Why Mormons Should Write Fantasy Novels

Fans of fantasy and sci-fi, or at least Mormon fans of fantasy and sci-fi, have often wondered why Mormon writers are so well represented in the genre. Some have said there’s something in our theology that sparks it; others say it’s just a coincidence—a few Mormon writers were successful writing fantasy and sci-fi, they trained others, and it became a trend. Some think Mormons aren’t overrepresented, just more open about their religious affiliation than other writers. And, of course, some smirk. Mormons believe in fairy tales, so why shouldn’t they be good at writing them?

I have no way of evaluating most of these theories, but on one point I’m sure: Mormons do believe in fairy tales, and it’s not just that we should be able to write them well. We need to.

Before I can explain what I mean, though, I need to say a bit more about fairy tales. Too often they are understood as diversions for the entertainment of children, stories that (in Wikipedia’s words) not only aren’t true, but couldn’t possibly be true. A particularly hard-nosed skeptic might dislike fairy tales for telling children to believe in fantastical things like wizards and dragons. A particularly witty fan of fairy stories might respond that fairy tales do not teach children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales teach them that dragons can be slain.

I think most people probably understand this role of the fairy story: teaching basic moral ideas. Being honest, brave, and self-sacrificing is good; selfishness and deceit are bad. Perseverance is rewarded, the truth always comes out in the end, and heroes live happily ever after. These are basic life lessons, all the more important because they are not always true in our world. The stories that teach them will do more to create a decent human being than any course in philosophical ethics.

But good fairy stories are not merely fables, presenting simple lessons in didactic style. They deal with deeper matters—a truth I learned from the great fairy-tale writer of our time, J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien hated shallow allegory, grumpily refuting popular attempts to read his masterpiece as a veiled retelling of World War II. Yet at a deeper level his work is fraught with philosophical and even theological significance, which he privately acknowledged. Tolkien’s elves, men, dwarves, and hobbits represent various aspects of human nature, as do his orcs and goblins, who are sadly the races of Middle Earth that Tolkien thought most resembled modern society. The story of the One Ring is a lengthy meditation on technology, pride, and power, on the sinful wish to reject the place the Creator intended for us and become gods ourselves. Attentive Catholic readers will find still more meaning as they ponder Tolkien’s allusions to Mary (Elbereth, Galadriel) and the Eucharist (lembas, the Elvish waybread).[1] It is of course possible for other forms of literature to deal with these themes, but such attempts tend to be blurred by their too close association with the everyday and its conventions, and as a result the themes of other literature tend to stay closer to home. In good fairy tales, the distractions of the mundane are stripped away by the fantastical setting, and the remaining resemblances between the story world and our world are only those that really matter.

The vast majority of Tolkien’s readers will never consciously be aware of the issues he wrestled with, but they do not need to be aware for his fairy stories to convey their meaning. This is because good fairy-stories do not explicate their authors’ philosophies; rather, they incarnate them and thereby put them to the test.[2] If Tolkien’s readers find his elves beautiful, it is because they present an account of the high and noble in human nature that rings true, that persuades us. If his fatalism offends us, his insistence that all human victories over evil are but brief pauses in “the long defeat,” it is because he failed to shake our faith in human progress, whether we realize it or not.

So, what fairy stories do Mormons believe in, and why do we need to write new ones well?

The answer to the first question is easy: our religion is a fairy story, or as Tolkien would have said about Christianity more broadly, a fairy story that really happened. The factual truth of our beliefs is of course crucial: if Jesus is not resurrected, we are of all men most miserable (see 1 Corinthians 15:12–19). But the mythological content of our religion is if possible even more important: the assumptions it conveys beneath the surface about what is real, what is true, what is good, and what it means for something to be real, or true, or good. Those with the time and talent can wrestle with these issues in a philosophical manner, but it takes a keen mind and substantial training to understand, for example, the theological accounts of God’s nature. On the other hand, the stories in the scriptures about God’s dealings with humanity bring him to life in an instant, for anyone who cares to look.

Once we understand that our religion teaches as much through its stories as through its truth claims, it becomes clear how dangerous it is—Tolkien would say “perilous”—to hear a well-told fairy story and be brought face to face with its vision of the depths of reality, a vision our intellect will never fully understand. And yet for that very reason fairy stories give us a way to explore those depths of our religion that we also never fully understand, and to incarnate our beliefs again and come to know them again, giving our faith new life and vitality. We can borrow others’ fairy tales for these purposes, but these will usually capture only those parts of our beliefs we share with others and obscure or distort the rest. To understand our own faith clearly and whole, we need our own stories, fairy stories holding a prime place among them.

How are we doing? The impressive number of Mormon fantasy and sci-fi writers gives me hope that we’re trying, but what I’ve read so far makes me hope we can do better. Orson Scott Card is an outstanding writer, but I haven’t seen his works plumb the depths as I would like (though the sheer volume of his output means I may just not have read it). Brandon Sanderson is likewise prolific and has created a few arresting ideas and intriguing characters, but his worlds are largely soulless, his mysteries mere plot devices, his theologies devoid of awe or wonder and far too neat to be real. The most famous Mormon fantasy writer, Stephanie Meyer, showed a hundred times Sanderson’s ambition by incarnating the pivotal Mormon idea of the eternal family, but in her hands it became unhealthy and disturbing, not least because it was divorced from our belief that eternal life also entails worship, community, and creation. As yet I have learned much more about Mormonism from Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Ursula LeGuin, not one of whom would like our theology, than from the fantasy writers who actually believe in it.

So, we’ve started. But we’re a young faith, with much still to learn about itself, and there’s a long way yet to go.

In short, I am convinced that faith is less a matter of what we choose to believe, or even what we consciously believe, than of what we don’t even know we believe. I am also convinced that fairy stories are among the most eloquent messengers to the unknown depths of our faith. We should take them seriously, and we should write them well.

[1] For more information on Tolkien’s beliefs and their influence on his writing, I recommend Bradley J. Birzer’s J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle Earth.

[2] I owe this idea to Tolkien commentator Peter Kreeft.

  • http://www.motleyvision.org Wm

    I think early OSC plumbs some depths. I can’t think of a better exploration of the issues of agency than The Worthing Saga. And the first two or three Alvin Maker books are the best retelling of the Joseph Smith story we have so far in Mormon art.

    In regards to Sanderson, have you read the entire Mistborn trilogy? And have you read Warbreaker? Both have lovely Mormon resonances in them. Yes, he needs to get better at some things, but I found the ending to the Mistborn trilogy, in particular, to be far from soulless.

    And while the later stories are of less interest, the first two novels in Davud Farland’s Runelords series do some interesting things that clearly come out of a Mormon worldview.

    • Alan Hurst

      As to Card, my wife has been telling me to read the Worthing saga for most of our marriage for precisely that reason, so I guess I’ll have to get to it. I started Alvin Maker a long time ago, but I think I may have been too young to appreciate it. As to Farland, I haven’t read him, so thanks for the tip.

      As to Sanderson, the Mistborn trilogy and Warbreaker (which I thought was far superior) are in fact all I’ve read of his. I haven’t touched The Way of Kings, though I suppose I maybe ought to at some point. Reading back over what I wrote about him, I may not have been entirely fair. His plotting is reasonably competent, and though his characters tend to be stereotypes, at least they’re good executions of the stereotypes. And occasionally, he shows flashes of brilliance: the scholar who tries to convert people to a host of dead religions but can’t find out anything about his own; the god who doesn’t believe in his own religion; the sword brought to life and told to destroy evil but unable to learn what evil is.

      But ultimately it all amounts to nothing, or nearly nothing, because Sanderson is too obsessed with his own cleverness. It’s one thing to make sure everything in your story fits together; it’s another to let your story revolve around showing off how well everything fits together. As each of his books draw to a close and potentially mysterious or profound elements are tied off neatly with a bow on top, I find myself wanting to scream, “Would it kill you to be subtle?” Real life just isn’t as tidy as Sanderson wants his books to be. Even his vaunted original “magic systems” ring hollow. They try so hard to seem scientific that they entirely stop seeming like magic, and yet they also fail to resemble real science, which is forever confronting the unknown and the difficulty of knowing. In Sanderson’s books, knowing is easy–someone just has to tell you the secret–and there is no unknown.

      Sanderson strikes me as someone who has read a lot of fantasy and not a lot else, someone who has thought at length about the mechanics of writing fantasy and not a lot else. Unless I get around to writing my own fantasy someday, I just don’t think there’s a lot I can learn from someone like that.

      And if I’m not learning, why read?

      • http://not-atamelion.blogspot.com Michael H.

        Interestingly, in The Hobbit Tolkien says this about goblins/orcs: “They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones.”

        I’ve never read Sanderson, but thought the quote applicable – and a tie-in back to the OP.

      • http://www.motleyvision.org Wm

        Other than Le Guin (whose work I love, but always has a bit of distance to it, a slight coolness), how much contemporary science fiction and fantasy have you read, Alan? Yes, Sanderson falls more on the populist side, but I see that as a strength and not a weakness. He is trying to walk an interesting tightrope and doing about as well as any writer in contemporary science fiction and fantasy. I think the complaints about cleverness, which I’ve heard from others as well, are partly true, but also partly overblown — an easy tag to lay on him that isn’t fully born out in the text.

        I also think that those who claim his magic systems are solely mechanistic aren’t seeing the forest for the trees. In Mistborn in particular there’s a lot going on aside from the initial understandings of allomancy and to me the appeal of the book is that Sanderson can explain how a lot of it all works while at the same time pushing it in directions that it hadn’t gone before. I’d much prefer Sazed and Vin figure some things out than his magic system be all handwavium — indeed, the trilogy seems to be exactly a scientific process that requires intuition and experimentation as much, actually more, than it requires one character revealing the trick to another. There’s a whole lot of mystery going on that’s driving them forward, and there are still many questions left at the end of the trilogy. To me that’s more of a Mormon approach. And there are major Mormon resonances in the conclusion to the Mistborn trilogy, and I found it much more interesting than anything that I’ve read in Lewis.

        I agree that he needs to work on characterization (and I do think he’s getting better at it [although I also think that genre expectations come into play and that critics need to understand how characters work in genre fiction rather than fall back on the stock complaints of modern literary realism that have been used as a bludgeon against genre fiction for several decades now]).

        On the other hand, some of his characters have stuck with me much more than the vast majority of what’s out there in contemporary fantasy (and literary fiction, for that matter).

  • http://www.keyersofbryce.com Alan Horne

    I agree that the greatest Mormon-written fiction is ahead of us, but calling Brandon Sanderson’s worlds “soulless” shows remarkable (even supernatural) ignorance on your part. And no, this is not simply a matter of “well, that’s your opinion.” No one who actually has a soul could come to the conclusion that, for instance, The Way of Kings, depicts a world whose theologies are devoid of awe. Not only are characters of various religions and monastic affiliations depicted, but each belief is given credence, respect, and power by the author. Just because not every one of those beliefs is an allegorical reflection of an established LDS doctrine does not make it “soulless” or “too neat to be real.”

    • Alan Hurst

      This is a friendly conversation about important ideas, not a debate on some cable news show. There’s no need to get angry or call names. If you comment again on my blog, I’ll appreciate it if you do so politely.

      I’ll respond to the substance of your comment. You seem to be under the impression that I dislike Sanderson because he’s being respectful toward a variety of imaginary religions rather than writing allegories of “established LDS doctrines.” Nothing could be further from the truth–did you miss my point about how Tolkien hated allegory? Or my endorsement of LeGuin, who, far from being Mormon, has written fantasy criticizing Christianity from a distinctly Daoist perspective?

      I dislike Sanderson’s treatment of religion not because he’s respectful to a variety of religions, but because he doesn’t seem to understand any of them beyond the most superficial level, and because he seems unable to imagine how truly different the world might look to you if you actually believed in one of them. (Actually, that’s a consistent problem with his characters–I never believe for an instant that most of them are actually from a different world. They see the world too much like 21st-Century Americans, or 21st-Century American fantasy novel stereotypes, with a handful of superficial differences thrown in.) And, as I said, they’re too neat. Real religions, like real science, can’t really be explained in a handful of sentences or a one-page table in the back of the book.

      As for awe and wonder, I’m afraid I can’t give you a theoretical account of why exactly I believe they’re missing, beyond (as I mentioned in response to Wm) Sanderson’s fixation on his own cleverness distracting him from bigger things. On that point, I’m afraid we’ll just have to disagree.

  • Carolyn

    I love fantasy novels, and thoroughly agree with Alan that they are particularly valuable at enabling readers to examine faith/theology/underlying beliefs from a new perspective. I’m fully supportive of having more — and better! — Mormon fantasy.

    Still, as the person who introduced Alan to Brandon Sanderson, I both agree and disagree. I agree that the Mistborn trilogy was more about pulp fantasy fiction / cleverness than it was cause for any sort of deep theological or philosophical introspection. (Although there are hints of that in character of Sazed). But Sanderson is rapidly getting better — and deeper. I don’t think Alan has read the Way of Kings yet (i.e., because I didn’t lend it to him), but he really should. It might give him some hope for Sanderson’s future.

    (As an aside, I’m currently trying to convince my husband that we should name our first-born son “Kaladin” because of how powerful/inspirational his Joseph-in-Egypt story is in the Way of Kings. )

  • pagansister

    IMO all religions, young or old are based on fairy tales/make believe stories. For those that claim a man called Jesus as an important part of their faith, where is the proof? There has never been absolute proof that a man called Jesus lived or for that matter, died in the manner as written in the Bible. How can a book be considered holy (AKA the Bible) written so many, many years after his death, based on stories handed down (and I expect exaggerated) and then translated and rewritten by hand for centuries by men with an agenda, (monks etc), possibly be considered totally infallible? There are faiths considerably older than that of Christianity, and IMO they too are based on a lot of make believe. Many humans seem to need something or one to worship. Just my opinion. BTW, just what is wrong with dragons and magic? Nothing.

    • http://not-atamelion.blogspot.com Michael H.

      You apparently don’t know that Mormons don’t believe that the Bible is infallible, and we use some of your arguments to say it’s not perfect.

      • pagansister

        My brother -in-law is a Mormon as is one of his 2 daughters (my nieces). My sister remained a Methodist, as did their other daughter. Each daughter was exposed to both faiths and allowed to choose which one was right for them. Anyhow, I suspected that the LDS church didn’t believe that the Bible was infallible, since you all use another book too for guidance. (the name I can’t remember right now). What do you, Michael H. feel when some claim that Mormons are really not “Christian” because they don’t use the Bible as the basis of your beliefs?

        • mapman

          You’re probably thinking of the Book of Mormon, though we have other scriptures called the Pearl of Great Price and the Doctrine and Covenants. We actually believe that all of our scriptures can contain things that aren’t true, which is one of the reasons we believe in continuing revelation and an open canon.

          • pagansister

            Thank you, Mapman for the information. Appreciate it. The LDS draws on several books for guidance. Interesting. IMO, more religions might be better off if they realized the information they read in their holy books contain things that aren’t true. :o)

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    The Book of Mormon creates an entire world for a serious reader, with a narrative style that is distinct from the fiction that was being written in 1829. It invites readers to understand the basic story ofnJesus Christ from a new perspective, not as an interruption of the Old Testament story, but as the real meaning beneath the surface, of a God who triumphs in the end despite repeated defeats of his people. And in the end, it asks us to convert this story into our reality, to think of ourselves as living in a world where God will win, despite the carelessness of humans, and we can join him.

    Just as Tolkien and Lewis both loved the story of the Bible, and created their own stories to reflect it, Mormons celebrate the gift of the One True Story by telling other stories that are both old and new.

  • Rachel E. O.

    Amen 1000 times, Alan! Hopefully with this piece you will inspire more Mormon scifi/fantasy writers to explore more theological concepts in their work.

    One thought/question on the subject of Tolkien and fantasy based on Germanic mythology and its different races. You write, “Tolkien’s elves, men, dwarves, and hobbits represent various aspects of human nature, as do his orcs and goblins, who are sadly the races of Middle Earth that Tolkien thought most resembled modern society.” I really like that interpretation, and as someone who loves such fairy tales, I prefer it.

    But I’ve personally always found it difficult to overlook the racism that drips from the pages written by British authors like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (The Horse and His Boy being the most obvious example I’ve read). It’s always bothered me that entire races or nations could be entirely evil, or lazy, or greedy — with little or no nuance or exception. These portrayals obscure the reality that Solzhenitsyn so deftly describes in The Gulag Archipelago: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” (Though to be fair, these authors’ portrayals of elves and dwarves and men in particular are usually more nuanced.)

    Given the colonialist history of the British empire, I always assumed that such themes represented a uniquely British racism. But now that you mention it, it seems that this likely derives as much or more from the nature of Germanic mythology, which defines its mythic races by fundamental traits. When Germanic mythology first developed, I wonder whether or not those traits were tied to groups of people, i.e. different tribes, etc. (as they have been on occasion over time — e.g. goblins being described in anti-Semitic terms).

    Other fantasy writers have tried to remedy this problem and imbue these different races with more nuance and humanity — rewriting the myths of our culture, if you will. E.g. J.K. Rowling. But even in Harry Potter… giants and trolls are still stupid and violent, goblins are still greedy, house elves are still slavishly devoted to humans, and the exceptions to those rules (Grawp, Dobby, Kreacher, Griphook) either are only minimally exceptional or their exceptionalism or lack thereof hinges on the virtues or villainy of the key human characters in the book. Of course, one of the driving moral messages of her story is that treating others poorly or assuming one’s own superiority based on race is one of the worst sins. But in any event, this issue certainly is a tension throughout her novels. (Werewolves/Lupin/Greyback and centaurs/Firenze/Bane, as well as Hagrid and Madame Maxime as half-giants, are also interesting lenses into this question.) But at the end of the day, maybe it is I that am just analyzing these stories too much through the lens of race.

    • Alan Hurst

      Thanks for posting this here–you’re bringing up such an important subject, and I like what you have to say about it.

      I think the basic problem is similar to the way the heroes in fairy tales tend to be young and beautiful and often royal while the villains are usually old and ugly, often outcasts. I think there’s actually value in having it that way, at least for purposes of moral education. The goal is to associate moral virtue with health, beauty, and nobility and to present evil as decay, corruption, shame. Ideally the process would work like this: first the audience comes to believe that moral virtue is beautiful like physical beauty, then in due time other stories help them realize that moral beauty is the true beauty and physical beauty the lesser cousin; moral health the true health, etc. People unfortunately take from it the idea that only the physically beautiful are morally virtuous, but that’s not the intent, and some stories try to tackle that problem head-on with stories of plain, unappreciated heroes saving the day, a beautiful queen trying to kill Snow White (and becoming ugly in the process), etc.

      I’m guessing Tolkien was doing something similar, probably subconsciously. He’s using the different races to represent different aspects of human nature–he said so in the letter that now introduces the Silmarillion, by the way–and to some extent he’s using things like light-colored skin to tell you which ones he thinks are good and “swarthy” dark-colored skin to tell you which ones he thinks are bad (though I note that the races of men he portrays as most noble have light skin and dark hair, not fair hair like the Nordic races that were usually seen as on top of the racial hierarchy–I wonder what that means.). In pre-Civil Rights white society, that sort of thing was unobjectionable and probably not even noteworthy.

      So, is LotR a racist work? I would say yes, but in a very particular sense: it is racist not in the sense that it intends to teach racism but in the sense that it tries to use the contemporary audience’s racism–which, admittedly, I’m guessing Tolkien shared–to say things that had little to do with race. The problem is that once people realize that racism is bad, and the light/dark associations Tolkien appeals to become objectionable, his use of Middle-Earth races and real-Earth racist assumptions to convey a non-racist message becomes an apparent endorsement of the racist assumptions. It’s one of the few ways in which I’d say Middle Earth has not aged well.

  • Tom D

    I personally think that Brandon Sanderson and Orson Scott Card are fantastic storytellers. I don’t like all of their books (I rather dislike horror), but I love some of them very much indeed. If their books don’t measure up to your personal standards, why don’t you write your own? I rather hope that Sanderson in particular (Card is probably too old to influence) doesn’t try to be so philosophically deep that the fun gets sucked right out of his stories. I do wish that bloodshed and war weren’t so prominent (and gory) in his stories, but it’s hard to beat those subjects for easy drama.

    I deeply love Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and think it as perhaps the best work of fiction ever written, but I’d rather that Sanderson’s next novel (I HOPE YOU ARE READING THIS BRANDON because it should be a sequel to THE ALLOY OF LAW) doesn’t take most of his lifetime to write :-).

    • Alan Hurst

      Why not write my own? I’d love to, believe me, but you shouldn’t take my criticism of either of them as a claim that I could do better. Card and Sanderson are both masters of crafts I haven’t begun to learn. Understanding religion and being able to write good fiction that understands religion are two very different things, and at the moment I only have time to aspire to the former.

      • Tom D

        Thanks for the polite response. I too wish that I had the time and skills to write good fiction. Maybe in the next life ;-).

        The biggest thing that I enjoy about both writers is how I good I feel after reading one of their books. Their stories (usually) feel upbeat and uplifting in a real, but not saccharine way. I imagine that this is due to the LDS doctrine in the background which I as a Latter-Day Saint naturally connect with. It contrasts quite strongly with the dystopias that have become way too common in SF and fantasy. Many non-LDS seem to like their books as well. I wonder how they perceive Card’s and Sanderson’s books and how that differs from my own perceptions.