Why A Priest Writes Christian Fantasy
After being inundated with the summer’s new television shows, Game Of Thrones–House of the Dragon and The Lord of the Rings–The Rings of Power, I did a lot of thinking about why I write Christian fantasy. I really should qualify that though. If I say I write Christian fantasy, I could be lumped in with the many Christian fantasy novelists who write fantasy with a proselytizing bent. The label might make a prospective reader confuse me with one who writes thinly veiled storylines, usually poor, which stress a certain dogma or teaching with a heavy-handedness that overwhelms the story itself. I’m not that kind of a writer.
Though they are much greater than me, I ally myself with G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Madeleine L’Engle–writers whose writings have a foundation in Christian theology but whose narrative is never overwhelmed with theology-thumping prose. Their novels have that Christian basis, but it works as an ocean upon which the ship of story floats. One cares much more about what’s on the boat than what’s in the waters around it, and, yet, the ship couldn’t really go anywhere without those waves.
I write in the Urban/Rural fantasy and Paranormal Thriller genres. Urban/Rural fantasy is modern fantasy that deals with wonder and magic in the everyday aspects of life. Paranormal Thrillers are action-packed adventures that have a bit of the supernatural about them. I do so for the following reasons:
The Wrong Need For Wonder And Magic–‘Grimdark’ Literature
- People long for a good rousing story that tells a tale of wonder and magic. The two very popular shows–based on popular books that I mentioned above are testimony to this. Add to that the comic book adaptations of The Walking Dead and the Netflix thriller Manifest which dramatize the taste people have for apocalyptic stories. A good writer responds to what those who hear the tale enjoy and prefer.
- Unfortunately, modern readers and connoisseurs of film have tended to depart drastically from the fantasy that the classical authors I mentioned gave us. There is a dark lust for dystopian narratives, tales with storylines absent of moral values, and a penchant to gravitate toward novels and films that are nihilistic in nature. Translated freely, it seems that many people prefer their stories chaotic and devoid of any positive meaning. The gaming universe gives a name to literature’s new genre: ‘grimdark’. I have a natural aversion to this. I recognize people’s need for action, wonder, and magic, but I would also like to draw them back to the true and beautiful. To me, this is an obligation of a writer, of a storyteller.
‘Noblebright’ Literature–The Right Need For Wonder And Magic
- The gaming universe also gives literature a flip-side to ‘grimdark’, another new genre called ‘noblebright’. Basically, it contains stories that have happy endings and heroes with a moral compass. There is sadness and sorrow, yes, but with a hopeful resolution. For consistency’s sake, I would identify with this. But, in the end, this genre is not enough for me.
Further Up And Further In–An Even Better Way To Write Fantasy
- J. R. R. Tolkien’s famous Essay On Fairy Stories makes it very clear that ‘real fantasy’ has some rules it lives by. One of the most important rules is that there must be a quality of joy present in the tale. Of course, that joy may be touched with sorrow or tainted by sin–after all, fantasy is but a shadow of the fallen world we live in–but joy must be present in such a way that it makes us long for a reality where an even greater joy is present. It must make us long for a place where no shadows fall. In actuality, it makes us long, albeit unconsciously, for heaven.
- The second major rule is that fantasy must lead to a happy ending. This is not so simple as it seems. The ending of a particular story may be tragic or good. If tragic, it reveals what would have been necessary to lead the people involved to the light, and it cannot be the final end of the story. If good, it reveals that even in the midst of sorrow, or the fact that not all the characters live happily ever after, yet, goodness does prevail against evil. What has to be present is the eucatastrophe–the sudden and favorable turn to an ending not simply happy, but reaching toward a joy beyond all joys. This is because Tolkien believes that all good stories told by humans are a reflection of the one true story–namely, the Resurrection of Christ. When I write fantasy or thriller, this is what I strive for, and that’s a little beyond just ‘noblebright’.
Some Loathe The Supernatural Source of Christian Fantasy
- Of course, a large swath of humanity now rejects such notions. Some see Charles R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones novels as classics of the fantasy genre. They are not. The novels and the television series spawned by them are indeed action-packed and full of wonder and magic. But in a fantasy world that has purposeless violence, almost all good characters killed, and no moral values that can overcome the darkness of the narrative, it is difficult to imagine there will ever be a good ending to this tale. ‘Grimdark’ stories are nihilistic.
Even ‘Noblebright’ Fantasy Literature Is Limited
- Even ‘noblebright’ stories are often limited. Noble characters and courageous deeds abound, but often they are cast loose from any objective moral standards. Look at the Harry Potter stories. Harry does good deeds, but they are good because the author says they are good. Lord Voldemort is evil because the author says he is evil. There is precious little supernatural underpinning to these tales, ‘noblebright’ or not.
Does Tolkien Offer A Solution? Yes! Check Out The Rings Of Power TV Series
- Contrast all this with the new Rings of Power series based on Tolkien’s appendices in The Lord of the Rings. For those who look closely, it is not difficult to see that Tolkien’s rules for fantasy are still intact in the new television series. There is true goodness amidst the darkness, and even in the ambiguous actions of the characters in this tale, there is still the wish to do good, to be noble, and to find the truth. There is a Christian underpinning even to The Rings of Power which makes it quantifiably different from the Game of Thrones–House of the Dragon series. And, perhaps most importantly, it is raised above the Harry Potter Novels, for in Tolkien’s universe, the rules of the good, true, and beautiful are not formed by humanity, but by a greater power.
The Practical Results Looked For In Fantasy Based On Christian Principles
If you are still with me, you have endured the philosophical reasons why I write Christian fantasy. Now for the practical ones.
- Urban/Rural Fantasy and Paranormal Thrillers take place in this world. I love epic fantasy, but it has been done to death. Much of the reading audience longs for realism, for magic aligned more closely with real life.
- Good and evil are clearly defined, though the protagonist and antagonist can operate with shades of gray.
- The world in which these genres function is this world, and, that means it is a fallen world. Sin abounds. Evil is present.
- Part of an author’s work is to make the magic realistic for this world. The reader has to say, “Well, I’ve never seen that, but it just might be possible.” This is perhaps the toughest part of the author’s task in writing Urban/Rural Fantasy and Paranormal Thrillers. The writer must be good in all other aspects of writing and must also add this talent.
- I love giving my readers a sense of awe and wonder; surprising them with joy, if I may borrow from Lewis. I’m Irish, so I believe in Thin Places, those places and times when the natural world and the supernatural meet and touch. To put those into my stories is one of my ways to communicate spirituality to the reader without being preachy or teachy. It lets the most cynical and nihilistic person get an opportunity to see that there is something good in this old world still.
- I want my reader to finish my tale with a eucatastrophic moment; to say, “Well if it isn’t this way, it should be!” And then sigh with pleasure at a good ending well told.
- When they close my book, I want the reader to look at the real world with all its pain and suffering with a new understanding. I want them to take a deep breath and say with a renewed purpose that they can bring a new force of good to a world that desperately longs for joy.
How Writing Christian Fantasy Fits In With A Priest’s Life
That’s my task as a priest, and that’s the way I preach through my writing. I light a fire around which people gather, and through my tales, teach them the stories of God. Tolkien would say I do this by sub-creation–humanity’s way of imitating God in order to let God’s Word shine through. It’s the beauty of Tolkien’s method to fill the reader’s soul with the Good News, often without the reader being aware. The reader just feels right–touched by happiness and joy–after the tale is told. In the end, that’s what we spreaders of the Gospel do–plant a seed, water it with story, fire it with truth, and let God do the rest.
If interested, all my books are available at Amazon.com and
Recommended: Tolkien’s Essay, On Fairy Stories