If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.
Have you ever wondered if there’s more to Christian literary life than what you can find in the Bibles & Christianity section at Barnes & Noble? Do you hunger for something beautiful? Something sublime? Something that dips you into the darkest nights so that you can appreciate, anew, how beautiful the light is?
It might be time to head on over to the Fantasy Section. Go ahead. Don’t be afraid. Despite what you may have heard, you’ll be embarking on a road that has been well-tread by the faithful.
Many of the great forefathers of fantasy fiction were devout Christians. C.S. Lewis, famed for his Christian apologetics and fantasy novel series, “The Chronicles of Narnia,” for instance, was an atheist-turned-Christian, converted largely through the efforts of his good friend.
That friend was J.R.R. Tolkien. You may have heard of him.
While C.S. Lewis’ work contains much Christian allegory, Tolkien’s seminal work, “The Lord of the Rings,” does not. Nowhere does Tolkien write about religion, God, or the church. Nowhere does Tolkien shy away from darkness or melancholy or bittersweet endings.
Yet there is so much of God’s truth in Tolkien’s work that many Christian readers find themselves in tears after reading it, their hearts instinctively recognizing the fingerprints of God, left there through Tolkien’s Christian worldview.
In his essay, “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien writes that the creation of fantasy fiction is one of the highest callings that a Christian artist can undertake, calling the endeavor “sub-creation,” and viewing it as a form of worship—a way for us—creations—to express the image of God within us by creating our own fictional worlds.
It takes a special sort of person to be a sub-creator—a person that lives at the intersection between academia, Christianity, and fantasy, a person who can weave together the threads of mythology, cultures, faith, and raw creation, forming them into wholly new patterns. Such authors are rare.
One of the newest additions to this group of sub-creators is Dr. Robert B. Sloan, president of Houston Baptist University. His newly published “Hamelin Stoop” series begins with “The Eagle, the Cave, and the Footbridge”.
These books follow the adventures of a young boy, abandoned and found in a tomato crate as a baby on the porch of an orphanage. Suffering a hard life, the child languishes in the orphanage until one fateful night sees him make the decision to leave, drawing him into a world of mythology, magic, and perilous adventure as he finds that he has been summoned by a greater power.
Dr. Sloan, in a 2017 interview with Beliefnet, discusses his work, and sheds light on the power of fantasy to “baptize the imagination,” as Lewis once said, and to bring readers closer to God.
Let’s step into the fantasy isle and take a look at what Dr. Sloan has to say.
Who and what inspired you to begin writing your “Hamelin Stoop” series of fantasy novels?
I was, like a lot of people, inspired by the novels of C.S. Lewis—the Chronicles of Narnia, and the space trilogy. Then that led to me reading other things like the stories of George MacDonald, particularly the Curdie books, and his fantasies like “Phantastes” and “Lilith”. I read Charles Williams and, of course, Tolkien.
But really, as a child, I had a disposition in my earliest readings to read myths and fairy stories and that sort of thing.
What is it like being a fantasy writer in academia?
It’s a fairly new experience for me, so I haven’t encountered any difficulty as of yet. The first book was only published a few months ago, and the second one is at the printers right now, and so I’m actually working on the draft of the third one in the series as we speak. I have encountered a few raised eyebrows—people are curious. They don’t seem to be negative about it at all; they’re just curious about why I’d do this.
So I explain that I’ve always enjoyed reading these kinds of stories. Lewis and Tolkien, I think, both remarked to one another at one time that they should write the kinds of stories they wanted to read.
So just from my earliest readings, it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I tell people that it’s kind of always been on a bucket list for me for a good bit of my adult life, so when I finally had the opportunity and circumstances to write this, I remember thinking, “Well, this is going to be easy”. I’ve written all my life—I’ve written non-fiction, articles and so on, as an academic, and I found that [writing fiction] was very hard to do. I had to start over several times.
Do you borrow from scripture and mythology in your work?
I think the readers will find that there are quite a few Biblical images, but I would say, quite honestly, they’re some of the more obscure ones. I’m not sure that a lot of Bible readers will note all of the images that I’m using. But if people ever sort of get on the right track of them, I think they’ll find them.
But I do use myths and stories and fairy tales that are very recognizable—I don’t want to give any spoilers, because one of them is a big one. It’s a mixing of an old myth with a sort of metanarrative of scripture.
But, yes—I’ve used all kinds of metaphors and stories and have tried to weave them together.
My next question is one that, I think, that you are uniquely qualified to answer as an author that simultaneously resides in the academic, the theological, and the fantastical. So many of our most foundational fantasy authors have held Christian worldviews—MacDonald, Lewis, Tolkien, and Madeline L’Engle, to name a few. In light of that, do you see a relationship between faith and fantasy? So many of our most foundational fantasy authors have held Christian worldviews—MacDonald, Lewis, Tolkien, and Madeline L’Engle, to name a few. In light of that, do you see a relationship between faith and fantasy?
Absolutely. You know, at one level, of course, it’s a genre, and so at that sort of minimalist level of description, it wouldn’t have a necessary connection to faith any more than any other genre would. But having said that, it does seem to be a part of the genre of fantasy that you have good guys and bad guys—you typically have a stark confrontation between good and evil. The plot is absolutely critical.
There’s a deep connection between the imagination and the mind. And in the Christian faith—I think we don’t work on this enough theologically—but I think there’s a deep connection between the mind, hearing the voice of God, imagination, and the work of the spirit. Those elements of faith all interact with one another.
Fantasy, of course, has elements that overlap a great deal with faith. Elements of risk, elements of hardship, elements of sacrifice—those are the standard fare of fantasy, and of course, those are capital letter themes for the rich in faith. Pilgrimage and journey, discipline, sacrifice, faith, conflict. I see a big overlap.
Nowadays, of course, you get a lot of fantasy that I think is not conscious of its compatibility with faith. But we’re drawn to it because it resonates deeply with big questions of human experience.
I think it’s important that you’re reaching out to a wide variety of readers with your writing, not only to readers who read within the Christian genre. We need more Christian writers who engage in all forms and genres of art.
You know, that was one of the factors for me that I’ve kept in mind. I’ve wanted not to write a book that I would call obviously or explicitly Christian. It’s not an allegory. Even with the Narnia Chronicles, you’ve got the lion who dies and is raised from the dead, so you have some pretty obvious parallels.
But in Tolkien, you don’t have any explicitly Christian parallels that sort of just hit you in the face. Now, you get all the great good and evil and other worlds and so on, but I’ve just wanted to write a fantasy series that’s a good story, where each book has its own plot within a larger macro plot. And because I am a Christian, and because of the genre, itself, and those two factors weaving in and over one another, I think what I’m writing will have a Christian worldview, but in a subterranean sort of way. I can’t help it. It’s who I am.
If you start with the fact that this world is God’s world and He has created it, it shouldn’t surprise us that when something is created—of course, it’s always sub-creation, we don’t create from nothing—particularly works of art, they have to bear the image, at some level, of their creator. They really just can’t help it.
We are, I think, most nearly fulfilling our agency as image bearers when we do creative work.
Some Christians claim that the fantasy genre, with its roots in mythology, is anti-truth. What would be your response to that charge?
Oh, I would take the view of Lewis and Tolkien—this question was very important to Lewis in his conversion, and Tolkien was the one who helped him to it. And that is that the myths in all the ancient stories, pagan and otherwise, are all shadows that lead forward to the One Great Myth that is, in fact, true, and historical—that actually happened.
I think any kind of story can convey truth, and of course, it’s the nature of story. Sometimes they’re obviously intended as riddles and so on, and sometimes stories are intended to point to something that actually happened. But in all cases, the idea is that it conveys truth.
I think it was the Roman poet Horace who held that literature should both educate and delight, but I particularly love the connotations of the word “educate”. Of its two Latin roots, one, “educere,” means “to lead out”. And that’s just what I feel good reading should do—lead us out of darkness and ignorance and toward Truth, which, in its various ways, leads to God. In your work, do you consciously seek educate, to lead readers out of any certain areas of ignorance, or do you simply trust the writing and allow that to happen organically?
You know, I think it functions in both ways because, just in the writing of the story, if you write a compelling story, you’re bringing order to chaos. You’ve got either a blank sheet or a dark screen, or however you want to start. Then, with order, you’re bringing something to light. As you said with, “educere,” you’re leading something forth, bringing something forth. So, in the very nature of the case, to create brings form, it brings light, it creates the shading, the differences between light and darkness.
This kind of light and darkness obviously play off of one another. So I think it’s organic in that sense, but I think also as a Christian I have to think, “Well, what did I just say there?” Did I say something that’s in keeping with all the things I believe, or are my characters leading in an edifying way? They’re certainly full of flaws, and they should be, but somehow stories ought to have an ending that points to resolution.
Even if they don’t fully resolve, I think a Christian story has elements of hope in it, and not of despair. So I’m conscious of that, and so I think I would answer your question by saying: both.
What have you learned about the power of fantasy as you’ve written your series?
One of the things I’ve read on the topic of writing, per se, is the importance of conflict. “The cat walked into the house,” is not a story. But “The cat walked into the house, stared at the little boy, and he fell off of his stool and ran screaming to his mother” gives you the beginnings of a plot. What’s wrong with the cat? Why does the boy have these fears? You always have to have plot tension.
The thing about fantasy that is so powerful is that it’s one of those genres that truly lends itself to tension. There’s conflict—that’s not to say the characters aren’t important, because they are. You’ve got to have flawed characters; you have to have characters that get involved with the major plot points—the characters and the plot clearly work together.
The thing I love about fantasy is its extremity. It’s like the book of Revelation—the symbols are, you might say, outrageous. They push you to think and to see the extreme or extended nature of both good and evil. But again, it also forces you to think deeply about the given symbol, about what’s going on.
What fantasy does for the reader—it’s so captivating. It transports us to a different world and gives us experiences that we would not otherwise have. Experience teaches us, and one of the difficulties of life is that people think “I’ve got to experience everything by myself in order to be taught by it”. Well, I can’t live three lives. I can’t re-live this life, I can’t live the life of my next door neighbor. I can’t live the life of someone of a different ethnicity or gender. But I can, through fantasy, particularly, because it’s so outrageous, but also through fiction you get inside the experience of someone else. So you do actually learn from this—it becomes your experience in a sort of borrowed way.
Fantasy has a tremendous power for engaging the mind and heart and pulling us deeply, deeply into another experience.
A Baptized Imagination
C.S. Lewis once wrote that the fantasy works of George MacDonald “baptized his imagination”—it prepared him to accept the idea of God later in life.
Fiction, in general, transports us into the lives of others, allowing us to see the world from a hundred different viewpoints, to live inside the heads of people unlike ourselves. There’s great value in that. It builds empathy.
But fantasy takes that a step further, building entire worlds unlike our own, giving us experiences we might never have in real life.
Most of us will never come face-to-face with pure evil. Still, it is valuable to know how to recognize evil when you see it.
Most of us will not, in life, see the face of absolute, perfect beauty. Still, it is lovely to do so within a story.
Most of us will never feel the despair of losing everything. Still, it is valuable to be able to empathize with those who have.
Fantasy, as Dr. Sloan says, can take us to those extremes. And when a fantasy author writes from a Christian worldview, the product, even if it does not fit into the Christian Genre, is undeniably and beautifully filled with faith.
So why not start reading?