(Image by renowned Tolkien illustrator John Howe.)
In the ancient world and until fairly recently, people of all cultures believed that there was something behind the facade of the material universe that animated it and gave it meaning. Ancient peoples called that something by different names and often ascribed to it different characteristics, but they almost all believed in what you might call powers and principalities.
The principle (or principles) that lay hidden behind the veil of the world gave the world meaning and purposes. For example, when a storm wrecks Odysseus’ raft after he leaves Kalypso’s island, we know that it isn’t just a random squall. Poseidon holds a grudge against Odysseus, so he causes the storm in order to make the hero’s life miserable. Far from random occurrences, natural phenomena signified events beyond themselves. Likewise, according to Hesiod, the reason for suffering in the world is ultimately a feud between Zeus and Prometheus. The ancient world was one in which the lives of humans—from heroes like Akhilleus down to ordinary people—were part of a lager tapestry of meaning and value.
More importantly, though, the ancients almost all seemed to believe that many of the spirits and deities who dwelled just outside of human perception were on our side and would do battle for us when things turned south: Thor defended earth from the forces of darkness; Prometheus risked the wrath of Zeus in order to bring fire to humankind; Athena worked busily behind the scenes to protect Odysseus and ensure his safe return to Ithaka; Ninsun begs Shamash to protect her son. And in the Abrahamic traditions, God (often acting through His angels) defends the chosen people from Egyptian, Babylonian, and Assyrian conquerors—and later, from Death itself.
There are lots of differences between the ancient and modern world—technological, religious, social, political, martial—but one of the most important differences (and I believe one of the most tragic) is that we moderns have lost our belief in powers and principalities. We no longer believe that the world has any meaning or purposes beyond what our own minds impose on it. (As Batman says in Batman v Superman: “[My parents] showed me that the world only makes sense if you force it to.”)
It’s no accident, then, that fantasy literature became a major force in modern literature during the early twentieth century—a period in which the world seemed to have gone completely insane and that marked a decisive transition between the ancient, spiritual worldview and the modern, materialist one. Fantasy like the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis, and their literary descendants recovers the ancient belief in powers and principalities that lie behind the world, animating it and giving it life and meaning. We need to believe—even if only in fiction—that there is something beyond mundane existence that is on our side.
The Ainulindalë from Tolkien’s The Silmarillion is a perfect example of this. It depicts a world (called Arda) created by Eru Illuvatar and populated with the Ainur (the “holy ones”), beings of immense powers that participate in the world’s creation and then help to protect and sustain it. Though their power far transcends the other inhabitants of Middle-Earth (Elves, Men, and Dwarves, for example), they love the world and its people and go to battle in order to protect it from the forces of darkness. (Incidentally, Willow Productions has done a very good short film version of the Ainulindalë.)
Though there is more good than pessimists often admit, there’s no denying that we live in a very dark world. As modern societies grow increasingly more materialist and secular, I believe that fantasy literature like Tolkien’s Middle-Earth mythos and mythologies like those of superhero stories and the Star Wars saga will become more and more important. In fact, I suspect that when future generations look back on the period from the mid-twentieth century up until now, they will recognize fantasy of all kinds as our most important contribution to art.