Is Fantasy Justified By Good Themes?

[This is one part of a multi-part series. Please start at the beginning:

                Many Christian fans of fantasy are well aware of the many dangers of the genre. However, they feel that as long as they enter into the experience of fantasy with their eyes wide open, the imaginative journey is worth the risks for the benefits fantasy provides. Besides pure entertainment value, people often point to the value of good themes.

                Because fantasy takes place in an alternate reality, the reader is consciously or subconsciously drawn into comparing and contrasting the secondary world with our primary world. On the surface the differences between the secondary and primary worlds immediately stand out. However, in the long run it is the similarities that have the greatest impact.

                The strongest similarities between the secondary and primary worlds are often found in the areas of characters and personalities, morality, choices, etc. These areas are the stuff of theme, so often the themes of fantasy can be drawn to the forefront far more powerfully than in other genres.

                This principle is very evident in science fiction, fantasy’s sister genre. In science fiction the author often constructs a version of the future (or a science-based fantasy world) which focuses in on the elements that make up the author’s intended themes. Just think Hunger Games or Divergent – both sci-fi worlds that are oversimplified in order to highlight certain themes.

                Fantasy and science fiction can play the role of a thought experiment – dealing with questions and issues that are hard to grapple with in our primary world. Or fantasy and science fiction can be used just to make a point more clearly.

                Initially, the thematic emphasis of fantasy sounds attractive, but does it work well in practice?

                First of all, I must remark that fantasy, like all fiction, is almost always less clear than direct, didactic prose. Like poetry, fantasy looks at reality slantwise. As a result, it can be hard to draw the proper conclusions from a fantasy novel – in fact, one could make a case that the concept of “proper conclusions” should not be applied to a fantasy novel.

                Not surprisingly, the hermeneutics of fantasy bears greater resemblance to eisegesis than to exegesis. I find it amusing how Christians approach fantasy with the kind of reader-response, pick-and-choose hermeneutic that so horrifies them when applied to the Bible. Christians have a tendency to overlook the parts of the story that they disagree with and focus in on the parts with which they are in agreement. Or they will re-interpret a book because they think they see something symbolic of a biblical truth.

                It is inevitable that fantasy, like all fiction, is full of error – by which I mean ideas in opposition to biblical truth. Much of the error in fantasy is merely the side-effect of fictionalization. It is impossible to represent truth perfectly in fiction. Some error is the fault of reader misunderstanding. And some error is intentional by the author – the author is propagating false ideas.

                To find examples of error in fantasy, the easiest place to look is Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. One famous supposed error is a ransom theory of the atonement. Aslan appears to pay a ransom to the White Witch in order to save Edmund. Lewis has Aslan say to the White Witch that the debt is not owed to the White Witch herself. It is a debt owed to the old magic. Unfortunately, it is hard for that one statement to overcome the impression given by the scene at the Stone Table.

                Another error is in Lewis’ character the White Witch. He identifies her as Lilith – the first wife of Adam. Lilith is a character from fringe, cultic Jewish mythology. I do not think that Lewis actually believes in the myth of Lilith. He must be using Lilith as some kind of symbol to convey some kind of idea. However, when reading the book, one is hard-pressed to find any evidence that Lewis does not take the myth of Lilith seriously.

                What is perhaps the most famous error in the Chronicles of Narnia is what happens to the figure of the antichrist in the Last Battle (a donkey who wears a lion skin). The antichrist goes to heaven! Most Christian readers have a tendency to gloss over this appalling outcome and completely ignore that this was an intentional statement by Lewis. It is my understanding that Lewis believed all sincere, well-meaning pagans will go to heaven.

                Granted, most works of fantasy do not attempt such strict one-to-one correspondence with doctrinal truth. With most works of fantasy we are dealing with more general themes, but even here I think many Christian readers are led astray. Let us look at some examples of popular “good” themes that Christians like to find in literature, movies, etc.

                First, Christians like to talk about “redemptive” themes. This is a broad category that covers a lot of different concepts. There is no way I could cover everything that falls under the rubric of “redemptive,” especially since little of the content is linked to a biblical definition of “redemption” (purchase of freedom from slavery).

                I would like to simply point out that I have never found a single example of redemption in a fantasy novel or movie. In fact, except for blatantly Christian stories like Fireproof, I have never encountered redemption in any work of fiction.

                Let me give a single example to illustrate my point. The TV show Once Upon a Time uses the word “redemption” with surprising frequency. In the world of Once, any significant act of evil creates a visible black mark on the magical heart of an individual (which magic-wielders are able to extract and examine). Several of the characters intentionally seek redemption (their word). However, by “redemption,” they mean they are going to do enough significant good works to cleanse the black marks from their hearts. They are saving themselves by a type of expiation. I hope I do not have to explain all of the ways in which this image of “redemption” is horribly wrong.

                There are other stories which offer a version of redemption that is closer to the truth, but in our idea of biblical redemption, approximation is not sufficient. Pick your story of “redemption” – Shawshank Redemption, Les Miserables, anything – you will find serious flaws in the image of redemption. The areas of difference are significant, and if they were suggested by a theologian, he would be declared heretical. For some reason when indulging in fantasy, we put on our reader-response hermeneutical glasses and gloss over the things we disagree with. “Kind of the gospel” is not the gospel. It is false teaching, even if it is fiction.

                A second thematic element that Christians love to look for is a messiah figure. In Tolkien there are two main ones: Gandalf and Aragorn. In the Matrix there is Neo. Of course there are many others. Again, as with the redemptive themes, a “sort of messiah” is not the messiah. It probably borders on the blasphemous to liken Jesus to Neo. Neo is an amoral hacker who doesn’t mind sticking it to the man. He engages in premarital intercourse. He is almost evenly balanced with his nemesis. And he eventually dies without succeeding in bringing about full salvation. Both Gandalf and Aragorn have their own failings. I am not sure what is to be gained by identifying such characters as messiah figures. It seems to only do insult to Jesus.

                A third big theme Christians harp on is a clear struggle between good and evil or light and dark. OK, think many Christians, this story may have a lot of not-so-great stuff in it, but at least it depicts a struggle between good and evil. But so do a lot of false religions and cults. A cosmic struggle between good and evil is a common theme in a lot of pagan religions. A work of fiction or fantasy cannot be justified by an appeal to a struggle between good and evil.

                Besides, it is questionable how best to represent such a struggle in fiction. If the author oversimplifies the depiction, it can lead to an oversimplified black-and-white view of the world. If the author tries to be more nuanced in his depiction, then it can blur the lines between good and evil, leading the reader to wonder if perhaps there is no black or white, but only gray. Furthermore, the struggle between good and evil is generally depicted in military terms, as an actual physical battle between the military forces of good and the military forces of evil. In our phase of salvation-history, it questionable whether such a military depiction is advisable.

                Finally, a lot of Christians will just settle for a book that promotes good moral values. Right is shown to be right, and wrong is shown to be wrong. But is it really helpful to depict good morality apart from a relationship with the biblical God? Is it helpful to use fiction to promote legalism? And how often have you really found yourself in 100% agreement with the morality of any work of fiction?

                I have some thoughts on the proper use of stories for the communication of truth, but first I want to briefly discuss some outright sinfulness inherent in the fantasy genre.

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18 Responses to Is Fantasy Justified By Good Themes?

  1. Bob says:

    The problem of this series, and most if your writing, is not that you overthink things but your slanted, limited, and incomplete perspective on life and media in general. When you claim yourself and your experience alone as the foundation for your opinions, serious writers will laugh at your positions and suppositions. You will also find yourself constantly defending yourself, as you are unable to incorporate the opinions of others into your arguments. Also, You have failed to quote any other thinkers in this series, reinforcing your slanted perspective. Like poetry, for the past 20+ years you have looked at reality slantwise, and your writing screams it.

    • I, of course, agree with your criticism of my writing 100%. I have a tendency to overthink things. I am a finite human being who finds it difficult to see beyond my own limitations. I do not qualify as a “serious writer,” and I failed to quote any other authors in my arguments. These are blog posts, not scholarly writing. I felt they were long and detailed enough. I did not want to burden the casual reader with lots of quotations. Three of the posts are in direct response to statements and ideas of Tolkien. His concepts of Secondary Worlds and Secondary Creation can be found in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” which has been published in the book The Tolkien Reader. I have seen these ideas popping up with increasing frequency in other writing. Just to give a random example, I believe James Sire discusses the idea of Secondary Worlds in his book Apologetics Beyond Reason. The other posts are in response to opinions and discussions in Christian pop culture and so are lacking in scholarly quotations. I was intentional about giving my background up front so that readers could have fitting expectations of the blog series. I have read some of the writing of “serious writers” on fantasy writing, and I have to confess that I found their opinions at least as biased as my own. A fantasy writer, for instance, has a lot riding on their understanding of fantasy. A fantasy writer has every reason to excuse what they do for a living — which to a certain extent, is also what they do for enjoyment. And yet, for some reason, we accept the opinions of fantasy writers (or literature professors, etc.) as the expert opinions when they are the very ones who have the most at stake personally. I have a different perspective on fantasy. I was foolishly hoping that people would judge my ideas based on their own merits rather than my credentials or the support of other “experts.” I put out my ideas in blog form in order to open them up for critique. You have offered your opinion of me, but I would appreciate it if you would critique my ideas. Do you have any response to things I have said?

  2. billhoard says:

    OK, I have a lot to say on this one (it will take more than one comment) so let me start, not with the theological but with the literary (though my literary objections are more critique of your examples than of your overall point).

    First you have made a genre mistake in seeing/interpreting the Chronicles of Narnia as allegory. It’s understandable I suppose, I have caught several serious authors and critics making the same mistake, but it is a mistake nonetheless. Lewis himself (who was actually quite a fan of allegory as opposed to Tolkien who disliked that genre) worked really hard to make it clear that the Chronicles are not allegory. The Chronicles are what Lewis called “supposal”. The conceit of the Chronicles is the question “Supposing God made other worlds, how might He operate in them and what might they be like?” Thus Aslan isn’t an image of Christ, so far as Lewis was Concerned (within the framework of his narrative) Aslan is Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity. This is absolutely clear from the ends of both Dawn Treader and The Last Battle. I believe the line is “In your world I have another name, you must come to know me by that name”. The fact that the Chronicles aren’t allegory also means that the other characters are not images or stand-ins for anyone. People try to make equivalencies between (for instance) Caspian and King David, but they don’t stand up. Thus your critique of Puzzle is unfounded. Puzzle isn’t the antichrist, Puzzle is Puzzle, in Narnia, he plays a role similar but distinct from the role some theological schools assign to the antichrist. Certainly a theological evaluation of Narnia is possible and may well be beneficial, but it will never bear decent fruit until you analyze the books in their correct genre.

    As something of a side note, I actually agree that our hermeneutic ought to be consistent overall. I think that broad hermeneutic principles (including an appropriate awareness of authorship, genre, culture, etc…) is vital to both literary and biblical interpretation. At the same time, if someone gets something out of a book that was clearly never intended or allowed by the author, I am generally in favor or celebrating their discovery of an “unplanted” truth, though I will go at it hammer and tongs with them if they try to insist that their “discovery” was intended by the author. That said, author’s intent can only be taken so far in genres like fiction and poetry (it goes a good deal farther in history, biography, and philosophy), since many fiction authors and particularly poets will themselves argue that much of what is in their work is a result either of their subconscious, or of their obedience to their own worldviews and the “laws” they had created for their world and characters (think of all the times authors have complained that their characters will not do what they want the characters to do – the complaint belies the author’s commitment to psychological constants).

    In terms of your complaints about redemption themes and messiah figures (the messiah figure is an archetype not a theme by the way), you seem to be completely missing the point of writing fiction. An author writes on the basis of how the author perceives the world. To complain that Aragorn is imperfect as a figure of Christ is astounding since Tolkien would agree wholeheartedly (in fact Tolkien really got irritated when people tried to read things like that into LOTR, and would generally respond that similarities between his work and the Great Myth were due to the fact that he was a faithful Roman Catholic and that all stories are in some way, echoes of the Great Myth). Aragorn was never meant to be Christ. Aragorn comes from obscurity to take his place as the right and noble King, in a way that somewhat echoes Jesus because that is a moving thing for Aragorn to do. So you are right when you said that literature tells the truth slant. It never claimed to do anything else, or at least good literature doesn’t. The question I think you need to be addressing is whether it is a valuable thing to “tell the truth but tell it slant”. I certainly maintain that it is, since even looking at the truth head on (in Scripture) we are required to interpret it, and when we encounter the truth slant, we are able to recognize certain parts of it which we might well have missed when looking at it head on.

    I wonder, do you have any time for poetry?

    • I am well aware of the fact that the Chronicles of Narnia are not pure allegory. In my examples from the series, I was stepping into the perspective of the typical Christian reader who cares little for such fine genre distinctions. The fact is that Lewis draws intentional parallels between imagery, characters, events, etc. in his books and things in the Bible. These parallels are not exact. However, it is the ways in which the parallels are closest to the teachings of the Bible that Christians find most helpful and valuable in the books. That Puzzle is an intentional parallel to the antichrist of Scripture is patently obvious. Of course, the parallel is not exact. If you look at my objection to Puzzle, I was not so much concerned about what Lewis said about the antichrist. I was concerned with what Lewis said about the sincere pagan. His mixture of his (inexact) parallel antichrist with a sincere pagan is jarring to most Christians, to say the least. Their method of handling it is just to overlook it. It is this “overlooking” that I am taking issue with. All three of the Lewis examples I offer still stand.

      And actually, you have generally helped to make my case. The common genre confusions with Lewis’ books show the difficulty of understanding literature and “extracting” (obviously the wrong word) any valuable truth therefrom. You are obviously a more astute reader of literature than the average. Saying that everyone else should get with the program is unhelpful.

      Also, saying that Aslan is Christ may actually be worse than saying he is an inexact parallel. If that is the case, then every statement Lewis says about Aslan should be almost directly applied to Jesus himself — something that even Lewis himself would probably find hard to swallow.

      I absolutely know that Aragorn is not intended to be a perfect figure of Christ. Even if I was not already aware of Tolkien statements to that effect, it would be obvious from reading the book itself. I understand that Tolkien was writing in “echoes” rather than in allegorical parallels. Again, I am reacting to a common way of reading literature among Christians. You are reacting to it on the grounds that it is a poor understanding of literature (and I agree with you), and I am reacting to it on the grounds that messiah figures in literature are of limited benefit since they are such faint “echoes” and listening to such echoes can lead one astray.

      In a sense I agree with the idea that poetry tells the truth slant, but actually I think that does injustice to poetry. I don’t think good poetry approaches truth slantwise. I think it approaches truth head on but uses poetic means to do so. What makes good poetry so potent is not its ability to be slant, but it’s ability to bring us face to face with truth in a deeper and fuller way. In other words, good poetry does not cause us to see the world differently by squinting, but rather it causes us to open our eyes more widely and see the world more fully. The poet uses ALL of the tools in the language toolbox to give us a fuller experience.

      Fantasy, on the other hand, does have the tendency to approach things very slantwise. We take a trip to the moon in order to see the earth better, so to speak. I agree that it works. I agree that such an approach may have value. But such an approach is tricky to carry out well without producing the problems I describe in this post, among others. In fact, I have a tendency to think that all that I might learn from a trip into fantasy could be better learned elsewhere by other more fitting means.

      Poetry might describe a beautiful woman by comparing her with a flower. Any description of the flower in the poem is meant to be flattering to the woman. Any description of the flower in such a poem is included in the poem solely for the purpose of describing the woman. In fantasy, on the other hand, the author may go to great lengths to describe a flower. He is not describing a woman. He is describing a flower. He might use phrases and language that a man might use of a woman, but the author is still speaking only of a flower. If the reader reads the description of the flower and thinks of his wife, he is definitely arriving at thoughts of his wife by slant means. If he quotes that passage to his wife romantically, would she be insulted or flattered? Of course that would depend on the woman and on the passage, but my point is simply that the man would be on safer ground quoting her the poem.

  3. billhoard says:

    OK, we still have quite a few differences of opinion, theological and literary, but I think there may also be more agreement than I first thought. I’m not entirely sure I have a handle on your audience in this series. You seem to be writing for someone who was once fundamentalist in their relationship to fantasy lit, but has since embraced fantasy, not on the basis of rigorous theological and literary study but out of a sort of lazy acceptance that someone else has “worked all of that out” and a few ill-formed justifications mostly still in a conservative evangelical or semi-fundamentalist idiom. Is that correct?
    Regarding the conversation over telling the truth slant, we may not be on the same terminological page. By “telling it slant” I meant, and assumed you meant, talking about truth (or Truth) in a way that is unusual and, while maybe not factually precise, holistically revealing. Now I am not sure that you mean it that way
    More basically though I am fairly convinced at this point that we have significantly different ways of evaluating story. Your primary category (though this may be more a function of your intended audience than of your own values – not sure yet) seems to be the communication of Truth, and particularly of spiritual Truth. I am of the opinion that an overbalance in that direction leads to propaganda (e.g. the great mass of mediocre evangelical film and movie making). I think that the communication of truth (or Truth) in art ought to be a byproduct of the more holistic celebration of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, that it to say when you create art with the communication of truth as your end, you make bad art and usually fail to effectively communicate much (if any) truth. But when you make art as a celebration, or as a vocation, you will often communicate Truth (and truth) as a byproduct of who you are and how you see the world. Thus while God may well use pagan (or Tokienien) mythology as a sort of pre-evangelism, softening the heart in certain areas and creating a appreciation for the Gospel, I wouldn’t substitute a pagan myth for a clear proclamation of the Lordship of Jesus.
    I really wonder how many of your comments and thoughts in this series are reactions against people trying to use or justify a good thing (Fantasy Literature), in a bad way, or for bad reasons. I would say that I have been shown much about God by reading Fantasy, and other genres of literature, but not because I came to those books looking to learn more about God. I came to them for their art, what theology I found has been a grace.

    • You generally have described my intended audience accurately. I would not say I am writing to people who were once fundamentalists. I would say I am writing to Christians who have been swept up in the recent popularity of the fantasy genre and are using statements of others to justify it without thinking it through for themselves. I thought that was somewhat clear from my first post. I probably am also including the Christians who have long been totally sucked into the fantasy genre and are using statements of Christians to justify it.

      I understand what is meant by telling the truth “slant.” I just don’t like that particular description because I think it sounds unfair to poetry. I feel like it communicates the idea poorly. After all, most people’s brains do not have to work too hard to understand a simple metaphor or simile. That is not “slant” for most people. That is a normal method of communication. Most of the tools of poetry are part of common usage. The poet just uses them more frequently and more effectively (as well as adds a few more).

      I did redefine “slant” in my application to fantasy, and that is because I believe fantasy is doing something a lot different. At its worst, it is not trying to tell truth at all. At its best it appears to tell truth accidentally, even when the telling is intentional (i.e., the people and themes of this world/story sometimes bear a resemblance to the people/themes of the real world, but are never required to). And when fantasy tries to tell truth more directly, it is maligned as “allegory.”

      It is this more extreme “slantness” of fantasy that Christians have problems understanding, so they try to force a more direct link, similar to what they might find in a poem. I think we are generally in agreement that this style of reading fantasy is problematic (although more justified in, say, the Chronicles of Narnia).

      I do not believe that the sole purpose of stories must necessarily be to communicate propositional or doctrinal truth, and yes, I am considering those issues mostly for the sake of my target audience. However, here I think YOU are equivocating. You want to have some level of equivalence between Beauty, Goodness, and Truth. You want there to be a category of poetic truth. You want even a good story for a good story’s sake to be an act of Beauty. You would probably evaluate stories by such ideals as Beauty, Goodness, Truth, poetic truth, etc. I think if you found no Beauty, Goodness, Truth, etc. in a story, you would consider it to be a poor story indeed. And yet, you want to claim that the purpose of story is not to communicate truth? I think you want to eat your cake and have it.

      I actually agree with you about current evangelical movies, books, art, etc. I find it all to be poorly done. However, I have had to do some major heart examination on this issue. Take Fireproof. The gospel conversation by the wooden cross seems so stilted and corny to me. Then again, I have had similar conversations in real life. It is not stilted and corny in real life. It is just awkward to watch in a movie. Why is that? There are many reasons for it, but some of the reasons are in my own heart and mind as the viewer. I have decided that such a conversation cannot be art because it is too straight. It is not “slant” enough. Yet, I rejoice in a movie or book that is able to capture normal conversation with a good semblance of reality. I have decided that such a conversation cannot be art because it is a conversation I might have. Yet, I rejoice in a movie or book that depicts well conversations that I might have. I have decided it cannot be art because it speaks truth too directly. Yet, I value some movies and books that speak other kinds of truth on other issues very directly. In other words, those reactions (although largely well-founded for other reasons) are partly based on a problematic sacred/profane distinction in my understanding of art and are based on my desire for art to be less like reality. It is partly due to my own failure as a person to find the truth of Scripture sufficiently wonder-ful, so I am not caught up in the wonder when it is told on the screen.

      Anyway, for the most part I liked what you had to say at the end of your last paragraph. However, I think your last statement is an equivocation. If the “art” you are seeking in a book is not in some poetic way “theology,” then you have been misrepresenting yourself greatly.

  4. billhoard says:

    Hmmm. If I understand your charge of equivocation properly, then I think I agree. I should have used “propositional truth” in place of “truth” when I talked about what I am looking for in story. I may come to a story with a sort of background hope that I well encounter even new (to me) propositional truths but (think of Lewis’ “law of first and second things”) that isn’t my primary motive in coming to a story, I am more inclined to read science, philosophy or theology (and, yes, the Bible) for that. I come to a story for a more holistic experience. And nearly everything is, in some poetic way, “theology” so I’m not sure what you mean by that last sentence.

    • Let me put it this way:

      Good art –> Beauty = Truth = “theology” (in quotes because I am not necessarily meaning propositional theology or theology proper)

      If you are looking for good art, you are looking for Truth in art.

  5. billhoard says:

    Also I think it is a mistake to malign allegory. Unfortunately I do not have much of a taste for the genre (which i see as a failing in myself) with the exception of Pilgrim’s Progress, which I love. I do think it is a shame when people make category mistakes about genre.

    • Agreed! I have tried to write allegory in the style of Pilgrim’s Progress, and it is nearly impossible. I think that is why Christian writers will sometimes revert to some kind of semi-allegorical fantasy, because sustained allegory is too difficult. Bunyan may have been the only author to pull it off well. If he is not the only one, he is in very small company. I remember some bad children’s Christian fantasy when I was a kid, and I feel like it was all wishing it could have been allegory.

      • billhoard says:

        For as much of a Lewis fan as I am, my least favorite book of his is the Pilgrim’s Regress. I think you are correct about the difficulty of sustained allegory, even Lewis made a hash of it.

      • Pilgrim’s Regress was OK. Typical Lewis. Flashes of brilliance. To be honest, I find Lewis to be a poor writer of fiction. I think his works would not have continued if they were not somewhat unique at the time and if they did not contain so many obvious spiritual statements. If you extract the theology from many of his books, the story is not enough to sustain them. That is my opinion. It’s probably a preference issue.

      • billhoard says:

        I also agree about the problem of Christian writers trying to craft semi-allegory. (Which is ironic because I know I will be accused of precisely that failing with my own recently published fairy tale – for what it’s worth I was shooting for the hero’s journey told as a fairy-tale and from the princess’ perspective), They generally end up making a hash of things. I prefer honest supernatural fiction (which is how I would categorize the Chronicles btw) or full bore fantasy (LOTR).

      • Sigh…one day, maybe I will have time to read your work… It’s cool that you wrote something! I have like 10 serious book ideas, but no time or patience.

  6. billhoard says:

    No worries, I wasn’t trying to plug my book (I would have included a link) 🙂 just agreeing with you and then sort of reflecting in real-time on the frustrating state of popular unawareness of genre niceties.

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