further discussion with Michael Weingrad
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>