Fantasy marks a departure from the real world to a magical place infused with imagination, adventure, and wonder. Within this literary tradition, writers have the freedom to invent a separate or self-contained fantasy world, by combining realistic elements with those entirely of the author's own creation. This construction provides such writers with a new channel by which they can define, explain, and comment on universal aspects of human existence and reality. By means of this channel, fantasy provides authors with a fresh, original approach to conveying traditional, archetypal beliefs and ideas. C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald employ fantasy in this manner to create a new accessibility to Christianity and its major values.
Similarly, many fantasy writers represent the duality of human nature, a typical literary concept, as a physical separation of the person into two halves: the individual and his shadow. Fantastic writers thus symbolize the intangible force of human evil in a concrete, corporeal form. The struggle to overcome and triumph over one's shadow illuminates the individual's challenge of reconciling the opposing forces of good and evil within the self.
By turning this tension into a physical battle, many writers of fantasy, especially George MacDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Ursula Le Guin, convey the importance of embracing one's own weaknesses and, consequently, gaining the ability to live with greater self-knowledge and self-awareness.
In numerous books of fantasy, writers employ the duality of light and darkness to emphasize the presence of a shadow and similar dark forces. A shadow itself represents the blocking out of light and, therefore, implies the existence of some lurking darkness or source of evil. In his book The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien characterizes the Ringwraiths, those who enforce the will of the dark lord Sauron, as "black figures" creeping across the ground "like shades of night" (Tolkien 172). Peter Beagle also uses the contrast of darkness and light in The Last Unicorn to reveal the forces of good and evil at work in the story. He describes the Red Bull, who does not "care for daylight" (Beagle 100), as a beast "strong beyond strength, invincible as the night itself" (Beagle 109), appearing to Schmendrick the magician as "no shape at all, but a swirling darkness, the red darkness you see when you close your eyes in pain" (Beagle 103). In contrast, the pure and beautiful unicorn radiates a brilliant light from her horn much like that of the wizard staffs of Gandalf and Saruman in The Lord of the Rings and of Ged the mage in the Earthsea trilogy.
The images of light and darkness serve to illustrate the opposing forces of good and evil that exist within humans and the world in which they live. In MacDonald's Phantastes, an old woman sums up the presence of light and darkness in this passage she reads to Anodos:
So, then, as darkness had no beginning, neither will it ever have an end. So, then, it is eternal. . . . Where the light cannot come, there abideth darkness. The light doth but hollow a mine out of the infinite expression of the darkness. And ever upon the steps of the light treadeth the darkness; yea, springeth in fountains and wells amidst it, from the secret channels of its mighty sea. Truly, man is but a passing flame, moving unquietly amid the surrounding rest of night; without which he yet could not be, and whereof he is in part compounded. [MacDonald 55-56]
A man's life, here called "a passing flame," provides him with the opportunity to carve out a path of light among the shadows of darkness. The night serves as a backdrop to the human potential to lead a life of goodness. However, the nature of man also makes him susceptible to the evil forces in his world of darkness. Like the Nameless Ones in Le Guin's The Tombs of Atuan, the sources of evil in the world and in human nature seek to devour the human spirit. According to Ged, these powers "hate the light: the brief, bright light of our mortality'" (The Tombs of Atuan 129). These images of human life of "a passing flame" and a "brief, bright light," elucidate the authors' message about the importance of humans using good to conquer evil in the short time of their life on earth. Powers of darkness and evil, like the Nameless Ones, "should not be denied nor forgotten, but neither should they be worshiped" (The Tombs of Atuan 129). In other words, evil should not be ignored or disregarded, but acknowledged and contained by human beings willing to fight for goodness.
The clashing forces of light and dark must exist together; for each draws its very meaning and power from the presence of the other, like good and evil, life and death. MacDonald captures this idea of connected opposites in Phantastes in his depiction of Anodos' shadow as a "black sun," radiating "rays of gloom" (MacDonald 59). He manipulates the concept of light and dark to portray a seemingly contradictory scene: the shadow, the blocker of light, assumes the role of the black sun, or the "anti sun," whose rays transform "that part of earth, or sea, or sky" they strike into something "void, and desert, and sad to [Anodos'] heart" (MacDonald 59). Similarly, Ged explains to Arren in The Farthest Shore that the light and the dark, "‘in being opposite . . . yearn toward each other, . . . giv[ing] birth to each other and [in turn being] forever reborn'" (The Farthest Shore 179). The hope for human beings lies in the possibility of overcoming the forces of darkness and evil, both in themselves and their world, by becoming aware of it and consciously choosing to wage war against it. In The Lord of the Rings, Sam, a hobbit characterized by his untarnished innocence and loyalty, embodies this hope for goodness; he symbolically uses a weapon of "intolerable light" wage this war against darkness and destroys thus the evil spider Shelob, who dwells in the shadows of Mordor. In this moment, light pierces the darkness of this horrible creature, entering "her wounded head[,] . . . scor[ing] it with unbearable pain," and spreading a "dreadful infection of light . . . from eye to eye" (Tolkien 713). The tension between the traditional two opposites of good and evil, of light and darkness, sets up the fantastic battle between man and his shadow, the external depiction of an internal struggle.
From the traditional symbols of light and darkness, the shadow emerges as the embodiment of the dark side of human nature. In many works of fantasy, the choice of a character to act out of selfishness, greed, or arrogance often gives birth to the physical presence of a shadow. After receiving a warning not to look in the closet at the house of the ogre, Anodos consciously chooses to disregard the advice, assuming that he knows best. As a result, he encounters a "dark human figure," which seems to glide "with ghostly feet," learning soon after that his shadow has found him and will continue to travel at his heels on his journey through Fairy Land (MacDonald 57). Like Anodos, Ged, a powerful youn wizard-in-training, looses his own shadow into the world by attempting to prove the greatness of his power first to a young girl and later to Jasper and the other boys at Roke (A Wizard of Earthsea 22-23 and 61). Surrounded by the darkness of night, Ged rips open a breach in the world, from which a "terrible brightness" blazes and a "clot of black shadow, quick and hideous . . . leap[s] straight out at [his] face" (A Wizard of Earthsea 61). Moved by pride and hate, Ged allows the darkness of his human nature to overwhelm his being and, consequently, gives power to "the shadow of [his] arrogance, the shadow of [his] ignorance, the shadow [only he could] cast" (A Wizard of Earthsea 66). Le Guin later in her trilogy represents the powers of darkness as the Nameless Ones, who, like the shadows of Anodos and Ged, exist to work evil through human beings like Tenar. Like Le Guin and MacDonald, Tolkien depicts the evil of "the Dark Power," "bending all its will" to draw wicked beings to Mordor, as a "new Shadow [gathering] in the South" (Tolkien 57). However, unlike the shadows of Ged and Anodos, this shadow represents the evil of all beings of Middle Earth, rather than that of a single individual. This universal source of darkness elevates Frodo's quest to destroy the Ring to a superhuman level. Such shadows exist throughout fantasy to haunt characters, like Ged, Anodos, and Frodo, as an oppressive and constant reminder of human folly and their potential to surrender to the evil within themselves. The fantastic creation of these demons brings to life the guilty conscience and darkness of human nature within the characters.
In addition to arrogance, ignorance, and hate, the fantastic character of the shadow takes on the full weight of human weakness and fault. Tolkien characterizes Gollum as the embodiment of ultimate lust and desire for power. This creature, consumed by "a hideous lust and rage," acts entirely out of selfishness and greed, desiring only to have the Ring to himself (Tolkien 922). In the walls of Mount Doom, he appears to Sam as a "crouching shape, scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing, a creature now wholly ruined and defeated" (Tolkien 922). By yielding to his own human weakness, Gollum loses himself to a devouring evil and thus comes to represent the extremity of human corruption. Like Gollum, the White Wizard Saruman becomes corrupted by the lust for ultimate power and explains to Gandalf that whiteness, a symbol of innocence or purity, only "serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken" (Tolkien 252). In this manner, a human being has the potential to spoil his own goodness by choosing to give in to the darkness within him. By means of shadows and characters similar to Gollum, authors of fantasy objectify human evil and weakness, giving the abstract idea a human-like form. By containing the darkness of human nature in a physical being, these writers make the source of evil tangible and concrete.
By externalizing the source of human evil, fantastic writers manipulate the nature of the struggle within the individual character to make the opposing forces of good and evil visible. This technique allows fantasy writers to magnify the internal psychological conflict onto a greater scale, turning it into a battle outside of and greater than the character, by projecting it onto the person's surrounding environment. As the symbol of human evil, the shadow becomes the individual's external enemy, one whom he must defeat or else remain as a slave. After Ged brings his shadow to life, the Archmage Gensher explains to the boy wizard that "the thing [he] loosed [will try to] find [him] at once, and enter into [him], and possess [him]. [He will then] be no man but a gebbeth, a puppet doing the will of that evil shadow which [he] raise[d] up into the sunlight" (A Wizard of Earthsea 65). Ged's shadow, born out of his pride and desire for power, continues to wait and watch him, "feeding . . . on his weakness, on his uncertainty, on his fear" (A Wizard of Earthsea 99). Le Guin expresses the inner conflict Ged faces in trying to maintain goodness within himself less abstractly and more visibly in his struggle with his own shadow. By making the enemy his shadow rather than himself, Le Guin emphasizes the difficulty of recognizing one's own susceptibility to evil and of admitting that responsibility for one's faults lies in the self.
Like Le Guin, Tolkien projects inner human evil onto an outside object, in his case, the One Ring. As Gandalf explains to the young hobbit Frodo:
"A mortal . . . who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness. And if he often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings. Yes, sooner or later — later, if he is strong or well-meaning to begin with, but neither strength nor good purpose will last — sooner or later the dark power will devour him." [Tolkien 46]
Although the Ring seems to exist as the source of evil driving mortals to destruction, the evil actually originates within the mortal himself. The external object of the Ring comes to represent, like the shadow, the darkness and corruptibility of humanity. One who bears the Ring grows ever more invisible and, like Gollum, becomes more like a phantom than a real person. The shadows of Ged and Anodos and the master of the Ring, Sauron, appear as enemies separate and outside of the individuals who must face them. However, these external projections of the "dark power" within humans cannot exist without human beings themselves. In other words, the Ring and the shadows draw their power from the humans they torment and can only work evil on their behalf. Without a body to inhabit, these external sources of evil remain relatively weak and harmless. Likewise, the power of the torture device in Gene Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer depends upon the internal energy of its victim. After the Chatelaine Thecla experiences her first torture, she describes that she "thought [she] saw her worst enemy, a kind of demon", and that the demon "was [she]" herself (Wolfe 82). Severian then explains to her that the "thing in [her] that hates [her] will weaken as [she] weaken[s]. The revolutionary brought it to life, but its energy is [her] energy, and in the end [the two] will die together'" (Wolfe 82). Much like this internal evil brought to life by this machine, the individual's shadow embodies the weakness and corruption that one must accept as part of himself and learn to overcome.
By employing the shadow and similar dark beings as the physical representation of the evil side of human nature, fantasy writers emphasize the urgency and necessity of repairing the split in the individual's self or identity. As two disunited halves, the individual and his shadow work against each other, aiming to bring the other to destruction. Rather than running from his fear and predisposition for evil, the individual must turn to confront his entire self and embrace his weaknesses. Ogion the mage explains to Ged the importance of facing his own fear and resisting evil within him in saying, "‘If you go ahead, if you keep running, wherever you run you will meet danger and evil, for it drives you, it chooses the way you go. You must choose. You must seek what seeks you. You must hunt the hunter'" (A Wizard of Earthsea 128). The individual's hope of strength lies in his ability to seek the source of the tormenting evil and to attempt to control or resist it. As soon as Ged listens to this advice and turns on his shadow, the creature of darkness can no longer draw power from him (A Wizard of Earthsea 144). After learning from this experience, Ged later passes on the knowledge to Tenar, explaining that "only [the human] spirit, which is capable of evil, is capable of overcoming it" (The Tombs of Atuan 48). By confronting one's whole self, the individual can come to terms with both sides of his nature, the potential for both good and evil.
Like Le Guin, MacDonald also emphasizes the importance of facing one's fears of evil and turning on the very source of that terror. When Anodos encounters his shadow in the form of a knight, a "dim conviction that [the knight is] evil, and that [Anodos] ought to fight with him" strikes him (MacDonald 160). By confronting his shadow, Anodos realizes that the prison he believed to surround him stemmed from his own psychological creation. The walls of this prison "[i]nstantaneously . . . vanish away like a mist" as soon as he chooses to fight the symbol of his pride and stupidity (MacDonald 161). Like Anodos, Frodo experiences a similar phenomenon of having a mist obscure his perspective. Several times his desire for the the Ring, the object of tremendous power, makes him suspicious of his obedient companion Sam. Tolkien describes one such moment when Frodo, "staring at Sam with eyes wide with fear and enmity," slowly comes to realize his paranoia and eventually sees Sam as he truly exists (Tolkien 891). To Frodo, the "hideous vision had seemed so real to him," as "Sam had changed before his very eyes into an orc again, leering and pawing at his treasure, a foul little creature with greedy eyes and slobbering mouth" (Tolkien 891). Like the shadow in Phantastes, the Ring causes Frodo to misconstrue his situation and to temporarily create a false vision of his world. Once he returns to reality, just as Anodos recognizes the illusion of his prison, Frodo must confront his fear of losing himself to the evil working against him and become aware of the weakening of his will power in order to regain his self-control. In The Last Unicorn, a similar moment of realization occurs when the unicorn dares to abandon her instinct to run from the Red Bull and instead turns back on him, choosing to confront her own fear. Once she challenges herself to act courageously, she defeats her enemy "stabbing at a shadow, or a memory," and forcing him to retreat (Beagle 189). Rather than allowing their shadows to control their existence, such characters as Ged and Anodos challenge themselves to face the source of evil inside them, as a first step towards achieving inner peace and self-awareness.
After daring to confront the dark side of own's own human nature, the individual must accept and reconcile the two split sides of his identity, in order to remedy the disruption and incongruence within the self. The individual must work to achieve an internal balance of the forces of good and evil. According to Dorcas, the "world is filled half with evil and half with good. [One] can tilt it forward so that more good runs into [his] min[d]," but "the quantities are the same, [one] change[s] only their proportion here or there'" (Wolfe 148). By accepting the potential for corruption in his nature, the individual can live with greater self-awareness and self-knowledge. The evil side of human nature, represented throughout fantasy as the shadow or similar dark being, works as a "traitor" to the good and moral self. As Ged explains to Arren, this evil works "in the dark, like the worm in the apple. [It] talks to all of us[, b]ut only some understand" and "seek to be themselves. To be one's self is a rare thing and a great one'" (The Farthest Shore 177-178). In order to triumph over the evil "traitor" of the self, the individual must learn to understand and reconcile it as part of his identity. When Ged chases his shadow to the edge of the known world, he "reache[s] out his hands [ . . . ] and [takes] hold of his shadow, of the black self that reached out to him. Light and darkness [meet], and joi[n], and [become] one" (A Wizard of Earthsea 179). Rather than making a vain attempt to destroy it, Ged embraces his shadow and thus the entirety of himself, accepting his past faults and emerging as a whole and unified person. He consciously chooses to reconcile the opposing sides of his human nature and to resist the force of evil, making peace and harmony within himself. In this moment of culmination, Ged has
neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life's sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark. [A Wizard of Earthsea 181].
Only by coming to know oneself completely and truly, as Ged accomplishes in this moment, does one triumph over his nature and resist the temptation of evil.
With self-knowledge and self awareness, the individual now has the ability to act deliberately, in accordance with his own conscience, and to maintain an inner strength to overcome human weakness. In finding his shadow, Anodos observes its power to do "away with all appearances, and sho[w Anodos] things in their true color and form" (MacDonald 61). As a result, he no longer sees beauty where it does not exist and instead "dare[s] to behold things as they are," accepting that "if [he] live[s] in a waste instead of a paradise, [he] will [at least] live'" with knowledge (MacDonald 61). Anodos later describes the emergence of his new self, "like a white spirit from a dead man, from the dumb and trampled self of the past" (MacDonald 166). Formerly clinging to the innocent hope of his ideal, Anodos, with the knowledge gained from his experience with his shadow, now "rejoic[es] that [he] has lost" that very phantom of evil (MacDonald 184). No longer able to live in a state of blissful ignorance, characters, like Anodos, who confront shadows of darkness, must also confront the ugliness and evil that exist in themselves and their world.
By awakening individuals to the reality of their existence, the shadow can ultimately serve as a tool of knowledge. According to Ged, human beings must learn tp use their knowledge "to keep the balance. Having intelligence, [they] must not act in ignorance. Having choice, [they] must not act without responsibility'" (The Farthest Shore 87). Ultimately, human beings come into the world with the power to carve a path of light or darkness, of good or evil; people must acknowledge that with that power comes significant responsibility for oneself as well as for one's surroundings. In order to maintain the self and this power, the individual must reconcile the forces of good and evil in his nature and come to know his true self completely. Equipped with the faculties of self-restraint and moral consciousness, human beings must struggle to find the inner strength to triumph over their weaknesses and enrich their world with goodness.
Many books of fantasy include magical beings, like dragons, unicorns, and wizards, and fictional places, like Middle Earth, Fairy Land, and Earthsea. These literary elements all contribute to the work's sense of adventure and imagination. However, beneath the fantastic surface of all the terrible, the beautiful, the magical, the supernatural and mysterious, beyond all the wonderment, exists an exceedingly more important message of moral implication. Throughout many works in this genre, writers often emphasize the essential responsibility that comes with the power and knowledge in human life. Many heroes in fantasy demonstrate the need to resist the temptation of evil and to learn by means of their own failures, the ultimate virtues of self-sacrifice, humility, and self-knowledge. Finding the inner strength and goodness to triumph over one's own weaknesses remains an important theme in works of fantasy and in every day human life. By coming to know oneself wholly and to in turn remaining true to oneself, human beings can learn to live deliberately as whole, unified beings. Fantasy literature, by conveying such important messages, emerges as a genre deserving of serious attention and possibly a second look from those who have deemed it as superficial and insignificant.
Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 1991.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Farthest Shore. New York, NY: Simon Pulse, 2001.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Tombs of Atuan. New York, NY: Simon Pulse, 2001.
Le Guin, Ursula K. A Wizard of Earthsea. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1989.
MacDonald, George. Phantastes. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994.
Wolfe, Gene. Shadow and Claw. New York, NY: Tom Doherty Associates, Inc., 1980.
Last modified 18 May 2004