A Musing on the Purposes of Christian Fantasy Through the Works of C.S. Lewis

Though there might be some people who do not believe that fantasy literature can be truly Christian, the example of C.S. Lewis remains very valid.  Here was a popular theologian, whose work Mere Christianity is a classic apologetic of the Christian faith, but wrote fantasy works in several subgenres.  As a Christian fantasy author myself, in plays, poetry, and prose fiction, I find that the purpose of Lewis in his works is similar to my own, and so by explaining the approach of a much more famous and better fictional author, I might help explain some of my own interests in fantasy literature.

It might be useful to examine just what types of fantasy literature C.S. Lewis wrote, though, for those who are unaware, to see what his point was in utilizing fantasy so heavily in his works, ranging from his Narnia Series to his Space Trilogy to his works The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters.  If I had read Till Men Have Faces, I would examine it as well, as it relates to the relationship between Christianity and mythology, but the work is a hard one to find and I have not read it yet.

The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters:  Theology as Fantasy

The Great Divorce is probably the work of C.S. Lewis’ that most directly conflates his writings on fantasy into a theological framework.  The play consists of a journey from the grey town (hell or purgatory), which can be taken as man’s natural unredeemed state, to the foothills of heaven, in a voyage similar to Bunyan’s Pilgram’s Progress (another fine example of Christian fantasy literature), where most of the called refuse to answer the call, preferring to remain in their unredeemed state with various self-serving excuses rather than repent and enter into salvation.  George MacDonald, the literary mentor of C.S. Lewis (and no mean fantasy author, logician, or Christian apologist himself) serves as the fictional guide of C.S. Lewis’ eponymous narrator (much like how Virgil serves as the guide and literary mentor of the voyager Dante in the Divine Comedy, another notable example of “Christian” fantasy).  At the end, of course, the narrator realizes it is all a dream, but presumably has learned from it some deep lessons about the ways in which human beings operate in spiritual matters.

The Screwtape Letters is a far more diabolical look at doctrine.  It is, in fact, the examination of the salvation of a man from unbelief to belief from the point of view of Satan’s demons, told in an epistolary novel.  The divided nature of Satan’s kingdom and the methods of temptation Satan and his minions use to deceive and distract mankind are revealed in a thorough fashion in what is a highly entertaining novel that must have been very difficult for Lewis to write, given his own Christian background that he found impossible to shake or disguise in his writings.  What is particularly striking is that it is the inexperienced and naive young demon Wormwood who acts as the stereotypical demon, while his experienced uncle Screwtape considers it more successful to distract and confuse rather than to directly tempt the human target into committing a damnable act.  As a work of demonic psychology, the work is supremely important in seeking to understand the perspective of the ultimate enemy.  The result is one of C.S. Lewis’ finest works in a very excellent oeuvre.

Christian Fantasy For Children (?):  The Chronicles of Narnia

My own first contact with the works of C.S. Lewis, and that of many other people, was through reading the Chronicles of Narnia as a child.  The works are themselves very short and can all be read in a weekend (as I did once as a young adult to refresh my memory about them).  In reading the books for a second time as an adult, I was struck by how profound the works were.  Given that I wish to discuss how the novels serve as a Christian fantasy rather than merely recapitulate their plot details, I wish to discuss on two particular elements of the series as a whole–the strong tie between the Chronicles of Narnia as a whole and the Bible, as well as the relevance of the series as a reverse coming of age story to other fantasy works, including my own.

One aspect of the Chronicles of Narnia that did not appear obvious as a child but was glaringly obvious re-reading them as an adult was just how close to the surface the Bible was in the plotting and significance of the overall story arc.  The Magician’s Nephew serves as a very direct parallel of the Genesis account, showing the creation of Narnia and the original sin within that world through the eating of forbidden fruit.  The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe has a very close tie to the Gospels with the redemptive presence of the Pevensie children as well as the sacrifice and resurrection of the noble Christ-like lion Aslan.  Even the presence of the pagan “Father Christmas” is itself a wink at the role of the birth of Christ in the Gospels, despite its impropriety.  A Horse And His Boy carries with it the sort of marriage intrigues and salvation of a small kingdom against overwhelming numbers that one would expect out of the Historical Prophets.  Prince Caspian has the feel of the post-exilic restoration of the Jews from captivity.  And while The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair appear to have less specifically biblical inspiration (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader appears more like the Odyssey or the Voyage of St. Brenden in Irish literature, and The Silver Chair appears particularly related to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave as well as the Greek myth of Theseus and Perithous and the chairs of Hades), The Last Battle has a clear tie with Revelation in its apocalyptic form and image of final judgment.  As at least five of the seven novels in the Narnia series have direct biblical parallels in form and subject matter and inspiration, it is clear that scripture forms a very important aspect of Lewis’ worldview even when writing fantasy literature.

Lewis’ work in writing a coming of age story (in fact, somewhat of a reverse one, with the older a child gets, the less able they are to enter the magical realm of Narnia as a result of becoming too grown-up and mundane) has served as an inspiration for other fantasy writers.  One sees in the writing of a group of children from their youth to adulthood–facing death in an atmosphere of war and struggle against powerful witches and wizards and armies, as well as in the fact that it has seven volumes, an inspiration for J.K. Rowling in her Harry Potter series, though J.K. Rowling is also (unfortunately) very indebted to close studies of witchcraft (including such pagan elements as fortune telling and astrology) and alchemy and much less explicit in providing her novels with a Christian worldview than Lewis was.  I must admit myself to being deeply influenced by the writings of C.S. Lewis.  Some particularly important aspects of the Narnia volumes for my own writings are the aspect of having a mundane object serve as a transportation device between distant worlds (in my play The Elfin Queen, a lavatory at a Renaissance Faire) as well as the “hidden prince” aspect of a love between a supposed commoner and a noblewoman of a hostile people, a major part of the story in A Horse And His Boy (my favorite of the Narnia novels) and an inspiration of my fantasy short story “The Ambitious Commoner.”  As long as Lewis’ works resonate with others, they will remain vital examples of Christian fantasy literature, inspiring the sub-creation of numerous other authors after him far into the future.

The Space Trilogy as Christian Fantasy

Perhaps least known of C.S. Lewis’ fantasy writings to people nowadays, the Space Trilogy (composed of three novels:  Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength) is a major series in Christian fantasy.  In examining the three novels of this series I would like to examine some notable aspects of each as they relate to the larger realms of fantasy as a whole, examining some of the strengths and weaknesses of the works and what importance the works have as hallmarks of Christian literature.

Out of the Silent Planet is a good place to look to examine the difference between space fantasy and science fiction.  Lewis’ work is clearly a space fantasy, given the non-scientific portrayal of the supposed “spaceship,” which can easily be compared to the more scientific focus given to spaceships in a series like Star Trek (which is clearly a science-fiction account rather than a fantasy one).  The fact that Out of the Silent Planet hinges on sometimes unsettling moral questions rather than technological solutions to the problems of mankind or a blind faith in progress makes it a clear fantasy work.  The account of Mars as a dying planet of sorts with a very odd balance of life forms gives a sort of melancholy air to this novel, which I quite enjoy but that others may find less easy to relate to.

Perelandra, which is in my view the least successful of all of C.S. Lewis’ fantasy works, is a clear warning of what happens when the depth of interaction with the biblical source material overwhelms the plot.  In contrast to the dying planet of Mars or the vibrant planet Earth, Venus is portrayed here as a planet where human (?) life has just begun, and the lead character is placed there to avoid letting the planet suffer its ‘fall’ as man did in the Garden of Eden.  Most of the novel consists of somewhat uninteresting and odd Edenic scenes, arguments between the voice of the advocates of the two trees, and the lack of a strong plot makes the parallels between man’s fall in Eden and the existence of two stunningly uninteresting and indistinctly drawn sentient human-like beings too overwhelming for most readers (myself included) to greatly enjoy.  Sometimes you can get too close to your source material to make your own really live, and that is what happened in Parelandra.

That Hideous Strength has at least two profound elements as a Christian fantasy work.  The first is that the work draws considerable strength and interest as an Arthurian myth, showing the distinction between the actions of an early medieval Merlin and the more refined modern-day Christians.  Lewis is wise to show that despite Merlin’s being on the side of the righteous, his existence springs from a time where Christianity’s moral influence on the world was less, and hence there was a greater element of the pagan Celtic worldview present within Merlin, making him a somewhat ambiguous figure.  The second profound element is the portrayal of a functioning Christian counterculture that manages to thwart, with divine intervention, the plans and plotting of the “bent one” (i.e. Satan) to create a victorious demonic realm on earth.  The book serves as a reminder that Christianity is more than just private belief but also involves citizenship (and the duties of citizenship) to a heavenly realm that is to be built on earth, requiring the application of the law and principles of God to mortal and fallible human beings.  The result is compelling fiction, and a very strong work of Christian fantasy that provides a template of sorts for Christians who wish to develop a godly culture to oppose and eventually replace that of the world around.

Concluding Thoughts

Having examined, at least briefly, the relevance of C.S. Lewis’ Christianity to his fictional works and that of others, I would like to conclude by pondering why there is a false dichotomy often made between Christianity and works of fiction.  It appears as if many people are uneasy with fiction, considering it deceptive because it is imaginary, not understanding that vision, including our vision of the future as well as our understanding of the past, is similarly illusory, given its variance from history as it happened or prophecy as it will happen.  We project narrative into our views of the past and future, and present, making comprehensible and even inevitable what often appears uncertain or contingent while it is taking place.  Fiction is not deception–so long as one is open and honest that one is speaking of possibilities and imaginations and speculations, rather than absolute reality (as C.S. Lewis is clear to do in his fictional works).

An additional problem that people often have with fantasy works is the use and presence of magic rather than technology in such works.  In fact, if one looks at the Bible one will find a fair amount of what could be reasonably termed “magic” realizing that magic refers to those events of which there is no normal or ordinary explanation.  Technology is magic to the uninformed (ever seen the films The Gods Must Be Crazy or 2001: A Space Odyssey).  Likewise, some of the items within the Bible have expressed “magical” or “miraculous” properties–including the Ark of the Covenant (1 Samuel 5), the Nehushtan (Numbers 21:4-9), or the healing rags of Paul (Acts 19:11-12).  Sometimes, due to idolatry, those ‘magical items’ had to be destroyed, because people put their faith in the item rather than in the God who worked miracles through them (who alone was the source of their power), as happened during the time of Hezekiah in 2 Kings 18:4.  We would do well to remember that God is the source of any miraculous power, not a magical item or a human magician.  The more we remember that, the less troublesome is the existence of Christian fantasy, and the more equipped we will be to judge it according to the biblical standard.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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