This piece comes from Lynn MacDougall, who reflects on last month’s Fall Mockingbird Conference, the suffering human pull between good-and-evil and, of course, the illustrious genre of fantasy television.
“In each of us, two natures are at war – the good and the evil. All our lives the fight goes on between them, and one of them must conquer. But in our own hands lies the power to choose – what we want most to be we are.” –Robert Louis Stevenson
“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”—John Steinbeck, East of Eden
The Charlottesville Conference had a breakout on HBO that had me thinking on whether I spend my tv time, or any time for that matter, with mind-filling, soul-feeding kinds of media or not. I’ve tried watching Lena Dunham’s Girls—it’s a brilliant show, completely and painstakingly honest, and thus completely agonizing. I could only do it for so long until I was back to the shows that make it a little easier to, well, wander. Of course I’m talking fantasy. And I’ve wondered recently, is the genre of fantasy itself escapist? Does it pull out from reality?
Defined as “the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in (yes) fantasy,” escapism was also briefly mentioned in the breakout (which you can listen to here). We wondered how we could understand ourselves and live honestly if we are escaping. I wanted to hedge and say, “Ah, is that really that bad?” Couldn’t we just say its part of that already-but-not-yet paradox: that longing for eternity and perfection and life without tears and misery? Could it be that reading and watching fantasy might make us honed for truth and beauty and the future reality?
The Lord of the Rings is the standby for fantasy fiction and film, even without mentioning its deep Christian semblances. In the breakout session, we talked about its potential for escapism, and I wondered. LOTR most surely is fantasy, but doesn’t Tolkien address the depths of the frailty of the human soul in honest ways? Gandalf cannot be the ring bearer because he is too tempted by the power of it and he knows it. Boromir lives in denial of the temptation and faces his end sooner than he should. Even after the great deed is done, Frodo isn’t living large; his wound is ever with him. He can no longer be in the shire because of what he has faced and seen.
And this deep-seeded human frailty isn’t just the stuff of fantasy but literature in general: Jane Eyre. Moby Dick. East of Eden.
The vicarious experience of the good-and-evil battle rings true because we know this is what rages in our own hearts. Don’t we long to be the warriors in the thick of battle, fighting with Herculean honor, precisely because of what we know about ourselves? How black are our hearts and how devastating the truth: that we must conquer the evil enemy or die.
Toby Whithouse is the creator of the UK series Being Human (We try not to watch too much American television in this house). He’s also written several Doctor Who episodes. His work is rife with the interplay of not just good-and-evil, but justice-and-mercy. Whithouse is interested in what it means to be human and how the above elements play into that experience. In these shows I do not escape, but ache—something many folks in my world might find absurd (spending any time watching any type of sci-fi is absurd). But Doctor Who is absurd and knows it.
Many in my world might balk at viewing a show about a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost. Three’s Company it’s not: George, the werewolf, is hysterically funny, but also violent and deeply repulsive. It’s haunting, but not simply in the literal ghosty sense of the word. The sharing of the same black heart as Annie, Mitchell, and George—this is what is haunting. They are modern monsters personified, Dracula without the classical appropriation. They are conventionally human monsters, owned by an unstoppable evil within.
At the end of season two, following a horrific vampire attack on 20 people aboard a train, Mitchell (the vampire) is confronted in “purgatory” by a guide. Lia, the guide, happens to be one of twenty he killed.
LIA: You want forgiveness every day. You get a smile from me and it proves you’re not completely evil. You do a thousand small nice things and you put them against the bad. You actually do the sums in your head, don’t you … you cross into purgatory…that’s a deposit in the ‘good’ account…
MITCHELL: I’m an animal … I don’t deserve mercy or forgiveness. I’m a murderer—I couldn’t help myself…I wasn’t human anymore…I lost my conscience…I’m a disease. I’m a plague. I’m sorry.
The torment is that the Lia’s accusations of Mitchell and his own words about himself are true of the human heart and condition—without exception. We all know it’s true.
This is why I read literature. Fantasy literature. I watch vampire shows because it emboldens and enlivens me to face the groaning truth of myself and world, and allows me to suffer within—and not without—it. In so doing I hope for something more true and more real. As Lewis writes in The Last Battle: “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…Come further up, come further in!”