Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Christian Fantasy

The Christian faith rapidly accumulated a rich Folklore which thrived in oral culture until written down in such documents as The Golden Legend, a 13th-century collection of the lives of saints made by Jacques de Voragine. Many such tales served an important inspirational purpose, often absorbing pre-existent folklore so that their weight could be added to the Christian cause; medieval miracle plays, performed alongside the mystery plays which popularized the scriptures, helped to preserve this heritage. The confusion of British Arthurian romance (see Arthur) with Grail romances imported by the Normans provides a good example of this omnivorous reprocessing. The Reformation sent a sceptical wind gusting through this assemblage, but could not prevent its further growth; S Baring-Gould's Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (coll 1866) testifies to its continued elaboration. Those religious writers who were fully conscious of the fact that they were writing fantasies excused their work as Allegory or as propaganda.

The most notable landmark in the early history of CF is Dante's Divine Comedy (written circa 1307-21); the most important precedents in English literature were set by Paradise Lost (1667; rev 1674) by John Milton and The Pilgrim's Progress (1678; 1684) by John Bunyan (see also Pilgrim's Progress). William Blake commented that Milton was "of the Devil's party without knowing it", thus ushering in a new era in which fantastic literature was used as a vehicle for calculated heresies attacking the worldview of the Church. Blake gave new names to God and his quasi-Satanic redeemer in his "prophetic books", while Percy Bysshe Shelley, who amplified Blake's comment on Milton in his "Defence of Poetry", employed Classical substitutes in such works as "Prometheus Unbound" (1820). A tradition of explicit Literary Satanism (see Satan) was eventually founded by Anatole France, extrapolating from precedents set by Gustave Flaubert. Christian writers, not unnaturally, regarded this trend with alarm and horror, and many took it upon themselves to write compensatory fantasies, often involving Angels as Miracle-working agents of divine intervention. Writers like Laurence Housman, however, found some difficulty in compiling orthodox CFs; his All-Fellows (coll 1896) and The Cloak of Friendship (coll 1905) are among the best examples of their kind, but their composition led him to the conclusion that "miracles make good fairytales but bad theology". It is noticeable that stern dogmatists like Guy Thorne (1876-1923) usually produced literary works of negligible value, while earnestly uneasy writers like George MacDonald and T F Powys – who used fantasy as a means of exploring their own painful doubts – sometimes produced masterpieces. The most effective propaganda was probably that provided by devout writers clever enough and ambitious enough to venture into previously unexplored allegorical territory, especially G K Chesterton and C S Lewis. Lewis also deserves credit for his cunning in turning the nascent tradition of Literary Satanism back on itself in The Screwtape Letters (1942), while his friend Charles Williams brilliantly – if somewhat esoterically – broke new ground in reformatting his allegories as suspenseful thrillers.

For reasons of reverence, Christ rarely makes personal appearances in devout CF. Perhaps ironically, such opposed characters as Herod (see also Salome), Judas and the Antichrist are more often featured, by virtue of their innate melodramatic potential; none, however, is as conspicuous in the literary heritage as the deeply ambiguous figure of the Wandering Jew. Where agents of Christian virtue are called upon to do more than sadly observe the failures of modern humanity – as Mary memorably does in Upton Sinclair's Our Lady (1938) – they are usually humbler in stature.

Although most of its source materials have been dissolved in the syncretic sea of imagery deployed by US genre fantasists, and many of its motifs are most blatantly paraded in calculatedly blasphemous satires like Live From Golgotha (1992) by Gore Vidal (1925-2012), CF has not been entirely relegated to the purist backwaters of inspirational literature. It remains a significant component of popular Horror, exemplified by such works as The Case Against Satan (1962) by Ray Russell (1924-1999) and William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist (1971), allegedly written as a gesture of thanks to the Jesuits. The allegorical tradition continues in such works as Walter Wangerin's The Book of the Dun Cow (1978), while the Dantean tradition is thoughtfully carried forward in such works as Chariot of Fire (1977) by E E Y Hales (1908-1986). [BS].

further reading: Christian Fantasy, Twelve Hundred to the Present (1992) by Colin Manlove (1942-2020).

see also: Whistle Down the Wind (1961).

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.