Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Why We Need Fantasy Literature

May 26, 2021


Which books are most powerful, most evocative, most engaging for the work of evangelizing through literature? If we survey the landscape of modern literature with that question in mind, certain works of fiction form their own mountain range: Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings; Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles and Ransom Trilogy; George MacDonald’s Phantastes. To be sure, the works of other authors loom large in the landscape—Flannery O’Connor’s stories and novels, as one very notable example. But in my own admittedly anecdotal (albeit extensive) experience of which books are most often mentioned as being significant in readers’ journeys of faith, the pre-eminence of fantasy is notable.

Tolkien and Lewis are in the lead, undoubtedly, because they are such outstanding writers of imaginative literature: creative geniuses who, we might say, happened to choose fantasy as their preferred form. Lewis certainly shows that he is a master communicator in any genre or form that he chooses (as Steven Beebe argues convincingly in C.S. Lewis and the Craft of Communication). But I would venture to suggest that the power of their work is not unrelated to their choice of fantasy as a literary form. This isn’t to say that fantasy as a genre is superior to other forms per se—but it’s entirely possible (indeed, I think probable) that it has particular strengths for evangelization, and particularly for “leading with beauty.”

C.S. Lewis himself wrote in Surprised by Joy that reading George MacDonald’s fantasy novel Phantastes “baptized” his imagination, having a crucial impact long before he considered the intellectual question of whether Christianity was true. Many more have been drawn to Christ through Lewis’s own writing. In Mere Christians, Mary Anne Phemister and Andrew Lazo gathered accounts from readers of the impact of Lewis’s writings on their spiritual lives. For example, Atessa Afshar, a convert to Christianity from Islam, remarked that “in Perelandra, he displayed angels as close to their biblical revelation as words can manage. I was captivated: these eldila I could believe in, for they were not ridiculous, dewy-looking cherubs.” Philip Yancey noted that the Ransom Trilogy “made the supernatural so believable that I could not help wondering, What if it’s really true?” As I noted in my own memoir, Not God’s Type, I can attest to the profound impact that Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings had on me; long before I seriously considered the claims of Christianity, I was strangely compelled by his vision of a world that was beautiful and meaningful.

What makes fantasy particularly significant for evangelization? Tolkien’s own analysis of fantasy, in his essay “On Fairy-stories,” is helpful in this regard. One of the functions of fantasy, he suggests, is what he calls Recovery: “regaining of a clear view,” and in particular, as “‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves.” In phrasing Recovery this way, Tolkien emphasizes the meaning behind reality: we are meant to see things in a certain way. Meant by whom? By our Creator. Tolkien’s choice of synonyms emphasizes that we have lost something which once we had: re-gaining, re-covery, re-newal, re-turn. We once had the health and clarity of vision which we now lack; as Christians we understand that this is the result of the fall, played out in our individual lives.

Using the metaphor of a dirty, smudged window, whose film of grime obscures what we see through it, Tolkien says that we need “to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.” When we think that we truly know something, or someone, then we often stop really seeing. Indeed, Tolkien notes that our familiares are the “most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces.” The strangeness and difference of a fantasy world, the contrast that it provides between the imagined Secondary World and our real Primary World, facilitates the process of Recovery. Tolkien’s Treebeard and the other Ents, the shepherds of trees, help us to more clearly see the marvelous reality and particularity of trees: oaks, ash, beech, rowan. The homely comforts of second breakfast in a hobbit-hole in the Shire help us recognize the genuine beauty of a simple meal at home with family.

C.S. Lewis describes much the same concept when discussing the creation of the Narnia Chronicles in his essay “Sometimes Fairy Stories Say Best What’s to Be Said”:

I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.

Lewis noted that the Narnia books were “all about Christ,” yet they are anything but propagandistic evangelizing tracts. (The ire directed against the Chronicles by a few, such as Philip Pullman, ironically serves to emphasize their literary power: no one bothers to rail against the blandly pious and forgettable volumes in the average Christian Fiction section in the bookstore.) Rather, the Chronicles are infused with Christ, centered on the figure of Aslan, so that the reader breathes in the very spirit of Christ in their reading, as Michael Ward has explained in fascinating depth in Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis. Our sojourn in the fantasy world of Narnia helps us to recover a fresh vision of Christ, a rich and dynamic sense of who he is, and how we can get to know him.

In my earlier piece on Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “As kingfishers catch fire,” I pointed out how the poet guides us to look closely at the world, to truly see rather than just glance at something, and thus helps us, for a moment, to see the world through the eyes of faith. The reader may, for a brief moment, see from the inside what it means to have an identity in Christ, or to see the world as God sees it. Such an experience can have a lasting effect.

Fantasy, Tolkien is careful to note, has a deep and necessary relationship with the world as it truly is: “For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it.” He goes on to explain that “Fantasy is made out of the Primary World. . . . And actually fairy-stories deal largely, or (the better ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting. . . . It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; bread and wine.”

By closing his list with the subtle Eucharistic image of “bread and wine,” Tolkien hints at the power of Fantasy to cleanse our vision on the deepest possible level. It is only a hint: he is too wise to belabor the point. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!

The desirable end result of fantasy, Tolkien says, is for the story to “open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds. The gems all turn into flowers or flames, and you will be warned that all you had (or knew) was dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained, free and wild.” And that gives us guidance, as evangelists. We should not try to make fantasy stories into rigid allegories or evangelistic tracts; we should not try to force the Christian connections upon people who are not yet ready or interested in discovering them.

To do that is to shut the birds back in their cages and lock up the hoard once again. Rather, we should allow these marvelous stories to be “free and wild”—that is, to allow readers to experience the story as story, and delight in it with them. The happy ending of a fantasy story, Tolkien writes, does not ignore “sorrow and failure” but rather “it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” Such a story does not impose, but it invites, a further consideration of the source of this mysterious Joy. As evangelists, then, we should stand ready to be, like Virgil in Dante’s Divine Comedy, guides on the journey for those readers who have become intrigued, or perhaps unsettled, by this glimpse of hope. We can help them see even more clearly how our Primary World has depths of meaning and beauty beyond anything dreamed of in the most exciting fantasy novel ever written.