Thank you for returning to my second installment of “Christians and Genre Fiction.”
Do you remember the first time you saw a dragon? Maybe it was an illustration in a book of fairy tales, or animated in a Disney movie (or maybe you were watching Donkey romance one in Shrek). Or maybe you were lucky enough to hear one described to you, and your young imagination pieced one together with the body of a lizard, the wings of a bat, and the horns of a goat. The first instance of “witnessing” a dragon is awe-striking.
And possibly quite scary. My first dragon was none other than the ferocity of the sorceress Maleficent in Disney’s adaptation of Sleeping Beauty. I can’t recall anything more specific than the dark monster surrounded by green flame. It became the template against which every dragon would be measured for most of my childhood and into adolescence. They were creatures of power and mystery, menace and hellfire.
And at some point in grade school, a wet blanket of a human being took the time to emphasize that dragons did not exist. It was not merely explained that they were not present in our material world, but it was emphasized that such things were “make-believe.” Made up. Complete fantasy; not grounded in reality whatsoever.
And that biased paradigm that has plagued the genre of fantasy for fifty years. ‘Care not for fantasy because it is a thing of foolishness and disconnected from the real world. Feel free to bully the kids playing Dungeon&Dragons because they are escapists who can’t handle the real world. They would rather use dice to pretend they are paladins, wizards, and elves slaying a ferocious Minotaur at a labyrinth gate.’
Was it ever considered that perhaps it was the bully symbolically present in the Minotaur guarding the gate? That the kid faced far fewer repercussions as a valiant paladin dueling a mythological creature than if he or she drove a knee into the bully’s groin, with the gusto of Bruce Lee?
Fantasy offers a reinterpretation of reality. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien responds to the critique that fantasy is a lower art in comparison to nonfiction. He speaks of fantasy wrestling with the “inner consistency of reality,” which is otherwise difficult to produce on paper. The intricate realities of violence, hate, love, human relationships, etc. are not captured in the pages of psychology and sociology journals in the same way that they are illustrated in the symbolic world of fantasy. It is important here to speak of a symbolic world as opposed to merely a symbol.
A symbol represents something else. An object represents an abstract idea or characteristic. However, I argue that a symbolic world is the reinterpretation of our material world with all of its systems, relationships, and chaos into an imagined cosmos.
C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia are beloved books, and I adore them. But it seems to me that Lewis is far more concerned with the inclusion of individual symbols for the purpose of his illustrations than his developing of the world of Narnia as a whole. Aslan is God-in-Christ. Edmund is Judas. The White Witch is a deceptive, Devil character. Lewis has a specific agenda in his use of symbols, which is not a criticism necessarily, but highlights that even in his fiction old Jack Lewis remains a Christian apologist at heart.
However, when we crack open The Hobbit and take our first steps into Middle-earth (and then into The Lord of the Rings, and if we are bolder still into The Silmarillion) we find that Tolkien has built, or in his words, “discovered” a whole world. It is a world that raises questions such as “Is this an allegory for World War I?” or “Is Gandalf Jesus?” These questions seek to pin down what Tolkien’s agenda was in writing these epics and ignore the cornerstone of the fantasy genre. Tolkien was reinterpreting the world by way of his imagination as informed by his world-view. This is why we see elements of a war ravaged Europe, or several recurring Christological themes. Tolkien served in WWI and was a devout Roman Catholic. His experiences and beliefs bleed through his world-building because they are ingrained in him. A symbolic world is created because Tolkien is writing the truths he observed and experienced in the material world into a world of his creation.
This is why Christian writers should write fantasy: in writing fantasy, in the art of world-building, the Christian’s beliefs, experiences, and psyche bleed through. When there is not a single formulated agenda such as “Aslan is Christ,” a character may appear Christ-like but bear the nuances of the writer’s doubt and speculation about what that could entail. The interpretation of material reality into a fantasy world creates the space for exploration.
Fantasy is unapologetically honest about the incoherence of our reality. The popularity of Game of Thrones has far more to do with the political intrigue, betrayal, and chaos of warring nations than it does with George R.R. Martin’s fantasy world. Yet it is the fantasy world that shows us these facets of reality in a new or more stark fashion.
Sometimes I think Christian writers, particularly fiction writers, limit themselves because they fear they may write poor doctrine or stray beyond the bounds of orthodoxy. This is a shame. There are some doctrinal issues that lend themselves to ambiguity and Christians need to be honest about them.
Fantasy offers space for the exploration of the ambiguous. Middle-earth offers ambiguity. If the One Ring represents temptation and sin (if it represents anything!), why is it not hazardous for Samwise Gamgee to wear it when Frodo is consumed by it and Gandalf refuses to touch it? In writing the communal activity of divine beings in the creation narrative of Middle-earth, is Tolkien endorsing a polytheistic creation or exploring an image reflecting the cooperation of divine wills? Ambiguous! And the text lends itself to the query but refuses to answer it.
Dear fellow writers, especially those of faith, please take courage and write fantasy. Explore a world of your creation and/or discovery. We may all be surprised about how our worldview bleeds through. And maybe those who read our fantasy will ask new questions.
Maybe the Holy Spirit will be there on the move too. But we do not write fantasy for that–we write fantasy because the mysterious facets of reality require an alternative medium for interpretation, a different picture.