Sunday, September 25, 2016

Magic and Fantasy Fiction Part 3--How Literary Fantasy Promotes Paganism (at times)

(J.R.R. Tolkein's Silmarillion abounds not only with Fantasy magic, it also lists a full set of literary Pagan deities.)

My previous two posts on this topic first defined what magic actually is in the Bible (an appeal to spirits or spiritual powers as opposed to seeking God) and also looked at how two millennia of Christianity have affected how the world thinks about magic (primarily it has separated out magic and religion as different things--which was not originally the case in Paganism). I repeatedly refuted the idea that "magic," Biblically speaking, is primarily understood as a quid pro quo exchange, making it fundamentally different from prayer. No, for ancient Pagans, a prayer was a ritual and a spell was too--they were essentially different aspects of the same thing.

I also stated in my first post that I believe literary magic--magic in fantasy fiction, poses a real hazard for people but that hazard is not generally where Christians concerned about this topic believe it is. Now I'm going to explain that statement.

I'm going to delve into a small bit of history of fantasy as a literary genre before revealing my main point:

While fairy stories are ancient, those stories about magical creatures (creatures with special abilities inherent to themselves) 
were originally seen as belonging to little-known corners of the real world. In other words, the original fairy stories were actually believed to be true to at least some degree by the people who told them. (Yes, this is because of Pagan notions about the world and how it works.)

The Romantic literary period in the 1800s (which reacted against the rationalism of the Enlightenment of the century before it) stirred up a tremendous interest in the "epic" past and also in the fairy and ghost stories of Medieval times. Hans Christian Anderson reworked fairy stories into novels and George McDonald and William Morris were crafting new novels near the end of the 19th Century (and the beginning of the 20th) that made fresh stories out of ancient fairy tales and epic sagas. Diverse writers such as Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland), L. Frank Baum (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz), and H.P. Lovecraft (Cthulhu Mythos) belong to this period near the turn of the 20th Century, all writing prior to J.R.R. Tolkien, as did many other authors.

But Tolkien can be fairly credited with creating epic fantasy and he also made the genre of fantasy turn mainstream. Fantasy as a genre after Tolkien was no longer seen as either stories for children or as a small niche for readers of the bizarre. Tolkien also remains the most widely read fantasy author to this day.

My Christian friends love to embrace the fact Tolkien was a Christian, that he wove Christian elements into his story--e.g. the resurrection of Gandalf is intended to parallel Christ's (though was never intended to be a one-for-one allegory), the return of Aragorn to Minas Tirith is supposed to parallel the Second Coming of Christ, and the seductive power of the ring itself comments on the sin nature. It reveals real human beings do not have the power to vanquish evil by an act of the will alone--and evil can never in fact be an instrument for good. And many more parallels.

However, in reality Tolkien was as much inspired by ancient mythology, i.e. Paganism, as he was Christianity. That may seem unduly harsh to my Christian friends who love Tolkien, but it is true--
he was a lover of ancient Germanic stories and sagas and included many, many Pagan elements in his tales. Please bear with me as I explain why he thought doing so was harmless. 

From my understanding, both C.S. Lews and Tolkien, as well as certain other deeply intellectual Christians of their time believed that the gods of the Pagan tradition actually pointed to the one God of the Bible. That these Pagan deities either personified or represented aspects of God's power, ignorantly worshiped. In 1944, Lewis said, “Theology, while saying that a special illumination has been vouchsafed to Christians and (earlier) to Jews, also says that there is some divine illumination vouchsafed to all men. The Divine light, we are told, ‘lighteneth every man.’ We should, therefore, expect to find in the imagination of great Pagan teachers and myth makers some glimpse of that theme which we believe to be the very plot of the whole cosmic story—the theme of incarnation, death, and rebirth.”

Tolkien thought much along the same lines. He saw no harm including magical items, spells, and realistic versions of fairy creatures in his story universe even though these story aspects were lifted from Pagan sources and not from the Bible. He also saw no harm in creating a set of fictional gods in the Silmarillion (which in reality was background notes to his Lord of the Rings and Hobbit stories, published after his death).

But in the thought of the time, Christianity had irrevocably replaced Paganism. For a Christian intellectual of the early 20th Century, there was no danger that Paganism would make a resurgence in the world. But that's exactly what it has done.

Aleister Crowley, whose lifespan occupies roughly the same turn-of-the-20th Century period as the birth of fantasy fiction as a modern genre of literature, looked back to ancient traditions not for Christian inspiration and not to write books of fiction. He sought to revive the ancient rituals and magic of the past, the worship of Pagan deities, especially the binary essence of male god and female goddess. His works have proven to be tremendously influential in our modern world. And the fruits of Crowley's work was already underway when Lewis made his statement in 1944.

Though in 1944 the efforts to revive Paganism was a niche movement. But it isn't really anymore. Neo-paganism has millions of adherents worldwide. The number grew enormously in the 20th Century and it still continues to grow (though, granted, the number of Pagans remains far less than the number of Christians--for now). The US military has accepted Wiccans (witches) as chaplains. There are far more people practicing revived Pagan traditions, including, no kidding, seeking the power of spirits other than God--far more than most people living in a Christian bubble would ever imagine.

Modern Pagans I have known personally LOVE Tolkien by the way. Not that they think magic in his world represents the way magic really works, but they are especially appreciative of his overall world view. I personally think that relates to the polytheism he crafted in the Silmarillion.

C.S. Lewis they aren't so thrilled about. Not only is Aslan rather too overtly like Jesus for their taste, Lewis presented the practice of magic in our world in a bad light in The Magician's Nephew. And Lewis, in spite of his open admiration for Pagan mythos, includes only one other god aside from Aslan in all his stories--Tash, the evil god, which is easily enough seen as a representation of Satan.

So here is my point. I'm not really concerned with fantasy fiction portraying magic. I don't believe Harry Potter will curse me or evil spirits dwell in any book of fantasy literature that mentions magic--even if such books contain pentagrams and other symbols of evil or magic (please refer to my previous posts if you haven't seen them as to why I don't worry about that). But I am concerned how fantasy literature promotes modern-day Paganism. 

I am concerned, especially, with the fact that such stories abound with multiple gods and goddesses, but other than C.S. Lewis and a few of my friends who write similar stories, the one God of the Bible does not appear. The fantasy genre is open to ANY Pagan god of any stripe or brand--but the God of the Bible isn't welcome.

It isn't magic or witchcraft in the literary sense that should concern a Christian all that much. Such magic is obviously fiction and in fact can operate much as science operates in a story setting. Literary magic does not necessarily have the connection it ALWAYS had in ancient times--that is of allegiance to spirits other than the one Creator God. 

Of course, calling up spirits in a realistic sense portrayed in a story should be more concerning. Though of course there is a difference between reading about something and doing it. I can read murder mysteries and enjoy them without ever wanting to commit murder myself. I could read a story that features a realistic description of an actual magical practice and never want to perform the ceremony myself.

The same could be said about the inclusion of multiple gods and goddesses. A Pagan god as an object of fiction may have no appeal to me, so I can read about him or her or it without any real danger. So a Christian could say for valid reasons.

But a Pagan god or a spiritual practice realistically described represents an actual potential danger. Just like a loaded gun in a closet does. I, as an educated gun user, can have and operate my firearms for my own benefit. But I would never hold the opinion that just anyone could handle my weapon without any instruction whatsoever. I would be especially concerned about exposing children to its power to kill without supervision.

Likewise, if a story contains a realistic description of the Occult and/or any reference to a Pagan deity of any kind, such a story is not necessarily harmful as in it's a portal for evil spirits to enter your body. But seek and you will find, said Christ, "knock and the door will be open unto you."

Those who seek the power of gods and goddess find not really what they imagined they'd find, but a real spiritual power nonetheless. That's how it worked with the magic the Bible condemned and that's how it still works today. Those who create in their imagination a system of deities or spirits and then actually seek them will find, not what they were looking for really, but a genuine spiritual power. An evil one.

So, yes, I get concerned that fantasy fiction mostly shuts out God in favor of polytheism. By continual exposure to just one point of view, that the gods of paganism are really around (even if only in fiction), that astronomically increases the chances that some reader out there will try to find these gods for real. Just as leaving loaded guns lying around vastly increases the chances someone will carelessly pull a trigger (though doesn't guarantee it).

Yes, I agree science fiction shutting out God in favor of an atheistic world view represents a genuine danger as well--a danger C.S. Lewis was very much concerned about, by the way. And I agree with him.

But the Bible makes it plain it is possible to veer off of correct action in more than one way--we should turn neither to the right nor the left. The peril of real worship of other gods is something the Bible never ignores, nor should modern Christians. And science fiction, unlike fantasy, rarely includes gods and goddesses that people actually worship. Though sometimes it does.

Especially in the modern version of epic sagas known as the superhero story, which could be classified as science fiction. Superhero stories include LITERAL gods, Thor, Loki, and Odin recently. There are people actually worshiping those gods today. Yes, there really are.

Did the Thor or Avengers movie cause such worship? No, of course not, not directly. But it doesn't hurt the gods any to get some free advertising, if you follow my reasoning. Note that I see no evidence at all that such references to false deities in fiction (as if diminishing them to mere fiction) actually reduces the number of people who worship them--in fact, on the contrary it seems likely a small number of people who will be introduced to Thor for the first time in Marvel fiction will wind up worshiping him some years down the road, once the seed of their curiosity about the Norse god grows.

Note that the DEVIL of the Bible is welcome in a superhero story, such as Ghost Rider. But God? No. Anybody but him. That's not good.

My reaction to this bias is part of why I as a Christian write fantasy at times. I want to include God in my writing--for me, I will never create a story universe in which there are no monotheists at all. For me, it is evident that creating such worlds of fiction with gods and goddesses other than the one true Creator (who is excluded or perhaps negatively portrayed) has a sinister purpose, though one mostly unintended by the human authors involved. That purpose (yes it is fair to attribute this plan to Satan) is to increase the chances someone will seek spirits other than God.

So it isn't the portrayal of magic in fictional literature that concerns me nearly as much as the portrayal of other gods and spirits. A clear reference to other deities or to seeking out spirits other than God's--that's what raises my suspicions and causes me to be aware a danger is present. 

And I don't want to be like J.R.R. Tolkien, who with the best of intentions wrote stories that the Neo-pagans adore even more than Christians do. Yes, Christians, feel free to reclaim Tolkien. Make the world aware of his Christian themes. But I think Tolkien went too far in his admiration for his Pagan sources--I think the point he definitely crossed the line was when he created his own pantheon of fictional deities. 

I will not do likewise. I will be aware that what I write could represent a potential danger. While I will not steer clear of literary magic in my stories, I will be very careful about how I portray spirits or gods other than Jehovah. I cannot absolutely control how readers will take my works, but some things clearly represent more potential danger than others. For me, the inclusion of God in stories is an important distinction, one I will not ignore.

"He who has ears to hear, let him hear."



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  2. Because of my pagan past being still too fresh there is alot of fantasy series I like that I won't read now. Someday I might, but not now. Harry Potter stuff doesn't affect me, nor does Tolkien. I have a new appreciation for CS Lewis which I didn't like before. Right now most of what I read is religious based non-fiction and I'm back to.some general fiction or cozy mystery for the time being.

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    2. Laura, have you read the Silmarillion? I suspect that might bother you, though I'm not sure.

      Tolkien left out the references to multiple deities in the Hobbit and the LOTR, so I can see why those tales would not touch a nerve with you at all.

      The thing that concerns me as a writer is that Tolkein set precedence for the much more overtly Pagan fantasies that followed him. I don't want my writing to set those kinds of precedents. I don't want to be misunderstood like that.

      As a new Christian, who recently came to Christ out of modern Paganism, would you agree that much of fantasy literature is drenched in Paganism? Would you also agree that the majority of your Pagan friends love fantasy books? And lastly, is it your sense that Pagans adore Tolkein and are mostly unaware he included Christian elements in his stories?

  3. I haven't read much adult fantasy. I've read mostly YA and MG. There were a few books in those genres that depicted stuff a bit too close to real magic for comfort. I quit one of those books, and I read the next one in the other series and realized that the magic had serious repercussions, so I figured that one might be okay. (I don't recall any gods.)
    When it comes to the god superheroes, I've never really considered them gods since they seemed more like another race that had powers so they were mistaken as gods. It was never claimed, to my knowledge, that Thor or Loki had any hand in creating the world. (At least in the Avengers universe.) They're also never portrayed as something worthy of worship. I've read very few books where there were pagan gods worthy of worship. One, Mistborn, had a god (Harmony) who told his followers not to worship him, and he's probably the closest to a true fantasy god. The interesting thing about the Mistborn books is they have some revelations that seem very applicable to Christians. (No surprise considering Sanderson is Mormon.)
    The other case is some of Rick Riordan's books that involve the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods. Reading about these made me very grateful that we have a perfect god, not a bunch of gods who act little better than our presidential candidates.
    To me, Riordan's books and the superhero gods seem pretty low on the list of things that could turn someone to pagan worship. Maybe Mistborn's gods are dangerous, but the spiritual truth found in those books could also help a reader who is struggling with faith.
    In some ways, I think media could be like a drug for the soul. It may help one person see more clearly, but the same "drug" may cause and addictive spiral for another person.

    1. Jessi, I know that the comic book gods that I referenced are not really portrayed as gods. They are portrayed as powerful aliens who took interest in humans in the past but are rather indifferent about humanity now. Except Thor of course. They are in a fictional setting. Yes, that is true.

      However, the "ancient alien" angle could I think cause somebody to wonder, what if the Norse gods were actually real? Maybe they were aliens, maybe not. But I would like to find out more. Maybe only one in 10 or 1 in 100 would wind up worshiping Norse gods as a result of that curiosity.

      But the superhero association with Norse gods is not hurting them in any way. Neo-pagans who actually worship Thor are not bothered in the slightest by his fictional portrayal. I think that's significant.