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Editor’s note: This is a selection from an essay Vox wrote, recently published in the new anthology “Revisiting Narnia,” from BenBella Books.
In the center of Oxford, there is a brass sign indicating the proximity of The Eagle and Child, the pub in which the informal group known as the Inklings used to gather on Thursdays. Three of these Inklings eventually became fantasy writers of some reknown, one of them, J.R.R. Tolkien, stamped an image on the genre which, 60 years and three movies later, is arguably more powerful than ever.
These three writers, Tolkien, Lewis and Charles Williams, were not only Oxford men – Tolkien and Lewis were dons while Williams was an editor at the university press – but also devout Christians. Ironically, while Lewis is now considered to be the more recognizably Christian figure thanks to works of Christian apologetics such as “Mere Christianity” and “Miracles,” it was the Catholic Tolkien who played a major role in the atheist Lewis’ conversion to Christianity in 1931.
The Christian themes in both Lewis’ fantasy and science fiction are undeniable. Even a child conversant with both “The Chronicles of Narnia” and the Bible will readily recognize that the lion Aslan, who voluntarily lays down his life in exchange for the life of a criminal condemned to death in “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe,” is a barely disguised metaphor for Jesus Christ. And this diaphanous veil disappears entirely six books later when the link between Aslan’s country and Heaven is disclosed upon the death of the Pevensey family at a railway station in “The Last Battle.”
The religious themes are even more overt in Lewis’ Space Trilogy. From the name of the protagonist – Ransom – to the replay of the Edenic temptation in Perelandra, Lewis consciously provides a fictional retelling of vignettes straight from the Bible. Indeed, the very title of the first volume, “Out of the Silent Planet,” refers directly to Lewis’ concept of God’s divine invasion of nature, which he lays out explicitly in “Mere Christianity.”
The Christian foundation of the other famous Inkling’s work is less blatant, yet almost as obvious to all but the most willfully blind. While there have been a few brave souls foolhardy enough to attempt to deny the self-evident, even those with no discernible Christian agenda freely acknowledge the powerful religious elements integral to “The Lord of the Rings.” For the Secret Fire of which Gandalf is a servant, as Tolkien explained for the benefit of those too unfamiliar of the book of Acts to recognize the symbolism, is nothing less than the Holy Spirit whose flames were first seen at Pentecost, and in case things were not perfectly clear, the author once described his landmark trilogy as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.”
Thus, it is not the fantasy elements – which are actually not very similar in the particulars – but the Christian themes running through both that tie Lewis’ and Tolkien’s works together in our minds. Nor are these themes the only relationship. Tolkien, Lewis and Williams were all influenced to varying degrees by the same literary and spiritual mentor, a Scottish minister and prolific author by the name of George MacDonald. MacDonald is largely forgotten now, but he was a well-known author of the late 19th century – among other things, he corresponded regularly with a certain American writer he had befriended by the name of Samuel Clemens. In one letter, Clemens even mentioned to MacDonald how his daughter Susy had worn out her copy of MacDonald’s “At the Back of the North Wind” and requested that MacDonald send her a replacement.
It is interesting to note that while Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are generally considered to be the fathers of science fiction, as far as the literary historians are concerned, modern fantasy is imagined to have leaped like Athena, fully accoutered, into the pulp magazines of the 1920s. And yet, George MacDonald’s claim to paternity is difficult to dismiss. His first work of fantasy fiction, the aptly named Phantastes, was published in 1858, six years before Jules Verne published “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” seven years before Lewis Carroll published “Alice in Wonderland” and before H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft or Lord Dunsany were born.
This failure to recognize MacDonald’s influence on the genre appears to stem primarily from the radical secularization of the science-fiction and fantasy genres dating from science fiction’s Golden Age. While the short stories and novels of the Golden Age are fondly recalled by many, and are rightly known for many good things, one must admit that character development was not among them. This is unfortunate, because the Golden Age preference for plot over personalities and for ideas over individuals played a significant role in the relegation of science fiction to a literary ghetto disdained by the New York Times Review of Books and others too self-consciously erudite to take seriously what is still too-often dismissed as juvenile space opera and futuristic twiddle-twaddle. While character development in science fiction has improved dramatically of late, it is still only the exceptional work that manages to transcend the genre and break out of the ghetto.
This disdain for character left a mark on the genre which lasts to this day. Almost to a man, the writers of the Golden Age were secular humanists, and they felt as strongly about the deleterious effects of religion on collective human development as did Sigmund Freud with regards to the individual. Their antipathy toward all forms of traditional religion in favor of a dogmatic faith in the scientific method cast science fiction into an artistic ghetto from which it has not yet even begun to escape.
Fortunately, science and religion need no longer be at war, as developments in modern physics have shown, (especially those relating to the significance of the fundamental constants), which may indicate that the time for hostilities may finally be over. It is interesting to note that the “multiple universes” concept which has inspired so many short stories in the past decade is a purely hypothetical theory developed without any experimental basis in an attempt to answer the “anthropic principle,” which not only has a solid foundation in current scientific method, but threatens to demolish the entire notion of a random, mechanistic universe. The concept does not, of course, provide the least bit of evidence for the legitimacy of the prophet’s revelation, the infallibility of the pope, or the likelihood of the Second Coming. What it does demonstrate is that what has been long considered an antagonistic dichotomy between science and religion may not actually exist at all.
Still, this distaste for all things religious has been a costly one, both in artistic and financial terms. While sufficient evidence exists to reject the idea that only a true believer is capable of writing accurately about his faith, it is true that presenting a reasonable and believable image of a religious individual presents a greater challenge to one who has no experience of such strange beings and therefore lacks even the most basic information about them. One would not expect one who knows nothing of math beyond addition and subtraction to write a convincing portrayal of calculus, after all. And while one may no more believe in aliens than in Jesus Christ, a survey of the current literature suggests that far more thought typically goes into depictions of the former than into those who profess to believe in the latter.
Compare the vast difference between the guilt-racked seducer of Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” and the foam-flecked fundamentalists who haunt mediocre short stories in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine like clockwork cartoon bogeymen. Is it any wonder that the science-fiction and fantasy writer’s pretense to literary status is scoffed at by those familiar with Dostoevsky, Goethe, and Tolstoy?
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Also, check out “What Hollywood Believes: An Intimate Look at the Faith of the Famous.”