“Of course there must be lots of Magic in the world,” he said wisely one day, “but people don’t know what it is like or how to make it. Perhaps the beginning is just to say nice things are going to happen until you make them happen …”
—Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden (1911)1
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.
Visit the young readers’ section of your local bookstore, and you’ll probably be amazed by the plethora of fantasies. There are still plenty of more or less “realistic” novels, mainly dealing with sexual issues and assorted teenage angst; but it certainly looks like fantasy is king in this market.
In this sea of fantasy, islands of Christianity are few and far between. This seems strange when you consider that among the most famous young readers’ fantasies are those written by C. S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia) and J. R. R. Tolkien (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings), which are widely—we cannot say universally—recognized as “Christian fantasies” written by “Christian writers.”
But the bulk of it is anything but Christian. Whether the fantasy world described in a novel is openly antagonistic to God and His Word, or simply oblivious to Him, some of these books are bound to fall into young Christian readers’ hands. The booming popularity of fantasy practically guarantees it.
What’s wrong with un-Christian fantasy? How, if you deem it necessary, might you convince your twelve-year-old to stay away from it—or at least equip him to recognize its faults? And given the powerful allure of imaginative fiction, is it possible to offer your child “Christian fantasy” in its place?
Even Christians, in our deeply secularized society, have been taught to compartmentalize their lives, creating many tidy little areas in which they find no place for God. A few have boiled it down to the point where the only compartment left for God is in the church on Sunday morning. And for many, “entertainment” and “recreation” have become God-free zones, as typified by remarks like, “Heck, it’s only a movie.”
Bearing this in mind, let’s look at some of the features that most of today’s young readers’ fantasies have in common.
1. The protagonists of these stories are teens or children, and they almost always have disturbed family situations.
To some extent, this is hard to avoid. To make a young teen the hero of a story, he or she must be able to act independently of his family, especially the parents. Normal parents can’t be expected to allow their children to go out on life-threatening adventures. The author must somehow get around that obstacle.
But in most fantasies, the authors resort to demeaning the protagonists’ families. In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series—the best-selling fiction series of all time2—Harry’s parents are dead and he lives with his aunt and uncle, the Dursleys. Rowling depicts them as hopelessly stupid, ignorant, incompetent, and ineffectual, not to mention bigoted. Living at the Hogwarts School of Magic for most of the year, Harry isn’t seriously inconvenienced by his foster parents. On those rare occasions when they have the opportunity to interfere with his activities, he easily outsmarts them.
The hero of Tunnels, a new book by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams, lives with a “rather strange and dysfunctional family,” according to a review in teenreads.com,3 featuring a mother who’s a TV zombie and “a kind but spacey father.” Gossamer, by Newbery Medal winner Lois Lowry, centers on a boy who has been “uprooted from his abusive home,”4 while the hero of Philip Womack’s The Other Book is out from under his family because he lives at “a strict boarding school” that used to be a medieval manor until it was destroyed by another boy’s “power-mad father.”5 And let’s not leave out the gem of them all, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, in which the heroine’s mother and father can’t seem to make up their minds whether to kill her or protect her: they are a pair of highly volatile characters.6
Providing the young protagonist with the freedom to undertake a death-defying quest is dictated by the needs of the story; but these authors go farther than they have to in order to accomplish this. We are left with a gallery of autonomous, powerful children—a frightening thought. An author who has written “Christian fantasy” comments:
To me, the most corrupting idea—and one that is really fostered today—is the notion that the universe revolves around you, the individual. This form of self-centered narcissism is rampant throughout our culture, and it is basically the original Satanic pride. Those who see themselves as gods cannot bring themselves to kneel before Jesus Christ, because to do so is to violate their core self-image. Hedonism, sexual abuse, greed and even violence stem from the belief that your momentary desire is the only thing that truly matters.7
We see quite a lot of this in un-Christian fantasy.
Power Apart from God
2. Magical power (or any kind of power) exists apart from the will of a sovereign God and can be exercised by anyone who learns its secrets.
Here most fantasy makes a radical departure from the Bible. St. Paul’s teaching, “For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God” (Rom. 13:1), has made no impression on these authors.
In His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman endows certain man-made objects with awesome powers—a “golden compass,” a “subtle knife,” and an “amber spyglass.” Wielding these artifacts, a boy and a girl can divine “the truth,” open up passages to parallel universes, and probe the innermost secrets of the cosmos. Although made by man, these gadgets have an agenda of their own—nothing less than rebellion against God, who, in Pullman’s view, never created anything. If this sounds like idolatry to you, give yourself an “A” for discernment.
To a medieval man, an ordinary flashlight would have seemed like magic: he would have either feared it or coveted it, or both. But we know a flashlight isn’t magic. It’s just a rational application of discoverable, understandable elements and principles built into the universe by God when He created it.
“Magic” in fantasy usually involves a supernatural application of power. Magic circumvents the laws of nature and allows the mortal human being who uses it to function as a god. This is why some Christian thinkers have always been averse to fantasy.
“When men forsake God, fantasy replaces reality,” R. J. Rushdoony writes. “Imagination here includes rational thought which is apostate and hence guilty of fantasy because it begins with man rather than God … whereby man acts on the belief that sin can succeed and that God can be mocked. It included also the dangerous realm of fantasizing and reshaping the world after our imagination, which is what all sin attempts to do.”8
Rushdoony is not suggesting that we should never use our imaginations. He isn’t even saying we shouldn’t write or read fiction. The real danger here is magic as a replacement for God and magical thinking that makes man his own god.
Worlds without God
3. There is no God active in the fantasy world.
As much as Harry Potter fans may argue that J. K. Rowling’s viewpoint is “basically Christian,” nowhere in these books does the author or any of her characters give God the glory or acknowledge that their magical power comes from Him.
A fantasy writer might have depicted it as a great feat of “magic” when Moses struck the rock with his staff and out poured a cascade of clean, fresh, badly needed water. When he did so, Moses said, “Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?” (Num. 20:10).
But of course it was God, not Moses, who produced the water; and Moses sinned by speaking as if he were a magician. God punished him for it by not allowing him to cross over into the Promised Land.
His Dark Materials is unusual in being a three-volume rant against God. The usual practice is simply to ignore God. In this, fantasy novels resemble virtually everything else in our culture that falls into the category of “entertainment.” And in this, “entertainment” resembles much of our business, our politics, our interpersonal transactions. A secularized society produces not only un-Christian fantasy novels, but un-Christian thought and action in every sphere of life.
4. There is no immutable moral law in the fantasy world: the characters determine good and evil for themselves.
If there is no God, there simply can’t be an immutable and transcendent moral law. The presence of such laws implies the existence of God, for such laws can only proceed from Him.
Philip Pullman comes closest to taking this to its logical conclusion. His protagonists are free to lie, cheat, or steal whenever they think it necessary. Harry Potter and his sidekicks are a little better behaved—although the last time I read a Harry Potter book, the only way I could tell which characters were supposed to be the good guys and which were supposed to be the villains was by the author’s identifying them as such.
Where, in the fantasy world, do good and evil come from, if not from God? In Lois Lowry’s Gossamer, for instance, they come from magical entities who determine the content of sleeping humans’ dreams:
“Finally, Littlest One and Thin Elderly infuse John’s and the woman’s dreams with enough peace, love, and positive energy to enrich their souls and ward off negative thoughts, and the result is pure magic.”9
Christians think you get those benefits from prayer, study of the Scriptures, sound and godly preaching, and communion with the Holy Spirit. But in most fantasy worlds, there’s no God to pray to.
There’s one more problem with all this fantasy, analyzed ably by Greg Clarke in The Theologian:
It seems to me that a real evil in all this is found outside the books themselves. The merchandising these days surrounding any children’s entertainment is overwhelming … [I]t is in this area that harm may be done. Some of the games and toys push the magical dimension of Harry Potter beyond the story and into the everyday activities of children … They bring activities such as spell-casting and alchemy into the realm of play in a manner that might encourage some children to look further into such activities … It might be introducing some strange ideas about how the world operates that may be hard to shake in later life.10
Linda Harvey, of Mission America, takes the criticism farther than that. Her newly published book, Not My Child, blames the proliferation of occult-laden fantasy (among other causes) for an “explosion of radical pagan practices … among American children.”11
So we are talking about books—and their spin-offs in the form of movies, video games, toys, etc.—that offer young readers a worldview minus God and with parental authority removed from the equation, and a vision of children, who often feel (and, with good reason, are) powerless, wielding awesome magical powers.
Is this really what we want Christian children to be reading?
Theodore Beale has written a Christian fantasy trilogy featuring “Eternal Warriors” participating in “The War in Heaven.” In an interview with WorldNetDaily, Beale tried to define Christian fantasy:
“Christian fantasy is fantasy fiction written from a worldview constructed around the idea that Jesus Christ is the Lord and Savior of humanity, and is built from the premise that the universe generally operates as it is described in the Bible. Christianity is the starting point, and it lays the basic guidelines for the setting, but it does not dictate the direction in which the tale is told.”12
C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, seven books written from 1950–1956, are still the most famous and widely read “Christian fantasy” for young readers. It must be pointed out that even in these, some Christians may find problems. For instance:
“It’s all in Plato, all in Plato, bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?”13
Many of us do not want to get all that close to Plato, a pagan philosopher with a pagan point of view. Nevertheless, we will use some examples from Narnia, and from J. R. R. Tolkien’s works, too, to show how Christian fantasy ought to differ from un-Christian fantasy.
1. Families should be at least normal, if not conspicuously loving and wholesome.
It will still be necessary for the Christian fantasy writer to put the young protagonists into situations in which they must act—but not as autonomous agents.
In the Narnia books, the children are separated from their parents by circumstances beyond their control; and when they arrive in the fantasy world of Narnia, they are anything but autonomous.
Instead, they are assigned missions by the Great Lion, Aslan—whom Lewis quite clearly identifies with Christ Himself. Those who deny this are being deliberately obtuse. The children have been removed from their parents’ jurisdiction, but they remain under Christ’s.
2. There should either be no “magic” at all in a Christian fantasy (in the usual sense of the word); or else whatever “magic” we find in the story is exercised by God Himself or by a deputy to whom He expressly delegates the power.
We come back to Moses, who “did” many things that looked like magic (especially to the pagan Egyptians). In reality, all Moses did was to proclaim the power of God. It was God who put the plagues on Egypt, parted the Red Sea, sent manna down from heaven, and all the rest.
There are two kinds of “magic” in Narnia. There is the “deep magic,” which God has built into creation itself, and which Aslan as the Son of God has authority to use. And there is a lower kind, an evil kind of magic, which can be used by the White Witch and her avatars (which are not human) for evil purposes. Aslan can undo the Witch’s magic, but she can’t undo his. And on those rare occasions when mortal human beings attempt to use magic independently (see the example of Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew), they can’t control it and they inevitably come to grief.
3. Even if God is not expressly mentioned in the story (and it’s probably better that He should be), His existence and His lordship are implicit in the story.
This is how Tolkien is identified as a Christian writer. He never mentions God in either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings (he does in The Silmarillion), but God is seen as implicit in the story.
The good wizard, Gandalf, safely wields very powerful “magic.” He can because he is a servant of God, who has given him the power. But the one-time greater wizard, Saruman, rebels against God and tries to set himself up as an independent power in the world. Saruman’s humanistic use of magic turns out to be a poor, weak thing, totally unable to support his ambitions.
In Tolkien’s tales the weak overthrow the strong, the foolish confound the wise, and even “base things of the world, and things which are despised” (1 Cor. 1:28)—like the wretched Gollum—become powerful weapons in God’s service. One might very easily see in The Lord of the Rings a novelistic presentation of the first chapter of First Corinthians.
4. In any Christian fantasy, there must be immutable moral law, which the characters only break at their peril.
In Lewis’ stories, Aslan must always be obeyed; promises must be kept; lying, cheating, stealing, and murder are never options open to the protagonists; and the obligations of kinship and friendship must be honored. So, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the children have to help their cousin Eustace when he’s turned into a dragon, even though he’s an obnoxious little twerp who’s no use to anybody; and it’s a good thing they do, because after he repents, Aslan heals him and he’s able to take his place beside the others.
In The Hobbit, Bilbo cheats—to save his life—in a riddle contest with the evil Gollum. The toxic moral effects of this cheating come back to haunt the protagonist and continue to ripple outward in The Lord of the Rings. In the latter, the hero Boromir surrenders to the temptation to do evil in a good cause, and almost brings that good cause to total ruin. By contrast, Philip Pullman’s young protagonists get ahead in life by lying and cheating: his ethic is purely situational.
Is it possible to write fantasy in which God the Father (or Christ the Son) is the sovereign Lord who must be obeyed? In which the family is a source of strength for the characters, and not a source of shame or weakness? In which “magic” is dispensed with altogether, or else revealed as just another aspect of God’s power? In which blessings fall on those who keep God’s law, and curses on those who don’t?
Lewis, Tolkien, and a few others have already made strides in that direction. As long as there is a demand for young readers’ fantasy (“It’s good because it makes children want to read” has always been a Harry Potter selling point), it would seem that there is a need for Christian writers to provide fantasy that is God-honoring, Christ-centered, and profitable to the development of the young reader’s Christian worldview.
1. Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2004), 221. Originally published in 1911, this classic children’s fantasy shows that “magic” has long been included in the picture.
3. http://www.teenreads.com/reviews/9780439871778.asp. “Teenreads” provides reviews, descriptions, and synopses of dozens of new releases: an excellent resource.
6. See Chalcedon’s review of this trilogy, http://chalcedon.edu/articles/article.php?ArticleID=2811.
7. Theodore Beale, http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=33951.
8. R. J. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol. 2 (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1982; 2001 edition), 546–547.
11. Linda Harvey, Not My Child (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2008), 7.
13. C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Last Battle (New York: HarperCollins, 2001 edition), 759.