honest fantasy

June 1, 2019

The fantastic literature of my childhood centred around two authors: Tolkien and Lewis. Anyone more than familiar with both men will know their religious history, that Lewis was an atheist who, under Tolkien’s guidance, became first a theist of no particular affiliation, and then a good Anglican whose works on Christianity, while touted by modern American Evangelicals, were radical enough to place him well outside of the conservative mainstream in this country even now. Tolkien was a devout Catholic, very conservative, to the point that when Vatican II changed the liturgical response from Latin to English, he refused to make the transition. What has always interested me about these two is how that religiosity impacted on their primary works. I always knew Narnia was a thin metaphor, even as a child. It wasn’t until I was much older that I met people who read the books as honest fantasy, and were surprised when shown the undercurrents. I think that says something about how thoroughly the core themes of religious metaphor have penetrated the expectations of our collective genre narrative. Tolkien, on the other hand, did not write didactically. I’ve had more arguments with earnest Christians about this than I care to think about, but Tolkien is on record as saying that he despised didactic writing, chided Lewis for the thin veil of metaphor that he employed in the Narnia stories, and insisted that his Middle Earth wasn’t a secret instructional manual for anything. He did, however, say that The Lord of the Rings was a “fundamentally Catholic” story. That’s because Tolkien was a Catholic, and anything he produced was going to be coloured by that thought system. And yet these two imaginations, both men professors and therefore prone to instruction, both men devout in their belief, both wonderfully creative in their storytelling, these two writers produced very different sorts of stories, especially when viewed as religious works. It’s always fascinated me, and confounded my father. It’s something we talk about a lot.

Tim Akers
Faith in the Fantastic