Faith in Fantasy, Part 1

Christian Fantasy God Myth and Legend

If you’ve been around this blog any length of time, you’ll know that I consider the spiritual element a vital part of good storytelling–and it’s weighed especially on my mind of late. When fellow writer Virginia Ripple posted about fantasy and faith over on her blog, it stirred to the surface ideas I’ve wanted to discuss for a while.

She posed these questions: “I enjoy reading secular fantasy. I’ve tried reading Christian fantasy, but found it lacking (although I really enjoy Christian thrillers like This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti). My natural inclination is to write secular fantasy, but I feel compelled to follow the path writing greats like C.S. Lewis and JRR Tolkien have blazed…I want to write Christian fantasy that I would want to read, which may or may not explicitly mention God. But would it be considered Christian if I don’t get explicit about the Gospel?” and “should writers mention God in order for their work to be considered Christian, or can a Christian writer “glorify God” without getting specific?

I’ve seen these and similar questions come up repeatedly in a variety of online venues, and they are worthy of consideration and discussion. Since Tolkien and Lewis are often referred to as models worthy of emulation (rightfully so), I think it’s worth considering how they approached the intersection of fantasy and faith in their works and what we can learn from them.

Often I see Tolkien used as an example of a writer who shied away from revealing God in his work, depicting instead a general framework of good and evil, yet this contradicts what he himself said about his writings.

Many refer to Tolkien’s distaste for allegory, a valid point, but neglect the broader context in which he spoke. For example, he stated “I dislike allegory–the conscious and intentional allegory–yet any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language…” He held the view that all fantasy had meaning and “applicability,” which he embraced, and he further admitted that the attempt to explain it often landed one in the realm of allegorical language, even when the work itself was not a direct allegory. As an aside, I think this leads to many fantasy novels today being wrongly stuck with the label allegory, when in fact they merely contain applicability or supposition (to use a Lewis term).

While Tolkien objected to the explicit form of the Christian religion transferred to fantastic literature, at the same time, he proclaimed “myth and fairy story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world.” His objection to the known form links to his whole view of sub-creation, art, primary reality and the like, but to take these statements and assume that he therefore rejected the reflection of Christian elements in his work goes against what he expressly communicated.

Tolkien not only believed mythic stories communicated truth, he intentionally revealed that truth, portraying it in a natural way in the context of his stories. In a letter, he stated “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision….the religious element is absorbed into the story and symbolism.”

This is most readily apparent in The Silmarillion, the foundational work for his entire world.  He identifies a Creator God (Illuvatar) in his story and describes the Valar as angelic powers. Moreover, he speaks of the Creation drama and Fall that occurs within the context of the tale. The nature of elves, dwarves, hobbits, and men and the entire story of Middle Earth springs from these things–without them, there would be no story.

So did Tolkien reveal God in his tales? More directly than some suppose, but more importantly, he placed value on the power of story–fantasy in particular–to reflect truth or error.

Do you agree? Disagree?

Since I’ve gone on quite long enough already, I’m going to break this topic into a number of parts. Look for more on Monday (on Lewis, this time).

Comments

  • Sally Apokedak
    August 13, 2011 - 9:47 am · Reply

    I’ve never read the Simarillion. I started it when I was a kid and thought it just sounded like the Bible with made-up names.

    In Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, I don’t think he so much as revealed God as he created a world that was consistent with a belief in the God of the Bible. And any time you write a story that is consistent with biblical belief, you are building in your reader an unconscious bent toward accepting that belief, I think. If you write a story like Avatar where a Mother Earth/Grandmother Willow person absorbs life and gives life and is the source of wisdom, you are setting your readers up to accept pantheistic and panentheistic religions. If you write a story where courageous men fight on the side of the white wizard who loves to see people free and happy and enjoying fireworks, and those men oppose the dark, brooding, evil wizard who seeks to control and enslave and who creates evil, perverted creatures and makes them work in the fiery pits, you are setting your reader up to believe in the Christian view of God and the devil.

    Of course you could write a story where the devil figure masquerades as an angel of light, too. The possibilities are wide, I think.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      August 15, 2011 - 4:27 pm · Reply

      That’s actually a rather accurate assessment of the first part of the Simarilion. 🙂 You might enjoy it more if you tackled it now. There are some parts when tracking with all the characters gets a bit complex, but it’s worth persevering through because it adds so much more depth and richness to the rest of his books.

      “Any time you write a story that is consistent with biblical belief, you are building in your reader an unconscious bent toward accepting that belief…”

      That’s exactly right. Furthermore, you’ve given a perfect example of how good versus evil stories don’t always portray good and evil in a way that aligns with biblical truth (something I hope to get into more soon). I agree that crafting stories consistent with a biblical worldview isn’t limiting–there are so many ways that different aspects can be portrayed.

  • Mary
    August 13, 2011 - 10:41 am · Reply

    Excellent post, Sarah, as always. It does annoy me when a book containing no real allegorical material is nonetheless labeled “allegory”, simply because it deliberately portrays God and other Christian elements. I am, however, somewhat resigned to the thought that, once published, my books will also bear that label, because the Christian elements in it are unmistakable. I think a contributing factor to this ‘syndrome’ could be the fact that the Christian fiction world still hasn’t completely come to terms with the world of speculative fiction. If it’s Christian, but it’s not set in the ‘real world’, then it must be allegory, right? 🙂

    • Sarah Sawyer
      August 15, 2011 - 4:29 pm · Reply

      Thanks, Mary! I’m glad I’m not the only one bothered by the over-zealous application of the term allegory. 🙂

      I think you’re correct in your assessment that the general confusion of the Christian market about speculative genres has resulted in that term being bandied about in the wrong way, though I never considered it before. I hope to see speculative fiction grow to such a degree that there’s more wide spread awareness of the different subgeneres and different approaches taken, rather than a blanket description of “allegory” applied to the lot.

  • Nichole White
    August 13, 2011 - 2:16 pm · Reply

    I agree, though for me it’s something I’ve had to learn through the writing process itself. I know people who try to force a religious nature, or an allegorical sense into their books, but that doesn’t really work in my mind. I find that, much like you said, the spiritual nature of the book comes out in the writing. Or, as my mom would say, your art reflects your heart. So if you heart is write with God and your intentions pure, the story could have no conscious “religious” or spiritual themes, yet those themes will still shine through your work because that is where your heart is. That quote you pulled from Tolkien’s letter is a perfect example, and I thank you for sharing it. 😀

    • Sarah Sawyer
      August 15, 2011 - 4:33 pm · Reply

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Nicole! I think every part of writing is a constant learning process. That’s one of the reasons I love discussions like these, because I enjoy hearing what others think and what they’ve learned on their journeys.

      You certainly can’t force a spiritual element into a story any more than you can force an subplot you love that doesn’t move the story forward or a character that intrigues you but doesn’t enrich the tale. I agree with you–it doesn’t work. Any spiritual components must be relevant, even vital, to the story.

      So much of it also comes, as you said, from our relationship with God and approaching writing as a partnership with Him. The things that matter to us are naturally reflected in our stories, whether or not we realize it. 🙂

  • Mary
    August 13, 2011 - 8:06 pm · Reply

    I agree, Nichole. I don’t think a story necessarily has to present the plan of salvation or some such thing in order to glorify God. To me, the simple fact that a good story can be told without the profanity, explicit violence, and sensuality of today’s contemporary fiction displays the grace and righteousness of God.
    Right on.

  • Mirriam
    August 14, 2011 - 7:38 pm · Reply

    Sarah! I’ve just awarded you over on my blog! I don’t usually do awards, but… 🙂
    And I LOVE these recent faith/fantasy posts!!
    ~ Mirriam

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