Fantasy and Myth

Our friend and new neighbor James McGrath is a devoted fan of science fiction. He has argued that science fiction stories are the myths for our age, since science fiction frequently explores some of the same territory as myth and religion. He’s even edited a collection of religious criticism of science fiction stories, Religion and Science Fiction, which I recently picked up. Glad I did, since as soon as I laid hands on it, my midichlorians miraculously doubled.

In my mind, the idea of science fiction as myth raises a question: where does that leave the self-consciously mythic genre of fantasy? This question has recently sparked a conversation across the blogosphere.

I think D.G. Myers started things off by suggesting that Fantasy is a Genre of Christianity. Right off the bat there’s some strong evidence that he’s right, given how many fantasy series draw from Christianity: Lord of the Rings, Narnia and even Harry Potter to some degree. Myers further draws a direct line between the “other realm” of magic and the “other realm” of heaven.

E.D. Kain at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen disagrees, suggesting that fantasy is not inherently Christian, but rather has been rooted in a certain Anglo-Saxon tradition as an accident of its birth:

Perhaps the confluence of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and G.K. Chesterton – all men with a peculiar aversion to first and middle names – gave birth to contemporary fantasy as we know it in some lucky stroke of happenstance. Perhaps we should blame the Anglican Church for the rise of fantasy. While Catholics were busy burning witches and Lutherans and other protestant groups were busy taking all the fun and mysterious things out of Christianity, Anglicans were busy walking the tightrope between. Tolkien was Catholic, true, but a Catholic in a distinctly Anglican setting.

Kain later clarifies and expands a bit on this, acknowledging that the effect is partially market driven:

I think it’s basically true that fantasy as a genre of popular literature was born and raised in the Anglosphere, and that the form has been adopted in other non-English-speaking cultures – for whatever reason and perhaps simply because of the respective economic empires of the UK and USA.

Meanwhile, Adam Serwer wants to clarify that the discussion is about “high fantasy,” which is a fair point. The other major fantasy sub-genre, Sword ‘n Sorcery, is much darker. Not surprising, since its father was Robert Howard, part of Lovecraft’s circle.

There’s an old story that Tolkien considered an Arthurian setting for his stories, but discarded it as “too Christian.” He wanted a darker world where he could have huge wars and lots of violent adventure, so he set his Christian epic in a pagan setting. I think he got the balance right, by which I mean that the pagan elements swamped the Christian elements. Far better than Narnia.

Maybe what gives fantasy it’s strength is this balance between the high-minded messages and the visceral adventure. There are mythic elements, but they are balanced by gosh-wow magic, sword fights, chainmail bikinis and loincloths. Any thoughts?

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  • James F. McGrath

    Congratulations on the midichlorian increase, neighbor! :-)

  • TrickQuestion

    God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of his own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players, to being involved in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.
    Terry Pratchett, “Good Omens”

    Seeing, contrary to popular wisdom, isn’t believing. It’s where belief stops, because it isn’t needed any more.
    Terry Pratchett, Pyramids

    Gods don’t like people not doing much work. People who aren’t busy all the time might start to think.
    Terry Pratchett, Small Gods

    “All holy piety in public, and all peeled grapes and self-indulgence in private.”

    Terry Pratchett, Small Gods

    The figures looked more or less human. And they were engaged in religion. You could tell by the knives (it’s not murder if you do it for a god).

    Terry Pratchett, Small Gods

    You know what….just read Small Gods and Good Omens.
    Terry Pratchett has a wonderful take on faiths.

  • Francesco

    Our universe is just a D&D campaign .

    • Devysciple

      You might be right. But it would be the shittiest of them all. With a narcissistic, sadistic, megalomaniac psychopath as the DM, and I constantly roll 1′s on every critical die roll… Oh, and you don’t get to re-roll another character if you screw up, which inevitably happens all the time.

  • vasaroti

    D.G. Myers is simply wrong, unless we want to redefine fantasy literature as work originally published on mechanical presses. Using the standard definition of fantasy, the Odyssey, the Satyricon, Monkey (Journey to the West,) Kitāb alf laylah wa-laylah (1001 Nights ) and many other works with absolutely no Christian background prove him wrong.
    Personally, I would just say that fantasy writing often contains elements of poorly remembered religions and give 98% of the credit to the imagination of the author.

    • JonJon

      There has been a great deal of discussion lately on some blogs that I intermittently read, which suggests that basically fantasy has been around for as long as literature has been around. And that, before the western realist novel, everything was basically fantasy of one kind or another. And that the people who “invented” fantasy, really just stopped writing the western realist novel, and flipped back into what stories have always been.

      I tend to think that you can properly separate myth and sci-fi, but that myth and fantasy may very well be expressions of the same basic human stuff.

      • UrsaMinor

        There are definitely places where the boundary between fantasy and science fiction blur. The up-and-coming term for the two of them taken as a whole is “speculative fiction”. I think that pretty much covers everything with a component of not-reality-as-we-know-it.

  • Shoebutton

    I have always been fascinated by myths and fairy tales.
    I think these stories were told as an important way to pass down life’s lessons from one generation to the next. The magical element played a key role in that you could stir a child’s imagination, but they wouldn’t be personally threatened as the extreme scenario didn’t really exist. This way they could think outside the box, but weren’t in panic mode.
    So here is our hero going about their daily lives being raised on a desert planet, or one ordinary fairy in fairy land, or knowing there are gods on a mountain that like to fling lightning bolts at you, but coping with whatever reality their day to day life has. Then boom! Adversity strikes in one form or another , just like in our own lives. And like our heroes, we need to draw on not just our skills and logical thinking, but other ingredients of our humanness:compassion, loyalty, friendship , our ingrained sense of right and wrong.
    Darker stories are important also. We all have a dark side, and learning when to let it out and how to temper it is a necessary life lesson.
    Thanks for those titles. I am looking forward to checking them out.

  • blotonthelandscape

    I was under the impression that Tolkein expressed a distaste for openly christian interpretations of his work, and had said that he had deliberately avoided making such allegory (in contrast to his drinking buddy, who was overtly evangelistic).

  • Noelle

    Mebbe it’s not that fictional fantasy stories mimic religion, but that religious stories share the same thread as fantasy. As already noted, fantasy stories predate Xianity. I don’t agree that fantasy is solely an Anglo thing either. Folklore from many cultures that would’ve never been influenced by Anglos has a fantasy element. It doesn’t need princesses and dragons to be fantasy.

    • UrsaMinor

      I’m not familiar with most non-Western literature, but I can tell you that SF/fantasy has been been around in the West since at least the time of Aristophanes, who died ca. 386 BCE. His play “The Birds” is clearly a work of speculative fiction. 20th-century English authors have no lock on the genre.

      There is still some merit to the argument that Tolkien et al. in England created the currently popular form that much fantasy fiction takes. Or perhaps I should say that they established certain tropes that have often been borrowed.

      Not all modern fantasy conforms to this norm. Compare some distinctly non-Tolkienesque works, like Peake’s “Gormenghast” series. It is a completely different animal.

  • Circe

    I think D.G. Myers started things off by suggesting that Fantasy is a Genre of Christianity.

    That’s some rather strong “Chrsito”-centrism right there. Given that some of the world’s best fantasy stories (the Indian epics and the rest of Indian mythology, Journey to the West and the rest of Chinese mythology, Greek Mythology, the Thousand and One Nights, Norse Mythology, to just count a few) have nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity.

    • Circe

      Also, while we are at it, the so called “best book ever written” (again no doubt a symptom of the same Eurocentrism applied to what is certainly a great tale) Don Quixote seems to have nothing to do with Christianity.

  • Stony

    My profuse apologies, but once I read the words Religion and Science Fiction my brain screamed the word “Scientolgy” and hasn’t been seen since.

    • JK

      It’s the zombies – they took your brain. Braaaaainnnnnzzzz.

  • Schaden Freud

    I could point out that fantasy is a lot older than Christianity and is generated in plenty of non-Christian-centric environments, but everyone else has got there ahead of me so I won’t repeat what they’ve said. I tend to see myth and fantasy as two sides of the same coin, and SF as a specific type of speculative fiction that deals with the implications of science and technology on human existence. Most narratives ultimately deal with what it means to be human, but myth and fantasy deal with what it means to be human in an environment that can’t always be rationally explained. Religion also deals with themes relating to human experience in an environment that can’t always be rationally explained, so religion is part of the myth/fantasy family, but it’s not a requirement for myth/fantasy classification at all. I think religion is something that will underlie all types of narrative if it’s important enough to the writer, and because most of us here are in the Western hemisphere reading mainly in the English language* we just tend to encounter a disproportionate quantity of Western Christianized reading material.

    *I assume. I may be totally wrong. If so, please accept my apologies.

  • L.Long

    Fantasy is NOT SciFi!
    SciFi deals with some point of science carried to some assumed point then the human interaction is dealt with.
    Example…’Rocket to the Moon’ and ’2001′ are SciFi.
    Batman can also be considered as SciFi if not carried too far.
    Spiderman/Fantastic4/Superman are fantasy.
    Star Wars is not SciFi but is pure fantasy that uses a SciFi setting.
    But as others have also pointed out most fantasy while not Xtian it is dealing with religious ideas.

  • John C

    How is it possible to discuss fantasy writers and even mention Christian fantasy while dropping such names as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and G.K. Chesterton and at the same time glaringly overlooking the father of them all, George MacDonald?

    The origin and significance of fantasy, myth, symbolism, parable, etc, is that its all inherently tied to humanity’s great commonality, to its history (His, our unfolding story, glory) and is seated within our ‘collective unconscious’ as Jung described.

  • John W. Morehead

    Personally I find the myths within science fiction, fantasy, and even horror all compatible with religion in general, and Christianity in particular. I wish more Christians would draw upon fantastic narratives and move beyond the knee-jerk reaction to various forms of dark and speculative fiction.