How Can This Be?

This post is the first in a planned series on how characters in fiction confront and come to believe in the supernatural.

It’s a situation that comes up regularly in certain types of fantasy. Characters from the real world encounter a hidden reality, enter an unknown world, or confront elements of the supernatural that others around them know nothing about. Maybe vampires are real, or fairies; maybe another world opens out at the bottom of the well, or the back of the wardrobe; or somebody has found the Holy Grail, or discovered that he can work magic. Then the story has to negotiate, in some way, the movement from incredulity to belief—in vampires, fairies, magic, the Holy Grail, or whatever. It can be a minor incident, or it can take up and dominate most of the story.

Of course it partly depends on what sort of proof the characters have seen. Is it subject to any other interpretation than the supernatural one? Maybe the strange events happened late at night, or after a few drinks, and in the morning it all seems much less plausible. The age and outlook of the characters also make a difference. Children in stories tend to waste less time disbelieving in things; they cut more quickly to the business of having adventures. This is partly because children are usually the protagonists in books for children, but also, and more importantly, because children are really like that. In the opening chapters of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, nobody who has actually been into Narnia spends any time disbelieving in it. (Edmund lies about it, but that’s different.) Instead, the conflict centres around the unwillingness of Lucy’s siblings to believe her story without seeing for themselves. In Chapter 6, they all go through the wardrobe at once:

And now there was no mistaking it and all four children stood blinking in the daylight of a winter day. Behind them were coats hanging on pegs, in front of them were snow-covered trees.

Peter turned at once to Lucy.

‘I apologize for not believing you,’ he said, ‘I’m sorry. Will you shake hands?’

‘Of course,’ said Lucy, and did.¹

The words “at once,” and the matter-of-fact apology, are quite telling.

Now, I realize I’ve tipped my hand slightly by starting with C.S. Lewis, but I am actually interested in how this situation plays out in works that aren’t Christian allegories. Let’s look at another example, one where the progression toward belief is fairly typical, but I think is handled well.

In Emma Bull’s urban fantasy, War for the Oaks, the emphasis is on the protagonist’s own effort to come to terms with the strange situation that she finds herself in. She does have to explain the situation to her friends, but that is of less importance. At the end of Chapter 1, Eddi has a sinister encounter involving what seems to be a human stalker and a suspiciously large stray dog. In Chapter 2, she finds herself faced with a pair of shape-shifters who have specific intentions for her. Her reaction to their explanation seems very believable:

“Eddi McCandry, the Seelie Court goes to war, and needs the presence of mortal blood to bring death to its enemies.”

The phrase “mortal blood” sent a shooting cold through her, but she said, “That sounded like gibberish to me.”

He hissed something under his breath. “I’ll begin again. We are not human.”

She couldn’t help it—she laughed. They couldn’t, of course, not be human. Nothing else had that shape. And they couldn’t possibly be human, because nothing human had more than one shape. They might indeed be werewolves and vampires, but she had no desire to hear them say so. She could see the seams of the world around her begin to ravel and part, and the things waiting outside to pass through the holes were at once terrible and ridiculous. It was like being tickled—an unpleasant feeling that by some perverse reflex brings on laughter. “So what are you?” she gasped.²

Eddi’s situation involves not only a confrontation with the supernatural but also—and more importantly, as it turns out—a large element of personal danger. This is significant, because this is one of those stories where someone who thinks she is ordinary suddenly finds out she has been chosen for a supernatural destiny. The reason for the choice is a bit vague in War for the Oaks, but that’s okay, because the supernatural beings—in this case fairies, though they don’t like to be called that to their faces—are portrayed as capricious. Their main representative in the story moves into Eddi’s apartment and is genuinely (though amusingly) annoying. This and the element of danger overshadow both the “supernatural destiny” and the “I-don’t-believe-this-how-can-fairies-be-real” elements of the unfolding plot, so that when Eddi complains about her situation, we can sympathize with her. She’s not just moaning and groaning because fairies are real and think that she is special.

I think this is an important consideration in this type of story. The characters’ reaction to the supernatural has to be realistic, which in practice usually means that it has to involve some level of resistance; but it also has to be got out of the way. A character who believes too readily, who doesn’t struggle at all, runs the risk of being hard to relate to, but a character who spends too long digging in her heels and saying, “But this can’t be happening!” or “Why me?” just gets annoying.

Next time, I want to look at how this situation plays out in some works of a very different kind.


  1. C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (London: William Collins Sons, 1980) pp. 53–4.
  2. Emma Bull, War for the Oaks (New York: Ace, 1987) p. 19.


  • I still haven’t read “War for the Oaks,” so I can’t comment on that one, but I notice you don’t mention Eustace’s reaction in “The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’.” Not that this goes against your comments — he does spend a fair amount of time disbelieving what is happening, and is indeed also (and intentionally) annoying; it’s also rather funny. The way Lewis deals with Eustace’s ignorance about dragons defuses our potential disbelief about what happens to him with the dragon, and forces, in a very real way, the issue of belief in other parts of Narnia — Aslan in particular.

    Lewis also makes a point of this in “Out of the Silent Planet,” where the ‘scientist’ (whose name I forget) accepts the facts of the situation with no curiosity or wonder at all, and so misses out all the ways in which it is actually a story of the supernatural, not just the alien. (Mr. Cheney in Diana Wynne Jones’ “Dark Lord of Derkholm” is very much of that sort, as well.)

    Hmm. I look forward to your next post on this subject.

  • ajdegan says:

    Thanks for mentioning these other examples, Victoria. I confess I didn’t remember Eustace! I definitely want to look in more detail at how Lewis deals with this theme, because, as you point out, he has a number of specific aims with it. Ransom, in “Perelandra,” is also a brilliant example of a character who is given a supernaturally significant role to play and balks at it — in a way that is utterly plausible and has real theological weight to it. But it’s still basically the same reaction of “How is this possible?” and, specifically, “Why me?”

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