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In Defense Of Dragons, Elves, and Sword-smiths

A week ago today one of my favorite bloggers, Mike Duran, posted a thoughtful blog article about the need for more adult Christian science fiction and fantasy. Hear, hear! I thought, until I got to the first of Mike’s two […]
| Sep 27, 2010 | No comments |

A week ago today one of my favorite bloggers, Mike Duran, posted a thoughtful blog article about the need for more adult Christian science fiction and fantasy. Hear, hear! I thought, until I got to the first of Mike’s two suggested reasons for this situation. In part, he said

In this way, YA speculative fiction is much better suited for CBA / ECPA readers because it doesn’t need to have the “bite” that adult spec-fic does, and can more easily skirt taboos of sex, language, and questionable theology. Which is why much Christian YA spec-fic tends to involve lots of dragons, elves, and swordsmiths…

Excuse me? Dragons, elves, and sword-smiths somehow equate with YA fantasy?

Mind you, I still agree with Mike’s main point—where is the adult Christian speculative fiction; must it come only from small, independent presses?

But I take issue with the idea that dragons, elves, and sword-smiths must automatically be associated with fiction that isn’t adult.

How ironic to read the end of Mike’s post:

Discovering C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy and Till We Have Faces, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, George MacDonald, Charles Williams, and G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, were some of the most exciting times of my life as a Christian reader. Discovering that those books were 50+ years old and still have no contemporary equals, was depressing. Perhaps we just can’t write like that anymore. (Emphasis mine)

As I recall, elves are plentiful in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Swordplay isn’t unheard of either. The dragon, of course, appeared in the stand-alone, The Hobbit, that preceded the trilogy.

But if Tolkien is one of the masters, and he is, then why this look-down-the-nose attitude toward dragons, elves, and sword-smiths?

I don’t have a good answer. I can speculate that perhaps a number of YA books written by contemporary authors featuring dragons has somehow branded the creatures as “without bite.”

But why not take that to it’s logical conclusion? Since Twilight, another YA fantasy, albeit not Christian, featured vampires, then vampires are “without bite.” Hmmm. 🙄

Or how about this one. Since ghosts are prominent in the Harry Potter series, ghosts are “without bit.” (That one would have merit if we meant “bite” in the physical sense only).

My point is this. The creatures, even the characters, do not make “the bite.” It’s how the creatures and characters are portrayed and, most importantly, what they do.

Same with swordplay. Was the Helm’s Deep battle in Lord of the Rings somehow less tense because the combatants used axes, swords, and bows? Or how about the tragic battle for Osgiliath, Gondor’s capital? Are deaths only “biting” if they’re wrought using automatic weapons or vampire venom?

I can understand someone saying they prefer a contemporary setting because fantasy often has the feel of the historical. Or even that they prefer a futuristic setting because they like the cool technology or imagined logical extensions of today’s trends in science fiction or dystopian fantasy.

But to somehow assume that tropes of classic fantasy somehow have less bite, as if they can’t quite get the job done that adult speculative fiction needs doing—well, that seems rather biased.

Using that standard, one of the best Christian speculative books for adults out there Blaggard’s Moon by George Bryan Polivka should be dismissed without a second thought because it features sword-smithing.

How about Stephen Lawhead’s King Raven trilogy, for adults? Lots of swords wielded there too. Then there are the Song of Albion and the Pendragon Cycle. Are these books “without bite” because they involve more traditional tropes?

If it is the trope that produces—or fails to produce—the all important bite, then maybe we should do away with human characters, too. After all, they appear in these same stories, beside the elves and dragons.

Yes, I’m being factitious. The point is, I love sword play—always have. I’m a fan of Zorro and Robin Hood. I loved the Princess Bride and as a preschooler, my favorite cartoon was Mighty Mouse, a small version of Superman and Zorro rolled into one. Why, then, wouldn’t I also love a fantasy in which the characters face each other with swords in hand?

More importantly, can’t a story with classic tropes have just as much to say about life as one with contemporary or futuristic elements? I think so, and I think its time to end the discrimination against stories with dragons, elves, and sword-smiths.

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

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Mike Duran

Hey, Becky, thanks for highlighting that article. For the record, I like dragons, elves and swordsmiths. Also, I do not believe their inclusion limits the potential “adult-ness” of a tale. My point in that piece was to suggest — and I don’t think I made this clear enough — that traditional fantasy allows Christian authors (or YA authors) to more easily comply with the strictures of the Christian (or YA) market in a way that contemporary stories do not. The “nobility” of a golden age just translates better into Christianese. Which is why we don’t see any cursing dragons or fornicating elves in YA fantasy.

Michelle R. Wood

Someone seriously wrote the above quote, that books with the aforementioned descriptors are “dumbed down,” as it were? I can not answer for the author of it, since I don’t know the person, but sometimes I wonder if the discussions I follow and I are considering the same genre. Yes, I enjoy Tolkien and Lewis as well as the next fan, but why is everyone thinks that fantasy died with them? There’s a lot of junk out there (don’t get me started on “Eragon”), but there are so many gems. I’m fortunate enough to have a library with an entire Spec section (a full five shelves) and I’m constantly discovering new (and old) things to read.

Off the top of my head, some excellent books containing dragons include “The Hero and the Crown,” by McKlineky, the Pern novels by McCaffrey (um, yeah, these novels bite, literarlly), the Dragon’s Blood series by Jane Yolen (labeled YA, but it explores deep issues like physical slavery, bondage of the soul, and what deserves life), and the recent Temeraire series by Naomi Novik (which has the double “dis”-tinction of being alternative history as well as draconian fantasy, as it is set during the Napoleonic Wars). Each book or series handles dragons in a different way, with varying levels of sentience and approaches for interacting with humanity. All of them I believe address some of these “issues” as mentioned in the quote, though I’m still not sure why having a sex scene constitutes “adult.”

As an example, I recently read “The Last Unicorn” by Peter Beagle (I remembered watching the movie as a kid). I had mixed feelings on its success, but no one can doubt that it’s considered a classic of the genre. It is rather chaste in comparison to a great many novels out there, and almost completely without war or violence (I believe there were only two character deaths in the whole of it), and yet it is a very moving and in places terrifying journey. There is an impending sense of dread that builds rather like a Hitchcock film: what is not seen is more frightening and threatening than what is revealed. The entire conflict is actually very small, only shown in the interactions of a handful of characters (no long appendix or glossary to explain the thing). My point is that the subject matter (or “issue”) should not be a litmus test any more than the tropes involved: a good work will shine based on the craft of the story, its engagement of the reader, and how compelling the characters’ plight(s) become. I wish we could get out of this conversation about what types of plots constitute a good story and focus more on the importance of craft: without the latter, the former matters little.

E. Stephen Burnett

Good morning, Mike! Perhaps that is indeed the case — that a “golden age” motif fits easily with “safer” fiction. But are you perhaps implying that one can only have grown-up fiction if one includes elements such as “cursing dragons or fornicating elves”? 🙂

Note I’m not saying more-“adult” spec-fic can’t or shouldn’t include such elements. I only ask because it sounded like you’d assumed such elements as a default.

Mike Duran

Stephen, my intention in that post was to ponder why so much Christian spec is YA — perhaps up to half of it! It’s very important in this discussion that your commenters judge my points in relation to that. One suggestion I made was that the popularity of Christian YA is actually fueled by parents wanting to provide their kids a “safe” alternative to Harry Potter and Twilight. As such, this “safe-ness” (absence of profanity, sex, and biblical congruity) seems a huge factor in Christian YA’s popularity.

The reason why the Christian market offers so few non-YA (see: “adult”) choices is another very important issue. Nevertheless, I am using it only by way of contrast. No, I don’t think that “adult” automatically means language or sex. I think “adult” can simply mean “not YA.” But what distinguishes “adult” spec from YA spec, especially in Christian circles? Which brings me back to the initial question I posed in that post: Why is the majority of Christian spec-fic YA anyway? Blessings, Stephen!

E. Stephen Burnett

[Perhaps] the popularity of Christian YA is actually fueled by parents wanting to provide their kids a “safe” alternative to Harry Potter and Twilight.

And it seems Becky and I both would agree. Meanwhile, I enjoyed your speculation on Novel Journey today on why much Christian fiction is based on don’t-based rules. This would seem to apply here: parents, perhaps steeped in the pragmatism of many churches, feel they must Provide an Alternative for their kids to all that secular stuff.

While that’s not necessarily wrong, it does seem a bit, er, cheap?

Yet this could be the result of wrong views of Scripture, such as misunderstanding where sin really comes from — not The Environment, as if a Thing is the source of sin rather than a person’s own automatically corrupt heart (see Mark 7, Romans, etc.). In that sense this does approach a non-optional issue. In what are parents putting their faith to protect a child: Safe Alternatives, or the rejuvenating influence of the Holy Spirit in the child’s life, if he/she has professed repentance and faith in Christ?

Why is the majority of Christian spec-fic YA anyway?

Thus one answer to this sounds deceptively simple: poor theology. I wonder who among us have “grown-up” Christian friends who say they appreciate The Chronicles of Narnia or another famous fantasy-fiction trendsetter. I read them all when I was a kid, they say. In response I usually want to ask, Why’d you stop?

Earlier I mentioned pragmatism. That’s one reason. Though I don’t wish to stereotype, it seems a lot of grown-ups have indeed become so “pragmatic” in their adult Christian lives. In practice, even if not in belief, they don’t trust the epic wonders of Scriptural truth and God Himself to render awareness of people’s unworthiness and draw us to Him. Instead they must opt for social engineering, often in the form of church programs and step-by-step disciplines. (Some people attempt to rebut this by saying that such people are all about the Bible’s “doctrine” and not the heart, but I tend to rebut that by emphasizing that true doctrine emphasizes the heart; thus the problem is not one of too much doctrine, but of accepting and applying false doctrine.)

What happens, then, to the power of story? People begin to think smaller. The best kind of story, they assume (perhaps subconsciously!) is not one that presents God’s truth, human corruption, His gift of hope in present redemption and future glory, but a story that merely Works. And apparently it’s the kids who like that kind of story better, while the adults are doing all their grown-up programs and policies and socio-religious engineering. So why would a Christian publisher — already uncertain about spec-fic anyway — emphasize “grown-up” fantasy?

That’s a lot about the problem. Now for a quick summary of my suggestion solution: teach real Biblical doctrine. Scripture is an epic work, the only true source of the only “true myths” as Tolkien called them. As you wrote, the Bible even presents violence, in context, to demonstrate how disgusting things get without God. Thus our stories should reflect that better, not to correct for only one Problem (there’s not enough violence in Christian fiction!) but to follow Scriptural truth better. And as a side benefit, such inclusions may increase the power, realism and vividness of a story.

So as Christians begin to learn more in their local churches about God’s main story in Scripture — the solution to our hearts of stone, the Gospel, not just series of stories to apply like pills to life’s ailments — they just may begin to seek out deeper stories that reflect this truth. I’m quite glad that many well-known Christian theologians are already beginning to echo the reality that storytelling can honor God and show more of Him. Some of their quotes (including from Randy Alcorn and Abraham Piper) are in rotation at the top of this page. …

Michelle R. Wood

I’m a little concerned that so many discussions I see now are seeming to ostracize parents who make conscientious decisions about their children’s entertainment habits. Are we saying “Anything goes?” Forgive me if that is facetious-sounding or is not in the spirit of this dicussion, but it disheartens me that we are seeming to critize parents who are taking a stand on what they feel is appropriate for their children. If that’s true, why even quibble about why people don’t read “Christian” fantasy? What is the point of this label? Do people not have a say in what they wish to enjoy, and what their children should be exposed to. I ask because I, as a child, was not allowed to watch certain movies beyond a certain rating level. This was not out of a parochial idea that the world is “bad:” we certainly watched movies, and exceptions were occasionally made to these rules based on my parents previwing of the movies in question. The idea was that children should not have to be exposed to certain things at a young age, especially of the nightmare-inducing kind that would keep us up for all hours in our parents’ bedroom. Also, when we did watch movies that were approved, my parents felt it was better to do so in an environment where they could be present to discuss and/or comment on what we were viewing.

I do not believe this was a bad policy. I do not believe we should critize people who are taking a stand for what they believe. We may not believe the same things, but we should have respect that some people don’t want their children reading what they view as pagan. I am not about to tell people that reading a book with, (I’m sorry, but I can’t help use this quote), “cursing dragons or fornicating elves” is good wholesome entertainment that should be next to their copy of “Pilgrim’s Progress” or “In His Steps.” Many people bought music from DC Talk or Newsboys as a way to provide their youth an alternative to what they viewed as trash music. Does this make those bands any less relevant or reduce their quality? What is it we are trying to tell people? I am sincere in my question, as I think if we have not respect for the values of others, we are doomed to not be respected ourselves.

Mike Duran

Michelle, my wife and I have raised four kids. I’m an ordained minister and have actively pastored for over a decade. I have read YA fiction and have nothing against YA fiction, or against parents placing prohibitions and restraints on their kids. I am not criticizing “people who are taking a stand for what they believe.” I own DC Talk and Newsboys CDs. My point in the post Becky references here is that I think there is not enough “adult” Christian spec-fic. We can debate what “adult” Christian spec-fic should look like, but please don’t misinterpret me as being critical of parents who want safe alternatives for their kids. That’s just not close to what I’m saying.

Michelle R. Wood

Thanks for the reply, and I’m sorry if I’ve misinterpred/misrepresented the situation. I have a great deal of respect for all parents, and so I’m in awe of you and your family (four kids is nothing to sneeze at!) I suppose my reply was more from how this conversation sounds and less than what may actually be meant: that, too, is obviously a trap. I went back and read your actual post on the subject, and I attempted to add to the discussion there.

To get to the meat of the discussion: adult fantasy. It appears that we’re drawing the line based on subject matter (i.e. “taboo” subjects that may be too intense or risque for the YA market). Spoiler Alert: I’ll say that when I read “Light of Eidon” by Karen Hancock, I was really surprised (nearly shocked) by the sex scene. That didn’t stop me from enjoying the book, but it felt … strange. Up until that point, while there had been a lot of sword fights, and aside from some slight inneuendo, there was nothing that seemed to indicate that type of “action” taking place (in terms of plotting, narrative, tone, etc). Keep in mind I’d already read “Dragonriders of Pern,” so I wasn’t exactly a blushing virgin. I had to think about it for awhile. I realized what made this scene different was the attention Hancock drew to it, the way it jarred and challenged what I had thought was the narrative flow. The characters didn’t get up the next day as if nothing had happened (as is often the case with such scenes). It had a profound effect on them (even two books later!)

However, while LoE and the DoP both addressed sex, they weren’t overtly graphic: in both instances you had the lead up to and then the “morning after.” The few times I’ve glimpsed stories in that regard (mostly fanfic) I felt they were incredibly silly, embarrassing (for the characters and myself) and boring, like a long car chase in a movie: “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Likewise, I am not impressed by intense swearing, especially if I feel it’s an excuse to prop up paper-thin characters. I find it especially weird when characters is a setting which has no concept of god or organized religion swear using traditionally Christian imprecations (how can one “damn” a thing if there is no hell?) Back to Hancock, I enjoyed how in her series the characters “swore” according to the world she had created: I became very fond of “Plagues and pox.” However, I’ll have to say I think a swearing dragoon is just plain silly. I’ll reserve judegement until I read an actual specimen, but it sounds like anthropomorphism run amuck (dragons have real teeth to back up what they’re saying, after all, they don’t have to threaten verbally). I’d like to also point out that most of the secular “adult” fantasy novels I’ve read and enjoy (and that have won awards and been extremely popular) don’t swear much (for the very reasons I’ve pointed out).

If we’re going to approach this type of subject matter, let’s do so in a thoughtful consistent way across the board: there are just as many poorly written, simplistic, and silly “adult” books as there are of the “YA” variety.

E. Stephen Burnett

Michelle, you bring up the other side of things, which perhaps I didn’t disclaim enough. What looks to someone to be “legalism” can certainly be true and Biblical discernment that a parent is practicing. In fact, it’s only been this year that I’ve begun to realize one can be legalistic against supposed “legalism”! After all, aren’t both errors caused by assuming If it looks bad to me, it must be bad?

So when I mention parents who do have the wrong motivations for restricting media choices, I don’t also include the right motivations, such as those you mentioned. The results may look the same, but the real sin of “legalism” (if there is any) comes from the heart, not from the action.

Thanks for adding balance to this already-great discussion!

Michelle R. Wood

Thanks for the discussion, and I’m glad for the reply. I don’t mean to say that you can’t make different media choices, or that people always do things for the “right” reasons. I just hesitate to question a parent’s perogative in guiding/making those choices, especially when those people are already beset by many detractors outside the faith. As a group, it doesn’t seem like the wisest way for the spec community to “make new friends.” 😉


Hmm… it seems to me that Mike is just tired of the same old Tolkienesque fantasy plaguing YA fiction, Christian or otherwise. Secular fantasy fiction isn’t immune to it either. But is it really that hard to take something you love and turn it on it’s head? Inject something of your own personality and uniqueness into the picture? I would argue, that yes, it takes far more effort and that’s why the same old crap is published. It’s easy to write, it’s a no-risk investment for publishers. I don’t think Mike is against sword-smiths, elves and dragons, he’s just saying that we should explore other avenues of the fantasy world and deeper, more complex concepts to avoid bland, sacchrine, tired fiction. Think about Lord of the Rings and it’s influence on fantasy fiction. It’s done great things for the genre but also turned much of it into something that is no longer interesting or new. Lord of the Rings done badly = The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks. Lord of the Rings done well = The Stand by Stephen King. Just something to think about.

Kaci Hill

Honestly, I think part of it’s a discrepancy in the way we look at media. I mean, I honestly would not allow a child under 16 to see The Passion without serious thought. It’s brutal. I’d say the same thing of the 4th Harry Potter book and of most of my own writing.

But in myself I started to see where I’d allow things in TV or movies that I’d never allow myself to read in a novel. (I’m still kinda iffy on music, mostly because I refuse to actually sing certain kinds of lyrics. And I don’t like a lot of contemporary music anyway.)

There’s also the idea that anything animated for kids, even though we all know most Pixar movies are better suited and more funny to the adults in the crowd. And if we really think hard enough about most Grimm’s Fairy Tales and most Disney movies…we’d shock ourselves spitless.

Something I might suggest, though, is that if the adult fantasy crowd is the one more likelyl to desire to “unmentionable” subjects, then, yes, in the end, YA is going to prevail, simply because while some might not have a problem with adults reading curse words, they won’t argue kids shouldn’t read them. It’s simply an easier fight, on some level.

For me personally, while I’ll never manage the wordcount limits, I’ve started to think of YA as a challenge: Can I handle adult, PG13 material on a G level (PG at most)? It’s kind of fun. And it gives me a clear plumb line to test off of.

One suggestion I made was that the popularity of Christian YA is actually fueled by parents wanting to provide their kids a “safe” alternative to Harry Potter and Twilight. As such, this “safe-ness” (absence of profanity, sex, and biblical congruity) seems a huge factor in Christian YA’s popularity.

I think that’s partly a holdover, and, as you say, a strong desire to offer good alternatives to bad material. And it’s not a bad idea. (Please note I said ‘good,’ not ‘safe.’) I think if a kid is going to read a book with questionable material, the parents should read with them so they can discuss it. To me, that’s a nice compromise. It’s how my cousins read several books.

On adult spec-fic:

1. Far as I can tell, the relative consensus is that if the biggest push in the adult market is that squirmy “Amish fiction,” I can tell you right now that’s likely a big piece of it.

2. I will say, this is not by any stretch the single issue. My grandmother will not touch fantasy (“I want it to be reality!”) but she reads more murder mysteries than I thought possible. I don’t think she even owns a romance novel. (That would crack me up.)

3. This may be a smaller one, as I’ve had at least one friend say he’d never heard of fantasy being “lesser” than other fiction, but my personal experience is a whole generation terrified of Dungeons & Dragons who associates anything fantasy with the occult. I’d be willing to bet that’s part of it.

4. The name. I don’t know. It’s still easier for me to use the label ‘speculative’ than ‘fantasy.’ And if I say sci-fi…well, let’s say I actually know someone (not me) who dressed up for a Star Trek convention. I’m just saying.

Anyway. I gotta go.

Michelle R. Wood

I wanted to reply to this bit: “But in myself I started to see where I’d allow things in TV or movies that I’d never allow myself to read in a novel.” Ironically, I’ve had to start looking in the opposite direction as I matured: there were many things I thought (sometimes still think) are more acceptable in print than on the screen, which just shows how different cultural/familial backgrounds can influence our beliefs.


I hope to write the Ballad of Gurglebelly in a manner that will appeal to both YA and adult audiences.


Why is so much Christian fantasy YA? Because adults say: “Aw, it’s not set in reality. How can it apply to me?”
I think that because it’s set in another world, sometimes relevant truths stand out more. If people could get over the non-applicable stage, then Christian fantasy for adults could take off. (Mind, I’m not condoning “novels with a message”–but a message is going to come through no matter what, right?).

E. Stephen Burnett

“Aw, it’s not set in reality. How can it apply to me?”

Yup, pragmatism again — but actually it’s not. After all, if a Christian truly believes that God matters more than His creation (which only matters because He does!) and that good versus evil matter more than minor contemporary concerns, which of these is truly most applicable: fiction that reveals truths about our condition and God’s story, or fiction that focuses on false, me-first, this-age-based “relevance”?

That’s why I suggest a root problem here is poor theology. Too many churches have chosen to water down truths, or even poison them, and professing Christians (real and otherwise) are spreading the disease. Biblical, passionate preaching, which shows the real “relevance” of Who God is, what He’s done, and who we are, will help fix this!