Lars Walker on Christian Fantasy

Friends, you simply must read the essay that friend-of-this-blog Lars Walker has written on Christian fantasy for The Intercollegiate Review (edited by another friend-of-this-blog Anthony Sacramone).  It’s beyond excellent in its account of what fantasy is, what it does, and what’s involved in writing a good one.  It defies summary, so I’ll just give you the beginning after the jump and encourage you to click over to the Intercollegiate Review site to read the rest of it.  (I would just add to his list of good Christian fantasy authors the name of Lars Walker.)

by Lars Walker:

In his essay, “On Fairy Stories,” J. R. R. Tolkien, the greatest modern Christian fantasist, drove what should have been a fatal stake (perhaps of mistletoe) through the heart of the accusation that fantastic stories are “just escapism”: “Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”

The accusation itself helps to explain why fantasy gets so little respect in our time (there’s another reason; I’ll get to it later). For the growing number of people who believe there is no world outside our present prison, any talk of sunshine, meadows, and mountains has to be plain denial, a way of fooling ourselves about our true situation. Materialists who write about Magic are likely (though not certain) to write about it badly. They shouldn’t try it, for the same reason a Christian shouldn’t try writing porn. It’s hard to do well something you despise. This may also explain much of the truly bad fantasy that gets published today. The charge of escapism might be a sort of self-generating rot.

In past generations, fantasy actually enjoyed pretty high status. What are Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey but works of fantasy? Dante’s Divine Comedy is a Christian fantasy in verse. So are Spenser’s Faerie Queen and Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. Shakespeare wrote fantasy (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” among others), and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegorical fantasy. Only the coming of the Enlightenment locked the door and turned the key on a literary form that had been plenty good enough for the Greeks and Romans

But there’s a second reason why fantasy gets no respect. We (here I’m speaking as a fantasy writer) have earned it. I’ll make a confession here. I don’t read much fantasy, and I read almost no Christian fantasy. I’ve been burned too many times. You buy a book, hoping to experience over again the joys great fantasy can provide (for me, the Mines of Moria, the Ride of the Rohirrim, and the resurrection of Aslan provided the greatest moments of joy I’ve ever experienced in literature), and what do you get? Wannabees. Wannabee Tolkiens, wannabee Lewises, wannabee (christened) George R. R. Martins.

This springs (I think) from a basic misconception about fantasy—one that shows how few Tolkien and Lewis fans have learned anything from their role models.

Read the rest at The Christian Fantasy | Intercollegiate Review.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Tom Hering

    Walter Wangerin Jr. wrote one of the best fantasies of any kind I’ve ever read, The Book of the Dun Cow, an amazing animal story that I promise will break your heart and put it together again.

    Having just read Richard Adams’ Watership Down for the first time (what a page-turner!), I’m in the mood for another animal fantasy. Thanks, Lars, for reminding me of Wangerin’s Dun Cow, which I’ve never read, but will now.

    I was surprised you didn’t include Madeleine L’Engle in your list.

    Has Poul Anderson had any influence on you?

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    L’Engle. There’s a name I forgot. This is because I’ve never actually read any of her work. I’ve read some articles she wrote, which suggested heterodoxy to me, so I didn’t go any further. As for Anderson, I’ve read some of his work, especially the Viking-themed stuff, but I’ve never been a huge fan. He doesn’t excel at bringing his characters alive, which is one of my main demands of a writer.

    Thanks for the link, Prof. Veith.

  • Tom Hering

    Sure, L’Engle holds to universalism. But so did George MacDonald, and C.S. Lewis found his stories admirable. For that matter, how many of us would agree with all of Lewis’ or Tolkien’s theological positions? But we still consider them to be, generally speaking, Christian authors.

  • kerner

    Has anyone read any of the science fiction of Zenna Henderson? I remember reading a collection of her short stories (Holding Wonder) in the early 1970′s, and really liking it. She consistantly worked religious themes into her science fiction stories, and I particularly remember the trinitarian overtones of “Three Cornered and Secure”.

    Warning! Having done some on-line research, I now discover that Zenna Henderson was born and baptized LDS, but married outside LDS and was “non-practicing” after that. She might have converted to Methodism. As a young man I knew none of this, and I didn’t notice anything more heretical that some hints of universalism. On th other hand, it was 40 year ago, and my memory is a little hazy. I do remember her work being a good read, and in an era when science fiction stories were almost entirely materialist, I found her positive attitude toward religion very refreshing.

  • Kimberly

    I absolutely love Madeline L’Engle’s books! Sure, there’s universalism and other theological oddities in her fantasy writings, but I’ve always realized she wrote for a secular audience, one that might not recognize the Christian themes that under-girded the stories, but could nevertheless be influenced by them. Reading them as a Christian I sometimes felt like an “insider”, knowing what she was hinting at beneath the surface. The same with C.S. Lewis. I really like some of her poetry collections, too.

    I just really need more time to read all these great authors I keep hearing about. :-)

  • trotk

    I have enjoyed reading Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain to my kids. Although no Lewis or Tolkien, they are good fantasy, perhaps on the level of L’Engle. Whether he was a Christian I don’t know, but he certainly was influenced by Bible themes and figures.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    I’m just glad your works are finding their way to Kindle Lars. You write well. And it seems starting to get some of the recognition you deserve. Great books.

  • SKPeterson

    One author who I enjoy extremely is Gene Wolfe. A particularly good example is his series known collectively as The Book of the Long Sun.

  • Ted Johnston

    A fantasy author I have greatly enjoyed, on the good Dr.’s recommendation, is one Lars Walker! If you haven’t enjoyed his work yet, take the Dr.’s advice and indulge! Troll Valley is only $2.99 on kindle.

  • PinonCoffee

    I like best L’Engle’s Time trilogy: _A Wrinkle in Time_, _A Wind in the Door_, and _A Swiftly Tilting Planet_. I also enjoyed some of her poetry. I always had a hard time getting into her other fiction, though.

  • http://deepeningwaters.com JD Loofbourrow

    Well, if I have to be a scholar to write a fantasy, maybe I’ll just write an Amish Romance instead. Can’t imagine that standard is to high. ;) Might even pay enough to get me to the scholarly level!

  • Tom Hering

    Here’s a 1937 book that gets left off most lists of Christian fantasy. Superficially, it’s what we would today call a YA novel, but it’s quite deep theologically.

    http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/395882398

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