Fantasy and the Anglosphere
When I published my fantasy piece in the Atlantic it was linked (reproduced?) by Richard Dawkins’ site and a number of the atheists in the commentariat had scathing things to say about fantasy literature. Apparently it is not enough that readers of fantasy do not, in fact, believe in their make-believe. Apparently the fact that dragons and sorcery are not based in science is enough to earn the scorn of some anti-religious types.
This reminds me of the reaction of many conservative Christian groups to various fantasy novels, from Harry Potter to The Golden Compass and the attempt by some conservative groups to ban these books in schools due to all that witchcraft and other devil-worshipping (you know, all those satanic rituals Harry Potter and Hermione engage in before the strange sexual acts begin.)
But many, many Christians and atheists and people of various other faiths enjoy fantasy. D.G. Myers has an interesting piece in Commentary in which he argues that fantasy is inherently Christian in nature. He writes:
The main reason that Jews have largely avoided the genre of fantasy, though, is religious. C. S. Lewis was the author of The Chronicles of Narnia (1950–1956), perhaps the greatest series of fantasy novels ever written in English. Rereading the books as an adult, I was struck by what soared over my head as a boy: the Christian theology that organizes the series. But Lewis is not alone. J. R. R. Tolkien is now widely understood to be a Christian writer, and Christianity Today ranked his Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954–1955) among the top ten Christian books of the twentieth century. Even theHarry Potter books, if Bruce Charlton is to be believed, are works of “covert Christian supposal.” And no wonder.
Myers is riffing off of this excellent piece by Michael Weingrad which I’ve discussed before. Weingard pointed to the various cultural differences that made Judaism more of a science-fiction religion and Christianity more of a fantasy religion – the salvationist, other-worldiness and individualism of Christianity making for more fertile fantasy soil than the this-worldiness of Judaism. Myers adds:
Speaking as both an author and scholar of fantasy, Lewis said in a 1947 essay that “To construct plausible and moving ‘other worlds’ you must draw upon the only real ‘other world’ we know, that of the spirit.” No statement about the genre has ever been more definitive. The bedrock premise of fantasy, which cannot be waived without voiding the genre, is the existence of a spirit realm. Lewis’s Narnia, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Rowling’s “wizarding world,” parallel universes of all kind are imaginative reconstructions of Christianity’s first principle: namely, that the “kingdom of heaven” is the only true world.
He uses a passage from the great G.K. Chesteron to illustrate his point:
Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense. It is not earth that judges heaven, but heaven that judges earth; so for me at least it was not earth that criticised elfland, but elfland that criticised the earth. I knew the magic beanstalk before I had tasted beans; I was sure of the Man in the Moon before I was certain of the moon. This was at one with all popular tradition. Modern minor poets are naturalists, and talk about the bush or the brook; but the singers of the old epics and fables were supernaturalists, and talked about the gods of brook and bush.
The dearth of Jewish fantasy, at least, is largely because “there is no spirit realm, no “other world,” in Judaism” according to Myers.
This may well be true of Judaism and its relationship (or lack thereof) to fantasy. But I think that fantasy is not founded in Christian themes so much as it is rooted in distinctly Anglo-Saxon mythology. And not just the mythology of the Medieval, feudalistic period, but the pre-Christian myths of the faerie-folk as well.
Most fantasy is written by British and American authors. Traditionally, fantasy has woven together Medieval feudalism and faerie folklore in some fashion or other. Yes, there are myths from all countries, and even fantasy literature written in Germany or Spain or elsewhere, but the market has been historically dominated by the Anglosphere, and I think is rooted more in the myths of the Anglosphere specifically than in Christianity more broadly.
Perhaps this is an accident of history. Perhaps the confluence of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and G.K. Chesterton – all men with a peculiar aversion to first and middle names – gave birth to contemporary fantasy as we know it in some lucky stroke of happenstance. Perhaps we should blame the Anglican Church for the rise of fantasy. While Catholics were busy burning witches and Lutherans and other protestant groups were busy taking all the fun and mysterious things out of Christianity, Anglicans were busy walking the tightrope between. Tolkien was Catholic, true, but a Catholic in a distinctly Anglican setting.
Perhaps, too, there is something about the English language itself that makes fantasy so popular in English-speaking countries. In other cultures, the old magic lived on only in old wive’s tales or through the worship of saints. But in the Anglosphere it became mainstream, part of pop-culture. Even the myths of other cultures – vampires, werewolves, and so forth – have found hospitable soil in the English-speaking world.
Whatever the case, I think fantasy is not really bound to any religion so much as it is bound to a particular way of looking at the world. Somehow the faeries from the old English countryside infected the intellectualism of Oxford’s finest minds. Somehow the old magic of Merlin survived Christianity and became part of the mythical world-building of Tolkien and Lewis and the many non-religious fantasy authors who followed them.
As we begin to plow our way into The Darkness That Comes Before, watch for the Christian themes to emerge. While the Christianity is very present in these books, I don’t think you’ll find anything very Christian about them. R. Scott Bakker traffics in the language of sin and damnation and lays on the Christian imagery and philosophy I think much thicker than Tolkien ever did. And in many, many ways his world mirrors Middle-Earth. But it’s a dark sort of reflection.
For me, personally, I suppose I should qualify my comments at the top. On a sort of fundamental level, I really do believe in these myths and folktales, in faerie-folk and magic and the gods of Now and Then. The story itself strikes me as the really important thing, and the telling of these stories. And to really tell them well, I think a part of us has to believe them.