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The following review of Four Christian Fantasists was published in Amon Hen (The Bulletin of the Tolkien Society, ISSN 0306-8781) No. 170 (July 2001), pp. 16-17.
FOUR CHRISTIAN FANTASISTS
A study of the Fantastic Writings of George MacDonald, Charles Williams, C.S.Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien
(132 pages, Walking Tree Publishers 2001 Cormarë Series No. 3, ISBN: 3-9521424-2-3.)
a review by Neil Mercer
Richard Sturch's Four Christian Fantasists is the third book of the Cormarë Series from Walking Tree Publishers which was formed from the Swiss Tolkien Society and is dedicated to the publication of material relating to Tolkien and Middle-earth. At one hundred and twenty pages it may appear short but Sturch manages to present a great deal of thought provoking information,
The aim of Sturch's study is to take the fantastic writing of MacDonald, Williams, Lewis and Tolkien and examine how their Christian beliefs moulded and filtered into their creations. He does not set out to compare the theologies of his chosen authors; neither does he concern the reader with the 'literary value' of their works. He is purely interested in the ways in which the authors' fantastic writings were used to express their Christian faith.
Richard Sturch is certainly well qualified to carry out such a study. He is a member of the Tolkien Society, as well as being secretary of the Charles Williams Society. In addition to these associations with Tolkien and Williams he is obviosuly familiar with the works of MacDonald and Lewis, as well as numerous other fantasy authors. Sturch's familiarity with the works of his chosen authors can make Christian Fantasists a challenging read if you are not familiar with some of the works concerned. Although Sturch helps the reader by providing many quotes, explanations and summaries it is always easier to relate to the stories and books one has actually read.
With regard to Sturch's chosen authors three were Inklings while the fourth, George MacDonald, was from two generations earlier and was one of Lewis' major influences. Tolkien read some MacDonald when he was young but in later life he did not share Lewis' passion for his work. Indeed, after agreeing to write a preface for a new edition of MacDonald's The Golden Key in 1965 he wrote that it was "illwritten, incoherent, and bad, in spite of a few memorable passages" (he never completed the preface). Despite this MacDonald was without doubt part of the literary leaf-mould that fed Tolkien's imagination.
The three Inklings that Sturch includes in his quartet are Charles Williams who was an editor at the Oxford University Press but also wrote, amongst other things, seven fantasy novels, Tolkien, with whom we are all familiar and C.S.Lewis. Lewis, as Sturch points out, was the link between the four. He was a close friend of both Tolkien and Williams and an ardent admirer of MacDonald.
Sturch introduces his study by briefly guiding the reader through the fantastic worlds of his chosen authors and describing how these are linked to our own. He then goes on to describe some of the beings found in these worlds and relates them to the Christian theme. His first concerns are the angelic powers (both explicit and implicit) that all four authors use and the appearances of God in their writing, although this is largely confined to Ilúvatar and Aslan. The section dealing with the more ordinary beings found in the fantasy worlds includes a fascinating discussion on the degree by which Orcs, Ogres etc in Middle-earth are fallen. Are they races that have lost their souls (due to Morgoth's actions during the First Age) or were they bred from irrational beings and therefore never had souls.
Of course one cannot discuss the fallen without discussing the unfallen, for example Tolkien's Elves, who unlike mankind have not fallen as a race. Sturch also puts Hobbits forward as an unfallen race; although an individual may fall (usually through folly rather than wickedness) the race remains unfallen. In Lewis's writing the unfallen Malacandra and Perelandra inhabit Mars and Venus respectively, and Sturch looks into the similarities and differences between these two races in some depth. Finally there are Lewis's Homonids and Tolkien's Dwarves, both of which Sturch considers to be neither fallen nor unfallen.
Following on from fantastic worlds and their inhabitants Sturch moves on to escapism and then Tolkien's other valuable aspects of fantasy, sub-creativity, recovery and consolation. Sturch gives numerous examples of these from all four authors while relating them to Christianity; do we need recovery to see the world as God intended it?
Leading on from escapism Sturch discusses allegory and symbolism including the symbolism of the cross, baptism and the Eucharist. The different levels of symbology (which are especially frequent in MacDonald's writing) allegory, personification, image and myth, are all explained and examples given.
One of the resons why Sturch selected MacDonald, Williams, Lewis and Tolkien for Christian Fantasists was the consistent prominent themes throughout their work, the main one being moralism. Sturch looks in some depth at many of these themes, and in doing so the Christianity of the four authors and how it entered their writing really comes through. Among the themes considered are providence, choice, pride (and folly) and power, all of which feature in Tolkien's writing.
While the chapter on themes is definitely one of the most important and interesting aspects of the book parts of it can be hard going as Sturch moves rapidly from one subject to another. The discussion on providence, for example, seems to wander considerably. Themes takes up nearly a third of the book and could really have done with more sub-divison than the limited number of sub-headings.
To conclude his book Sturch discusses Christian apologetics and how fantasy can be used for apologetic purposes. Sturch concentrates on Lewis and to a lesser degree Williams, although Tolkien's writing comes from a Christian standpoint and has Christian morals it is certainly not intended to be apologetic. Sturch concludes the subject of apologetics with a brief mention of some of the more modern authors who have written 'Christian' fantasy.
Although slightly let down by the need for some more sub-division and by the lack of an index Christian Fantasists is definitely a worthy study and having enjoyed Sturch's style of writing I have no hesitation in recommending it to fans of any of the featured authors. If you are not familiar with the works of MacDonald, Williams or Lewis (as I was in the case of Williams and MacDonald) it can serve as an excellent introduction.
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