Tuesday, February 23, 2010

When sentience isn't just a human trait...

Fantasy often presents the reader with not just fictitious cultures, but diverse races of creatures that all share the blessing of sentience. What is an author to do with this situation when it comes to deciding what these races believe about their origins and their eternal destination?

Secular fantasy doesn't have any obligation to wrestle with this question, but I believe that fantasy that has a Christian sensibility at its core cannot overlook this conundrum. Biblically, we are told that God created man in His image, giving man a component that will live on forever, and differentiating man from all the rest of His creation with this eternal part of his being.

So, what happens when a world has not only men, but elves, dwarves, gnomes, dragons, centaurs, and myriad other thinking creatures? (In reference to this question, I really ought to read Summa Elvetica by Theodore Beale, but in the absence of any insight from that book, I'll just have to ruminate on my own.) Does the Christian author insist all of these races share the same creator? In my current "world" in which I write, I have taken that route...I suppose it's the smoother path.

Can Christian Fantasy fiction weather the concept that each race has it's own creator? J.R.R. Tolkien dabbled in this idea a bit in The Silmarillion, when Aule, in his eagerness to create as did Iluvatar, made the dwarves. But that act of creation worked to further illustrate Iluvatar's supremacy, in that he insisted Aule's children remain unquickened until Iluvatar had brought forth his firstborn, the elves. So does that address the idea of multiple creators? Not in the purest sense, although it does show precedent.

To be fair, however, Tolkien never set out to write "Christian fantasy." In fact, especially with The Silmarillion, he wove many different mythos together while adding his own twists, so while the battle of good versus evil underpins the work, to call it Christian fantasy is a bit of a stretch.

If we want to read and write Christian fiction that won't garner debate, my impression has been that a single creator is a necessary element. Others might add that a picture of fallen-ness and redemption are also key. So as usual, I end this blog entry with questions, rather than answers. Just how "biblical" does Christian Fantasy need to be in order to remain Christian and not simply become fantasy? My answer to that question is that Christian fantasy is storytelling that I can read without having that story challenge my worldview. Does it have to express every intricacy of that worldview? I don't think so. But in my opinion, multiple creators start to step over that boundary.

But even so, I've still read The Silmarillion. Call it trust.

7 comments:

  1. There's Tolkien's famous quote about religion in LOTR: "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like 'religion', to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism." Many Christian elements are woven into the story (I've heard of Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn being compared to Christ as Priest, Prophet, and King, and would add Sam was a servant).

    I think LOTR does have a problem with the orcs. They seem to be entirely bad, which can potentially be an issue depending on what side of the free-will debate you fall.

    I was trying to put together some inspiring words about Aule and Iluvatar, but my knowledge of Tolkien beyond LOTR is limited, and the resulting words of wisdom were clear as mud. Oh well.
    -David

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  2. Perhaps orcs function outside the free will debate, given their questionable origin. Sources say they were either a corruption of elves, (As told in the Silmarillion) or else cobbled together by Melkor from elements of the earth. (That's an old idea from The Book of Lost Tales, which apparently Tolkien eventually revised in favor of the elf theory. What ambiguity comes of having works dug up after your death!)

    But anyway, what I'm getting at is this: does a creature that was not actually made by the Creator of of a world, but instead Frankensteined by members of his creation, share the spiritual condition of the original beings that god created?

    So perhaps orcs being all bad falls more under the implications of their inception. I'm sure it's a debate scholars more steeped in Tolkien Lore have debated more effectively than I have.

    Thanks so much for your comments, David! You bring up interesting points.

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  3. Hmm...well, you're much more knowledgeable than I!

    Your bringing up of Frankenstein is interesting. I haven't read it since high school, but from what I remember the creature did have what we would consider a soul (or could at least talk, think, and appear to have emotions). The Mary Shelley article on Wikipedia doesn't have any information about her religious beliefs, but her father was interested in physical immortality, which would seem to at least prevent his being a conventional Christian. Of course he would have influenced his daughter's beliefs as well. Would she have believed that a human creation could have a soul, or did it just make for a good story?

    On a slightly-related note, there's a conversation about Tolkien's "Unexplained Vistas" quote at http://alightinside.blogspot.com/2010/02/unexplained-vistas.html right now.

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  4. Thanks for the link! I'll have to hop over there and give it a read.

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  5. It seems to me that the whole redemption thing is limited to specific classes of sentient beings. (No I'm not a predestinarian)Angels and demons are two classes that either don't need redemption or cannot be redeemed. Satan is another class all together (like the personification of evil).

    Theologically there are people who have put themselves beyond the reach of redemption by making lawlessness their god and consisently rejecting the Holy Ghost. (I don't find warrant in Scripture for the opposite case of a living human who is incapable of falling into sin.)

    So since there are real categories of irredeemable sentient creatures, in real life and God's revelation, I don't think positing some irredeemable characters in a Fantasy work is outside of the pale of "orthodoxy" (whatever that means when applied to fantasy).

    OBTW I like your Windrider chapters.

    SGD
    dave

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  6. Excellent thoughts, Dave! I especially like the nugget where you talk about real life people who willfully reject redemption. It's an important tendency to consider when creating not only monsters in a fantasy world, but villains (that we might find it easier, though disconcerting, to identify with.)

    And thanks for the good word on The Windrider! I'm gratified to hear you've been enjoying them.

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  7. Interesting debate. I tend to agree with the authors original comment - a single creator is necessary to maintain the Christian worldview, but I think other licesne can be taken, especially in an alagorical sense.

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