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. 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, like certain other 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.
Instead of discussing that, we will be asking two questions:
- Were certain works written with the purpose of edification?
- What counts as specifically Christian content?
We will consider these questions mainly with reference to the usual suspects – Lewis and 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’ is being used in its old sense of a defence, the sense found in ‘apologetics’.) Bunyan goes on to elaborate the objections of his friends and to 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 mere 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 Fisher-man’ and ‘the 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 the 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.
1) 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; and so is Bunyan’s.
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.
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.
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’. 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 very 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. (This may well mean that critical statements about Lewis’s ‘theory of the atonement’ in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe are out of place. It was only intended to give a moving impression of the sufferings of Christ to children who received their doctrinal teaching elsewhere.)
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. 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. 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.
This brings us to our second question.
2) What counts as specifically Christian content?
Bunyan’s specifically Christian content hangs on his choice of method – allegory. This is a very specific type of fiction which is seldom practised today; and neither the Narnia books nor Tolkien’s works are allegories. Allegory has two typical characteristics:
a) There is a direct and deliberate correspondence between people or things in an allegory and real things or people, in such a way that only one interpretation is correct. This does not necessarily mean – in fact, it seldom means – that a person in an allegory corresponds to a real person, a place to a real place, and so on. What usually happens is that something quite abstract in the real world is given a concrete embodiment in an allegory. The City of Destruction in Bunyan, where Christian was born (having a different name then), and from which he fled, represents the state of being unconverted and therefore subject to the looming wrath of God. The fact that Christian had to leave his family behind, in the City of Destruction, means simply that they were not converted at that time – it isn’t that Bunyan is recommending literally walking out on one’s unconverted family. Remembering the allegorical nature of the story will save us from such misunderstandings. In an allegory there is the surface meaning of the events and people – the part they play in the story – and in addition there is one, but only one, real-world meaning.
b) The concrete embodiment given to abstract ideas in an allegory typically conveys something of the flavour of the abstractions. Thus Giant Despair in Bunyan is a giant, with a castle and a dark dungeon, because being in that dungeon, with a captor many times stronger than ourselves, is just what despair feels like. The vivid imagery is a kind of shorthand by which a whole experience is summed up.
The fact that both the Narnia books and Tolkien’s stories are sometimes wrongly referred to as allegories is a symptom of the rarity of true allegory. Both Lewis and Tolkien had to issue express denials on this point. Lewis distinguishes between Narnia and allegory in these words:
The Narnian series is not exactly allegory. I’m not saying ‘Let us represent in terms of märchen the actual story of this world.’ Rather ‘Supposing the Narnian world, let us guess what form the activities of the Second Person or Creator, Redeemer, and Judge might take there.’ This, you see, overlaps with allegory but is not quite the same.
The figure of Aslan is, of course, the easiest to take allegorically because he is clearly, in one sense, Christ. But Lewis’s distinction should be heeded. Although he is telling stories which include – daringly – the character of Christ, he is not simply recasting in a different form the true stories of what Christ has actually done in our world. Instead, he is imagining stories of what the same Christ might have done in a different world, a world equally made by him, if that world were equally in need of a redemption. (This is another reason why critical remarks about Lewis’s ‘theory of the atonement’ in the Narnia books may not be very useful. He wasn’t writing an allegory of the redemption of our world in any case. He was writing about a specifically Narnian redemption, though one sufficiently similar to ours as to make Aslan recognisable.)
Tolkien, too, had to deny the apparently widespread belief that he had written an allegory (although in his case, at the time, this often involved the belief that the Ring was an allegory of the atomic bomb). In words which seem rather extreme, but which nevertheless make a useful distinction, he writes:
I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
‘Purposed domination’ sounds unnecessarily sinister (almost as if allegory-readers were not free to stop reading!). But the distinction between allegory and applicability is relevant to our subject. Bunyan could truly claim to be teaching specific Christian truths because he was writing an allegory, and an allegory has only one correct interpretation. The truths it means to teach can be worked out with little room left for debate. But stories with ‘varied applicability’ (to use Tolkien’s phrase) can be applied by the reader in any number of ways, or indeed not at all.
This is not the same as saying that they can mean whatever one wants them to mean. All authors have moral beliefs of some kind, and these will be reflected in their stories, regardless of what genre they belong to. For instance, no one could use The Lord of the Rings to support an unbridled lust for power. Varied applicability is still limited applicability, even if less limited than that of an allegory. It is varied in the number of different situations readers can apply the story to, but limited by the author’s moral principles, which remain unchanged in every application.
Moral principles can of course be true or false – and, of course, it is better for a story to have true ones. But even if the moral principles revealed in a given story are all true, it would be very difficult to argue that that makes it a specifically Christian story. Few if any moral ideas are unique to Christianity. While it is true that the Bible reveals to us the requirements of God’s holiness with unique clarity (Psalm 19:7-8), it is also true that all people have some knowledge of them (Rom. 2:14-15). That is why sound moral principles can be found – usually, if not always, alongside some less sound ones – even in stories by non-Christians, fantasy stories being no exception. There is nothing wrong with identifying such principles and being thankful for them, but they don’t make the stories Christian. By the same token, it is entirely possible for a Christian to write a story which employs sound moral principles but has nothing specifically Christian about it.
What is wholly unique to Christianity is the historical fact of the gospel of Jesus Christ. By means of allegory, Bunyan found a way of incorporating it into his story and so making a specifically Christian story. So too, by a different method – a method which admitted less precision but more warmth of devotion – did Lewis. But it really is a hard act to follow.
 Connie Neal, The Gospel According to Harry Potter (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2002).
 “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said” in Essay Collection (ed. Lesley Walmsley; HarperCollins, 2000), p.527.
 Ibid. pp.527-8.
 Ibid. p.528.
 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.
 A good introduction to allegory is ch. 2 of Lewis’s The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (OUP, 1936).
 A German word meaning folk-tales or fairy-stories, usually involving wonders.
 Collected Letters Volume III (HarperCollins, 2006), p.1460. For other statements of the distinction between the Narnia books and allegory, see pp. 480, 1004.
 For Lewis’s idea that redemption would differ, in some respects, in different worlds see Perelandra ch. 11.
 Foreword to 2nd edition of The Lord of the Rings.
 One might think here of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. It is of course true that witchcraft is an offence against sound moral principles, but not, I would argue, witchcraft as she portrays it: as the honing of a magical power some people are simply born with. No spirit-world dimension is envisaged at all. Of course witchcraft as she portrays it does not exist, but she herself virtually assumes that by using it as the stuff of fantasy novels. If it did exist it would not be inherently wrong. Of course it could be put to some very wrong uses – and that is largely what the stories are about.