Fantasy and Myth

Fantasy and Myth November 14, 2011

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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