Monday, 7 September 2015

Part Two Writing Fantasy

by Jeanette O'Hagan

A few weeks ago, we discussed some reasons why Christians may be wary of Fantasy (What is Fantasy). Yet this genre also offers great opportunities to talk about God and faith. Fantasy can engage the reader, often highlights the ongoing struggle between good and evil on a cosmic scale, and provides opportunities for analogy and metaphor of important themes. 

So how might Christians include fantastical and supernatural elements in fiction? Before we answer that question, I think it's important to understand some basic concepts.

Different Types of Fantasy

Fantasy comes in a number of different forms—from high fantasy, low fantasy, sword and sorcery, fairy tales, secondary world, portal, allegorical, animal tales, historical, ghost stories, paranormal, urban, even horror—and may include magical realism or supernatural/spiritual tales. 

Each of these approaches includes fantastical and supernatural elements to different extents and with a different relationship to realism. 

To confuse the picture even more, there can be a cross-over between science-fiction and fantasy— for instance Anne Macaffrey’s Dragons of Pern series includes dragons but eventually gives a natural explanation for these creatures. Similarly popular origin stories of superheroes give a naturalistic explanations for their fantastic superpowers.

High Fantasy is usually about world shaking events, involves prophecies, wizards, magical creatures, quests, battle between good and evil, and high stakes while low fantasy may be on a smaller scale, grittier, less magical elements or more political. Much fantasy is secondary world (an alternative reality other than earth— like Tolkien’s Middle Earth or the world of Eragon), portal (where there is a doorway to another world e.g. Narnia, the Wizard of Oz, or Alice in Wonderland) or alternative reality. Fantasy may be set in our world but still clearly meant to be imaginary— for instance fairy tales, animal anthropomorphism (animals acting like humans as in Wind in the Willows, Peter Rabbit or Watership Downs), historical (Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy) or verge on allegory (Anna Elizabeth Stengl’s Heartless or many of George MacDonald’s fairy tales). Paranormal and urban fantasy is about creatures of legend such as vampires, werewolves, witches, zombies or ghosts and are usually set in a modern, contemporary world (eg the Twilight series but also Mike Duran’s The Ghost Box – or even Dickins The Christmas Carol). Magical realism might include symbolic supernatural elements in otherwise realist story which are presented without comment (Life of Pi, Chocolat). And for some stories the supernatural is included as a higher rather than an imagined reality— stories of angles, prayer, miracles (eg Frank Peretti or Angelguard). Some writers of fantasy are naturalists and/or may use fantastical elements with a basic anti-supernatural message (eg Pullman’s The Golden Compass).

Different Definitions of Magic

To further confuse the issue, 'magic' like 'love' is an amorphous word—it has a range of meanings from the illusionist’s tricks, the purely imaginary or unrealistic tropes of fiction (flying horses or carpets), to actual practices of traditional and tribal religions or neo-paganism (New Age, Wiccan, modern Shamanism etc). Miracles might also appear to be ‘magic’ to an outsider.

In fantasy, the fantastical and magical elements are not meant to correspond to the world as we know it. Fantasy is more than magic— imaginative visions of different worlds, fantastic or imaginary creatures or different realities.  These imaginative forays push the boundaries of our known reality, in part to entertain, but also as a way of thinking about the world.

As Neil Gaiman says in Coraline (paraphrasing G. K. Chesterton), ‘Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.’ 

However, with the resurgence of alternative spirituality and post-modernism, magical elements can begin to bleed into real-world beliefs and practices about a magic that draws from a polytheistic or animistic world-view. Prayers, rituals, divination either invoke or seek to control and manipulate spiritual beings (gods, spirits) or forces (mana, chi, life-force) or tap into an essential fatalism (implicit in omens, astrology etc). 

Fictional magical systems (overlap with ‘real’):
  1. True words— finding the true word or name gives you control over a person or thing.
  2. Gifts, talents or abilities— telepathy, prescience, telekinesis, superpowers, illusion or changing shape.
  3. Knowledge— of atomic structure, of the true nature of things, of natural or supernatural power source.
  4. Spiritual or religious— through prayer, ritual or relationship with God (or in polytheism–gods, spirits, ghosts).
  5. Communication, manipulation, control of spiritual entities or the dead.
  6. Possession by or channelling a supernatural being/s.
  7. Curse or failure to move on after death – e.g. werewolves, vampires, ghosts
  8. Magical nature – e.g. unicorns, fairies

So what is at stake here?

The Bible clearly prohibits real-world magical practices because:
  1. The Creator is the ultimate source of blessing and He determines our destiny.  He wants us to depend on Him, not to go through intermediaries.
  2. While the spiritual forces invoked have some power, they are both deceitful and hostile.
  3. So ‘magic’ (calling or using supernatural power through a supernatural intermediary other than God) is ultimately harmful and entangles us in malign spiritual forces.

However, the Bible doesn’t discourage the expression of the supernatural in the Christian’s life through the right channels such as faith, prayer, the working of the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts.  ‘Magic’ is a counterfeit of God’s (supernatural) work in the world.

And, I would add that the Bible also warns us against another extreme – a materialism that, if it doesn’t deny God’s existence, at the very least claims achievements and prosperity as the result of our own intelligence and effort. Pride and rebellion against God are just as destructive and soul destroying as sorcery and witchcraft (Deuteronomy 8:17,18; 9:4; 1 Samuel 15:23).

In both cases, we need to acknowledge God as the source of blessing and direction.

Different Approaches for Writing Christian Fantasy

Steven D. Greydanus suggests J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis put ‘hedges’ around the portrayal of magic in their fantasy fiction through a clear distinction between the imaginary fictional world and real-world practices and by confining the use of magic to supporting characters (the wise old wizard that helps the protagonist rather than the protagonist themselves).

Travis Perry suggests six positive ways to include magic in Christian fantasy:
  1. Only the villains use ‘magic’ – while the ‘good guys’ either use ordinary means or rely on God’s power.
  2. Rename miracles ‘magic’ and prophets ‘wizards’ (that is, have prophets and miracles dependent on God’s power— even though using the terms ‘magic’ and ‘wizards’).
  3. Treat magic as an allegory for the workings of God (deep magic in Lion, Witch and Wardrobe).
  4. Magic is a form of undiscovered science (just as our use of electricity and machines would appear magical to a medieval person).
  5. Blur the lines between the supernatural and the natural, by making the supernatural a fabric of everyday life (eg Alice in Wonderland – everything is fantastical).
  6. Have innate supernatural talents as an analogy for spiritual gifts.

I think it helps to consider the source of magic, how it is used, by whom and for what reasons. The nature of the magic within the world may be explicitly stated or implicit. I’d suggest that you:
  1. Have a clear distinction between good and evil (though there may be shades of grey, heroes and heroines are flawed & villains are never pure evil).
  2. Ask what is the source of 'magic' in your world – is it from a good God, from innate power or ability (which would be directly or indirectly a gift of God), or is there a natural explanation (e.g. telepathy as brainwaves)? Be cautious about magic drawing on a life force or power lines or some esoteric knowledge, while invoking, manipulating or controlling spiritual beings other than God might be confined to antagonists or presented as a false step by protagonists.
  3. Ask who can use ‘magic’ and how—is it something everyone can use or is it reserved to special people (superpowers or professionals), is it intuitive or does it require study and training, does it depend on one’s relationship with God (or other supernatural beings) or on natural abilities?
  4. Indicate the motivation for using magic— is it to manipulate other people, to harm (black magic) or to heal and help them (white magic). Yet even ‘white magic’ is harmful if it comes from the wrong source.
  5. Show how the villains’ use of ‘magic’ differs from the ‘good guys’? Do they use a different type of magic or do they wield it in a different (maybe illicit) ways or for different reasons?
  6. Consider how blurred the lines are between what is clearly imagination and reality. Could it be confused for contemporary dabbling in magic and thus encourage further involvement or exploration of such avenues?

Some examples:

Paul Gallico’s The Man Who Was Magic— A magician arrives in town of magicians or illusionists famous for their use props, sleights of hands and tricks. The difference is the stranger can do ‘real’ magic— producing a real rose out of thin air with the dew still on the petals. Jealous and afraid of losing their livelihoods and reputations, the false magicians wish to kill the stranger. This story is a powerful allegory of Jesus’ story (the true magician where the magic of the others is counterfeit).

C S Lewis Narnia series—the villains are often witches or magicians (Jardis, the White Witch, the Lady of the Green Kirtle, Uncle Andrew). Their magic is used for selfish reasons or to control and manipulate others, and is opposed to the powerful and true magic of Aslan the Lion (analogy for Christ-figure) and his father, the Emperor over the Seas. The children are given gifts (including Lucy’s magical cordial which heals) or signs (as with Jill in the Silver Chair) but it is their faith in Aslan that is most important. Narnia is a fantastical world in which animals talk and the stars have human form.

In Tolkien’s Middle Earth—the elves have innate magical abilities while men, dwarves and hobbits do not. The magicians like Gandalf are physical personifications of angels (Istari), sent by the creator God to guide elves and men back to him. Necromancy, sorcery are condemned and the great power of the One Ring will corrupt and subvert the good in even the best and must be destroyed rather than used.

This is a complex issue and I found it hard to cover all the issues succinctly—so I do apologise for a rather lengthy post. I hope I’ve given some direction and, more importantly, something to think about.  On Thursday, I want to approach this issue from the perspective of the reader, including young readers.

What about Fantasy?
Part One - Should we read/write Fantasy
Part Two - Writing Fantasy (that's this one)
Part Three - Reading Fantasy

Other posts:
Saints, Seekers and Sleepers
What is Christian Fiction?

Fantasy Image: Jeanette O'Hagan © 2015 

Jeanette O'Hagan has a short story published in the general market Tied in Pink Romance Anthology  (profits from the anthology go towards Breast Cancer research) in December 2014 and two poems in the Poetica Christi’s Inner Child anthology launched in July 2015. She has practiced medicine, studied communication, history and theology and has taught theology.  She cares for her school-aged children, has just finished her Masters of Arts (Writing) at Swinburne University and is writing her Akrad's fantasy fiction series.  

You can read some of her short fiction here

You can find her at her Facebook Page or at Goodreads or on her websites or Jeanette O'Hagan Writes .


  1. Thanks for another awesome post, Jenny. I'm bookmarking it immediately. Not only are those lists and tables so interesting and clearly set out, but there are several book recommendations I'll pick up. I especially love the different distinctions of magic in fantasy, as it may clear up all sorts of misgivings and confusions Christian readers (and their parents, if they are young people) may have.

    1. Thanks Paula. I'm glad it comes across clearly (I was little worried it might be information overload :) ). I was also thinking about giving an annotated reading list on Thursday's post.

  2. Wow, that was certainly comprehensive. And I thought I had it nailed by knowing the difference between fantasy and sci-fi :) Thanks for a really well thought out and well-researched post. I don't write much fantasy at the moment, but those guidelines will come in handy when I do.

    1. Thanks Nola. I look forward to your fantasy writing :)

  3. Thanks for an informative post, Jeanette. I've been on the periphery of a number of discussions attempting to determine the boundary between different fantasy and science fiction sub-genres. It is interesting the variety of perspectives readers and writers hold on such matters.

  4. I had to go back and read these. Fabulous, Jenny. This post is bookmark worthy. I'm sure I will come back to it again and again. I've always wondered how to differentiate between fantasy and science fiction. I loved reading about writing Christian fantasy. I really want to try that. After I finish the middle-grade adventure novel. Excellent tips, my friend. Well written post. Thank you!