halakhic fantasy: ruminating on a reply

further discussion with Michael Weingrad

http://www.flickr.com/photos/96683394@N00/2429577963/ Michael Weingrad has done it again.  

Earlier this month, Paradoxes reported on Weingrad’s article ‘Why There Is No Jewish Narnia’ (Jewish Review of Books, Spring 2010), a thoughtful examination of the surprisingly minimal role Jewish writer have played in epic high fantasy.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one.  Weingrad’s thoughts have generated a minor hurricane in the blogosphere, getting everyone’s attention—from The New York Times to Neil Gaiman. 

Ordinarily, such blog-storms rush their course and die away without Paradoxes regarding them as terribly important.  (The internet, after all, is just the internet after all.)  This time, however, we find ourselves blessing the storm with delight and thanksgiving. 

It inspired Weingrad to write another article

In ‘No Jewish Narnias: A Reply’, he engages several of his most intelligent critics, adroitly defending his position.  Academic writing is not an Olympic sport, more’s the pity, but if it were, Paradoxes would be jumping over the table to give Weingrad a perfect ten.  He strikes the perfect tone between affirming his previous arguments and assessing new research.  His two articles combined make one of the most fascinating discussions of fantasy literature since the Deathly Hallows read-through at the Hog’s Head.

That said, several points deserve further reflection.  I enter this discussion not intending to supply or supplant Weingrad’s conclusions, but to offer my own ruminations which may, perhaps, sweep some overlooked corners.

Height and Depth

Weingrad opens his article with a refined definition of fantasy and Jewishness:

I like my fantasy high and my Judaism deep.

By limiting his discussion to the subgenre of epic high fantasy, Weingrad excludes from consideration other areas of speculative literature, such as superheroes and SF.  ‘Deep’ Judaism seems to imply a spiritual and intellection commitment to the Torah and its ‘halakhic core’—in other words, all ‘the heft and richness’ inherent in this ancient and beautiful tradition.

But this limitation does not necessitate a rabbi writing his own version of The Lord of the Rings.  Tolkien, after all, was a layman, not a cleric, and eschewed writing theology.  The essence of high fantasy and the essence of Judaism, while specific, still possess staggering breadth and possibility.  Weingrad elaborates that

[…] my real focus was on whether there can be fantasy—what Tolkien in his essay “On Faerie Stories” called the work of “sub-creation” for the purpose of “enchantment”—that is profoundly Jewish. That is, I wondered aloud how suited the theology of normative Judaism—profoundly demythologizing, halakhic, and without a developed tradition of evil as an autonomous force—is to the making of modern fantasy.

He equates ‘deep’ with ‘normative’.  That is, he does not limit himself to a particular expression of Judaism—Orthodox over Reform, say—but embraces the essential posture that makes a given praxis of belief Judaism.  ‘Mere Judaism’, if you will. 

In other words, the great Christian fantasists include a Catholic, an Anglican, and a Dissenter.  The great Jewish fantasists could just as easily include a Reformed, an Orthodox, and a Conservative.

Just as significantly, Weingrad equates high fantasy with Tolkien’s concept of sub-creation.  This may imply that epic high fantasy is the most pure—or at least the most thorough—sub-creative act.  Or, as is more likely, it draws the realm of Jewish high fantasy into the realm of fairy-story, and into communion with all those storytellers—ancient and modern, Christian and pagan—whose tales seethe together in the Cauldron of Story.

In this definition, there is no set form—high fantasy can rage from the dream-worlds of Lilith to the kingdoms of A Game of Thrones.  Jewish high fantasy, as such, may be born in the full, borderless rush of the Art (within the parameters Tolkien defines and Weingrad concedes), without succumbing to the publishing stereotypes that unfortunately burden the term.


Ross Douthat of The New York Times, however, questions the validity of this concept.  In his criticism of Weingrad, he says that

‘the genre […] will remain irreducibly Christian, and a truly Judaic fantasy would have to belong to, or invent, a different genre altogether.

Had Weingrad reached for Tolkien’s view of eucatastrophe, he would have to make a more difficult though not impossible argument.  Eucatastrophe as Tolkien understood it is, simplistically put, a story’s anticipation, or reverberation, of the Resurrection of Christ (87-90).  That seems reasonable to call ‘irreducibly Christian’.  While there may well be room for similar expressions of restoration and renewal in Judaism—one thinks, perhaps, of the Sabbath as potentially eucatastrophic—the term would require detailed redefinition.

Sub-creation is different.  It is not ‘irreducibly Christian’.  It is not even ‘Christian’ as such.  It may be helpful at this point, to quote in some detail Tolkien’s explanation of this term and its limitations.

Children are capable, of course, of literary belief, when the story-maker’s art is good enough to produce it.  That state of mind has been called ‘willing suspension of disbelief.’  But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens.  What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator’.  He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter.  Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world.  You therefore believe it, which you are, as it were, inside.  The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed.  You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. […]

Anyone inheriting the fantastic devise of human language can say ‘the green sun’.  Many can then imagine it or picture it.  But that is not enough […]  To make a Secondary World inside which the the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft.  Few attempt such difficult tasks.  But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, storytelling in is primary and most potent form. […]

Fantasy [viz., the Sub-creative Art] is a natural human activity.  It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity.  On the contrary.  The keener and clearer is the reason, the better fantasy it will make. […] 

For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appear under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it.  So upon logic was founded the nonsense that displays itself in the tales and rhymes of Lewis Carroll.  If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kinds would not have arisen.  […] 

Fantasy remains a human right: we make 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.  (60, 70, 74-75)

Notice the delicately chosen language Tolkien employs to describe the sub-creative art.  He relates it to ‘the fantastic devise of human language’; it is ‘a natural human activity’, and ‘a human right’.  It compliments and enhances human Reason.  Most significantly for this discussion, it is ‘our derivative mode’, the made imitating the Maker, sub-creating after the likeness of the Creator.   ‘Fantasy’, therefore, is in Tolkien’s view intrinsically human, not intrinsically Christian. 

As I observed in my previous article, many great fantasists are secular, agnostic, mystic, and so on, writing works of power and beauty that have little or nothing to do with Christian theology, but have everything to do with a shared humanity, with searching for worlds where green suns are credible. Weingrad acknowledges this shared human search, inherent in human speech, when he writes with refreshing optimism :

[…] I recognize that the forms and preoccupations of high fantasy are pagan and Christian, but I also believe that the capacity of literature to surprise with square circles and show the unnecessary to be necessary means that my tall order is a demanding but not an impossible one, or no more impossible than are most great acts of literary creation. Or sub-creation.

Many of Tolkien’s concepts can, of course, be traced back to Christian theology, and Christian engagement with a pagan past.  But such a tracery ignores a sobering and salient fact.  The areas of Christian theology from which these concepts can be said to arise are inherited from Judaism.  They are found in the Bible, yes, but they are found specifically in the Tanakh (notice Tolkien’s allusion to Koheles [Ecclesiastes]), more specifically yet in Torah.  Despite the long tension—even animosity—between the two religions, they converge in agreement on the genesis of mankind, on the creative likeness between made and Maker.

Without a specifically Jewish foundation, Christianity would not exist.  It originates from the claims of Yeshua ben-Yosef to be Messiah—a meaningless claim to the pagan Gentile world, until his Jewish followers explained what it meant.  The sundering of Christianity from the rest of Judaism, and its long subsequent abuse for political gain over the Jewish people, stands among the most tragic devastations in Western history.

Tolkienian fantasy may be Christian in expression, but it seems it is ultimately Judaic in origin.  The task of Jewish fantasy may well be less a re-imagination than a reclamation.  The form may of course be different that current fantasy, perhaps vastly so, but the essence will be the same—perhaps the purer for being closer the source.  The innovation may be, in fact, a return.



Tolkien, J. R. R.  ‘On Fairy-stories’ (1947), in The Tolkien Reader (New York: Ballantine, 1966).

Weingrad, Michael, ‘No Jewish Narnia: A Reply’.  The Jewish Review of Books.  Accessed 26/3/2010.  <http://www.jewishreviewofbooks.com/publications/detail/no-jewish-narnias-a-reply>


11 thoughts on “halakhic fantasy: ruminating on a reply

  1. Somewhat tangentially, I wonder if anyone brought up that Superman has distinctively Jewish-American roots? One interesting article is here by Simcha Weinstein. Not to mention many other influential shapers of the comic book mythos– Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, et al– are Jewish as well.

    Depends how we want do define “fantasy” I suppose, but I think it would be hard to come up with a definition that would leave out the Man of Steel.

  2. (Ah, on reading the article I see it does get a small nod toward the end; these apparently are not the droids we’re looking for.)

  3. Nice attempt though, Eric. Surprisingly — or not so surprisingly — Tolkien’s definition of ‘Fantasy’, and thus the definition Weingrad accepts, would exclude the superhero sub-genre. Because there’s the use of ‘gimmick’, or machine — Superman’s from Krypton, the X-Men are evolutionary mutants, and so on — such stories fall outside Tolkien’s boundaries for the Perilous Realm. They’re firmly anchored to this world, not ‘a chance meeting of the ways’ with another. Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, and pretty much all of Wells, are excluded for the same reason. (‘The Hunting of the Snark’ might pass muster, though, as of course does Narnia; entering the Wardrobe is simply a re-imagination of wandering into the woods.)

    Also, for Weingrad’s purposes, if I remember correctly the superhero genre draws more from the kabbalistic literature than the halakhic core of Judaism. That would be about like, say, a fantasy story based on docetic gnosticism trying to pass as Christian literature. Interesting ideas, maybe, but not really what it’s all about, folks.

    So, close but no boojum.

  4. Alice is excluded? Now I’m slightly confused. Seems like Wonderland is a pretty decent work of sub-creation, in its own insane way. Certainly not high fantasy, but Tolkien doesn’t seem to be limiting his definition to that, although Weingrad might be.

  5. It is a bit surprising, Zed, especially considering the continuous influence Carroll’s work has over current fantasy writers. But Tolkien specifically mentioned it as not being a fairy-story. His reason is simply that both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are pointedly dream-narratives. Carroll could not quite bring himself to simply sub-create, to suggest there really might be a Wonderland. In the end, it was all a daft dream. For this reason, Tolkien said, it’s not true fantasy.

  6. I wondered if that might be it. It’s been too long since I’ve read ’em, wasn’t sure how strongly they were put across as dream rather than independent realms.

  7. Actually, they’re completely self-cohesive, independent worlds — within a dream-frame. Frustratingly enough. So very almost…

  8. On the other hand, the concluding poem of Looking-Glass ends with the line, “Life, what is it but a dream?” If our own world is just somebody’s dream (the Red King’s, perhaps?) then of course a sub-created world would be a dream too… A stretch of course but intriguing.

    And let’s not forget that none other than the MacDonald children encouraged Carroll to publish Alice in the first place…

    (None of which is really to the point because Carroll was not very Jewish. Still interesting.)

  9. But, Eric — this would be Tolkien’s point — if our world and the sub-created world were both dreams, we would not encounter the sub-created world as a dream. We would be part of the same dream. And it’s only in the rarest instance that someone dreams about dreaming.

    The difficulty with the Alice stories is not the dream-frame per se, but the presence of any frame at all. Wells is ruled out for the same reason–the time machine, like the dream, is an apparatus that is used to convey the characters into a sub-created reality. It can be used to get them out, too. So this is something apart, something other and distinct, quite different from the ‘chance meeting of the ways’ that haunts and bewilders the fairy-tale heroes.

    And, yes, Carroll was hardly Jewish. But I think we’re hashing out the ‘high fantasy’ part of the equation just now. Where it is important to the discussion to define what it is and what it isn’t. Big surprise there, I guess.

  10. “…the time machine, like the dream, is an apparatus that is used to convey the characters into a sub-created reality. It can be used to get them out, too. So this is something apart, something other and distinct, quite different from the ‘chance meeting of the ways’ that haunts and bewilders the fairy-tale heroes.”

    Magician’s Nephew used rings. Does that rule out Narnia? On the other end, there’s not much meeting of ways at all in Middle Earth. Sometimes Tolkien seems to treat the books like an alternate pre-history of our Earth, but it’s not very prominent.

  11. Well, Zed, there’s a couple things about the rings in Magician’s Nephew. For one thing, their use is shown to be manipulative, damaging, and evil throughout. The rings wake Jadis, bring evil Narnia, and kill a lot of guinea pigs. Remember, though, what the rings are made of — dust from another world. A gift to Uncle Andrew from his (evil) fairy godmother. He disobeys through his refusal to destroy it, and perverts it for scientific ends. And he reaps the consequences, the inevitable way such characters do in fairy tales. So the use of ‘mechanism’ is actually a domination perversion of reality–a theme Lewis treats extensively in That Hideous Strength. So, not sure if Tolkien would agree with me entirely, but yes, the Narnia books count as high fantasy.

    LOTR, though, seems to me to be entirely full of ‘chance meetings of the ways’–ents and hobbits and elves and Bombadil so on–not usually given to normal interaction but thrown together through necessity. Remember that the elves are shown as ethereal and ‘other’ throughout, memories of long ago, usually on quests of their own. Much of the tension and beauty of the book comes from such meetings. And afterwards they’re gone or going, faded or fading, and we’re left with a profound sense of loss. So, I guess it’s not ‘prominent’ per se, because it’s pretty much the entire book.

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