The Uses of Fantasy by Amy Nicholson

Fairy tales are lies though breathed through silver.

– C. S. Lewis 

There is no story which men would rather find true than that of Christ.

– J. R. R. Tolkien to C. S. Lewis

It is no secret that people love a compelling story. Even those of us who gravitate toward the nonfiction section of the bookstore may often find we are drawn not to reportage but volumes such as memoirs and creative nonfiction, those accounts that, although true, read like a good yarn. The reason? We are wired for story. They are how we make sense of the world. When we want to explain something to someone, it often helps to frame a new concept in the context of a story. When we ourselves want to learn a new concept, it helps us to have a point of reference, to tie the new idea to one we’ve already experienced.

Did you ever notice how your ears perk up when you’re talking to someone and they say, “That reminds me of the time when . . .” Or an elderly person begins, “Back in my day . . .” Or even when a lawyer says, “I had this one case where . . .” Our curiosity piques as our minds—no matter our age—settle in for story time. If there are other people in the room, you can almost feel their attention being drawn to the impending narrative. Our hearts yearn for tales.

Because we are created in the image of God, we respond to a particular kind of story, one that contains certain elements. Christian fantasy often contains at least a few of these elements and can satisfy this fundamental literary craving. Perhaps this is the reason why stories like J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings books and C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia have remained popular 70 years after being published. Both series were made into movies early in this century and are still popular.

Tolkien was attuned to these underlying literary yearnings. He discussed the elements we crave in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” Timothy Keller, founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and popular evangelist and author, summarizes Tolkien’s essay in a video entitled “C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Power of Fiction.” According to Tolkien, we crave stories which depict a supernatural world; tell of a character who escapes death and/or time and aging; show us eternal love that overcomes death; illustrate good absolutely overcoming evil; grant victory when all seems lost; and give examples of sacrificial heroism that brings life out of certain death. Tolkien claims that when we read fiction that is well-written, even though our rational mind knows the story is not based on fact, we engage in what he calls “secondary belief.” We are drawn in. We feel what the characters feel, and refer to this feeling as “empathy.” This, Tolkien believed, was the power of fiction.

Lewis, Tolkien’s colleague at Oxford University, also felt the power of fairy tales and myths. Although Lewis was atheist when they met, he would eventually convert to Christianity because of his conversations with Tolkien. Tolkien argued that the story of the life of Jesus is the underlying reality in all of those other stories. Each of the elements mentioned above that make Christian fantasy what it is can be illustrated in the life of Jesus. Jesus spoke often of the supernatural. For example, he taught his followers that the kingdom of heaven was at hand (Matt. 3:2). There was no greater example of a man escaping death, eternal love overcoming evil, victory when all seems lost, and sacrificial heroism bringing life out of death than Jesus’s death and resurrection. As God’s children, this is our family story, too. It’s nestled in our very consciousness—a longing that will never be completely satisfied until we see him again.

Tolkien’s premise is that despite the fact that we live in a secular age where people want any and all claims to be backed up by scientific evidence, our deep-hearted human desire is primarily to engage with those stories that possess the above traits in order to be transported to worlds beyond our own: tales that transcend reality as we know it. Our rational minds know the myths, legends, and fairy tales we hear do not represent our own earthly experience, but—our heart thinks—maybe they should. Maybe we should see more instances of good absolutely overcoming evil. Maybe we should see more evidence of eternal love. In short, maybe we should see the good guys win more.

And why wouldn’t our hearts long for such an ideal world? It was once this way, before the Fall. We read in Genesis about Adam and Eve enjoying a perfect world in Eden. They had fellowship with God. There was no death, no aging. The original couple knew perfect harmony with each other, God, and the world around them. They knew eternal love. Aren’t we all just longing to return to this paradise? Maybe the appeal of fantasy novels is that they fulfill this fundamental desire. Books like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia give us a glimpse of paradise. Perhaps this is why they are just as powerful and popular today as ever, for believers and nonbelievers alike.

Fantasy helps us see the spiritual in the physical world. If we are ever to grasp the concept of eternity or God’s omniscience, indeed Emmanuel—God with us—in the sacraments, in our worship, in our fellowship with others, we must use our spiritual imaginations. We must expand our minds beyond what we can see and otherwise experience with our senses. Beyond science into the realm of the supernatural. Fantasy goes there.

Not only do such tales stretch our imaginations to include the ideal, but epic tales also help our finite minds imagine the scope of God’s dominion and power in the great and the small, beyond what we can see. We can begin to fathom the vast legions of God’s angel army when we watch Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. At the same time, we are experiencing the vast armies of good and evil warring against each other, we are rooting for Frodo, the ordinary hobbit from the shire, the little guy, like the David of the Old Testament. We see what it looks like when the “meek shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5).

Christian fantasy can help us share our faith with others. Such books, especially those that are not overtly religious (i.e., those that don’t specifically mention biblical personalities, places, or events) are more likely to appeal to non-Christians than those that are overtly Christian. For this reason, the biblical themes underlying those texts, even if only subtle, may be more easily broached and explored in casual conversation amongst both Christian and secular audiences. Discussing such literature with nonbelieving friends (as evident in the example of Tolkien and Lewis) can be an effective segue for a Christian to share his/her Gospel witness.

Reading the bible today, some the language and imagery used, particularly in Old Testament books like Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, although historically authentic, can seem irrelevant and far removed from our current world. Although our hearts may desire to know God’s truth, our minds and imaginations may have difficulty picturing what life was like in ancient biblical times. Reading fantasy can become a way to transport ourselves back in time and familiarize ourselves with the terminology used in the bible. Fantasy primes our imagination, making it easier to transfer our attention to biblical accounts of King David, Herod, Saul, Nebuchadnezzar, and Solomon, and to assimilate the imagery of, for instance, “the full armor of God” (Eph. 6:10), or to better understand what King David meant when he called God a “mighty fortress” (Ps. 18:2).

Although at first the genre of Christian fantasy seemed peripheral and barely relevant to my study of and meditation on bible passages, I’m coming to realize just how similar the two truly are. Before, I considered the idea of reading Christian fantasy merely an opportunity for the flight of imagination. Now I see that, if handled well, the genre can assist us as followers of Christ in our walk with him. It can take us deeper into ourselves while helping us grow our empathy for others. When we read books like The Savage War, The Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia, we can use our imagination to put ourselves in the place of the outsider, the unlikely hero. We become Arnacin facing the savage army, Frodo overcoming countless obstacles for his singular mission, a child entering a wardrobe to face a White Witch, a young David facing a formidable Goliath. In doing so, we might find that we, too, can do great things for God. 

♦ ♦ ♦

The Savage War
By Esther Wallace
Emerald Lake Books, 2019
$18.99   373 pp.

The Savage War, Esther Wallace’s debut novel and the first book in her Black Phantom Chronicles series, introduces Arnacin, a young man who is strong in his convictions. The book relates the tale of a country at war, and Arnacin as the unlikely hero who defends the cause of honor, secure in his belief in one true God. Although this monotheism, instilled in him in his homeland before he finds himself shipwrecked on foreign soil, runs contrary to the pagan culture surrounding him, he does not abandon his faith. (Full disclosure: I am a friend of the author.)

Using Tolkien’s list of characteristics of Christian fantasy, I find that The Savage War can definitely check off a few of the boxes. Beyond the fact that it is well-written, well-paced, with a finely crafted plot arc and development of likeable characters, the book offers us an example of sacrificial heroism, victory in the face of certain defeat, and deep moral grounding.

Outside of touching on the idea of spiritual mediums, The Savage War does not invoke much in the way of the supernatural world but revolves around a more personal theme, the inner moral struggles of its characters. The presence of such examinations of conscience certainly serves a purpose for the reader; don’t we all have such struggles at one time or another? As the characters interrogate their own motives and decide the best course of action for themselves and their homeland, we see evidence of their self-questioning in their conversations and relationships with others. Perhaps we work through our own inner conflicts while we watch the characters work through theirs.

The Savage War resembles biblical accounts of men in similar situations. Reading Wallace’s book is not unlike reading the story of Saul and David. The pacing is similar, and the affection the character King Miro has for Arnacin recalls the initial affection Saul has for David. In both instances, the young men find favor with the kings before the kings are overtaken by jealousy and wish to do them harm. In this way, both stories examine the themes of loyalty, pride, and betrayal.

Full of action and romance, The Savage War takes also readers deeper into the internal struggles of its complex characters. They battle emotions and loyalties as much in their own hearts as they do on the battlefield. Beyond being an entertaining read, the book challenges readers to explore where their own motivations lie and ask, What does God require of me? Perhaps they, like Arnacin, will find that the answer is “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

Amy Nicholson hopes to encourage and inspire others through her writing. She has been published in Country Woman, The Old Schoolhouse, The Lookout, and other publications. In addition to writing and discovering grace in ordinary places, Amy substitute teaches. Visit her at: www.amynicholson14.wordpress.com.

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