Recovering Reality: From Fantasy to Faith

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Myth, Imagination, Fairy Tales, and Fantasy. And Faith. Read other perspectives here.

"If God chooses to be mythopoeic […] shall we refuse to be mythopathic?" ~ C. S. Lewis, "Myth Became Fact" (1944)

The popularity of fantasy literature, particularly for young readers, is sometimes viewed with suspicion, even hostility, among Christians. Some wonder if it is healthy to let our imagination wander into imaginary worlds. Is a taste for fantasy a childish one, to be abandoned as soon as maturity beckons? Do such books encourage escapism and disconnect their fans from the real world? Even worse, can they open a door to the occult? Perhaps surprisingly for followers of "the God who told stories," and who also clearly stated that "unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3), many Christian clergy mistrust storytelling and deplore childlike tastes.

Yet many of the greatest fantasy writers of the 20th century were Christians. Perhaps the best-known fantasy author, J. R. R. Tolkien, wrote an essay, "On Fairy-Stories" (1947), connecting the act of creating imaginary worlds to the fact that we humans are made in the image of God. Creating worlds, including literary ones, is therefore a natural activity for us. Although we cannot, like God, create out of nothing, we can become "sub-creators," using the elements we have been given to imagine new worlds. What is more, Tolkien was concerned by the effect of the literary text on the reader, claiming that good fantasy fiction contains a eucatastrophe, or happy ending, which can "give to the child or man who hears it, when the 'turn' comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or accompanied by) tears." This eucatastrophe is good news, producing in the reader, by analogy, the same emotion of joy and hope in the literary realm as the birth of Christ or the Resurrection in the real world. It is therefore "a literary means of cultivating belief," enabling readers to escape from the depressing situations of life and enter the world of faith. In the same way, Tolkien identifies "Recovery" as another essential element of fantasy literature, by which he means "the regaining of a clear view." In an imaginary world, we can be taken away from the familiar things of this world and see them from another angle, sometimes perceiving them as they really are for the first time.

This is similar to one of C. S. Lewis's declared aims in writing The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis observed that many children had been put off the Christian faith by the religious education they had received, by well-meaning people who had told them what they ought to feel, but who had inadvertently removed the joy and wonder from Christianity. Lewis wondered whether "by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons?" He concluded that one could.

Another reason that helps Christians appreciate myth and fantasy comes from the way God has chosen to communicate with us. Although God gave his people laws, one of his chief ways of revealing himself is through what has been called "the greatest story ever told." As Lewis put it, "the heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact." The recurrent myth of the dying and rising god, found all over the world, comes down to earth in the gospels and really happens, without ceasing to be a myth. In the same way, tales of gods appearing in human form find their fulfilment in the stable in Bethlehem. In Christ, myth not only becomes fact, but also history, with specific dates and places. Christ is more, not less than the pagan gods. He is Lord of all creation, beasts, angels, and men, but, as Tolkien said, also of elves, and doubtless dwarves and dragons as well.

Finally, the language of myth is one way we can truly communicate who God is. When they can only use rational argument, Christians have serious trouble explaining to non-believers who God is and how people relate to him. No one has seen God or knows him fully. Images and metaphors are the only means at our disposal to grasp, even imperfectly, what he is like. Jesus himself used images and stories to get this across; in the parables God is portrayed as a father, a king, an employer, a judge, and yet none of these images describes him fully. For Christians, the only full revelation of God is in the Incarnation. Yet we, who can only read the gospels and never met the Son of Man on earth, still seek to understand more. Fantasy literature, with its mythical qualities, can help. Jesus is not Aslan, Satan is not Morgoth, Lily Potter is not one of the saints of the Church. However, we may learn more about Jesus through meeting Aslan, more about Satan through our encounter with Morgoth, and see Lily as an example for our own spiritual pilgrimage.