Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Christianity and the Fantasy Genre

D. G. Myers recently argued that Fantasy is a Genre of Christianity, and E. D. Kain suggests that instead it is perhaps a phenomenon specific to the Anglosphere. Initially, of course, this seems all wrong: the fantastic is found all over the place, and there's no obvious reason why a Jewish fantasy author couldn't exist. It's actually pretty easy to find fantasy authors who were at least raised Jewish, for instance. But this, of course, was never the issue; it's not about the authors, but about the genre. Likewise, 'the fantastic' is too broad a category to be a literary genre -- indeed, so broad that taking it simply to be the fantasy genre will get us quickly into rather dimwitted conclusions. (I find some of the responses to Myers to be amusing in this way: People, Hindus did not write the Mahabharata to be fantasy literature, and they don't typically read it that way, without at all needing to deny that there are fantastic elements in the story. Euripides didn't write plays about gods and heroes because he wanted fantasy; he wrote them because he wanted the kind of religious play called a tragedy. And so on and so forth. There can be all sorts of fantastic elements without anyone either writing or reading a work of fantasy. Considerably better but still a bit short, I notice that people bring up anime quite a bit, but early anime consists of educational films, government propaganda, and folktales -- and the mere iteration of a folktale is not a fantasy work, but a retelling of an old story. The history since then has been an intensely complicated interaction between Western tropes and Japanese traditions. And, likewise, the use of Christianizing images in anime in order to create a fantastic atmosphere, while not universal, is widespread enough to be famous. So much more fine-grained analysis is needed in order to make this a plausible counterexample.)

I think at least a limited sense can be made of both suggestions, but Myers's suggestion is easier to see. Genealogically, at least, the sort of fantasy genre we get in the English-speaking world is arguably what Christianity does to paganism. It starts early -- think Beowulf or medieval adaptation of Greek and Roman stories -- and spreads through romances and fairy tales, and so on and so forth. For Anglophone fantasy is not just stories about fantastic things; much of it, perhaps the greater part of it, is making up pagan mythologies and legends, not for any religious reason, but simply for the enjoyment of it. One's reminded of Chesterton's lines in The Ballad of the White Horse:

"Ere the sad gods that made your gods
Saw their sad sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale,
That you have left to darken and fail,
Was cut out of the grass.

"Therefore your end is on you,
Is on you and your kings,
Not for a fire in Ely fen,
Not that your gods are nine or ten,
But because it is only Christian men
Guard even heathen things."

Regardless of whether it's true elsewhere, this is virtually the motto of much of the monumental fantasy of the past century or so -- MacDonald, Chesterton himself, Lewis, Tolkien, and so forth. Many of the standard tropes of fantasy are at root paganism filtered through Christianity, even if they are further filtered through other things. Not just Anglo-Saxon mythology, as Kain suggests, but Icelandic, Norse, and Greco-Roman as well. Nothing about this requires that you be Christian in order to enjoy or write fantasy; but the fact that there is a fantasy genre is due, one might say, to Christians cutting the White Horse out of the grass long after it had ceased to have its original religious significance. Fantasy being as diverse as it is, there are certainly other strands. But whatever limitations are to be placed on it, one certainly can make sense of saying that fantasy is a Christian genre. Certainly Judaism, as such, is in opposition to paganism, and resists assimilating it, to a far greater degree than Christianity; it really does boggle the mind to think what a fantasy genre with purely Jewish roots could possibly be. Jewish folktales are possible, but as I noted above, people don't tell folktales as fantasy,and making the fantasy genre so broad that it includes folktales as one subgenre makes it a useless label -- it makes fantasy almost coextensive with storytelling, since completely nonfantastic stories are the minority, the unusual case, not the norm.


Further comments from D.G. Myers:

The Golem of Prague and the Jewish Aversion to Fantasy
The Difference Between Fantasy and Sci Fi


  1. I'm not persuaded by the Christian idea, but it's not immediately wrong. The Anglosphere extension, however, definitely is. French and German fairytales were very popular. In Italian, Dante isn't fantasy, but Ariosto is.

  2. branemrys1:15 PM

    Fairytales, however, are arguably a different genre altogether -- again, unless we are going to make 'fantasy' so broad as to be useless. Likewise, I'm not convinced that romances are fantasy in our modern sense, which I think implies prose in either short story or novel form, possibly plays as a fringe case. Although it's certainly the case that if any are, Ariosto's are. The fantastic, however, even extensive use of the fantastic, can't be a sufficient condition for the genre. It's much the same with treating magical realism as a subgenre of fantasy; the two obviously share a lot (and in the the case of magical realism, much more than just use of the fantastic), but I think treating magical realism as the same kind of thing as fantasy generally misconstrues both why people write it and what people enjoy about it.

    But, of course, this all gets into the vexed question of what this thing called the fantasy genre really is.


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