Fantasy rooted in a Christian versus a pagan worldview

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Fantasy rooted in a Christian versus a pagan worldview

Post  cradlerc on Fri Jun 12, 2009 5:18 pm

I could go on about this forever, but I actually need to run a few errands today. so I'll pose it quickly.

I do a lot of reading of children and YA literature, both for work and for my own enjoyment. I just finished reading a book called Tithe by Holly Black, who wrote the Spiderwick Chronicles (which I have not read.) Frist, it's an interesting book, albeit one which needs more character development to truly create a connection to the reader. But it's a dark faerie world she evokes, one that is more in line with the "real" world of faerie as we see it in, say, stories of the changelings in Ireland. Some of the faeries are scary creatures.

Here's my thing, though: when I compare this book, and books like The Dark is Rising (in which young Will realizes he's one of the"Old Ones," and in which Christian mythology is made subordinate to pagan mythology) to books like Wrinkle in Time or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I always feel that the latter are stronger novels. My problem with "pagan worldview" fantasy is that it just never rises to a level where I care enough about the characters--they're all in a parallel universe that exists alongside ours, but where ours is kind of unimportant. They can't really be harmed, so nothing is at stake for them. And there's this sense of Manicheism (sp), that evil and good must exist alongside one another for the world to make sense--so again, it's hard to tell what's at stake.

I don't think this is merely my bias as a Christian. These books create a kind of lethargy in me. And I wonder what effect they have on young readers, as well. It seems akin to the lethargy of certain kinds of tolerance--if nothing's really evil, then it's all just entertainment.

Thoughts?
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Interesting comments

Post  AustenFan on Fri Jun 12, 2009 6:53 pm

I haven't read the Spiderwyck Chronicles but I am a big fan of "The Dark Is Rising" series. I have read it at least six times now. I think that is partly to do with the fact that I am an Anglophile, and just because I think Susan Cooper is a fine writer. ( If you haven't seen it, don't rent the movie by another title; They messed it up including making Will an American!!). She's not on the level of C,S. Lewis of Tolkien, but I don't think she would even think she was. It's true that it is rooted in Pagan Mythology, but the series in last couple of books has to do with Arthurian legends. Of the books, The Dark is Rising, Silver on the Tree and The Grey King are my favorites. I never sensed that Willl couldn't be harmed; The dark is certainly out to take him down. I think he is also able to be harmed through his love for his family and friends like Bran (?) The boy who is the son of Arthur. Will is an old one, but he's still a boy. I also got the sense that the victory of the light was very important. I didn't have the sense of lethargy about it. My only problem was that the Vicar is one of the books seems kindly but ineffectual and it sort of implies that Christinaity is ineffectual, but that may have been my Christian bias When I remember that I take up "The Nine Tailors" by Dorothy Sayers who wasn't a writer for YA, but I have been reading her since I was about sixteen. The vicar in that is a very engaging and is spiritually energized. If you haven't read it it's kind of esoteric in that it deals with bell ringing, but the Vicar shepeherds people into the church on a hill to save them from a flood, Dorothy Sayers was a very devoted high church Anglican as I'm sure you know.
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I haven't had the stomach to pick up any of the explicitly anti-Christian stuff

Post  VicarJoe on Sat Jun 13, 2009 8:54 am

like that of Philip Pullman. I read about it and it seemed like the appeal was as propaganda, and everyone praising the books was "out" as a militant atheist, and they seemed to be books (from the descriptions I've read of them) as polemical harangues. That WOULD have an effect on me like the production of lethargy--I felt exhausted and disheartened just reading about them from reviewers who liked them. I picture parents of two stripes buying books like that--parents who are ignorant of what the books are about and don't know that they're poisoning their kids against the church, or parents who are consciously trying to poison their kids against the church. I honestly don't know which is sadder.

I mention the anti-Christian stuff, which isn't exactly synonymous with the pagan stuff (though it kinda is, at least as far as neo-paganism goes). But paganism on its own terms is kind of depressing--there's no point, there's no transcendence, justice is ineffable, the gods are fickle and even sadistic, and yeah, tolerance (that neo-pagan virtue that classical and medieval pagans would have rejected out of hand) makes any kind of epic confrontation between good and evil sort of half-assed, since all the competing forces need to do is learn to embrace diversity.

The funny thing about Lewis is that Narnia is a kind of pro-Christian propaganda without coming across as such. That is, it's every bit as much a message series, but somehow the message seems organic, as if it grows out of the nature of reality, rather than a set of axioms imposed on the world.

I am curious about Wrinkle in Time, though, Cradle. How would you respond to my suggestion that it's Christian in the same sense agent86 is Christian? LOL I mean, Jesus does get demoted to one among many great heroes on earth fighting against the darkness. Isn't he in a list with Gandhi and Copernicus?

angel
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Hey Joe,

Post  cradlerc on Sat Jun 13, 2009 2:53 pm

To some extent, I agree. That is one of the werid things about the novel, and often one of the things that gets criticized about it. Christ is listed by the kids as one of the "light bringers", rather than as THE light. The list includes Beethoven and other great artists, and it is problematic. My sense from reading L'Engle's non-fiction work, though, is that she's subtly aligning Christianity, for secular audiences, with great science, and great art, subtly indicating that they all come from the same place. I may be ovverreading of course, and even if I'm not, it may not really work. Like I said, it's a problem.

At the same time, though, the subtext of the book, and the book as a whole, has always struck me as deeply orthodox in an interesting way. Literally, the entire universe (at least the parts that are free from the influence of evil) sings the glory of God, and the Mrs W's are clearly angels. Scripture from both the Old and New Testament is embedded into the dialogue in key places: Uriel sings it, Mr. Wallace starts a verse from Paul that is followed up in the next chapter by Aunt Beast, etc.. It's not an anything goes morality, either: Camazotz is not good, and it's not something we should tolerate. One of Meg's central lessons is that equality and sameness are not the same thing, and the way I always read this in the context of the book is that she's emphasizing true individuality rather than an empty-headed kind of tolerance. The stakes are very real--free will makes all of the difference.

I also read Meg's final journey back to retrieve Charles Wallace in light of Christian narrative, almost an imitation of Christ. Charles is in hell, and he's there because, in spite of the fact that he's clearly a gifted child, he relied too much on his own intelligence and it failed him. His pride has become his downfall. Meg would like anyone else to do the job for her, and is deeply angry at her father and the Mrs W's. But they point out to her that no one is forcing her, and she realizes that she's the only one who can do the task. Not because of any special gifts or abilities, but because she loves her brother. So she harrows hell for him, and loves him in spite of what he's become.

I also like how, in the subsequent novels, L'Engle parodies excessive youth culture (The Wind in the Door) and how in A Swiftly Tilting PLanet, Charles needs to again realize that while he has a crucial role to play in saving the world, deciding to do his own thing gets him nowhere.

So I suppose I'm saying that while there is a whiff of agent-type Christianity, as a whole I find the books more hardhitting than that.
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I didn't read "A Swifly

Post  AustenFan on Sat Jun 13, 2009 3:14 pm

tilting Planet" until I was about 20. I have enjoyed her books a lot, and have recently re-read the first two books. Same thing with Narnia. Didn't read those until I was a Freshman in college
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I really like "Swiftly Tilting".

Post  cradlerc on Sat Jun 13, 2009 4:02 pm

And unicorns are often symbolic of Christ--I think she gets in a lot of her theology with things like that.

I didn't read narnia until I was an adult either--I really loved the last novel in the series. I thought it raised really interesting thoughts about the nature of hell and the afterlife, when the people who are clearly in hell are also sitting smack in the middle heaven, but they can't hear Aslan, and when the Professor walks around saying something like, Plato was right!
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Also Austen

Post  cradlerc on Sat Jun 13, 2009 4:08 pm

I think perhaps I need to read farther in the Dark is Rising series. I know I felt disappointed with the end of the first novel--I had this sense that events were inevitable and the characters' free will had little to do with effecting the outcome. And I did find it anti-Christian when they're in the church, and basically the Old Ones are patting the silly little pastor on the head, and remarking how crosses are really not Christian, after all. At least that's how I read it. I aso felt that the emphasis on Yule as the "true" meaning underlying Christmas was interesting--I got the sense not so much that it was directly against Christian practice, but that the implication was that paganism is the old, true way of the world, while Christians may delude themselves otherwise.

At the same time, I do think she's a great writer. The sense of menace in the first chapter is just beautifully done. Actually, I thought all of the opening chapters were really fantastic, some of thebest children's writing I've come across in a long time--which was also why I found the end rather disappointing. But like I said, perhaps I need to read further.
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Thanks Cradle

Post  VicarJoe on Sat Jun 13, 2009 5:11 pm

I really appreciated your "defense" of Wrinkle. I had noticed some of the stuff you mentioned, of course, but I hadn't identified Meg with Christ, which, when you do it in your post above, is kinda mind-blowing and super cool. I had looked into some of the worlds she creates, Like Camazotz, which is the name of a Mayan pagan bat god "associated with night, death, and sacrifice." The Wiki article says that probably wasn't intentional, but since everything else is...

Wiki also has this mention: "In the Popol Vuh the common noun refers to bat-like monsters encountered by the Maya Hero Twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque during their trials in the underworld of Xibalba. Forced to spend the night in Bat House, the boys are able to keep the creatures at bay until Hunahpu loses his head while trying to watch for the coming of dawn. The grieving Xbalanque calls all the animals, instructing each to bring back its favorite food. When the coati returns with a squash, Xbalanque carves it into a new head for his brother, and they continue their adventures, bringing about the eventual defeat of the Xibalbans."

Figuratively, that is kinda what happens with Meg and Charles. If you squint just right.

Then there's Uriel, an archangel in rabbinic literature...

Yeah, it may be that you're right, that L'engle isn't demoting Jesus so much as trying to place him in a context where secularists might appreciate him.
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Harry Potter series...

Post  stihl on Mon Jun 15, 2009 9:57 am

This series juxtraposed modern human exsistence with the fantasy world. What as interesting about this series is how they did not handle religion at all except to celebrate Christmas. There was never an explanation of why that was. I read all of these books with my kids. At the time I read them I thought, "well, they emphasis commendable virtures". They never promote satanic worship but, they allow for humans to play "god". Maybe in this view, you are better off keeping kids's fantasy's in an alternate universe.

"Lord of the Rings" and "Chonicals of Narinia" were an attempt at an "end around" on society by Tolkien and Lewis. In their time (and ours) direct defense our explanation of Truth would earn one a ambilvalent, if not hostile, reaction form most listeners. Their strategy was to introduce the notion of object Truth in a format that would be read (listened to). brilliant!

I read "Wrinkle in Time", I thought it was really bad. Some stories and moives (like the Matrix series) seem to become so convuluted that the authors seem to be lost.

I haven't read the other series.
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Re: Fantasy rooted in a Christian versus a pagan worldview

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