Saturday 27 March 2021

Defining high fantasy as an intrinsically Christian form: animism and providence

I have been pondering what it is that I most value in my favourite books of the 'fantasy' genre - or indeed in other media such as movies and TV. And I think it is a particular 'enchanted' feel, which could be described as including both animism and providence

Animism is the conviction that the natural world is alive and conscious - such that living beings (animals, trees) are also conscious; but most specifically those things that are usually considered to be not-alive ('dead') such as mountains, rivers, the sea - are also considered to be alive, aware, purposive to some significant degree. 

Thus, when the protagonists of a high fantasy are on a journey, then the landscape through which they move is a 'character' (or series of characters) in the story. 

Whereas in a low fantasy (sword and sorcery etc.) the landscape is just an environment: background scenery, or a series of challenges. 

Providence in high fantasy refers to the fact (or sense) that there is someone in the background influencing the course of events; more generally that there is a purpose or destiny (direction or teleology) influencing events. 

In high fantasy there is a 'macro' level of meaning, above or behind the plot. 

By contrast; low fantasy may be set in the context of a 'micro', close-up reality that is not going anywhere in particular - and success and failure tend to be defined in terms of happiness versus misery, attaining personal goals versus being thwarted or killed.  

From a Christian perspective, both animism and providence could be seen as referencing divine creation - a reality of meaning, purpose and personal relatedness; or even as a foretaste of the condition of Heaven. 

In this sense, high fantasy is an intrinsically Christian genre - since the personal-divine basis of reality is pretty-much specific to Christianity. 

Note added: The original English 'definition' of Romanticism comes from Wordsworth and Coleridge Lyrical Ballads (1798); in relation to which it was said that Wordsworth was writing about (implicitly animistic) nature, and Coleridge was dealing with the supernatural (with reference to some kind of providence).


PhilR said...

Intriguing. I wonder where someone like Paul Kingsnorth (The Wake/The Beast/Alexandria) fits along this continuum? His trajectory from radical environmentalism to Christian Orthodoxy seems to indicate he has been making the decisions you might approve!

Bruce Charlton said...

@Phil - I am only narrowly (albeit deeply) read in the fantasy genre - so I have never heard of Kingsnorth.

Notice that I am not saying that high fantasy is explicitly Christian - in fact it hardly-ever is (e.g. Tolkien isn't); but that there is this basic *compatibility* with Romantic Christianity, and that this is waht is responsible for that special quality which people like me seek in fantasy.

PhilR said...

Thanks Bruce. Neither am I deeply read in the genre. It's just that some of the authors I have read recently seem implicitly to be exploring the 'original'to 'final' consciousness path. Susanna Clarke appears to be of that way of thinking (there was a reference to Barfield in Piranesi) and Kingsnorth possibly explicitly so. Imaginatively, if nothing else, these two at least are entirely compatible with a Romantic Christian outlook. Indeed it seems to be on the increase to me at any rate, but then I'm on the lookout for it!

Bruce Charlton said...

@PhilR - Susanna Clarke was doing high fantasy (by this definition) in Strange and Norrell, where the Raven King was analogous to divine providence and England became animistic as magic was restored.

But not in Piranesi; where the protagonist's impression of living in Original Participation was revealed to be false; and the revealed story frame was that of materialistic mundane modernity; and the 'solution, to alienation and meaninglessness as knowingly to choose a pleasant delusion.

David Stanley said...

Bruce I thought of you the other day as I listed to Paul Vanderklays youtube reaction to Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrooks discussion of St Cuthbert. That is your neck of the woods I believe? I kept wishing you were there to offer some local knowledge!

Jonathan said...

Interestingly, this post reminded me of Paul Kingsnorth as well!

TroperA said...

I hear a lot of fedoratipper movie critics on Youtube complain because the horror genre has Christian elements to it, in how it looks at sexual immorality or the notion of evil being demonic. A lot of atheists prefer Lovecraftian horror where man's place in the universe is insignificant. I wonder if you had any thoughts about that.

Bruce Charlton said...

@TA - I don't know much about the horror and Lovecraftian genres; but what I have seen does agree with what you say. I have watched quite a few good horror type movies in which the validity of the Roman Catholic church and its sacraments and symbols was simply assumed.

And, as you say, it is pretty obvious that many Lovecraft enthusiasts celebrate and assert the idea of Man's insignificance in a universe that cares nothing about him.

On teh other hand, while he is not my kind of writer, I recognize that Lovecraft was a significant and worthwhile author - and I have read and enjoyed several of Colin Wilson's novels (Mind Parasites, Philosopher's Stone, Space Vampires) that were set in the Lovecraft universe.

PhilR said...

@Bruce. You're right about the specific ending of Piranesi. My point is that Clarke is 'playing the game' as it were, even if refusing at the final hurdle (excuse the mixed metaphor). Kingsnorth even more so; although Alexandria ends in a bit of a pan theistic fudge. I wonder what the archetypal 'romantic Christian' artwork would look like? Would it even be recognisable as such?

Bruce Charlton said...

@PR - " I wonder what the archetypal 'romantic Christian' artwork would look like?"

It would look like The Place of the Lion, The Narnia Chronicles, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, or Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell* - for instance.

There are many ways to do it, or for it to happen - also, other (not Romantic Christian) works can provide glimpses of enchantment, which do not structure the works (and may even go against their grain) but which perhaps are what gives their special appeal, or their high points.

This sometimes happens, even yet, in mass mainstream art such as movies and TV.

*Interestingly, according to an interview with the Church Times - - Susanna Clarke currently self-identifies as a Christian (which she did not do when writing S&N); but because she has joined a liberal 'Christian' church, and for primarily therapeutic reasons, she is actually further from Romantic Christianity Now (i.e. in Piranesi) than 20 years ago (i.e. in S&N, when she was not a 'practicing' Christian).

Wurmbrand said...

Paul Kingsnorth has published no book since his entrance into the Church (Orthodoxy) in, I believe, this January. His thus becoming a Christian is very recent. This comes out towards the end of this good interview:

Wurmbrand said...

Francis Spufford has written publicly as a Christian. His wife is a member of the C of E clergy, however, and he has written to the chair of a British humanist society, "I don't think anyone's going to hell, hell being a human construct behind which Christians hide from the alarming consequences of God's generosity." He refers to the "massively misleading present-day association of 'sin with sexual behaviour no-one should be upset about," etc. So I don't expect much from his new novel Light Perpetual, which sounds a leetle bit Charles Williamsy, but I will probably read (but not buy) it.

Bruce Charlton said...

I'm not sure of the point about Paul Kingnorth with respect to high/ low fantasy in his fiction - but he comes across as a deeply deluded leftist in his non-fiction persona. Maybe that may change, but not a consequence of being in a British Orthodox church per se - he would have to discover the errors for himself.

Bruce Charlton said...

I have never heard of Francis Spufford's novels either! But he is beloved by The Guardian newspaper and spouts all the usual leftist lies, so I would not hold out many hopes for his work simply because he publicly self-identifies as a Christian. (after all - even Rowan Williams and Justin Welby have, albeit rarely, both been known to claim to be Christian...) Of course FS may write good quality high fantasy in despite of this - I don't know.

Jonathan said...

I don't think he is a leftist to be honest, he is relatively outside of The System (to the extent that you can do that of course), quite anti-modern, homeschooling the kids, living in a rural part of Ireland and trying to be self-sufficient. His environmentalism is based on his personal experience of the pollution/degradation etc not on carbon numbers.

Recently he wrote a short story that is very much Lewis/Williams-esque:

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jonathan - "anti-modern, homeschooling the kids, living in a rural part of Ireland and trying to be self-sufficient. His environmentalism is based on his personal experience of the pollution/degradation etc not on carbon numbers."

In the UK, all of these are ideological leftist markers - I mean, almost everybody is statist leftist here (including 'conservative' evangelicals, traditionalist Catholics and even the nationalists); but these concerns are signs of a very explicit, activist, more 'anarchist', hippie-derived kind of leftism. (I used to be one!)

He may nonetheless have written good high fantasy despite being an evil-affiliated leftist 'IRL' - as did JK Rowling. The constraints of good storytelling are intrinsically anti-leftist, and people with a real talent may produce Good work, being led by their talent rather than their worldly affiliations.

For example, yesterday I re-watched Guardians of the Galaxy 2 which is a superb movie of its kind, very funny and also moving. Yet the director James Gunn is, I believe, one of that typically Establishment mass media type of loathsome scum who I would shun in real life - based on reading scores of the vile twitter exchanges he indulged in (defended and unrepented). I presume that he is such an outcome-motivated director, that the (intrinsically natural law based) imperatives of effective narrative overwhelmed the evil ideas, when he is was making this movie.

Epimetheus said...

There was evil hidden in plain sight in that movie if I recall correctly: the hero's funeral at the end is held for a former child trafficker - Yondu - and that specific sin was not explicitly repented. In fact, the film itself draws no attention to the magnitude of his crimes whatsoever. "He told me he wouldn't hurt them."

He stole several thousand children from their mothers and got a hero's funeral at the end.

I came out of the theatre nauseated and sick on that one, even more so when I saw those tweets. Hidden in plain sight.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Epi - Fair comment. But it did not, and does not, strike me that way in narrative context. In context, I would say there certainly was repentance - and it was effective, as repentance is effective. It is not Christian, but an analogy with the Christian story, a symbol for it; which evokes a kind of sympathetic resonance.

You understand, I am using this as an extreme example. Very high quality (albeit popular) art; (probably) a very vile man (mostly) was responsible. Honesty entails acknowledging both.

But I am not impressed by the way that most people retrospectively rubbish the work of those who are discovered to have been egregious sinners - it is a species of dishonesty hence a sin in itself.

Here is the important point: When it comes to high fantasy, or indeed to creative work in general; a genuine motivation to do good work creates a very considerable autonomy from the personality, beliefs, attitudes and behaviour of the doer.

(At least for a while - because corruption tends to increase (especially when unrepented), and sooner or later overwhelms the motivation to do good work.)