“But what about these Tree-men, these giants as you might call them?”
—Sam Gamgee in Lord of the Rings (1954)
The First Fantasy Story
Abimelech had slaughtered all of Gideon’s sons, all but one—a young man named Jotham. When the men of Shechem came to make Abimelech their king, Jotham interrupted the coronation by shouting out a parable from a nearby hilltop. This is the story he told (Judg. 9:8-15):
The trees of the forest set out to anoint a king for themselves. First, they went to the olive tree. “Reign over us,” they said. But the olive tree refused. “Should I leave my fatness with which they honor God and man and go to hold sway over the trees?’
Next the trees of the forest went to the fig tree. Again they said, “Come, reign over us.” The fig tree also refused. “Should I forsake my sweetness and my good fruit and go to hold sway over the trees?”
Then the trees went to the vine. “Come and reign over us,” they said. The vine answered, “Should I leave my wine, which cheers God and man, and go to hold sway over the trees?”
Finally, the trees came to the bramble bush. “Come and reign over us,” they pleaded. The bramble accepted, but with a demand and a threat: “If you in truth anoint me to be your king, then come and put your trust in my shadow. But if not, then let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.”
In the parable, the trees represent the men of Shechem, and Abimelech is the bramble. Jotham’s point is that the useful and productive have better things to do than play at being king. Men like Abimelech, who want power for power’s sake, are inherently untrustworthy, envious, and destructive. They want everyone to live in their shadow, to bow down to their plans and whims; and if such men are crossed, they will carry everyone around them into destruction, even the greatest and mightiest.
On one hand, Jotham’s story was pure fantasy. Trees can’t talk; they have no interest in politics; they have no consciousness of God and His calling. They have no consciousness at all. They’re just trees. But the story as parable was true and was effective. It caught the attention of the crowd below, even though they were busy with something important. It even bought Jotham enough time to draw out his point: If you’ve done right by my father, who saved you, then rejoice in your new king; if not, then may you and your new king destroy one another (Judg. 9:16-20). And then Jotham fled.
We aren’t told that Jotham spoke by divine inspiration. But he did invoke God when he first addressed his audience (9:7), and God honored his story (9:23, 57). In other words, God approved of Jotham’s parable.
The Origins of Storytelling
Storytelling began in eternity. The Father, Son, and Spirit told one another the story of Earth’s future history and the story of redemption (Eph. 2:10; Titus 1:2; 2 Tim. 1:9; Rev. 13:8). Within history, God continued to tell stories. He told His great story in summary form in Scripture. Within that story He included many shorter stories (histories). From time to time He adorned His history with fiction. He added parables, fables, and allegories to drive home a particular point. Jesus Christ conducted much of His earthly ministry in terms of stories, particularly parables (Matt. 13:34). He was the greatest storyteller who ever lived. He was the Word incarnate.
Man is made in God’s image. It is our nature to tell stories and to enjoy them. We use stories to communicate, convince, and entertain. We draw most of our stories from actual history, often our own. But sometimes we invent things. Sometimes we invent a lot.
Fiction and Fantasy
We may distinguish ordinary fiction from speculative fantasy. Ordinary fiction uses God’s universe and God’s history, as a backdrop, but it inserts characters that never lived and events that never happened. It puts forward unreality in the context of God’s reality. But the fiction writer isn’t lying to us, because he doesn’t claim to be telling us the truth. He’s only telling us a story, and we know that.
Speculative fantasy goes further down the road of imagination and creativity. The fantasy writer radically alters God’s creation. He invents new civilizations, new histories, new races, and even new universes. He becomes what Tolkien calls “a sub-creator.”
Such sub-creation can certainly be done for the wrong reasons or on unlawful terms. It can easily serve men’s lusts or lead into idolatry. But so can anything else human. Tolkien discusses this in Tree and Leaf (1964):
Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the mind out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their moneys; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice… Fantasy remains a human right: we make it in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made; and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.
The act of sub-creation, of imagining “strange new worlds,” is not evil in and of itself, and it can have its productive uses if it is brought captive to the word of God. Remember Jotham’s story.
The Bounds of the Fantastic
Working from Jotham’s fantasy story, we can see that God grants the fantasy writer a great deal of freedom. The writer may grant intelligence and speech to non-human creatures; he may invent histories that never happened; he may even involve God Himself in the story without committing sacrilege. C. S. Lewis used the word “supposal” to describe this sort of sub-creativity. Suppose the devil wrote letters; suppose the denizens of hell could take a bus trip to heaven; suppose that Christ appeared in another world as a great, golden Lion. In other words, suppose that God had done things differently. But in order to make such supposals fruitful, some things may not change. Divine morality and human nature—or whatever stands in its place in a fantasy world—must be constants, or the story will not touch us. As Aragon tells us, “Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house” (Two Towers).
Every writer has a worldview, a way of interpreting reality and personal experience. The Christian author writes from a biblical worldview, or at least he should. So even when he supposes a radically different universe, he should not suppose a radically different God. His stories should reflect the true God, the God revealed in Scripture. This doesn’t mean that the Christian writer has to show us all of Christian theology at once; Jotham didn’t. It does mean that his stories should be consistent with the holiness, wisdom, grace, and sovereignty of God—the Triune God, that is.
Does this mean that Christians shouldn’t write stories that exclude God of the Bible from their universe? Generally, yes, though there may be some exceptions. Paul very briefly offers supposals in which Christ was not crucified and did not rise from the dead (1 Cor. 2:8; 15:13-19). His purpose, though, is apologetic. He is showing us that the Christian faith is radically at odds with worldly philosophy and that any worldview that rejects the gospel is self-destructive. Paul doesn’t linger in a Christ-less “reality.”
On the other hand, Paul knew the pagan poets and could quote them from memory (Acts 17:28). But it is one thing to read pagan literature and appreciate its technical and aesthetic excellencies; it’s quite another to create effectively pagan literature in the name of Christ. The stories that Christians tell ought to exalt Christ and promote His kingdom in all its depth, breadth, and richness. Jotham’s story addressed political and sociological issues; but it assumed the doctrines of creation, sin, dominion, and calling. Christians have a whole universe—indeed, whole universes—to write about. Fantasy literature, with the proper antithesis can provide a fine tool for doing just that.
For Further Reading:
James B. Jordan, Judges, God’s War Against Humanism (Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries, 1985).
Greg Uttinger, “The Lord of the Rings: A Good Story,” The Chalcedon Report (Dec 2002), 19-21.
Richard Purtill, Lord of the Elves and Eldils, Fantasy and Philosophy in C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1974).
Gene Edward Veith, Reading Between the Lines, A Christian Guide to Literature (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990).