07 November 2011

Trying to Claim Fantasy Literature for Christianity

Reviewing two fantasy novels in the Jewish Review of Books back in 2010, Michael Weingrad asked “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia.” However, he starts with C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, which naturally points the discussion in a particular way. (We could do worse than ask whether there have been many Jewish dons at Oxford who felt secure enough to publish fantasy novels.)

Then Weingrad dismisses respected counterexamples by writing:
Haven’t modern Jewish writers, from Kafka and Bruno Schulz to Isaac Bashevis Singer and Cynthia Ozick, written about ghosts, demons, magic, and metamorphoses? But the supernatural does not itself define fantasy literature, which is a more specific genre. It emerged in Victorian England, and its origins are best understood as one of a number of cultural salvage projects that occurred in an era when modern materialism and Darwinism seemed to drive religious faith from the field.
No, that’s not what defines fantasy literature. It may be part of the definition of “high fantasy,” with its emphasis on magic-infused lands and epic battles between good and evil, but that’s only one part of the corpus. Weingrad tries to define fantasy as wholly separate from science fiction, where there are, he acknowledges, many Jewish authors. He also disregards all fantasy storytelling outside the prose form: no comics, no movies.

Weingrad’s critique immediately prompted replied from more knowledgeable critics like Farah Mendelsohn, Abigail Nussbaum, and Spencer Ackerman.

D. G. Myers just followed up with a Commentary essay titled “Fantasy Is a Genre of Christianity.” This is an even less tenable thesis, explored in less depth at less length. Myers can manage even that much only because he gets to define his terms: “The bedrock premise of fantasy, which cannot be waived without voiding the genre, is the existence of a spirit realm.”

There’s no “spirit realm” in, for example, Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, Walter R. Brooks’s Freddy the Pig, or E. B. White’s Stuart Little—only unseen corners of everyday life. Myers’s definition also excludes all fiction that provides a non-mystical explanation, however scientifically stretchy, for the unfamiliar.

Furthermore, the “spirit realm” is neither the creation nor the exclusive property of Christianity. It’s Platonist. The philosophical movement later labeled “Middle Platonism” infused early Christian theological writings, but its ideas are independent of that faith.

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