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Judaism is a science fiction religion
March 3, 2010 8:05 AM   Subscribe

Why there is no Jewish Narnia.

From the Jewish Review of Books. In short:
While [C.S.] Lewis could remain within orthodox, or at least “mere” Christianity in writing his books, the Jewish writer leaves the realm of the normative in order to develop the mythologies that are the fantasy writer’s natural materials. Put another way, Tolkien and Lewis both referred to Christianity as the sole true fairytale. Jewish thinkers are far less likely to consider this praise.
posted by valkyryn (136 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh man, now I have to dig out a Neil Gaiman story...
posted by Artw at 8:07 AM on March 3, 2010


JRoB is a new publication modeled after the NYRoB. I think this is the first issue.
posted by stbalbach at 8:08 AM on March 3, 2010


I've been shopping around my manuscript entitled Larry Kotter and the Gefilte Fish but I haven't had any takers yet.
posted by Joe Beese at 8:11 AM on March 3, 2010 [10 favorites]


There is an excellent examination of the issues with this essay over at Asking the Wrong Questions.
posted by ninebelow at 8:15 AM on March 3, 2010 [7 favorites]


I find it amusing to note that Weingrad hasn't heard of Neil Gaiman, or Jane Yolen, or Robert Silverberg, or Cory Doctorow, or, or, or ... (insert Vast Jewish Fantasy Author Conspiracy here :)
posted by cstross at 8:16 AM on March 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


The New Middle Earth Order?
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 8:17 AM on March 3, 2010


So why don’t Jews write more fantasy literature?

Because fantasy sucks.

"Fuck Fantasy. SciFi rules!" - Isaac Asimov
posted by shmegegge at 8:17 AM on March 3, 2010 [15 favorites]


Everone knows that comicbook superheroics with heavy religous overtones are the true Jewish artform.
posted by Artw at 8:19 AM on March 3, 2010 [24 favorites]


Saw this a few days ago. I felt like the author was conflating several different things. Namely:

Indeed, one wonders why, amidst all the initiatives to solve the crisis in Jewish continuity, no one has yet proposed commissioning a Jewish fantasy series that might plumb the theological depths like Lewis or at least thrill Jewish preteens with tales of Potterish derring-do.

Jewish preteens weren't thrilled by Harry Potter's tales of Potterish derring-do?

Why the apparent aversion to producing such well-received books by the People of the Book?

Plenty of People of the Book have produced well-received fantasy books. Gaiman and Yolen are two. I really don't see how they would be considered only writers of the supernatural, rather than fantasy writers, by any metric.

I felt like the inclusion of Grossman's The Magicians (which, incidentally, I loved), was too brief a side-note here, too. I think it would be easy to see the hero, Quentin Coldwater, through a Jewish-lens: he and his friends seem essentially diasporic after graduation, and his journey into Fillory could easily be seen as a quest for the Promised Land. Not that I think such an interpretation is necessarily a correct or complete one, but I just get the idea that the author wasn't really trying to hard because it contradicts his thesis.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:20 AM on March 3, 2010


Too hard, too.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:23 AM on March 3, 2010


"why are there no works of modern fantasy that are profoundly Jewish"

Surely they do not discount the timeless animated adventure that was "Eight Crazy Nights"
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 8:23 AM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


FEATURING
Larry David as Professor Kirke
Harvey Fierstein as Mr. Tumnus
Joan Rivers as the White Witch
Richard Lewis as Father Christmas Uncle Hanukkah

and STARRING

Woody Allen as Aslan

IN

You Want That We Should What?
posted by griphus at 8:24 AM on March 3, 2010 [46 favorites]


Let me second that the article linked above by ninebelow is awesome.
posted by valkyryn at 8:25 AM on March 3, 2010


From the article, emphasis below is my own:

The most well-regarded, famous and influential Jewish fantasy writer working today is probably Neil Gaiman, but Jewish elements in his fiction are few and far between, and the folklore and myths he draws on in his work are mostly Christian or pagan, with some forays into various Eastern traditions.

*blink blink*

Okay, thinking of the things I've read from various Sandman comics -- I recall a lot of Genesis mythos (you've got freakin' Cain and Abel as characters), and he also used information straight out of the Midrash and the Alphabet of Ben Sira to relate a story about Lilith and Eve. I also remember a couple golem (most notably, the rest of the Endless create a golem in The Wake, and are only just barely able to restrain Delerium from naming him "Plippy Ploppy Cheese Nose"). And Gaiman's work "Three Septembers And A January" that taught me not only about Joshua Norton for the first time, but also about the Tzadikim.

How is this "few and far between", again?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:25 AM on March 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


How about a Narnia sequel where Aslan is exposed as a false messiah upon the arrival of Berkowitz, a noble pterodactyl who rebuilds the Temple.
posted by brain_drain at 8:27 AM on March 3, 2010 [10 favorites]


It's an interesting article -- but I question what the author thinks makes a fantasy author notable or important. Is it popularity? What about Avram Davidson -- never popular, but so very vital and influential in both the SF and Fantasy genres. Although I suppose one could argue that he was steampunk before steampunk existed, and not so much fantasy. Are the Peregrine books fantasy?
posted by Malla at 8:28 AM on March 3, 2010


There is an excellent examination of the issues with this essay over at Asking the Wrong Questions.

Well, there is an examination, that is quite good in parts, but which has problems of its own. This quote:
To put it bluntly, there is no way that a Jewish writer working in the early decades of the twentieth century could have produced The Lord of the Rings, a work steeped in a yearning for a lost pastoral world that Jews, who have for various reasons tended to congregate in urban and commercial centers, would have had little or no experience of.
seems to ignore the whole history of pastoral Zionism, which was quite a big strain of Zionism indeed. Getting back to the (fantastic) land, and the good that would do for "urban" Jews, was a primary constituent of Zionist arguments in the first part of the 20th century. It's a strange thing to overlook.
posted by OmieWise at 8:28 AM on March 3, 2010 [5 favorites]


I'm also surprised that Chapterhouse Dune wasn't mentioned. Unlike the rest of the series' socio-religious groups - all of which reflect ancient/contemporary mixed beyond recognition - the Jews appear as, well, the Jews.

I gleaned that from Wikipedia. I couldn't actually make it past the first few chapters of God Emperor.
posted by griphus at 8:36 AM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Gaiman is very inclusive of all mythologies: Sandman references major characters, Bast, Satan, the Furies, Loki, Titania. Sandman is based in Greek mythology if anything. The major arc is one of hubris. He refuses to change, and so the gods (or maybe the universe) kill him.

Sure, Sandman has some Jewish elements, but they're not dominant or exceptionally notable in his cosmology. His work certainly doesn't strike me as essentially Jewish the way Chabon's does, for example.
posted by bonehead at 8:37 AM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Are dragons kosher, or treyf? A Guide to Kosher Imaginary Animals.
posted by steef at 8:38 AM on March 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


major characters from almost every mythic tradition:...
posted by bonehead at 8:41 AM on March 3, 2010


Sure, Sandman has some Jewish elements, but they're not dominant or exceptionally notable in his cosmology. His work certainly doesn't strike me as essentially Jewish the way Chabon's does, for example.

Right, but I see the article as being about two things:

a) whether the work has a "Jewish" theme, and
b) whether the work has any elements of Jewish mythos at all.

I was more addressing the latter question. As for theme, the theme of hubris doesn't so much strike me as "Greek" so much as it's a Jungian archetype thing.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:43 AM on March 3, 2010


Um, Where the Wild Things Are? A boy goes from reality to a fantasy land, only instead of doing Arthurian, kinght-ish, CS Lewis things the fantasy creatures pinch your cheeks and say, "I could just eat you up." Oh and when they do a film version you don't have Tilda Sweeton in battle, you have a depressed, neurotic family that kind of gets along. If this isn't the Jewish answer to CS Lewis I don't know what is. (Cite)
posted by geoff. at 8:59 AM on March 3, 2010 [11 favorites]


If the question is "Why don't Jews engage in pastoral Middle-Ages worldbuilding exercises like Tolkein and Lewis, well, those stories don't just emerge from Christianity, but also from the mythology of the British Isles, with its tales of knights and wizards and elves and whatnot, and its rootedness in a sense of a specific location. Jews don't invent Middle Earths because Jews don't live any one place for any specific length of time -- we're rootless cosmopolitans in our own mythology as much as in anybody else's.

As to Jews writing fantasies, well, if you define "fantasy" as the experience of humans encountering the fantastical, as Harlan Ellison does, then Jews absolutely dominate the form.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:01 AM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Everone knows that comicbook superheroics with heavy religous overtones are the true Jewish artform.
Indeed.
posted by SyntacticSugar at 9:01 AM on March 3, 2010


The only way to argue that there are no "major" Jewish writers of fantasy is to define the term to mean "no Jews."

The fundamental premise of this article is so absurdly incorrect as to approach anti-semitism. And that's not a term I toss around... ever.
posted by Naberius at 9:08 AM on March 3, 2010


I was under the impression The Trial by Kafka was the Jewish Narnia.
posted by bukvich at 9:14 AM on March 3, 2010 [11 favorites]


Really, how many other fantasy novels are as heavily identified with Christianity as the Narnia series and Lord of the Rings? Those two were the ground breakers and (most) everything else afterwords that is being considered "Christian" is only so because it is a cheap knockoff.

And that is only for the cheap knockoffs. Most other fantasy novels aren't Christian in the least - look to the pulp fantasy traditions for examples of that. Heck, while Harry Potter may not have been Jewish you really had to squint and turn your head funny to make it out as Christian (and some people did just that.)

So, why no Jewish Narnia or Lord of the Rings? That's just how it turned out. Sometimes it pays to be first.
posted by charred husk at 9:18 AM on March 3, 2010


With Signs and Wonders: an International Anthology of Fabulist Jewish Fiction. My mother has a short story in that collection.
posted by Schmucko at 9:18 AM on March 3, 2010


those stories don't just emerge from Christianity, but also from the mythology of the British Isles, with its tales of knights and wizards and elves and whatnot, and its rootedness in a sense of a specific location.

Yes, to me this is a much more compelling explanation of this alleged lack of Jewish writers of fantasy—really a certain kind of high fantasy rooted in a vision of Ye Olde Englande—than viewing the question primarily through the lens of religion.
posted by chinston at 9:19 AM on March 3, 2010


We all got our reasons to dismiss the article now? Good.
posted by fleacircus at 9:21 AM on March 3, 2010


We all got our reasons to dismiss the article now? Good.

The author also smells bad and dresses funny. There, now I'm done.
posted by charred husk at 9:24 AM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh man, now I have to dig out a Neil Gaiman story...

Bah, I could have sworn that the story I was looking for, "The Problem with Susan", was online somewhere... I guess not. But I did find a bunch of blog posts by people who were really annoyed by it.

FWIW If you want to read it it's in the Fragile Things anthology.
posted by Artw at 9:24 AM on March 3, 2010


With Signs and Wonders: an International Anthology of Fabulist Jewish Fiction. My mother has a short story in that collection.
posted by Schmucko at 12:18 PM on March 3


It's like reading a comment by a cooler version of me. Who on earth are you, bizarro me from Planet Coolsville?
posted by shmegegge at 9:28 AM on March 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


I went ahead and, out of curiosity, asked Neil Gaiman on Twitter what he thought of the article. His reply.
posted by cerebus19 at 9:31 AM on March 3, 2010 [21 favorites]


I was going to guess Roger Zelazny (son of Polish immigrants, but never known (to me) as Jewish), but probably not.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:33 AM on March 3, 2010


I went ahead and, out of curiosity, asked Neil Gaiman on Twitter what he thought of the article. His reply.

Hahaha! Awesome.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:38 AM on March 3, 2010


After Rowling, I'm fairly sure that Gaiman is the most prominent and influential fantasy writer of the past 20 years. I'd love to see his take on the article. Someone please email him and ask.
posted by empath at 9:38 AM on March 3, 2010


cerebus19, fabulous! I agree with him.

I looked more at Asking the Wrong Questions, which seems spot on about many things. On a look through various posts it's a great blog. I'm more confused than ever, though, since the author lists herself as living in Israel.
posted by OmieWise at 9:39 AM on March 3, 2010


I thought THAT was Jewish Narnia...
posted by Artw at 9:41 AM on March 3, 2010


Weingard completely fails to acknowledge, however, the famous geographical divide between the two genres, the fact that science fiction emerged in the US and fantasy in the UK.

I think the response might be worse than the original article. Jules Verne? HG Wells?
posted by empath at 9:42 AM on March 3, 2010


Some others got here before me, but I also immediately thought "What about comic books?" In fact, as a kid reading comic books, I somehow was unaware that so many of the writers and artists of them were Jewish, but I am sure looking back now that the subtle "Jewish" elements in the comics I read were noticed. I mean, would secret identities exist if there were no marranos?
posted by wittgenstein at 9:45 AM on March 3, 2010


I thought the standard reading of superheroes is that they were fantasies of assimilation, though.
posted by empath at 9:47 AM on March 3, 2010


I see clearly now that the door has been left open for my epic century-spanning poor Rabbi turns into a vampire via Russian nobility lost among the shtetls story. I call it "Rebbi Vampire". Look for it in a bookstore near you.
posted by Mizu at 9:48 AM on March 3, 2010


after googling "Gaiman religion"

Woah, Neil Gaiman was raised a scientologist?

That's surprising.
posted by empath at 9:51 AM on March 3, 2010


"fantasies of assimilation"

Hmm. I will have to think about that. Have a cite?
posted by wittgenstein at 9:51 AM on March 3, 2010


sure
posted by empath at 9:56 AM on March 3, 2010


Woah, Neil Gaiman was raised a scientologist? That's surprising.

From what little I've read in his own words, it sounds more like he was raised Jewish than Scientologist. (Mind you, I'm basing this on something he wrote about incident like when he was a kid and trying to explain gefilte fish to his classmates or something, so for all I know he could have been raised both.) But yeah, apparently his father was involved in Scientology for a time, and his only connection himself is "my dad did that, but that's about it".

Speaking of Neil Gaiman - I can't get Twitter; can someone tell me what that he said?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:00 AM on March 3, 2010


Joining the chorus of dismissal.

As others have noted above, Harlan Ellison, Avram Davidson and Peter S. Beagle, are just a few of the a hellaton Jewish writers whose work has shaped the field. (Not to mention Gaiman. Freaking Gaiman.

I was troubled by the dismissal of Bruno Schultz and Isaac Bashevis Singer as "not really fantasy," but I was even troubled still by the fact that he didn't even get around to dismissing Ellison and Davidson.

Quite frankly, I think the guy's just not very well-read, when it comes to 20th century fantasy.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 10:02 AM on March 3, 2010


.. even more troubled still.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 10:04 AM on March 3, 2010


Zion, the Kvetch and the Varnishkes - A heart-warming epic about a young man who makes Aaliyah and finds the food isn't quite like his mother used to make.

No, it doesn't have quite the same right to it, I suppose.
posted by MuffinMan at 10:04 AM on March 3, 2010


right - ring!

D'Oh.
posted by MuffinMan at 10:06 AM on March 3, 2010


Gaiman’s actually given a lot of money to Scientology, recently.

This is a great essay. While Jewish authors have contributed heavily to the sci-fi/fantasy field, this shouldn’t be confused with the specific kind of fantasy the author discusses here. There’s something really goyish about High Fantasy. (And Mormon, in the case of Dragonlance.)
posted by thelastenglishmajor at 10:10 AM on March 3, 2010


As an argument, I hate it. As a provocation, I think it's not bad. What if it said: "Why aren't there more Jewish Narnias?"

I'm thinking we need some more golem stories. Also, a rabbinical superhero bildungsroman with kabbalistic magic and an astral journey to the Shekhinah set in the midst of the Siege of Jerusalem. It'd be partly modeled on Nathan the Wise.
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:14 AM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Gaiman’s actually given a lot of money to Scientology, recently.

Didn't this turn out to be single source bullshit last time we discussed this?
posted by Artw at 10:15 AM on March 3, 2010


*** thanks, empath. Interesting. ***
posted by wittgenstein at 10:16 AM on March 3, 2010


> Gaiman’s actually given a lot of money to Scientology, recently.

Didn't this turn out to be single source bullshit last time we discussed this?


I vaguely remember that being the case...or, it's more like it's a case of how he would have been indifferent to Scientology if all things were equal, but he was close to his father, and so it's more a case of "it's important to my father, so I'm not going to slag it".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:17 AM on March 3, 2010


Jewish Narnia Is Called Marvel Comics
posted by cowbellemoo at 10:20 AM on March 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


Also, a rabbinical superhero bildungsroman with kabbalistic magic and an astral journey to the Shekhinah set in the midst of the Siege of Jerusalem.

There is a character to do this.
posted by charred husk at 10:21 AM on March 3, 2010


Jews don't invent Middle Earths because Jews don't live any one place for any specific length of time -- we're rootless cosmopolitans in our own mythology as much as in anybody else's.

Israel? It seems like the basic "Jewish" story is the one about God's own chosen people cast out and forced to wander, cherished but rejected at the same time and waiting for a savior. It seems like the passion stories e.g. "The Last Battle" are kind of like Hollywood remakes:

"My God, why has thou forsaken me..." and then you get super powers; you break out, fly around the world and save everyone!

/closingcredits

The original (Jewish) story ends with "forsaken me."
posted by ennui.bz at 10:22 AM on March 3, 2010



Speaking of Neil Gaiman - I can't get Twitter; can someone tell me what that he said?


From Twitter:
" @cerebus19 i thought allt he words worked as sentences, but were pretty useless beyond that. about 1 hours ago via TweetDeck in reply to cerebus19 "
posted by This Guy at 10:31 AM on March 3, 2010


Didn't this turn out to be single source bullshit last time we discussed this?

I would like to think so, and don’t want to derail the discussion, but he’s listed in a 2009 Scientology “Cornerstone” newsletter as handing over $35,000 to build the Super Fortress.

Scientology: Goyish. (with apologies to the old Lenny Bruce routine.)
posted by thelastenglishmajor at 10:35 AM on March 3, 2010


There’s something really goyish about High Fantasy.

There's something really English about High Fantasy, which was essentially invented by that English professor of English.

Well, Philology. Close enough
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:35 AM on March 3, 2010 [6 favorites]


I should have said "Post Fall of Jerusalem Jews," but even that isn't entirely accurate. Jews were wandering long before the Romans. But our story for the past 2,000 years has been a tale of diaspora.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:35 AM on March 3, 2010


There's something really English about High Fantasy, which was essentially invented by that English professor of Englis

Hey! Lets not forget Fritz Lieber!
posted by Artw at 10:37 AM on March 3, 2010


There is a character to do this.

And that just goes to shows that there's something a bit off about thinking of High Fantasy in terms of Judaism: "Take that, false messiah! I am shielded from you kilkul bolts by shards of jvhv!" I said superhero, but it needs to be a sorcerer: we're talking about a soft, bald dude who saves the day by reading and interpreting the Torah. The bildungsroman is the story of a skinny bespectacled boy becoming a pudgy, powerful scholar trained in the art of tikkun olam!

(I am totally going to be writing this story in my head for the rest of the day....)
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:41 AM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wait, sorry, Neil Gaiman is a great writer, so respekt. But I just found this blurb about the work of L. Ron Hubbard, and it cracks me up--I don’t think the Scientology thing is bullshit.

"Over 1000 pages of thrills, spills, vicious aliens and noble humans. I found Battlefield Earth un-put-downable." — Neil Gaiman
posted by thelastenglishmajor at 10:47 AM on March 3, 2010


I only skimmed the article (though I plan to go back and read it when I have more time), but if his premise is that Jews don't write fantasy fiction, obviously that's wrong, as the other commenters have shown. And if his point is that religious Jews do not write fantasy fiction that uses fantasy to preach, then he not only is ignoring major Jewish folk tales like the Golem, the foolish city of Chelm, and most of the Chassidic tales, but also the dybbuks who occasionally make their way through Isaac Bashevis Singer's work. But in that case, honestly, the premise seems flawed. Judaism is inherently not the same as Christianity. It does not seek to proselytize, and sees following the commandments to be an obligation Jews do because they promised G-d they would, not something you do to get something otherworldly in return (Heaven, salvation, whatever), so there is no need within Judaism to create a magical allegory in order to promote faith in a magical future. Judaism also does not see magic or witchcraft (outside of Biblical miracles) to be something to aspire to - it does not teach that sorcery does not exist, but rather that it does exist and must be avoided.

There is also the point which I hate making but which can't be ignored, that at the first flowering of such fantasy fiction as Tolkein and C.S. Lewis, vast numbers of Jews (including presumably thousands of writers and other artists) were being annihilated. It is hard to speak for what religious Jewish writers do and don't consider worthwhile fiction styles when so many of them never got the chance to express what they themselves felt.

Lastly, this post would be diminished without mentioning Hereville, yet another comic about a troll-fighting Orthodox Jewish girl
posted by Mchelly at 10:55 AM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Frederik Pohl describes not being able to put down Battliefield Earth, even while qualifying "I’m not even comfortable in saying that Battlefield Earth is a good book." I don't think finding BE to be a page-turner is, of itself, conclusive of much.
posted by Zed at 10:58 AM on March 3, 2010


There's something really English about High Fantasy, which was essentially invented by that English professor of English

Hey! Lets not forget Fritz Lieber!

Or Lord Dunsany or E.R. Eddison or George Macdonald.
posted by JaredSeth at 11:05 AM on March 3, 2010


Okay, I hate to jump in here, but I think a lot of people are missing the point of the article. thelastenglishmajor gets it. Comic books, Neil Gaimon, and Harlan Ellison are not fantasy in the same way that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien are fantasy. There's a qualitative distinction to be made, and it's not just swords 'n sorcery v. not.

The way the author appears to be using the term, J.K. Rowling doesn't really count as "fantasy" in the same way as Lewis and Tolkien do. Rowling's "magic" isn't really supernatural. It's just positing extra natural forces which can be controlled through proper technique. Comic book characters fall into this category too. Yeah, they can do cool stuff, but there's always an explanation, and that explanation is always natural. They're aliens/got bit by a spider/got exposed to toxic waste/are from the future/whatever. They certainly expand the scope of the universe, even into multiverses, but the system envisoned is still ultimately a closed one.

In a sense, there's really little difference between Harry Potter and Star Trek: both involve wonderous manipulations of the natural world which they don't bother to explain in any meaningful way. Rowling is honest enough to call it magic, where the Star Trek creators use technobabble, but invoking Clarke, there's no real difference.

But Lewis and Tolkien's worlds contain things which are genuinely otherworldly and are governed by moral laws, not technical ones. Look at Gandalf's "magic". He doesn't use cantrips, words of power, secret judo holds, or any thing which might be considered remotely technological. He can just do things. Even the Rings of Power are categorically different than Harry Potter's wand or Captain America's shield. Destroy either of the latter two and their owners lose access to the powers the technology represents. But the One Ring is somehow bound up with the being of Sauron in a metaphysical way. When magic fails in Middle Earth it isn't because someone screwed up an incantation, ran out of the proper ingredient, or isn't on a ley line. It's invariably a moral failing, a failure of virtue. This is an entirely different sort of world, one which hails from a pre-modern, metaphysical world, not a modern technological one.

So in that sense, I think the author is completely right: there are no Jewish authors of which I'm aware who are writing that sort of fantasy, though there's plenty writing the technological sort, whether that technology is "magic" or technobabble. Gaiman, what little I've read of him, falls into the latter category, as do all the comic books, Harlan Ellison, etc. Peter S. Beagle may be an exception here, but there's nothing particularly Jewish about The Last Unicorn, certainly not on the level that there's something particularly Christian about Narnia or Middle Earth.

And here I think Nussbaum is pretty insightful. From what I understand of Judaism, it really isn't interested in the life of the world to come or the supernatural to nearly the extent as the Christian tradition is. It's far more this-worldly. Sure, there's plenty of wouldn't-it-be-cool-if-we-could-fly sorts of writing out there, and plenty of it by Jews, but that's just messing with physics. There's not a huge cultural incentive to delve deeply into metaphysics in the way that Christianity has. A lot of people here have ignored this distinction, but I think it's one worth making.

Yet there is another weakness in Weingrad's thesis: it isn't just that there aren't any Jewish authors writing the kind of fantasy that Tolkien and Lewis wrote, it's that there aren't any authors writing the kind of fantasy that Tolkien and Lewis wrote. Sure, the science-fiction/fantasy section of your local Barnes & Noble is chock full of books, but the vast majority of it is technical. Magicians, even the ones practicing "dark arts," are basically engineers, maybe scholars, if we're being generous. I'm having trouble coming up with any examples of an author where there is truly a world beyond this one (George R.R. Martin may surprise us yet*). It's all science fantasy.

So I think Nussbaum is right for the wrong reasons. Yes, there are good and compelling reasons why Jews might not write fantasy in the same way that Lewis and Tolkien did. But the more interesting question is why no one else is either, even those who have cultural incentives to do so.

*Finish the book, George!
posted by valkyryn at 11:07 AM on March 3, 2010 [15 favorites]


Whatever failings you may find in Neil Gaiman, that twitter quote is semi-awesome, and potentially usable to describe so many many things considered 'written':

"I thought all the words worked as sentences, but were pretty useless beyond that."
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:09 AM on March 3, 2010


"Over 1000 pages of thrills, spills, vicious aliens and noble humans. I found Battlefield Earth un-put-downable." — Neil Gaiman

....With all due respect, I could give a very similar review of the movie Blood Freak; it's 90 minutes of shocks, laughs, dastardly villans and conflicted heroes. I find it impossible to resist screening.

However, the reason why I find it impossible to resist screening is because I am utterly in love with how gloriously awful it is. There is something to be said for the entertainment value of really bad, kitschy art.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:10 AM on March 3, 2010


I . . . think you haven't read Stardust valkyryn? It seems to be exactly the sort of fantasy you're talking about.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:10 AM on March 3, 2010


Ilúvatar is God. Read the Silmarillion.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:13 AM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


And I have now officially made the nerdiest joke in the history of the world. Goodnight folks, I'm outta here! Don't forget to tip your waitresses.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:14 AM on March 3, 2010


There is also the point which I hate making but which can't be ignored, that at the first flowering of such fantasy fiction as Tolkein and C.S. Lewis

robert e howard, fritz lieber, james branch cabell, h p lovecraft, edgar rice burroughs ...
posted by pyramid termite at 11:16 AM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


This person is obviosly not very familiar with fantasy literature. Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Fritz Lieber. These are major, major guys. Silverberg has won basically every SF and Fantasy award that there is. There are assuredly many other authors of Jewish heritage--Neil Gaiman, but just those three are enough. Silverberg and Zelazny helped to shape fantasy in the 70s and 80s and Lieber--Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser are archetypal characters. They are up there with Conan, Gandalf and Elric.
posted by anansi at 11:16 AM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


And I have now officially made the nerdiest joke in the history of the world.

if it's the Silmarillion meets The State joke I think it is, yes you have and you're my hero.
posted by shmegegge at 11:20 AM on March 3, 2010


Generally, it seems really, really strange to me to settle on a definition of fantasy that's incredibly narrow and spend a lot of time wondering why Jews don't write that sort of fantasy. You're right--really, only Tolkien and Lewis did, and I think, particularly in Lewis' case, when we're looking at a Christian allegory, they were probably slightly unusual in that their faith was specifically part of the motivation or backdrop for writing these works. You say that The Last Unicorn wasn't really Jewish enough, and that seems strange to me, because I doubt Jewishness was the author's intent, but it seems to me to be pretty impossible to speculate what the reasons for that were--and it seems like it would be a more enlightening, productive discussion to focus on what was unusual about Tolkien and Lewis for making their religion such a centerpiece of their fantasy, since they're the outliers, anyway.

I mean, we could just as easily be asking why there isn't a Zoroastrian Narnia, couldn't we?
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:20 AM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


My question isn't "why isn't there a Jewish Narnia," it's "who cares whether there's a Jewish narnia?" Why do we expect there to be a Jewish everything? Is there a Buddhist Narnia? An Italian Narnia? Well, I guess Jersey Shore kind of is.

I just feel like the tone of the whole discussion is "are the Jews disproportionately dominant in fantasy literature in the way we like to see ourselves as dominant in most other aspects of Western culture?" This leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The Catholic half of my heritage tells me that excessive pride in the Jewish half of my heritage is a sin...
posted by Jon_Evil at 11:25 AM on March 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


Read the newspapers. You see Jewish fantasy published every day.

Disclaimer: I am not anti-Semitic, though I will certainly be labelled so. The average Israeli is no more culpable for the doings of his government than were the American settlers who believed in Manifest Destiny in the 1800's. Please note that I deliberately crafted that last sentence to show a measure of ambiguity, and that both interpretations are correct.
posted by Xoebe at 11:25 AM on March 3, 2010


exactly, PhoBWan, exactly.
posted by Jon_Evil at 11:26 AM on March 3, 2010


Following valkyryn, my first thought when I read this was whether the concept of the Golem is fantasy or science-fiction. I think it's a fundamentally sci-fi concept -- it's a non-living thing that's built, and then activated by words placed in its head. It's essentially a description of a robot by people whose most advanced technologies were ceramic and paper.

I don't know if the article is 100% right or not, or if anyone could prove it either way, but I think it has an interesting enough thesis to be worth taking seriously. I mean, Gaiman may be Jewish, but is he writing fantasy that's identifiably "Jewish fantasy?" I don't really think so. And the rest of the counterexamples I can come up with are all writing science fiction, which makes them not counterexamples at all.
posted by rusty at 11:29 AM on March 3, 2010


PhoBWanKenobi, yeah, that all makes sense. I really do see Lewis and Tolkien as outliers. And if viewed that way, then there's a shit ton of Jewish writers in what is really the mainstream of contemporary fantasy, which is overwhelmingly technical, and it's completely unsurprising that none of them are terribly religious, as that isn't what the genre's about at all. Still, the author is right that most Jewish genre authors aren't writing swords 'n sorcery, but I'm not sure that's a very interesting point to make.

Perhaps a different question is why Lewis and Tolkien have achieved the enormous stature that they have when so many other authors haven't achieved similar cultural prominence. I mean, sure, Gaiman is a big deal 'n all, but The Lord of the Rings was cultural blockbuster almost immediately, while Gaiman's fame is still largely limited to those of a geekier persuasion. I'm sure getting there first has a lot to do with it--everything else can't help but look derivative by comparison--but is that it?

And no, I haven't read Stardust. My exposure to Gaiman is pretty limited. I'm coincidentally halfway through Neverwhere for the first time this week. I shall add it to my list. Actually, if nothing else, this thread has given me a lot more good stuff to read.
posted by valkyryn at 11:32 AM on March 3, 2010


In response to the Asking the Wrong Questions article, which ends with "...the real question raised by "Why There is No Jewish Narnia" isn't whether such a work will ever exist--it's whether Michael Weingard [sic] will be able to recognize it." I immediately wondered if the Jewish Narnia is in fact the modern American/English mythology of Christmas, which was largely invented and explicated by Jews. I don't have much more to say about it, other than it's something to ponder.
posted by rusty at 11:35 AM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


what bothers me about the article is that he basically shifts the goal posts sentence after sentence. the final question he seems to end up at is "why isn't there jewish fantasy at the level of Tolkien and Lewis?" and the answer is "because the only fantasy at the level of Tolkien and Lewis is Tolkien and Lewis, and Lewis's Narnia is devoutly christian because Tolkien converted him and that's that."

I really hate it when someone says anything like "what is it... about The Jews... hmmm." and then basically just spout bullshit after that. you imagine them tapping their lip in deep thought and going "Jew Jew Jew... Jewy Jewish Jewy Jew... something... about the Jews..." and then just being like "fuck it. I guess bagels are bad for fantasy. ok."

we're as guilty of it regarding ourselves as anyone else is - hence the article in question. it's still fucking frustrating.
posted by shmegegge at 11:35 AM on March 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


After some reflection, I must apologize. It wasn't my intent to thread shit or derail. It's just that I have scar tissue all over my tongue from the number of times I have had to bite down on it.

I was going to post a differently snarky comment, based on the quote from the article:
Asking these questions is hardly frivolous when fantasy, especially children’s fantasy, has today become a multi-billion dollar industry

I hate it when people feed stereotypes.

Well, at least we are a little closer to being back on topic now. You may continue!
posted by Xoebe at 11:36 AM on March 3, 2010


Xoebe--That's a decent apology, although you should consider that if your response when you see the words "Jew" or "Jewish," regardless of context, is to bring up the "sins" of Israel, you may not be as "not anti-Semitic" as you think.
posted by OmieWise at 11:42 AM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


You could write a kickass fantastical short story involving Elijah, I bet you could.

Ascended to heaven surrounded by fiery chariots. Drinks your wine when you ain't looking. FACTS.

Eleven-year-old Jewish girl fights trolls, knits.
posted by kenko at 11:44 AM on March 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


My exposure to Gaiman is pretty limited.

That's pretty apparent. What you said about his work is way off the mark. He doesn't write heroic high fantasy, for the most part, but Stardust and Sandman are both pure fantasy, and not remotely science fictional.
posted by empath at 11:50 AM on March 3, 2010


Was Christianity the original Jewish Narnia?

Discuss.
posted by empath at 11:51 AM on March 3, 2010 [5 favorites]


Today, I learned that Jane Yolen is jewish. That's nice. She is an awesome kid's writer.
posted by jb at 11:54 AM on March 3, 2010


Also, I think we are having a True Scotsman Fantasy moment. You have to define "fantasy" so narrowly to make the argument that there are no major Jewish fantasy writers that you come up with a ridiculously narrow definition. And you are left with the argument, as made above, that there is no Jewish Tolkien or Lewis because there are no other gentile Tolkiens or Lewises either.

To be honest -- I only noticed the biblical allegory in Lewis because it is glaringly obvious and they played it for us at Bible Camp. I never noticed a biblical allegory in Tolkien. I think I'm just a bit thick.
posted by jb at 12:06 PM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Tolkien owes way more to Finnish and Scandinavian mythology than he does to Christianity.
posted by Slothrup at 12:11 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Mike Moorcock on Tolien: Epic Pooh

Where's the jewish Watership Down, eh? eh?
posted by Artw at 12:17 PM on March 3, 2010


"scar tissue all over my tongue from the number of times I have had to bite down on it"

Bite harder next time
posted by rosswald at 12:18 PM on March 3, 2010


valkyryn : "The Force" in Star Wars seems to be an exception to your thesis. Obi-Wan and Darth Vader, The Emperor, and Yoda seem to be magician wizards more in Tolkein's supernatural moral sense than the modern Harry Potter types. Though The Force appears enmeshed in a mechanistic futuristic world (in the case of Vader, literally, with his body-suit), and the prequels added the cringeworthy midichlorian explanations.

shmegege: I am the Lost Marx Brother, fired for being a giant prick.
posted by Schmucko at 12:18 PM on March 3, 2010


Schmucko, I really don't think so. Even absent the prequels (I for one, prefer the Phantom Edit, which removes all mention of the midichlorian's connection to the Force), all we've really got is an additional aspect to the natural universe which certain people are able to manipulate through practice and study. Morality is a second consideration: whether people are moral or not is determined by how they use their powers.

In that Jedi are very much like Rowling's conception of magic. Certain people have access to abilities beyond ordinary people--nevermind why--but these abilities can be used for good or evil. Whether or not you can do things is dependent partly on the chance of fate and partly on practice and study.

In Tolkien and Lewis, the people that have powers have them because they're virtuous or because they're evil. Examining the hobbit's progression bears this out. The four hobbits start out basically undifferentiated from their peers, but they come back with a gravitas, and authority, they gained not by study or practice, but by becoming virtuous through experience. They know how to do things not because they've done them before, or because there was something special about them all along, but because they've become the kind of people who know how to do things.
posted by valkyryn at 12:49 PM on March 3, 2010


Whoa, the derivative crap I write on my computer in my spare time is CHRISTIAN inspired?

I thought fantasy was based on pagan (as in pre-Christian, and parallel to Christian, not wiccan) folk tales and polytheistic religious mythos. Tolkien may have invented Hobbits, but he didn’t invent elves and dwarves, and the concept of a Witch/Wizard is practically a cultural universal.

Does this mean that I write fantasy fiction because my great grandmother was Christian? I thought it was because I grew up reading Zimmer Bradley and Zelazny and it left me with a love of improbable inter-house conflict, over achievement and flouncy outfits.
posted by Phalene at 1:29 PM on March 3, 2010


Tolkien owes way more to Finnish and Scandinavian mythology than he does to Christianity.

Welllllllll, yes, in the sense of the trapping of Middle Earth are decidedly Norse. He pulls some from Germanic and Britannic sources, but overall, the names and cultures are Nordic.

However, Tolkien's Middle-Earth is decidedly Christian (and Catholic at that), not in the setting, but in the theme. Themes of charity, mercy, pity, introspection, temptation, corruption, redemption, original sin, inherent goodness, faith, and hope are decidedly Christian in the work and would be very anachronistic if you put them in Beowulf or the Elder Edda.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 1:38 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


I thought fantasy was based on pagan (as in pre-Christian, and parallel to Christian, not wiccan) folk tales and polytheistic religious mythos.

You know, that's an interesting point, and reminds me of Leslie Fiedler's idiosyncratic explanation, based on his analysis of the Arthurian legends in Fiedler on the Roof, of anti-Semitism as a kind of resentment about Jesus the Jew taking away lovely paganism.
posted by OmieWise at 1:56 PM on March 3, 2010


There's two separate kinds of arguments going on here. One of them isn't particularly tenable: the one that says there is no fantasy by Jewish authors, or that the fantasy written by Jewish authors somehow doesn't count as "real" fantasy. This is just false.

The other argument is that there is no fantasy that is "Jewish" in the same way that the fantasy of Tolkien and Lewis is "Christian." This seems accurate to me; that is, it seems somewhat accurate to say that there is something deeply different about Lewis and Tolkien and it's arguably summarizable in the idea that they are "Christian" fantasy. In this sense I'm on the same page with valkyryn and Weingrad.

But on the other hand, I'm iffy on the idea that there's a big why to be found here, really, if Tolkien and Lewis are the big differentiators. They were practically the same entity when it came to the philosophy that produced this aspect of their writing, and I'm not sure how many other writers of any or no faith or heritage I can point to that did the same thing. Christianity isn't particularly brimming with their like.
posted by weston at 2:06 PM on March 3, 2010


By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion...If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

In Judaism, there's an explicit conflation between what happened to our ancestors and what happens to us -- this is why we say during Passover, for example, Do not forget when you were a slave in Egypt. Jews, traditionally, have a relationship to the past that is literal, in a sense; but what's more interesting, to me, is the inextricable synecdoche of the tradition, which binds us all together in this weird, complicated, terrifying, divine hour that doesn't belong in any one season, neither past nor present.

For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the LORD'S song in a strange land?
posted by clockzero at 2:22 PM on March 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


From what I understand of Judaism, it really isn't interested in the life of the world to come or the supernatural to nearly the extent as the Christian tradition is.


valkyryn

That's not entirely true of Marc Chagall's fantasy paintings, and mosaics? Athough, granted his visions often start with folk elements.

[Wiki cites the art critic Robert Hughes referring to Chagall as "the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century.")
posted by Jody Tresidder at 2:32 PM on March 3, 2010


Still, the author is right that most Jewish genre authors aren't writing swords 'n sorcery, but I'm not sure that's a very interesting point to make.

Well, what weston is saying rings true for me. Though academics might not always like it, there's not always an interesting point to make.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:37 PM on March 3, 2010


valkyryn : I think I'm still not seeing an essential difference between the morality of The Force in Star Wars (with its corrupting Dark Side) and that of Lord of the Rings. It seems the Dark Side is corrupting for the same reasons the The Ring is, that it gives an intoxicating sense of power and possessiveness. LOTR doesn't only have intrinsically good and bad characters, but also characters like Sauruman and Boromir, who are corrupted by alignments and desires that are beyond them. And I think a case can be made for Obi-Wan as being a kind of Christian martyr, very similar to the way Gandalf appears to die at the hands of the Balrog before returning even stronger.
posted by Schmucko at 2:39 PM on March 3, 2010


Kenko, that Hereville like was awesome. Thanks!
posted by Jon_Evil at 2:41 PM on March 3, 2010


"But Lewis and Tolkien's worlds contain things which are genuinely otherworldly and are governed by moral laws, not technical ones. Look at Gandalf's "magic". He doesn't use cantrips, words of power, secret judo holds, or any thing which might be considered remotely technological. He can just do things. Even the Rings of Power are categorically different than Harry Potter's wand or Captain America's shield. Destroy either of the latter two and their owners lose access to the powers the technology represents. But the One Ring is somehow bound up with the being of Sauron in a metaphysical way. When magic fails in Middle Earth it isn't because someone screwed up an incantation, ran out of the proper ingredient, or isn't on a ley line. It's invariably a moral failing, a failure of virtue."

Valkyryn, what you wrote there could just as easily describe most of Gaiman's work.
posted by tdismukes at 2:45 PM on March 3, 2010


valkyryn: your argument sounds like you're not really familiar with the back stories of Middle Earth, such as the Silmarilion. Gandalf has magic powers because he is one of the Istari sent from Valinor. Sauron was also one of the Maiar. There's nothing to do with 'virtue' in how they got it.
posted by jacalata at 2:52 PM on March 3, 2010


Sort of like Satan's backstory?
posted by Artw at 3:06 PM on March 3, 2010


Themes of charity, mercy, pity, introspection, temptation, corruption, redemption, original sin, inherent goodness, faith, and hope are decidedly Christian in the work and would be very anachronistic if you put them in Beowulf or the Elder Edda.

Beowulf as written down had about as much Christian allegory as Tolkien did, maybe more.
posted by empath at 3:42 PM on March 3, 2010


I never noticed a biblical allegory in Tolkien. I think I'm just a bit thick.
posted by jb

Tolkien writes in the Foreword to LotR: "...I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence."
posted by tspae at 3:56 PM on March 3, 2010


...whereas Lewis is all P.S. The lion is Jesus!
posted by Artw at 4:01 PM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Coem to think of it, Tolkien's Middle Earth can claim legitimately or illegitimately to have everything with elves and dwarves in it as a descendant... but where are all the "PS, the lion is Jesus" fantasy novels? Or are we claiming the entirety of Furry as the fault of C.S. Lewis?
posted by Artw at 4:34 PM on March 3, 2010


Affirmed: There are no early-mid 20th century English Christian Fantasy writers who are Jewish.
posted by ovvl at 4:38 PM on March 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


Excellent post and a very stimulating and provocative essay, but despite evident strength of intellect combined with extensive knowledge of the field, Weingrad rushes right past a simple and obvious explanation for a dearth of Jewish writers of great fantasy as if he's blind-- or should I say as if he has been blinded, because that's exactly what I think is going on here.

Over at least the last two thousand years, the essence of survival for Judaism and Jews as a people has been an astonishing ability to remain unconverted and unassimilated even though they have been completely immersed for all that time in nations and in religious cultures which have hated them and wished to see them exterminated, or at best have been determined to convert them and destroy their identity as Jews, and which have denied them all military power, virtually all forms of political power, and many religious freedoms.

Retaining Jewish religious identity under such circumstances has necessitated the development of truly formidable resistance to all varieties of proselytization.

Yet for me as a gentile, reading the first volume of LOTR at 13 amounted to several hours of pure religious awe punctuated by frequent crescendos of religious ecstasy. In other words, it was a pretty profound religious conversion experience.

I believe religious awe and conversion experiences are at the heart of epic fantasy, reading it and most especially writing it.

But this is just what Jews have conditioned themselves not to be vulnerable to. They had to, there was no other way to survive.

And that has made it very difficult for Jews to write epic fantasies a la LOTR, in my opinion.

(One of the most potent defenses against religious awe is a highly developed capacity for irony, by the way, as I think we see in this thread.)

Things are changing, however. The existence of Israel has allowed Jews to develop all the same modes of resisting conversion and assimilation Christians and Muslims have had, and that should open the way to a tradition of of great fantasy at least as rich as any other peoples, which Weingrad, to his credit, seems to grasp almost instinctively.
posted by jamjam at 5:13 PM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


The Anglocentric nature of much children's fantasy used to drive me crazy as an American kid. Harry Potter has been cosmopolitan by contrast (and, given Rowling's rehearsal of stereotypical ethnic accents, that's not saying much).
posted by bad grammar at 5:33 PM on March 3, 2010


Jack Kirby and Stan Lieberman's MIGHTY THOR is my favorite work of Jewish Fantasy!
posted by TSOL at 5:44 PM on March 3, 2010


This is the only book I know where the fantasy is distinctly Jewish in content. The fact that I once owned it (and I don't normally read that genre) means it can't be all that obscure.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:49 PM on March 3, 2010


Because fantasy sucks.
posted by Breckenridge at 6:13 PM on March 3, 2010


"Themes of charity, mercy, pity, introspection, temptation, corruption, redemption, original sin, inherent goodness, faith, and hope are decidedly Christian in the work"

These themes are universal in Western civilization. Also Eastern civilization. Also, civilization. There really isn't anything in The Lord of the Rings that a pagan, philosophical Roman couldn't have appreciated. Tolkien might have been a devout Christian, but I don't think LOTR is any more Christian than it is an allegory for WWII (which he explicitly denied). Sauron =/ Hitler. Frodo =/ the Chosen Son of God.
posted by musofire at 6:38 PM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


All day this has struck me as the oddest reflection. I suppose if you've got a culturally focused media outlet to fill I suppose one might be drawn to reflections such as this but it seems like this same observation could be made about a large number of demographic divisions. Further: Whadafuck? Who even wonders about stuff like this? The less I know about my authors, the better I typically feel. I'm looking at you Harlan.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 8:04 PM on March 3, 2010


When I was a kid, I loved the Anglo-centricity of children's fantasy literature. Because I'm not American, and most of my other media (television, movies, other novels) were so American-centric (and my Canadiana seemed to either be from c1910 or too twee).

Of course, when I first arrived in Britain at the age of 25, I was looking around the edge of every hedgerow for a fawn with an umbrella who would invite me to his house for tea. But I never found him. Dammit, I knew I shouldn't have gone in summer.
posted by jb at 8:48 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


These themes are universal in Western civilization. Also Eastern civilization. Also, civilization. There really isn't anything in The Lord of the Rings that a pagan, philosophical Roman couldn't have appreciated.

I never said that a non-Catholic couldn't have appreciated them; any of the traits mentioned are part of almost every civilization on the planet. However, their use are decidedly Christian in execution (link is sloppy, but has excerpts from Tolkien's letters). These universal themes work fundamentally different in Greek Drama or in Hindu literature. They're still present, but when the word "sin" is used when referring to Oedipus, it's working on a fundamentally different level. When introspective faith is used in the Bhagavad Gita, it's not the same use and execution that occurs in a work during the Middle Ages. Although Tolkien weaves his Christianity intrinsically through LotR, they're no less present than the extrinsic and allegorical Narnia.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 9:35 PM on March 3, 2010


I'd submit to you that what Tolkien thought he was doing is pretty irrelevant. Christians don't have a monopoly on mercy.
posted by empath at 10:47 PM on March 3, 2010


Any work from a European within the last millennium or so is going to be informed by Christianity. That does not itself make it a uniquely Christian work. Tolkein's work may have been explicitly influenced by Christianity, but I certainly can't tell the difference between that and accidental Christian undertones.
posted by Zalzidrax at 11:17 PM on March 3, 2010


I'd submit to you that what Tolkien thought he was doing is pretty irrelevant. Christians don't have a monopoly on mercy.

Of course they don't, but that doesn't mean that a Christian (or Catholic) exploration of mercy isn't noticeable. As for whether they can be detected, I would say, yes, the intrinsic morality of Middle-Earth is in very much in the vein of the Mythic properties that Tolkien observed in Christianity. I've never known this to be controversial.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 11:40 PM on March 3, 2010


I think I'm still not seeing an essential difference between the morality of The Force in Star Wars (with its corrupting Dark Side) and that of Lord of the Rings. It seems the Dark Side is corrupting for the same reasons the The Ring is, that it gives an intoxicating sense of power and possessiveness.

The difference is that in the Star Wars universe, the Force represents a power that can in fact be used wisely and benevolently. It isn't inherently corrupting, it's pretty much like any other kind of power: potentially corrupting without discipline and wisdom.

The power of The Ring, by contrast, is inherently corrupting. It might be taken under the auspices of good intentions, and might even initially be used with good intentions, but it's inevitably corrupting. No level of wisdom, virtue, discipline, or nobility allows any character to resist its influence; the strongest of the protagonists can only resist it by refusing to take it.

I don't think LOTR is any more Christian than it is an allegory for WWII (which he explicitly denied).

And Lewis denied that Narnia was Christian allegory.

Both Tolkien and Lewis seem to have been allergic to that word, which is kindof astounding on the face of it given how well their stories lend themselves to it. But given some digging into their conversations with each other and with others in the literary world, it starts to make a lot more sense. In particular I'm thinking of a passage attributed to Lewis in Humphrey Carpenter's group bio The Inklings which he explains some of the philosophy behind why:
It [a story, a myth] doesn't MEAN anything, in the sense of abstracting a meaning from it. [One] may regard it fundamentally as "about" the Fall and Mortality and the Machine, but that may not be how I read it. Indeed it seems to me (with due respect) a great mistake to try and attach any kind of abstract meaning to a story like his. Story -- or at least a great Story of the mythical type -- gives us an experience of something not as an abstraction but as a concrete reality. We don't "understand the meaning" when we read a myth, we actually encounter the thing iteself. Once we try to grasp it with the discursive reason, it fades.

Let me give you an example. Here I am trying to explain the fading, the vanishing of tasted reality when the reasoning part of the mind is applied to it. Probably I'm making heavy weather of it.... Let me remind you instead of Orpheus and Eurydice, how he was supposed to lead her by the hand but, when he turned round to look at her, she disappeared. Now what was merely a principle should become imaginable to you....

... you weren't looking for an abstract "meaning" in it at all. You weren't knowing, but tasting. But what you were tasting turns out to be a universal principle. Of course, the moment we state the principle, we are admittedly back in the world of abtractions. It's only while receiving the myth as a story that you experience a principle concretely....
So they didn't see themselves as writing isomorphic narratives per se, but taking meaningful mythic elements and real experience and re-weaving them into their work in the service of telling a certain kind of story.
posted by weston at 11:53 PM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Beyond the baffling ignorance of not seeming to realize that there are major Jewish fantasy writers, the article has some strange ideas about Christianity. Does he really think that Christians in general are nostalgic for the Middle Ages, fascinated by magic and wizards, and deeply appreciative of ancient paganism? Maybe Weingrad needs to see this page, a minority viewpoint but typical of Evangelicals in its live hatred of anything occult or pagan.

As for the discussion above, I don't see that the relationship of Tolkien's work to Christianity is strikingly different from that of Gaiman's to Judaism. They are certainly each informed by their own background, but neither of them is advancing a religious point of view. If anything Tolkien goes out of his way to leave God out of LOTR... if the index is to be trusted there are precisely two references to his version of God, both in the appendices, and wholly opaque if you haven't read the Silmarillion.

As for Lewis, here's an exchange with Brian Aldiss (in Of Other Worlds):
Aldiss: ...But I am surprised that you put it this way round. I would have thought that you constructed Perelandra for the didactic purpose.
Lewis: Yes, everyone thinks that. They are quite wrong.
...Something has got to happen [plotwise]. The story of the averted fall came in very conveniently. Of course it wouldn't have been that particular story if I wasn't interested in those particular ideas on other grounds. But that isn't what I started from. I've never started from a message or a moral.
The Christian elements are very obvious in Lewis, but, well, so what, he's just one writer. Weingrad really seems to be inflating his argument out of this single case, and a near-case that seems to fit in but really doesn't.
posted by zompist at 5:13 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


jacalata: your argument sounds like you're not really familiar with the back stories of Middle Earth, such as the Silmarilion. Gandalf has magic powers because he is one of the Istari sent from Valinor. Sauron was also one of the Maiar. There's nothing to do with 'virtue' in how they got it.

Certainly. Gandalf is the theological equivalent of an angel. But virtue is still a key part of things when you contrast Gandalf with his foil, Saruman. Gandalf's faith and conviction in the powers of good results in him being given renewed life and expanded powers to fight in the War of the Ring. Saruman is stripped of all power except that of his voice, and is ultimately rejected by the West in death.

Furthermore, it's a theme that is pervasive throughout the rest of the character development. Theodin is prompted by duty to rise from despair to heroism, while Denethor's lack of faith leads him to madness. The essential goodness of the Hobbits lead to multiple deus ex machina's where old divine powers do just enough to get them out of the current plot crisis. And then there is the whole lesson that Frodo and Sam are uniquely gifted with a native goodness that allows them to bear the ring to its final destination.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:40 AM on March 4, 2010


I fail to see what's particularly christian about any of that, given that you can find similar narratives in non-christian work.
posted by empath at 10:02 AM on March 4, 2010


Of course, Frodo isn't the Chosen Son of God. Most Christian literature doesn't just blindly retell the gospels.

empath: I fail to see what's particularly christian about any of that, given that you can find similar narratives in non-christian work.

Really? I see faith in an absolutely good deity who is distant and removed from the evils faced by the protagonists to be distinctly Christian. Faith and virtue are irrelevant to Gilgamesh, The Monkey King, or Heracles, who are personally confronted by gods that are only occasionally good. These themes and structures only look universal, first because we live in a Christian-centric culture, and second because modern ideas about theology have become distinctly less literal.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:22 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


And it's not as if pointing out these influences says anything about the quality of the work.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:17 AM on March 4, 2010


I thought Denethor went crazy because he was Palantir-ing with Sauron until the wee hours every night.

What about Gail Carson Levine's kid's books. They're definitely fantasy and I'm pretty sure she's Jewish. FWIW.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:26 PM on March 6, 2010


small_ruminant: I thought Denethor went crazy because he was Palantir-ing with Sauron until the wee hours every night.

Sauron's hooks into Denethor were entirely based on Denethor's personal doubts and fears: the inevitable fall of Gondor and the stewards, a lack of faith in the king's line, and despair that his favorite son died and failed to secure the ring for Gondor's defense. Gandalf makes it clear fairly early that seduction and temptation are two of Sauron's biggest threats, even to Gandalf himself.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:03 PM on March 7, 2010


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