As a student of literature, particularly British Literature, I am beginning to understand how good, well-published, well-liked, and critically acclaimed works are written. The authors that I love to study have died at least one hundred and eighty years ago but are still loved and read today. As I read writers like Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, Robert Burns, Victor Hugo, and William Shakespeare, I find that my own styles of writing seem to emulate theirs, often to my professors’ frustration. Yet even as my poetry often follows the style of Robert Burns or my fantasy writings follow J.R.R. Tolkien’s style, I come to realize the real basis behind writing and how in doing so, I become more in the image of God.
What is fantasy literature? In the modern context, whenever someone mentions fantasy, everyone thinks of The Lord of the Rings, The Harry Potter books, and other such books. Tolkien, in his essay “On Fairy Stories” explains it thus:
What is a fairy-story? In this case you will turn to the Oxford English Dictionary in vain. It contains no reference to the combination fairy-story, and is unhelpful on the subject of fairies generally. In the Supplement, fairy-tale is recorded since the year 1750, and its leading sense is said to be (a) a tale about fairies, or generally a fairy legend; with developed senses, (b) an unreal or incredible story, and (c) a falsehood….I said the sense “stories about fairies” was too narrow. It is too narrow, even if we reject the diminutive size, for fairy-stories are not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faerie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being. Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted….The definition of a fairy-story—what it is, or what it should be—does not, then, depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country. I will not attempt to define that, nor to describe it directly. It cannot be done. Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible. It has many ingredients, but analysis will not necessarily discover the secret of the whole. Yet I hope that what I have later to say about the other questions will give some glimpses of my own imperfect vision of it. For the moment I will say only this: a “fairy-story” is one which touches on or uses Faerie, whatever its own main purpose may be: satire, adventure, morality, fantasy. Faerie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic—but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician. There is one proviso : if there is any satire present in the tale, one thing must not be made fun of, the magic itself. That must in that story be taken seriously, neither laughed at nor explained away. Of this seriousness the medieval Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an admirable example.
While works like Great Expectations or Jane Eyre may contain “falsehood” in them as regards reality (did there ever exist a Pip Pirrip? I think not), there is a distinction between them and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone or even Beowulf. And perhaps the only way to explain their differences is to say one variety has magic in it whilst the other does not. I think that the primary distinction in this genre is what makes the discussion all the more interesting.
While poetry expounds the feelings of the heart and thoughts of the mind, fantasy literature explores the wilds of your imagination and captivates the very attention and soul of your readers. Tolkien wrote a great deal of fantasy literature and also wrote a lot about it in his essay, “On Fairy Stories”. However, he incorporated theology into his writing and once someone understands the fundamentals of why we write and create stories, the more we enjoy God and his gift and praise Him for it.
We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.”
This certainly puts fantasy literature in another light. We often ask, “why do we write”? If one understands the world as Tolkien, Lewis, and countless others, including myself, do, we will whole-heartedly agree with Tolkien because we all believe that God created all things and sustains all things and has created us in His image. One of the greatest joys of being a Christian is knowing, understanding, and reading history and seeing God’s hand throughout all of it. Our Faith is historical in nature and yet if one studies the Bible closely, there are elements which aren’t too far from what we call “fantasy”. Tolkien explains it this way:
I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairystory, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ
is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” 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 thesupremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.
If we understand that we act as we have been created, to be in the likeness of God, then one of our highest and most beautiful gifts, aside from glorifying Him, would be creating. Of course we cannot create ex nihilo “out of nothing” as God did in the beginning. Other works influence us and yet give us each a distinction that makes each work our own.
There is another aspect to fantasy writing which Tolkien speaks of in his essay, the idea of Escape. This is an idea which interests me greatly since it is through understanding this concept that I understand why I write fantasy. When I was a child, I “escaped” to my backyard to play and create worlds which flowed from the expanse of my Imagination. The Imagination truly is an incredible thing. Through my imagination I created worlds suited to my own gifts and likes. Yet my imagination did not simply create small bedtime stories. In the confines of a large backyard, I acted out the dialogues and plots of each world or story I made. Each “fairy land” had its own history and culture and the length of these stories varied. Some stories may have lasted a few hours or a day, others lasted weeks. Unfortunately, most of the memory of my stories has faded but one story remains; a story which I am in the process of transcribing. It is the particular story which deals greatly with the idea of Escape. Tolkien looks at the literary conception of Escape like this:
“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”
Tolkien argues that Escape is often criticized due to the confusion between the escape of the prisoner and the flight of the deserter. Escape is not a flight from reality; it is merely the move from one reality (prison, death, Evil, or darkness- take your pick) to another (life, salvation, Good, or light). Desertion is the rejection of reality and your value for life. While it seems fantasy may be the escape from reality with its common use of dragons, elves, knights, castles, and other such ancient notions, the creators of such beasts or beings do not let them exceed the limits of Reason or reality. While you may create some beast that has hooves and can fly, the beast itself does not try to escape from what it was created to inhabit. The beautiful thing about fairy stories within the spectrum of Tolkien’s taste is the fact that they are more beautiful than those worlds which are more progressive with gadgets and robots. Tolkien had a great distaste for anything “robotic” and “progressive”. He lived during a time when industry was replacing agriculture in Britain and his views on the Industrial Revolution are found within the pages of the Lord of the Rings. Escape then is a beautiful thing and I found it to be a primary theme in my novel since the larger picture is escape from bondage into liberty.
I feel that I am inadequate at this stage to write on the theory of writing fantasy, perhaps that will come soon. I feel that only until I have written a published work that I can speak authoritatively on the process of writing fantasy. I hope that my own thoughts, comments, and postulates on writing fantasy as an Imago Dei are clear; writing essays on themes or reasons for writing are demanding in the shadow of Tolkien. As an heir with Christ, I can hope that my writing is glorifying to Him and resounds the effects of my being a new creation in Christ. I definitely hope that my writing, though marked as fantasy, will be different than the writings of secular writers who seek their own glory and not their Maker in whose likeness they create stories of their own.