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Orthodox Christianity and fantasy literature

6 May 2012

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 Rensburg 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).

7 Comments leave one →
  1. rlcopple permalink
    6 May 2012 9:43 am

    Good points. I think people often use allegory in relation to those writings in the sense that an item or more represent certain things in reality. But yes, it is a very loose definition.

    I’ve written something many years ago on why I, as an Orthodox Christian, write fantasy, going over several issues. Let’s see, where is that link….

  2. 8 May 2012 6:51 pm

    “The Pilgrim’s Regress” was definitely CS Lewis’s contribution to Allegory. He also wrote a (if not, the) book on the subject: “The Allegory of Love”. “Animal Farm” was Fable, but not true Allegory – for that, it’s not enough that characters in a story symbolize other things, but the things symbolized must be Abstractions – not just Orwell’s Horse representing the Worker (which fits), but Work (which fits not). In Allegory proper, love can be a Rose, despair a Giant, etc: invisible things made visible.

  3. 8 May 2012 10:25 pm

    I think to be fair that my response to Fr. Andrew Demick should also be posted here since I’m a bit misunderstood as to my position.

    Dear Fr Andrew,

    First I want to say thank you for engaging in this discussion in a meaningful way.

    As the writer of the post you are responding to I thought I should just clarify some things. First and foremost I completely agree with you, not because I changed my mind but simply because I don’t think I did a good job of framing the discussion I was trying to start if you were able to take away what you did. I didn’t know anything about the attitude you are talking about prior to reading your post. I also have no idea about the monastic principles you are talking about. I’m not in some particular philosophical camp on the subject. I was just posing what I thought was a fairly legitimate question based on a prayer in the prayer book and a lay interpretation of it. I thought it fairly obvious that if the prayer is asking for protection against “wicked fantasies” then there must be such a thing as “wicked fantasies”. Maybe I should have started with “What’s a wicked fantasy?”
    I don’t personally have any problem at all with imaginative fiction. What I have a problem with is the idea that I’ve encountered recently which seems to state that since there is nothing wrong with imaginative fiction per se, that all imaginative fiction must be suitable for consumption. Believe it or not there are youth who want to read trash who if they found your post would use it as a justification to read trash because the people who are writing this stuff are being placed in book stores on the same shelves with Lewis & Tolkien. The argument that it’s the same genre so it’s the same quality and moral character is insanely faulty.

    I think imagination is essential to faith. How else do you “see” something you can’t physically see and “hear” something you can’t physically hear? I think imagination is the eyes and ears of the soul. That’s why God gave us imagination. I don’t think what a child reads has to be strictly educational. There is a lot of latitude, but it shouldn’t be patently deceptive against Christianity. The Golden Compass by Pullman is a great example of something that is imaginative but should be approached with caution. There are a lot of distinctly anti Christian ideas in his book. I’m not saying don’t read it, but I would not spoon feed it to my child as completely acceptable right along side Lewis either. The age and mental development of a child matters. If the child is capable of great critical reasoning and has a firm grasp of the Orthodox faith then maybe they could handle pulling apart a book like that and explaining what’s wrong with some of the ideas in it, however if they are not ready it could just as easily educate them right out of the faith by presenting heresy in a very attractive and disarming form. Are there books for which the risk of harm is too great to give the book to children? Shouldn’t parents be discretionary about their children’s reading material?

    Another problem occurs when a particular child wants to read all sorts of material for which his own parents are not educated enough to evaluate. Not all adults have perfect reasoning skills. I think a lot of people fall into that camp. I might be one of those parents to a certain extent and there is little guidance out there to tell me what I should do to protect my child from a culture that wants my child to be anything but Christian. What are they better off not reading, if I’m not in a position to help them understand it? What if I don’t understand it? What if there are only so many hours in a day and I don’t have a clue what I’m doing, but I’m Orthodox and I have children and they want to read even if I have no interest in books? Are there things children shouldn’t read unguided? What if the parent doesn’t even know a particular book needs guidance? Shouldn’t we have that discussion without reframing it in a way the discussion never happens? I know more parents who fall into that category than not. So with all that in mind I think my original question is a valid one for discussion, however I wasn’t trying to say that imagination and the fruits thereof are patently bad or worthless. That might be someone’s argument but I didn’t say it.

    I know all sorts of people who claim to be “orthodox” with a small “o” but have relativist thinking on every other count. Our culture defines and redefines language according to the individual to such a degree as to make all words meaningless. That’s why I offered the definitions, not because I thought they where scholastically correct, but because I just wanted to frame the discussion and what I was talking about. Clearly I could have done this better. The average person in this country has no understanding of the scholastic definitions of the things intellectuals are fully aware of. People just don’t use language that way in common society. Relativism means something different to every person who is asked about it and so does small “o” orthodoxy. In common popular language you can be both. I know that doesn’t seem to make sense but there are people proclaiming to be both, because they use the same words but mean very different things by them.

    I wasn’t aware of the essay you presented until I read it here. I think having read it, what I’m really trying to say is that much of the “fantasy” that is ending up on the store shelves today would be more accurately categorized as “morbid delusion”. We’ve reached that point. Had I ever read that essay before, I think I would have written my blog post differently. Perhaps the title should have been “Has the genre fantasy been broaden to include books that are really morbid delusion?” And then gone from there about it’s suitability for children. I’d welcome a post from you about these questions since that the discussion I was really trying to have? Your post doesn’t really substantially help with that.

    The final point I want to clarify is that when I said I wanted creatures that are not co-opted for evil I was anything but clear unfortunately. I didn’t mean that everyone should be good with no representation of evil. I think evil needs to be represented. It would be absurd not to. What I meant is that some creatures that were created to represent evil such as vampires have transitioned over time as different authors write about them and build on each other to be somehow not really evil. The whole point of a vampire is that it’s a supremely evil being that is incapable of redemption. So when we have vampires who are still consuming death and yet are presented as good that is a creature of the imagination which has been co-opted for evil in order to confuse the original inventers’ concepts of the creature essentially ruining the original author’s writings. Vampires today don’t resemble Stokers. I want new creatures in new books that have not been defined already so that the reader’s mind isn’t coming at those creatures with preconceived ideas about them. In other words werewolves and vampires have been over done and diluted.

    You are right that I do have a thing against Twilight however as someone pointed out there is a subgenre called paranormal romance. However to the average person all these books are being presented as fantasy and everything fantasy seems to want to proclaim “if you liked Tolkien you’ll love _______” This makes most of your genre distinctions while technically correct for people who are aware essentially meaningless to the average person walking into a book store to buy an imaginative book.

    I agree with your point about when a book should be called “Orthodox” and when/why it should not. We definitely don’t need an “Orthodox” brand separated from books distinctly about Orthodox Tradition.

    Father Bless.

  4. 16 May 2012 11:07 pm

    I think that as “real life” incorporates more and more elements of “phantasia”, invoked like a necromancer’s shades by the agony of dying hydrocarbon molecules, sometimes it takes an exercise of the imagination like Tolkien’s or even George Martin’s to bring us back to reality.

  5. 20 February 2016 7:34 pm

    Thank you for this important post. I especially like the point about Myth. I think Myth can transcend arguments over factuality vs. falsehood, since Myth communicates deep Truth. I also think Myth can help Christians see what is of imaginative value in paganism. Thanks!

  6. 20 February 2016 7:35 pm

    As Father Vasili Vasilevich would doubtless say “Is outrage! Was fantasy novels in nineteenth century Russia?”

    • 20 February 2016 8:44 pm

      Dostoevski’s “The double”?

      But Fr Kalashnikov of Kursk could doubtless give 47 reasons why it isn’t.

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