C.S. Lewis’s classic children’s story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is one of the ten bestselling books of all time, standing shoulder to shoulder with The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in the elite list of world bestsellers.
What is it about the genre of fantasy fiction that makes it so enduringly popular? Is it a further sign of modernity’s malaise and its inability to cope with reality, or is it perhaps a sign of hope in our deplorably darkened days?
The answer was given by C.S. Lewis’s friend and mentor, J.R.R. Tolkien, in his famous lecture “on fairy stories,” delivered in 1939, shortly after the publication of The Hobbit and while Tolkien was working on The Lord of the Rings. According to Tolkien, fairy tales assist in the “recovery” of the human spirit, the “re-gaining . . . of a clear view,” which enables us to see things “as we are . . . meant to see them.” Fairy tales transcend the barren limitations of “how things are” to explore the fruitful possibilities of “how things should be.”
Tolkien’s view of fairy stories was inspired by G.K. Chesterton, a writer who exerted a profound influence on Lewis as well. In the chapter entitled “The Ethics of Elfland” in his book Orthodoxy Chesterton’s words seem...