Not long ago while I was reflecting on the layers of significance underlying Avatar and its connection to fantasy, I first became aware, through Cinefantastique Online, of an article by Ethan Gilsdorf touching on these topics which he had written for Psychology Today. I was intrigued by the insights that Gilsdorf brought to the subject matter because they touched on neglected aspects of analysis in both the film and in the significance of fantasy (as well as science fiction and horror in my view). As I read Gilsdorf’s piece I discovered that he was the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks (The Lyons Press, 2009). Having just finished the book I pass along the following review and commentary on this recommended volume.
Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks is the story of Gilsdorf’s journey to understand his lifelong fascination with fantasy which began in the 1970s after his mother experienced a life-changing brain aneurysm. As a result of her injury, radical personality changes ensued, and with the resulting change in family and home Gilsdorf sought ways in which to grapple with the situation. He found it through a friend who introduced him to Dungeons & Dragons. D&D, a medieval-style role-playing game involving a roll of the dice, a rule book, spells, weapons, and characters, provided a fantasy scenario that became an important part of his life. As the realms of fantasy opened further Gilsdorf describes the expanding universe of alternative possibility that hinted at transcendence. Of the power and appeal of these realms he writes, “I didn’t believe in God, or in heaven and hell. But Middle-earth’s lands, or a D&D labyrinth, or a science fiction universe like Star Wars – those were places I could believe in, and visit as often as I liked.”
But as Gilsdorf grew older and reflected on his consuming desires for fantasy, coupled with his being in a different place than others his age in terms of career, romantic relationships, and family, this led him to begin a journey of reassessment of his youthful interests.
“How healthy was it to have devoted so much mental energy to a world that didn’t exist? Had we checked out of real life? What were the long-term effects? Did fantasy escapism explain why the person I’d become at forty now felt unsatisfying, and unsatisfied?”
With these pressing questions at the forefront of his mind Gilsdorf began a journey seeking answers. His quest covered a lot of territory in the expressions of fantasy, including, among other things, a visit to the United Kingdom to follow the trail of influential fantasy writer J. R. R. Tolkien, attendance at the Lake Geneva Gaming Convention, participation in a live action role playing event in Georgia, attendance at the Dragon*Con convention, and a visit to New Zealand to see some of the sites where Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed.
As Gilsdorf shares the development of his thinking at each of the visited locations he can’t seem to shake the idea that fantasy is equated with escapism, an adjective found frequently throughout the book and often used in terms of negative connotations in contrast with those able to engage reality without such a crutch. To be sure there are glimpses of hope from time to time that come through in Gilsdorf’s quest. He is aware of Tolkien’s view that humanity needs modern myths just as much as the ancients did, that fantasy escapism can be transformative for the individual in the real world, and that while fantasy can be just as addictive as other things engaged in with excess this is not necessarily the case, but in the end a deep immersion into the realms of fantasy end up as something to be abandoned.
Near the conclusion of his visit to New Zealand, after experiencing a mixture of exhilaration and disappointment as a result of viewing the sites of Jackson’s cinematic Middle-earth, Gilsdorf describes how he engaged in a symbolic act that moved from fantasy to the real world. While using Lord of the Rings figurines to re-enact a scene from the film where Frodo, Pippin, Merry, and Sam must get off the road to hide from the approaching Nazgûl, he experienced an epiphany as he heard a voice in his head. It told him to dig a hole and bury the figurines. He says of this act that, “Some force in me had felt some urge to put childish things behind me, and travel closer to adulthood, whatever that meant.” For Gilsdorf, the journey to explore the meaning of fantasy, in many ways a journey of self-understanding, meant that fantasy was childish, an unhealthy form of escapism that kept him from engaging the aspects of the adult world. The symbols of fantasy were buried, which meant for him that fantasy itself, at least to the extent that it played in his life previously, was better left behind.
I was very sympathetic to this book as Gilsdorf’s journey resonates in many ways with my own. While I have never played D&D, as many posts here indicate, fantasy, science fiction and horror have played and continue to play a significant part of my imaginative life. Much of my discussion of these topics here represents my own journey of understanding, not only of these genres themselves, but also of myself. But here is where my journey has taken me to a different place than Gilsdorf. In the past I too symbolically buried my fantasy life, but several years ago I dug up a few of these relics to reassess them. As a result I came to the conclusion that while fantasy and the broader realms of the imagination can indeed represent dangerous forms of escapism or obsession, this is not necessarily the case. In my view the realms of the imagination are largely positive, and I would suggest consideration of three different aspects not addressed by Gilsdorf (elements of an argument that readers can find in my chapter contribution to Halos & Avatars: Playing Video Games with God [Westminster John Knox, 2010]).
First, I have recently done some reading in the brain sciences for my work in religious studies, and some of this material indicates that our brains have evolved in such a way as to permit us not only self-awareness, but also the gift of imagination which allows us to envision alternative realities. As a result we have a long history as a species of mythic storytelling, and engagement with this process can be a very healthy one.
Second,we need to remember the importance of play. All higher mammals engage in this practice, so it is no surprise that human beings do as well. Yet Western civilization has tended to emphasize work to the expense of play, particularly with the influence of the Protestant work ethic, and this causes us to minimize the appropriateness of play, particularly for adults. But I would argue that play is a significant aspect of human experience that must be balanced with work and the other adult responsibilities of life.
Third, for those open to the possibility of transcendence, I would argue that the imagination, connected to play, represent important facets of human expression as homo fantasia, humanity as fantasy craving and creating creatures, and that this desire for fantasy can be understood at times as a quest for and participation in transcendence. Tolkien suggested something similar with his ideas concerning the creators of fantasy as “sub-creators,” and theologians would do well to revisit Tolkien’s thinking for fresh contemporary application in light of the continued and growing popularity of the fantastic in popular culture, as well as the ongoing process of re-enchantment in the West.
I recommend Gilsdorf’s Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks for those who want to reflect not only on the author’s quest for the meaning and appropriateness of fantasy, but for their own personal journeys as well. I only wish Gilsdorf had been able to arrive at a more positive destination. Perhaps it’s not too late to switch paths to one that makes room for the fantastic on the road of life.