The Secularization of Fantasy

Christian Fantasy God

I ran across an intriguing interview CNN did with fantasy writer Lev Grossman, whose novels have landed on the NYT bestseller list. I’ve never read anything he’s written, but I perked up at the mention of him finding inspiration in Lewis, particularly The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Though Grossman attributes Lewis and others with inspiration for his novels, he takes a different approach and his “magic takes place in a more cynical, profane and darker, modern world.” Based upon that, it doesn’t sound like he’s followed in Lewis’s footsteps, but I still found his words on the fantasy genre of interest.

CNN: How do you think the fantasy genre has changed, since the Narnia books were published, even since Harry Potter?

Grossman: It’s changed a lot. For one thing, Lewis and Tolkien were profoundly Christian writers. Their faith was a big part of their lives, and that comes through in what they wrote. I think fantasy has become more secular since then. Magic comes in a lot more flavors now, not just the divine.

Just look at Harry Potter: There’s no Aslan, no praying. It’s all wand-waving: swish and flick. It’s very different from what Lewis was doing. But even since Harry Potter, a lot has changed. So many more people are reading and writing fantasy than before, and I think as a result of that, fantasy has exploded in all kinds of different directions. It’s evolving at a furious rate. Writers like Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, China Mieville, George R.R. Martin, Kelly Link — they’re doing things with fantasy Lewis and Tolkien would never have believed were possible.

I want to see the day return where Christian writers make such a deep cultural impact that the ripples are still felt long after their deaths. I don’t know what it will take exactly. Sometimes I have a sense that people think it will happen if we join in the secularization of fantasy–that if we just make our works darker and grittier and omit any hints of a spiritual thread to our stories, then we will connect with the prevailing culture. Yet Lewis and Tolkien served as inspiration to countless readers and writers, even with their faith distinctly present.

So it’s not that we need to omit spiritual realities, it’s that they need to be a seamless part of the whole. We need to reach new levels of creativity and excellence in craftsmanship, as the Inklings did in their time, and in so doing, set the benchmark for future generations. Easy to say, but not nearly as easy to do. I plan to explore this more in coming posts.

In the meantime, what do you think of his perspective on the secularization of fantasy? Do you see this happening?

Comments

  • Mary
    August 11, 2011 - 12:00 pm · Reply

    Excellent post, Sarah. The tragic trend I am seeing is that well-meaning Christian writers think they have to come down to the secular level–dark, bleak, and ‘gritty’–in order to be relevant. I believe it was Ken Ham who said “Truth makes you relevant. Period.” I believe a lot of the reason writers like Lewis and Tolkien were so influential is that they wrote what they believed and they stood on it. They didn’t need the world’s approval. They wrote what they needed and wanted to write, and they didn’t compromise their standards to make their writing more ‘marketable’. Whether they realize it consciously or not, people respect steadfastness and refusal to compromise. They admire that strength.
    Unfortunately, many Christian writers don’t understand that concept. In their desire to reach non-Christians by writing books that appeal to them, these writers are actually destroying their own testimonies by compromising their standards.
    I desire to see more writers like Lewis and Tolkien, who don’t feel that they need to compromise. Yes, Christians are supposed to be the anchors, the ones who don’t get washed away in every passing trend. But in order to do that, we have to be willing to be an anchor. That is what makes us truly influential.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      August 11, 2011 - 6:47 pm · Reply

      These are some well-expressed thoughts–thanks for sharing! Some of the trends I see sadden me too, especially the trend to strip all identifiably Christian elements from fiction.

      They wrote what they needed and wanted to write, and they didn’t compromise their standards to make their writing more ‘marketable’

      Exactly! I’m of the opinion that when marketability takes precedence over story, everything suffers. That may appear in the form of trying to add “dark” elements just for the sake of story appeal to a perceived secular audience, or even to insert trite Christian content when it doesn’t fit the story, in an attempt to connect with a Christian audience. I believe that people want compelling stories, naturally infused with truth, and that as we pursue excellence in storytelling with a commitment to truth, like Tolkien and Lewis did, we will see a greater impact.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller
    August 11, 2011 - 3:53 pm · Reply

    To be honest, after the initial popularity of The Lord of the Rings, in particular, there were some pretty bad Christian fantasies that approached storytelling in an entirely different way from Lewis and Tolkien. I think some reaction to that, and to the general complaint that Christian fiction was preachy, drove a lot of aspiring (and now published) writers to believe that “good fiction” didn’t have something to say — it was just a story for a story’s sake, or for art’s sake, or for the writer’s enjoyment or therapy. 😆

    In other words, we stopped writing truly good fiction for the very reason that we bought a bill of goods as to what actually constitutes good fiction. When we realize that first and foremost, fiction is communication and the writer should have something to say but should learn how to do it in the context of the story, then maybe we will stop chasing the trends we see becoming popular in the general market.

    Excellent article, Sarah.

    Becky

    • Sarah Sawyer
      August 11, 2011 - 6:48 pm · Reply

      Good points, Becky! I think there are some misconceptions regarding exactly how Tolkien and Lewis approached storytelling (part of tomorrow’s post topic), when in reality there’s much we can learn from them, especially regarding the importance of capturing truth in fiction. They had lasting impact for good reason!

      That said, I’ve certainly come across my share of those poorly-crafted Christian fantasies, so I can understand the complaints. It’s unfortunate that the side effect of these sorts of stories became to downplay the value of meaning and theme in fiction.

      “When we realize that first and foremost, fiction is communication and the writer should have something to say but should learn how to do it in the context of the story, then maybe we will stop chasing the trends we see becoming popular in the general market.”

      I totally agree. Yet rather than discussing how we can portray meaning and spiritual concepts in a natural way to story, so many writers seem to dismiss the importance of this element, even rail against it. I’ve appreciated the way you have addressed many of these issues lately, particularly the importance of how we portray God in our fiction. 🙂

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