This web-site began as a Master's degree project on Christian fantasy—I was hoping to write my Master's thesis on my hero, C.S. Lewis, and some of his predecessors. The Master's degree has fallen by the wayside, and my initial essay is now somewhat dated (I might now define the genre somewhat differently), but what better place to re-start the site than the essay that started it all?
What is it?
Definitions are tricky things, and definitions of literary genres are even trickier. They tend to exclude what they should include and to include what they should exclude.
The definition of fantasy is no exception. But since genre-definition is fundamental to genre studies, I suppose I’d better just give it my best shot and let the inevitable debate begin. If you disagree with my definition of fantasy, I welcome your comments—debate and dialogue are almost always a healthy thing, and, more than that, are integral to the process of academic study.
I identify four-and-a-half main strands of fantasy literature: myth, legend, and fairy-tale, which together form a sort of continuum, sub-creation (borrowing—and perhaps twisting a bit—from Tolkien*), and the half-strand of allegory. I count allegory as only half a strand because it could just as easily be identified as a genre itself. Actually, with the exception of “sub-creation”, all of these terms are names of genres, but within modern fantasy literature only allegory has retained a significant measure of independence.
From this brief description, we can make a start at defining our term. Modern fantasy draws on myth, legend, and fairy-tale, but somehow isn’t any of those. If I was forced to identify what distinguishes fantasy from those older genres, the best I could come up with, I think, would be “disbelief”. Not that medieval Europeans took their fairy-tales literally, nor that there weren’t ancient Greeks who didn’t believe in their myths, but modern fantasy literature draws on those older traditions with the conscious, consensual knowledge that the supernatural details they relate are not only not real, but not possible.
Put it this way: If you went up to a medieval European listening to the tale of Sleeping Beauty and asked him if the story was true, he would most likely have said that no, it was only a story. But if you then asked him whether witches existed and if they could really curse people, he would probably have looked startled at the suggestion they weren’t real, and then vigorously asserted that they were. As for the disbelieving Greek, even though the Greek myths were not “real” to him, they were nevertheless a part of a living religious tradition—a quality that the Greek myths no longer possess for us.
Modern fantasy literature, then, draws on myth, legend, and fairy- tale as at least half-disbelieved traditions of the supernatural. This element of disbelief is important even when the tradition is being employed to re-create belief in the supernatural: C.S. Lewis, for example, wanted his Narnia stories to inspire belief in the supernatural, but not necessarily in the specific traditions of the supernatural that he employed. While he would doubtless be overjoyed to hear of his Narnia stories inspiring belief in the existence of a personal devil or the good of a wild zest for life, I doubt he would be happy if he heard that, after reading the stories, his readers had developed a belief in the White Witch or in the god Bacchus.
We can speak, then, of fantasy as literature that draws upon some at least half-disbelieved tradition of the supernatural in some manner integral to the main story. But this does not say enough. The “sub-creation” strand has been left out altogether.
Modern fantasy—not all of it, but a lot of it—tends to strive to create a whole internally consistent world, a “sub-creation”, in which the story is set, a world which obeys its own unique, but nevertheless somehow consistent laws. I say “somehow” consistent because those laws may be as weird as a game of chess made literal or as “normal” as the laws of science we’ve discovered up till now, plus (usually) a few that we haven’t yet, for interest’s or for authorial convenience’ sake. It’s in this sense that science fiction may be considered a sub-genre of fantasy.
Adding our first definition to this “sub-creation” component will only partially exclude science fiction—indeed, since science fiction and fantasy are both intimately caught up with cosmology, it is impossible to entirely separate them: they are like Siamese twins with one heart. Certain features do help us to distinguish them: science fiction has its head in the future, for example, while fantasy has its head in the past, but even these eventually blur: George Lucas’ Star Wars saga with its opening, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...”, is probably one of the most obvious examples of this blurred boundary between science fiction and fantasy. Another good example is the sci-fi/fantasy section in your local library and/or bookstore.
So then, stories that draw on some at least half-disbelieved tradition of the supernatural, whether directly or indirectly (through imitation or sub-creation), in order to create the impression of a world in which the supernatural is (in a sense) natural and performs some function integral to the story—such stories are what I would call fantasy.
Which is to say that fantasy includes what we would normally call the supernatural as an integral, natural part of normal reality.
It’s easy to see then, why Christians, who believe that the world-creating and -sustaining supernatural God became a part of our normal reality, would turn to fantasy as a mode of expressing the Christian world-view.
It’s also hard to see: If the Christian message has so much in common with admittedly imaginary fantasy literature, wouldn’t there be a danger that, if represented in fantasy, the Christian message itself might be taken for fantasy?
This is a real concern with some Christians: I’ve had a family (whom I respect very much) tell me not to teach their children C.S. Lewis because he was “new age” (there are witches and magic in his books), and I’ve even had it suggested to me (again by a Christian whom I very much respect) that Christ’s parables were all true-life stories (after all, he was omniscient, he’d have a whole world full of stories to draw on).
I would suggest that this concern is an extension of the iconoclastic controversies, in which well-meaning Christians went around destroying images and icons because of the danger people would end up worshipping them rather than God. The reply to the iconoclasts applies equally well to the fiction/fantasy debate: The better you know someone, and the more you respect him, the less likely you are to confuse him with his picture (or his statue, for that matter). The better you know Reality, and the more regard that you have for It, the less likely you are to confuse Reality with its fictional or its fantastic representations.
Tolkien said as much in his “On Fairy-Stories”:
For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it. So upon logic was founded the nonsense that displays itself in the tales and rhymes of Lewis Carroll. If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen.
What, then, are we to make of this sub-category called “Christian Fantasy”? How are we to define it?
There are at least two or three possible definitions. The simplest would be that it is fantasy written by Christians. This definition would have the unfortunate side-effect (unfortunate at least from the point of view of those wishing to engage in purely literary studies) of re-opening the currently rather vexing question of who exactly is and is not a Christian.
We could broaden the definition to include all fantasy written by those who claim to be Christians, but this would only generate controversy in the other direction: Does not a community (however fractured and divided that community may currently be) have at least some rights to self-definition by excluding from the community those who do not adhere to the fundamental beliefs that define the community? And who are these “literary critics” anyhow to be including as part of the community any old chap who feels like claiming to be a part of the community, even when he’s not willing to abide by the community’s standards and beliefs?
There’s really no way to get entirely away from this debate, but, in a (probably futile) attempt to find a safer middle ground, I, as a Christian student of literature, proffer the following as a definition of Christian fantasy:
Christian fantasy is fantasy literature that embodies or reflects some aspect of the Christian world-view and is written by an author who claims to be Christian
Doing research? Looking to expand your library?
The Tolkien Reader is invaluable to the student of Christian fantasy for its essay "On Fairy Stories", and indispensible to the lover of Christian fantasy for its wonderful allegory (yes, allegory!), "Leaf by Niggle". Fans of Tom Bombadil will be delighted by the inclusion of some of Tom's poetry (I wasn't—sorry!), and one can't help but be amused by Tolkien's unlikely hero, "Farmer Giles of Ham". A "must-have" for any serious Tolkien fan!
* In fact, I am narrowing Tolkien’s definition of fantasy quite a bit, and may perhaps have included too much of the “how” in the “what”. At any rate, Tolkien’s definition of fantasy may be got from his excellent essay “On Fairy-Stories” (to be found in The Tolkien Reader), and, in particular, in the following excerpt from the essay:
The achievement of the expression, which gives (or seems to give) “the inner consistency of reality,” is indeed another thing [other than Imagination], or aspect, needing another name: Art, the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub- creation. For my present purpose I require a word which shall embrace both the Sub-creative Art in itself and a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression, derived from the Image: a quality essential to fairy-story. I propose, therefore, to arrogate to myself the powers of Humpty-Dumpty, and to use Fantasy for this purpose: in a sense, that is, which combines with its older and higher use as an equivalent of Imagination the derived notions of “unreality” (that is, of unlikeness to the Primary World), of freedom from the domination of observed “fact,” in short of the fantastic. I am thus not only aware but glad of the etymological and semantic connexions of fantasy with fantastic: with images of things that are not only “not actually present,” but which are indeed not to be found in our primary world at all, or are generally believed not to be found there. But while admitting that, I do not assent to the depreciative tone. That the images are of things not in the primary world (if that indeed is possible) is a virtue, not a vice. Fantasy (in this sense) is, I think, not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent.If you find that you prefer Tolkien’s definition of fantasy to mine, I will be only too happy to hear it.