The Wind in the Willows remains a masterpiece that too few children ever read all the way through.
I also find so much inspiration in the films of Hayao Miyazaki. My Neighbor Totoro is a beautiful, moving fantasy story about how young children deal with fear. So many stories about growing up seem to be stories about learning to get what you want, learning to be stronger than others, learning to beat the system. But Spirited Away is so rich with wonderful pictures about growing up and learning to embrace humility, service, and compassion.
Jeffrey Overstreet grew up in Portland, Oregon, and lives with his wife Anne, a poet, in Shoreline, Washington. He is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine. Jeffrey speaks frequently at conferences, film festivals, universities, and churches on subjects such as film interpretation and moviegoing discernment; the power of fairy tales and fantasy; fiction writing; and the redemptive power of play.
Through a Screen Darkly (2007, Regal Books)
Auralia’s Colors (2007, WaterBrook Press)
Cyndere’s Midnight (2008, WaterBrook Press)
Raven’s Ladder (2010, WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group)
The Ale Boy’s Feast (2011, WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group)