Friday, March 05, 2010

Why don't Jewish writers write fantasies like Narnia?

HT: Steve Hays.

37 comments:

Bilbo said...

I think fantasy is essentially paganism, whether baptized paganism as in MacDonald, Tolkien, or Lewis, or unbaptized. And Paganism is essentially non-Jewish.

Bjørn Are said...

Fantasy shows that we are created in the image of God, and subcreators.

A nice, theistic proof.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Probably because they don't have the urge to spread the word that Christians do. They are happy writing books that aren't crypto-theology.

J said...

baptized paganism

The best sort! Sanc-ti-fied.

That said, Bulfinch surely outdoes the fables of the Old Testament for sheer entertainment value--what's the so-called House of David compared to...Perseus vs. the Gorgons, etc.

For that matter, the Septuagint was a greek text anyway, regardless of what sunday school tradition (or rabbinical) insists...

Bilbo said...

BDK, Lewis, Tolkien, MacDonald, and Charles Williams didn't write fantasy "to spread the word." They wrote fantasy because that was what they loved to read from the time they were children. You might as well say Ursula K. LeGuin (definitely not a Christian) wrote fantasy "to spread the word."

Anonymous said...

@BDK: What you write will be influenced by what you think. They are not different in spreading the word than you are. Although they were more successful.

Mark said...

I guess I agree with most of the article's reasons. Why don't black writers write fantasies like Narnia? Probably because fantasy novels heavily veer toward celebrating reimagined versions of their authors' own (Christian Western European) distant past. While there are many Jews and black people who like Narnia and Middle Earth, I'd bet a good deal would report feeling like such worlds weren't really "made for" them.

Mike Darus said...

"A Series of Unfortunate Events" by Lemony Snicket (David Handler) is a fun and educational series of 13 books. The movie sprinted through three of the books. It is full of world view lessons -- big on teaching vocabulary and promoting education. Adults make mistakes that cause children to suffer. Education, invention and biting are important life skills. If it is an analogy too, I didn't get it. But in other ways it comes close to Narnia.

Blue Devil Knight said...
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Blue Devil Knight said...

Bilbo said:
"Lewis, Tolkien, MacDonald, and Charles Williams didn't write fantasy "to spread the word."

My point was that while Jews write plenty of fantasy, it is not like Narnia which is a specifically Christian/theological allegory. Lord of the Rings is a very different thing, it isn't a Christian allegory.

Perhaps the reason is the same as why there isn't a Jewish 'Left Behind' type series.

Mike Darus said...

You are right. It is not as though Gandolf died and was resurrected. The power of the temptation of the ring even over the most humble of creatures probably has nothing to do anything in Christian theology. There is nothing meant by the personification of pure evil in Sauron. There is no message about depersonalization in the industrial age. Was cloning being discussed back then? Tolkien takes no position about just war and the ravages of war.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Mike: ET the extra terrestrial came back to life, but Speilberg wasn't giving a Christian story. Coming back from the dead isn't a uniquely Christian theme!

As for Lord of the Rings, when asked about this topic, Tolkein was quite explicit that his story is not an allegory.

That's not to say LOTR has no point or there is no moral of the story. That's a different topic. For Tolkein, one of his main points was that individuals fighting for what is right can have rather dramatic effects on history.

If you want to talk about influence on Tolkien, look at the pagans. If you read the Silmarillion, which details the cosmology of Middle Earth, it is a polytheistic world where the Gods have the foibles and jealousies of ordinary people. The various languages he invents are taken largely from Nordic and Celtic mythology, where you also find resurrection motifs.

But as I said, it would be a mistake to interpret his books as an allegory, Christian or pagan. He just wanted to write entertaining fiction for his son.

Obviously I have spent much too much time reading Tolkien, and frankly he was in a different league than Lewis. Lewis is like a schoolboy next to Tolkien (as a fantasy author).

Bilbo said...

Hi BDK,

First, I agree with you that Tolkien was a better writer of fiction than Lewis. As for expository, I would opt for Lewis. Tolkien's "On Fairy Tales," is very good, but very difficult to get through.
I disagree with your characterization of the cosmology of Middle Earth as polytheistic. The creation story is monotheistic, with Eru (Iluvatar), the One, first creating the Ainur, the Holy Ones, and then allowing them to help create Middle Earth. It is the greatest of the Ainur, Melkor, who rebels, screws up creation (which Iluvatar eventually redeems), and becomes known as Morgoth. I can't remember if there is any in-fighting among the rest of the Ainur, though there certainly was among the Elves. But Tolkien's cosmology is still essentially monotheistic, even though Iluvatar's presence in the storyline is virtually non-existent after the creation.
But getting back to the article's point, the author contends that there are no major fantasy writers who are Jewish. And a distancing of themselves from Paganism seems to be one of the main reasons.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Bilbo: Great points on Middle Earth cosmology. Very interesting stuff you seem to know it, probably better than me (and given your name, you better!).

The Ainur seem to me to be supernatural beings that created everything in the natural world via their song, a song that Iluvatar observed (including the discordant tones of Melkor). They were part of the original "void" before there was any Earth, taking part in creation. They generally have the ability to control nature in ways that the derived beings (Humans, Elves, Dwarves) do not. They are immmortal (though admittedly the Elves are too, but this is a cumulative case).

That makes me want to call them Gods, or perhaps demigods, even if they do derive their being from Iluvatar.

However, whether we call this world monotheistic or polytheistic, the influence from Nordic myths (polytheistic) is quite strong. There seem to be more than one supernatural being that influences things, which is basically polytheism.

Incidentally, that brings up a sort of interesting side issue. What would be wrong with a believer in Greek gods saying Christianity is polytheistic, because there is the Devil and God. We have Zeus, the most powerful king of Gods, but we also have Hades and such. We aren't all that different metaphysically. I understand you worship this one God (just as I worship Zeus), but I define gods more broadly than you do to include all sorts of supernatural beings, and my broader definition would absorb this Satan fellow you guys seem to loathe so.

Also, you are right about the point of the original author, but his starting premise that Jews don't write fantasy is just silly. Isaac Singer, Neil Gaiman, Marge Piercy, Michael Chabon, Peter Beagle, Charles Stross, Esther Friesner, etc..

Sure these authors aren't as well known as Tolkien, but I found the premise so flatly absurd that going over his explanation of this claim seemed moot. Perhaps I should have been more open to it. Clearly he is right that Jews are best known for science fiction rather than midevil-style fantasy (e.g., Asimov etc).

Bilbo said...

Hi BDK,

Iluvatar "propounded the themes" and then the Ainur sang them. I guess it would sorta' resemble a jazz ensemble, where the band leader starts the song and then the other musicians join in and improvise, but in harmony -- except for Melkor.

I don't know much about Nordic mythology, but that was certainly one of Tollkien's areas of expertise, so you're probably right about its influence in LOTR.

I would say that the difference between monotheism and polytheism is that God is uncreated in the former, and everything else is created by God; while in polytheism all the gods seem to owe their existence to some impersonal, primeval state. So yes, the Ainur are supernatural, but are contingent, and depend upon their Creator for their existence, who would be the real head honcho.

I've read a little of Singer, and yes there were supernatural elements in it, but would you call it fantasy? Peter S. Beagle is Jewish?! Who knew? I loved The Last Unicorn! I haven't read the others, though I saw that one fantasy movie based on Gaiman's book. OK, you win. The article is screwy. Though now I wonder if it's because some Jews are becoming more Pagan.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Bilbo, your characterization seems reasonable, I think we could characterize Middle Earth as monotheistic in the sense you describe. On the other hand, the Greek mythology has Gaea, who gave birth to Uranus, with whom she mated to produce the remaining gods. That wouldn't seem to justify characterizing it as monotheistic, even though all the others (Titans and Olympians) derive from Gaea.

So perhaps Iluvatar is like Gaea, and the Ainur are like the Titans/Olympians.

There are probably arguments that could be made either way. Regardless, I don't see a lot of obvious Christianity within Tolkein's fantasy, even though he was a devout Roman Catholic.

J said...

The various languages he invents are taken largely from Nordic and Celtic mythology

Yes, as with the Ring lore itself, from the Ring of Nibelungs (also one of Wagner's fave legends obviously), which some allege ultimately derives from hindu sources, the Vedas, via greek and nordic myths, etc.

Tolkien may have been nominally Christian, yet the polytheistic/pantheistic elements can hardly be denied (but most kids reading it generally don't get it, until later, when it's sort of boring sword and sorcery...). Really, it's been a decade or so since I perused The middle earth sagas , but I generally thought Sauron was....winning

Anonymous said...

@BDK:

You're making a couple of mistakes here BDK, some have already been corrected.

ET the extra terrestrial came back to life, but Speilberg wasn't giving a Christian story. Coming back from the dead isn't a uniquely Christian theme! But ET wasn't sent back by the creator of the world, something that is explicitly stated by Gandalf in lotr.

As for Lord of the Rings, when asked about this topic, Tolkein was quite explicit that his story is not an allegory.
This is correct, but he was also very explicit that his story could be used to make certain points clear, and those points were mostly about christianity. When someone wrote him that his work has an air of holyness to it (whatever that means) he took this as the biggest compliment he ever recieved.

He just wanted to write entertaining fiction for his son.
That was how things were with the hobbit, but it's clearly false about lord of the rings. You'll find tons of evidence against this in almost any Tolkien biography.

Blue Devil Knight said...
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Blue Devil Knight said...

Anon I recently read the authorized bio of Tolkien, so let me help you with your confusion.

1. On anon's claim that Tolkein didn't write LOTR for his son:
"Tolkien abandoned The Lord of the Rings during most of 1943 and only re-started it in April 1944, as a serial for his son Christopher Tolkien, who was sent chapters as they were written while he was serving in South Africa with the Royal Air Force."

Citations can be found in Wikipedia, or in Tolkien's authorized biography.

2. Tolkein emphatically said the book was not an allegory, not a metaphor, but simply meant it to be a good fun old-school story that does have some morals (and these morals can be found lots of places, though some Christians want to claim them as their own). It is not crypto-theology.

Tolkien: "I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence."

3. On the gods bringing beings back to life somehow being evidence that Tolkien was indeed using the book to make Christian points. The resurrection motif is is in lots of myths such as the Nordic myths from which Tolkien drew inspiration. At any rate, he already said that he didn't mean it as crypto-theology.

4. Gandalf never says explicitly he was sent back by the creator of the world (and even if he did, it wouldn't establish anon's point). Gandalf just says he was "sent back." Could be by Iluvatar or the Maia. We don't know from the book because he doesn't explicitly say, contrary to what anon averred.

Hope that helps clear up your confusion, anon.

Anyway, this is now getting besides the point. My point was that the Lord of the Rings was not a Christian allegory in the sense of the Narnia stories. This is clear, everyone agrees. Thanks for your time.

Anonymous said...

@BDK:

You're making a simple logical mistake in your first point: T was writing lotr for his son and ALSO for the inklings. Claiming that he wrote it for his son doesn't exclude a wider audience. As a matter of fact he regularly read the chapters of lotr to the inklings and was often motivated by Lewis to continue. This was different with the hobbit, he wrote this book propably exclusively for his children.

Tolkien: "I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence."

It's a famous quote and I'm familiar with it. I said nothing that contradicts it. Gandalf is not an allegorical person, but he has properties which are used to transport certain christian motives.

The resurrection motif is is in lots of myths such as the Nordic myths from which Tolkien drew inspiration.

I suggest you read up on the inklings thoughts about the relation of myth and the christian story. Tolkien thought that those nordic myths are something like a prototype of what is to come in christianity.

I hope this enough to correct your mistakes.

Bilbo said...

Probably the best thing to read to understand Tolkien's view of LOTR is his own essay, "On Fairy-Stories." The first part of the essay is rather pedantic. You might want to skip to the part, "Recovery, Escape, Consolation."

After reading his essay (or before, it doesn't matter) reading his short story, "Leaf by Niggle," will also help. A hint: Tolkien is Niggle (he said so in an interview).

Blue Devil Knight said...
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Anonymous said...

@BDK:
I've barely seen a discussion on this blog where you haven't been calling people with more knowledge trolls. Maybe it's time to consider that you can actually learn something from others.

Blue Devil Knight said...
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Blue Devil Knight said...

Bilbo should be first in this response...

Bilbo: yes, I think that essay is a lot of fun, and don't mind pedantry from someone like Tolkien he has a lot to teach us about the art of fantasy writing, and his thought process.

Anon: feel free to read whatever you want into the text, regardless of what Tolkein actually said. You said he didn't write for his son, and then when I provide direct evidence that he did, you hem and haw and say you meant that's not the only person he wrote for. lol. You said Gahdalf said thus and so, and in fact he did not. He said it was not to be taken as a specifically Christian story.

You are a wasting our time being a troll. This became clear when you went on at J with a deranged ad hominem attack. Your patina of knowledge doesn't fool me. We can tell the difference between authentic dialog looking for truth, and superficialk trollery.

I'm done wasting my time taking you seriously. There are some really smart, authentic people here (e.g., Bilbo, Jason Pratt, Victor, Gordon Knight, Bob Proskop). We fight with some interesting issues, but the stalker troll never lasts. I hope you've enjoyed being the turd in the punch bowl. You make Ilion look like CS Lewis.

I have learned a great deal heare from all the people I mentioned above. E.g., in this thread Bilbo provided some very useful material on Tolkin. In contrast, I have not learned anything from you, because you don't know what you are talking about.

Have fun getting the last word. This is the last time I'll respond to you, dear Anonymous Troll.

Bilbo said...

And I must return the compliment to BDK. And a special thank you for filling me in about Beagle being Jewish, though I guess his naming his wizard "Schmendrick" should have been a big hint.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Whaddja mean "Jews don't write fantasy?" Don't some of the stories in the NT count?

Or have you never read the OT and intertestamental literature? Not to mention first century and older writings, i.e., Pseudepigrapha.

Check out the website, "Early Jewish Writings"

Edward T. Babinski said...
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Edward T. Babinski said...

Within hours after this essay went up the other day, people were pointing out tons of Jewish fantasy authors that Weingrad had somehow missed. For example, there's Isaac Bashevis Singer, who won the Nobel prize for writing, essentially fantasy. Other fantasy greats include Marge Piercy, Michael Chabon, Peter Beagle, Charles Stross, Esther Friesner and Neil Gaiman.

And Spencer Ackerman asserts that "Jewish Narnia is called Marvel Comics," and points to Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Superman creators Siegel and Schuster as the creators of epic stories whose Jewish roots permeate their work. Commenting on Ackerman's blog post, Chabon writes:

I have not read Mr. Weingrad's piece but I agree with others that the defintion of so-called High Fantasy is necessarily very narrow and excludes huge areas of fantasy fiction written by Jews and Gentiles alike. But I think it's kind of an interesting question, as long as we aren't lamenting the absence or somehow holding it against Jewish literature.

And I'd stack Darkseid against Sauron any day.

I would also put in a good word for the work of the great Avram Davidson and a wonderful contemporary writer, Lisa Goldstein.

In fact, though, as Ross Douthat points out in the New York Times, the larger question still stands — is there a fantasy epic whose Judaism is as undeniable as Narnia's Christianity?

Edward T. Babinski said...

Mark Helprin's Jewish at least to some degree. His bestselling fantasy, A Winter's Tale, evokes wonder in a mythopoeic manner reminiscent of Macdonald & the Inklings.

Robert Silverberg wrote fantasy and sci fi.

And according to something I just read at another site, Jewish author, "Neil Gaiman, wrote a short story called The Problem of Susan, which neatly confronts C. S. Lewis's misogyny and cruelty, by writing about he aftermath from Susan's grown-up point of view. Mr Gaiman is both Jewish, and a fantasy author of such renown that a film based on his book Coraline is up for an Oscar this year."

Edward T. Babinski said...

Science Fiction/Fantasy Authors of Various Faiths

A fascinating list worth perusing.

There are Unitarians and Scientologists, Pagans and Jews who write sci fi and fantasy. Not just Christians.

http://www.adherents.com/lit/sf_other.html

Edward T. Babinski said...

Wandering Stars
An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy & Science Fiction
Edited by Jack Dann

Wandering Stars is the landmark collection of Jewish science fiction and fantasy. The first of its kind, it is an established and enduring classic. This is the first time in a science fiction collection that the Jewish People - and the richness of their themes and particular points of view - appear without a mask. Wandering Stars is a showpiece of Jewish wit, culture, and lore, of the blend of humor and sadness, cynicism, and faith. In these pages you'll find superlative tales of fantasy and science fiction by masters

There's also a sequel to the above work featuring more Jewish writers

Edward T. Babinski said...

What's the definition of 'Jewish,' 'fantasy?' Obviously "a Jewish Narnia ... will be nothing like Narnia." Thus, "the real question raised by 'Why There is No Jewish Narnia' isn't whether such a work will ever exist--it's whether Michael Weingrad will be able to recognize it."

Also, Weingard's assertion that Christians gravitate to fantasy, and Jews to science fiction, may have more to do the popularity of science fiction in the U.S. where Jewish authors were living and writing.

Edward T. Babinski said...

"Weingrad neglects a 'fantasy' genre founded by Jews, and arguably shaped by Jewish preoccupations," argues Samuel Goldman at First Things. "That's the superhero comic book invented in the 1930s by the likes of Robert Kahn-Bob Kane to you."

"Weingrad is asking the wrong question if he wants a one-to-one transposal of the Christian Lewis to Jewish creators, who are less likely to create direct parables because an impulse to convert doesn't exist in Judaism." On the other hand, "questions of justice, power and responsibility--stuff that concerns Jews, I hear--are central to the Marvel Universe."

Edward T. Babinski said...

LASTLY,

"When you consider," argues The Volokh Conspiracy's Ilya Somin, "that most modern fantasy literature is produced in Britain and the United States and that Jews are less than 2% of the US population and a smaller proportion in Britain," it's possible Jews are actually overrepresented among fantasy writers. Somin also addresses Weinberg's argument that Jewish fantasy writers don't write specifically Jewish fantasy:

The simple explanation here is that most Jewish fantasy writers are secular in orientation. That's also true of most gentile fantasy writers of the last several decades. .... There are probably more prominent fantasy writers who have used their work to attack traditional Christianity (Marion Zimmer Bradley and Phillip Pullman are two of the best-known examples) than defend it.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Great point about relative numbers compared to number in the general population.

Anyone reading this blog from Israel. take a trip to the bookstore and let us know if there are any fantasy books written in Hebrew!