How should a Christian think of fantasy fiction? Opinions seem to range from extreme caution to enthusiastic promotion. Let us consider now our second question (see also ET, July 2014): what counts as a specifically Christian content?
Bunyan’s specifically Christian content hangs on his choice of method — the use of allegory. This is a specific type of fiction which is seldom written today, and neither the Narnia books nor Tolkien’s works are allegories.
Allegory has two typical characteristics (a good introduction to allegory is found in chapter 2 of
C. S. Lewis’s The allegory of love: a study in medieval tradition; OUP). First, there is a direct and deliberate correspondence between things or people in the real world and people or things within the allegory, 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 identifies exactly with an individual, real person, or place with place, and so on. What usually happens is that something quite abstract in the real world is given a concrete embodiment in the allegory.
The City of Destruction in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s progress, where Christian (having a different name then) was born 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.
Second, 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 J. R. R. 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 [a German word meaning folk-tales or fairy-stories, usually involving wonders], 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’ (Collected letters, volume III; HarperCollins, p.1460. For other statements of the distinction between the Narnia books and allegory, see pp. 480, 1004).
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 (Narnian) redemption.
Tolkien too had to deny the apparently widespread belief that he had written an allegory (although, in his case, this often involved at the time 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’ (Foreword to second edition of The Lord of the Rings).
‘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 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 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 intuitive knowledge of these requirements (Romans 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 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 C. S. Lewis. But it really is a hard act to follow.
The author ministers at Keswick Congregational Church, Cumbria.