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Fantasy Q&A

Q: So what is fantasy, anyway?

A: There are many definitions of fantasy, but I’ll narrow it down. 1) It has to do with boring teachers, the beginning of summer break, and baseball. 2) Something to discuss with your therapist. 3) A literary genre that I happen to like. Too much.

Q: Maybe you should see the therapist after all….

A: Me, and a lot of other people.

Q: You mean computer geeks?

A: It’s true that a lot of technology-lovers also like fantasy. But many of those who have written classic fantasies have hated technology. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels, for example, most of the evil characters are also adept at using technology for evil purposes. Mordor is, in essence, an industrial wasteland.

Q: So who started this whole fantasy thing, anyway? Tolkien?

A: Good question. We don’t know. But it’s thousands of years old—just read The Odyssey.

Q: You mean the ancient myths? But people believed those. See why fantasy is dangerous?

A: Once people began believing the myths, they became a part of religion, not fantasy. As long as you know that your stories are stories, you are safe.

Q: With so many serious problems in the world today, how can you justify reading fantasy instead of realistic fiction? Isn’t that escapism?

A: J.R.R. Tolkien addressed that very question on a number of occasions. His question: What group of people is most worried about escape? The answer: Jailers. In any case, if you are unjustly imprisoned, getting out is the sensible and realistic thing to do.

Q: I expected a serious answer to that question.

A: I was being serious. And good fantasy is always applicable to real life. At the very least it will deal with ethical questions, which we all have to face. And many fantasies go beyond that. C.S. Lewis and N.D. Wilson both snub progressivism. J.R.R. Tolkien criticizes pragmatism. Madeleine L’Engel attacks central planning.

Q: But isn’t fantasy unrealistic?

A: There are two answers to that.

No. If C.S. Lewis had had Aslan stand up on the Stone Table and dance a jig, we would say his books were unrealistic. But Lewis didn’t do that. Narnia had many fantastical elements—talking animals, shape-shifting serpents, enchanted weather. But put together, they all made sense. You say, “If Narnia were real, this is how things would be.”

Yes. Of course. So is every other story. So-called “realistic” stories about someone becoming a multi-millionaire, overcoming all obstacles to find the man of her dreams, and so forth, are often untrue to life. In fact, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, they are more likely to deceive some people into thinking that such things could really happen. No sane child will make killing a dragon his life’s goal for very long. But to overcome all obstacles to become the hero of the soccer team—that seems realistic. And for some people it could very well become an obsession.

Q: Who is this C.S. Lewis you keep bringing up?

A: C. S. Lewis was an Oxford literature professor who wrote the Chronicles of Narnia, a seven-book fantasy series. The major character in the series is Aslan, a regal lion who loosely corresponds with Jesus Christ. Some people may feel inclined to blame Lewis for later Christian allegorical fantasies that combined biblical truth with terrible writing. Lewis, however, explicitly denied that the Narnia books were intended to be allegorical. Poorly constructed copies are to be blamed, not on their authors having read too much Lewis, but on having read far too little.

Q: I’ve heard Narnia has a witch in it. Isn’t that bad?

A: Yes. The White Witch is very bad, which is why she is killed at the end of Lewis’s first Narnia book. You’re right that you should be cautious about stories that include magic, since some fantasies can become occultic. But most of the pioneers of modern fantasy have been at least nominally Christian, and their careful treatment of magic shows that.

Q: What do you mean by “careful”?

A: Tolkien said that “magic,” in our language, is a problem word, because there is no distinction between evil magic—the sort that no one has a right to practice—and what I will call natural magic. “Natural magic” is the sort of “magic” that the good characters can safely practice, because it is simply a part of being what they are. Thus, Tolkien’s Elves can use their “art” to reclaim an important jewel from the Dark Lord, N.D. Wilson’s characters have the strength of dandelions or aspen trees in their blood, and Lewis’s lion Aslan can create the world. That’s a short explanation, but it’s a start.

Q: Okay, okay. I understand. But you have to admit that Lord of the Rings fans are really annoying.

A: No, I don’t.

Q: But all those coffee table edition books…and Elf languages…and fake Gollum voices…and people yelling “You cannot pass!” at the top of their lungs….

A: Well…maybe they—that is, we—can be a little annoying. My only comfort for you is this: they are few and far between. Avoid certain online forums, go underground when each new Hobbit movie comes out, carefully screen your friends, and you probably will survive. If the Nazgul don’t catch you first.


Posted by on March 21, 2013 in Fantasy, Humor


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Columbus and Chronological Snobbery

Once there was a man named Christopher Columbus. He wanted to sail to the Orient. So he went to the king of Spain and asked the king for money so that he could go. The king almost said no. People in Columbus’s day believed that the world was flat. They thought he would fall off the edge. But Columbus knew that they were wrong. He convinced the king, set sail, and proved to everyone that the world was round.


Do you remember the first time you heard that story? Or, better yet, the first time you heard that the story was false? No, people in the early Renaissance did not believe that the earth was flat. Neither did educated people in the Middle Ages. Neither did educated Romans or Greeks, for that matter. There was no question of falling off the edge of the earth. But there were concerns about the size of the earth. Columbus’s detractors asserted that the Orient was too far away for Columbus to reach with the provisions his ships could carry. They were right. Luckily for Columbus, the Americas are between Europe and the Orient. But for that, most of us would never have heard his name.

I don’t consider myself a close follower of politics, but I do read the editorial page regularly. Every so often a columnist calls someone else a “flat-earther.” And I am irritated.

First of all, there are plenty of sources that refute the Columbus myth. There really is no excuse anymore for calling someone a “flat-earther.” But, secondly, the epithet suggests a nasty chronological snobbery.

G. K. Chesterton complained, “Some fall back simply on the clock: they talk as if mere passage through time brought some superiority; so that even a man of the first mental caliber carelessly uses the phrase that human morality is never up to date. How can anything be up to date? A date has no character.”

Madeleine L’Engel, in her book An Acceptable Time, takes chronological snobbery to task. The heroine, Polly O’Keefe, finds herself in a time portal between modern New England and a New England roughly three thousand years before. But, though the people are not technologically advanced, she finds that some of them possess remarkable knowledge. The tribe Polly meets, called the People of the Wind, have a great knowledge of nature and of healing beyond the capabilities of modern medicine. And they also have a druid—a man named Karralys. Karralys was expelled from Britain with his warrior friend Tav, but for an opposite reason. Karralys refused to carry out a human sacrifice intended to relieve a terrible drought. In desperation Tav carried out the sacrifice, even though it was illegal for him, as a non-druid, to make sacrifices.

Tav is torn between loving Polly and—for a brief period of time—thinking that he needs to sacrifice her in order to protect the People of the Wind from an enemy tribe. Polly assumes, even after the sacrificial time is over, that there is no bridging the worldview gap between them. She begins to love Tav in return, but she thinks that he is incapable of understanding that spiritual love is a more important thing than blood sacrifice.

She is proven wrong. Tav does come to understand, through Polly’s own actions, that love is indeed of more value than sacrifice. His spiritual understanding is far from complete at the end of the book, but he makes a new beginning. Just because Tav comes from the Stone Age does not make him stupid.

People in all ages are made in the image of God, and they act it. What do we know about so-called “cave men”? They made art, and they were religious. If that is savagery, we need to re-define the word “savage.”

Cave men are a myth. “Medieval” is not a synonym for “outdated idiot.” And people in Columbus’s day did not believe that the earth was flat. Frankly, believing in the myth of the flat earth myth with so little excuse ought to qualify the guilty parties as “flat-earthers” themselves.

Chesterton pointed out that if we define “progress” as “whatever modern people usually believe,” then we are logically saying that previous ages were just as progressive as we. If there is no eternal standard of truth, then Tav could very well be “right” in making his initial human sacrifice. What is the solution to chronological snobbery? Eternal truth. Otherwise, we have no logical right to just the past.

“For the orthodox,” wrote Chesterton, “there can always be a revolution; for a revolution is a restoration…. No unchanging custom, no changing evolution can make the original good anything but good. Man may have had concubines as long as cows have had horns: still they are not a part of him if they are sinful.”

Progress is not inevitable. And when human cultures add virtues to themselves they often do so at the expense of other virtues. Our culture believes in freedom. And so it has sacrificed loyalty. Does that make us better than our ancestors?

Not exactly.

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Posted by on October 8, 2012 in Fantasy


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On Names, Naming, and Being Named

“I’ve told you. A Namer has to know who people are, and who they are meant to be.”

A Wind in the Door

Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door is not one of my favorite books, largely because it focuses more on philosophy than on dramatic action. But, whatever its dramatic pull, its focus on names fascinated me. L’Engle writes of an earth and a little boy, Charles Wallace Murry, being attacked by the Echthroi (“those who hate,” according to the book). The only way for Charles Wallace’s sister Meg to save him is by learning to Name–an act of creative love that protects the identities of the Named. The cherubim in the story, about the Echthroi: “War and hate are their business, and one of their chief weapons is un-Naming–making people not know who they are. If someone knows who he is, really knows, then he doesn’t need to hate.”

Thus said the storyteller. The philosophers, on the other hand, have attempted to be more specific. J.S. Mill argued that the names refer directly to those who carry them. While Mill’s definition works in many contexts, there are some exceptions: for example, the name “Charles Wallace Murry” refers to a person who does not actually exist. If Mill’s theory of names is to be followed directly, then the name Charles Wallace Murry is attached to nothing–which is clearly not the case.

Bertrand Russell and others tried to compensate for Mill’s weaknesses with the descriptive theory of names–that is, names are attached to the description of a person or thing, not to the person or thing itself. Yet the descriptivists had their own weaknesses. If names refer to one thing, descriptions can refer to many things. “Meg’s little brother” describes Charles Wallace. It also describes her other brothers, Sandy and Dennys. Also, descriptions can be attached to the wrong thing: calling Charles Wallace Meg’s cousin, for example. But making that descriptive mistake would not “un-Name” Charles Wallace.

A third group of philosophers, attempted to avoid the mistakes of the first two name theories, adopted the causal theory of names. In causal theory, names are attached to a person or thing by another person. After the original naming, others borrow the name to refer to the person or thing. And thus the name and its object become identified with one another. But this theory, although it avoids the mistakes of the other two, does not fit perfectly, since names can be changed. Byzantium became Constantinople. Constantinople became Istanbul. Istanbul may become something else, given a thousand years.

Perhaps the only conclusion to make, without running into all the difficulties of the philosophers, is that Naming is a mystery.

But it is a mystery known by a Namer. One of God’s first acts was to give names. “God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (Genesis 1:5, ESV). God continued naming things as He created. Naming was the culmination of God’s creative acts. And then God gave man the authority to name.

“Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field” (Genesis 2:19-20, ESV).

Since God gave man that authority, man has continued naming. And, like other gifts of God, man can abuse the privilege. But naming in and of itself is a good thing–another proof that humans are made in the image of God. Animals do not name.

But, however great our pleasure in naming, in exercising our creative power, humans are first and foremost creatures. Greater than our need to name is our need to be named.

“To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Revelation 2:17, ESV).

How many of us have read those verses, wondering what that name will be? Under sin’s curse, like the Mr. Jenkins of L’Engle’s writings, we do not fully know who we are. Our true selves were lost in the Fall, and we now assume that the way we are is the way we were supposed to be.

Only one person knows differently; and that he is our creator should be no surprise. What other person could know “who people are, and who they are meant to be”?

But God’s creative acts are not complete; that is, He is still changing those of us who have repented of our old ways–those new ways gotten through the Fall–into Christ’s likeness. “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (II Cor. 3:18, ESV). God is, after a fashion, still creating us. And part of the culmination of that creating will be when He names us. Not with the changing and uncertain names of the philosophers, but names with the fullness and knowledge of the one who sees through the dark veil woven by the Fall.

George MacDonald asked, “Why know the name of a thing when the thing itself you do not know?” We can rest in remembering that the God who knows all things is the keeper of both.


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Posted by on April 14, 2012 in Fantasy


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