Why a Priest Writes Christian Fantasy
After being overwhelmed with new summer TV shows, Game Of Thrones–House of the Dragon and The Lord of the Rings – The Rings of Power, I’ve thought a lot about why I write Christian fantasy. I should really qualify that. If I say I write Christian fantasy, I could be lumped in with the many Christian fantasy novelists who write fantasy with a proselytizing bent. The label might lead a potential reader to confuse me with one who writes thinly veiled, usually poor stories that emphasize a certain dogma or teaching with a heaviness that overwhelms the story itself. I’m not that kind of writer.
Although they are much taller than me, I ally myself with GK Chesterton, CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and Madeleine L’Engle, writers whose writings have a basis in Christian theology but whose narrative is never overwhelmed by theological prose. Their novels have this Christian basis, but it functions like an ocean on which floats the ship of history. You care a lot more about what’s on the ship than what’s in the waters around it, and yet the ship really couldn’t go anywhere without those waves.
I write in the Urban/Rural fantasy and Paranormal Thriller genres. Urban/rural fantasy is modern fantasy that deals with wonder and magic in everyday aspects of life. Paranormal thrillers are action-packed adventures that have a bit of the supernatural about them. I do this for the following reasons:
The Bad Need for Wonder and Magic – ‘Grimdark’ Literature
- People crave a good, catchy story that tells a story of wonder and magic. The two very popular shows based on popular books I mentioned above are testament to this. Add to that the comic book adaptations of The Walking Dead and the Netflix thriller Manifest that dramatize people’s taste for apocalyptic stories. A good writer responds to what those who hear the story like and prefer.
- Unfortunately, modern readers and movie connoisseurs have tended to stray radically from the fantasy that the classic authors I mentioned gave us. There is a dark thirst for dystopian narratives, tales with plot lines devoid of moral values and a penchant to gravitate towards novels and films of a nihilistic nature. Loosely translated, it seems like a lot of people prefer their stories chaotic and devoid of any positive meaning. The game world gives a name to the new genre of literature: ‘grimdark’. I have a natural aversion to it. I recognize people’s need for action, wonder and magic, but I would also like to bring them back to the real and the beautiful. For me, it is an obligation of a writer, of a storyteller.
‘Noblebright’ Literature – The Right Need for Wonder and Magic
- The game universe also gives literature a flip side to “grimdark”, another new genre called “noblebright”. Basically, it contains stories that have happy endings and heroes with a moral compass. There is sadness and grief, yes, but with hopeful resolution. For consistency, I would identify with that. But, in the end, this genre is not enough for me.
Higher and Further – An Even Better Way to Write Fantasy
- JRR Tolkien’s famous essay On fairy tales makes it very clear that “true fantasy” has rules by which it lives. One of the most important rules is that there must be a quality of joy present in the story. Of course, this joy can be touched by grief or tainted by sin – after all, fantasy is only a shadow of the fallen world we live in – but the joy must be present in such a way that it yearns for a reality where an even greater joy is present. It must make us want a place where no shadow falls. In reality, it makes us yearn, albeit unconsciously, for paradise.
- The second major rule is that the fantasy must lead to a happy ending. It’s not as simple as it seems. The end of a particular story can be tragic or good. While tragic, it reveals what would have been necessary to bring those involved to light, and it cannot be the final end of the story. If he is good, he reveals that even in the midst of grief, or the fact that not all characters live happily ever after, goodness prevails over evil. What must be present is eucatastrophe–the sudden and favorable turn towards an ending not merely happy, but tending towards a joy beyond all joys. This is because Tolkien believes that all good stories told by humans are a reflection of the only true story, which is the resurrection of Christ. When I write fantasy or thriller, that’s what I’m striving for, and it’s a bit beyond just “noble brilliance.”
Some hate the supernatural source of Christian fantasy
- Of course, much of humanity now rejects such notions. Some see Charles RR Martin game of thrones novels as classics of the fantasy genre. They are not. The novels and TV series they spawned are indeed action-packed and full of wonder and magic. But in a fantasy world that has aimless violence, almost all the good characters killed off, and no moral values that can overcome the darkness of the narrative, it’s hard to imagine there will ever be a good ending to this tale. ‘Grimdark’ stories are nihilistic.
Even “Noblebright” fantasy literature is limited
- Even ‘noblebright’ stories are often limited. Noble characters and brave deeds abound, but they are often detached from any objective moral standard. Watch the Harry Potter stories. Harry does good deeds, but they are good because the author says they are good. Lord Voldemort is bad because the author says he is bad. There is little valuable supernatural underpinning in these tales, “noble” or not.
Does Tolkien offer a solution? Yes! Check rings of power TV series
- Compare all this with the new rings of power series based on Tolkien’s appendices in The Lord of the Rings. For those watching closely, it’s not hard to see that Tolkien’s rules for fantasy are still intact in the new TV series. There is real goodness in the midst of darkness, and even in the ambiguous actions of the characters in this tale there is always a desire to do good, to be noble, and to find the truth. There is a Christian foundation even for power rings which makes it quantifiably different from Game of Thrones – House of the Dragon series. And, perhaps most importantly, it is elevated above the Harry Potter novels, for in Tolkien’s universe the rules of good, true, and beautiful are not formed by mankind, but by a greater power.
The practical results sought in fantasy based on Christian principles
If you’re still with me, you’ve endured the philosophical reasons I write Christian fantasy. Now let’s move on to the practical aspects.
- Urban/rural fantasy and paranormal thrillers take place in this world. I love epic fantasy, but this was done to death. Much of the reading public yearns for realism, for a magic closer to real life.
- Good and evil are clearly defined, though both protagonist and antagonist may operate with shades of gray.
- The world in which these genres operate is this world, and that means it is a fallen world. Sin abounds. Evil is present.
- Part of a writer’s job is to make magic realistic for this world. The reader has to say, “Well, I’ve never seen that, but it might be possible.” This is perhaps the hardest part of an author’s job in writing urban/rural and paranormal fantasy thrillers. The writer must be good at all other aspects of writing and must add that talent as well.
- I like to give my readers a sense of wonder and wonder; surprising them with joy, if I may borrow from Lewis. I’m Irish so I believe in Thin Places, those places and times where the natural world and the supernatural meet and touch. Putting them in my stories is one of my ways of communicating spirituality to the reader without being a preacher or teacher. It allows the most cynical and nihilistic person to see that there is still something good in this old world.
- I want my reader to end my story with a eucatastrophic moment; say, “Well, if it’s not like that, it should be!” And then sighing with pleasure at a well-told good ending.
- When they close my book, I want the reader to look at the real world with all of its pain and suffering with a new understanding. I want them to take a deep breath and say with renewed purpose that they can bring a new force for good to a world desperately yearning for joy.
How Writing Christian Fantasy Fits Into the Life of a Priest
This is my task as a priest, and this is how I preach through my writings. I light a fire around which people gather, and through my stories, teach them the stories of God. Tolkien would say I do it by sub-creation – the human way of imitating God in order to let God’s Word shine through. That’s the beauty of Tolkien’s method of filling the reader’s soul with the Good News, often unwittingly. The reader just feels touched with happiness and joy after the story has been told. Ultimately, that’s what we spreaders of the gospel do: plant a seed, water it with a story, light it with truth, and let God do the rest.
If you are interested, all my books are available on Amazon.com and
Recommended: Tolkien Essay, On fairy tales
full text here: On Fairy-Stories: JRR Tolkien: Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming: Internet Archive