I was recently on a call put on by the Realm Makers Consortium, where someone said, “If you think about it these days, Little House on the Prarie could be a speculative fantasy.” That hooked me a bit because I’d chosen the midwest frontier as a setting for my own fantasy story, Light of Mine (reviewed here by Lorehaven magazine). But as I thought about that statement, I realized there was a deep truth in that statement.
Imagine for the moment you are an elementary school child living in Moscow or London. You’ve grown up surrounded by the city and a secular humanist culture your entire life. Technology is all around you, and the only church you’ve ever seen is Saint Basil’s or Saint Paul’s cathedral. Is it possible life on the American frontier represents a fantastical place full of magic and mystery?
When I think about fantasy, modern paranormal or supernatural action and adventure, some thematic items are common: ancient tomes imparting supernatural wisdom, incantations repeated in hopes of powerful results, and the heroes often need a sacred sanctuary. In that context, is it possible Little House on the Prairie is a speculative masterpiece?
The ancient tome
A quick read through speculative titles will find the introduction of an ancient scroll, map, or the proverbial book of the dead. It’s such a common trope within fantasy, that science fiction has its corollary the data chip, cube, or crystal. A quick search through the Little House books shows the series has its ancient tome, the Bible. This sacred book imparts ancient wisdom that, as written, might seem quite spectacular to the modern mind.
Laura liked best to look at the pictures in the big Bible, with its paper covers. Best of all was the picture of Adam naming the animals. Adam sat on a rock, and all the animals and birds, big and little, were gathered around him anxiously waiting to be told what kind of animals they were.1
Adam spoke to the animals, telling them about themselves? On the surface, it looks like this book is telling Laura about a time where people and animals spoke to one another. While Christians know there are far more fantastical passages throughout the Bible, this one establishes the supernatural nature of the book. It also becomes clear from other passages in the books that the Bible is a powerful force in Laura’s life. To the point of using fantastical references as descriptions of everyday life.
Carrie looked like one of the little angel-birds in the Bible.2
It’s so much of a “given” that people know what angels are, that no thought is given to describing it in more detail than that. I’m reminded of a point in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe where C.S. Lewis introduces a host of evil creatures only by their mythological race, with no individual description of what they are, assuming the audience already has an idea.
Incantations of power
The next common element in speculative fiction are incantations of power. In some stories, it might be “the name that can’t be spoken” or a secret set of words that cause a magic door to open. In many stories, the incantation of power protects the characters.
Like the Bible, prayer comes up often in little House on the Prairie. To the point of even writing out entire prayers,
They [Laura and Mary] knelt down by the trundle bed and said their prayers.
“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.”3
While Christians know this as an age-old bed-time prayer used to help ground children in the faith, they are definitely words of protection. To those outside the faith, this is just as fantastical as Gandalf speaking friend to enter the Dwarven caves.
As I look at speculative fiction, there are so many places where the heroes need a respite from the dark forces assaulting them. There are the glorious sanctuaries like the halls of Rivendell in The Lord of the Rings, and far less glamorous places like Dagobah in the Empire Strikes Back. Regardless of their splendor, these places provide a respite from the hero’s labor and often a wise elder to direct them on their way.
At first, I thought this was a lock. I grew up going to a church built in the 1800’s that was literally in the middle of a cornfield. The sanctuary was big and open, lots of light with stained glass in the windows. As a young child, it felt very much like entering Rivendell. But for this article, I had to step back and see if that matched the series.
I have to say, one of the early passages about church didn’t paint it as a very welcoming sanctuary.
In church, Grandpa and his brothers must sit perfectly still for two long hours and listen to the sermon. They dared not fidget on the hard bench. They dared not swing their feet. They dared not turn their heads to look at the windows or the walls or the ceiling of the church. They must sit perfectly motionless, and never for one instant take their eyes from the preacher.4
I have to wonder what impression that might leave on someone outside the faith. It feels a little more like a Temple of Doom than a sacred sanctuary. That impression initially carries over to Laura’s first visit to a church.
They all sat in a row on a long bench. Church was exactly like a schoolhouse, except that it had a strange, large, hollow feeling. Every little noise was loud against the new board walls. …
A tall, thin man stood up behind the tall desk on the platform. His clothes were black and his big cravat was black and his hair and the beard that went around his face were dark. His voice was gentle and kind. All the heads bowed down. The man’s voice talked to God for a long time …
Laura thought he never would stop talking …5
I feel like to an outsider who didn’t grow up in the church, “the man’s voice talked to God for a long time” might not recognize the much-needed respite this service provided the family. However, like my own experience in a country church, this turns around. After the service, Laura meets the Pastor and quickly warms up to him as a wise elder, like we see in other speculative works.
Little House on the Prairie is a work of historical fiction, written from a Judeo-Christian world view. As such, what might seem aspects of everyday life to Christians, the Bible, prayer, and church can become fantastical ancient tomes, incantations of power, and sacred sanctuaries to those outside the faith.
- Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House in the Big Woods (Little House on the Prairie Book 1) (pp. 85-86). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. ↩
- Wilder, Laura Ingalls. On the Banks of Plum Creek (Little House on the Prairie Book 4) (p. 179). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. ↩
- Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House in the Big Woods (Little House on the Prairie Book 1) (p. 115). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. ↩
- Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House in the Big Woods (Little House on the Prairie Book 1) (pp. 87-88). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. ↩
- Wilder, Laura Ingalls. On the Banks of Plum Creek (Little House on the Prairie Book 4) (pp. 182). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. ↩