Last time, I looked at the need fantasy has, if it is to work, for an engaging, believable character and for a world that is well-developed and consistent. An element of that world building, and one of the genre’s tropes, is magic. I’m using the term loosely here, not in the same way the Bible does. Hence “magic” is something other, something beyond the normal realm of realism. It can be a gift, a power, something supernatural. A good number of Christian fantasies don’t have traditional magic. But they do have something mysterious or beyond the normal physical realm.
In George Bryan Polivka’s Trophy Chase Trilogy, for example, the only “magical” element was the firefish–a mythical creature he created–and that was enough. It was both mysterious and other—not of this world.
I personally like more magic, not less. I wanted Gandalf to overcome the Balrog and the Hobbits to escape the Black Riders. I wanted the Ents to stir up the trees and the Elves to shield the Hobbits from the Orcs. I wanted the White Tree to provide Gondor with protection and Boromir’s horn to bring the help he needed. I wanted to warn Pippin not to look into the palantir.
The more magic, the more intrigue. Anything can happen, and the reader is left equally to wonder and to worry because the best stories give magic to both sides of the good versus evil equation.
Intrigue leads to the next point. Fantasy that works also has a plot that works. Rule one for a good plot: create conflict by giving your character something he wants or needs and must strive to acquire.
Like other fiction, fantasy is best when the character faces an external conflict and an internal conflict. Ideally the two battles will coalesce at the climax. That’s what J. R. R. Tolkien did so well in The Return of the King. Frodo wasn’t only fighting against Orcs and Sauron and Shelob. He was also fighting against becoming another Gollum.
Shockingly, the latter is the fight he lost. Which brings up another element that makes fantasy work—surprise. I think one of the reasons so much epic fantasy gets criticized is because of a lack of surprise. Readers and reviewers will say a story is “derivative” (the kiss of death to a fantasy) though you never hear that accusation made of romance or even of mystery. I have to believe that what the “derivative” accusers are actually saying is that the story tipped its hand and didn’t hold any surprise.
One of the things that kept me reading furiously through the last three Harry Potter books was the unpredictability. Was Snape good or evil? Would Harry be able to leave the Dursleys and go to live with Sirius Black? Would he win the Triwizard Tournament? Who was trying to kill him during the competition? Why was he seeing realistic visions of what Voldemort was doing? How would Harry find the horcruxes? And on and on.
Questions create intrigue, twists create surprise, and delay creates suspense. All of these elements, along with conflict, make a fantasy plot work.
Which brings us to the next element in fantasy that works: it says something important.
Our own Stephen Burnett had this to say about fantasy a number of years ago in his article “Defeating man-centered monsters with greater stories”:
I’ve read a few fantasy books whose authors are trying to Imitate Lewis. But there’s a catch: their Christ-figures, a la Aslan, aren’t much like Aslan, much less so the Biblical Christ. Sure, they have all the loving-humble-helpful parts, but few to none of the sovereign-holy-kill-his-enemies parts. And these Christ-equivalents exist, not with their own missions, but mainly as sidekicks for the real hero of the story, the Self-Doubtful Often-Angsty Gifted protagonist, who is on a Quest.
Stephen particularly addressed the issue of stories with a Christ figure. However, not every story written from a Christian worldview needs an allegorical Christ figure, in my opinion. But those that include one have set themselves a huge task.
Does that mean we should shy away from showing Christ in Christian fantasy? No, I don’t think so. However, I believe that’s a high goal. If an author sets that high goal, rightly the reader must judge whether or not his story works by whether or not he successfully met the goal.
I tend to think that the problem Stephen mentioned in the quote above—that the Christ figure is a “side-kick”—occurs primarily because some authors back away from the high goal of putting Him meaningfully into a story as Lewis did with Aslan.
One secret here is that Lewis said he was not writing an allegory. Today, I think many Christian fantasy writers are writing an allegorical character, if not an allegory.
What was Lewis doing instead? He termed it “supposal.” In a world with fauns and talking animals and centaurs and dwarfs, Lewis asked, how would God show Himself?
Perhaps that’s the question we fantasy writers need to ask more often rather than forcing Christ-by-another-name into our stories.
But I said earlier that I don’t think stories have to have an allegorical Christ figure to still be Christian.
That doesn’t mean I think a story about not telling a lie or about forgiving our enemies is automatically Christian because it contains a moral value consistent with Christianity.
Rather, I believe—and this is quite subjective—stories that “till the soil” can be powerfully Christian. Such stories create the longing for the wholeness Christ gives, or for the acceptance His sacrifice made possible, or for the purpose His relationship frees us to achieve. I believe stories can show sacrificial love that is extraordinary and that will create a thirst for sacrificial love. I believe stories can show forgiveness that is pure and unmerited and it will create a thirst for similar mercy.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Instead of putting God into a story, I think it’s possible to put one of God’s characteristics in a story and show it so clearly that it becomes something that draws people, maybe even causes them to say, Wouldn’t it be great to know someone like that?
So what fantasies do you think work and why? Are there newer fantasies that have the elements we’ve looked at and which simply need to be discovered?
Of course, part of why I’m asking this is because I hope our readers here at Spec Faith are thinking about the Christian speculative novel–fantasy, science fiction, supernatural, or whatever–they would like to nominate for the Clive Staples Award. Let’s find the books that work and pick the best of the lot to honor.