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).