Engaging with Fantasy

Sometimes when I read I don’t really want to have to think about what I’m reading. I’m perfectly happy for the author to do all the work for me and to just follow along with whatever story they’re telling. At other times, however, I like to take a bit more of an engaged role with the book, to see what’s really going on in this world that’s being put in front of me. When it comes to fantasy books, which make up the majority of fiction that I read, this is particularly interesting, because often the world is a new, original creation of the author. They’ll have influences and inspirations, sure, but especially in genres such as high fantasy (think Lord of the Rings) the author can be as creative as they like, making the world as realistic (or not) as they want. Sometimes the world is more or less recognisable – take a pop culture view of medieval Europe, add in some humans (and elves if you’re being a bit wild) and cook up a quest or a story of political intrigue. Other times, the author thinks a bit bigger, as in the series I’m currently reading, ‘Malazan Book of the Fallen’ by Stephen Erikson, where the one recognisable thing in the world is humans, and everything else is built entirely into a complete fictional history and mythology that never falls into the trap of being clichéd or unoriginal (and not an elf in sight).

But however clichéd a fantasy world may seem, the fact that it’s more the product of an author’s imagination than an attempt at an accurate portrayal of the world around them (note: I’m not going into political commentary or satire now), means that they are presenting the reader with a unique worldview that can be engaged with. What is a worldview? It’s basically the lens through which you see everything, and is unique to each person. It is shaped by experiences, beliefs, personality, all sorts. You very rarely get a fantasy author whose worldview doesn’t leak out into their world. Some conceal it better than others – often having strong characters who have their own, constructed worldviews – but it’s nearly always there. You can look at the pretty clear moral structure in Tolkien’s work as an example of this, or the almost Biblical creation and fall narrative that begins his Silmarillion.

As both a Christian and an English student, this fact of fantasy is particularly interesting to me. It means that as I read my favourite books I can be thinking about what the ideas that are coming through, and looking at the ways in which they may or may not be similar to my own, and how I can learn from them. As an example of this, I’ll use one of my favourite systems of magic in a fantasy book. Now, magic can be a difficult subject for Christians, but the way I see it is, a) these books are for entertainment, they are not teaching me how to use magic or anything like that, and b) these are fictional realities that differ from the one that I believe in, where God has spoken out against those who would try and use magic. The way I understand it, magic in the Bible, whether people actually succeeded in it or not, is seen as an attempt to gain supernatural power that is not from God, and linked therefore to idolatry and pride. In the vast majority of fantasy books, however, the world is not under the sovereignty of the Judeo-Christian God, and so magic has a different purpose and significance within that imaginative world.

As I was saying, Blake Charlton has written a couple of books, Spellwright and Spellbound, which focus on the idea that magic is formed out of spoken and written words. Nothing original there, you might think, but in this book, the language of magic is also the language of, well, language. Spellwrights form paragraphs of prose to do their bidding; their grammar is important; the book is full of fantastic puns that come from this…and I love it. But it’s also an idea that I can engage with. A theme in the book is the power of words, and how controlling words can help you to control a whole lot more. This is a sobering thought, especially as I’ve just read Proverbs in the Bible, which has a lot of warnings about the power of words.

The book also actually helped me to worship. That might sound crazy, but in this fantasy world, the unnamed Creator formed every living thing out of language, called Language Prime, made of four letters that are pretty much analogous to DNA. It made me think about where the Bible talks about God speaking creation into existence – surely some of the most powerful words ever spoken – and how creation could indeed be seen as God’s language. It also made me think of the language in creation – how the Psalmist talks about creation pouring forth speech to God. It was, in truth, a really uplifting experience, all from a secular fantasy book.

Not all books are encouraging in that way. Some are engaging because I disagree with them. The differing views of religion and godhood that come across particularly interest me, particularly as many fantasy authors seem to play with the idea of humans becoming gods, and what that would look like, or of gods as beings created by humans. I can’t help but see these as different outworkings of worldviews, as authors try to create a religious system that makes sense for them and their characters. Some fantasy books do actually try and deal with a vaguely Christian system, as in the alternate history book, Son of the Morning, which is based on the premise that all the language of angels and demons and the divine right of kings was literally true in the Middle Ages, around the twelfth century or so if I remember rightly. It’s safe to say that the Christian God did not come across well in this, but it’s a book that I am glad to have read nonetheless. It helps me to understand how people see God and religion, and makes me better able to engage with those ideas day to day.

So there you have it. Hopefully you can see that fantasy isn’t all about mindless escapism (though that can be fun). It’s something that, as a Christian, I can engage with, be encouraged by, and learn from.

Also…I have nothing against elves, I just like it if they’re used intelligently and not just there because it’s a fantasy book!

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