How should a Christian think of fantasy fiction? Opinions seem to range from extreme caution to enthusiastic promotion. Of course, when this range of opinions is regarded as a mere matter of taste, very little need be said about it. But sometimes deeper issues either are, or are said to be, at stake.
Sometimes, Christians who enjoy fantasy fiction can regard it as more than mere relaxation. Parts of it are promoted, in addition, to the category of edification. This is especially the case, of course, with authors either Christian or perceived to be Christian, most notably C. S. Lewis (The chronicles of Narnia) and J. R. R. Tolkien (The Hobbit; The Lord of the Rings).
But it doesn’t always stop there. At least one book has been published which purports to draw specifically Christian lessons from the Harry Potter books of J. K. Rowling (Connie Neal, The gospel according to Harry Potter; John Knox Press). At this point, I believe Christians are right to become uneasy. Some distinctions need to be made.
In this article I will assume that reading fantasy fiction is in itself a perfectly legitimate leisure activity. I’m not sure that many Christians would deny this, and to discuss it properly we would need to formulate a general theology of work and leisure, something that would go far beyond the scope of this article.
I don’t mean to deny that reading certain fantasy works may be bad for some Christians at some times. All I mean to assume is that the genre of fantasy is not inherently off-limits for the Christian. So instead of discussing that, we will be asking two questions: Were certain works written with the purpose of edification? And what counts as a specifically Christian content?
We will consider these questions mainly with reference to the usual suspects — C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. But we will begin, by way of comparison, with a much earlier writer, who faced similar concerns.
When John Bunyan wrote The pilgrim’s progress (1678), some of his friends advised him not to publish it. They seriously doubted whether it was appropriate to dress up spiritual truths in such fictional form:
‘Some said, John, print it; others said, Not so: Some said, It might do good; others said, No.’
These lines are found in a 236-line poem at the beginning of The pilgrim’s progress called ‘The author’s apology for his book’ (‘apology’ in its old sense of a defence, as in ‘apologetics’).
Bunyan goes on to elaborate the objections of his friends and offer answers to them. He acknowledges that his method of teaching by allegory isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (‘some love the meat, some love to pick the bone’). A question of taste is involved.
But he also argues that, for some people (those with the taste for it), the method may be as fruitful as any other. Using the analogies of the ‘fisherman’ and ‘fowler’, he argues that, just as many different methods are needed to catch different kinds of fish and birds, so different methods of teaching suit different people.
Soon afterwards he embarks on a lengthy defence, based on the practice of Scripture itself, giving as examples Old Testament ‘types, shadows and metaphors’ and the parables of Christ. A supportive quotation from Scripture also appeared on the title page: ‘I have used similitudes’ (Hosea 12:10).
Let’s now introduce our first question. Were certain works written with the purpose of edification?
In the case of Bunyan, the answer is clearly yes. It was precisely edification which his critics doubted The pilgrim’s progress could provide. His whole argument from the methods of Scripture would lose its point without this. The methods of Scripture he appeals to are methods of instruction.
In the case of Lewis, the answer is partly yes. He specifically denies that he began with that intention: ‘Some people think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument; then collected information about child psychology and decided what age-group I’d write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out “allegories” to embody them.
‘This is all pure moonshine. I couldn’t write in that way at all. Everything began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord’ (‘Sometimes fairy stories may say best what’s to be said’, Essay collection, ed. Lesley Walmsley; HarperCollins; p.527).
But Lewis goes on to say, in the same piece: ‘I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings.
‘And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could’ (Ibid. pp. 527-8).
So, if Bunyan is entitled to the defence that different methods of teaching suit different people, Lewis is entitled to it too. Lewis was using one particular method, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but there is no reason why it should not help some people.
And Lewis, although he was writing for children, would have been against the idea that those helped would necessarily be children. Of ‘fairy tales’ in general he says, ‘Many children don’t like them and many adults do’ (Ibid. p. 528). If we replace ‘fairy tales’ with the newer term ‘fantasy’, we will see the accuracy of this remark.
However, it is worth noticing (it seldom is noticed) who Lewis envisaged being helped by the Narnia books. This is implied in the second of the two longer quotations above. He was writing for children who struggled to feel as they had been told they should ‘about God or about the sufferings of Christ’ — children for whom Christianity had ‘stained-glass and Sunday school associations’.
While this is not necessarily children from Christian homes, it is at any rate children with some grounding in the Christian faith. It is doubtful whether Lewis envisaged the Narnia stories being used to introduce Christianity to people; they would be meaningful to those who were already familiar with it. The current trend to use them in evangelism was not in his mind.
When we turn to Tolkien, I believe we can state the case far more simply. I am not aware of any evidence that he wrote The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings or his other stories about Middle-earth with the aim of giving Christian instruction or edification.
Yet he did believe that fairy tales, by providing a happy ending which is both believable and yet in some way against the odds, introduced by a ‘sudden joyous “turn”’, could give ‘a far-off gleam or echo’ of the gospel story (see his essay ‘On Fairy stories’, available in various places, including as an appendix to Tales from the perilous realm; HarperCollins, 2008; pp. 384, 387).
But that is very different from a claim, or an intention, to teach, illustrate, or evoke specific Christian truths. And of course the same is true of non-Christian writers like Terry Pratchett, J. K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins (the Hunger games trilogy) and others.
To be concluded
The author ministers at Keswick Congregational Church, Cumbria.