Orthodox Christianity and fantasy literature
An interesting discussion seems to be developing in the Orthodox blogosphere about whether Orthodox Christians should write, or even read, fantasy literature. They are referring to the works of writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien — Christian (though not Orthodox) authors who wrote fantasy fiction.
The answer of this blogger, Lily Parascheva Rowe, seems to be that fantasy literature is a definite No-No for Orthodox Christians: Is it Orthodox to Read and Write Allegory/Fantasy Children’s Books?:
Fantasy, on the other hand, is a pure expression of the passions. Basically it’s whatever the mind imagines ends up on paper. So then we end up with werewolves and vampires and a celebration of evil that in the modern genre completely lacks what the original characters were intended to portray. In this way, a genre that was meant to lead someone toward Christ now pulls them in the opposite direction by tantalizing every wicked fantasy and passion imaginable, and infusing it with a lustful voyeurism so that people constantly want more and more perverse and graphic fantasies. The other thing I notice about fantasy vs allegory is that modern fantasy generally has some sort of romantic involvement of the characters. This would be fine except for the fact that the romantic involvement doesn’t reflect Christ’s relationship with the Church or anything like a Christian marriage. Often, it could even be described as downright pornographic.
But Fr Andrew Stephen Damick disagrees Orthodoxy, Allegory and Fantasy | Roads from Emmaus:
Phantasia is a danger in ascetical writings not because it uses the imagination. Rather, it is a use of the imagination that fixates the heart on created things. More specifically, it is a fixation that is an obstacle to the pure prayer of the heart. In pursuing meditative prayer, the ascetic (who is not just the monastic, but all of us) is called upon not to try to imagine God, to picture Him, or to become obsessed with any created image in order to reach Him, because doing so is essentially idolatry. It is also simply prejudicial, just like relating to any human person by means of imagination rather than through encounter.
But fantasy (even the specific literary genre that goes by that name) isn’t about prejudicial obsessions with created things that block us off from God. If imagination qua imagination were only phantasia in the sense that the monastic fathers warn us of, then many of the great Fathers of the Church would be in rather deep trouble, for a good many of them had rather thorough educations in fiction—even in explicitly pagan literature.
Like Fr Andrew I would take issue with Rowe on the question of allegory, and especially the notion that allegory is good, and fantasy is bad. The writings of the church fathers are full of allegory, and many of them interpret the holy scriptures allegorically, but I think it is questionable whether writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien used allegory, even in their fantasy stories.
One can find examples of phantasia in literature. One fairly well-known example is Scott Fitzgerald’s The great Gatsby, where a central theme is the image one has of a person superseding the reality until it becomes an idol, and almost totally unrelated to the real person. It is this, as Fr Andrew points out, that is the kind of phantasia that the fathers wrote about as being one of the passions we should aim to bring under control. But The great Gatsby is not fantasy literature, nor is it allegory.
If we want to see true allegory in 20th-century literature, possibly the best example is George Orwell’s Animal Farm. It is fantasy literature too, in the sense that the situation it depicts does not literally form part of our experience of the real world. Animals don’t run farms in the world of everyday experience, but it is allegory in the correspondence of characters and events with historical events in our world.
In the works of Tolkien and Lewis (and one might as well include the novels of Charles Williams in this too) there isn’t such a correspondence. Of course all their works are illuminated by the Christian values of the authors, and the death of Aslan in Narnia in The lion, the witch and the wardrobe has some parallels with the crucifixion of Christ in our world, but it is not an allegory of it. It would be very difficult to find the allegorical counterpart of the witch in that story in our world. It is easier to find counterparts of Maugrim the wolf, the chief of the witch’s secret police in our world, but it could be applied to any head of any secret police in any country. Maugrim does not, for example, represent Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Nazi Gestapo, for instance, as true allegory would require, even if Lewis had some of his police in mind as models. It could equally well represent OGPU, or the KGB, or the South African Security Police of the apartheid era. I sometimes used to refer to them as “Maugrim” in letters to friends back them, and I wonder whether their functionary whose job it was to steam open the letters of suspected subversives understood the reference. But Maugrim was not an allegory for Himmler or Beria or even Warrant Officer Van Resnburg of the Pietermaritzburg SB.
C.S. Lewis himself had some interesting things to say about allegory (and as a professor of literature I think he probably knew what he was talking about). He wrote to Tolkien on 7 December 1929, after reading Tolkien’s poem on Beren and Luthien, “The two things that come out clearly are the sense of reality in the background and the mythical value: the essence of a myth being that it should have no taint of allegory to the maker and yet should suggest incipient allegories to the reader.”
So perhaps we should not be talking about “allegory” or “fantasy”, but rather about “myth”.
Lewis and Tolkien, and probably Williams too, were not so much interested in writing allegory, or even fantasy, but rather at writing Christian myths. And of myth Nicolas Berdyaev has said:
Myth is a reality immeasurably greater than concept. It is high time that we stopped identifying myth with invention, with the illusions of primitive mentality, and with anything, in fact, which is essentially opposed to reality… The creation of myths among peoples denotes a real spiritual life, more real indeed than that of abstract concepts and rational thought. Myth is always concrete and expresses life better than abstract thought can do; its nature is bound up with that of symbol. Myth is the concrete recital of events and original phenomena of the spiritual life symbolized in the natural world, which has engraved itself on the language memory and creative energy of the people… it brings two worlds together symbolically (Berdyaev, Freedom and the Spirit).
I think that these two blog posts, that of Lily Parascheva Rowe and of Fr Andrew Stephen Damick, could spark off an interesting discussion on the literary genres — fantasy, allegory, myth — and the Christian faith. Blog comments can help, but are rather limited, and comments on one blog may be missed by readers of the other, so for more flexible discussion I suggest the Neoinklings discussion forum be used. You can find more information about it and how you can join if you click here: NeoInklings Forum (Eldil).