A Fatal Flaw

Amid all the sequels Pixar has been rattling off the assembly line, last year’s Coco comes as something of a relief: original and visually brilliant, funny and tender in the good old Pixar way. Disney can’t handle two living parents; Pixar can handle a whole clan, in the capable, work-roughened hands of a fiery matriarch. Despite its strengths and its appeal, Coco is undermined by the vision it presents of the afterlife.

The vision unfolds along with the story. Our first glimpse is a gorgeous cityscape made of color and lights – the Land of the Dead, shimmering beyond the mortal world. The unearthly appearance of the Land of the Dead is quickly juxtaposed by the bureaucratic procedures that surround entering and leaving it. The dead themselves hustle about on humdrum activities – working, traveling, eating and drinking, going to talent shows and arguing with customer service. They do much what they did in life, only they do it without skin. On some level, this is a pleasing incongruity; on another, it is a letdown. Why go to all the trouble to die if life just goes on the same?

It is revealed that death resembles life in still another way: You are going to die, this time the final death. All these skeletons will die of being forgotten. As they and their stories pass out of the memories of the living, they will be afflicted with spasms of weakness and pain before they finally collapse into dust. Some people will be kept alive in the Land of the Dead for years upon years, as long as their stories are still told among the living. Others must have a very short stay. Here we begin to sight the marrow-deep injustice of the vision, but it comes clear only later.

The villain in the Land of the Dead lives in luxury – gratis, we are told, of his admirers, who heap him with gifts on the Day of the Dead. And we see the old murderer in his celebrity and wealth, and think of the poor forgotten skeleton shivering into the final death, and we know …

There is no justice in the end. None at all. Your career, bred in the abuse of others, may be halted in life, but you will just resume it in death. Sell your soul to get this world and the next will be thrown in, too. Meanwhile, the unwanted, the unloved, the outcast and the forgotten – they are forever the losers. All the inequities of this life are transferred into the next. Indeed, new inequities are created by the fact that the dead can visit the living only through the possession and display of a material object. This opens, too, avenues of revenge, ways that the living can spite the dead and be sure they will know it.

Think of it: Even after you die, they can still get you.

All of this would be bearable if we could imagine that the Land of the Dead was only a stopping-place on the way to some other destination. The movie throws a bone in this direction, one skeleton shrugging that no one knows what happens after the final death. But the fact that they call it final hints at what they think. The story’s happy ending – Now you get to live as a skeleton in the Land of the Dead indefinitely! Pop the champagne! – makes it clear that no one has a better end in mind.

Coco presents an appalling vision of the afterlife. It would be easier to take if the movie knew it was appalling, but it doesn’t. Coco’s dreary afterlife drags down the whole story with a faint sense of depression, a subtle distaste. It’s well enough to imagine that the Land of the Dead is, but to imagine that it is all there is – that is the fatal flaw.

A March of Stereotypes

Last week, Becky Miller discussed the tendency of modern SF to stereotype women as aggressive protagonists who do what men do, only in heels. Her well-made points turned my thoughts to the treatment of women in speculative fiction. The portrayal of women has varied greatly from era to era and from author to author. It even varies from science fiction to fantasy; fantasy – built up from tales crowned with queens, fairies, and witches – possesses deeper traditions of vital female characters. Yet taking a broad view of speculative fiction, and especially of science fiction, one may discern the march of female stereotypes.

The reigning stereotype of early sci-fi was the young lady, invariably attractive, who was the love interest of the young hero, or the daughter of the old professor, or – this was not rare – both. Often, this young woman played Watson to the men’s Sherlock, asking what the audience doesn’t know. Thus the woman provided a method to resolve the eternal writer’s problem of the info-dump, and an infinitely more graceful one than having the hero and the professor tell each other what both already know. More significantly, the young woman is usually the story’s heart – the hero’s inspiration and the center of his emotion. Often enough, she is the damsel in distress, awaiting rescue. In short, early sci-fi stereotypes fit women into classic ideals of femininity, though it must be noted that this did not wholly sideline women from the action. It was not unusual for the hero’s love interest to accompany him into peril, nor unknown for her to use a weapon when the crisis demanded it.

Another, less genteel stereotype is typified by the women of the original Star Trek – the Federation servicewomen in miniskirts and the endless parade of female aliens who probably were not warm under those lights. Unlike the vaguely Victorian women of earlier sci-fi, those women were allowed to enter the story in their own right, not needing a personal relationship with a male character for admission. At the same time, their presentation – sexualized in the very teeth of common sense – objectified them in a way that the idealized women of a more old-fashioned tradition were not. This stereotype was probably most prominent between the fading of the old ideals and the dominance of the new, but it existed before then and is not extinct now.

The stereotype now ascendant is that of the action heroine, whose prowess defies old notions of feminine weakness and, at times, the laws of nature. Princess Leia is the embodiment of the new SF heroine: assertive, authoritative, confident in the use of weapons and in everything else, sarcastic and sharp-tongued to the point of being obnoxious. (If anyone disagrees with this last statement, let me just say: Get this walking carpet out of my way.) We want a heroine who can scrap with the biggest, toughest of men, and due to standards of female beauty strictly enforced in Hollywood, we are accustomed to heroines who do this while weighing just north of 100 pounds.

But despite this and other absurdities, there is nothing inherently wrong with the confident, sarcastic woman who knows how to make use of an arsenal. For that matter, there was nothing wrong with the sweetheart or daughter who is the hero’s heart. (The female military officer in a miniskirt we can do without.) The real error of this march of stereotypes is not that speculative fiction features a certain kind of woman, but that it neglects other kinds.

Blog Tour: Beyond Her Calling

 

Welcome to the blog tour of Beyond Her Calling, a new Christian historical romance written by Kellyn Roth. I am pleased to introduce Ena Owen, one of the people who populates the Scottish village of Keefmore.

 

Ena Owen

Bio: Ena Owen is a mother and widow who now runs the general store in the Scottish village of Keefmore. Since she lost her husband and youngest children to an epidemic, she’s become somewhat of a social pariah, but her faith in God and her love for her daughter can get her through the toughest days. Ena loves to read and give inspirational speeches.

 

Fun Info About Ena:

Full Name: Ena Leanne Owen

Personality Type: ????

Personality Info: Ena is a strong, independent individual. Though she doesn’t care what others think, which can make it rather difficult for her to make friends, she loves people and is quite caring in a sensible way. She’s very honest and once you get her talking, she often can go on for an hour.

Appearance: Ena has auburn hair and blue eyes.

Background: Ena was married at sixteen to Robert Owen. They had three children together, but her two youngest as well as Robert were tragically lost to an epidemic.

Family: Keira Owen (her daughter), Bobby and Flori Owen (deceased daughter and son), Robert Owen (deceased husband)

For more information, check out the latest novel she appeared in.

AmazonGoodreads

 

And we have a giveaway! Enter to win a signed paperback copy of Beyond Her Calling.

 

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And now, the rest of the tour:

Saturday, October 20th

Intro Post // Kellyn Roth @ Reveries

Author Interview // Molly @ A Sparkle of Light

Review // Lisa @ Inkwell

Review & Character Interview (Jordy) // Amie @ Crazy A

Character Interview (Ivy) // Jo @ The Lens and the Hard Drive

Book Spotlight // Annie @ Letters from Annie Douglass Lima

Sunday, October 21st

Theme Day // Kellyn Roth @ Reveries

Guest Post by Character (Ivy) & Review // Grace M. Morris

Book Spotlight // Erika Messer @ Maiden of the Pages

Author Interview // Angela R. Watts @ The Peculiar Messenger

Monday, October 22nd

Ivy Day // Kellyn Roth @ Reveries

Character Interview (Ivy) // Loretta Marchize @ Just Writing

Review // Andrea Cox @ Writing to Inspire

Character Interview (Jordy) // Liz @ Home with the Hummingbirds

Author & Character Interview (Violet) // Julia @ Julia’s Creative Corner

Review & Character Spotlight (Ivy) // Caroline Kloster @ Inside the Autistic Life

Tuesday, October 23rd

Jordy Day // Kellyn Roth @ Reveries

Author Interview // Faith Blum @ Bookish Orchestrations

Review & Guest Post // Cara @ Jessie Bingham

Guest Post // Lindsi @ One Beginner To Another

Character Spotlight (Ena) // Shannon McDermott @ Shannon’s Blog

Wednesday, October 24th

Violet Day // Kellyn Roth @ Reveries

Guest Post // Germaine Han @ The Writing Mafia

Review // Jana T. @ Reviews from the Stacks

Thursday, October 25th

Real Life Day // Kellyn Roth @ Reveries

Book Spotlight // Gabriellyn Gidman @ PageTurners

Author Interview // Sara Willoughby @ Th!nk Magazine

Review // Michaela Bush @ Tangled Up In Writing

Guest Post by Character (Violet) // Peggy M. McAloon @ Peggy’s Hope 4U

Friday, October 26th

Future Day // Kellyn Roth @ Reveries

Review // Abigail McKenna @ Novels, Dragons, and Wardrobe Doors

Review // Gracelyn Buckner @ Literatura

Review // Katherine Brown Books

Review // Bella Putt

Saturday, October 27th

Wrapup Post // Kellyn Roth @ Reveries

Character Interview & Spotlight (Jordy) // Kaylee @ Kaylee’s Kind of Writes

Book Spotlight // Abigail Harder @ Books, Life, and Christ

A Simple Line

Now that Amazon has acquired film rights to Lord of the Rings, and Netflix has licensed all seven Chronicles of Narnia, it is time to stop and ask ourselves: How much do bad adaptations of our favorite books really bother us? I am not saying, mind you, that the adaptations will be bad. But the possibility is strong enough that we should be thinking about it.

I am not going to attempt to analyze the profound emotional investment humans pour into stories that don’t happen and people who do not exist. We all know how real fiction can be, and how stories can accompany us through life, following us through changes that leave old times and old friends behind. Depending upon the time and manner of their entrance into our lives, stories acquire associations with larger things – a carefree summer, a person we knew then, old haunts, even (a thousand Star Wars jokes don’t change the truth) a gone childhood. To touch the story is to touch hidden chords.

Narnia and Middle-earth possess an uncommon power and resonance. Their potency is all the greater because they come to so many people in childhood and remain, among all the fantasy movies and books that follow, a kind of first love. Christians often associate these books with their faith and see Jesus in – or, perhaps, through – Aslan. Both for what they are and for what they represent, Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia evoke a considerable degree of passion that does not wish to be disappointed.

The new adaptations further labor under the burden of previous adaptations. The animated versions of both works exist mainly as curiosities, arousing little antipathy or attachment. The live-action versions are weightier creations and well-known to the Tolkien and Lewis fandoms. Peter Jackson’s trilogy is iconic, binding its images to the books, and for countless people it was their initiation into Middle-earth. Many fans don’t only worry that the Amazon series won’t live up to Tolkien’s Middle-earth; they worry that it won’t live up to Jackson’s Middle-earth. There is even talk of bringing back the actors from Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.

Perhaps some people feel about Walden’s Narnia films the way others feels about Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Perhaps, but I doubt it. The Walden films were not bad, but they fell far short of their source material. They failed to capture the spirit of Narnia, always seeming to be made by people tone-deaf to the meaning of Lewis’ works – people who replaced Caspian’s thirst to see Aslan’s country with boilerplate daddy issues because they just didn’t understand. Netflix has, in many ways, an easier task than Amazon, and strange as it may seem, it helps them that they are trying to do something no one has done: bring Narnia’s magic to the silver screen.

For myself, I am glad that Amazon and Netflix are producing their adaptations. I take a simple line: If the adaptations are good, I will enjoy them, and if they are bad, I will ignore them, and in either event I will be an interested viewer. But other people will take other lines. What is yours?

In ‘The Twilight Zone’

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition …

So The Twilight Zone opens, solemnly making it clear that you, the viewer, are not in Kansas anymore. Debuting on CBS in 1959, The Twilight Zone was not the first sci-fi TV show, but it was, perhaps, the first fully respectable one. In its own day, it worked. Perhaps more surprisingly, it works in our day, too.

The very conception of The Twilight Zone brings with it a disability. Twilight Zone is that rare bird, an anthology show. It is, essentially, Astounding Stories translated into the medium of television – an amalgam of short stories with no connective tissue between them. The stories share little, not even necessarily a universe; they share only the somber tones of Rod Serling’s narration. A new cast of characters is presented on the stage and then ushered off every episode, and this tends to a chilling effect. Attachment between viewers and characters can’t be developed to any real power when the characters are so ephemeral. You can’t begin any TZ episode with a sense of who the characters are, or any particular affection for them; they’re all strangers to you, after all.

The Twilight Zone‘s reliance on the short-story form leads it into other hazards. Like so many of the short stories published in science fiction magazines, Twilight Zone often depends on the twist at the end. The savvy viewer knows this and frequently spends the episode looking for the trick. Whether this decreases enjoyment by detaching one from the story or increases enjoyment by turning it into a game hinges on the individual viewer. The more serious effect is that when the story is about the twist, the twist is not always enough to sustain the story. In some Twilight Zone episodes, the story is stretched thin over the required twenty-five minutes, going in circles because it’s too soon to go to the end. And though it is only natural for victims of the Twilight Zone to wander around confused, you sometimes wish they were quicker in the uptake. (“Face it,” you want to say to the man who jumped in front of a truck before the scene cut and now wonders why nobody seems able to see him. “You’re dead.”)

And for all this, The Twilight Zone works. With all its limitations it has a liberty that it fully, skillfully exploits. When all characters are one-shot characters, anything can happen to them, and it often does. The fatality rate among Twilight Zone protagonists is high. Because the show doesn’t have to resume next week where it leaves off this week, it is free to go in directions and to extents that would prove impossible for more conventional shows. It indulges ideas that could not fit into a universe less fluid and shadowy than the Twilight Zone. The show shuffles among subgenres: science fiction, folk lore, moral fables, horror – anything that might be called the fifth dimension.

The Twilight Zone is a serious show: often philosophical, moralistic to its core. Some episodes are written around morals; others have their lessons attached in the closing narration. Religion is unusually present in The Twilight Zone. A handful of episodes traffic in ideas of devils, angels, and hell, but far more notable is the repeated, reverent invocation of God’s name. (God’s name, in this era of television, was not abused, but it was generally ignored.) The Twilight Zone wants to tell you stories, but it is also quite conscious, sometimes, of the desire to tell you an idea, and maybe even a life lesson.

There is good reason why The Twilight Zone is a rare bird. It sacrifices the history and emotional connection of the well-done serial, and that is no small loss. At times it’s a little bleak, or a little overwrought, or a little stretched. But it holds a persistent fascination, fueled by a serious and sprawling creativity. It is good to venture into the Twilight Zone, where the normal rules are always suspended, and let the ride take where it will.

 

A Girl and Her Father

Of all biblical stories, Esther is among the best-known and most retold. There is good reason for this. It is a complete and satisfying tale, with peril and victory, with an underdog who wins, a villain who gets his comeuppance, and a brave, beautiful heroine. Its attraction is enormous, but a curious pattern emerges among the re-tellings. Even while staying faithful to the facts of the story, many re-tellings shift the dramatic and emotional center from Esther and Mordecai to Esther and Xerxes. The story of Esther is commonly told as a romance, but in the Bible, the relationship that matters most is the one between Esther and Mordecai.

Esther and Mordecai were cousins, but their relationship is defined by the fact that Mordecai adopted Esther after her parents died, taking her in and raising her. (Somewhat-irrelevant side note: This phenomenon – family members of the same generation but of vast age differences – occurred more frequently in ancient times than in modern, for various reasons.) Mordecai was, in effect, Esther’s father. This relationship drives forward the story: Mordecai’s concern for Esther leads to his vigils at the palace gate, through which he both saves the king’s life and incurs Haman’s animosity; it is Mordecai who explains to Esther (cloistered in the palace) the plot to annihilate the Jews and persuades her to act; Mordecai and Esther together save the Jews and later establish the celebration of Purim.

Esther and Mordecai are also at the heart of the story’s spiritual and emotional power. Esther commands the fasting and prayer in preparation of her bid to save the Jews; Mordecai makes the immortal statement that she became queen “for such a time as this.” It is their lives, their family, and their people brought beneath the shadow of ruthless slaughter. It is their relationship – and emphatically not the relationship between Esther and Xerxes – that is demonstrated to be one of mutual affection: Mordecai walked in a courtyard of the palace every day to find out how Esther was after the king’s officials took her; Esther was “in great distress” at the news of Mordecai’s distress.

Esther’s relationship with Xerxes was, of course, marriage – but marriage to a despot of ancient Persia, and that is a very qualified thing. He practiced, and pretended, no sexual fidelity toward her; consider that he slept with all her rivals for the queenship and then kept them as concubines within his palace. It is evident, too, that Xerxes and Esther didn’t really live together. They only visited at such times when Xerxes wished it – and he could go whole months without wishing it. No detail more sharply illuminates their relationship than the fact that Esther was deathly afraid to go to Xerxes without his summons. In the pivotal moment, Xerxes treated her with regard, but to the end their interactions were those of an absolute sovereign and a favored inferior. Esther was Xerxes’ queen more than she was his wife (though that also, to be fair, had its privileges). It should be noted, too, that Xerxes was an alien to the spiritual concerns of Mordecai and Esther and wholly safe from the death that threatened both of them. Xerxes is an ambivalent figure at best, and a hero on no consideration.

Why, then, do interpretations of the story so often fix on the supposed romance between Esther and Xerxes? The answer is simple, a truth that has long frustrated readers who prefer fantastical stories: People would rather hear about romance. To many people, a romantic relationship – even one as distant and asymmetrical as the marriage of a Persian despot and his queen – is inherently more interesting than a father-daughter relationship, even if it saves a nation from genocide.

Seriously, Now

For some years, I avidly followed a certain political/cultural writer until finally – you know how it can be, between authors and readers – we drifted apart. I thought her commentary was simply declining. One symptom of this decline was an overabundance of the word serious. It wasn’t right or left or even right or wrong anymore: The new word – the only word – was serious. Our national diagnosis was a lack of seriousness and our national prescription was to get serious. Our leaders weren’t serious and they didn’t know how serious things were, but if everybody would just get serious we would all be serious and then things could finally stop being so serious.

I lost interest, but I had a thought: To be serious is not enough. And can’t a serious person be just as wrong as an unserious person and, in certain situations, even more disastrous?

This principle can be applied to art as well as people. You may hear much of serious art or a serious work, but the phrase tells little of the real quality or worth of the work. My favorite example of this disconnect between seriousness and worthiness is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes. The most shocking thing about Tarzan of the Apes is that it is a genuinely serious book, a story written around ideas. The second most shocking thing is the book’s level of racism. Given the period in which Tarzan of the Apes was written, a certain degree of racism would not have been surprising; when racism is dominant in society, it is inevitably reflected in (some of) that society’s art. But even with that forewarning, the racism of Tarzan is surprising in its pervasiveness, in how deeply and how elaborately it is woven into the story.

These two elements – the book’s seriousness and its racism – are not at all in contradiction. Indeed, if Tarzan of the Apes had been less serious, it would probably have been less racist. Burroughs might have still, in the appearance of a minor black character, invoked cheap, false stereotypes, but he would not have taken such pains to present thoroughbred English aristocrats as the highest human type. That was Burroughs’ elucidation of the theory of eugenics. Tarzan of the Apes revolves around nature v. nurture, the effect of environment and the effect of genetics; it is also wrong about nearly everything, from the truth of eugenics to the likely consequences of a childhood totally without human interaction. But books, like people, are not any less serious for being wrong, nor less wrong for being serious.

All of this emphasizes the essential ambivalence of what we call seriousness. Serious is more a description than a judgment, more an attribute than a virtue or a vice. To be serious is not to be good, or even to be deep, but the ambivalence is greater than that. Serious ideas, cogently presented, are as likely to be false as to be true, and some of the most serious works are also among the most malignant.

So if anyone, or anything, is commended to you as being serious, remember that this could mean seriously wrong.

Review: Tarzan of the Apes

It is the rare but glorious lot of writers to create a cultural icon that lasts generations, one of those things that everybody just knows even if they’re not sure how. Tarzan is one such icon. Who doesn’t know the image of the handsome, wild, muscular man swinging through the jungle with the agility of an ape? Sometimes there’s a girl in his arm, but to tell the truth, she’s not really necessary.

Like many such icons, Tarzan has been unmoored from his ultimate source. Everybody knows Tarzan, but most haven’t read Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. When I picked up Tarzan of the Apes, I was driven more by curiosity than the hope of a good story.

Tarzan of the Apes was first published in 1912, and a century is more than enough to make a novel historically interesting. Even the novels that were radical unconsciously reflect the ideas and attitudes of their era (no one lives entirely free of his time). In this respect, Tarzan is interesting, even though what it reflects can be quite bad. The crude racist stereotypes are obvious blemishes, but the more subtle eugenicist ideas are the same poison – refined and intellectualized and so more pernicious.

This book surprised me. It is darker and more violent than I anticipated, with a surprising dose of cannibalism from both white and black characters. Tarzan’s jungle divides itself pitilessly into killer and killed, and he himself is a wholehearted participant. Most of the characters, of whatever race or species, are scum. At the same time, it is far more thoughtful than I would have guessed. In the best tradition of speculative fiction, Burroughs uses fiction to explore an idea. He takes up the nature vs. nurture debate by putting a child of the best hereditary (in an eugenicist touch, the son of English aristocrats) in the worst environment (raised by savage apes in a virgin jungle).

To Burroughs’ credit, he doesn’t offer a quick, cut-and-dried answer. Tarzan, the subject of his fictional experiment, is deeply influenced by both hereditary and environment. At the same time, Burroughs’ treatment of the question is generally unconvincing, occasionally ridiculous, and undermined by eugenicist assumptions. Burroughs explicitly grounds the explanation of Tarzan’s superhuman physicality in evolution, in the logic that human muscles and senses atrophied as we learned to rely on reason and would rejuvenate in an environment that demanded it for survival, but I didn’t buy it. Nor did I buy that Tarzan’s aristocratic genes made him instinctively gracious or chivalrous, or that he could become fluent in any language quickly. In a very real way, Tarzan of the Apes is a book of ideas. It’s just that the ideas are mostly claptrap.

As much as eugenics, as an idea, deserves to die, its presence in Tarzan is part of the novel’s scientific bent. So, too, are the references to evolution, the nature vs. nurture debate, and the way an important plot point turns on this new thing, fingerprinting. If you don’t know what that is, the book explains it. A good part of the book’s darkness comes from its more realistic portrayal of apes in particular and African jungles in general. The portrayal is not really scientific; Burroughs attributes to the apes a language (however limited) and customs and laws (however savage). But unlike Disney’s Tarzan and The Jungle Book, which were developed out of a desire for fun, child-friendly stories with animals that talk and sing and occasionally even dance, Burroughs’ jungle society was developed in the spirit of the real jungle. The apes in this novel are violent, but so are apes in real life.

To take Tarzan of the Apes strictly as art, the plot was well-constructed and the author unafraid of making decisive change in his hero and story. The love story, for once, was not completely predictable. The old professors were funny. I was still ready for the book to end in the neighborhood of page 150, and I got tired of the phrase “forest god”.

Not much of the real Tarzan of the apes survives in his icon – not his propensity to kill, his blue blood, his superhuman strength. But the image of him in his jungle is enduring. Tarzan of the Apes may be good fare for those interested in culture, history, and old-fashioned pulp romps. Reader discernment is needed, however, and the novel is emphatically not for children.

Much of Magic

Sir Bors set out on the Quest for the Holy Grail, but he spent most of the appointed year in prison because (it can happen) he made an unscheduled stop to proclaim the Gospel to apparently unreceptive heathens. “They knew much of magic,” he later told King Arthur, “but little of God.” (quoted from Maude L. Radford’s King Arthur and His Knights)

This formulation – much of magic, little of God – is striking in any case, but particularly so because it occurs in an Arthurian story. Although this is often neglected in modern retellings, the Arthurian legends combined Christianity with magic, pagan legends with culled elements of Christianized Britain. Classic versions of the sword-in-the-stone legend put “the wise magician” Merlin working together with the Archbishop of Canterbury to find a new king for the Britons. And still the association of magic with heathenism: much magic, little God.

There is tension between the Church that makes common cause with magicians and the heathens full of magic, but perhaps not contradiction. The authors of the Arthurian myth found they could broker an accommodation between Christians and magic. Yet they could rarely have missed the accommodation between pagans and magic, typified in the Druids whose memory outlived their presence. The sort of magic that most famously imbues Arthurian myth – the magic sword, the wise man who saw the future, the Lady of the Lake – is not witchcraft. Yet it remains, in itself, ambivalent. Despite the rumors, there is no inexorable link between magic and the devil, but neither is there any inexorable link between magic and God.

I’ve seen the link between magic and God made; probably all of you have. There is more than one way to weave magic into the framework of Christian doctrine and Christian principles. C.S. Lewis’ way – carving out a place for magic in an explicitly Christian universe – is the most obvious. Another method, popular in modern Christian fantasy, is to fix a magical world beneath God (often called the Creator, the Eternal One, etc.), without venturing any further in Christian belief than monotheism. J.R.R. Tolkien is the premier example of the most subtle method. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings show little overt religion, but his posthumous works reveal his efforts to bring his creation into harmony with Christian thought. The influence of Tolkien’s faith on his work is indelible. (In this lengthy but thoughtful essay, Steven Graydanus examines how Tolkien’s Catholicism shaped his portrayal of magic.)

Much fantasy is created by people who have no interest in taming magic to Christianity. That alone doesn’t make it bad; I once read a charming, perfectly innocuous children’s book called The Enchanted Castle, in which I found nothing to condemn or to call Christian. Yet the portrayal of magic in fiction isn’t always innocuous. Nor is it bound to keep its customary ambivalence; it may be remade into more sinister forms. The categorical rejection of all fictional magic is mistaken, but there is a shade of legitimate warning down at the roots.

Because it may justly be said of some books, as it is justly said of some people, that they know much of magic and little of God.

Can We Say …

The Nephilim walked into history in Genesis 6:4, which runs, “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.” The Nephilim are mentioned once more, as the terrifying inhabitants of Canaan (in reality, the ancestors of the prodigiously-sized Anakites; whether they have any connection with such groups as the Rephaites is more than I can say).

The actual importance of the Nephilim, in theology, religion, and the arc of the Bible’s narrative, is slight; their fascination is large. Their close connection to the much-disputed “sons of God” entrenches them in controversy; their association with the outsized denizens of Canaan increases the intrigue. Their name means “fallen ones,” and Nephilim is frequently translated giants, including in such venerable translations as the King James Version, the Geneva Bible, and the Wycliffe Bible. (The Geneva Bible also provides the alternate word tyrants.) Giants, fallen ones, heroes of old, men of renown – wouldn’t you love to know more about them?

One ancient, and still popular, interpretation of the Nephilim – it appears in the Book of Enoch, written before the birth of Christ – holds that they were the children of fallen angels and human women. For obvious reasons, this interpretation is the one that prevails in Christian speculative fiction. It’s not that the writers necessarily believe it, any more than sci-fi writers necessarily believe that it’s possible to go back in time or to travel faster than the speed of light; it’s just that it’s that sort of idea. The idea is acutely uncomfortable. But ideas often are in a genre that takes, for its parents, people like Edgar Allan Poe and the Brothers Grimm.

What sets the Nephilim apart from other ideas is that they are derived from the Bible. Nobody really cares whether it’s possible to go back in time when reading (or writing) time-travel stories. Nobody ever liked Star Wars less because some scientist debunked lightsabers on the grounds that that’s not how lasers work. We’re all happy to set aside debates and, for the sake of our chosen stories, presume what we suspect to be false. But should we have a different standard when the debates are centered around Scripture?

This question goes beyond the Nephilim and, if you care to follow it, wanders into all sorts of nuance. Is it all right to write a novel where the rumor is true and the Apostle John never dies? (This, too, happens in Christian speculative fiction.) Can we say that Daniel founded a school of astrology that eventually trained the Magi, though we know in our hearts that never happened? Can we have time-travelers at the Crucifixion? Can we have the Nephilim after all? Are the answers to all these questions conditional on the details, on what we do with the premise more than what the premise is? Is it simply a matter of staying in the gray and not infringing on the black and white? (For example: We can say the Nephilim were giants or tyrants or angel-human hybrids because that argument has been going on for centuries, but we can’t say they caused the Flood because they didn’t, and if you don’t believe me, read Genesis 6 past verse 4.)

What do you think? What sort of lines have you drawn, in your reading or writing?