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Fantasy:  A Gift of Imagination

 

What is moral, wholesome and uplifting to watch and read in entertainment and literature?  This is a question we should all be asking.  In this profane world a Christian needs to guard his senses very carefully.   So, in recent months, when the question has come to me, “Is fantasy literature good or bad?”, I have taken it seriously.  What follows is what I found in looking for the answer to this question.   

 

Outstanding Authors

 At the heart of the best Christian apologetics and literature you find CS Lewis.  After reading many of his books—including a biography—he has impressed me as being one of the great Christian authors.  The Narnia Chronicles alone have secured his position as an outstanding author, having established themselves as timeless works of literature. They appeal to both the atheists and the God-fearing, to both the uneducated and to scholars; to children and adults.

 

 However, the depth of inspiration we find in these masterpieces should not surprise us.  A. W. Tozer wrote,  “Who God would use greatly, He will hurt deeply".  And C.H. Spurgeon preached,  “Many men owe the grandeur of their lives to the difficulties they have suffered" And that certainly was the case with Lewis who suffered an unending series of tragedies throughout his life.  Of course, we always have the choice, like Lewis himself said, of how we will respond to this pain,

“To be sure, it feels wintry enough still; but often in the very early spring it feels like that…the spring comes down slowly down this way; but the great thing is that the corner has been turned.  There is, of course, this difference, that in the natural spring the crocus cannot choose whether it will respond or not.  We can.  We have the power either of withstanding the spring, and sinking back into the cosmic winter, or of going on into these ‘high mid-summer pomps’ in which our leader, the Son of Man, already dwells, and to which he is calling us.  It remains with us to follow or not, to die in this winter, or to go on into that spring and that summer.”  

Lewis’ stepson, Douglas Gresham has said that he has never met another Christian like him, who put what he believed into actual practice in his life. 

And about the wonder of his writings Gresham had the follow to say:

“Although Jack wrote all the words down, the author of his works was the Holy Spirit of God because he was man committed to God”.    

“When Jack (C.S. Lewis) died he didn’t leave a shadow, he left a glow…in his works—his great books.  He opened the doors to the lanterns of light on the world if we only bother to open the pages of these books.” 

“Jack didn’t set out to write a Christian book for children.  He said,  ‘We don’t need more people writing more Christian books, what we need is more Christians writing good books.’  So he set out to write a good book and his own Christian faith and the Holy Spirit infused/informed the creation of Narnia.”  

JRR Tolkien, although not a visible theologian like Lewis, was a man of impeccable character, remarkable intellect, and steadfast faith. Few today realize that Tolkien and C. S. Lewis—who became the most respected Christian apologist of the 20th century, were among a group that met weekly to critique each other’s writings, or that Tolkien played a major role in leading Lewis to Christ.

 

"...the chief purpose of life, for any one of us, is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. To do as we say in the Gloria in Excelsis: ...We praise you, we call you holy, we worship you, we proclaim your glory, we thank you for the greatness of your splendour."

 Upon reading Lord of the Rings one can see that Tolkien is not playing second fiddle to Lewis when it comes to depth and integrity.  He considered his Christianity “obvious” from the reading of it, and said that the only criticism that bothered him was that his books “lacked religion.”  

One of the reasons Tolkien’s stories don’t use more overtly Christian imagery is that he believed “clumsy simplicity” was fatal to the art of myth telling.  Rather, he saw legendary tales like his as containing moral and religious truths “in solution,” rather than the form in which we recognize them in the “real” world.  “After all,” he said, “I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth,’ and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode.” 

 This is what he had to say about the books, ".... The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first but consciously in the revision. I … have cut out practically all references to anything like 'religion,' to cults and practices in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism. However that is very clumsily put, and sounds more self-important than I feel. I should chiefly be grateful for having been brought up since I was eight in a faith that has nourished me and taught me all the little that I know … " 

 Of Tolkien’s Trilogy Lewis wrote, “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart—good beyond hope.” 

 Consequently, from what I have read and seen, I don’t think we can believe everything we read about CS Lewis (or JRR Tolkien).  Contrary, false and injurious things can be read about anyone.  Just type Ellen White into Google and see what you find.  If a person isn’t well read and doesn’t look at it from a balanced perspective, many of the negative things written about her are quite convincing.  There are many who don’t understand or like people such as Ellen White.  The same is true for CS Lewis and many other good people.    Anais Nin could have been talking of Lewis and Tolkien when he said,  The personal life deeply lived always expands into truths beyond itself.”

 

The Power of a Story

As English professor Joseph Williams notes, “storytelling is fundamental to human behavior. No other form of prose can communicate large amounts of information so quickly and persuasively.”  Jesus not only used stories, or parables, in his ministry, but he used them exclusively. “Indeed he said nothing to them without a parable,” in fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy, “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.” (Matt. 13:34-35).  The God who designed our minds and our capacity for language also gave us the fascinating communicative device of the story.

What Jesus himself makes clear here beyond debate is that God uses stories of all genres to make known in a unique way His existence, presence, and character.  The story need not be even labeled “Christian” to contain and communicate these truths.  A good example of this is the book of Esther where the story itself argues for the cause and presence of ultimate good, even though God’s name is never mentioned.

 

Another Way

Of course the challenge for any Christian writer or artist is how to get at the ordinary things which give life its meaning but remain unseen—namely, truths of morality, faith, and transcendent ideals.  There are dynamic Christian authors that attempt this by writing realistic literature.  Some of these have really touched us such as Spotted Boy and the Comanches, The Sound of Music, A Christmas Carol, A Thousand Shall Fall, Anne of Green Gables, and The Secret Garden.  But another way to write about these invisible truths is to explore them symbolically; that is, through fantasy.  Fantasy is wholly imaginary—it is not reality, but it can provide a way to think about reality.  In 1939 Tolkien said it best when he said that good fantasy is escapist in a good sense: it enables us to flee into reality.

In his essay "On Fairy Stories," Tolkien deals with the charge of "escapism”, the objection that fairy tales, fantasies, and stories like his merely provide escape or send us into a fantasy world. “The assumption”, he said, “is that escaping is always a bad thing. For someone who is imprisoned, the most healthy thing he can do is to escape the walls that shut him in.  Each one of us, indeed, needs to escape from this prison that holds us so tightly in this world—a prison framed by our own limited experiences and wrong thinking.  We so desperately need to catch a vision of reality, God’s transcendent cause, and escape to the truth. 

The affect of good fantasy is wonderfully described by Kurt Bruner, who works with Focus on the Family and co-authored “Finding God in the Land of Narnia”, 

“What George MacDonald did for the faith and imagination of C.S. Lewis, Lewis has done for millions who have read his fantasy tales.  With the possible exception of J.R.R. Tolkien, no twentieth-century writer more masterfully married the enchantment of fantasy with the enrichment of faith.  The Narnia stories are like a meal with the nourishment of meat and vegetables but the taste of cake and candy.  Both the dreams of fairyland and the promise of heaven invade the imagination at the same time, baptizing it with wonderful and unexpected effects.   The problem, of course, is that we rarely associate pleasure with nourishment.  The Narnia tales are such good children’s stories we resist the notion that they allegorize the great truths of the bible and of God.”

I think one of the most powerful things about the writings of Lewis and Tolkien is that they blindside you—take you off guard, surprising you with delightful thoughts and truths about God that you would not have taken notice of at all before.  Kurt Bruner illustrates with this story:  

“Our entire family was driving in the car listening to the final production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  Not a word was spoken as we endured the dreadful scene of Aslan’s death on the stone table.  A deep sadness rested upon my nine-year-old son, Shaun as he absorbed the injustice and loss.   But then, moments later, he was overwhelmed with celebration as he discovered that Aslan was alive again.  The gloom of death overtaken by the delight of resurrection, Shaun could not contain his excitement,  “That’s just like Jesus!”  he screamed from the backseat.” 

Like most of our kids (and us) who have been raised in Sabbath school, Shaun had heard the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection literally hundreds of times.  It had become routine, expected—perhaps even boring.  But through a fantasy tale that had none of what Lewis calls “stained glass and Sunday school associations”, Shaun was caught off guard, surprised by the most wonderful and potent truth of Christian faith.  The effect on his heart was a whiff of true delight.  A good story both teaches and delights—which is another way of saying what these stories do so well—teach by delighting.

These stories deliver the truth to our deepest places by helping us to experience reality in a different way rather than to dissect it intellectually.  In 'Finding God in The Lord of the Rings' Kurt Bruner and Jim Ware write:

“Many... believers have been hesitant to embrace a creative work that includes mythic figures, magic rings, and supernatural themes. This is unfortunate because the transcendent truths of Christianity bubble up throughout this story, baptizing our imaginations with realities better experienced than studied.”  

Because of this unique nature of fantasy, the deeper meanings, paradigms and lessons that are prevalent in these classic works are easily caught by our minds but especially by the minds of the young.  We may think kids do not understand but too often we do not understand kids.  Children’s brains can apprehend and fathom more than we realize. 

That has been my experience as the boys and I have journeyed into Narnia.  I’ve heard Dustin and Brandon verbalize those things as they have read or heard them.  We have entered into the experience of the gospel rather than merely exploring it’s tenets.  And along the way crossed a great frontier that is awakening in us a new, more vibrant faith. 

 

The Power of the Imagination

In Anne of Green Gables it is through Anne’s imagination that she learns valuable lessons and changes her family, friends and world for good.  The biblical book of Revelation is another great example of the positive use of the imagination and fantasy.  And through imaginative wrestling with evil Lewis and Tolkien teach the reader about virtue and character and God.  The danger isn’t ever in using the imagination—it is when a story puts the imagination in the position of rooting for points of view or characters inconsistent with the Christian world view.

Tolkien awakens and nurtures using what he calls the “familiar device of unfamiliar embodiments.” He creates a world that is fictional, but that operates by the same moral laws as our own, and uses fantastic creatures and settings to illustrate moral conflicts with a starkness that is much more difficult to portray in “real” life. The stories lead their readers to conclude which outcome is morally desirable and why—even if they don’t realize it. With his moral senses thus sharpened, the reader is more likely to recognize the moral dimension of his own actions and experiences.  Sometimes the truth can only be perceived or understood in this way.

 The power of activating a child’s imagination for good cannot be understated.   I love what Douglas Gresham said, “Imagination and the stimulation of imagination is the only way we have of getting beyond the evidence of our own eyes and reaching for God”. 

 

 

Good and Bad Fantasy

 I don’t believe we can say that all fantasy is the same.  There is good and bad fantasy just as there is good and bad literature.  Fantasy imagery can impact the imagination in good or bad ways.  Imaginary worlds can be run both ways—any kind of art requires imagination and can be either used or abused within the moral framework of our relationship with God. 

In one of the best articles on fantasy, distributed by The Christian Research Institute (foremost Christian apologist Hank Hanegraaff runs this org and also hosts The Bible Answer Man, a program that is heard by millions daily around the world), Gene Veith makes this observation,

“Since fantasy grows out of the inner world, its overall danger—when it is dangerous—has to do with the temptation to sink into oneself, to indulge one’s sinful imagination (Gen. 8:21), and to wallow in the darkness of our fallen nature.  The pseudo-realism of a false worldview also shuts us into darkness.  Good fantasy, on the other hand, takes us out of ourselves, countering our darkness with at least a glimpse of the external light.”

The complete article can be found at http://www.equip.org/free/DF801.pdf#search=%22good%20fantasy%20and%20bad%20fantasy%22

This happens dynamically with young boys and tales of knights and dragons.  It is one of the most effective challenges a young boy could be given.  It throws down the question, “How will you live your life?”  It exclaims, “There is real evil and there is transcendent good—would you risk your life for good—for all that is noble, pure and honorable?”  It gives him a thrilling glimpse of light.

This objective nature of truth—or contrast of darkness against light—is one of the greatest lessons we learn from Lewis and Tolkien.  Evil is real; and so is good.   Goodness is the real presence of God; evil is His real absence.  In The Great Divorce, a fantastic journey through heaven and hell, CS Lewis says, “There is but One good; that is God.  Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns from Him.”  Neither Tolkien nor Lewis have any time for the amoral relativism that is so prevalent in much of what passes as modern literature and entertainment.  The fact that their myths contain more truth than most of what passes as realism serves as a damning indictment of the false vision being presented in our world today. 

Too many of us split our lives in two.  We have a sacred part and a secular part. But there should be no difference between the two—good is good and should be embraced—bad is bad and should be shunned.

It is this emphasis on right and wrong, on the need to refuse the seduction of evil power, and on the importance of our decisions - this God-centered, moral, and essentially Biblical worldview of J R R Tolkien and CS Lewis- that lifts Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia above the run of fantasy tales, and gives them their epic greatness.

 

Myth—An Essential Ingredient 

In their fantasy tales, Lewis and Tolkien make use of cultural myth to create their worlds.  Although some have felt this unacceptable, I, in my understanding, don’t believe that mythology can be labeled bad or that mythical creatures are inherently demonic.  Mythology is not intrinsically evil, although it has certainly been used for evil—as everything in this world can be. 

 First and foremost, Jesus did not set us this example when it comes to mythology.  Like Lewis and Tolkien, Jesus used myth as a dynamic way to get at the ordinary things which give life its meaning but remain unseen—to convey startling truth to those with wisdom enough to seek out the deeper meaning. 

In the best example, He used of the story of Abraham in the underworld in Luke 16:19-30, one the Pharisees could not reject, since it was based on one of their own cultural myths. (By definition, it is not a parable.)

Evidence from surviving Jewish texts of the period show that it is drawn from popular first century myths concerning a division in the underworld between the fires of Hades and the paradise where Abraham and other patriarchs dwelt.   If Jesus used Jewish mythology and folklore (which is drawn partially from Greek mythology) to drive his points home, why shouldn’t we? 

Second, every culture in history (including ours) has its mythologies.  Every individual has them too.  These mythical archetypes come from an instinctual, preconscious, collective genetic pool that has come down to us through history and enables us to be human.  We are born with these patterns that structure our imagination and make it distinctly human.  These mythical patterns are often connected with religion because they are so intrinsically a part of who we are and why we are here. 

So myth is much more than just a devil trying to deceive people—it is first a crucial and indispensable way in which we understand our lives.    Myth is something we as humans would despair without—essential to the survival of each individual and culture.  This is why there is a central part of us that yearns for it. 

In the next couple paragraphs is an excellent explanation of how myth should relate to our belief.  In an article in Christianity Today called Myth Matters, Louis A. Markos comments

“One of CS Lewis's greatest services as an apologist was to demonstrate that in the person of Christ we encounter a figure whose life, death, and resurrection, far from standing in opposition to the mythic heroes of paganism, in fact present a literal, historical fulfillment of what all those earlier myths were really about. To put it another way, just as Christ came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it, so he came not to put an end to myth but to take all that is most essential in the myth up into himself and make it real. In "Myth Became Fact," a seminal essay anthologized in God in the Dock, Lewis argues forcibly that:

 ‘The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. … God is more than god, not less: Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about "parallels" and "pagan Christs": they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren't. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God chooses to be mythopoeic—and is not the sky itself a myth—shall we refuse to be mythopathic?’”

The truth and reality of this clear and powerful description brings tears to my eyes and thrills my heart in ways that I cannot describe.  I have never seen Jesus and the world in this way before and it just plain blows me away! 

Markos continues, “If we could understand fully all that is suggested in this passage and apply it to our interactions with neopaganism, we would find ourselves better able to address the needs of a growing segment of our society. As evangelicals, we are quick to say with Paul that we are not ashamed of the gospel; let that boldness include not only the doctrinal elements of the Good News, but also its elements that answer the questions posted by great myths.   Thank God, there are prominent pastors, like D James Kennedy, who do affectively address these powerful questions.  As I mentioned earlier, used with the imagination, these great myths are one of the greatest tools Christians have to bridge the gap into the secular mind,

Tolkien sums it up beautifully in The Tolkien Reader: The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels – particularly artistic, beautiful, and moving: 'mythical' in their perfect, self-contained significance; and at the same time powerfully symbolic and allegorical; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. …There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.  For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to madness or to wrath. ...Because (of these things), this story is supreme; and it is true.  Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men – and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.”

The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia are mythic.  Because they are mythic they touch our lives and our experience in close and vital ways—powerful ways that can wake us out of our tendencies to indifference and selfish gratification—dynamic, effectual ways that challenge us to uprightness, virtue and selflessness and inspire us to courage and noble heroism.  And because they are written from a Biblical worldview, the way it touches our lives also expresses Biblical truth.

 

Magic:  Miraculous, Demonic and the Supernatural

 There is yet another element that sometimes brings objections to even good fantasy—magic and magicians.  Among many Christians, the coming of the films made from Tolkein and Lewis’ books is a herald of renewed debate. 

The prevalence of “magic” in Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, which may alienate many Christians at first glance, is a powerful tool for preparing modern minds to accept the reality of God. Although the Harry Potter stories feature fictional people and fanciful places, they otherwise take place in this world—a place where witchcraft is not fantasy, but a sinful reality condemned by God.  By contrast, Middle Earth and Narnia are in an entirely fictional realm with its own history and different parameters for interaction between mortals and the divine.

At the same time, Tolkien saw his fantasy world as a “sub-creation”—a place that the biblical God could have made, and that does not contradict his moral laws. Tolkien even gives the creation account of Middle Earth in another story, which reveals the “wizards” and other supernatural characters in Lord of the Rings to be angelic-type beings that God allowed to inhabit Middle Earth alongside mortal creatures in order to fulfill His own ultimate purposes. “Magic” in Lord of the Rings therefore, is not rebellion against God, but an exercise of His gifts and a window to His reality.

When looking at “magic” in Tolkien’s story, I think the first thing that must be understood is what this story encompasses.  As I read the story in its entirety I can only see it this way:  It is a story that very closely parallels the story of the great controversy as it is being played out in our world.  Eru (God) created all things good but some of the higher creations (Melkor, Tolkien’s satan and his servant Sauron, the Dark Lord.), having the power of free will, rebelled.  They infected Middle Earth with their hate and malice, causing others to join them in rebellion and filling it with the very real threat of evil.

Against the peril of the powers of darkness comes a small and innocent creature named Frodo; a descendent of the last king of Gondor, Aragorn son of Arathorn; and a wizard named Gandalf.

Gandalf – the wizard – is one of the righteous Maiar (Tolkien’s name for Eru’s lower ranking angels). He is faithful to Eru and all that Eru wills and his existence is spent in the service of heaven.

Tolkien could have called the Maiar anything: for instance, he could have called them angels or he could have called them Magi, familar to us from the Three Wise Men of Scripture and a title derived from the same ancient root as the word 'magic.' His selection of the word ‘wizard’ to describe Gandalf doesn’t turn Gandalf from a servant of Heaven into a servant of Hell. According to Tolkien's own words, Gandalf is a servant of the Secret Fire, which Tolkien also himself said is the Holy Spirit.

And, yes, Gandalf possesses the traditional staff of a wise man or ‘wizard,' but so did Aaron, the brother of Moses. The power that Gandalf wields through his staff is – as is Elven ‘magic’ - a holy power originating with Eru himself. Having a staff per say no more makes Gandalf evil than did it Aaron when he used his staff at God’s bidding against the magicians of ancient Egypt. (Exodus 7:8-24, Exodus 8:5-7)

There are many manifestations of the supernatural in Lord of the Rings; the same is true of the Old and New Testaments.

Not all supernatural manifestations or incidents in Lord of the Rings are of the evil angels, any more than are Bibical miracles workings of Satan. Angels have appeared to men, as happened to the prophets and Mary and the apostles - clear manifestations of holiness – and sometimes, they came disguised as mortals. (Hebrews 13:2)

The reason that scripture tells us to avoid sorcery and witchcraft is not because supernatural power is inherently evil. It’s because God hasn’t granted to us – mankind – any such powers. Angels do have powers that we see as supernatural – though no doubt the angels themselves think their powers rather commonplace and perfectly natural for the dimension they inhabit.

But in our dimension, the only way we humans can tap the supernatural is through either the Divine Power—through prayer and miracles—or through the darkened power of Satan. We are told to seek the former and shun the latter.

If we try to take supernatural powers for ourselves, we will end up subject to Satan, to the aforementioned principalities and powers. If we turn to Jesus Christ for supernatural help, which is what we do every time we pray, miracles can happen. (John 14:12 “He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do…”)

In Lord of the Rings the power that Evil would wield through the One Ring is a perversion, just as is the power that Satan/Lucifer still has. Like Satan, none of Middle Earth’s fallen creatures were evil from the beginning.  They darkened and twisted their divinely-granted gifts of their own free will, corrupting their inherent ‘magical’ capacities to glorify themselves instead of Eru and to attempt to take to themselves the absolute mastery that they desired.

 So, I think the “magic” we see in Lord of the Rings is dealt with in no different a way in than it is in the Bible and other excellent character building literature.  It really should be termed supernatural, in the sense that God is supernatural, or that Satan is supernatural, or that good and evil are supernatural.  It would be more accurate to describe the so-called magic in The Lord of the Rings as miraculous, when it serves the good, and demonic, when it serves the evil.

Tolkien's Middle-Earth, the world in which The Lord of the Rings is set, is under the ultimate power of the One God. It is also under the corrupting influence of Melkor, the fallen angel who is Tolkien's Satan.  The greatest of Satan's servants, Sauron, is the Dark Lord who is the enemy in The Lord of the Rings.  In other words The Fellowship of the Ring is in a fight to the finish with Satan's servants.

How can Christians possibly object to a quest, the purpose of which is to thwart the evil designs of the demonic enemy?  Rather than a fantasy, The Lord of the Rings should really be called a theological thriller. 

Lewis’ Narnia is similar to Tolkien’s Middle Earth although not quite so subtle.  It grows out of a central supposition.  Suppose there existed another world peopled by animals rather than human beings.  Suppose that world fell, like ours, and had in it someone the equivalent of Christ.  Aslan entered Narnia in the form of a lion just as Jesus came into this world in the form of a man.  Based upon this supposition, Lewis created a fantasy world that depicts the central theme of our real world—redemption through the incarnate God’s death and resurrection.  The extraordinary part is that this mythical Christ somehow draws us ever deeper to the Real. 

Magic, in Lewis’ world, plays out in the roughly the same way as I have described it above in Lord of the Rings.   Narnia is also a sub-creation—a place that the biblical God could have made, and that does not contradict his moral laws. 

I could say much more about magic in literature but I think what I have talked about here addresses my basic thoughts as far as Lewis and Tolkien are concerned.

 

 

 The real difference between Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia as compared to Harry Potter is their authors. Christians who are wary of the Potter series’ positive portrayal of sorcery and witchcraft raise legitimate questions as to the intention and worldview of its author.  Some also raise those same questions against Tolkien and Lewis but, as I have talked about already, I don’t believe this holds up to the truth.

 

 Their fictional worlds have been consciously and deliberately shaped in such a way as to make quite clear that the pursuit of supernatural power (or “magic”), while it is a safe and lawful occupation for someone like Coriakin or Gandolf in the fairy-land world of Narnia or Middle Earth or angels in our world, is in fact dangerous and wrong for human beings in and of our world (unless it is God working the supernatural through us)— something attempted by nasty personages like Digory’s Uncle Andrew. 

Steven Greydanus talks about seven hedges that both of them put in place to put their works completely beyond moral question.  These show how incredibly responsible Lewis and Tolkein were in writing their stories.  You will not find these implemented in Harry Potter or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or movies like The Craft and such. 

 

 1.     Tolkien and Lewis confine the pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation to wholly imaginary realms, with place-names like Middle-earth and Narnia — worlds that cannot be located either in time or in space with reference to our own world, and which stand outside Judeo-Christian salvation history and divine revelation. By contrast, Harry Potter lives in a fictionalized version of our own world that is recognizable in time and space, in a country called England (which is at least nominally a Christian nation), in a timeframe of our own era. 

2.      In Tolkien’s and Lewis’s fictional worlds where magic is practiced, the existence of magic is an openly known reality of which the inhabitants of those worlds are as aware as we are of rocket science — even if most of them might have as little chance of actually encountering magic as most of us would of riding in the space shuttle. By contrast, Harry Potter lives in a world in which magic is a secret, hidden reality acknowledged openly only among a magical elite, a world in which (as in our world) most people apparently believe there is no such thing as magic. 

3.                 Tolkien and Lewis confine the pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation to characters who are numbered among the supporting cast, not the protagonists with whom the reader is primarily to identify. By contrast, Harry Potter, a student of wizardry, is the title character and hero of his novels. 

4.      Tolkien and Lewis include cautionary threads in which exposure to magical forces proves to be a corrupting influence on their protagonists: Frodo is almost consumed by the great Ring; Lucy and Digory succumb to temptation and use magic in ways they shouldn’t. By contrast, the practice of magic is Harry Potter’s salvation from his horrible relatives and from virtually every adversity he must overcome.

5.      Tolkien and Lewis confine the pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation to characters who are not in fact human beings (for although Gandalf and Coriakin are human in appearance, we are in fact told that they are, respectively, a semi-incarnate angelic being and an earthbound star.) In Harry Potter’s world, by contrast, while some human beings (called “Muggles”) lack the capacity for magic, others (including Harry’s true parents and of course Harry himself) do not.

6.      Tolkien and Lewis emphasize the pursuit of magic as the safe and lawful occupation of characters who, in appearance, stature, behavior, and role, embody a certain wizard archetype — white-haired old men with beards and robes and staffs, mysterious, remote, unapproachable, who serve to guide and mentor the heroes. Harry Potter, by contrast, is a wizard-in-training who is in many crucial respects the peer of many of his avid young readers, a boy with the same problems and interests that they have.

7.      Finally, Tolkien and Lewis devote no narrative space to the process by which their magical specialists acquire their magical prowess. Although study may be assumed as part of the back story, the wizard appears as a finished product with powers in place, and the reader is not in the least encouraged to think about or dwell on the process of acquiring prowess in magic. In the Harry Potter books, by contrast, Harry’s acquisition of mastery over magical forces at the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft is a central organizing principle in the story-arc of the series as a whole.

I think these hedges, combined with a better understanding of what these books are really about, puts these books in a totally morally acceptable place…no, a morally admirable place… a place with the best literature that we can read and put before our children. 

 

What about Ellen White?

 I couldn’t write this without mentioning what Ellen White says on the subject since we believe that she is inspired and has good council.  Of fiction and novels she makes some apparently disturbing comments,  

"That mind is ruined which is allowed to be absorbed in story-reading. The imagination becomes diseased, sentimentalism takes possession of the mind, and there is a vague unrest, a strange appetite for unwholesome mental food, which is constantly unbalancing the mind. Thousands are today in the insane asylum whose minds became unbalanced by novel reading, which results in air-castle building and love-sick sentimentalism." --The Signs of the Times, February 10, 1881. MYP 290.3

 

“The readers of fiction are indulging an evil that destroys spirituality, eclipsing the beauty of the sacred page.”   --The Adventist Home 412

 

 

Ellen White also read and borrowed from Paradise Lost by Milton, a classic and one of the greatest epic poems in English…also a work of fiction and fantasy.

In light of her contrasting statements and actions, I believe that we must be careful with Ellen White’s statements and take them in the context of everything she wrote and did.  And like on any subject she wrote on, it is easy to make her say things that she never intended or meant. 

Certainly the mind can be unbalanced and misled by bad fiction and novels.  But obviously Ellen White didn’t put all novels and fiction in the same category.  She praised and used some and attacked others.  I believe the words frivolous, mindless, and worthless that she often uses in The Adventist Home and other places are probably key in understanding what she meant in her writings about literature and reading.  The writings of Milton, Bunyan, Lewis and Tolkien are far from that.

 

The Power of a Story-Revisited

 The world is teaching our children lust and perversion—ideas like “Spawn till you die” and “I am the master of my own destiny” and “He who dies with the most toys wins”.  These concepts are subtly pressed into the mind again and again in every day life until the subconscious accepts them as the truth.  As parents, we must administer powerful antidotes to counteract this undertow. 

 Veith says that in good stories “children are taught the attractiveness of virtue and the repulsiveness of evil not so much by abstract precept—and certainly not by school’s ‘values clarification exercises’—but by rooting for virtuous heroes and being inspired by a good story to emulate their behaviorimaginative wrestling with conflicts is exactly how stories teach morality and build character”.

Bible stories, historical stories and fictional/fantasy stories can each do this dynamically in their own way. I think the sweeping appeal of Narnia and Lord of the Rings comes from Lewis and Tolkien’s ability to tell a story that can convince us that we, too, are part of a story—a story even more wonderful than Lord of the Rings or Narnia, though it is similar in many ways.  Dustin and Brandon and, I think many adolescents, find in these stories the excitement of the adventure of life and of the challenge of becoming a man (or woman). They find in it the mysteries of friendship lived in the face of death, and of the self-sacrifice that is necessary that others may live.  And it dawns on them that this is not just a story but their story!  

In a recent interview on his book Epic, John Eldredge said that power of story is that is moves us toward discovering the true story of the gospel that is unfolding right now!  It is a story that transcends other stories because we have a part to play in it.  You are not like an extra.”  He says.  “You are very important to God and you won’t be able to figure out the hardships and trials, the yearnings and the desires of your life until you realize that, Wow!  Wait a second!  I am living a story that is every bit as much like the Lord of the Rings.  There are enemies.  There are great deeds to be done.  Sacrifices to be made.  That is what speaks to the human heart.”

And it is not just children and adolescence!  How many times have I been moved to tears and righteousness by these stories!

Even our best storytellers and mythmakers can only keep us in worlds of their creation for a while.  The atmosphere they create fades too quickly.  That is why they must call our hearts to something, or Someone greater than story or myth.  Then we begin to understand what Lewis meant when he said that “the heart of reality is not, after all, a place, but a Person.”  Surprised by Joy  184 

 “No wonder,” wrote George Sayer, one of C.S. Lewis’ biographers, “that my little step-daughter, after she had read all the Narnia stories, cried bitterly, saying,  ‘I don’t want to go on living in this world.  I want to live in Narnia with Aslan.’   No wonder indeed!  And no wonder Sayer answered:  “Darling, one day you will.”

 

Dynamic Teacher of Reality and Truth

 As you can see from the things I have talked about, I believe that fantasy in literature has been deeply misunderstood.  Some have tried to make a case against all fantasy but, from my understanding and study, I don’t think any such case holds up to the truth as I find it in inspiration and in the world in so many places.  Instead of drawing us into a fantasy world and shutting us into darkness, good fantasy inspires us with light and teaches us what is real—driving the truth home in extraordinary ways.  Like Tolkien said, it enables us to flee into reality. 

So I don’t think we need be concerned with the books of CS Lewis or JRR Tolkien.  Their amazing stories are a dynamic way to move the hearts of our kids with eternal realities—not only to teach but also to challenge them, and us, to a higher standard.  Countless readers have come to realize that few stories do this quite as well as theirs.

At the present the boys and I are exploring some of these great works of fantasy.  It is a wonderful and awesome time in their lives.  These powerful stories will inspire their hearts and impact them for good in incalculable ways for years to come.  What a privilege and opportunity we have to be able to read them. 

And, I would invite you to join us and, in the words of Kurt Bruner, to “push beyond the fur coats of this world and enter the snowy wood of imagination.  The light just ahead is much more than a lamppost.  It is the light of God millions have discovered in the land of Narnia”.   And the light shines every bit as bright in other great works of good fantasy.

There will always be those who disagree with me on this subject.  I suppose, in the final analysis, I do not wish to condemn those with the firm conviction that any “magical” story is irredeemably evil.  Instead, I would encourage these people to not violate their consciences. We can remain Christians and still have such disagreements.

But, for me, what I have written here begins to touch on the reason I am so drawn to this kind of literature and am so deeply moved and inspired with it’s telling—and the reason I cannot agree with those who believe it is evil.