A conversation with Bryan Litfin
We continue our discussion with author, hiker, and theologian Bryan Litfin. His first novel, The Sword (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), the first volume of his first trilogy, will appear at the end of April. Today, he talked with Mr. Pond about the story behind the story—how he’s writing The Chiveis Trilogy, and why.
PARADOXES: You’ve got quite an interesting story on your website, that almost sounds how it should always happen when you start writing the book. Do you mind talking about how you came to start writing The Chiveis Trilogy?
BRYAN LITFIN: It really was one of those flash-of-inspiration moments. I don’t mean divine inspiration, but one of those things where stuff just suddenly gels.
For a while, I had been considering the idea of fiction, and was thinking, well, maybe I could do an ancient church, Roman Empire story. And I maybe I would still like to do that someday. I’d watched some of the Tolkien movies the night before, and so it was sort of sifting around in my head. And woke up one Saturday morning in January, and had this idea about a way that one could pursue a narrative that would be not limited as historical by the events that did occur, or the world as we knew it, or the world as it once existed. (Historical fiction will always be limited if you’re trying to accurate.)
At the same time [it could be] a story that wasn’t obviously not a real world—the way you see Middle-Earth or Narnia are clearly alternate worlds. And I thought, you know what, there’s another way one could do this. One could set it in the future. And if you had this nuclear destruction, and viral destruction, basically wipe the slate clean in our day, then you could, maybe four hundred years from now, imagine that people had gotten back to something like a sword and horse type of technology, and mediaeval lifestyle. And yet you’re unlimited—because it’s the future—in terms of what could happen.
So it set up this premise: what if there was a kingdom that had no knowledge of Christianity, and then you found a Bible? What would the Bible introduce into that new kingdom, who would oppose it and why, whose lives would be changed and why, if somebody found a Bible? I woke up and really just outlined.
I picked the Swiss Alps as a location because I’m a Swissophile, and I’d been to these places. That’s one of the things I hope comes through a lot— a sense of verisimilitude, and accuracy. A sense of place, and real landscape. I could picture it, so I set it there.
The outline of a story came to me in the span of one day. And that was over three years before the book is actually getting published, on April 30.
So it was a divine visitation. No, I won’t got that far. But it was one of those creative, fertile moments you sometimes get.
And I had to wrestle with the issue of— I’m a scholar, so what am I doing writing fiction? In the end I decided to follow the vocation, rather than pride.
How did you reconcile that—scholar writing fiction?
I’m not sure I have reconciled it. Just a few minutes ago I handed an early copy to an esteemed scholar and theologian, as a friendly gesture. And did so with some trepidation. Because the part of me that’s trained in academia doesn’t buy into the idea that this is prestigious, or whatever.
How did I reconcile it? I reconciled it firstly by siding with vocation, believing that I was called by G-d and should do this for his name and his glory. And then secondly, I reconciled it through joy. In other words, I followed my passion. Whenever it felt like I wasn’t being as scholarly as I should by writing something in that vein, it was balanced by the great joy and passion and sense of creation in writing the story. So it tempered my sense of maybe doing something I shouldn’t be doing.
Not everybody will understand that. But if you’ve come up through the ranks of academia, you will know the pressure to publish, and to publish academic stuff. You get formed in that model of what it means to be productive. And there’s a lot of pride involved in that.
You mentioned of course you’d been watching Lord of the Rings. Let me ask ask about the Tolkienesque element, if you feel a sort of connection with what has gone before, in terms of fantasy, in terms of Christian fantasy? Specifically with Tolkien and Lewis both being academics, and respected scholars in their fields?
That’s an obvious parallel. But I’ll say this—I don’t think I was heavily influenced, if at all, by C. S. Lewis. I respect C. S. Lewis—I’m not a Lewis guy. It’s been years since I read any of the Narnia stuff as a kid. I read the Perelandra trilogy a long time ago, but that had no bearing, I think, on what I’m doing now.
To be honest, the Tolkien stuff would be more so. I was deeply influenced by J. R. R. Tolkien when I was a kid. I lived in Oxford at the time. In fact my house was near where his house was (not at the same time). I read The Hobbit in a day. And so I loved that stuff.
I think, the influence there was part of a broader thing where I was living in England, and castles, and the imaginative world when I was kid playing Dungeons and Dragons—which a lot of Christians think is terrible—kind of opening up the floodgates of imagination.
It’s been years since I read any Tolkien. It’s just there in the background. Maybe the movies—I hate to admit that—but the movies even more so. Because that’s more in the foreground. I’ve watched those more recently. And I like what Peter Jackson did. He didn’t exactly replicate Tolkien’s stuff, but what he did do was convey that sense of the epic and the heroic. That’s what I really drew from—that sense of epic scale and heroism. Did I consciously draw it? I don’t think so. But it was there.
Another book that comes to mind is A Canticle for Lebowitz (1960). A Canticle for Lebowitz is a classic SF post-nuclear, where it weaves in all this theology. First it’s ancient monasticism, then mediaeval scholasticism, and then there’s kind of Renaissance thing, and all this Latin. So that, in some ways, is similar to what I’m doing.
But, honestly, I think The Chiveis Trilogy came out of the vapour—the vapours in my own mind.
You know where it came from, even more directly, was just my own travels in Switzerland and Europe. That was my creative force. Not some fictional work that I read, or even some movie that I watched. What it came out of was strapping on my hiking boots and hiking in the Alps. Or walking into Strasbourg Cathedral and being amazed by it. That’s what stimulated my creativity more than anything.
If I can use an academic term in discussing a work of fiction, do you see the Chiveis Trilogy in any way filling a gap in the literature?
I do see it filling a gap. First of all, I see it filling the man gap. I think I’ve written a book that men will like. And I wanted to. It’s a story that has lots of adventure, and a strong masculine character—Teo—and a strong, beautiful, female heroine—Anastasia. So there is a sense it which it fills a gap by writing to men. And not just to women, who get all the prairie romances, and all the women in the Civil War pining for their Christian [lovers]— all the chick lit stuff. So, yes, it will fill that gap.
I think also, I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I am a theologian by trade and a fiction writer by night. So I wanted it to be theological. There’s all kinds of illusions to Scripture, and references to theological themes. It may or may not be seen by all the readers. But there’s a theology that’s woven into it.
And it’s a theology of G-d’s sovereignty. It’s a theology of admitting sin. It’s a theology of trusting G-d and taking a step of faith. Not to say other Christian writers don’t have those themes, but I think readers of this book will sense that it’s written by a theologian church historian. It’s a tone that’s there. Hard to describe.
When we look at Christian fantasy—the proverbial Big Three: MacDonald, Tolkien, Lewis—most of those we see are coming from a High Church position, from a sacramental position, From what I’ve seen, there’s an accepted view that the best Christian fantasy is going High Church. Even Jo Rowling’s books are fairly High Church in tone. What contribution to fantasy literature, to epic adventure, do you see an evangelical voice being able to make?
The Sword, and The Chiveis Trilogy—it’s published by Crossway. So right there, you’re not dealing with that kind of background. You’re dealing much more with the reformed, John Piper type of Christian worldview. I’m writing not ensconced in that per se, but writing from something like that kind of a lens.
So it won’t feel like some Anglican priest has penned this book. I think it’ll feel a lot very ‘born again’ in a sense (I’m just using that term to describe the movement). You know—house church, encountering the Bible for the first time. And I didn’t shy away from that. I didn’t pooh-pooh that, or not have that. There is a sense in which these people will seem like evangelicals. And yet, their situation is so different there will have to be a different way they’re encountering G-d as well.
I don’t think this will be limited in appeal, because it’s not over the top. Someone else could read this through a different lens. But evangelical Christians will be familiar with the thought patterns and the theology of The Chiveis Trilogy, I think.
Now the second book—it’s not coming out till 2011— is going to have much more of a High Church theme. I don’t want to give anything away, but we will encounter a greater degree of what we might call catholicity. But the first one doesn’t have much of that. And that just has to do with the plot itself.
To read the rest of the conversation: