In his essay, “On Fairy Stories,” J. R. R. Tolkien, the greatest modern Christian fantasist, drove what should have been a fatal stake (perhaps of mistletoe) through the heart of the accusation that fantastic stories are “just escapism”: “Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”
The accusation itself helps to explain why fantasy gets so little respect in our time (there’s another reason; I’ll get to it later). For the growing number of people who believe there is no world outside our present prison, any talk of sunshine, meadows, and mountains has to be plain denial, a way of fooling ourselves about our true situation. Materialists who write about Magic are likely (though not certain) to write about it badly. They shouldn’t try it, for the same reason a Christian shouldn’t try writing porn. It’s hard to do well something you despise. This may also explain much of the truly bad fantasy that gets published today. The charge of escapism might be a sort of self-generating rot.
In past generations, fantasy actually enjoyed pretty high status. What are Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey but works of fantasy? Dante’s Divine Comedy is a Christian fantasy in verse. So are Spenser’s Faerie Queen and Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. Shakespeare wrote fantasy (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” among others), and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegorical fantasy. Only the coming of the Enlightenment locked the door and turned the key on a literary form that had been plenty good enough for the Greeks and Romans
But there’s a second reason why fantasy gets no respect. We (here I’m speaking as a fantasy writer) have earned it. I’ll make a confession here. I don’t read much fantasy, and I read almost no Christian fantasy. I’ve been burned too many times. You buy a book, hoping to experience over again the joys great fantasy can provide (for me, the Mines of Moria, the Ride of the Rohirrim, and the resurrection of Aslan provided the greatest moments of joy I’ve ever experienced in literature), and what do you get? Wannabees. Wannabee Tolkiens, wannabee Lewises, wannabee (christened) George R. R. Martins.
This springs (I think) from a basic misconception about fantasy—one that shows how few Tolkien and Lewis fans have learned anything from their role models.
The misconception goes like this—“Fantasy is just made-up stuff. It’s like dreams. Whatever you fantasize is good enough.”
No, no, no, no.
If that were true, fantasy would deserve its critical blacklisting. The fact that fantasy isn’t (generally) bound to our workaday world makes it harder to do, not easier. It’s like playing a musical instrument. Most are easy to play . . . badly. Playing them well requires time and work.
Who’s writing good Christian fantasy today? I was afraid you’d ask. As I said, I don’t know the field as well as I should. Walter Wangerin Jr. wrote one of the best fantasies of any kind I’ve ever read, The Book of the Dun Cow, an amazing animal story that I promise will break your heart and put it together again. Stephen Lawhead is an excellent writer who has never (in my opinion) soared to the heights he’s capable of. Jeffrey Overstreet may be the best. His Auralia Thread novels sometimes take narrative turns I’m not crazy about, but the books are wonderfully written and they’re like nothing else you’ve ever read. And the one quality that’s most often lacking in Christian fantasy, besides plain wordsmithing, is originality.
Beyond that I haven’t got much.
And the reason, as stated above, is that fantasy is hard.
Look at the masters. Tolkien and Lewis weren’t only fanboys (though they certainly were that by the standards of their time). They were scholars, and scholars at the top level. Tolkien’s work was the fruit of decades, not only of storytelling, but of mastering his source material. All those rich passages in The Lord of the Rings, and in the collateral works, spring from his profound knowledge of European languages, a subject he may have known better than anyone who ever lived. It all started with inventing a language. The story grew from the grammar. The depth of the man’s scholarship is like a rock foundation under every sentence he wrote, every name he bestowed on a character. The books feel real because he knew what he was writing about.
Even though it only existed in his imagination.
Trying to write “like Tolkien” without some degree of his scholarship is a project doomed to fail.
Or to state it in blues men’s terms, “You gotta pay your dues.”
How do you produce good fantasy (I won’t say great fantasy; that’s beyond my expertise)?
First of all, remember this truth—e-books make it possible to publish your own book. That does not earn you the right to expect anyone else to read it.
Writing is a craft, like shoemaking. I don’t care how sincerely the guy who made my shoes loves shoes. The main thing I want from him is expertise, the practiced knowledge of how to put together a shoe that fits, won’t give me blisters, and lasts a while. Your sincerity may please God, but He also says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Colossians 3:23, NIV). It’s possible you may be a prodigy, a literary Mozart capable of amazing the world right out of the gate. But probably not.
I’m kind of sad for young writers today. You have much less opportunity to enjoy a benefit we old-timers had in abundance—rejection. Oh, we hated those editors who sent us their mimeographed rejection slips—“We’re sorry, but your work does not meet our present needs.” We railed at them as Philistines who hated and feared new ideas, guarding the gates of the Inner Chamber for the benefit of their rich, famous cronies.
But oh, what a joy it was to get that first acceptance letter! It didn’t come easy, that letter. One story at a time, rejection after rejection, we learned to prune and tighten our prose, and that first acceptance was a sign that we’d finally earned our way inside the Gates (only, finally, to look down with pitying contempt on those amateurs who cluttered the desks of “our” editors with their puerile, formless scribblings).
Such editors hardly exist anymore. Today’s writers, so often self-published (I’m not speaking in contempt; I’m self-publishing now myself), lack that thick wall to chop through, that sparring partner to toughen them up. I read so many self-published books now that leave me saying, “This writer has a good story and interesting characters. All he needs is a real editor to tell him to cut out the dead wood.”
The second thing missing in most fantasy today is . . . what will I call it? Organic knowledge. My field is mostly historical fantasy, concentrating on the Viking Age. I’ve been researching that period for more than fifty years. More recently I’ve become a reenactor, which gives me the opportunity to get more hands-on experience. I’ve drunk mead in a Viking hall, slept in a Viking tent, and helped row a Viking boat. I know how the clothes feel and what Vikings smelled like (smoke—the houses were full of it).
I also grew up on a working farm, an unending source of sensory memories. These things help, not only in getting the details right, but in adding a quality that’s impossible to quantify: the resonance of authenticity. People tell me my books have it (I have no way of telling).
Also, I speak Norwegian. I wish it were Old Norse, but even the modern language allows me to play with words in sentences, recasting them in a foreign voice that sounds Viking to English speakers.
You, being a child of a wired, digital world, will have a harder time getting a sense of preindustrial life, unless you grew up on a commune or something.
I’m not saying your preparation has to be like mine, or like Tolkien’s. I’m just saying that good fantasy needs to be built on a profound knowledge of something beyond fantasy stories. Your house must be built on rock, not sand.
There’s no royal road. It will take years, not months. You’ll need to produce your quota of dreck before the good stuff starts to come. But if you pay your dues, you can create a fantasy that will glorify Christ, not only in message but in craftsmanship.
Lars Walker is the author of several published fantasy novels, including the recently released e-book Hailstone Mountain, the latest in his series, “The Saga of Erling Skjalgsson.” He also blogs at Brandywine Books.
Image by BagoGames via Flickr.