by Michael Angerer
The world we live in certainly appears to be a dangerous place these days: a single glance at the news is enough to distract us from our petty worries about busy Oxford terms or a slightly less busy year abroad. Every headline promises another debacle, from Brexit to Syria to whatever President Trump may be up to at this time. Even worse, tragedy follows us into our books, films and TV series: it just seems fashionable to have main characters who drink, have family problems, or have to confront recent trauma. As we are constantly reminded of looming disaster, it is becoming harder to cling onto our hopes for the future. What hope we do have left is now often found in fantasy literature: what could be more formulaic than the story of the hero who comes charging in, sword whirling, to kill the monster, rescue the girl, and save the day? But is this the best we can do, to displace our hopes onto imaginary worlds where our everyday fears do not hold – or can we still draw fortitude from fiction?
It is a sad fact that the population tends to be too pessimistic about the dangers of everyday life, if only slightly. According to the 2016 Crime Survey for England and Wales, people generally overestimate their chance of becoming victims in a crime: 19.1% expect to be victimised, compared to 15.2% who experienced crime in the preceding year. Younger generations tend to under- rather than overestimate danger, while the pessimism record is held by those aged between 55 and 64: 20.1% expect to experience crime; the victimisation rate lies at 12.8%. Add to this that according to a recent study by Ball State University, increased social media use makes us more fearful of crime, and it is very difficult not to agree with Michael Moore, whose film Bowling for Columbine (2002) highlights the climate of fear created by American media. It seems the old adage is true: bad news is good news, and the result is an overflow of despair.
Perhaps there is a link with the fact that traditionally, tragic stories have been considered much more worthy of attention than comedies; this is a bias that starts with the fact that Aristotle’s Poetics famously deals with tragedy first, while the second book on comedy is now lost. The superiority of tragedy, of grave matters over the raucous and coarse fun that comedy implies, has variously been extolled by figures such as Sir Philip Sidney, John Milton, or William Hazlitt, and has partially endured to this day. Of course, there might well be a good reason for this: a 2017 study undertaken by the Max Planck Institute of Empirical Aesthetics found that sad poems are felt to be more emotionally successful than happy poems, and thus tend to be considered better from an aesthetic point of view. We find it easier to relate to negative feelings, and this pessimistic outlook is what we tend to find in highly regarded poetry and fiction.
And yet, happy endings are not falling entirely out of favour: as a 2006 survey carried out to mark World Book Day indicates, the British public still prefer happy endings for their daily reading. (The most popular happy ending was that of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; it is a nice reminder that we can rely on once belittled authors like Jane Austen or Charles Dickens to offer a positive conclusion.) Interestingly, it is mostly older generations who prefer their endings to be happy: the younger the adult reading public, the more likely they were to enjoy a depressing last chapter. Do those who have already lost hope in the world turn to fiction to escape fear? Should we think of fiction as the easy escapist way of forgetting about all the horrors lurking out there?
It probably does not help that we often seem to displace our hopes of a happy ending onto fantasy worlds (although it is true these are also traditionally associated with a younger audience). This applies of course to fantasy fiction in the vein of J. R. R. Tolkien, but equally to those stories which children frequently encounter first: fairy tales. That these fairy tales have a fundamental educational function, however, was argued in the early 20th century by the writer, editor, and Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton: ‘The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon’, he writes in ‘The Red Angel’, part of the collection Tremendous Trifles. Happy endings have the crucial responsibility of giving us the hope and confidence to overcome our fears, and Chesterton recognised this. This Edwardian author has by now largely been forgotten, and is otherwise remembered only for his detective fiction or his theological writings; but his positive outlook on life was a major influence on the master of comic fantasy and noted atheist Terry Pratchett, as well as on the famous fantasy novelist Neil Gaiman.
One of Chesterton’s finest stories, and possibly his best happy ending, can be found in the 1908 novel The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare. This phantasmagorical tale of anarchists and undercover detectives leads the reader ever deeper into a dark world full of terrifying characters, a world seen ‘in a false and curved mirror’. It initially creates a climate of fear and suspicion that easily trumps the dangers of everyday life; but it is a climate that in itself is deceiving unless it is thoroughly questioned. As Gabriel Syme, the policeman-poet at the centre of the story, says: ‘we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal.’ But a deeper look reveals the spark of hope, the other hidden policemen where there seemed to be only anarchists, the fundamental sanity in a mad world. Going round the hideous back of the world, we might see its face smiling down on us. The wonder of The Man Who Was Thursday is that in this fantastic world, it is hopelessness and fear that are revealed as nothing but a nightmare, and hope that comes out on top.
Perhaps it is good to sometimes lose ourselves in fantasies of hope of this kind, not to escape the real world, but to escape the other stories we are told about it. Fiction, the American narrative theorist David Herman posits in Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind (2013), can teach us patterns to imagine reality: it forms the basis for storying the world. And in order to keep hoping, and to fight off fear, our world certainly is in need of restorying. We know that we may always turn to G. K. Chesterton’s comic fiction for a new uplifting perspective on life; or we can trust those following Chesterton and enjoy Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, in which the apocalypse itself is turned into a harmless joke. This is maybe one of the most powerful uses of fiction: maybe it can give us the strength to kill our own dragons, and hope for better days.