Slaying Dragons: Why Fantasy is Fantastic and Necessary in Classical Education

by Feb 7, 2024A Year in the Life of Opening a Classical Orthodox School-Reflections

We live in a world of extremes, one which pulls us in multiple ways, vying for our attention with promises of wealth, power, fame, and recognition. Our children are, unfortunately, pawns in this environment. The complications of modernity are seen as its greatest progress as we rely more and more on technology to mold and form the minds, hearts, and wills of our children. A quick glance at a family dinner will show just how far we have come. We, all of us, don’t/can’t go anywhere without our phones. Some of us do everything with it…it wakes us up, reminds us of when we have information that needs to be processed, answers all of our questions, talks to us on the freeway, and sooths us to sleep, only to be counting the seconds of time to do the same thing again the following day.

Now it might seem ridiculous for me to be bashing technology today as I present this information through the use technology. The PowerPoint was prepared with technology, it is being relayed through technology, and if it is successful in striking a chord with you, will be shared through technology. Not all technology is bad. In fact, used as a tool, it can be quite important and necessary. No one, including me, wants to go back to covered wagons, skinning animals for clothing and food, or outhouses.

Yet, with our continual march towards progress, our ability to dream and imagine becomes less and less possible. Imagination is that innate faculty we have which allows us to dare to dream and dream big. When we were children, our imagination was guided and formed by wonder, that great movement of spirit which first revealed the light to us, caused us to gasp in joy at the rainbow after the storm, and then pushed us to ask “What,” “Why,” and “How?” Why is the world the way that it is? Why do I exist? How is this made? Why do we die? What is the meaning of truth? What is beauty? It is wonder and imagination that inspired us to pick up a book. It was wonder and imagination that caused us to play as children. It was wonder and imagination that inspired us to star gaze in our backyard. In short, wonder and imagination are the most fundamental aspects of our existence, and their proper cultivation is so crucial to our becoming fully human that, in a world with so many distractions, we must be deliberate in establishing the means for children to attain them.

One way this can be accomplished is through the reading of fantasy. The great English sage, GK Chesterton once said “children do not read fairy tales to know that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Children read fairy tales to know that dragons can be killed,” (The Red Angel-Tremendous Trifles). Chesterton leaves no room for rebuttal. The existence of dragons is a given that all children understand. It is only us silly busy adults that don’t believe in dragons. But when do we stop believing in dragons? Is it really a part of growing up, or is it something that happens when our imagination is replaced with other external distractions? C.S. Lewis in a letter to his goddaughter said:

“My dear Lucy, I wrote this story for you, but when I began it, I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result, you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say, but I shall still be your affectionate Godfather, C. S. Lewis.” Dedication to Lucy Barfield in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe

Many of us may remember playing cops and robbers as a child. Many more may remember living an imagined life in a castle and fought with our friends for the coveted sir knight or lady dame distinction. In most cases, there were dragons to fight, ladies-in-waiting to rescue, and kingdoms to defend. It was about as fantastical that one could get living in suburbia, but it allowed one to imagine his or her life as something more, something extraordinary.

But fantasy is more than just slaying dragons and noble wizards. In these mystical worlds, timeless truths speak to the mind, heart, and will of the reader. The best kind, says Chesterton, is that which reminds us that “there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness and stronger than strong fear,” (The Red Angel-Tremendous Trifles).

Fear is something which can be good for us and can be tied to common sense. For instance, I am afraid to walk across the street when there is oncoming traffic. Why? Because common sense tells me that cars will run over me if I do not wait for them to stop. Yet fear can also be debilitating. The battles waged in the gut is the battle of wills, the fight that goes on inside of each one of us when duty, honor, and commitment are not virtues which are second nature to us. And this is something which, if not developed early in the child’s formation, can lead to consequences not only for the human being, but also more importantly, for the community in which that person lives.

We need to develop courageous hearts and strong souls in our children. The time spent with children developing their imagination is crucial to their complete development. Thus, by reading about noble quests, dragon slaying, victory in battle, children are given the ideas and images very early which in turn shape their world view.

Fantasy fulfills another role which is more ethereal, if you will, and certainly more fundamental to the formation of children. That of telling a story about the human condition. The great author and poet, JRR Tolkien said:

“Faërie (Fairy world) contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons; it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.” On Faerie Stories

I often say that one reads history to know what a people has done, but one reads literature to know what a people loves and feels. Fantasy, however, goes one step further. I believe one reads fantasy to know what a people believes. But wait, isn’t that what religion is for? Surely. But fantasy has the unbelievable ability to take complex spiritual truths and make them digestible for readers to understand. Fantasy can personify good, evil, death, judgement, heaven, hell, truth, lies, virtue, and vice in a way which is at once good, true, and beautiful and yet is also applicable to the world around us. And when it involves actions, such as destroying the dragon or rescuing the princess, one is able to read and contemplate the causes and consequences of the actions and the steps which got the character to the point they are in. A child’s mind is thus able to go from knowledge of a particular thing and, with proper guidance, journey to understanding something that is universal. Again, Tolkien says:

“Far more often [than asking the question ‘Is it true?’] they [children] have asked me: ‘Was he good? Was he wicked?’ That is, they were far more concerned to get the Right side and the Wrong side clear. For that is a question equally important in History and in Faerie.” On Faerie Stories

Furthermore, fantasy literature provides a framework through which the ideas of suffering, redemption, and renewal can be displayed masterfully, sometimes in the same character. Frodo Baggins, as the main protagonist of the Lord of the Rings grows and develops over the course of the story, but his particular hobbit-weaknesses make us able to share in his journey, even though we are not in the story itself. It is Samwise who is the real hero of the story, the constant reminder to Frodo of what they are fighting for, the Shire, the good folk of Middle-Earth, and each other.

There are eternal truths there in the persons of Frodo and Samwise, or Lucy and Edmund, Beowulf and Hrothgar, and it is precisely these eternal truths which make the case for fantasy literature so compelling. Neither one of these characters is perfect. In fact, some of them are deeply flawed; but their flaws make us love them more than if they were perfect, because fantasy literature understands that the human condition is one which is imperfect, but which strives for perfection. In fantasy, the soul’s journey is one of constant purgation which becomes more soul-like through trial and suffering. Just like the character who slays the dragon but whose legs are shaking with fear, the soul’s formation and development often happens with the knowledge that going forward may bring pain, but fleeing in the face of the trial is unconscionable. In that moment, the moment before the dragon is killed, the hero learns something about himself, and the monster learns something about itself. The hero, if he is victorious perseveres until the end, while the monster realizes it will not live to see another day. Courage is eternal, while evil, being a degradation of the good, knows it cannot survive in its flawed state. A flower which is dead no longer radiates its beauty. Evil can only last until it is overcome by the beauty, truth, and goodness of another thing. It is doomed because its goods are not real goods. No other literature, perhaps, is as adept at visualizing these concepts as is fantasy.

Fantasy literature, then, is as fundamental to a child’s development as doing art, nature study, phonics, and math. Children need to learn their own folktales, to understand the myths and stories which made the world what it is. And we need to stop relegating fantasy to the realm of the unreal. When we moderns say, “it’s not real,” we lose one of the greatest points of fantasy literature. Just because something is not “real” doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. Truth, despite what the world says is not subjective. Subjectivity is the realm of opinion, not truth. Truth is objective, its premises are eternal. When a dragon is slayed, the objective truth revealed is that evil does not win. We only need to have the physical, moral, and spiritual fortitude to stand up and fight. And that is more real than many of the real things in our own world. Children need heroes, they need quests to accomplish, and they need fantasy worlds to show them that such things do exist.

Furthermore, children should be allowed to dream. We often scold children for day dreaming, for being bored. How many of us in the last week have looked at a child and thought to ourselves, he or she needs more to do. As a father with eleven children, if I earned a dollar for every time a child came to me to tell me they were bored on a Saturday afternoon, I would be rich. Children should be taught that boredom is a good thing. Boredom encourages creativity and creativity encourages greatness. A seed which is planted should be cared for, and it is when we water it and let it grow. But what if we treated seeds the way we treat our children? We believe that having children active is the end all be all of existence. But we must ask ourselves are we keeping them busy for their sakes or ours. I knew students at my former school who did cross-country in the morning, attended classes, played in the band in the afternoon, then went home, scarfed down dinner, only to work on homework until 11 pm, at which time they went to bed to do it again the next day. Rather than socially- adjusted, well-rounded human beings, they were anxious, exhausted, and generally hated everything they were doing. We expect our children to do more than we did, to have opportunities we didn’t have, yet if we are really honest, what are we accomplishing by offering them more than we had? How does it benefit children when we inhibit their ability to be children? Using the analogy of the seeds, what if we were to plant a seed and water it one day, then come in, dig it up and move it to another spot, only to do this every day? Nothing would ever grow, and we would starve. But this is exactly what we do when we don’t allow the seeds of wisdom to take root in our children. We move them from one activity to another thinking that this is good, yet the children are often miserable in the process.

Certainly, the gifts of children should be cultivated, but they should be done within reason. We should get out of the mindset that being “busy” is good. Busy does not necessarily mean productive, in fact it can mean just the opposite. Less is usually more, when done in the right manner and for the right reason. Children are not robots who should do everything. They are human beings infused with a rational soul who must be loved and nurtured.

But, Mr. Heitzenrater, should we just let our children sit around and read all day? Won’t that make them weird? It might. But again, we’re addressing a problem by replacing it with a problem, and this opposite extreme can be just as damaging. We all know the professional student, the one who couldn’t think of life outside of school, so they went to college and never left. As a parent of college age kids, it is inevitable that their minds will change. Goodness, I thought I would go to law school when I went to college, but I decided that I liked teaching more. I think balance is the key. And here again, fantasy literature gives us a hidden truth about this. Both excess and deprivation are evils in fantasy literature. The character who wants more power and more stuff is just as bad as the character who wants to take things from others and superficially impose their will on a character. Gandalf is great not because he wields his power over others, but because he knows when it is appropriate to use his powers to help others. Children should be taught that it is good to play an instrument or to play a sport…certainly doing things outside of our comfort zone is character forming, but too much of something is never a good thing. So, in encouraging children to embrace boredom for the sake of sparking their imagination is as good a character builder as encouraging them to play the piano or taking up a hobby. But we must be prudent and balanced in all things. Children need to know that it’s okay to be leisurely and to think deeply about the world around them.

I spent the first part of this presentation disparaging technology. Certainly, I do not hate technology. I am only distrustful of technology and its ability to destroy wonder and imagination. It is so easy to get information today, that it is becoming harder and harder to contemplate the world around us. As a teacher, I now have to contend with AI writing papers for students. Technology has made our lives more efficient, but I would argue, more complicated. Technology takes away the struggle so important for our development from our minds and forces us to take an easier path. We can know everything out here but nothing in here. Our learning, then, is less experiential and more mechanical. The mysteries which form us and spur us on to learning are all available at our fingertips. Was it an apple that Eve ate, or an Apple iPhone that she came across in the garden, replete with 666 g internet and download speeds that were out of this world? The result, in my opinion, is sloppy contributions to the world in which we live. It is a world, in my opinion, that is less beautiful, less good, less true. It is an unreal world.

As a classical educator, balance and leisure are two key principles of formation. The sweet fruits of wonder and imagination are nurtured and allowed to blossom when these two principles form the foundation for learning. If I had to define classical education in one phrase it would be the leisurely pursuit of wisdom. This seems simple, but within this phrase are a number of other necessary things. Virtue and the pursuit of virtue ensure that a student is formed completely. Not only his/her academic success, but also, his/her moral, spiritual, and emotional success. Classical educators get a bad rap because we tend to stress the teacher’s importance (knowledge centered learning) vs. student-centered learning. I personally hate both of these distinctions. True education is both knowledge centered, and student centered. There is nothing more important than meeting students where they are and walking together with students on the road to knowledge. Teachers should always be students themselves, understanding that we are all standing on the shoulders of giants and that we are only wise when we understand that we are never done learning.

If these virtues are developed in teachers and students, what a magnificent and beautiful contribution they could make. Teachers must have humility and love for the students under their charge and for the wisdom they impart. For in so being formed they learn that they are the ones to whom the great tradition belongs which is itself a great burden. Together, they are able to set their course towards finding their fulfillment, their own aristeia (or ultimate purpose) of sorts. Their intestinal fortitude and formation will make them a force to be reckoned with, and the dragons of the world, both the real and the imaginary will fall at their feet, retreating to that unreal world, not unreal because it’s not real, but because it lacks the goodness, truth, and beauty which makes all things new.