Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Literary Genre of Fantasy and Its Use in Imparting Christian Truth

Fantasy has fascinated me ever since my father gave me the Wizard of Oz as a youngster, sick in bed with the flu. I had no idea at the time of what fantasy was. Though my reading is not restricted to fantasy alone, I have always gravitated to it.

Christian fantasy has particularly interested me. Such fantasy has been written for all ages. C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy ('Out of the Silent Planet', 'Perelandra', and 'That Hideous Strength') is obviously for the older reader. Yet, his ever-popular The Chronicles of Narnia, though written for young children, has a quality to it that satisfies the child-like imagination of the adult. No wonder. Lewis writes in his short essay On Three Ways of Writing for Children, "I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children's story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's story. The good ones last." In the context, he means that the child will enjoy it not only when a youngster but ever afterwards, on into adulthood and the latter years. I agree with that. Such children's stories approach classic status over time.

Now a corollary of Lewis's canon is this: It should not matter when one reads the children's story for the first time; whether as a child or adult, he will like it. And because he likes it, the message in it has a better chance of getting through. The important point here is that fantasy is right up that alley of children's stories and as a consequence, a good fantasy will resonate with a readership of all ages. Christian fantasy, even when written for the child, becomes a very suitable vehicle for imparting Christian truth to young and old alike.

But let us step back a moment and ask the question, what is fantasy? Our subject is a certain flavor of fantasy, that is, Christian fantasy. But regardless of the flavor, one would expect the basic definition of fantasy to be the same. The understanding of what fantasy is will affect the author's story and the reader's expectations. We ask then, what is fantasy?

One might say fantasy is a story about a make believe world where magical things happen; a place where animals talk and behave much like humans, as beavers and lions (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) or moles, water rats, badgers, and toads (The Wind in the Willows). You may encounter wizards and witches who cast spells, both good and evil (Harry Potter, The Wizard of Oz, The Lord of the Rings). You will run into objects that are extraordinarily charmed, and have the power to disarm, such as an apple that puts one who eats of it to sleep forever (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs); or to transform, such as a ring that slowly possesses the mind and will of the one who bears it (poor Gollum); or to rejuvenate, such as a hidden spring that gives longevity to the one who drinks from it (Tuck Everlasting). It is a realm where dangerous or bizarre creatures exist, such as dragons (Dragons in our Midst, Eragon), orcs and ring wraiths (The Lord of the Rings), sorns (Out of the Silent Planet), plant men (The Gods of Mars), and thestrals (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix).

You can find all of this in fantasy, but it does not tell you what fantasy is; it just tells you what it is like. So, what is fantasy? Here is my definition:

Fantasy is a story whose setting is a world governed by natural and supernatural laws wherein ordinary and extraordinary, mundane and magical, worldly and otherworldly beings and objects interact with each other. By supernatural, I do not necessarily mean the supernatural as defined by the theologian, although as a Christian, I find it difficult to think of any other kind when I hear the word. Supernatural here refers to that which is not found in the ordinary workings of our existence; say a looking glass that one can step through, or a wardrobe that is a portal to a wintry, forlorn world. The key point, there is an interplay between the two so that the one is not a surprise to the other. The wardrobe's particular property to serve as an entrance to another world may come unexpectedly, but in the context of things, it fits in rather nicely, and one becomes quite accepting of it (including the reader as well as the fictitious character of the story).

So far, our definition identifies fantasy's world. But what happens in that world? That can be stated succinctly: it is a tale of conflict between good and evil. No surprise there. All stories have a conflict between good and evil however broadly or narrowly you define those two words. Good and evil may merely refer to what makes life easier or worse. For the Christian, however, it refers (at least it should) to the contrast between the holiness of God and the depravity of man. Fantasy, like all story-telling, cannot avoid a clash between good and evil, however mild or severe. For fantasy, I think it is more severe and central, and because of that, fantasy has an inherent quality that makes it a perfect vehicle for imparting Christian truth. After all, the great theme of the Bible is the cosmic battle between God and Satan and the final victory of God through his Son, Jesus Christ.

That is why it puzzles me to hear of "Christian fantasy" degraded as an oxymoron, that is, a contradiction of terms. Christian fantasy has been charged as a dangerous instrument of deceit. Here are some points argued by one who opposes Christian fantasy: (1) fantasy is anti-truth, (for example, animals don't talk, hence a lie); (2) fantasy subtly slips into reality thereby making it difficult, especially for young children, to tell the difference between truth and lie; (3) fantasy does not fit true godliness but moves the reader away from truth and therefore into a denial of God; (4) a love for God will oppose fantasy because the one who loves God loves only the truth. See the link Christian Fantasy is an Oxymoron.

If Christian fantasy had as its purpose to promote a lie, I would wholeheartedly agree. But Christian fantasy uses extraordinary, magical, and otherworldly elements to promote the truth. If you want to portray the evilness of evil, fantasy allows you to do that in its most horrific form (dragons, evil wizards and witches, ruthless and heartless orcs, evil emperors, and so on). Look into the bulbous eyes of Gollum, and you see the evil of greed personified. Contrariwise, fantasy allows you to portray good in its most sublime form. How can any child miss the love and sacrifice of Aslan who gives himself up to merciless mockery and brutal death for the despicable Edmund?

Now, taking this definition of fantasy, we can look at the last book of the Bible and regard it from that perspective. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that the Apocalypse (otherwise known as the Revelation of St. John) is make-believe like the story of The Three Little Pigs, or Sleeping Beauty; or that John, the writer, did not actually experience the visions he wrote about. What I am saying is that John's visions of the four horsemen, demonic creatures in the form of locusts (bearing the face of a man, the hair of women, and the sting of a scorpion); the classic Red Dragon, the Beast, and the False Prophet (who form a counterfeit Unholy Trinity) are the extraordinary, magical, otherworldly things of fantasy. The point is this: the locusts, dragon, beast, and false prophet in themselves are not real; but what they depict is real - demons and a counterfeit trinity. These are symbolic of a reality that is far more pernicious than the symbol itself.

That brings us to another pertinent aspect of fantasy. Symbolism, to one degree or another, is an inextricable element of fantasy, and as such, follows the very pattern found in the Apocalypse. But more broadly, the images of John's Revelation are non-existent creatures that depict truths about the great battle between God and Satan, good and evil, the people of God and the godless world that has been localized in time and space on planet Earth ever since the temptation of man and his banishment from God's presence in the garden. Christian fantasy has such a broad setting: a universe in which this great battle is taking place and manifested in part through the interaction of mortal human beings with observable magical or supernatural elements.

For these reasons, Christian fantasy may serve quite appropriately as a tool in the hands of a Christian author to identify, portray, and communicate the great truths of God's revelation to man. In my opinion, after Lewis there came a dearth of solid, well-written Christian fantasy that continues even today. I would like to see that change.