Faith in Fantasy, Part 2

Christian Fantasy God Myth and Legend

Despite all they shared in common, Tolkien and Lewis had distinct differences when it came to the creative process, even in the way they depicted spiritual realities in their stories. Yet the one thing they both agreed on was that fantasy lent itself to the expression of spiritual truth.

So how did Lewis approach the spiritual element in his writing? With the exception of The Pilgrim’s Regress, Lewis described his approach as “supposal” rather than allegory. In fact, the description of the Narnia books as allegories troubled him to the point that he repeatedly denied it, stating “if Aslan represented the immaterial Deity, he would be an allegorical figure. In reality however he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, ‘What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours.’ This is not allegory at all.”

Yet his denial of allegory wasn’t a denial of the vital role spiritual themes played in his story. Without Aslan, he acknowledges, the Narnia series would never have come into being. The seed for the series began with a series of mental pictures, yet Lewis confessed “I had very little idea how the story would go. But then suddenly Aslan came bounding into it. I think I had been having a good many dreams of lions about that time. Apart from that, I don’t know where the Lion came from or why He came. But once He was there He pulled the whole story together, and soon He pulled the six other Narnian stories in after Him.”

Much like Tolkien, Lewis did not set out to create allegories, rather he integrated spiritual realities into his stories where they naturally fit. Never do these elements feel forced or out of place, as they do at times in other Christian novels. Rather they give shape and life to the tales which they inhabit. Consider this excerpt from a taped conversation between Lewis and two other writers for further insight on his approach:

LEWIS: The starting point of the second novel, Perelandra, was my mental picture of the floating islands. The whole of the rest of my labours in a sense consisted of building up a world in which floating islands could exist. And then of course the story about an averted fall developed. This is because, as you know, having got your people to this exciting country, something must happen.
AMIS: That frequently taxes people very much.
ALDISS: But I am surprised that you put it this way round. I would have thought that you constructed Perelandra for the didactic purpose.
LEWIS: Yes, everyone thinks that. They are quite wrong.
AMIS: If I may say a word on Professor Lewis’s side, there was a didactic purpose of course; a lot of very interesting profound things were said, but–correct me if I’m wrong, I’d have thought a simple sense of wonder, extraordinary things going on, were the motive forces behind the creation.
LEWIS: Quite, but something has got to happen. The story of this averted fall came in very conveniently. Of course, it wouldn’t have been that particular story if I wasn’t interested in those particular ideas on other grounds. But that isn’t what I started from. I’ve never started from a message or a moral, have you?
AMIS: No, never. You get interested in the situation.
LEWIS: The story itself should force its moral upon you. You find out what the moral is by writing the story.

The moral, the spiritual element, came as required…as demanded by the story. Elsewhere Lewis speaks of the bubbling up of creativity and the imaginative process which led to the Christian element “push[ing] itself in of its own accord.” He wrote fantasy because he felt it best expressed what he wanted to say–it “[stole] past watchful dragons” so that truth could appear in its full potency. The spiritual element cropped up in his stories because it mattered to him, and it gave his books lasting impact.

In general, Lewis applied more leniency in the creative process as compared to Tolkien and his rigorous theories of sub-creation, therefore their stories strike different tones, with Lewis depicting more distinct, overt Christian elements. Yet they both agreed the spiritual component was a natural, even essential part of fantasy.

Given the enduring power of their stories, it’s worth considering the approaches they took, when discussing the role of faith in fantasy today, which I’ll explore more in my next post.

What do you think of the approaches taken by Lewis and Tolkien when depicting spiritual elements? As a writer, do you find yourself leaning more toward the subtle (Tolkien) or the overt (Lewis)? As a reader, which do you prefer?


  • Rebecca LuElla Miller
    August 15, 2011 - 6:54 pm · Reply

    Another excellent post on this subject, Sarah.

    I’d put myself as close to the middle between Lewis and Tolkien as I can get. If I had to choose, I’d say I prefer the subtle approach simply because I prefer surprise. The predictable is easier to slip into, I think when an author uses the overt approach.

    I find I’m at some disagreement with Lewis, though. I think it’s absolutely possible to start with theme. But like our characters and every other element of a novel, we need to let the theme grow and change as need be.

    Thanks for this great series.


    • Sarah Sawyer
      August 16, 2011 - 10:10 pm · Reply

      Thanks, Becky! That’s an interesting thought regarding the relationship between overt and predictable. Sometimes I think with overt elements, there’s pressure to fit them into an exact one-to-one correlation–an allegory, rather than supposition or applicability. If that’s the case, it’s easy to guess from the first page how certain things will fall out. Yet, if handled well, I enjoy both approaches.

      I tend to agree with you that it’s possible to start with theme, just as it’s possible to begin with any other story element–plot, character, setting, etc. I’ve never begun that way personally, but I can see how it would work. There’s a difference between starting your story-crafting with a idea of theme, which develops along with the story, and creating a tale only to proclaim a message. I think Lewis objected more to the latter. 🙂

  • Hannah
    August 15, 2011 - 10:06 pm · Reply

    Thought provoking post.

    I appreciate both Lewis and Tolkien’s approaches, and find it difficult to choose between them. Though, I have found Lewis’ books more of a spiritual blessing than Tolkien’s.

    That is an interesting quote by Lewis about the story itself forcing the moral on you. Maybe that’s why I’ve had such difficulty with my WIP. With my first complete novel, the story came first, and then brought in a very strong theme (man’s need for God). After abandoning the story (copyright issues), I turned to take the theme into another book, but lacked a story for it. Hm…

    Thanks for a great post!

    • Sarah Sawyer
      August 16, 2011 - 10:12 pm · Reply

      Hannah, I appreciate both as well. In fact, I find that different stories I write (or plan to write) occupy different places along the spectrum from subtle to overt. It depends on what suits a particular tale.

      I’m glad the post sparked some ideas about your WIP. I hope the creativity begins to flow freely!

  • Sally Apokedak
    August 15, 2011 - 11:08 pm · Reply

    Good post.

    I like both of their work equally well. I like MacDonald preaching for pages in the middle of his novels–it is understood that his narrator is a Christian with strong views on certain things and that preaching is part of the story–and I like Jonathan Rogers whose last book, The Charlatan’s Boy, had a few bloggers saying they didn’t see the spiritual elements at all (though they were certainly there if one looked).

    Preaching is OK with me if it’s done well. I think if you want to preach, the characters must be looking for answers and finding those answers as the result of much labor and hardship on their part. Then when they grasp the truth the reader grasps with them and it all feels earned. It feels like the prize at the end of a tough race.

    What happens in too many Christian books, unfortunately, is that we have one surly, angry-at-God character and someone lectures him on how he needs to be saved by the blood of Christ and low and behold the surly character sees the light and is saved. Hallelujah, Amen! That kind of story doesn’t allow the reader to participate with the character in his struggle and growth.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      August 16, 2011 - 10:13 pm · Reply

      I’m with you, Sally, in that I enjoy Tolkien and Lewis equally (though in different ways). It really comes down to what works in a particular story, and as storytellers we tend to have leanings in certain directions, but they’re not absolutes. After all, think of the difference between Lewis’s first novel after his conversion (Pilgrim’s Regress) and his last (Till We Have Faces).

      And I totally agree about preaching. If it’s vital to the character journey, I’m interested, and it becomes compelling reading. Otherwise, I’ll end up skimming it to get to the more engaging parts of the story.

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