I had been looking over the compendium of lists touting the top news events of 2012, when a line spoken by the character Death in Terry Prachett’s novel The Hogfather came to mind:,
Humans need fantasy to *be* human.
Prachett often reflects on the role of fiction in his fantasy novels, the Diskworld series, which are set in a world shaped like a disk that floats on the backs of four elephants standing on top of a giant turtle that slowly swims through space. While Prachett’s stories are particularly fantastic, all stories require some willing suspension of disbelief: a talking Cat in the Hat, a journey to the century of the earth, a tea party on the ceiling, a raft down the Mississippi, a beanstalk.
Stories are what prepare us for the complexities of life and death. We tell stories, we create myths, we perpetuate lies. Stories give us a language to express our triumphs and our failures, to respond to our morality and our immorality, to explore our future and remember our past.
Prachett’s 21th Diskworld novel is a Christmas tale of sorts which was developed as a film by the British media Sky One and shown in two installments in 2006. The title character The Hogfather, the diskworld’s equivalent of Santa Claus, has become the target of a assassin and goes missing. In a Gothic turn, the character Death opts to fill the role of the Hogfather by donning a fur-trimmed red suit, practicing his “ho, ho, hos”, and distributing inappropriate toys. Death’s granddaughter, Susan Sto Helit, joins him and upset the forces of the evil Auditors by rescuing the Hogfather just before the world goes dark.
As the rescued Hogfather flys off in his hog-drawn sleigh, Death and Susan are reunited and reconciled. She questions why their efforts to maintain the elaborate fantasies that surround the Hogfather are even necessary:
Death: Humans need fantasy to *be* human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.
Susan: With tooth fairies? Hogfathers?
Death: Yes. As practice, you have to start out learning to believe the little lies.
Susan: So we can believe the big ones?
Death: Yes. Justice, mercy, duty. That sort of thing.
Susan: They’re not the same at all.
Death: You think so? Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder, and sieve it through the finest sieve, and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet, you try to act as if there is some ideal order in the world. As if there is some, some rightness in the universe, by which it may be judged.
Susan: But people have got to believe that, or what’s the point?
Death: You need to believe in things that aren’t true. How else can they become?
Ultimately stories allow us to imagine with an author how those “big lies” of justice, mercy, duty play out in different ways, in different settings, with different characters. For our willing suspension of disbelief, fiction gives us practice in imagining other qualities of truth, faithfulness, and love so that we may be better prepared to recognize and develop these qualities in our real world. Stories prepare us for the times when our real world turns unimaginably cruel or fraught with despair.
At the end of every December, when different media organizations publish the top stories of the year, they rank news stories in order of importance. These are events that over the course of 365 days reflect virtue and triumph along with cruelty and despair. There are always stories of senseless tragedy countered with acts of great compassion, and this year has been no different. There have been cataclysmic disasters, some by nature and some man made, and again, this year has been no different. For each of these very real stories, there are fiction counterparts that can help us to recognize what Prachett suggests are part of “some rightness in the universe.” Moreover, from these real events will come new stories, new fictions, that will be written because writing and telling stories is what makes us human. The news stories of 2012 are a record of what has happened, but the stories we create make us human and help us to believe in the possibility of a New Year where qualities of justice, mercy and duty can “become” real, not fantasy.
“Because,” explained Mary Rommely simply, “the child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. She must start out by believing in things not of this world. Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination. I, myself, even in this day and at my age, have great need of recalling the miraculous lives of the Saints and the great miracles that have come to pass on earth. Only by having these things in my mind can I live beyond what I have to live for.”
― Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn