Can Christians Write Fantasy? Part 1: Those Pagan Orcs
I was puttering about the house yesterday (enjoying my day off by thinking about getting work done and goofing off on the internet instead) when I got a call from a good friend of mine, the illustrator for my webcomic SLOPAN. He wanted to engage in one of my absolute favorite pastimes: world building. For those who have never spent long afternoons meticulously drawing maps of imaginary landscapes, world building is the process of developing a fictional world complete with its own cultures, history, language, economics, and even laws of nature (more on that in a bit). It’s a lot of fun if you’ve got the personality for it and there are few diversions I enjoy more.
My friend told me that he’d been having orcs on the brain recently, more than usual anyway. He’s always loved orcs; specifically the big, tough, and usually green brand of orcs and not the shifty, dirty, and obviously evil orcs you’d find in Lord of the Rings. He called me up because he wants to create a story about orcs, with his own take on the much maligned race, and wanted my help in filling out the details of the world he was creating. We had a great time developing orc society and building a fantasy world for them to fit into. Then (because world building goes from one thing to another rapidly) we started developing dwarves, men, elves, goblins, and were thinking about throwing in some giants when I had to get off the phone. Right before I hung up my friend told me that we’d have to come up with religions and gods for the different cultures next time. As I put the phone away those words rang in my ear. Thy reminded me of a problem I’ve had for some time now: how to make Christian fantasy.
As you all know I’m a Christian. I’m also a writer and a huge nerd. I love to read fantasy and I’d like to write some fantasy someday, if a good story comes my way. I’m also our local D&D group’s primary DM, a role I use to scratch my fantasy story writing itch whenever it comes along. At the same time I’ve lately wanted my writing to have more meaning, to be a way of glorifying God. I must admit that I’m naturally drawn more toward creating stories that are first and foremost just good yarns, without a preachy message behind it. At the same time I want my stories to come from a Christian perspective; I don’t want to write the same kind of stories an atheist or agnostic would. I want God to shine through my work, even if the story has nothing to do with God or Christianity. This doesn’t seem too difficult when it comes to writing most fiction: just have a few good Christian characters, portray right as right and wrong as wrong, and place everything in light of a Christian world view in general and you can’t go too far wrong. But with fantasy things get a little more complicated for two reasons: religion and magic.
I have a lot to say on this subject so this is going to be a two part series. For this first post I’d like to address the problem of religion, saving magic for next week.
The problem of religion in fantasy is equally relevant to fantasy’s spiritual sibling, science-fiction. This is because both sci-fi and fantasy often have their stories take place in a world that’s completely separate from our own. Take Star Wars for instance. No matter where you look in Star Wars you won’t find Earth, Mars, or Jupiter. The story takes place in a galaxy “far, far away.” Similarly no matter how hard you search you won’t find England, Germany, or Mexico in Middle Earth, for the same reason you won’t find trolls, giant talking eagles, or hobbits anywhere on Earth. Fantasy and sci-fi regularly create realities that are not our own, with different inhabitants, locations, histories, and laws of nature. It’s no use trying to use the force to lift your car out of a ditch in Canada: that only works in the Star Wars universe. These invented worlds can be entirely separate from our own, or in a dimension parallel to our own (like Narnia), but in either case they are not our own world.
Therein lies the problem. If you create an entirely new world it’s going to have new people in it. Aliens, dwarves, space monsters, orcs, even just regular old human beings. They’re all going to have new cultures and new histories behind them, and that logically means new and different religions. You won’t find any Christians in a fantasy world because there would have been no Christ (at least not by that name) in their history, along with no Israel, no Abraham, no Noah, and no Adam and Eve. At the same time we know from our own world that when a missionary travels to a new culture he doesn’t have to teach the people there to have a religion; he has to teach them to follow the right religion. Wherever there are people there will be belief, whether in God or in gods or in nature. So it’s only natural for people in these fantasy worlds to also have beliefs. These dwarves or aliens or men will have to have to believe in something. The only alternative is to have a world where everyone (from the tallest giant to the scrawniest goblin) is an atheist or agnostic, a prospect as unrealistic as it is repugnant to a Christian writer. So they must have some religion and the trouble is that it must be different from our own.
So how does the Christian fantasy writer deal with this? There are a few historical precedents. One method is to turn your story into an allegory. This is the route C. S. Lewis took with The Chronicles of Narnia. Aslan is Christ, just in a different form for a different world. The Emperor Beyond the Sea is God the Father, just with a different name for a different world. Even calling this allegory is stretching the term a bit because it’s not just that Aslan is an allegory for Christ but actually is Christ Himself. This is because Narnia is in a world adjacent to our own, with God the Father as the creator of all worlds. At the same time the Narnia stories are allegory because they represent truths in our own world; Aslan willingly dying on the Stone Table is an allegory of Christ willingly dying on the Cross. This is a wonderful way to solve the religion problem; if you want to write an allegory. But what if you just want to write a fun story or thrilling adventure? If you’re going put Christ in your story, in any form, then the whole story will by necessity need to revolve around Him. He can’t be a side character or an afterthought; if you’re going to go allegory you have to go whole hog or it will be a huge mess. Suddenly you have to stop every five minutes and think “What does this character represent? What does this event mean? Did I accidently write something that could be interpreted in a misleading (or even blasphemous) way?” This is all fine and necessary if you’re purpose it to create an allegory; but if you just want to tell a good story it just doesn’t work.
Another option is the Tolkien route. In The Lord of the Rings religion is hardly ever mentioned, and it’s also free from allegories (Tolkien detested them). Nobody ever discusses who the Rohirrim or men of Gondor worship, or what the elves believe. There are no temples unless they’re evil ones to Sauron who is obviously not a god, or ancient ones whose purpose has lapsed out of memory. If you study the lore of Middle Earth, like the Silmarillion, you will start to find a kind of religion form; but it’s a simple one worshipping a being called Eru. Eru, for all intents and purposes, is God. He is not a false god but the God, just with a different name and a different form doing different things but remaining the same divine personality. So we can rest assured that in Middle Earth there is still God, and he is still good. But we never get any feel for how he is worshiped, or what people believe about him.
This method is useful for going around the problem of religion, but it doesn’t really solve it. We know that God created everything perfect, but the Fall of man brought sin into the world, sin that could only be defeated by Jesus Christ dying as a blameless sacrifice on the cross. This explains why there is evil, suffering, and conflict in our world. But what about other worlds? Middle Earth certainly had its share of evil, suffering, and conflict. Did it have a Fall? If so, where is the Christ figure to set it right? And then we get back into the problem of allegory again.
Really the Fall is the biggest obstacle here. Here in reality, on good old Earth, the Fall makes sense. Man, who was to be the head of creation, sinned against God and as a consequence brought a curse on himself and on all creation. But how do you deal with a Fall in a world where you have multiple rational races? If the first man and woman sin against God and fall, how does that effect the first two dwarves? Or the first orcs? Does man drag them all down with him? There are a lot of thorny theological problems there and it starts to drag us back into the allegory problem again.
This is why it is very tempting to just not have God in there at all. If God isn’t in your story then you don’t have these problems. This isn’t always a cowardly move but often a practical one. Unless you’re willing to go all out and turn your story into an allegory than you can’t really have the one true God in there. It’s very frustrating when all you want to do is tell a good story.
There is a fourth option that has been tried before, and though it’s not perfect it’s the one I like best for situations like these. It comes from C. S. Lewis’s space trilogy, which features a man who travels to Mars and finds aliens there. The aliens all seem to worship a being called Oyarsa which turns out to be a kind of archangel who God has given the duty of ruling over Mars. In this universe each planet has an angel assigned to it, and Lucifer was the angel placed in charge of Earth before the Fall. In the trilogy these angels act a lot like Greek or Roman gods, with each one having certain specific attributes, godlike powers (though not omnipotence), and ruling authority. They all serve the one true God, and bow to His authority.
As I said this is far from perfect, but I believe it’s as good a solution as you’re going to find if you want to put God in your fantasy story without turning it into an allegory. It’s also the route I think I’ll recommend my friend take with his (though it’s rapidly becoming our) story about orcs. All the gods worshiped by different races there are like angels who were assigned each race by God, to watch over them and guide them. Then some of these angels, or angels under them, rebelled against God and fell. This is not an unchristian idea; after all in our own world we know that Satan himself served God, as did all the demons. If they could fall then why not our fictional angels? Once they’ve fallen it’s not hard to see how they could try to lead the different races away from God, causing them to sin and fall, calling some of them away to worship the fallen angels instead of God and his chosen rulers. The idea needs some work, but I think it has some merit.
However you can see already that I’m already beginning to fall into allegory again. I’m taking the story of our world and dressing it in different clothes. Still I am beginning to think that this weakness is actually fantasy’s greatest strength. In other genres we Christians can get by with simply making our characters good Christian people. Fantasy forces us to go beyond, to put God in or not at all; and if he’s in he’s going to shape the entire story in His image. There’s no half measure.
Next week I’ll be talking about magic and the controversy around including that in fantasy settings.