Narnia, Middle-Earth and the Kingdom of God

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A History of Fantasy literature and the Christian Tradition

by: Mark Worthing

154 pages
148mm x 210mm

SKU: 9780995416116 Category:


Narnia, Middle-Earth and the Kingdom of God tells the story of fantasy literature within the context of its complex relationship with the Christian tradition.

In this book, Worthing looks at early influences on the genre, including European fairy tales and folklore, Northern and classical mythology, and Christian allegory. He also explores the contours of a variety of fantasy worlds from MacDonald’s Faerie, Lewis’ Narnia and Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, to LeGuin’s Earthsea, Pratchett’s Discworld and Rowling’s world of Hogwarts.In these worlds, and many more, we discover themes such as the battle between good and evil, the question of the existence of God, and the problem of suffering.

Fantasy fans of all religious persuasions will find in this book a delightful and informative exploration of the rich history and profound themes of the fantasy genre.

About the author

Mark Worthing is an author, and pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, North Adelaide, Australia. He is former head of the Faculty of Humanities and Creative Writing at Tabor Adelaide.

His most recent works include Graeme Clark. The Man Who Invented the Bionic Ear (Allen & Unwin, 2015), and Phantastes: George MacDonald’s Classic Novel (Stone Table Books, 2016).


Faith and Fantasy at the Crossroads

Interest in fantasy literature has grown exponentially since the mid- twentieth century. Hollywood has recognised this with a series of record-breaking films based on fantasy books, particularly the Harry Potter films, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Narnia series and The Hobbit films. This surge of interest in both fantasy films and books, however, has been disconcerting for some Christians. Stories that draw upon pagan mythologies, include witches as main characters, or use magic as an explanatory mechanism, pose difficulties for many. This is particularly true at a time when Christianity in the West is faced with a movement toward Neo-Paganism. The response of many has been simply to discourage or even ban such literature and films from the reading and viewing lists of young Christians. Others, however, find much good in fantasy. They point out that there are many positive spiritual points made in these stories with which Christians should be in agreement. The Harry Potter books have been perhaps most contentious of all, especially in the context of Christian schools.1 Some have even argued that the entire fantasy genre is unhealthy and dangerous for Christian young people.

Against the backdrop of these concerns and disputes is the curious fact that many of the founders of the fantasy genre in nineteenth century England, and of its representatives in the golden era of the mid-twentieth century, were not only Christians, but chose the fantasy genre specifically for its suitability for conveying Christian truths.

What is Fantasy Literature?

When someone mentions fantasy literature most feel they know precisely what is meant, yet if asked to define the boundaries, for instance, between fantasy and fairy tales, or fantasy and science fiction, things become decidedly less clear. As the genre has evolved from its origins in Victorian Britain, some of what was then commonly viewed as fantasy literature would not be so categorised today, except in the very broadest sense.

Fantasy literature, generally speaking, comprises those stories that create not only a fictional, but also a truly imagined world. While such worlds will necessarily have similarities to our own world, they also operate under very different sets of rules and realities. Worlds, for instance, with talking animals, mythical creatures, operative magic or an array of non-human sentient creatures all fall into the broadest category of fantasy. The earliest of such stories were generally short tales about witches, elves, goblins, magic spells, talking animals and the like, with a moral point made at the end of the tale. Many modern fantasy stories also contain these elements, and are difficult to rigidly distinguish from the earlier genre of the fairy tale. Townsend is at least partly correct to conclude that the most functional distinction between fairy tales and fantasy is simply that fairy tales are short while fantasy works are longer.2 One generally, however, has a clear sense whether one is reading a rather long fairy tale, or a fantasy short story. Fairy tales are usually, though not always, directed at children, while fantasy works are directed, if not at adults, then at least at advanced readers. Fairy tales, while often not containing any actual reference to fairies, deal with such traditional folkloric creatures as witches, goblins and talking animals, and often feature magic spells and royalty, with a clear moral point coming at the end. Fantasy, by contrast, may well contain many of these same features, but also delves into both classical and northern mythology for its characters. Fantasy also does not aim at conveying a single simple moral truth but often portrays a more general struggle between good and evil.

Ambiguity exists not only between the categories of fantasy and fairy tale, but there is also often uncertainty regarding definitions of folk stories, legends, myths and science fiction. For this book, the following is what is understood by these terms and related categories:

Myths are stories about creation and existence. They explain how and why the world and its various creatures exist, and who or what is responsible for the world’s being and its running.

Legends are stories about the exploits of real, or at least believed to be real, heroes. They tell, in often embellished form, of dragons slain, battles fought, and great journeys undertaken.

Fairy tales are stories – often set in the distant past or some non- specific time and non-specific place – that involve such characters and themes as witches, giants, dwarves, fairies, magic (both good and bad) and kings, queens, princes and princesses, often making a very clear moral point.

Folk tales are traditional stories handed down and told by ordinary people and are often characteristic of particular cultures. They may include some of the elements of fairy stories, but are categorised by their origin rather than their specific content.

Fables are stories, usually involving such devices as talking animals (e.g., Aesop’s fables) which aim to teach a specific moral lesson.

Science fiction, often seen as a derivative branch of fantasy (or vice versa!) are tales in which imaginative worlds are created through the use of technology that does not now exist, and may indeed never be possible, but which is the creation of the storyteller.

Fantasy, like science fiction, also involves the creation of imaginative worlds, but these worlds are dominated by magic and the supernatural as explanatory devices, rather than science and technology, and are often set in pre-technological environments which frequently, but not exclusively, resemble medieval Europe.

Christian spiritual warfare and apocalyptic fiction is another category of writing that has emerged in recent decades and is sometimes classed together with fantasy. Its best known representatives are the controversial Left Behind series of books by Tim Lahaye and Jeffrey Jenkins3 and the supernatural thrillers of Frank Peretti, such as This Present Darkness (1986). These writings depict angels and demons in warfare and are often are set within a particular variation of Christian apocalyptic thinking known as dispensationalism, with a focus on a period of intense ‘tribulation’ which arises after true Christians have been raptured from the earth. Most writers of these books would maintain that the context of the stories are set either in a future reality, or a present reality that we cannot see, but which is nonetheless real. As such, these writings fall outside the scope of the present work.

Speculative fiction is a term increasingly used as a broad description of all types of fantasy, science fiction, and related genres. Any works of fiction whose premise, at least in part, rest upon some sort of speculative reality which is not a part of the ‘real’ world might broadly be classed as speculative fiction. The innovative novels of Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón, especially his Shadow of the Wind trilogy, are a good example of works that are not traditional fantasy, but clearly fall under the broader category of speculative fiction.4

One of the best descriptions of fantasy, and one that sheds much light on why so many Christian writers have taken it up, is provided by Glenys Smith.

Fantasy’s main function . . . is to express imaginative experiences or insights into the human condition by images or ideas or possibilities which remain essentially true to what we know about life and good and evil; observations about the human condition without preaching. Fantasy takes for granted the existence not only of the physical world you can see and touch, the world of reality, but also the supernatural.5

Fantasy and Science Fiction

Imaginative worlds in which even the supernatural may manifest itself in concrete form often extend beyond the land of Faerie, Narnia, Middle- earth or the world beyond the Looking Glass: they may also include other planets, or alternative Earth-histories with technologies very different and usually far superior to our own. Smith is correct that ‘the line between fantasy and science fiction is a debatable one, difficult to draw.’6 Indeed, science-fiction is so closely identified with fantasy that many bookstores have a single section, usually labelled ‘science-fiction,’ within which fantasy writings are also to be found. Enthusiasts of both genres, however, are aware of a distinction. Except for those books that genuinely mix the traditional themes, imagery and techniques of both genres,7 there is usually little doubt whether one is reading science fiction or fantasy.

In classic fantasy literature, imaginative alternative worlds simply exist. There is no attempt to explain why things work the way they do, other than by some sort of magical power or superimposed force. Animals talk in Narnia because Aslan gave them the gift of speech; Alice goes through the Looking Glass because it is a portal to another reality. MacDonald’s characters wander in and out of Faerie with no explanation as to where Faerie is located in relation to our world, and rings are endowed with power and independent will in Middle-earth with no explanation as to how this might be possible other than that a powerful dark lord made them.

In science fiction, by contrast, there is the genuine attempt to explain how things might be possible. Even if the explanations are in themselves implausible, they still exist. People enter other worlds through spacecraft that are capable of travel at warp speed or through hyper-space. Apes (in Planet of the Apes) are able to talk because they evolved over time to have this ability, people journey far beneath the sea, into the Earth’s core, or even into the human body because vehicles have been developed capable of taking them to these places. The actual technologies may fall beyond the pale of scientific credibility, but there is no mystery involved within the world of the science fiction story as to the ‘how’ of things.8

This basic formal distinction leads inevitably to more subjective distinctions which, taken together, give science fiction a very different feel to fantasy. Science fiction tends to spend much time explaining the mechanisms by which things work. These explanations often become a prominent feature of such stories. The settings are also typically found within technologically advanced contexts. Fantasy, by contrast, does not dwell on explanations of how things work. They are simply not necessary. And fantasy worlds, because they do not rely on technology, are often set in pre-technological settings. While notable exceptions exist, most fantasy novels have a medieval feel to them, and battles are fought with swords, battle axes, and arrows. In science fiction the setting is not the village, the forest, or the castle, but the metropolis, the laboratory, the space craft, or the surface of a distant planet, and battles are fought with lasers, droids, and fully computerised space craft.

Within the fantasy genre itself a number of distinctions are commonly made. The most important of these is the distinction between so-called high fantasy, like that written by Tolkien and Lewis in which overarching themes are taken up such as the battle between good and evil; and ‘ordinary’ fantasy, which settles for telling an amusing or engaging tale set in a fantasy context. As Smith explains:

When fantasy becomes the battleground of Good and Evil, as it does in the novels of such writers as Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Ursula Le Guin, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Westall; we call it high fantasy – a developed poetic art form which gives meaning to life, enhancing the primary or real world, leading to the solution of problems and the development of characters to maturity.9

A classic example of high fantasy is found in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories, which Lilian Smith describes as, ‘carrying the reader exuberantly through such strange and wild adventures that, half-consciously they come to recognise are those of a spiritual journey toward the heart of reality.’10 The struggle between the White Witch and Aslan, like that between Satan and Christ, is unnuanced. It is a battle between good and evil. There is no good in the witch, and no evil in Aslan.

While these days the most common distinction within fantasy literature would seem to be between high fantasy and other, or ‘ordinary’ fantasy, the situation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was more complex. Fantasy was a much broader category, and included a wide range of literature which incorporated ‘fantastical’ elements. Alongside the medieval style quest stories that soon grew to dominate the genre, nonsense fantasy (as typified by Lewis Carroll) and talking animal fantasies (such as Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 Wind in the Willows) were seen as branches of fantasy. Also, science fiction, for instance of the type exemplified in the novels of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and horror (such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula) were considered a strand of fantasy, even though both science fiction, and even more so horror stories which involve ‘fantasy’ creatures such as werewolves and vampires, have since come to be recognised as distinct genres in their own right.

The Plan of the Present Work

In order to understand the rich and complex connections between fantasy literature and the Christian tradition we need to gain an understanding of the nature and function of fantasy. We also need to learn something of its historical development from its origins in mid-nineteenth century England to the various forms and contours of the genre today. A historical approach will be taken, therefore, in which the history of the modern fantasy genre is examined in three parts, or phases. Firstly, we will look at the origins of fantasy literature in Victorian Britain, including its literary precursors. The most prominent precursor to modern fantasy was Hans Christian Andersen, many of whose stories were explicitly Christian. Also, the three most prominent pioneers of the genre in Britain, MacDonald, Carroll and Kingsley, were all clergymen. Secondly, after a look at some of the transitional writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we will look at the golden era of fantasy, typified by the works of close friends J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, both passionate Christians. Finally, we will move to the contemporary period and examine recent Christian works of fantasy, and also expressly non- and anti- Christian fantasy works, which also underscore the suitability of the genre for the exploration of spiritual themes.

1 See Connie Neal, What’s a Christian to do with Harry Potter? (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2001), especially pages 11-30, for a good summary of the early debate over the Harry Potter books.

2 Townsend writes: ‘Drawing a line between modern fairy tale and fantasy can be difficult; I am inclined to look on a sustained piece of work as fantasy, even if it makes use of fairy- tale elements, because I think it is a characteristic of the fairy tale that it is brief. But to decide the point at which a short story becomes a long one is not easier than to decide at which point a short piece of string becomes a long one.’ John Rowe Townsend, Written for Children: An Outline of English-Language Children’s Literature, 3rd edition (London: Penguin, 1987), 73.

3 First published by Tyndale House between 1995 and 2007, the books describe a conflict between the members of the ‘Tribulation Force’ (a group who converts to Christianity after the rapture of true Christians from the earth), and the ‘Global Community,’ led by Nicolae Carpathia, the Antichrist. The belief that there will be a rapture of true Christians from the earth followed by seven years of tribulation was first documented in the teachings of the Plymouth Brethren preacher John Nelson Darby in 1830. His teachings influenced Charles Schofield, who later published a study Bible that popularised this view among American evangelicals.

4 The trilogy includes The Shadow of the Wind (2001, English translation Lucia Graves, 2004), The Angel’s Game (2008, Eng. translation Graves, 2009), and The Prisoner of Heaven (2011, Eng. translation Graves, 2112).

5 Glenys Smith, ‘Inner Reality: The Nature of Fantasy,’ in Give Them Wings: The Experience of Children’s Literature, ed. Maurice Saxby and Gordon Winch. (Melbourne: Macmillan, 1987), 265.

6 Glenys Smith, 265.

7 The Wrinkle in Time series by Madeleine L’Engle is an example of writing that falls into this hard to classify category straddling fantasy and sci-fi.

8 I am indebted to Ben Morton, a true fan of both genres, for this formal distinction.

9 Glenys Smith, 273.

10 Lillian Smith, ‘News from Narnia,’ in Only Connect, 174f. (first published in Canadian Library Association Bulletin, 1958).


Faith and Fantasy at the Crossroads

Section I: Formative Era
Chapter One: Literary Sources of Victorian Fantasy Writing
Chapter Two: Hans Christian Andersen: Grace for All
Chapter Three: George MacDonald: The Baptised Imagination
Chapter Four: Other Early Fantasy Literature: Wonderland, Water Babies and ‘It’

Section II: The Golden Era of Fantasy
Chapter Five: The Life and Faith of J.R.R.  Tolkien
Chapter Six: The Fantasy Writings of J.R.R. Tolkien
Chapter Seven: The Problem of Evil in the Fantasy World of Tolkien
Chapter Eight: C.S. Lewis: His Life, Conversion and Theology
Chapter Nine: C.S. Lewis: Narnia and Apologetics
Chapter Ten: Other Christian Fantasy Writers of the Era (Williams, Chesterton and L’Engle)

Section III: The Contemporary Era
Chapter Eleven: Pullman and Pratchett: The Atheist Response
Chapter Twelve: Earth Spirituality and Fantasy (LeGuin, Bradley and Forsyth)
Chapter Thirteen: The Harry Potter Debate
Chapter Fourteen: Hans Bemmann: The German Tolkien
Chapter Fifteen: Religion in the Fantasy Worlds of Gene Wolfe
Chapter Sixteen: Recent Trends and New Directions in Fantasy

Conclusion: A Christian Defence of Fantasy


  1. D.M. Cornish (author of Monster Blood Tattoo trilogy)

    Mark Worthing compellingly lays down the origins of modern fantasy, the steps from classical mythology and medieval allegory, through to the brothers Grimm, MacDonald, Tolkien and Rowling. As an author whose own works have been banned from certain school libraries, it is heartening to have the Christian origins of the fantasy genre so patiently unfolded. Thorough and thoroughly enjoyable.

  2. Trevor Hampel

    Mark Worthing’s latest book appears, at first glance, to be a relatively slim volume, but it certainly packs a solid punch. His in-depth knowledge of and passion for fantasy is quite apparent throughout, and he argues a solid case for the role of the Christian world-view, not only in the development of the genre, but also on its continuing place in literature.

    While the sub-title says that this volume is a History of Fantasy in the Christian Tradition, it is far more than just a bland historical recount or a mere apologetic for the Christian traditions within the genre. It is a rigorous examination of the genre, and how many writers have expressed their Christian faith through their writing.
    In the early chapters he considers the origins of modern fantasy as they appeared before, and during, Victorian England, from writers like Hans Christian Andersen, George MacDonald, Lewis Carroll, and Edith Nesbit, among others. Worthing devotes a short chapter to the writings of Hans Christian Andersen and his influence on the Victorian era readers and writers.

    This is followed by an in-depth chapter on the writings of George MacDonald, whom he considers to be the major influence upon early fantasy writing. Indeed, Worthing quotes from the writings of C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle, both of whom owe a great debt to MacDonald. “Madeleine L’Engle, the matriarch of modern Christian fantasy, literature, candidly admits that ‘George MacDonald is the grandfather of us all – all of us who struggle to come to terms with truth through fantasy.’” (p.26) MacDonald’s writing also heavily influenced other prominent fantasy writers, including Chesterton, Tolkien, Nesbit and even Dickens. He was also a major influence upon another great fantasy writer, Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll).

    Worthing, after setting the scene by considering some of the early fantasy writers, continues by devoting three chapters each to the lives, faith and works of arguably the two greatest fantasy writers, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Their prominence in the genre continues to grow, with their influence and popularity magnified by recent cinematic versions.
    Interestingly, the author also gives a serious consideration to what he calls “the atheist response” by considering the contributions to the genre of the likes of Pullman and Pratchett. Another chapter is devoted to the fantasy writers who focus on “earth spirituality”, writers like LeGuin, Bradley and Forsyth. From there he moves to the modern publishing phenomenon of “the Harry Potter debate”. He deftly negotiates the minefield of Christian criticism – and praise – of this series. He concludes that, because of some of the inherent themes of the Potter books, they could be considered within fantasy literature which deals with some major precepts of Christianity.

    Worthing concludes his book by considering some recent trends in the fantasy genre, along with a Christian defence of fantasy. One of his final statements has serious implications for creative artists who are also Christians: “Sadly, it is difficult, if not impossible, to argue with those who steadfastly hold to the view that imagination itself is not part of God’s creation, but something bad and quite dangerous.” (p.151) Sad, indeed, for these attitudes often close the potential dialogue between creatives who express their faith through their creativity, and Christians with closed and clouded minds unwilling to consider a valid alternative.

    One of the interesting aspects of this work happens to be the footnotes. Normally, I find footnotes to be irritating at best, and highly annoying most of the time; they invariably interrupt my train of thought. Nearly every page of this book has a footnote, some of them very long and detailed, with the occasional note flowing over to the following page. My advice is: read them. There is much interesting, valuable and even crucial information contained in them. Many could easily have been included in the actual text.

    I found that the lack of any index something of an oversight. I am sure I am not alone in wanting to be able to quickly use this work when looking for references to authors and titles mentioned in the text. I found that the author included references to many writers and titles I would like to explore further.

    On the positive side, I found this work to be truly inspiring. Many of the titles mentioned I was already familiar with, but haven’t read in years – in some cases, decades. After reading this book I have decided that I need to revisit the works of Tolkien, Lewis, L’Engle, and LeGuin, and I even concede that I might even need to put aside my initial reservations and fully explore the world of Hogwarts (I have only read the first in the Harry Potter series, and didn’t like it.) What is more, the author has mentioned many other writers I am quite unfamiliar with, or I have only read one or two of their works.

    In conclusion, this volume is a valuable contribution to the academic discussion on fantasy in general, and its relationship with Christian traditions in particular. It is easy to read but thorough in its coverage. Highly recommended.

  3. Morton Benning – author of Playing God (verified owner)

    A brilliant historical overview of how the earliest writers of Fantasy literature in the English language shaped the genre from the earliest pre-fantasy fairy tales and folk stories to the epic fantasy novel we recognise today. The culmination of many years of research and teaching, Worthing has done an excellent job. This book is a must-have for those who love fantasy and who are interested in knowing how the modern genre came to be.

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