Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone Newest Season Executes like Modern Day Parables

Season Two of Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone executes well the tradition of multi-layered storytelling. Still, these modern-day stories lack the solution-oriented parables of Christ.
on Aug 6, 2020 · 6 comments

Over a month ago, I spoke about the uniqueness of Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone.  In its sophomoric season, we find the episodes are geared more toward exploring universal pain. To illustrate, I’ll highlight three episodes, noting the ‘tip of the iceberg’ storyline in all its speculative glory and then the deeper ‘beneath the surface’ pain.

Season 2, Episode 1: Meet in the Middle (Is the voice in his head real?)

Tip of the iceberg: Our awkward store manager Phil played wonderfully by Jimmi Simpson, is understandably freaked out when he hears a woman’s voice in his head during a terrible date. As we travel with him on his journey through the extraordinary, Phil begins to spend more time with ‘Annie’.  Over time, he accepts her intrusion into his mental space, sure that he isn’t going crazy, but that ‘Annie’ is a real person. He begins to go on ‘dates’ with her. Several scenes show him sitting along at a restaurant laughing and smile with her, getting an ice cream cone with two spoons, or walking by himself, fully engrossed in his world and the relationship he has with her.

Until he uncovers a devastating lie. It changes the course of their relationship and onto a twisted conclusion.

Image copyright: CBS

Beneath the surface: This episode was a good strong start for the season. I found it a personification of the virtual world and how relationships are sometimes formed on a one-dimensional plane. Two users who meet and interact solely on a virtual plane (i. e., social media). In the show, Phil and Annie are only connected by the fact they can hear each other’s voices in their heads. He can’t see her, and she forbids him to look her up online. Over time, this relationship he has with Annie becomes more important than anything outside of it.

There’s a scene where he and she are talking. The background is particularly beautiful with snow and soft lights, but he’s not even paying attention to it…just talking to the voice in his head.

I sort of saw the twist coming a few times, but I liked the fact I was kept guessing. Was he crazy? Is this woman real? Is it a dis-associative personality?

Phil’s character was illustrative of the growing isolation we’ve put ourselves in when we act and limit all interaction to just one plane – social media.

Season 2, Episode 1 Eight (Eight Brains vs Eight Brains)

Tip of the Iceberg: This episode is one of two creature stories. I looked forward to this because of my automatic love for monsters and was excited to see this explored. In this episodes, eight scientists from different countries are looking for a new species of octopus.

But why? Is it just for study or for a more nefarious reason? When they encounter this octopus, the tables are switched – whom exactly is stalking whom?

Beneath the surface: I liked this episode because it illustrates that although we humans are the head honchos on the planet, it doesn’t mean we’re the only smart ones. Yes, I believe we have dominion over the Earth and are called by God to be good stewards. That doesn’t mean we should try to dominate everything without regards to its life.

Researchers studying octopus on the Twilight Zone… Image copyright: CBS

The octopus is highly intelligent. In one scene, you see it watching the scientist with as a dispassionate glance as we would to it.

Evolutionary theory is often the crux for the reason of the shift of power. Although I don’t believe in evolution, most secular sci-fi utilizes the theory to explain away stuff without having to think it through. Sort of like “God of the Gaps” theory. Instead, we have “Evolution of the Gaps” theory.

Evolution did it! That’s all we need to know! Really? eyeroll

The more we learn about the animal kingdom, we find out that there are no such things as dumb animals. I saw this as a message of dominance vs stewardship and the dangerous pitfalls of thinking dominion equals subjugation.

Season 2, Episode 10 You May Also Like (After These Messages)

Tip of the Iceberg: A woman with everything finds out she really has nothing.

A commercial of a young girl traveling through the woods with a broken, naked doll fills the screen. A voiceover claims, “Get the EGG for your family and everything will be okay. Okay forever.

We follow a housewife who wakes up on a bed with no memory of how she got there. Talking to her neighbor she tells her that she loses time after she hears musical chords and then, she’s back on the bed. This happens at regular intervals.

While this is happening, everyone is excited about getting their ‘EGG’. No one, not even our housewife, knows what the EGG is but EVERYONE must have it. There’s speculation as to what it will do.  Throughout this narrative, we learn that the housewife with everything doesn’t have one thing. It’s the catalyst of the show and to reveal it would be to reveal the big spoiler.

One of the characters in “You Might Also Like.” Image copyright: CBS

Beneath the surface: This show clearly indicates that people are never satisfied with what they have. They are always searching for something more. The EGG – due to great advertising, everyone is getting one. They’re voracious for it.  When another housewife comes onto the scene with her EGG, our housewife asks to see it. She’s vehemently denied.

An aspect of this episode showed also how advertising reflects the human mind. Our housewives all wear similar clothes, have similar houses, even similar cars. It’s Keeping Up with the Joneses to the umpteenth power.

Choosing a focus: character development or plot execution

Overall, this season had a disjointed feel to it. This does not mean I didn’t enjoy it, but I felt that decisions were made behind the scenes that made for an average implementation as opposed to the sublime experience of the first season.

The second season, obviously, was given more money for production as we had more instances of CG. I don’t think the added CG served the season well. In the episodes I chose to highlight, the first one, “Meet in the Middle”, had an even balance of both character development and plot execution. It should be noted that this episode, as far as I could tell, had no CG in it.

In “Eight”, I was glad to see indie horror filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead (“Spring,” “Resolution”, and “The Endless”) direct this episode. However, due to time constraints, the episode lacked their brilliant subtleties in the horror genre. In my opinion, they had to choose between character development or plot execution. They chose the latter, which led to our being disassociated with our cast. The cast only served as exposition so when the octopus chokes one guy, who cares?

My least favorite of the season was “You May Also Like”. I’ll be frank. It irritated me. The story was extremely fractured. I’m all for red herrings but geez! It took me watching it twice to understand that the format was an intentional thing. Plus, the end of this one has a more nihilistic overtone which I did not enjoy. More on this in a minute.

Whereas the first season told a single story in bits, this second season was all over this place. I’m in the process of re-watching it so I can plug in the parts with the holes that add to the overall story.

Nihilism versus solutions: the parables of Christ

I should begin with stating that I am enjoying this revitalization of the Twilight Zone. A critique simply points out the positives and the negatives. However, I noticed this season tangoed a lot with nihilistic thought.

The Twilight Zone’s legacy focuses on extraordinary things happening to ordinary people. Not every episode in the original series had a bad ending. Some ended well. Others didn’t. In every episode of season 2 of this revitalization, there’s this lingering sense of nihilism.

As a refresher: nihilism: the rejection of all religious and moral principles, in the belief that life is meaningless.

With this as a foundation, the twists are often dark. There’s no glimmering light. It doesn’t matter that horrible things happened – it happened, it’s predetermined, deal with it.

In old sci-fi stories, it used to be more about the adventure of discovery, pitting man against the unknown foe and succeeding. Modern sci-fi focuses on the unknown that essentially overwhelms us, and we cannot fight. We merely succumb to our human frailty. There is no one to save us. So, although the multi-layered storylines are woven into the narrative, there is no hope. All our efforts for success are meaningless.

Contrast this with the parables of Christ. Jesus Christ used storytelling to reveal spiritual things, to warn of one’s choices and to present solutions, just to name a few.

In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man had a choice to help Lazarus, but chose not to.  He had multiple opportunities from what we can infer. Lazarus was the one left out in the cold. However, this parable shows us that when man ignores us, God watches and intervenes. When Lazarus died, he was taken to the bosom of Abraham. When the rich man died, he lifted his eyes in hell and torment. Could things have been different if he had answered the call of Lazarus’s needs?

In the parable of unmerciful servant, Christ uses this to illustrate the need for forgiveness. Again, the servant who owed ten thousand talents, who, after he had been shown mercy by the king, chose to not reciprocate. I mean, he choked the guy who owed him a hundred pence and threw him in jail. If this were the Twilight Zone, the episode would have ended here. But the King, when he heard about it, intervened in judgement. Again, showing the need for a savior. The solution is presented – forgiveness.

The Good Samaritan by Vincent Van Gogh

Probably one of the most famous, the parable of the good Samaritan, Christ illustrates who our true neighbors are. When the man is left for dead by robbers and ignored by the legalistic religious folks, the ‘sinner’ is the one who cares for him. Again, in a nihilistic view, the man who had been left for dead would have died, his life having no meaning. In the person of the Samaritan, we see once more the need for a savior.

Why this fixation on Savior? Glad you asked! Christ did not let us continue to wallow in our sinful nature. As I mentioned last month, he didn’t just narrate the events or point out the problem, He actively entered our sinful world and provided a solution through His blood. We don’t have to stay trapped. We can escape if we so choose to accept His gift of salvation.

In closing, The Twilight Zone continues the tradition of presenting a multi-layered story but not a solution to the hard questions of life. Christ has, is, and always will give us a solution. It may not be the one we want, but it’s the one that leads us out of The Twilight Zone.

From The Writers’ Toolbox: MICE In Your Story

I tend to think that the best stories skillfully weave all the elements together so that the dominant one isn’t overpowering, and the subservient ones aren’t invisible.
on Aug 3, 2020 · 3 comments
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Especially for writers who are planning to participate in NaNoWriMo this year, it might be helpful to consider something Orson Scott Card introduces in his writing books Character and Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction. I came upon the concept in Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction, to which Card contributed several chapters.

Here’s the key concept: “All stories contain four elements that can determine structure: Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event” (Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction, p. 77). MICE, for short.

Milieu has to do with the story world—its physical, social, political, economic aspects.

Idea refers to new bits of information that characters discover in the process of the story.

Character relates, not just to who the main player is in a story, but how he changes.

Finally, Events show what takes place to correct a wrong in the normal order of things.

All stories have all these elements, but according to Card, one of the four takes central stage. The Milieu dominates Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, for example. Then Idea might be considered central to Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie. In Til We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis, the Character change would be the key component and in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe also by Lewis, the Events that put the world to rights, both in Narnia and in the Pevensie family, would dominate the story.

I’m intrigued by this way of looking at stories. I can see a particularly useful application because Card teaches that whatever dominant element shows itself in the beginning will also end the story. If a novel starts out as a murder mystery, for instance (Idea), but doesn’t end with the discovery of the perpetrator, readers will be frustrated no matter how well-told the story might be of the police detective’s recovery of his self-confidence (Character).

In some ways, I think this view of stories can help writers decide where their story starts and where it should end. If they begin with a character, for example, who has reached a point where he is so “unhappy, impatient, or angry in his present role that he begins the process of change” then it will end “when the character either settles into a new role (happily or not) or gives up the struggle and remains in the old role (happily or not)” (ibid., p. 81).

As you may have realized, I’m qualifying my reaction to this approach to stories. Card himself says all stories have all the MICE elements, and I agree with this point. I’m not so sure, however, that one always dominates.

As an example of Milieu, for instance, Card offers these examples:

The real story began the moment Gulliver got to the first of the book’s strange lands, and it ended when he came home. Milieu stories always follow that structure. An observer who will see things as we would see them gets to the strange place, sees all the things that are interesting, is transformed by what he sees, and then comes back a new man . . . Likewise, The Wizard of Oz doesn’t end when Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch of the West. It ends when Dorothy leaves Oz and goes home to Kansas. (Ibid., pp 77-78)

I agree with this assessment, but believe The Wizard of Oz could just as easily be used as an example of a Character story which Card says is “about the transformation of a character’s role in the communities that matter most to him” (Ibid., p. 80). Clearly, Dorothy’s role in her family is central to the story. She was unhappy in the beginning and learned by the end that there’s no place like home.

A case might even be made that The Wizard of Oz is an Event story, starting with something wrong in the fabric of the world which needs to be set right. Dorothy’s unhappiness and determination to run away has unsettled her world; when she reaches Oz, it’s apparent that their world has been unsettled, too. As Dorothy goes about doing what she does to fix her own situation, she also puts to right what ails Oz.

My point is this: I tend to think that the best stories skillfully weave all the elements together so that the dominant one isn’t overpowering, and the subservient ones aren’t invisible—or worse, predictable and clichéd.

Is there any advantage in knowing what kind of story a writer is undertaking? Perhaps. If a writer isn’t sure how to end a story, then the dominant element can serve as a guide. Or the reverse. If a writer isn’t sure where to start the story, then the type of story he’s written can help him determine where the proper beginning lies.

The main take-away for me is that all four elements need to be present in a story. Whichever one turns out to be the star, the others still must be present, still must pull their weight.

What do you think? Orson Scott Card is pretty hard to argue with. Do you think he’s right that one of these four elements will dominate a story? Or do the best stories bring all elements, or most, along with nearly equal strength? Can you give an example?

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Mouse asleep photo by alexander kokinidis from FreeImages

Featured photo by Daniel Heitz from FreeImages

Why Can a Book’s Movie Be So Bad? When an Adaptation Goes Astray

Why do adaptations of books to movies and other media sometimes fail? It isn’t always because they didn’t follow the book closely enough.
on Jul 30, 2020 · 3 comments

Everyone has seen a movie adaptation of a book and we can all agree some are extraordinary while others fall miserably short. I used to complain how movies ruined books and how filmmakers ought to stick to the story or not bother. That is, until I started adapting short stories into scripts for a radio drama program.

I didn’t know any better and my first attempt at script-writing was to take a full length novel and boil it down to twenty-five pages of dialog. It was an eye-opening experience.

So what is it about adaptations that leave us with such unpredictable results?

There are four overlapping elements that shed light on the innumerable decisions that go into getting a story change mediums: Intent, Source Material, Time, and Heart.

Intent Is King

It’s impossible to please everyone and one of the first decisions to be made in planning an adaptation is Why? Why should this exist? Sometimes it’s obvious the film or show adaptation only exists because the book was a huge success and a studio wanted to cash in on it. Other times, the headline actor is the one carrying the film and bringing in viewers. I frequently see modern political viewpoints superimposed over period dramas to make a statement. There are producers and directors dedicating themselves to a passion project that barely made it off the ground. There’s always a reason for an adaptation.

Case Study #1: Disney’s 1991 animated Beauty and the Beast vs. Disney’s 2017 live-action remake

Remakes are tricky but it’s the intent of the remake that can make or break it. I feel this is a good example of changes being made for the sake of pleasing everyone. Dialog and visuals were added to fix perceived flaws in the original animated film, while still trying to maintain an identical visual experience. I found the 2017 film unmemorable and choppy when compared to the 1991 version. There is something to be said for their dedication in making both films look and feel them same, but not all adaptations have reason to be carbon copies.

Case Study #2: Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader movie poster–expecting a blockbuster.

With the success of the first two book-to-film adaptations, it’s clear to me that Dawn Treader was supposed to be a hit and keep the audience coming back for the rest of the series. To do this, actors from previous films made somewhat confusing appearances, presumably so their names and characters would bring in fans. The characters of Peter and Susan Pevensie were brought back in a way that made the scene more personal for the audience; while scattered through the film, the well and truly dead White Witch made one or two appearances that left me wondering if she had come back from the grave, negating Aslan’s sacrifice in the first book, or if she was a manifestation of Edmund’s fears and doubts.

Source Material? What’s that?

Frankly speaking, not all script- and screenwriters have thoroughly read the material they are adapting. Time constraints or studio decisions force them to work within certain perimeters or entirely off synopses of the original work. Sometimes a quick decision will be made and other times it will take weeks of hashing out before the film direction is chosen. Adaptations of well-known material have a larger audience base and often a louder outcry if the outcome is not satisfactory. Some studios cave and give the fans what they want, tossing out what could have been a better (or worse) script in favor of something that will quiet the masses. Some changes must be made for the original source to translate to the screen. “A picture is worth a thousand words” but there’s still challenges and limits to showing everything a book has to offer.

Case Study #3: Sherlock (BBC 2010)

The modern Sherlock and Dr. Watson. True to the spirit but not the letter of the original.

BBC’s series based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holme brought a new vision to a classic collection. Modern and re-imagined, we see Holmes and Watson navigating the same cases in a distinctly 21st century way. There are many nods to the original stories and various film and television incarnations of the characters.

Case Study #4: Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)

There are expectations viewers have when a book, comic, or game is adapted for the big screen. Not everyone can be satisfied but when the outcry is deafening, the studio needs to choose to appease the masses or continue unchanged. In the case of Sonic the Hedgehog, initial trailers released for the film based on the video game franchise stirred up such negative reaction, production was delayed and the titular character completely redesigned to closer fit the design of the game.

Time is short

The book is almost always longer than the adaptation. In today’s era of streaming services and original content, limited series and mini series are becoming common, making the time factor more negotiable than ever before. Still, it is a vital factor. Once intent and source material are established, the total running time dictates what stays and what goes. If the book describes several sports games but only one has high stakes for the protagonist, the others will be directly mentioned, alluded to, or cut completely, no matter how interesting they were described in the book. Conversations are condensed, characters combined or cut, locations removed, and many times subtleties are turned obvious for the sake of page count. How and what is removed to save time can be the discretion of the writer but more often it comes from those higher up the production chain. Unnatural or out-of character-sounding dialog, convenient explanations, and unnecessary facts in dialog can be indicators of extreme editing.

Case Study #5: Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)

Voyage of the Dawn Treader, water flooding into the room from the painting…the most iconic scene of the book.

At some point in the adaptation process, a list of important visuals is created – things that are iconic to the source material, easily merchandised, and book moments the audience came to see. Edmund, Lucy and Eustace’s transportation into Narnia through the painting of the Dawn Treader was clever, artistic and clearly showed what was happening. It was also my favorite moment of the entire film. The time spent on that meant time lost elsewhere. Many of the islands visited in the books were combined, mentioned or removed. Watching the film, I never got the sense of a long, difficult sea voyage because the story jumped from event to event without a strong sense of belonging.

Heart” vs “Heat”

An author will spend hundreds of hours making sure the heart of their story is exactly what they wish it to be. When the “heart” of the story is chosen to be the focal point of an adaptation, everything else can be stripped away and the essence of the final product still holds true. The characters are the same friends you remember from the book; their internal and external growth still tugs at your emotions; and even if just a fraction of the original story remains, you feel that fraction carried the emotional weight of their journey. Even villains, anti-heroes and serial killers can capture the heart of the story in their own sad or terrifying way.

The “heat” of a story focuses more on external elements – locations, visuals, action sequences – the sheer cinematographic function of an adaptation. With the example of the character taking a long journey, the “heat” of the story will jump from one high point to the next. This can be done well but can also be done poorly, leaving the viewer feeling emotionally disconnected and visually disoriented.

Obviously, no adaptation will fall completely on one side or the other, rather scene by scene comparisons can show which is heat and which is heart. Understanding this can make sense of what is or is not working with changes that were made.

Case Study #6: Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)

There is so much to love and hate about this film. A novel told as a dangerous, rewarding journey was condensed into an action film, constantly moving from one big thing to the next. Instead of allowing the small things to build up and show Caspian and the crew’s morale being worn down by monotony and fear of the unknown, the darkest elements of the story were combined into competing scenes of danger. Gone are the endearing, private conversations between characters that show them maturing and owning up to mistakes and faults. The film characters, while consistent within the action style, feel like distorted shadows of their book selves.

Case Study#7: Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)

Small sequences were added to convey an era unfamiliar to a modern audience while still managing to stay true to the heart of the book. The audience can see the tensions between the four Pevensie siblings, feel Lucy’s heartache at loosing Mr Tumnus the fawn, experience Edmund’s redemption, and watch Peter’s confidence and courage strengthen under the love of Aslan. Parts of the book were removed and others added to make it appealing but all in all, very few of the changes altered the heart and message of the novel.

German bombers over London–not a part of the book, but added context (and action) to the movie version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Once you know how a story is adapted, it’s easier to separate the two as being products of different mediums. Sure, there are terrible adaptations that should never have existed but those examples give us opportunity to examine our own expectations and show grace to writers who might well have been as disappointed in their final studio-approved screenplay as you were

Watch an adaptation. Identify aspects that have changed and take a few minutes to consider some reasons why. Explore the What If’s and Maybe’s of how stories shift and change across mediums. It’s a fascinating exercise and a great conversation starter.

Happiness is an Aesthetic

Happiness also is an aesthetic.
on Jul 29, 2020 · 1 comment

There is a scene in Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday where an English detective, impersonating an anarchist, is joined in a “foul tavern” by another English detective, impersonating a nihilistic German professor. The second undercover detective ordered a glass of milk, in keeping with the habits of the Professor de Worms. But he rejected, with contempt, his companion’s suggestion that he actually drink the milk. “We’re all Christians in this room, though perhaps,” he added, glancing around at the reeling crowd, “not strict ones.” Then he ordered a beer.

The part about everyone being a Christian was, of course, ironic. Even a hundred years ago, when people easily believed in Christian nations, they knew the difference between a national religion and a personal conviction. The beer was not ironic. Chesterton really believed that to be a Christian, rather than a nihilistic German, was a reason to drink beer rather than milk. Because (such was Chesterton’s conviction) beer is good.

One of Chesterton’s most striking characteristics, as a writer, was how he related religion to pleasure, and pleasure to morality. He expressed it once in a rhyme written in praise of inns, “Where the bacon’s on the rafter / And the wine is in the wood, / And God that made good laughter / Has seen that they are good.”


The last phrase is an allusion to Genesis, where God made the world and saw that it was good. It recalls, too, one of the loveliest images in Scripture, that of God creating the earth “while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy.” This idea that the physical creation is a good thing, a thing to rejoice over, suffuses Chesterton’s works. He saw the goodness everywhere. It’s a bad old world in many ways; popular catchphrases aside, there is nothing unprecedented about a pandemic. But Chesterton never got over the thought that it’s a good world, too, and it is pretty wonderful, after all, that the sky is blue and the grass is green.

If good meals and good laughter have the Creator’s approval, that is a call to enjoyment, and also to gratitude. Oscar Wilde once gibed that sunsets are not popular because you can’t pay for them. Chesterton retorted that you can pay for them – you can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde. “Surely,” he wrote, “one might pay for extraordinary joy in ordinary morals.” There have always been people who take virtue as a reason to reject material pleasures. It was Chesterton’s happier analysis to take acceptance of material pleasures as a reason for virtue.

Chesterton always tended to happiness. It is rare to find an author who joined so naturally religion and the goodness of the world, or whose embrace of pleasure was so full-hearted and so wholesome. Gritty realism, so-called, always has an audience, and darkness is both a point of view and an aesthetic. But happiness is also an aesthetic, and often a soothing one. Happiness rooted in the ordinary, as Chesterton’s was, is particularly soothing. We grow distracted, anxious, ungrateful; the news is like a storm on the horizon. It is good to remember what we still have, all the small pleasures and ordinary joys – and God that made good laughter has seen that they are good.

From The Writers’ Toolbox: Developing Fresh Story Concepts

Take romance for example. Everyone knows that the traditional plot form of a romance is boy meets girl and they fall in love, but Things happen to keep them apart. In the end, however, they conquer, or their love conquers, and they get together.
on Jul 27, 2020 · 3 comments
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Recently Travis Perry, a regular writer here at Spec Faith, did a 10-part series of articles on storyworld ideas. I thought it might be helpful if we explored the ideas behind stories themselves.

Most writers know there are no “new” plots. That doesn’t mean there are no new stories, however. An oft-done plot can still be made into a fresh and entertaining story.

Take romance for example. Everyone knows that the traditional plot form of a romance is boy meets girl and they fall in love, but Things happen to keep them apart. In the end, however, they conquer, or their love conquers, and they get together.

No real surprise in a romance. Then how does a writer make a romance seem fresh? The easy way is to create seemingly insurmountable barriers—cultural or religious mores that keep the couple apart, personality quirks, misunderstandings, irreconcilable (until they are reconciled — 😉 ) differences.

For example, one character may be a faery and the other a human, who also happens to be in a wheelchair. Those are obstacles! Who would even see romance coming? Which is precisely why R. J. Anderson surprised and delighted readers with Faery Rebel: Spell Hunter (more recently published under the title Knife by Enclave Publishing).

But what if the couple is already married—a union of convenience or position—and they barely tolerate each other? What if, in fact, the wife holds her husband in contempt because she admires a mysterious someone else who does gallant, selfless deeds to help others?

That set-up describes The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, one of my favorite novels. I suspect one reason I love it so much is because of the surprise I experienced the first time I read it.

But now those two have been done, so how can a romance writer find a new something? One idea is to merge elements of “already been done” stories. Take Beauty and the Beast, for example, and merge that with Sleeping Beauty, and you have Shrek.

Of course, the brilliant writers who created all three Shrek movies did much more than staple two threads together, but the point for this discussion is that they worked from familiar storylines. By starting with two that seemed unlikely to fit together, they made a movie (three actually) that seemed familiar yet wholly new.

Sometimes the newness isn’t in the plot but in the characters. Take an interesting, quirky woman engaged to someone her family approves of; perhaps she’s single longer than most and has a family who values family and marriage above all else. Add in humor (which comes from the quirky characters), and you have the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding which turned out to be a surprising smash hit a couple decades ago.

Or how about a widower not looking to remarry, with a little boy who longs for a mother, so much so that he makes a call to an all-night talk show and pours out his heart. Interested women start to write. MANY interested women. Now we have distance, reticence, an engagement, the many others, all standing in the way of true love. And that’s Sleepless in Seattle, another classic movie from years gone by.

Fresh stories can also come from different settings. What would a romance look like set in Louisiana as the state battled the worst oil spill in history? Or between two people who met during the Katrina hurricane disaster?

What would a romance look like between a 9/11 widow and a firefighter years after the Twin Towers attack?

New places, odd places, uncomfortable places can be fuel for fresh fiction just as much as plot twists or off-beat characters. The important thing, I think, is to imagine beyond the list of “first responders”—the plot lines, the characters, or the settings that first present themselves when we writers start contemplating a new story.

Step by Step Into Dystopia

Recent personal events remind me that dystopia doesn’t have to come via dictatorship. It can come gradually, step by step…
on Jul 23, 2020 · 5 comments

I’ve had a recent personal reminder concerning the nature of dystopia: So my Army Reserve training this year was supposed to look something like this:

Soldiers participating in a National Training Center (NTC) scenario at FT Irwin, CA. Credit: US Army

But what it actually looked like was more like this:


Bored man on the sofa. Image source:


Covid Quarantine

Why was I sitting around? Well, without publicly getting into nitty-gritty details, early in my process of reporting for training and travel, my entire Army Reserve unit of nearly 30 people was considered to have been exposed to COVID 19 by US Army public health officials. So all of us spent 14 days in quarantine, most of it separated in individual rooms. We were strongly encouraged not to leave our rooms. Active Duty soldiers brought us food in styrofoam containers three times a day and each room had its own bathroom). I personally stuck to my room for the bulk of the two weeks but honestly went out and interacted with people a bit towards the end (though at a “social distance”!).

Naturally this cancelled any plans to attend training at NTC (in the desert of FT Irwin, California). Instead, the orders I had were cut short and I was sent home, arriving late yesterday.

It’s not the COVID quarantine itself that got me thinking of dystopia so much as engaging in air travel. And in fact thinking of dystopia related to Coronavirus is so obvious that loads of people are doing so in various ways. In fact I previously posted on story ideas related to Coronavirus on Speculative Faith.

Though this post isn’t about COVID 19 per se. More about the incremental nature of things going downhill.

On a personal note–well, this whole thing is based on a personal note, but wandering off the subject for a bit–I actually could have attended most of the Realm Maker’s virtual conference. I’d expected to be out of the range of Internet connectivity, but that’s not what happened at all in fact. And I only had relatively few paperwork-type tasks to perform. So I actually could have been there, again at least part of the time. But I stuck with the plan of having Anthony G. Cirilla represent Bear Publications and with the people I’d lined up to cover my posts on Speculative Faith and refrained from shelling out more cash than necessary by also attending RM. Kind of a shame for me, especially when people enjoyed it so much.

Modern Airport Travel

But anyway, back on subject. People younger than twenty will not have had this personal experience, but prior to 2001, airports did not have security screening near the entrance. Actually before my time, airports had no screening at all, but terrorists hijacking planes in the 1970s (back in those innocent old days they would simply threaten the crew and passengers with a gun and hold them hostage for ransom) caused metal detectors to be installed in many but not all airports at gates, just before you boarded the plane.

It used to be possible for your family or friends to enter the airport with you, wait with you for the time for the time of your flight to arrive, watch you enter the airplane, then wistfully watch your airplane disappear over the horizon before tearfully departing the airport. Since 9/11/2001, that has no longer been possible. Security screening is prompt and much more strict than anything that happened before. Also, things you might routinely carry with you in the past, like a pocket knife, like a bottle of water, became forbidden.

But once you were past security, things were relatively normal. You still had restaurants and still did a variety of ordinary things before boarding your plane.

But now, this is what the other side of security at an airport looks like:

Airport social distancing. Credit: Airport World

Floors are marked in many places where you can stand to maintain social distancing (though of course, on an airplane itself social distancing goes out the non-literal window). Mask wearing is enforced. Most airport restaurants are closed, but those few that are open, offer food to go or have spaces marked out where one person eats per table and anyone else has to take food to go. Though most other shops were open from what I saw.

Will these changes mark a new reality, a new permanent change, like the changes post-911? I’m thinking, “Yes.” At least in part. This virus will not go away immediately–or probably not, anyway–and it’s also virtually certain that new viruses will continue to crop up in various places around the globe. So how are the governments of the world going to respond?

An online friend who is not a fan of globalism hopes that this virus will cause nations to cut off international commerce (and travel) and nationalize industries. About that, I would say he’s dead wrong–that’s nowhere close to happening. But imposing a number of restrictions on travel? That’s already here and probably could become permanent relatively easily. Certainly the airports are not going to want to pull up all the marks on the floor they’ve already laid down to remind people to engage in social distancing…not when it’s uncertain if they will need to have them again in the near future.


This post is not a rant against wearing masks or any kind of conspiracy theory. Yes, I accept wearing masks makes sense during a time with high rates of viral infection. No, I do not believe the virus is imaginary–I personally know people who got seriously sick, though I also personally know people who tested positive for COVID 19 who were asymptomatic (who exposed me, in fact).  I do not believe anyone deliberately created or deliberately are exploiting this virus with the intent of taking away people’s rights–even if that is what’s happening to a degree (people losing rights), I don’t believe it’s deliberate.

Step by Step Dystopia

As I just touched upon above, I don’t believe the current state of affairs at airports is an attempt to take away rights. It’s clearly an attempt to keep people safe, an attempt justified by circumstances, just like the stepped up security measures post-9/11 had genuine reasons behind them.

But that’s not dystopia, right? Right? Right?

I mean, we get used to the changes. We pack bags differently. We say goodbye to friends before going to the airport, or perhaps a brief farewell as we’re dropped off at the curb. We wear masks and get used to wearing masks. We social distance and get used to social distancing. We take the masks off at home, anyway, so what’s the big deal?

Sure. We are not actually in a dystopia now and if you think we are, I strongly suggest you go read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago to find out what a real nightmare scenario of a government is actually like.

Overall, the USA, UK, Australia, Canada, and most of Europe enjoy freedom and security far above what most people through most of the history of the world experienced. And we still are relatively well-off, in spite of modern restrictions. So please don’t engage in any crybabyism about how bad things have turned based on anything I wrote in this post.

But still, isn’t it interesting how people can get used to almost anything, step by step? I mean, lots of stories that feature dystopian science fiction imagine a dictatorship taking over and forcing everyone to change at gunpoint. Certainly that was Solzhenitsyn’s experience during the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union (even before Stalin, actually).

What recent events show is conversion at gunpoint to a dystopia isn’t actually necessary. A society can become a dystopia gradually, step by step, one step at a time, people getting accustomed to each change, not really realizing what’s happening.


The idea that people can gradually get used to almost anything isn’t a new observation on my part. Many other people have made it. But my recent experience traveling by air strongly reinforced the point. It really is a true about humans that we get accustomed to incremental change–so for those of you who write dystopian fiction, bear that in mind. Perhaps a sweeping dictatorship to initiate dystopia isn’t actually required in your story setup. Perhaps a dystopia can come without a dictatorship (which I know has in fact been done in sci fi).

Speaking of fictional dystopias, science fiction has cranked out many different flavors in the past. Have you read any in which dystopia came about gradually? Gradually as a result of a conspiracy? Or gradually by accident? Did the conspiracies always lead to a dictatorship? Can you think of speculative fiction (not just sci fi) stories that featured dystopias that took place one step at a time, people barely noticing the changes? Please mention them in the comments below.

First-Year Members Praise the 2020 Realm Makers: Pandemic Edition Conference

Hosting a Christian fantasy writers’ conference in virtual space drew in many new members who loved the event.
on Jul 21, 2020 · 4 comments

VIRTUAL SPACE, Earth—Last weekend’s 2020 Realm Makers: Pandemic Edition conference finished late Saturday night–very early Sunday morning (EDT).

Late-early Sunday hours (EDT) found Realm Makers guests milling about the cyber-hotel lobby (hosted by Discord), awaiting their shuttles to the airport. Most attendees tried to act like they hadn’t lost hours of sleep, playing games or rewriting novel proposals. Few succeeded.

At the end of Friday night’s Realm Awards virtual banquet, organizers announced the 2021 keynote speaker: bestselling novelist Frank E. Peretti.

By Monday morning, some Realm Makers guests had returned to their day jobs. Some experienced the phenomenon that psychologists call Post-Christian-Conference Spiritual High Crash (PCCSHC). Others fared slightly better. They found natural connections between their onrush of creativity, powered by oft-praised keynote sessions by N. D. Wilson, Thomas Locke, and C. J. Redwine as well as a host of bestselling Christian creators as faculty members. Perhaps during said day jobs, they used the time to catch up on conference video recordings. (Unlike previous years, the virtual format allows attenders not only to “apparate” between classrooms, but also to turn back time and quickly recap sessions they had missed!)

Nearly half of 2020’s Realm Makers guests were first-year

More seriously, breaking this pseudo-press-release’s format: Of 312 registered attendees, 46 percent were going to Realm Makers for the first time. That’s nearly half the whole conference this year.

Over half of our attendees registered after we announced the switch to a virtual conference,” co-founder Scott Minor told me.

Also, Scott said nearly two-thirds of attendees were fairly young, below age 45.

My personal take: This group likely represents at least a large part of the future of Christian-made fiction for future generations.

Many attendees have began planning to attend the 2021 Realm Makers Conference, already being assembled.

For 2021, organizers have planned to return to Realm Makers favorite locale of St. Louis, Missouri.

Oh–and in 2022, the conference will try again to host for real in Atlantic City, New Jersey. That’s the original location of this year’s conference.

We hope that you always find comfort and safety at Realm Makers, but at the same time it’s a place where you’re always asked to do the impossible,” Scott said.

First-year guests praise Realm Makers 2020

Several attendees took time to share with Lorehaven publisher E. Stephen Burnett their love for the conference. Stephen personally contacted several Realm Makers guests who had never before attended the event, in reality or virtually.

Here are their stories.

Sofia Becker (website)

I went into #RealmMakers2020 not knowing what to expect for myself. So far, I’ve had one mentoring appointment which was so encouraging to me! In that call, I realized that I’m attempting to write an epic and that somehow, all these stories are connected. And I’m so grateful to all the people I’ve met so far for their encouragements! . . . It was amazing! I loved the virtual aspect of it and that we could bounce around the different sessions. I loved meeting new people and all the encouragement I got.

Sarah Vanderheide

A big thank you to all who made this happen. As a newb, I didn’t contribute much, but I enjoyed it anyway, despite being overwhelmed sometimes. Lord willing, I’ll be back.

Elizabeth Buckles

The conference was such a blessing! I learned so much from all my classes, especially from C.J. Redwine’s Branding and Marketing sessions. The time seemed to fly by just because of all the information being packed into my brain. I’m so glad I can go back and rewatch everything to finish taking notes. This stuff is worth it’s weight in gold!

Abigail Falanga

Ok, ok… Quick conference review: Very very much fun. I enjoyed hanging around the discord server, participating in the activities, and having the occasional friendly disagreement. wink Attending classes and sessions worked out surprisingly well, despite a few initial hiccups. I learned a lot, and loved the opening talk from N.D. Wilson – which was very inspiring, and which I’ll probably replay tonight! And just like a “normal” conference, I found my mind over-full of new information and ideas – which will probably take me several weeks to process (especially since I only have a three-day pass, so I’m cramming everything I can!). All that said, I did miss some aspects of an in-person conference: talking with people, casual conversations with industry professionals, and lots of goofing off with friends. Still – so much fun to attend!

TJ Cox

Realm Makers 2020 (pandemic edition) was amazing. The information is still swirling around my mind. As I picked up my [work in progress], I saw it through new eyes. I am ready for the next phase: application. The people are honestly the grandest bunch you could possibly imagine. I hope next year to be able to attend, and that it is a face-to-face conference. Now, I must go drink coffee and gather some energy. ☕️ Here’s to next year in St. Louis!

L. G. McCary (website)

It was a bit of a miracle that I was able to attend Realm Makers 2020 (Thank you, Havok for that scholarship!). It was an incredible experience! I felt old trying to figure out Discord, but it turned out to be such a blessing! Video chat in the Mermaid room was definitely better than sitting in socially distanced circles and wearing uncomfortable masks for hours, trying to find a way to socialize safely. Best of all, I still got to celebrate with new friends when good things happened! That’s one of the best parts of conferences: comforting each other through failures and celebrating victories together. Realmies are the best at both! I can’t wait for next year and I’m already planning my costume!

Philip Wilder (website, on Facebook)

I loved attending Realm Makers 2020. The people were very welcoming, friendly, and down to earth. I made many new friends, despite the fact that the entire conference was online. I also got the chance to play several games with others online. I even regained my passion for writing fiction and was able to get some great feedback on a new novel idea I’ve been rolling around in my head. Attending the conference online made me much more excited to attend an in-person Realm Makers conference. Perhaps one day Corona will stop trolling us all.

Brittany Eden (website, Instagram)

Thank you, Realm Makers, for putting on a fantastic conference! I’m a young mom who wouldn’t have been able to attend in person, so I was thrilled to be able to participate in this inspiring gathering that transcended technology with soul-stirring teaching and practical insight into the world of publishing. As a follower of Jesus and as a writer, it’s encouraging to find my place in this group of people who hold fast to the hope of heaven and who are united with a passion for touching readers’ hearts through our writing.

Kristen Aguilar (website, on Facebook, on Pinterest)

I heard about the Realm Makers Conference last minute when a friend invited me to go. Held virtually this year, I was able to register right before the conference started and I never looked back. Realm Makers is in a class all by itself. The people were friendly, fascinating and fun. Even virtually, Realm Makers went above and beyond to foster community and to encourage engagement with an immersive, positive experience. Whether it was branding, marketing, how to conduct media interviews, or how to take your writing or screenwriting to the next level, there was a plethora of incredible speakers and events packed into three days. I learned a ton. Plus, I went into the conference with one new friend and left with many more. Overall, a great experience!

Parker J. Cole (author, host of The Parker J. Cole Show)

I’ve wanted to go to Realm Makers for some time but never had a chance to. This year, COVID made it possible. How strange to thank a pandemic that has shifted world politics and populations with a sketchy future on the horizon. Yet I do. In its virtual form, Realm Makers was I expected and more. I had the honor of being a panelist for a touchy subject, and due to the warmth and friendliness of my fellow Realmies, I was able to speak my mind quite vigorously. Plus the sessions were to die for. Writers who write speculative fiction or readers who read it loved the plethora of ideas available for imagination’s consumption. It was a place where geeks and nerds dominate, with inside jokes that show our love and connection for the final frontier.

Robert Sloan

My first experience at a Realm Makers conference was this year’s “Pandemic Edition,” and I’m very pleased with it. The quality of the panels, the keynote addresses, and the “pitch“ and mentoring sessions were excellent; and after years of going to various kinds of professional conferences, I confess they were truly better than I expected. By a lot. Every session had something of substance to offer, with well prepared presenters, and significant opportunities to develop new relationships and networks. The people were very forthcoming and honest and I’ve benefited from each one. The technological platform that supported this virtual conference was outstanding. The instructions were clear, and I experienced no glitches. I’ll definitely be back.

Ryan Ouellette

Realm Makers 2020 was an amazing experience both as an attendee and a staff member. I had a lot of fun meeting new people, seeing new names (and sometimes faces), and hanging out with both staff and attendees in the voice and video chats. I learned a lot of new things from the mind-blowing sessions I attended. I’m so excited at the possibility of going to a live conference next year! The virtual conference felt just like what I imagined a real conference would be, and also a test drive to see how I handle the extra input that comes with a Realm Makers conference.

Lorehaven staff also loved Realm Makers 2020

Editor Elijah David, editor, author of Paper and Thorns

I’ve been hoping to attend Realm Makers for several years now. The atmosphere has (from a distance) reminded me of the healthful environment of another community I first met online. In an ironic twist, the pandemic that had kept us all separated afforded me the opportunity to attend this year’s virtual conference. While the atmosphere was understandably different from an in-person conference, I still found the community to be the friend-making, Christ-honoring, craft-honing hive of writers I’d been hoping for. The highlight for me was definitely listening to N.D. Wilson “blather on” about God, creativity, writing, and life. I could have listened to this all week.

Marian Jacobs, columnist, aspiring author (website)

Although there was a huge piece of the conference missing this year (all the hugs and hanging!), I found the content and chats far better than I could have anticipated. The keynote speakers were the best I’ve heard to date, and the classes were exactly what I needed to hear. I frequently felt as though the Lord was meeting me in these sessions, teaching me just what I needed in the place I’m at in my writing journey. I also loved how much more we were able to “interrupt” the speakers using the chat feature in Crowdcast. I will always prefer going in person, but this was so successful, I hope the conference organizers consider offering a virtual option in the future!

Zackary Russell, podcast producer, aspiring author (website)

What I love about Realm Makers is that this is a group who takes both writing and their Christian faith seriously. They don’t view creative imagination as an add-on or an enemy to faith, but a core integration. Although we all write unique stories and from various points on the overt vs. covert faith expression spectrum, there’s so much unity. Every Realmie friend I’ve made takes the gospel seriously and lives it out. I’ve continually been blessed by not only great instruction but awesome Christian community.

E. Stephen Burnett, publisher, coauthor of The Pop Culture Parent (website)

Real-life conferences can’t be beat. Or can they? I already had some training the previous week, teaching at the virtual SoCal Christian Writers Conference via Crowdcast. Realm Makers leveled up, with not only Crowdcast sessions (exclusive to con guests) but a custom-brewed Discord server. Suddenly all my NarniaWeb days came back, yet with a drastically upgraded “forum.” You could jump into various rooms. Instant-message. GIF-react. Start a video or audio chat. Or jump straight to the conference feeds or pitch meetings, just like that. Nope, it’s not the “real” Realm Makers conference. But in some ways, the virtual conference is even better. (GIF-reacting in real life just isn’t the same.) From grilling burgers and hot dogs for my own choice of Realm Awards banquet menu, to avoiding the traveling and hotel and instead not-sleeping from the comfort of my own home, now I can say that a virtual Christian writers’ conference also can’t be beat. Sure, I want to return to St. Louis for real next year. Yet secretly I hope we can also find some way to enjoy the virtual-world conference joys even in a non-pandemic universe. Until then … “Computer! Exit.”


About Realm Makers: Realm Makers began in 2013, and from small origins has grown to serve thousands of Christian fiction authors online and at annual conferences. Faculty members have included bestselling novelists such as Ted Dekker, Tosca Lee, Brent Weeks, and N. D. Wilson. Realm Makers exists to help creative Christians in their journeys, providing education in craft, connections with industry professionals, and strategies for finding readers who love these kinds of stories. Meanwhile, the Realm Makers Bookstore offers a curated collection of speculative fiction from Christian authors, traveling to events such as renaissance fairs and homeschool conventions.

Introducing The Author: Nathan Lumbatis

By occupation, Nathan works with young people. No surprise then that his books are written for that audience.
on Jul 20, 2020 · No comments
· Series:

Last week was a busy week here at Spec Faith, what with the announcement of the Realm Award winners, along with our usual posts. Among the flurry was an excellent article on Friday by author Nathan Lumbatis, and I hope that one did not slide past our visitors without notice.

As it happens, Nathan just released the third book in his Sons and Daughters series, Daniel and the Serpent’s Abyss. Release date was last Friday, the day Nathan’s article appeared here. While Nathan did reference the book and give an example from it through an excerpt, many may not know a lot about Nathan or his work. Consequently, a follow up article seems important. One of the goals of Spec Faith has always been to raise the profile of speculative works written from a Christian worldview, and of course, their authors. Certainly that describes Nathan.

First, a description of the latest in the series:

Fifteen-year-old Daniel never believed he’d have a normal family, much less become a part of God’s. Now, after two quests to find the Weapons of Power, he’s met God face-to-face and fought the Enemy in various guises. There’s little Daniel wouldn’t believe at this point. His next quest will take him to the British Isles, where he and his companions hope to save their friend, Raylin, and find the Abyssal Staff. There’s just one problem: saving her will require a descent into the Abyss itself—the Enemy’s lair. How can they hope for Raylin’s salvation when the Enemy has control of her mind and they are in his home territory? Daniel has no idea, but he trusts his faith in God will not prove vain. Surely, after all the divine intervention during the last two quests, God wouldn’t abandon the companions without help. Right?

As I’m sure you can tell from the above, the series is young adult, Christian fantasy. The novels explore themes such as forgiveness, faith, spiritual warfare, and the reality of divine sonship.

But who is Nathan Lumbatis? I mean, has he been writing long? Published other works? What’s he done in his life?

It turns out that Nathan is fairly new to the writing scene when it comes to novels. The Sons and Daughters series is his first. You can learn more about the stories through the book trailers available at his site.

As far as Nathan himself, his bio says he “grew up in the woods of Alabama, where he spent his time exploring, hiking, and dreaming up stories. Now, as a child/adolescent therapist and author, he’s teaching kids and teens how to redeem their stories using Biblical principles. He still lives in Alabama, where you will find him with his wife and three kids every chance he gets.”

He graduated from college, then earned his Masters Degree from the University of Alabama-Birmingham. He then began working as a counselor with the Alabama Baptist Children’s Home and Family Ministries, after which he began his private practice.

So by occupation, Nathan works with young people. No surprise then that his books are written for that audience. Here’s a little more info about his writing journey:

I’ve been writing fantasy since I was in high school. For one of my first “books,” I actually created a scroll by taping computer paper together and then attaching them to two wooden dowels I’d made. It was to be called (drum roll please), The Scrolls of Brenna, and would detail the adventures of a young enchantress, etc. etc. At that point, I figured the novelty of reading a story on a scroll would make it sell big time. Obviously I was wrong, but that, and similar writing experiences, were formative for me if for no other reason than to teach me to never give up and keep writing. The rest of my endeavors until the Sons and Daughters series were similar: learning through failure. It’s not a very elegant journey to being an author, but it is a way. Hopefully some aspiring authors can be encouraged by this. (You, too, can be a failure like me!)

I quick peek at Nathan’s website bookshelf gives a hint at some of the authors he admires. Among them is one of my favorites: Lloyd Alexander, author of the Chronicles of Prydain series.

If you’d like to learn more about Nathan and his writing or activities (he had a cool release party in his home state of Alabama over the weekend), you can find him in the usual online places: his website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

There and Beowulf Again: Providence and Plot in Tolkien’s Hobbit

Beowulf is known as a pagan myth, but it was penned by a Christian writer. The Hobbit borrows from Beowulf and shows how Tolkien used mythology to show forth Christian truths.
on Jul 18, 2020 · 24 comments

In the later days of Beowulf’s reign, a fiery dragon takes up residence on an abandoned inheritance of his people’s wealth. For three hundred years he had slept peacefully, until into his lair “went some nameless man, creeping in nigh to the pagan treasure; his hand seized a goblet deep, bright with gems. This the dragon did not after in silence bear, albeit he had been cheated in his sleep by thief’s cunning” (Beowulf, 77-79). Provoked to wrath by the theft, the dragon begins to terrorize the countryside. This plot may remind you of Bilbo’s deeds, and indeed Tolkien translated those lines from Beowulf in 1926, eleven years before the publication of The Hobbit. In fact, one year prior to his first novel, Tolkien published Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, a cornerstone study that changed the direction of scholarship on the poem forever. Clearly, when Tolkien wrote Bilbo’s story, his mind was filled with inspiration from the Old English epic.

Smaug and his treasure as drawn by Tolkien. Source: Tolkien Gateway

The place of paganism in Christian speculative fiction

Tolkien shares with the Beowulf poet a peculiar status as a Christian writer who draws extensively from pagan sources. In some ways, Christianity is even more overt in Beowulf than in Tolkien: Grendel, the troll who terrorizes the Danes at the outset, begins his murderous rampage in fury over the bard’s song about God: “There was the sound of harp and the clear singing of the minstrel; there spake he that had knowledge to unfold from far-off days the first beginning of men, telling how the Almighty wrought the earth” (Beowulf, 15). This galls him because, as we learn, Grendel, like many other monsters, descends from the kin of Cain mixed, by implication, with the fallen angels, associating such creatures with the Nephilim (Beowulf, 16). The fiery dragon, overtly evocative of Satan, is even referred to as a “fiend” by the poet. So the poet explains pagan evils as enemies of the Christian God – as Tolkien put it in his essay, “At this point new Scripture and old tradition touched and ignited” (“Monsters and the Critics,” 11). Beowulf can overcome the ultimately human monstrosity of Grendel and his mother, but he cannot overcome the supernatural – Beowulf’s own prideful sin and the power of the devilish dragon are above the paygrade of his heroics.

Beowulf battles Grendel’s mother. Source: Tolkien Gateway

A theme introduced early in Beowulf is that God brings heroes to the land for people’s aid. Hrothgar’s ancestor Scyld Scefing has an heir who is described as one “whom God sent for the comfort of the people” (Beowulf, 13). Tolkien translates this man’s name as “Beow” but in the manuscript it reads “Beowulf” – a common choice among translators of the poem to avoid confusion with the eponymous hero. So when the Beowulf says in the poem, “Ich eom Beowulf” (I am Beowulf), Hrothgar would remember (and so might the reader) that that name had been identified explicitly as the working of God’s providence. The Beowulf poet could find evidence that providence worked in pre-Christian times among Gentiles in Acts 17: 26-27: “And [God] hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us.” Of course, this does not mean that there is no distinction between the Christian believer and the pagan who felt after (intuitively sought after) God, but that perhaps something might be learned from the Anglo-Saxon poet’s pagan ancestors and their stories.

Though sin-stained and incapable of achieving the truths of special revelation without the direct intercession of the Holy Spirit (unique to Scripture alone), the faculty of imagination remains in pagans a component of the image of God that can glimpse, though through a glass darkly, enough truth for Paul to say that the non-believer is without excuse (Romans 1:20). Indeed, if gleams of God’s truth could be seen even in pagan myths, that would only serve to underscore God’s sovereign design of the human imagination, in spite of how sin causes specific uses of it to go awry. A story set in the pagan past of one’s ancestors might help the Anglo-Saxon Christian feel Gospel truths all the more poignantly precisely because illustrated by subject matter not intentionally crafted to support Christian belief until it came into the poet’s hands. This is true because pagan storytelling participates in a fundamental aspect of the Imago Dei: as Tolkien put it in On Fairy Stories, since God is a Creator, and Man is made in his image, we are therefore “sub-creators.” The difference between the pagan and the Christian storyteller is the latter ought to deliberately dedicate his writing to the service of Christian truth – however, not simply to believe the dogma of Christian truth but to understand the emotional and enchanting aspect of that truth, that which makes it compelling to the imagination as well as to reason.

Because the Beowulf poet begins his largely pagan narrative with Hrothgar’s court bard telling the story of God’s creative act, we can be sure that the poet had some consideration in mind of what it meant for a Christian to craft a story out of non-Christian material. This makes him, we might say, an early example of a Christian writer of speculative fiction, asking, “What can the tales of my pagan ancestors have to do with Jerusalem?” in story form. Tolkien, as a keen reader and admirer of the poem, found in Beowulf a paradigm for his own views of myth-making as a Christian. Explaining that “it was not consciously present to the mind in the process of writing” The Hobbit, Tolkien says nonetheless that “Beowulf is among my most valued sources” (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 31). The striking parallels of Beowulf’s dragon and Smaug’s provocation to rampage by an unimportant thief stealing a precious chalice are actually more interesting given that Tolkien says this was unintended, showing just how deeply the poem had worked its way into his imagination. And yet The Hobbit, as Tolkien’s mythopoeic creation, has even less explicit Christianity in it than appears in Beowulf. Biblical parallels, after all, become more explicit in The Silmarillion legendarium and The Lord of the Rings.  It’s easy enough to see Christian parallels in Gandalf’s sacrifice that leads to glorification or the One Ring as the power of sin’s temptation (parallels, I say, not allegories, which Tolkien found unpleasant when too rigid). But what about The Hobbit?

Providence and the Image of God in Speculative Fiction

Tolkien spoke of Christianity as the true, historical fairy-story, where the refreshing experience of the fairy-tale’s happy ending becomes fact in the Primary World. It was not lost on Tolkien that Gospel meant “good news” or “God story”: “Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story” (Letters, 100-101). Having contemplated how “Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow” best moves the soul in story form, Tolkien’s stream of consciousness then moves to The Hobbit: “I had suddenly in a fairly strong measure the eucatastrophic emotion at Bilbo’s exclamation: ‘The Eagles! The Eagles are coming!’” (Hobbit, 101) Eucatastrophe, defined by Tolkien as the sudden and unexpected move towards the Good, was for him epitomized in sacred history by the Incarnation and Crucifixion of Christ: God’s historical fairy-tale where the joy of salvation, when deeply apprehended by the believing imagination, moves the Christian to tears.

Eucatastrophe is Tolkien’s literary retort to the maligned “deus ex machina,” seen by Aristotle and many of his followers as the ultimate black eye on narrative. But it is only so if one denies the metaphysical possibility of God moving providentially in His Creation – in this way, literary taste depends at least to some degree on worldview. The Eagles are Tolkien’s way of signaling that Eru Ilúvatar is showing his hand in Middle Earth – emissaries of Manwe the lord of the angelic Valar and Maiar from The Silmarillion, who is himself linked by Tolkien to Michael the Archangel and so a servant of God. Tolkien writes of the Valar, “These latter are as we should say angelic powers, whose function is to exercise delegated authority in their spheres” (Letters, 146). An example of Providence closer to Bilbo’s story, underscoring that teaching of Paul in Acts 17 that God is not far from us, is Gandalf himself, whom we know to be a Maia, one might say the Guardian Angel of Bilbo and the Dwarves. Speaking of such angels, Hebrews 1:14 reads, “Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?” Hebrews 1:7 associates angels with fire and wind, and Gandalf often uses fire as his primary weapon (as against the Goblins in the mountain passage) and his alliance with the Eagles makes him a being of wind too. Hebrews invokes angels to contrast their nature with that of Christ – indeed, to underscore his divinity. Since Gandalf is an angel, therefore, his pervasive presence inherently refers to the presence of another Being of higher glory.

But much of Bilbo’s success occurs when Gandalf is absent. Although an agent of Providence, Gandalf is not the whole of it. When Bilbo successfully brings the Dwarves out of captivity in the Wood-elven kingdom to Lake-town, the townsfolk “began to sing snatches of old songs concerning the return of the King under the Mountain” (Hobbit 182). This prophetic folklore involves the king overthrowing a dragon, so that The streams shall run in gladness The lakes shall shine and burn, All sorrow fail and sadness At the Mountain-king’s return! (182) The resonance with Revelation need not be explicated. Yet curiously “no songs had alluded to [Bilbo] even in the obscurest way” (183). Like the Gospel, the fulfillment of prophecy turns out to unfold in a surprising way in The Hobbit, not least of all where the Hobbit is concerned. “Will he do, do you think?” asks Gloin, remarking, “He looks more like a grocer than a burglar!” (18) The question echoes Nathanael’s: “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46) As Scripture oft repeats, in The Hobbit providence works through the lowly to embarrass the lofty. Gandalf reminds Bilbo of this, when he says, “Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?” (The Hobbit 276)

Bilbo Baggins as sketched by Tolkien. Source: Tolkien Gateway

The Beowulf poet too emphasizes God’s sovereignty in the wake of the final battle of his story, echoing Paul’s Mars Hill sermon: “God’s Doom was ever the master then of every man in deeds fulfilled, even as yet now it is” (Beowulf, 96). But Beowulf’s death in his confrontation with the dragon is a marked difference from Bilbo’s proverbial realization that he ought never laugh at live dragons: “He [Wiglaf] could not, dearly though he wished it, keep upon the earth his captain’s [Beowulf’s] life, nor any whit avert the Almighty’s will” (96). Where Beowulf is a negative exemplum of overweening pride in the face of spiritual warfare, Bilbo’s response to Gandalf bespeaks the humility a Christian should have when reminded that “you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all”: “Thank goodness!” (The Hobbit, 276)

One might say that the speculative question driving the fantasies of the Beowulf poet and Tolkien is: “What Christian truth can be seen by means of stories containing pagan subject matter?” How can stories be told without explicit Christianity in a way that helps us to better understand God and His relationship to Creation, and also Man’s image of God and its spiritual value found in sub-creation? But an adjacent question should be asked, one which some might argue Tolkien did not ask sufficiently: “How can meditation on pagan myth highlight the distinction between pagan falsehood and Christian truth?”

Tolkien’s Dwarves are famously named after the Dwarves of Norse mythology (their names directly taken from the Eddas), but although they prompt Bilbo to the journey, he also finds himself growing apart from them as he discovers humility. The Beowulf poet was right to see God’s providence even in his pagan past, and yet in doing so risked enshrining Beowulf’s unchristian pride and honor culture, a culture shared by the Dwarves (especially Thorin, who we are often told regarded himself as an “important Dwarf”). By making Bilbo (the thief) his hero rather than Bard (a far more Beowulfine figure), Tolkien reminds us of a fundamental Christian truth different from the more pagan model: we are not the hero of our story.

(Note that Anthony G. Cirilla is representing Bear Publications at the Realm Makers virtual conference, while Travis Perry is away for US Army Training…)

Realm Makers Announces 2020 Realm Award Winners, Sets Peretti as 2021 Keynote Speaker

NEWS: Learn who won at tonight’s virtual Realm Awards dinner, which recognizes excellence in Christian-made fantastical fiction and cover design.
on Jul 17, 2020 · No comments

POTTSTOWN, Pa., July 17, 2020—Realm Makers hosted its annual awards banquet tonight during its annual conference, and revealed the winners of best Christian-made novels for the Realm Award, the Parable Award, and the Alliance Award.

Seventh City, Emily Hayse

The 2020 Realm Award Book of the Year is Seventh City by Emily Hayse.

The Realm Award celebrates the best titles in 2019’s fantastical fiction among eight categories. Each title competed for the Realm Award in its category, and the top five overall scores from all categories were judged for a final Book of the Year award.

Realm Award, Book of the Year, chosen from all winners

  • Seventh City, by Emily Hayse from Hayse Publishing

Realm Award, children’s

  • Hello Ninja, by N. D. Wilson from HarperCollins

Realm Award, middle grade

  • Iggy & Oz: The Plastic Dinos of Doom, by J. J. Johnson from Dark Side Geeks

Realm Award, fantasy

  • Seventh City, by Emily Hayse from Hayse Publishing

Realm Award, science fiction

  • Brand of Light, by Ronie Kendig from Enclave Publishing
Realm Award 2020, goblet crafted by Leah Nietz

This is the 2020 Realm Award Book of the Year goblet, hand-crafted by Leah Nietz.

Realm Award, young adult

  • To Best the Boys, by Mary Weber from Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins

Realm Award, debut

  • Fyrian’s Fire, by Emily Jeffries from Sheepgate Press

Realm Award, horror/other

  • Amish Werewolves of Space, by Kerry Nietz from Freeheads

Realm Award, supernatural/paranormal

  • Mercury on Guard, Steve Rzasa, independently published

Alliance Award winner, chosen by reader vote

  • Brand of Light, by Ronie Kendig from Enclave Publishing

Parable Award winner for best book cover designs

  • Heart of the Curiosity, by H. L. Burke with cover by Austin Lord

Our 2020 Realm Award winners will join our faculty for Author LIVE, a virtual author Q and A open to the public on Saturday, July 18 from 4–7:30 p.m. (EDT).

Rebecca P. Minor and Scott Minor, both of Realm Makers, with Frank E. Peretti (center) at the American Christian Fiction Writers conference in Sept. 2019.

Next year’s Realm Makers keynote speaker: Frank E. Peretti

Frank E. Peretti is a New York Times best-selling author of Christian fiction, whose novels primarily focus on the supernatural. To date, his works have sold over 15 million copies worldwide. Peretti is best known for his novels This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness.

About Realm Makers: Realm Makers began in 2013, and from small origins has grown to serve thousands of Christian fiction authors online and at annual conferences. Faculty members have included bestselling novelists such as Ted Dekker, Tosca Lee, Brent Weeks, and N. D. Wilson. Realm Makers exists to help creative Christians in their journeys, providing education in craft, connections with industry professionals, and strategies for finding readers who love these kinds of stories. Meanwhile, the Realm Makers Bookstore offers a curated collection of speculative fiction from Christian authors, traveling to events such as renaissance fairs and homeschool conventions.