Narnia, Middle-Earth and the Kingdom of God
Narnia, Middle-Earth and the Kingdom of God:
A History of Fantasy Literature and the Christian Tradition
Mark Worthing, Stone Table Books, 2016
Mark Worthing’s latest book appears, at first glance, to be a relatively slim volume, but it certainly packs a solid punch. His in-depth knowledge of and passion for fantasy is quite apparent throughout, and he argues a solid case for the role of the Christian world-view, not only in the development of the genre, but also on its continuing place in literature.
While the sub-title says that this volume is a History of Fantasy in the Christian Tradition, it is far more than just a bland historical recount or a mere apologetic for the Christian traditions within the genre. It is a rigorous examination of the genre, and how many writers have expressed their Christian faith through their writing.
Victorian England fantasy
In the early chapters he considers the origins of modern fantasy as they appeared before, and during, Victorian England, from writers like Hans Christian Andersen, George MacDonald, Lewis Carroll, and Edith Nesbit, among others. Worthing devotes a short chapter to the writings of Hans Christian Andersen and his influence on the Victorian era readers and writers.
This is followed by an in-depth chapter on the writings of George MacDonald, whom he considers to be the major influence upon early fantasy writing. Indeed, Worthing quotes from the writings of C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle, both of whom owe a great debt to MacDonald. “Madeleine L’Engle, the matriarch of modern Christian fantasy, literature, candidly admits that ‘George MacDonald is the grandfather of us all – all of us who struggle to come to terms with truth through fantasy.’” (p.26) MacDonald’s writing also heavily influenced other prominent fantasy writers, including Chesterton, Tolkien, Nesbit and even Dickens. He was also a major influence upon another great fantasy writer, Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll).
Tolkien and Lewis
Worthing, after setting the scene by considering some of the early fantasy writers, continues by devoting three chapters each to the lives, faith and works of arguably the two greatest fantasy writers, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Their prominence in the genre continues to grow, with their influence and popularity magnified by recent cinematic versions.
Interestingly, the author also gives a serious consideration to what he calls “the atheist response” by considering the contributions to the genre of the likes of Pullman and Pratchett. Another chapter is devoted to the fantasy writers who focus on “earth spirituality”, writers like LeGuin, Bradley and Forsyth. From there he moves to the modern publishing phenomenon of “the Harry Potter debate”. He deftly negotiates the minefield of Christian criticism – and praise – of this series. He concludes that, because of some of the inherent themes of the Potter books, they could be considered within fantasy literature which deals with some major precepts of Christianity.
Christians and Creativity
Worthing concludes his book by considering some recent trends in the fantasy genre, along with a Christian defence of fantasy. One of his final statements has serious implications for creative artists who are also Christians: “Sadly, it is difficult, if not impossible, to argue with those who steadfastly hold to the view that imagination itself is not part of God’s creation, but something bad and quite dangerous.” (p.151) Sad, indeed, for these attitudes often close the potential dialogue between creatives who express their faith through their creativity, and Christians with closed and clouded minds unwilling to consider a valid alternative.
One of the interesting aspects of this work happens to be the footnotes. Normally, I find footnotes to be irritating at best, and highly annoying most of the time; they invariably interrupt my train of thought. Nearly every page of this book has a footnote, some of them very long and detailed, with the occasional note flowing over to the following page. My advice is: read them. There is much interesting, valuable and even crucial information contained in them. Many could easily have been included in the actual text.
I found that the lack of any index something of an oversight. I am sure I am not alone in wanting to be able to quickly use this work when looking for references to authors and titles mentioned in the text. I found that the author included references to many writers and titles I would like to explore further.
On the positive side, I found this work to be truly inspiring. Many of the titles mentioned I was already familiar with, but haven’t read in years – in some cases, decades. After reading this book I have decided that I need to revisit the works of Tolkien, Lewis, L’Engle, and LeGuin, and I even concede that I might even need to put aside my initial reservations and fully explore the world of Hogwarts (I have only read the first in the Harry Potter series, and didn’t like it.) What is more, the author has mentioned many other writers I am quite unfamiliar with, or I have only read one or two of their works.
In conclusion, this volume is a valuable contribution to the academic discussion on fantasy in general, and its relationship with Christian traditions in particular. It is easy to read but thorough in its coverage. Highly recommended.
Details of the launch, and where to buy this book, can be found here.
Acknowledgment: special thanks to author Mark Worthing for supplying a review copy of his book.