The Violent Fantastic Imagination

I am a card-carrying fantasy nerd. Nerds such as I were highly anxious when we heard that Peter Jackson was adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s sacrosanct Lord of the Rings trilogy into movie form. The high praise given to Jackson’s adaptation from nerdy sources was largely due to relief that he hadn’t botched it like we’d feared.

I am also a fairly stereotypical fantasy nerd in that I harbour dreams (read: delusions, we’re good at those) of some day writing my own fantasy epic that will force me to modestly turn aside comparisons to Tolkien’s great work. Of course I couldn’t compare to him (but thanks for stroking my creative ego).

But, as I’ve collected notes and ideas towards a half-dozen or so possible stories, I’ve been increasingly stymied by the fact that most standard tropes within high fantasy (wizards, castles, etc.) are about redemptive violence. The truly good, just, and heroic in this regard are those who  wield violence against evil judiciously and courageously, as opposed to the indiscriminate and capricious methods of those who use it evilly.

Aragorn stands as an excellent example of a courageous wielder of the sword against evil. Unlike the corruptible Boromir, Aragorn takes no pleasure in violence and will only exercise his well-honed martial skills when righteousness and the greater good demands it. He seeks no glory for himself, as opposed to Boromir, who can think of little else.

This is all deeply problematic for someone such as myself who is committed to Christian nonviolence. I am highly critical that anything that justifies human violence in terms of righteousness, justice or holiness. I believe that the Cross is God’s final judgement on our sordid history of violence, as there we went so far as to attempt to destroy the very source of our being in the name of righteousness.

Now, the subversion of violence and the exaltation of self-sacrificial love in the mode of the Cross is not without precedent in the fantasy genre. Frodo defeats Sauron not through combat, but rather through a journey based on friendship, self-sacrifice, and a steadfast commitment to doing what’s right and true in the face of seemingly certain defeat. But this is after many battles and much bloodshed that is largely cast in an heroic light. Some subversion of violence is better than none, but why must nonviolence so often be portrayed as an option to be considered when all violent options have been exhausted and deemed ineffective?

To further compound matters, those who resist war and desire peace in the fantasy genre are largely portrayed as non-virtuous weasels who are weak and deluded at best, and—more often—collaborators with the enemy at worst. To stick with the Lord of the Rings examples, Wormwood is one who bewitches King Theoden to desire “peace,” but this is only because of his allegiance to the enemy wizard Saruman. In the fantasy genre, the virtuous are those who have the will to kill the enemy. The exception to this is the Hobbits, who are mostly romantically portrayed as those for whom violence is not an option that would be conceived.

I do not pretend to be an expert on all matters fantastical. I’m sure there are many examples of fantasy that call violence into question and present nonviolence as more than an option to be considered when all violent means have been exhausted. I commend them, wherever they may be labouring in obscurity. But they have not yet made a dent in the genre as a whole, and they likely will not, for it seems that the fantasy genre merely mirrors humanity’s pathological exaltation of violence as the right means for the right people. I will continue to do all that I feebly can to be a part of the people with enough imagination to dream—and write—otherwise, God help us.

7 responses to “The Violent Fantastic Imagination”

  1. Hey there, fellow Canadian prairie person! :~) Found you by accident.

    Hm, interesting, I was just reading another post at another writer’s place about facing up to the violence in the Bible and where it fits in Christian thinking. (that was over here:

    What do you think?


  2. Very interesting post, Matt. Regarding the epic you’re contemplating, just write the thing, and write it the way you want it written. Who knows what will happen…

  3. @C.L. Thanks for stopping by, and leaving a comment to boot. :)

    As for Marc’s post on violence that you point out, I am not as inclined to the seemingly 5-point Calvinist, substitutionary atonement view that he espouses. For instance, I think it’s a mistake to simply speak of the Cross as God crucifying his Son, as this further perpetuates a satanic view of God: that he’s a big, bad, angry deity that’s out to get you. This is not to say that the Old Testament isn’t filled with violence—it is—or that we can dismiss the topics of sin, sovereignty & salvation—we can’t—but rather that I believe that we can tell the story of God’s great redemption in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth in better ways.

  4. @MS Quixote: cheers for the encouragement. It would seem that this struggle will come out in my writing in some way that is entirely mysterious to me thus far.

  5. Matt,

    I’m impressed with your deduction from such a small sample; however, please remember it is small sample. I tell the story, in the manner you suggest, through a variety of mediums and in a vareity of ways. You simply happened upon only one instance–and it was a post directed at a specific topic.

    Nevertheless, if you tell the story without ever telling the parts I addressed, you’re simply not telling the story. In fact, the intro to the story requires some of the harder sayings, and the story doesn’t make sense without them. After all, what are we saved from? It seems to me Satan would be very pleased if we never preached about the wrath of God and His coming in judgment.

    This is not to suggest you don’t, btw, as you’ve acknowledged…so don’t get the wrong idea.

  6. @MS Quixote Indeed, I was painting with broad brushstrokes and making generalizations. I do, however, think that much of what gets lumped under the category of the “wrath of God” is a brutish picture of God as an angry deity who is out to get us, while believing in Christ becomes our salvation from this angry God, who is no longer out to get us on account of our faith.

    I think wrath that the wrath of God needs to be seen through the lens of how God in Christ loved the world so much that he gave up his very life to save the world, not from his own wrath, but from the sin and death that was enslaving those he loved enough to take him to the cross. Wrath in this sense is better seen as righteous anger against all that would mar and sully his lovingly crafted creation, rather than an “I’m gonna getcha”-style wrath that is often preached.

  7. Hey again, Matt. :~)

    “Wrath in this sense is better seen as righteous anger against all that would mar and sully his lovingly crafted creation, rather than an “I’m gonna getcha”-style wrath that is often preached.”

    For myself, I associate “I’m gonna getcha” with a justification-by-works framework, rather than a substitutionary one. I can agree with righteous anger against the impact of sin on creation, but I also think the character of God goes deeper.

    If sin is missing the mark–then the mark of what? As I understand it, the aim is variously expressed as holiness, Christlikeness, being in the image of God. As such, sin is a personal affront against God’s character, not just a negative impact on His creation and His creatures.

    For the record, I’m not a TULIP person either–it loses me at the L–and definitely gravitate to the historic (not the modern) Anabaptist/Baptist stance. However, I see no dichotomy between God crucifying His Son or the Son sacrificing His life in payment for sin, as you seem to have expressed it, just two sides to the same coin. Perhaps there’s more to your thoughts?

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