Is Fear of Fantasy Curable?

Craig Chalquist, PhD

The greater part of the truth is always hidden, in regions out of the reach of cynicism. — JRR Tolkien, Letters

Were I as rubriphilic as the category-lovers who assemble the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, that ever-bulkier compendium for American psychiatrists and psychotherapists, I would include the following in its list of disorders:


Essential features:

A. Fear of fantasy and its creations.

B. Generalized fear of the imagination and its products, including symbols and metaphors.

C. Contempt shown toward everyone who finds fantasy valuable.

D. Literal-mindedness.

E. Adult onset.

Have you come across this? I grew up being told by an array of well-meaning but sadly misguided family members and church officials that fantasy was nonsense, folklore superstition, science fiction absurd, and myth an archaic mode of explanation for what science or the Bible had already packed up and shelved. Luckily, I had the sense to stick by Roger Zelazny, Frank Herbert, Ursula K. Le Guin, Hermann Hesse, and the Arthurian Cycle and let the “advice” stalk off down the path to seek out other victims.

Fast forward to the US environmental movement, energized by John Muir’s poetic prose and Rachel Carson’s images of dying birds. Where today are the stirring stories and images in 350 parts per million? Where are the speculative visions of Earth-honoring civilization? Numbers alone won’t stir us to act or reflect.

Fast forward to the official 9/11 Report, which stated that terrorists were allowed to turn airliners into bombs because of a governmental “failure of imagination.” The same failure responsible for global financial meltdowns, melting icecaps, ongoing oil wars, human trafficking (formerly known as slavery), urban sprawl, spreading poverty, and most other ills of hyper-rational Modernity.

“Who could have known?” Lie Yukou, Aesop, Hans Anderson, Poe, the Brothers Grimm, and Tolkien, that’s who. N. Scott Momaday. Toni Morrison. Read them. What you will find in them is truer and more real than what passes these days for news.

What else would characterize fantastophobia? How about some

Diagnostic Criteria:

[ leaving off the arbitrary “Six (or more) of the following symptoms have been present during the same xx-week period” nonsense included for the insurance and pharmaceutical firms ]

(1) Avoidance of anything to do with fantasy, lore, fable, legend, dream, or myth.

(2) Disparagement of creative products of the imagination.

(3) Disparagement of those who tend the imagination, including artists, storytellers, poets, playwrights, and fantasy and fiction writers.

(4) Maturismo: angry rejection of fantasy and imagination as childish or regressive.

(5) Literal-minded and reductionistic “explanations” of creations of fantasy, myth, fable, dream, etc.
(6) Generalized fear of and contempt for subjectivity, paired with an overemphasis on “objective” standards of relevance or significance.

(7) Absence of self-reflection.
(8) Emotional rigidity accompanied by bouts of self-righteousness.

(9) Repeated appeals to practicality, tangibility, and measurability.

• 0% in pre-high school children

• 10-20% of the adult population

• Data on the rest of the population limited due to bullying and silencing by fantastophobiacs

Ursula Le Guin coined “maturismo” after decades of being told that the fantasy literature she wrote was mainly for children even though adults loved it too. In his letters Tolkien regrets having tried to make The Hobbit sound like a children’s book. By The Lord of the Rings he understood fully that fantasy transcends convenient marketing categories of age and genre.

I understand fantasy (from roots that mean “visions,” “appear,” and “to bring to light”) as a basic human capacity, imagination (“picture,” “reflection,” “idea”) as its embodied mental arena, and lore (“track,” “teach,” “learn”) of all kinds, including fantasy and fiction stories and art, fables, legends, folk tales, fairy tales, and myths, as its creation. Fantastophobia rejects all three.


In her essay “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” Le Guin asks: Why do Americans (and not only Americans but people in technological societies) reject fantasy and fiction? Why do some of us insist, “Fairy stories are for kids. I live in the real world”? She links this “to several American characteristics: our Puritanism, our work ethic, our profitmindedness, and even our sexual mores.” And the same with our rejection of fable, fantasy, and myth. Moralizing tends not to entertain and has trouble with ambuigity.

She also identifies this rejection as a masculine trait: “The American boy and man is very commonly forced to define his maleness by rejecting certain traits, certain human gifts and potentialities, which our culture defines as ‘womanish’ or ‘childish.’ And one of these traits or potentialities is, in cold sober fact, the absolutely essential human faculty of imagination.” Even some women internalize this: yet another symptom of the damage done by patriarchy.

Unconscious residual Puritanism bubbles up as well in how we sneer at fantasy as escapism. Tolkien fielded this one in his essay “On Fairy Stories”:

In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.

Freud added a layer to all this by referring to fantasy as “primary process,” meaning that all later acquisitions and operations of the mind–including our categories and reasonings–are founded upon fantastic images and desires. Never mind how wrong he was about which ones: at least he took the imagistic and affective dynamics as real, an observation some psychologists have yet to catch up with.

In imagination anything is allowed.

Think of the terror in that for the fantastophobe ever busy with bricking up his conceptual compartments. What will he do without his anchor embedded in the predictable, the controllable, and the routine? And yet here the fantastic stories and the spiritual traditions agree: you cannot get into the Magic Theater until you surrender your normal rule-bound mind.

From authoritarian powers frightened of transformative visions to the rejective dread these regimes implant in parents who then march their children to training factories called “schools,” where in the worst cases fantasy and imagination are beaten down by competitive tests, dull texts, and boxy classrooms, the natural human capacity for fantasy must suffer a thousand insults. But it never dies entirely. The choice isn’t between the scalpel of Reason and the talisman of Faerie, but of fantasy expressed consciously or unconsciously.

Which brings us to some additional criteria:

Subtypes of Fantastophobia*:

(a) Procrustean: Rejects whatever truths or wisdom stories do not fit the mechanistic worldview, accompanied by attempts to explain away myth and fantasy as personal or residual history, “magical thinking,” or other oversimplifications.

(b) Kronusian: Dismisses any lore not expounded in a sacred book and hardened into doctrine.

(c) Midasian: Avoids whatever cannot generate revenue.
(d) Themisian: Opposes stories that contradict State propaganda.
(e) Mordorian: Oppresses all stories and storytellers dealing with themes and images of liberation from tyranny.
(f) Ahabian: Values fantasy, myth, and lore only if it supports an activist ideology.
(g) Sarumanian: Hates tales in which plants, insects, animals, or landscapes speak.
* Unlike the DSM‘s, these classifications overlap.

All these subtypes bear fantastic names because they represent positions already well-known in the realm of fantasy and myth. Procrustes was the infamous innkeeper who stretched or hacked off travelers’ legs to make them fit his beds. Kronus ate his own children before they could rebel against his tyranny. Midas received the power of the golden touch, to his grief. Themis was a stern goddess of order and law. Mordor was the reeking wasteland of darkness and evil in The Lord of the Rings. Ahab valued nothing but his cause, and it destroyed him and his ship and crew. Saruman the evil wizard reprised the myth of Erisychthon by chopping down a forest to feed the forges of Isengard.

In other words, fantastophobia is itself a disguised set of fantasy-based positions. The notion that the economy can grow forever on a planet of limited resources is a fantasy rigidified into a dangerous belief. So is the fantasy of conquest, of unlimited power, of salvation through technology alone, of a worldwide monoculture. Very often ardent “realists” who deliver heavy-handed sermons on “practicality” succumb most completely to fantasy unconsciously acted out–unlike Star Trek fans who know to take off their costumes once they leave the convention.

Ancient Gnostic myth used a word that summed up fantastophobia fairly well: hylicism. The inability to value anything unseen. Ironically, this unconsciously fantasied habit of mind undercuts even itself by striving, in all its forms, to reduce the world of imagination to the world of the daily round.

Doubly ironic is the failure to recognize that all worthwhile human endeavor begins in fantasy and percolates and complexifies only in the free space provided by an imagination unconfined by considerations of practicality, economy, or politics.

Fantasy is a literature particularly useful for embodying and examining the real difference between good and evil. In an America where our reality may seem to have been degraded to posturing patriotism and self-righteous brutality, imaginative literature continues to question what heroism is, to examine the roots of power, and to offer moral alternatives. Imagination is the instrument of ethics. There are many metaphors beside battle, many choices besides war, and most ways of doing right do not, in fact, involve killing anybody. Fantasy is good at thinking about those other ways.—Ursula K. Le Guin, Cheek by Jowl

By contrast, the quickest way to kill fantasy, imagination, and lore is to cage them up in an ideology. It almost doesn’t matter which. When the images of a good story are held only as complexes, archetypes, lost histories, revolutionary embers, clues to the minds of “primitives,” or methods for making money, the images quickly fade and the story dies, as will any living thing when prized only for its utility.

Fighting national and multinational colonizers by colonizing lore to support some social program rages forth from academia as an increasingly common example of squashing down a rich mythic polyculture of near-infinite diversity into a bland monoculture of two-dimensional allegory. In “On Fairy-Stories” Tolkien refers to “people using the stories not as they were meant to be used, but as a quarry from which to dig evidence.” Fantastophobia as a mining of the imaginative psyche.

Let me be very clear that I’m not discouraging finding psychological, literary, historical, political, etc. relevance in fantasy or myth. Quite the contrary. Fantastic images and mythic motifs are reborn every day, on every street corner, as Joseph Campbell observed. In fact, these imaginal beings are so vitally and powerfully living among us that we cannot reduce them to single dimensions of themselves. Here I follow Tolkien’s distinction between allegory and application. Allegory is reduction to a single meaning or interpretation. This kills the story. Instead, application sees and feels and listens deeply into the story as it unfolds, whether it follows its old paths or takes some new byway. Application requires a capacity for moving among interpretations, shifting from lens to lens as we appreciate the multidimensional complexity of what has returned to life to be retold.

So is it always healthy and good to value myth? Anything can go to extremes. Some dreamers would prefer to live in a mythic world altogether. I’ve lost count of how many fantasy fans have insisted they were reincarnations of nobles who lived on Atlantis when it sank. Plato, who invented Atlantis, would have been astonished to learn this. On the extreme end of the schizotypal spectrum is a neighbor who believes that the US Government keeps careful track of what time he puts out the trash every week. His opinion of government efficiency clearly exceeds my own. “It does not do,” warns JK Rowling, “to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”

Literalism: the pandemic stiffener of fantasy and lore whether it infects fantastophobes or fantastophiles. Be it noted, however, that even when rather dissociated the latter tend not to sack national treasuries, set worlds ablaze with industrial fire, or tell whopping political lies to hide their malfeasance.

Can fantastophobia be cured? What’s hopeful in all this?

That what has been learned can be unlearned, especially in the presence of stories of genuine hope.

That all of us come in with a natural capacity for fantasy, just as we come in with a natural affinity for loving living things. Fantastophilia and biophilia make a happy match.

That although this capacity can be warped to serve harmful ends, it cannot be eradicated.

That between your ears and within your body you carry a portable laboratory that evolved to try out possibilities before you must commit to any.

That the awakening of fantasy moves the heart to stop a voracious intellect from overpowering it. They do better as conscious partners that can dream together.

That the transforming and influencing power of legend and lore shines through even when monetized and Disneyfied into stereotype and commodity.

That words like “vision,” “imagine,” “creativity,” and “presence” now circulate freely through business circles around the world, often with humane aspirations and goals attached.

That the gates of the realm of Faerie stand open in every daydream and nightdream.

That the imagistic promptings emanating from these gates provide some intuitive guidance just as record numbers of spiritual people leave organized religion behind for good.

That the world’s fund of lore represents a cultural heritage for the entire human family, a species marked by the power and persistence of its storytelling.

That myths are renewable and can be updated to teach the time they recur in. A bright photon appearing as both particle and wave: do we not glimpse the hem of the cloak of Hermes the trickster? Are not Osiris and Horus reborn in the streets every day in revolutionary Egypt? Can we not discern the glint of Indra’s fabulous net of cosmos-reflecting jewels behind the World Wide Web? Perhaps we should rename it the Indranet.

That well-told resonant stories exert more power than gold or guns. Look what the epic Kalevala did for Finland, pressed for centuries between Sweden and Russia but independent as of 1917.

If there is to dawn a new understanding of how to live with ourselves, each other, and Earth before we burn up in the planetary crucible we’ve now overheated, that understanding will be accessible only through the medium of stories that shimmer with promising images that animate the heart, the organ of imaginal perception, the organ where action and reflection alternate like heartbeats.

Copyright © 2015 by Craig Chalquist.