Authors Explore Fantasy in From Homer to Harry Potter
- 2006 21 Sep
Title: "From Homer to Harry Potter: A Handbook on Myth and Fantasy"
Authors: Matthew Dickerson & David O'Hara
Publisher: Brazos Press
The early part of this decade saw a growing interest in fantasy literature, due in no small part to two very successful movie franchises. Of course, I'm talking about "The Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter."
At the time, I was a member of the board of directors (and later president) of the Mythopoeic Society. We saw a lot of people new to fantasy come to appreciate fantasy literature. Since then, the buzz for fantasy has dwindled a bit, but there is still a strong interest in the fantastic, with more movies, such as "The Chronicles of Narnia" and Phillip Pullman's God-hating "His Dark Materials" both coming soon to a theater near you.
Why this interest in fantasy? There is a bit of testosterone involved in it, I must admit. My inner dude just loves those cool fight scenes from "The Lord of the Rings," and my sons, when they re-watch the extended versions, fast forward past all that mushy stuff (what there is of it) to the battles. Who cares if the elves didn't come to Helm's Deep in the novel? It makes for some great cinematography. And what about the covers of fantasy novels? True, they're not as lurid as they were during the hey-days of Valejo and the Brothers Hildebrandt, but there are still plenty of covers which show that in pseudo-medieval cultures women in general can't afford much clothing and have impossible body mass indexes.
But hormones only get you so far. There's got to be something more, especially when you consider that there are lots of women reading fantasy these days. (Harlequin has even launched its own fantasy imprint, Luna Books, trying to cash in on this growing niche.) There is indeed something more going on in fantasy that makes many enjoy it as a genre.
Christian fantasy authors J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis both wrote on the topic of fantasy literature (as well as creating two of the most beloved fantasy worlds), but what they wrote is limited to a few sentences here, an essay there, a personal letter, etc. What has been much needed is a more consistent analysis of fantasy and its relationship to the Christian faith. It's something I've considered doing over the years, but Christian publisher Brazos Press has beat me to it with "From Homer to Harry Potter: A Handbook on Myth and Fantasy" by Matthew Dickerson and David O'Hara. (Dickerson is also the author of "Following Gandalf," which was one of the few quality LOTR-related books that came out during the release of the films.)
For Dickerson and O'Hara, however, the question is not "what is fantasy?", but "what is myth?" Even though English professor and Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey has declared that "the dominant literary mode of the twentieth century has been the fantastic," Dickerson and O'Hara rightly point out that "fantasy" as a genre really only extends back one or two hundred years, if that. However, mythic stories go back all the way to man's first inclination to tell tales.
The mythic, then, is where we should look, and Dickerson and O'Hara do a wonderful job walking us through a history and definition of what the mythic actually is. At the highest level, a dictionary definition of "myth" gets us pointed in the right direction: "A story of great but unknown age which embodies a belief regarding some fact or phenomenon of experience, and in which often the forces of nature and of the soul are personified."
Although that's a very functional definition of myth, C.S. Lewis, writing on myth, makes much clearer the true function of myth: "It gets under our skin, hits us at a level deeper than our thoughts or even our passions, troubles oldest certainties till all questions are reopened, and in general shocks us more fully awake than we are for most of our lives." Or, to quote Emmylou Harris, "If there's no heaven, what is this hunger for?"
Myth, then, is not restricted to just make-believe stories, but is more expansive, encompassing any story that deals with issues of great significance and gives a basis for understanding the world. And when we encounter these stories, we feel a longing for such places, a longing that is not explained easily by rational words.
It is at this point that Dickerson and O'Hara make one of their really big observations: the difference between what they call the mythos and the logos. (Please note that they are not talking of Christ as Logos.) For them, mythos is the relating of truth through story, whereas logos is the relating of truth through reason. Both express themselves to us through words, but logos lays itself out through explication, whereas mythos conveys itself to us through less rational means. They both speak, but in different languages.
Dickerson and O'Hara write that the fantastic "is not a place to deny the supernatural, but neither is it a place for systematic theology or philosophy of religion. [The fantastic does] not deal in mere propositional truth or morals, as fables and sermons so often do, and we should not look to them for that." When we experience the fantastic, either in a movie or in a novel, we often find ourselves feeling a strange connection to what is being said, but when we begin to analyze that sense of connection, we lose it. That is the mythic.
But this still begs the question of "why." Dickerson and O'Hara tackle this by looking at the difference between science fiction and fantasy, two genres that are closely related in the popular mind, so much so that they are often shelved together in bookstores. As they explain it, "Science fiction is based on science - or, more accurately, on the assumption that everything is explainable by science." That is, science fiction doesn't leave room for the numinous; it "tends to be marked by a progressivist's optimism about the power of scientific knowledge to improve the lot of humanity." Or, in other words, the grace of God is incidental and not really needed.
Fantasy and the fantastic, on the other hand, create a better sense of causation by not embracing such a worldview: "Fantasy has a more complete view of causation than does most sci-fi. [...] Fantasy's view of cause is one that corresponds more to Aristotle's view of there being four causes (formal, material, efficient, and final) for everything, over against the Enlightenment and Newtonian view of there being only two causes for every event, the material and the efficient (i.e., matter and energy)."
That's quite a mouthful of a sentence, but it really boils down to the fact that fantasy leaves itself open to the possibility (and reality) of events being caused by things outside ourselves; it allows for God in its worldview. "The crucial element in sci-fi is the natural [...] the crucial element in fantasy is the interaction of the natural with the supernatural."
A personal favorite quote (not mentioned by Dickerson and O'Hara) is from Act II, Scene III of Shakespeare's "All's Well That Ends Well": "They say miracles are past; and we have our philosophical persons, to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless. Hence is it that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge, when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear."
This Shakespeare quote should help to make clear what this all has to do with Christianity: in Dickerson and O'Hara's words, fantasy and Christianity "both affirm the existence of the supernatural and of moral freedom, both affirm the importance of our choices, both encourage escape from materialist determination, and both find a materialist worldview to be insufficient."
Fantasy is not in and of itself Christian – not by any stretch of the imagination - but it does lend itself to Christian readings and Christian influences, both conscious and unconscious. Terry Scott Taylor once penned a song where he laments that he is "longing for a land not assigned to me by birth." This is a longing that many of us Christians have for the new heaven and the new earth. It only makes sense to have an inclination to meet that desire through the fantastic and mythic.
Like I said, this was a book I wanted to write, but I'm glad that someone else beat me to the punch. It hits on all those things that make me a lover of the fantastic while at the same time pushing me to think and reconsider some of my assumptions about what makes for "good" fantasy.
© 2006 Infuze Magazine. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Original publication date: November 21, 2006