Saturday, 27 March 2021

High fantasy as intrinsically Christian

I have been pondering what it is that I most value in my favourite books of the 'fantasy' genre - or indeed in other media such as movies and TV. And I think it is a particular 'enchanted' feel, which could be described as including both animism and providence

Animism is the conviction that the natural world is alive and conscious - such that living beings (animals, trees) are also conscious; but most specifically those things that are usually considered to be not-alive ('dead') such as mountains, rivers, the sea - are also considered to be alive, aware, purposive to some significant degree. 

Thus, when the protagonists of a high fantasy are on a journey, then the landscape through which they move is a 'character' (or series of characters) in the story. 

Whereas in a low fantasy (sword and sorcery etc.) the landscape is just an environment: background scenery, or a series of challenges. 

Providence in high fantasy refers to the fact (or sense) that there is someone in the background influencing the course of events; more generally that there is a purpose or destiny (direction or teleology) influencing events. 

In high fantasy there is a 'macro' level of meaning, above or behind the plot. 

By contrast; low fantasy may be set in the context of a 'micro', close-up reality that is not going anywhere in particular - and success and failure tend to be defined in terms of happiness versus misery, attaining personal goals versus being thwarted or killed.  

From a Christian perspective, both animism and providence could be seen as referencing divine creation - a reality of meaning, purpose and personal relatedness; or even as a foretaste of the condition of Heaven. 

In this sense, high fantasy is an intrinsically Christian genre - since the personal-divine basis of reality is pretty-much specific to Christianity. 

Note added: The original English 'definition' of Romanticism comes from Wordsworth and Coleridge Lyrical Ballads (1798); in relation to which it was said that Wordsworth was writing about (implicitly animistic) nature, and Coleridge was dealing with the supernatural (with reference to some kind of providence). 


Anonymous said...

This is very interesting: thank you!

For a not-unrelated particular example, I have finally, however belatedly now read (alas, only in translation) Herodotus's Histories and Tacitus's Annals, and was struck by all the (so to say) 'animate river' references. Lewis takes this 'matter' up strikingly in Narnia (e.g., in Prince Caspian), and, in a different way, so does Tolkien with respect to Ulmo, especially in posthumously published works edited by Christopher. There is also an interesting tradition in fairly early Christian iconography, taking up pre-Christian depictions of 'animate rivers'.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@DLD- The idea from Barfield (etc) is that there is a difference between ancient writers who couldn't help but spontaneously regard rivers as animate; and Romantic modern writers who are striving consciously to recover what they regard as a lost truth - and then there are mainstream writers who might use the idea with ironic detachment (as if), or for mockery.

Anonymous said...

I got the impression (in whatever way one can from what seem good translations) that neither Herodotus, nor Tacitus nearly 500 years later, were convinced rivers were animate, but neither were they emphatically dismissive, scornful, etc. - perhaps sort of ethnographic, but not quite detachedly. It would be good to find some thoughtful discussions by Classicists... The Romantic modern 'explorations' (so to put it) seem to have quite a range and variety, including 'supposals' and what one might call 'vitalistic' and further 'occultist'.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@dld. The Romans needed trained augers to discern the gods will. Jeremy Naydler quotes later Romans saying that augeries are ceasing to work, that the gods are more remote - that kind of thing. There was a considerable change between Greece and Rome, also. Nonethless, Romans were extremely concerned by portents and the like.