Fantasy Isn’t For Rabbits . . . Or Kids Exclusively

Are Christians, then, the only people who “outgrow” speculative stories, who don’t want to read fantasy or science fiction as adults? Or is this an incorrect perception publishers have reached?
on Dec 15, 2014 · 20 comments

Kix_cereal_boxSome years back Kix had a commercial saying their cereal wasn’t for rabbits. Rather, “Kix is for kids.” Fantasy, at least that produced by Christians, seems to have gone the way of Kix.

I can only imagine how disturbed J. R. R. Tolkien would be by this development. This was the Oxford scholar who wrote a treatise on the subject (“On Fairy-Stories”), in part arguing against relegating “fairy stories” to “for children only” piles.

Despite Tolkien’s reasoned and scholarly defense of the genre, we are in a time when Christian publishers apparently have determined there’s an audience for young adult speculative fiction—primarily fantasy—but not for adult books of like kind.

The culture at large doesn’t seem to accept this divide. Television programs like Grimm, Once Upon A Time, The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow, and more seem to target an adult audience. While movies like the Hunger Game series and Divergent do aim at the young adult audience, they aren’t the only speculative films coming out. Interstellar comes to mind as does Maleficent, The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies, and Into The Woods.

into-the-woods-posterAre Christians, then, the only people who “outgrow” speculative stories, who don’t want to read fantasy or science fiction as adults? Or is this an incorrect perception publishers have reached?

Do Christian adults stay away from speculative literature because they view the genre as escapist? This was the going view Tolkien countered. His famous answer was that prisoners properly escape to return home in contrast with soldiers escaping their duties.

Could it be that speculative stories today do not provide a picture of home but an excuse to dodge responsibilities? How much better to watch Spiderman fling yet another bad-guy monster into a brick wall and watch it crumble on his head, than to wrestle with forsaking the things of this world and making the climb up Mount Doom bearing the One Ring.

Perhaps Christians as adult readers are not open to the changes fiction brings. Perhaps there’s an unconscious belief that new life in Christ has already brought change, and only young adults need to read stories akin to “coming of age.”

Perhaps Christian adults struggle with the theology of stories. There is truth, and there is falsehood, and stories must show the former and condemn the latter. Hence, Harry Potter is vile because Harry’s disobedience to school rules and even to his (abusive) foster parents is never condemned. Further, the stories are about witches and wizards and treat some of them as good.

Those stories are perhaps the closest thing to Tolkien-esqe as any contemporary fiction. First, author J. K. Rowling didn’t aim to write for children; her stories crossed age lines. They also addressed a very adult theme—death. So even though the contemporary book industry relegates them to middle grade/young adult lists, they defy limitation.

But to the point, those who may accept Harry Potter as crossover literature, applicable for adults, will not likely find spiritual correctness all the way through the stories.

So is the problem with the readers, the writers, or the publishers? Do Christians not want to read speculative literature as adults? Are Christians not writing speculative literature that appeals to adults? Or are publishers simply wrong and there are good books with hungry readers wanting the best books to get published and not knowing how to find the ones that are out? What are your thoughts?

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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  1. dmdutcher says:

    Generally, Christians need assurance that a particular thing is safe before they are okay with it. This is how we get the whole “Lewis and Tolkien okay, everything else danger” mindset of a lot of Christians. Those two have been shown to be safe, so they are okay to read.

    There’s a point where this is valid. If you read real spec fic, not YA spec, you realize that the genre is not safe at all. It’s been a force for a lot of negative cultural attitudes that Christians have been fighting against in the public square. But I think it goes beyond that to whole categories of safe and unsafe that seem arbitrary.

    Like you’ll have a cultural distrust of videogames, but Minecraft? Goodness, Christian homeschoolers love their Minecraft. Or fantasy is bad, but superheroes are good. Or George MacDonald is somehow good due to his association with C.S. Lewis, despite the fact that he’s probably as unsafe as any secular fantasist out there. It gets frustrating at times.

    • Wait, what? George MacDonald may have held some dubious views (universalism among them), but to the best of my recollection his fantasy novels contain as much good Christian theology and spiritual symbolism as anything by Lewis or Tolkien, and no more “unsafe” material than theirs do. (Admittedly, I didn’t get much out of either LILITH or PHANTASTES and couldn’t be bothered reading either of those books again, even knowing that reading PHANTASTES played a role in leading Lewis to Christ; but the CURDIE series and MacDonald’s other works for children are wonderful.)

      • dmdutcher says:

        I don’t really see as much Christian symbolism as you do, outside of Lilith and At the Back of the North Wind, and I don’t think either of those would fly with a lot of Christians if we didn’t have Lewis going on about how MacDonald was his mentor. The Curdie books and his short stories aren’t all that different from secular books. Not to say they aren’t good or enjoyable works, but like Charles Williams, he’s viewed as safe more due to people trusting Lewis than anything. When you realize he’s probably closer to Rob Bell (albeit with more of a respect for the Bible) it makes things a bit awkward.

        • And again I say unto you, what? The CURDIE books are packed with Christian symbolism. What is the invisible thread that the young Princess Irene follows through the darkness, if not a metaphor for faith? Curdie himself must be “converted” to trusting in the princess’s thread even when he can’t see it, and submitting to the authority and guidance of the old queen her great-grandmother (arguably the series’ representative of God — Queen Irene is a woman in much the same way Aslan is a lion) before he can save the day. There is so much stuff in the two Curdie books about faith, repentance, redemption and sanctification, among other aspects of Biblical theology, that it boggles me anyone could say those books “aren’t all that different from secular books”.

          In any case, whatever errors of theology may be evident in MacDonald’s preaching and essays, they don’t manifest themselves in his fantasy to any pernicious degree as far as I’ve noticed. As a young but Bible-savvy reader I scratched my head a bit over Frodo’s calling on Elbereth, who seemed to me a pretty obvious analogue for Mary, and I also wondered whether Lewis was preaching universalism with Emeth’s story in The Last Battle. But I don’t recall tripping over any such bits in MacDonald. Sure, he’s not perfect: he’s annoyingly twee and overwrought at times, among his other faults. But a secular author he is not, nor is he a dubious choice for Christian readers.

          • dmdutcher says:

            The thing though is that he muddled the symbolism. A wise, ageless woman sitting in a tower and spinning threads to guide people doesn’t symbolize God to me, it symbolizes the Fates, and the thread Destiny. I think it’s hard to have Christian symbolism with sort of a “virtuous hero” approach, too. We’re more Edward than Curdie at heart. So I just read them and liked the whole stomping on goblin toes; any spiritual message seemed so muddled as to be invisible.

            My point is more he’s a weird author to be assumed as safe; if you can deal with his symbolism and subject matter, you can deal with normal fantasy fine. Then again he’s really not read here in the States; as far as I know, only his romance novels are in print.

            • Bacchus and the Maenads are a pretty “muddy” thing for Lewis to have put in PRINCE CASPIAN, too. If MacDonald drawing on pagan myth as part of Christian symbolism is suspect, Lewis is even more flagrantly guilty. (At least the Moirae only spin, and don’t have drunken orgies!)

              My point is, every single complaint you have about MacDonald can be equally or more applied to Lewis. Either neither author is “safe” for Christians, or both are.

              (Also, the use of the thread in The Princess and the Goblin manifestly has nothing to do with destiny, and everything to do with having faith when all seems lost. The plot makes that clear as clear: you really have to work hard to confuse it with anything else. Just as the Queen Irene’s gracious, tender and patient character is so completely unlike that of the cold, remote Greek Fates that you’d have to work hard to confuse her with them either.)

              • dmdutcher says:

                Oh, I’m not intending that the fates are cruel. I am just saying that there’s enough role confusion to make the symbolism weak. I’ve read books where the fates are humanized, and then you get into the whole “wise woman” aspect of it too. God as a noice English Grandmother serving tea.  Some symbols are already preloaded with meaning, and you have to work to change them. I don’t think he did enough, and it all skates past the average reader in a way Aslan doesn’t.

                Honestly, I wish people would look a little more critically at Lewis, too. I don’t like the whole idea of safety, but I’m just noting how certain people are uncritically accepted as safe not because their works are safe but because they are considered safe by a weird magisterium. If anyone else but Lewis wrote and published That Hideous Strength today, I don’t think people would view it as a Christian book or read it.

          • I’d love to join this discussion about MacDonald, but I haven’t read his fantasy works. I started Lilith but never got into it. I know that’s a shame. I should be more up on the pillars of the genre. But I find it interesting that this is a bit of a debate. Generally I’ve heard MacDonald spoken of in quite reverential tones—sort of like “the great Christian fantasist who influenced C. S. Lewis!”


            • dmdutcher says:

              I don’t think many people read him. They know of him from Lewis’s books, same as Charles Williams, but few crack open the sources themselves. Kind of like “A Voyage to Arcturus” by David Lindsay he cites as such an influence, too. He’s a good writer, but a different one.

              • I found Charles Williams super-creepy and off-putting myself, and was severely disappointed in what little I could bring myself to read of his work. I also read Lindsay a few years ago, solely because Lewis seemed to like him, and Voyage to Arcturus is terrible. Which, to be fair, Lewis does acknowledge — but he was captivated by the “ghastly vision” of a truly alien world that he thought shone through Lindsay’s awful prose, whereas I was merely skeeved out by the whole exercise and glad when the book was over.

                I think you either get a thrill out of that kind of murky eldritch horror or you just want to run screaming in the opposite direction, and I definitely fall into the latter category. Apparently Lewis didn’t.

              • dmdutcher says:

                Yeah, I disliked Williams too. Not that he is weird, but more that his attempts to fuse gnostic theosophy into Christianity doesn’t work well. Like he is a Christian, but uses the language of theosophy even though he’s a convert.

                Arcturus I don’t remember much of. It probably was novel for Lewis to read of cosmic horror back then, but today it’s so common that it can even poke its head up in kid’s shows. A lot of those ’30s metaphysical novels were pretty bad overall, though.

            • Becky, I hear you on Lilith, which is weird and muddled and kind of creepy. Phantastes is a little better, but not by much — MacDonald’s “grown-up” fantasies really lack the interest and charm of his books for younger readers, and I could never warm to them.

              But I would definitely recommend you read The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie at least. As I mentioned above, MacDonald can be a little sentimental and overwrought at times, but there’s a lot of great stuff in those two books and if you enjoy Lewis and Tolkien, it’s fascinating to see just how much inspiration they drew from those stories. Significant chunks of The Hobbit, for instance, are clearly drawn from Curdie and Irene’s underground adventures in Goblin; and the action climax of That Hideous Strength is practically lifted wholesale from the end of Curdie (though I like MacDonald’s take on it a lot better than Lewis’s).

              And if you enjoy the two Curdie books, I’d also recommend The Lost Princess and The Golden Key and Other Stories (or however they’re reprinting “The Light Princess”, “The Day Boy and the Night Girl” and MacDonald’s other short fairytales at the moment). I consider At the Back of the North Wind an optional extra because it’s more gritty and Dickensian, and to my mind it doesn’t have nearly the same symbolic resonance as MacDonald’s “fairy tales” do. (It’s also, I am sorry to say, kind of boring.) But DM Dutcher seems to prefer that one to the Curdie books, so your mileage may vary. 🙂

              • dmdutcher says:

                It’s funny, because I’d probably pick Lilith and At the Back of the North Wind as my favorite books by him. I can see not liking Lilith unless you like weird fiction, because it’s probably one of the more unusual Christian books out there. But out of all of his works, the images from that book stayed with me. The endless row of biers, where people are lying down to be purified under the strengthening beams of the moon. Lilith cursing Mr. Vane for making her alive again, and her awful, awful pride. It stuck with me more than Phantastes did, I think mostly because it didn’t idealize heroism.

                At the Back of the North Wind I think is the best of his fairy tales. If Curdie’s mentor is a wise woman, North Wind comes more across as an elf-girl. A heavy book for kids, concerned about suffering and death.

      • MC says:

        I had heard that his questionable views were later in life and that most of his life was fairly orthodox. He just went astray in his later years, I always though.

  2. I’ve gotten the attitude (in/from a local church), that if it isn’t in the Bible, or a Bible study referencing the Bible, then Christians have no business reading it. The two exceptions are anything football or political, and of course, no one seems to have any problem with non-fiction manuals or training materials for specific jobs, etc.

    I happen to know that not all of the people attending that church agree or practice this, but–it’s what is being taught.

    • dmdutcher says:

      Not sure why someone disagreed with you, but this is true. I’d add “if it isn’t in the church bookstore” to this. There’s a real distrust of fiction that the church is only getting over slowly.

    • Julie D says:

      I think the disagree was my fault–I was on my Kindle and it’s not always the most responsive/accurate…

  3. Kessie says:

    Also, Trix are for kids, not Kix. 😀

  4. MC says:

    I would argue that Spider-Man does address some important issues, though, such as sacrificing our own desires for the greater good.

What do you think?