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Volume 14, Issue 2: Thema

Most Real Fantasy

Douglas Jones

Something is desperately odd when, of all people, Christians so easily call stories like The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and even, shudder, Harry Potter, "fantasies." The assumption is that reality is pretty much what bare science says it is, blocks of chemicals and cells of organisms pushing off each other, everything visible and measurable. We take "realistic" literature to be stories which stay put within these quantifiable bounds; fantasy, by contrast, is typically described as taking place in "an imaginary world," a "nonexistent realm" in which the characters have "supernatural powers."

But this all gets turned upside down when we ask which sort of fiction is actually closer to biblical reality. Closer is a key term here. But even from a distance, fantasy is an easy winner for realism. At its best, it offers a much more accurate picture of the oddness of Christian reality, a reality packed with weird invisibles and interlacing graces and dark evil. These are a large part of the world around us, but they are precluded from "realistic" stories; they can't be measured.
The prophet Elisha presents an intriguing picture of this reality. Elisha's servant was troubled. He looked out and saw a great army of Syrians surrounding the city (2 Kgs. 6:14). Doom was sure. The facts were all in. They were grossly outnumbered. The reality was visible. "What shall we do?" was his cry to Elisha. In one of those rare occasions, we get the surface-reality pulled back so that the thicker reality, the fantasy-reality, shows through. Elisha tells him not to fear: "for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.' And Elisha prayed, and said, `Lord, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.' Then the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw. And behold the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha" (2 Kgs. 6:17, 18). The world was crammed with beings—flaming chariots—that a surface scan couldn't begin to see. The servant's scientific vision was utterly unrealistic and narrow. The reality was far more fantastic.
Similar biblical examples could be multiplied, all to the sum that even in our day, Christian reality is much more bizarre and magical than modern "realistic" eyes will allow. So if a Christian wishes to write about real reality, what is he to do? What sort of contemporary literature has the freedom to include that larger reality?
But another problem quickly intrudes, a problem that forces the need for fantasy. The problem is that we can't just start putting dialogue in the mouths of angels and demons at whim. Their reality and psychology is beyond us; it would be backhandedly blasphemous to write a tale that dictated where these great beings went and said, what God did next, and how the Holy Spirit answered a particular prayer. In short, we can't write about real reality without degrading it ("degrading" is the etymological root of the verb "to Peretti," by the way).
On the one hand, we acknowledge that Christian reality is full of weirdness and twisting shades but on the other we can't actually name them without blaspheming. Thus, fantasy. Good fantasy (of which there is little) offers an intriguing solution to the dilemma. It allows us to hint at the full magic at work around us, but it calls it by another name, another world. But it's often a world much more akin to biblical reality than anything modern realism offers. At one level, The Lord of the Rings is a much more accurate depiction of metaphysical reality than any naturalistic story, but the names have been changed to protect the storyteller. Even the Potter stories are fun reminders of the unpredictable oddness of creation.
And yet, fantasy's accuracy needn't be absolutized. It shouldn't be taken as an argument against typically realist literature. Not every story has to do everything. Typically realist literature offers us a glimpse from our particularly human angle: the one we primarily live in, walking by faith; we see through a glass darkly. We rarely see all of reality. But it's nice to have some fantasy there once in a while to give us a reminder of the weirdness of God's world.
Too Real
But it is just this reality of fantasy that sets off other Christians. The modernist Christians targeted above "don't want to waste time on Tolkien" and end up with a shrivel of life. But, let's call them, Satanist-Christians fall the opposite way. They think Satan is alive and well and sees evangelicalism as a threat to him(!). They think Satan, having bound Christ, now rules the earth and is intent upon using Harry Potter to set us up for the Antichrist. That last clause is actually a quote.
These believers often fear Harry Potter and Tolkien's Gandalf because of a their tiny view of what happened at the cross. They have no sense of The Triumph. No sense of the defeat levelled against all things Satanic. We live in a new world. In Tolkien's terms, we live post-Mordor, and we have come back to the Shire to clean up the minor skirmishes, petty Satanisms lurking about after the war. But Christ's death and resurrection have made a new world. Satanist-Christians deny the deep victory of the cross; they dismiss the biblical declaration that, "Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it" (Col. 2:15). Satan is disarmed. He still causes petty squabbles, but nothing like he did before the cross when he locked all Gentiles in darkness. That world is dead.
Harry Potter can't be a threat. Wizardry doesn't really work. And if your kids are really tempted to join a coven then it's not a giant leap to say that you've failed miserably as a parent. Where is the ballast in your childrearing? How could that even be an option? You obviously have much more to fear from the subtleties of modern rationalism and individualism than from Potter.
The truth is that the Harry Potter series doesn't pretend to be great literature. It will be forgotten within fifteen years, while Tolkien will be remembered beyond 500 years. But the sad truth is that the Potter series is far funnier and nonsentimental than the vast majority of evangelical children's works. Christians are such scowlers, and we try to inspire the next generation with dark frowns, somewhat akin to starting a Grand Prix from a tar pit—it's much safer. And then, there fly the Harry Potter characters having a great time, being playful, heroic, earthy, unresentful, humorous, smart, masculine, risk-taking—all the things evangelicals fear most, all the things that should properly characterize Christian life. In these characters' simplicity, their love of life on earth is much more mature than evangelicals will understand for generations to come. Certainly, the Potter stories know far more about the shape of Christian living than the likes of Elsie Dinsmore and Veggie Tales. This fits though, because historically the Lord has loved to provoke His people to jealousy—"For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light" (Lk. 16:8).
One of the most overlooked features of modern stories like the Potter series is their implicit confession of the triumph of Christianity. This compliment to Christianity is not just the fact that the Potter stories are decidedly Christ-figure stories—an elect son, threatened at birth, who sacrifices His life for his friends and triumphs over evil in an underworld, even coming back from death for a feast.
Those narrative categories are complimentary enough, but the deeper compliment is the story's use of a Christian psychology. In its generic sense, a psychology is just a worldview's characteristic way of interacting with life. There is a distinctive Christian psychology, a hellenistic psychology, a modernist psychology, a postmodern psychology, a wiccan psychology, and so on. The Potter characters could have been written with any of these. They could have acted like those resentful infant-adults of the Iliad; they could have had the psychology of ancient druids. But they don't. Instead, the Potter stories give us largely Christianized witches, witches who have fully absorbed Christian ethical categories, love, kindness, hope, loyalty, hierarchy, community, and more. Plenty of witchy stories use other psychologies, and they haven't scored. A Potter who thought like Achilles would have been yawned off. Christian psychology makes for a far more interesting clash of values and characters than other psychologies could supply. But you couldn't have pulled this off in ancient Greece. They wouldn't get the story. But it's a great testimony to the cultural triumph of Christianity in the West, even in our brittle century.
Tolkien's Maturity
Though Potter is fun and complimentary in its place, it only scratches the surface of Christian psychology in the way many other non-Christian stories already do.
Part of Tolkien's genius, however, is his mastery of time, especially the psychological feel of time. For all its positives, the movie version of The Lord of the Rings can't register this at all; it is a typical cinematic rush that gives off a cartoonish air when compared to the feel of time in the written version.
But it's not just a thoroughly realistic sense of time between narrative events that Tolkien captures so well. He has also somehow magically been able to express the psychological weight of time, the weight of maturity. He has expressed what communities experience which have carried forward an abundance of history on their shoulders; he has expressed the feel of tradition, the feel of thousands of years of sanctification and degradation, passed on from generation to generation. Americans can have no sense of this at all, not only because of our minimal span but also because we are generational individualists, each disconnected from the prior.
Even more striking than communal time is Tolkien's expression of individual maturity in characters, such as that found in the elves—elegant, mysterious, whole, richly peaceful. Because Tolkien has written within Christian categories, the feel of maturity that results is that of a distinctively Christian maturity, a maturity found in someone who has entirely absorbed Ecclesiastes and the Psalms. Anyone who has been growing as a Christian over twenty years knows at least some hint of the difference between the weight of early and later Christian experience. Tolkien has extended this feel and gathered it together to be expressed through various fictional individuals. The literary effect is quite astounding, but it takes time to grasp. Those who don't have any appreciation for that experience (largely younger Christians or older Christians who have just put in the time with no growth) are often put off by Lord of the Rings. They can't appreciate it because they lack the personal categories. They have something to look forward to, though.
When Christians actually mature to the extent hinted at in the trilogy, will they still find Tolkien great or thin? Will real maturity match his picture? Or is he just an eschatological tease for our less mature centuries? Fantasy most real.

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