Outside Narnia: Children’s Fantasy and Christianity

A witch helped me become a Christian. OK, the biographical blurbs on Tamora Pierce’s book jackets don’t actually call her a witch, but they do say that she’s taught witchcraft; close enough. Pierce is the author of several children’s fantasy series, of which the most famous is probably the Alanna series: Alanna: The First Adventure, In the Hand of the Goddess, The Woman Who Rides Like a Man, and Lioness Rampant. The titles should make the plotline no surprise: Girl dresses as boy in order to become knight in sexist but goddess-worshiping, pagan, vaguely medieval society. The books are saved from feminist cliché by Pierce’s talent for characterization—her prose is workaday, but her characters are complex, realistic, and easy to love.

The Alanna books are not exactly the kind of thing you’d give as first communion presents. Magic in these books is treated like science: Witchcraft is intrinsically neither good nor bad; it all depends on who’s using it and why. There’s a pantheon of gods, including the Crooked God of lawbreaking. Premarital sex is a nonissue (although it isn’t shown in the books, just alluded to). There’s even a scene in which Alanna gets a magical contraceptive charm.

But look closer. Pierce’s books also teach children a chivalric code that is radically countercultural in the insta-gratification, MTV world of contemporary childhood. Alanna adheres to a difficult and deeply Christian knightly code of protecting the weak, treating women gracefully, respecting her elders, hard work, self-sacrifice, courage, and honor. How often do kids hear the word “honor” today? How often do they believe it?

Much of contemporary culture rests on assumptions that would make Christianity, and Christ’s death on the cross, not so much false as irrelevant. If suffering is only a nuisance to be avoided, if love is a negotiation between two egoistic sets of wants, if honor and chivalry are nothing but cloaks for misogyny and violence, if duty is Puritanism and the natural world is an accidental effusion of molecules, then what is Christ?

All unwittingly, non-Christian and even anti-Christian authors may provide their readers with an antidote to these cultural poisons. This fact may become clearer by contrast with those authors whose Christianity clearly informs their work. I’ve noticed three different approaches.

The first is submerged Christian allegory or parable. This is the most familiar approach—the one taken by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Christianity is not explicit (I had no clue that the Chronicles of Narnia books were supposed to be Christian until I was an adult), but it breathes in every word and event in the story. A child raised Christian might find these books reinforcement for his or her faith; a child raised outside Christianity, as I was, might not even notice the Christian themes.

The second approach is life embedded in a Christian culture. In these books, Christianity is taken for granted as the truth about the world and the major force shaping the characters’ society. John Bellairs and Margot Benary-Isbert are two strikingly different examples. Bellairs wrote spooky Gothic mysteries featuring anxiety-ridden Catholic kids trying to unravel the demonic workings of evil spirits; Benary-Isbert wrote The Wicked Enchantment, a sweet, commonsensical confection about the need for love and forgiveness. Bellairs used many Catholic trappings—the Urim and the Thummim feature in one book, the Litany of Loreto in another—but more importantly, Catholicism is simply assumed. That makes the books’ spiritual world more than a little iffy. All those assumptions leave little room for deeply felt faith; Bellairs succumbs to the temptation often cited by evangelical Protestants, in which “Catholic culture” crowds out Jesus. Bellairs’s books probably would not pass the stringent purity tests that some Catholic parents would apply to their children’s reading. Benary-Isbert, too, focuses on the culture (life lived with the sound of the cathedral bells always in the background) and not the faith that sustains it. But her story, which takes place during Holy Week, has a very Christian “message” and nothing to offend parents. (It also has a great message about localism and freedom, by the way.) These books were clearly not meant to be didactic; the authors wrote about a Catholic world because that’s what they knew.

Ottfried Preussler’s The Satanic Mill is the only representative of the third approach: clearly, almost brazenly Christian from start to finish. The Satanic Mill ought to be a classic. It follows a young man who becomes entangled in true wickedness (there are eerie echoes of the Holocaust in the image of a mill that grinds human bones into meal) and is saved through the love of a Christian woman. The fact that I loved this book while I despised Christianity should make it clear that Preussler is a master craftsman.

Non-Christian fantasies often show surprising similarities to books in the first and third categories—perhaps because Christianity has so deeply soaked into our literary culture that even non-Christian works often echo Christian truths. The non-Christian fantasies are in some ways the opposite of Bellairs’s books: The trappings may be vaguely Wiccan (as in the Alanna books) or even anti-Catholic (as in the barely veiled anti-Church allusions of Ann Downer’s Spellkey trilogy), but the underlying lessons are often countercultural in many of the same places that Christianity is. The work these fantasies do is “pre-evangelization,” to be sure—but everyone needs pre-evangelization, even Christian children. Many Christians are tempted, at different points in their lives, to find Christianity irrelevant or wrong. At that point it can help a great deal when even the early reading we did that was not Christian imbued us with convictions that make Christianity more obviously true.

What about anti-Christian novels? There are some children’s fantasies that are simply and directly opposed to Christian belief. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is the most famous example; Pullman has stated in interview after interview that he wishes to be the anti-Lewis, drawing children away from Christ by presenting God as a tyrant and a liar. I haven’t read Pullman’s books, so I can’t comment on his work. Parents might want to check out Daniel P. Moloney’s review essay in the May 2001 First Things: Moloney claims that Pullman may have tried to discredit Christianity, but the spine of his story remains surprisingly Christian. (For an opposing view of Pullman’s work, see Cynthia Grenier’s article in the October 2001 issue of Crisis.)

There’s no such unintentional, submerged Christianity in the Ghost series by Susan Price. I have no idea whether she intended her books to discredit or reject Christian belief; for all I know, Price herself is Christian. But we know authors best through their works, not their interviews, and Ghost Drum, Ghost Song, and Ghost Dance: The Czar’s Black Angel are among the grimmest fairy tales ever written. The trilogy’s conclusion, in which an entire people troops off into the land of the dead to live as shadows forever, is the most nihilistic moment I can think of in children’s literature. Price’s world is without hope and mostly without love.

Should parents buy some of these books if their children ask for them? Maybe, for several reasons; let’s start with the most utilitarian. Price is a lush, gorgeous prose stylist. Her imagery, if cruel, is vivid and compelling. Kids who read Price will want to read more, much more. If your kids ask for Price, give ’em Preussler next; by the time they finish her trilogy, they will be addicted to reading, and that addiction will serve them well.

The very beauty of Price’s prose also helps children see the meanings of things in the natural world. Like all great poetry, Price’s writing is vividly incarnational in its sensibility: The things in the world have a meaning; matter matters; and the world and the objects in it are gifts, not accidents. Her prose and her plots counteract one another.

But the most important reason that children who want Price should read her is this: Children know nihilism. Children, too, have their dark nights of the soul. Children can apprehend some of the terrible possibilities of the world—that there is no protecting God, there are no “everlasting arms”; that there is no reward for the just, no punishment for the wicked. Much in our contemporary culture supplements these beliefs, yet sneaks them in with sugarcoating. Allan Bloom called it “nihilism, American-style”—sunnyside up. Price’s books rip off the happy face and show the skull beneath the skin. That’s a harsh lesson, but some kids really do need it—and they need to know that Christians can answer Price’s worldview. Children who think their religion is based on ignoring the unpleasant aspects of reality will not be Christian for long; Price’s books show a nihilistic world in an undiluted form, and therefore make it easier to discern, understand, and reject.

Finally, I should deal with one argument against many fantasy books that I take very seriously: If children read about attractive witchcraft, they’ll begin to practice it. As a child, I read all kinds of how-to guides for casting spells. I read the simplistic, fake history The Magic Cauldron (imagine if John Cornwell wrote elementary-level books about goddess worship and witch trials). I also read a lot of fantasy books with witches good, witches bad, and witches every which way. The first two types of books were by far the more spiritually damaging. In fantasy, witches aren’t real, so there’s little attraction to trying out their practices. (Preussler himself has a charming book called The Little Witch; her witchery is funny, but it’s hard to imagine a kid wanting to try it at home.) In fantasy, witchcraft is a plot device, not an attractive reality. I’d be genuinely worried if my child were reading The Magic Cauldron or Daniel Cohen’s Curses, Hexes, and Spells—those books make witchcraft look rebellious, real, and attractive.

In the end, the most effective way to help your child draw out the best in reading and reject the worst elements is to be a model of Christian faith. And it’s a cliché, but it’s true that talking about what your children are reading will help them make sense of it. They’re probably not finding the same things in the book that adults would find. What they notice and remember won’t necessarily be what parents notice. And there’s so much richness in children’s fantasy—in both storytelling ability and moral lessons—that it would be a shame to keep children from that treasure trove.

Author

  • Eve Tushnet

    Eve Tushnet was born in 1978 and grew up in Washington, D.C. She was received into the Catholic Church at Yale University in 1998. Her hobbies include sin, confession, and ecstasy. Her writing can be found on her blog http://eve-tushnet.blogspot.com and http://evesjournalismandstuff.blogspot.com. She writes a lot about being gay and Catholic. Her patron saint is Elizabeth of Hungary. She has worked full-time for the National Catholic Register and the Manhattan Institute (one year each), and part-time for the Institute on Marriage and Public Policy, the Bible Literacy Project, and the National Organization for Marriage. She has written for publications including Commonweal, the New York Post, the Washington Blade, and the Weekly Standard. Mostly she writes the art reviews for publications people don't read for the art reviews.

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...