Stranger Things and the Return to Faerie: A Contemporary Recovery of the Moral Imagination

By Grace Marie Link

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. That’s not it, is it?”

After watching the eight-episode television series, viewers will relate to Dustin’s lament at the end of the beautiful, exciting, and inspiring Stranger Things. The series includes all the necessary ingredients for a successful television show: skilled cinematography,  intriguing plot, killer soundtrack, and nuanced characters played by top-notch actors. It brings the viewer back to a nostalgic era, the ’80s, channeling classics like E.T. and The Goonies. This is a show that earns its fame.

But Stranger Things does more: it offers something unique to modern television. It is, at its core, a fairy-tale for contemporary viewers.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” he asserts that a true fairy-tale takes place within the realm of Faerie, an imaginary world that is somehow more real than our own.

Tolkien explains this seemingly paradoxical concept by describing the joy contained in such stories—joy that expresses itself as an amplification of the real. For Tolkien, a true fairy-tale manages to express a fuller reality than that of the factual world. He writes, “The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a ‘consolation’ for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, ‘Is it true?’”

Stranger Things does exactly what Tolkien asks it to do as a piece of fantasy fiction—but in an upside-down way. For Tolkien, a true fairy-story must accomplish three things: recovery, or a return to something lost; escape, or a means of entering a world other than our own; and consolation, the promise of a happy ending. While Stranger Things satisfies Tolkien’s three-fold description, it puts a modern twist onto Faerie that enhances the moral imagination. The show provides the viewer with a clarifying understanding of the Good by depicting a world exactly like our own, but devoid of goodness: a world known as the Upside-Down. The show enhances the viewer’s understanding of reality itself by demonstrating the purely good, transcendental qualities that instill virtue in our subjective modern age.

CHAPTER ONE: THE UPSIDE-DOWN FAERIE

To the viewer, Stranger Things offers a glance into a world within a world. At the outset of the show, the viewer is plunged into a nostalgic Fearie realm: the small Midwestern town of Hawkins, Indiana. This throwback provides the viewer’s imagination with recovery of a lost time, escape from the present, and consolation for the future. At the same time, the characters are forced to grapple with their own Faerie world, the Upside-Down. While the characters face an utterly distorted realm devoid of goodness, the viewer is faced with two intelligible parts of a whole—the Upside-Down in conflict with the Right-Side Up.

As the curtain rises on Hawkins, local 12-year-old Will Byers goes suddenly missing under paranormal circumstances—snatched away into the Upside-Down. When his friends go looking for him, they stumble across a mysterious girl named Eleven who has just escaped from a secret government laboratory. As the community immerses itself in its search for Will, and strange men hunt for Eleven, a terrifying creature stalks  the woods around the town.

The disappearance of innocent and honest Will shakes Hawkins, a place where nothing much happens, to its core.  Three distinct groups begin their search: the adults, the teenagers, and the kids.

It does not take long for Will’s three friends, Mike, Dustin and Lucas, to believe in the Upside-Down. It acts as an extension of their own imaginative world. These kids have grown up on the fairy-tale classics of the time—Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and the like. They are even able to create their own Faerie masterpiece through the imagined realm of Dungeons and Dragons. It is because of their stimulated imagination that they are so quick to believe and understand the Upside-Down.

Meanwhile, the teenagers and the adults have a harder time coming to terms with the reality of the Upside-Down, because their imagination has long since dwindled through the “reality” of day-to-day life.

CHAPTER TWO: WILL BYERS

Will thus becomes necessary not only to the characters but to the imagination of the viewers. “He’s not like you, Hopper,” Joyce, Will’s mother, says to the chief of police. “He’s not like me. He’s not like… most.” Joyce struggles to articulate what makes Will so special. But the viewer understands he is distinguished by his good and powerful imagination: He is connected to beauty and goodness in a way that his friends and family are not. Joyce’s ex-husband Lonnie calls Will “queer” because he does not share his father’s interests—Will would rather play Dungeons and Dragons with his friends in Mike’s basement than go to a baseball game. The series displays Will’s integrity and imagination early: During a game of Dungeons and Dragons at the beginning of Chapter One, Will’s roll of the dice will determine whether he lives or dies in game. Although Mike leaves the room and his friends urge him to lie, Will cannot be dishonest to Mike about the outcome: he rolled low, and the monster got him. Will also loves to be creative, skillfully sketching wizards and building a clubhouse he calls Castle Byers. His soul is ordered toward virtue and refined by beauty. He is “not like most.” And it is because of his active imagination that he is able to emulate the noble qualities of his heroes in his own pursuit of virtue. As Alasdair MacIntyre writes in his book After Virtue:

It is through hearing about wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world and eldest sons who waste their inheritance…that children learn or mislearn what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are. Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.

As MacIntyre suggests, it is through images and stories that children like Will become thus inclined to virtue.

Will’s disappearance deeply affects the community, as the moral imagination of the characters is slowly reinforced and they become more courageous, selfless, and true. This becomes especially explicit in characters like Eleven, whose supernatural powers prove essential to the defeat of the monster. She is isolated and tortured her entire life before meeting Mike, Dustin and Lucas. She comes to understand friendship through the demonstration of loyalty shown by the three boys, especially Mike. Through the cultivation of friendship, Eleven is able to better understand concepts of truth, of keeping promises, and of putting someone else’s needs above her own. In the end, she saves her friends and the entire town in a final sacrificial act.

At the same time, this rediscovery of essential virtues through the cultivation of imagination enhances qualities like courage and steadfastness. When he first faces the monster, Will grabs a shotgun to defend himself—and then proceeds to survive in the Upside-Down for about a week.

Similarly, Nancy is able to rediscover her imagination and put aside her previous desire for popularity and romance. When Nancy’s imagination is reawakened due to Will’s vanishing and the appearance of the monster in Hawkins, her bravery and strong will come back to the surface. She suddenly is able to understand her own moral role in the search for Will Byers and the hunt for the monster.

So while the characters are becoming more courageous and loyal, they are simultaneously becoming more fully themselves. They are beginning to understand their own reality through the recognition of Faerie, just as the viewers too are watching these events unfold and feeling their own courage reawaken in each passing episode.

CHAPTER THREE: THE MONSTERS

Meanwhile, the monster responsible for the turmoil in Hawkins reflects a distorted human nature—the inhuman parts of the soul. He is described numerous times as a man without a face—nearly human, but missing the essential human characteristic. In the human face, the soul is made visible. Beyond even that, God himself is visible, since man is made in his image. The monster, while strangely humanoid, manifests the soulless, inhuman parts of humanity.

At the same time, one need not enter the Upside-Down to find monsters. The distorted, or the upside-down, parts of human nature seen in the monster can also be recognized in characters like Dr. Brenner, a suspicious scientist, and Lonnie, Will’s absent father. Tolkien refers to the Faerie world as that which is distinct from “the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific magician.” Dr. Brenner is one such scientific magician. He not only physically and mentally tortures Eleven for the entire course of her life, but he manipulates her into thinking of him as some sort of fatherly figure. He is cruel, ruthless, and cares only for what Eleven can offer him.

Lonnie also shows monstrous qualities over the course of the show. He cares very little for his son. When Will’s body is found and he is presumed dead, Lonnie returns home not to console Joyce, but to sue the owners of the quarry for financial gain. Lonnie represents a distorted nature in the “real” world. His love for himself keeps him from properly loving Will. He wants Will to be “normal.” But Will is nothing like Lonnie. Certainly they do not share the same interests, but even more importantly, Lonnie has a disordered soul. In fact, he is less real—less human—than Will himself, as seen in his inability to pursue these virtues. As Guorian writes, “A person’s goodness or badness is a valence and measure of one’s humanity or inhumanity.”

CHAPTER FOUR: THE REAWAKENING

Stranger Things clarifies the moral imagination in a critical and poignant way for contemporary viewers who have very little exposure to stories that follow Tolkien’s three-part structure, especially when such stories are disregarded as childish or juvenile. Tolkien writes, “Fairy-stories have in the modern lettered world been relegated to the ‘nursery,’ as shabby or old-fashioned furniture is relegated to the play-room, primarily because the adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is misused.” Tolkien’s lament over the disregard for these stories is precisely why we need television shows like Stranger Things. It is not a kid-friendly show. There is strong language, violence, brief sexual content, and frightening imagery. But Stranger Things acts as a recovery of the imagination. It revives the imagination of the viewer, and takes what the viewer once knew about the world and gives him a clearer understanding of it. Tolkien writes in his essay, “We need…to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.”

It is essential that stories like Stranger Things exist in contemporary art. Stranger Things reminds adults what it means to be brave in the face of unexpected dangers, to love fearlessly and unconditionally, to offer up oneself completely. It encourages adults to be like Mike, Dustin, and Lucas and trust in their imagination. The series not only acts as a return to the Faerie world of which Tolkien writes, but also as an escape to a world more real than our own. And most importantly, joy is found at the end of the story, when Will is rescued and brought back to life, the community is restored, and the imagination, reawakened.

Stranger Things is a modern-day masterpiece of fantasy. It does everything Tolkien asks it to do—it inspires recovery, escape, and consolation in the imagination of viewers. As G.K. Chesterton puts it, “Fairy-tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” It makes the viewer feel like he could be brave—that he could somehow be as sacrificial and selfless as Joyce, as Hopper, as Nancy, as Eleven. It leaves the viewer inspired by his own imagination that cultivates this belief that he too can fight monsters with nothing more than gasoline and a baseball bat; that he too can venture into darkness and danger and come out alive; that he too can struggle forward, even with the whole world against him. Stranger Things revives the moral imagination through the recovery of Faerie, a feat few other television shows have been able to achieve.

Grace Marie is a senior studying English.

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