A Fantastic Appeal
By: Bill McGrath
With all the current attention regarding the anti-Christian message of Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials and the film based on the first book, The Golden Compass, I am concerned that many Christian parents will become wary of all fantasy literature. This would be unfortunate as fantasy, above all other genres of fiction, has the greatest potential to cause us to look upward, to remind us that we are not alone—to say to the reader, be it in a whisper or a shout, “God is near.”
From The Iliad and The Odyssey, to Beowulf, to tales of King Arthur and his knights, to Dante’s Divine Comedy, to Milton’s Paradise Lost, to Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and up to modern classics such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, fantasy has been among the most powerful and popular forms of fiction. When mankind wants to tell a story that people will respond to, the tool he most often turns to is fantasy.
While fantasy usually gets lumped onto the same section of the bookstore as science fiction, they are really very different genres. Science fiction tends to glorify man (or at least his intellect). The mind of man may bring forth amazing things that are good or evil, but in science fiction these things always spring from men or man-like intellects. It is rare to see any hint of the spiritual or supernatural in science fiction.
So what, then, is fantasy? Shakespeare gives a pretty good definition in Hamlet, when the title character says, “There are more things in heaven and earth . . . than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
At their roots, we might say that science fiction speculates on the possibilities within the natural world, while fantasy broadens its view to include the supernatural. God need not exist in most science fiction stories, while in most fantasy stories He must (even if He is never directly seen). Every fantasy story that says justice will prevail in the end, is really saying that the universe is ruled by a just God. All of the best fantasy stories, be they about the ultimate war between good and evil or the doings of the smallest of fantasy creatures, really say the same thing and suggest to the reader (whether consciously or not) the same ultimate conclusion: If the smallest of supernatural things exists, even if it is the smallest of fairies, then perhaps the greatest of supernatural things (God) exists.
Of course, not all that is supernatural is good (Is the angel in the story wearing a halo or horns?), but I think what worries most Christians about fantasy stories is the use of magic. Even here, there are two distinct kinds of magic. The dangerous kind in any story is that which comes closest to what real practitioners of witchcraft are aiming at: magic as a learned skill that anyone can do and that involves what we usually think of as magic in the real world, including astrology, fortunetelling, and the invocation of spirits, be they of dead men or demons or pagan gods. The magic used in the best fantasy stories is of a different type. It is a power that only certain people have and it is used in the story in much the same way as the superpowers of a comic book superhero. You’ll see this later type of Fantasy magic used by Tolkien’s Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, by C.S. Lewis’ Merlin in That Hideous Strength, and by J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. Kids don’t tend to take this kind of magic seriously, and any of them old enough to read these stories for themselves would no more believe they can fly like Harry Potter by climbing on Mom’s broom than they would believe they can fly like Superman by tying on a towel for a cape.
As an example, I offer an excerpt from my own novel, Asulon (in chapter 12, “Of Men and Magic”). In it, a kindly priest named Simon explains to a grizzled old warrior named Moor how he does all the amazing things he has done. It depicts my views on how the elements of the fantasy story can be used in a Christian context and why people so desire to read about them.
This article was originally published: January 10, 2008 on the Breakpoint.org website.