Friday, September 19, 2014

Guest Series--Part Three--The Doctrine of Fantasy

This week, I'm pleased to feature here on the blog a dear friend, whose recent series of articles on Tolkien's fantasy world struck me deeply. Even if you do not normally read fantasy, I highly recommend pondering these articles. They're thought-provoking, grounded in biblical worldview, and explain the value of the fantasy genre for Christians.

Check out Part One and Part Two if you need to catch up! Today's Part Three is the conclusion of this series. Please drop a line and let Elisabeth know if this has blessed you!

Ossiriand--copyright by Jenny Dolfen

The Doctrine of Fantasy

"Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons—'twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we're made."
~J.R.R. Tolkien, from Mythopoeia

                Fantasy has become overwhelmingly popular as a literary genre in our generation. For some time this disturbed me (and in some ways it still does). The fact that people would rather read magic and dragons than biography or realistic fiction appeared to indicate an unhealthy desire to escape reality, and the obsession I saw in many of my peers—consuming as it was—seemed shallow. Upon reading The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit myself I was intrigued, even enchanted, but still wary. I did not want to embrace anything blindly.

                So I set off prayerfully on a journey to find out. I read and read and read—I read books by Tolkien, about Tolkien, for Tolkien, against Tolkien—I read about fantasy and myth and Christianity and Paganism, about literature and legend and the history of languages. I found contradictory answers, sometimes, or shaky answers with threads of logic left hanging out at all the edges. I suspect many readers of Tolkien's works have asked questions similar to mine: why do these books have such emotional impact? What is it in them that sets the imaginations of millions afire? Is all Fantasy a waste of time? Is it healthy food for the mind? The heart? The soul? What is Fantasy's place in a Biblical worldview?

                First of all, Fantasy is Story. Story is a form of communication (and an art) common to all mankind. It is part of our inheritance as creatures made in the likeness of God: God is a maker of stories, so we are makers of stories. Of course, since Adam's Fall, the likeness of God has been marred in us. We reflect His image brokenly, and our stories have followed suit, reflecting His perfect story imperfectly. Yet we cannot say that they do not reflect His story at all.

                Across nations, languages, and millennia, the mythologies of the world carry foreshadowings of the Gospel. Creation myths very often involve the triune effort of three gods or spirits. Countless ancient cultures have a flood story in which all but a few of the world's inhabitants are destroyed, and often the names of the first couple uncannily resemble Adam and Eve. Everywhere there are dragons and serpents enslaving the world; everywhere there are gods dying and resurrecting. Norse mythology has the chief of the gods sacrificing himself, hanging speared upon a tree to gain priceless knowledge for the helpless people of earth (Middle-earth, as they call it), as well as sacrificing his most beloved son, with the result that when the world is destroyed, his son is beyond the power of death and may rise up to rule the new and perfect world. Great themes and small details alike bear striking similarity to the story of the Bible, from creation to the cross to the end of the world in Revelation—and this usually from cultures that could never have known or heard of the Jewish or Christian Scriptures.

                Tolkien calls Man the "Sub-creator", making worlds through word and story in imitation of his Father, the first creator. “Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess,” he writes. “It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil." Fantasy is not more evil than other human endeavors that have been spoiled by sin; it is no more inherently evil than, say, music, or mathematics. Tolkien points out that men have made "false gods" out of countless other things: "their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. Abusus non tollit usum. Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

                Paganism, as Tolkien viewed it from his studies, was an ugly and detestable thing. He did not consider it (as some do today) "natural", or intrinsically beautiful. His study of pagan writings and pagan historical sites did not leave him enamored, but grieved by the human sacrifice and other horrors. Yet he saw, even in their sin, that mankind was not utterly ignorant of the truth.
The heart of man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls Him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned...

                 Thus run a few of the lines from Tolkien's poem Mythopoeia, written for a skeptic named C.S. Lewis who claimed that myths are lies, though breathed through silver. (Lewis did, by the way, change his mind about myths—as well as about Jesus Christ—in response to a long talk with Tolkien.) Tolkien believed that though mankind has fallen into helpless wickedness, we still bear the image of God, and our myths still contain glimmers of the truth. In the afterword to Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, A.S. Byatt writes, "Myths are often unsatisfactory, even tormenting. They puzzle and haunt the mind that encounters them. They shape different parts of the world inside our heads, and they shape them not as pleasures, but as encounters with the inapprehensible...." In myth, Man dared to ask the questions for which he had no answer.

                The study of stories reveals mankind's search for truth. In myth and fantasy there is a constant reaching to understand the world, to understand the past, to understand the future. There is a continual grasping after the elusive "otherworld" which some (as we learned a few articles ago) have called Faërie. "Fantasy," says Tolkien, "the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of Faërie." While discussing the topic of myth in a recent letter to a friend, I wrote, "Some...myths are bizarre imagination run amok. Some are evil delusion, Fantasy twisted by the devil in his dark mockery of the True Story. Yet some bring a tingling awe and a breathlessness, for they run very near the edge of Truth: they are grasping, searching in the dark, and coming up with handful after handful of earth-soil, but even so there are gleams of gold to be seen here and there in the dust."

                As a man widely read in the writings of pagan cultures, Tolkien recognized the Gospel as something different. It had, to him, "the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation." All other myths were sub-creation, Man's imitation of the great story our Father has written. We do not have the power to make our stories come true, but He does. That is why Christ is different from every other dying and resurrecting god—he entered into human history and did it for real.

                We often forget just how stunning—how fantasy-like—that is. Historical documentation tells us that a man born in first-century Palestine claimed to be God in human form—claimed to be YHWH Adonai, the sovereign creator of the universe. Historical documentation tells us that he was crucified under the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, and that he was seen alive again by hundreds of witnesses, some of whom were willing to die for their claims. By this resurrection, we believe that our God has broken the curse which doomed us to be forever separated from him in death. The ageless story of the dying god, the king in disguise coming to save his people, is the story by which God chose to rescue his people. The story of Christ, Tolkien writes, "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." All the unanswerable, haunting questions raised by Man's myth find their answer in Christ.

                Tolkien believed that the mythlike nature of mankind's redemption has not nullified man-made legends, but "hallowed" them. "Redeemed Man is still man," he says. "Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. ...The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed."

                The act of creating Fantasy, then, is (according to Tolkien) a sacred calling, more meaningful for the Christian than for any other person on earth. We do not create our legends and tell our tales out of a mysterious, intrinsic need to create, but in the knowledge that we are doing as our Father does; and we do not make Fantasy merely to satisfy our need for other worlds, but to testify to the wondrous Fantasy of God by which we have been saved.


J.R.R. Tolkien, by Humphrey Carpenter
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, compiled by Humphrey Carpenter
Loki's Role in the Northern Religion, by Dr. Stephan Scott Grundy (Kveldulf Gundarsson)
Myth and Fact, by C.S. Lewis
The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, by J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Christopher Tolkien
Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, by A.S. Byatt
The Road to Middle-earth, by Tom Shippey

About the Author

Elisabeth H. (a.k.a. the Philologist) is a born-again, homesick Christian who happens also to be a music teacher and an avid student of history. Research and poetry are her cup of tea, and she has a special place in her heart for old languages, bittersweet endings, and John of Bedford. She does her writing from a humble homestead surrounded by beloved family, somewhat less-beloved chickens, and more than ten thousand books. 


  1. Thank you so much, Elisabeth! I really appreciate you sharing these articles. I have been blessed and encouraged by them. I enjoyed reading the background behind Tolkien's beliefs, and I love your writing style. :)

    Great series, Schuyler! Wonderful idea to post them here. Thank you. <3

    1. Thanks, Kaleigh! I'm glad you enjoyed the articles. God is good to send us so many different kinds of encouragement, and I'm glad to have been used by him to encourage you. :)


  2. I really enjoyed this series, Elisabeth, and maybe Schuyler could get you again on the blog sometime. :) Your articles are beautifully written and very thought-provoking.
    Thank-you for doing this series!!

    Carrie-Grace <3

    1. You're so welcome, Carrie-Grace. I enjoyed it, too.

      Love you!


  3. This has been great--I really enjoyed it. For more of Tolkien's worldview in his own words, I highly recommend reading his essay ON FAIRY STORIES and his poem MYTHOPOEIA.

    Other helpful resources may include Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Tolkien, his book on the Inklings, and THE LETTERS OF JRR TOLKIEN. :)

    1. Thank you for your encouragement, Suzannah. It means a lot coming from someone so knowledgeable in the subject. :)

      I second your suggestions for all those resources. Somehow I left "Mythopoeia" out of my list of sources, even though I referenced it more than once!



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