The Avengers and the Gospel

The Chuck Colson Center recently posted three well written articles on a subject related to the Medieval Model and fantasy stories: “The Avengers and the Gospel.” I think you’ll enjoy them.



What has Asgard to do with the Gospel?
OK, I admit it. I’m a bit of a geek. Not as much as some people I know, but I am a fan of science fiction and fantasy, and lately I’ve gotten into the Marvel Comics Universe via the Avengers movies. But I’m also a historian, a mythology buff, and a worldview thinker. From those perspectives, even popcorn movies like the Marvel series raise a number of worldview issues and demonstrate the impact of Christianity in shaping our ideas of heroism and virtue whether Stan Lee and the Marvel writers realize it or not.

WARNING: Spoilers ahead.  READ MORE



Gospel truth in action movies
Even though movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are intended to be action blockbusters, like all films they include worldview ideas and themes. This is the second article identifying some of the worldview ideas included in the films that point to the Gospel, whether this was consciously intended by the writers or not.

In the previous article, we looked at the impact of Christianity in transforming the concept of the hero. In the ancient world, heroes were warriors characterized by pride, arrogance, and skill at war; Christianity brought in a new ethic of humility, service to others, and using force only to protect the weak.




Summer action blockbusters aren’t exactly known for their profound ideas, but if we understand worldview, we can find interesting worldview ideas in the most unlikely places. This series has focused on one of the more popular recent franchises, the films involving the various Avengers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the previous articles, we saw how Thor demonstrated the triumph of Christian ideas of virtue over the pagan world, and how other films in the universe showed the influence of Just War Theory and the danger of unchecked power. In this article, we will wrap up by looking at the theme of self-sacrifice and the hope of redemption in the films.





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Wisdom vs. Mercy


Mercy vs. Wisdom in Modern Fantasy Stories
© 2009 William R. McGrath

I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.
-Exodus 33:19
Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.
-Proverbs 4:7
Mercy: Compassionate or kindly forbearance shown toward an offender, an enemy, or other person in one’s power; compassion, pity, or benevolence.
Wisdom: The quality or state of being wise; knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action; sagacity, discernment, or insight.

Someone asked me recently if I think my fantasy novels will ever become big best sellers. I told them that I would be surprised if they did, because their central theme is a very different one than most successful fantasy novels. In the three most popular fantasy works of our time, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia and the Harry Potter series, either the underlying theme or the tipping point of the story was an act or attitude of mercy, (i.e. Frodo to Gollum, Aslan to Edmond and Eustace, Harry towards Peter Pettigrew and Dumbledore towards nearly everyone). My stories on the other hand are about wisdom and wisdom is not as desired among modern readers as is mercy. I don’t think the problem is merely that I am a new author. Even when done by masters, wisdom does not sell as well as mercy. Let’s examine two fantasy stories that, while well regarded, are not nearly as popular as the above mentioned works; Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke and the Ransom Trilogy of C.S. Lewis (AKA the Space Trilogy). In both stories the focus is on wisdom. As do most wisdom stories, these teach by example; either positive “this is what you should do” (as Professor Ransom, who starts out a good man in the first book of the Space Trilogy and gets better as the books progress), or negative “this is what you should not do” (i.e. Mark Studdock’s immature need to be part of the inner circle in That Hideous Strength, or the small-minded selfishness of Mr. Norrell and the arrogance of Jonathan Strange in Clarke’s story). While these works are admired and have sold well, they are not in the same mega-bestseller class as are the “mercy” stories. Why is that? Were the sales of the Space Trilogy far below the Narnia stories simply because Narnia was aimed at children, who are believed to be a larger group of fantasy readers than adults? What about more recent books, like those of British writers J. K. Rowling or Susanna Clarke? Is it the writing? I think most critics would agree that, line for line; Clarke is a more sophisticated writer than Rowling, but it is Rowling who has become the richest woman in England through her writing.
I can understand why mercy is more popular than wisdom in our day. Wisdom may teach you how to fish, but when you are starving you don’t want a fishing pole, you want food and you want it right now. Wisdom may keep you out of trouble, but mercy can get you out of the trouble you are already in. Wisdom is something that you must earn, it takes work. Mercy is something unearned; it is a gift freely given at no cost to you (though it may cost the giver dearly). It is not the innocent that need mercy; it is the guilty.
Have you noticed that most children have no problem with the harsh punishments imposed upon the villains of fairy tales? It is we adults who find the justice severe in these tales and would like to see it tempered with mercy. Perhaps there are more adults in our society who feel that they need mercy than there are those who desire wisdom.
It may also be that mercy is more in keeping with what makes fantasy a different genre than other types of fiction. Frodo did not show mercy towards Gollum because he hoped that Gollum would ultimately save him from the evil power of the ring. Frodo’s mercy was a gift; and, importantly, a gift from higher to lower. That this gift ended up saving the day was something of a miracle and miracles are what fantasy is all about.
Wisdom on the other hand is different. Wisdom is something you can learn; it is a skill, a technique, almost a technology. You expect it to work. Mercy is the gift of the underdog, the little guy, the weak. Wisdom is the tool of the favorite, the experienced, the one expected to win. Most heroes of fantasy stories these days start out as the underdog. But this was not always the case. Once upon a time princes and heroes were the main characters in fantasies and myths. Go back a few hundred years and it would have been Aragorn who destroyed the ring and Harry would have been born a prince.
Historically, most fables and fairy tales were wisdom stories. “If you are foolish, bad things will happen to you” or “while the hero did something foolish to get himself into trouble, he was able to use the things he learned along his journey to get himself out.” Most of these stories are examples of problem solving and pluck. I would even argue that the tales wherein the hero “entertains an angel unknowingly” out of kindness and thereafter gains a boon are in the wisdom category. Why? Because the kindness here, unlike Frodo’s mercy towards Gollum, is usually done because the hero remembers some good advice he has received; thus the kindness is done because of wise council, rather than empathy. I find it interesting that, back in the days when most people believed in miracles, most fantasy tales emphasized wisdom. In our day, when most people don’t believe in miracles, most popular fantasy stories emphasize mercy.

I’ve heard that most adults have a tendency to choose books that reinforce their own worldview: Conservatives tend to read novels that agree with their political views and Liberals tend to do the same with their book choices: people who believe in God tend to choose different novels than do atheists, etc. I have to wonder if this holds true for our personalities as well. Do naturally empathetic, soft hearted and merciful people, (let us call them “Abrahams”) choose to read mercy stories, while those who hold wisdom as the highest virtue, (“Solomons”) tend to look for stories which teach that attribute? Are there more Abrahams currently in the world then Solomons, or do the Abrahams simply read more fantasy while the Solomons tend to read histories and biographies or, when they do read fiction, they are fact based techno-thrillers, such as those of Tom Clancy or Michael Creighton? Even when a fantasy story has broad appeal, such as The Lord of the Rings, or the Harry Potter series, I suspect that different people respond to different elements of the stories. Do the Abrahams find that the scenes where mercy is shown are their favorites? Do the Solomons find that they are nodding their heads in agreement whenever wise council is given?

Are you an Abraham or a Solomon or something else?  Which is more important to you, wisdom or mercy?


Bill McGrath


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Aristotle and Augustine

Here’s an article I think you’ll enjoy from Prof. Glenn Sunshine of the Colson Center on Aristotle, St. Augustine and the ancient origins of western political thought.

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Copyright 2008, 2012 William R. McGrath

( To review: While Joseph Campbell had his monomyth of the Hero’s Journey to explain the structure of myths and epic tales, C.S. Lewis had his “Medieval Model” to explain the textures, colors and flavors of the stories from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. When you hear a professor of Medieval literature recommend the fantasy novels of Lewis or Tolkien as a good introduction to Medieval literature for modern readers, it is the elements of the “Medieval Model” found in these tales that they are referring to. If you wish to write High Fantasy tales like those of Lewis or Tolkien, then you must understand this model.)

Part 3
Knights and Angels in the Age of Chivalry

…for he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid, for he beareth not the sword in vain; for he is the minister of God, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.
-Romans 13:4

When you read the word “knight” what image comes to mind. Is it not a medieval warrior on horseback, often with a large shield and lance. His armor may be chain mail or it may be full plate, but he is armored in the best that is available in his day. He is a professional warrior, but he is more than that.

Now if I ask you to use an adjective to describe this knight, the odds are very good (if you have read any of the classic stories of knights) that you will either use the word chivalrous or use words that describe this quality; for the word knight conjures up more than just a mounted warrior, the word brings to mind a warrior who behaves in a certain way, a warrior who is held to a higher standard.

In all the old tales of knights there was always a code of conduct, but the question is why? Why were the various codes in these tales (and in the real codes given to real knights) so important to the definition of a knight? How is all this important to the writing of a High Fantasy story?
In historical terms, the first of these codes came about during the time of Charlemagne, in the 8th century A.D., a time when Western Europe was just beginning to recover from the chaos after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Here are two examples of knight’s codes from the literature of the time.

To fear God and maintain His Church
To serve the liege lord in valor and faith
To protect the weak and defenseless
To give succor to widows and orphans
To refrain from the wanton giving of offense
To live by honor and for glory
To despise pecuniary reward
To fight for the welfare of all
To obey those placed in authority
To guard the honor of fellow knights
To eschew unfairness, meanness and deceit
To keep faith
At all times to speak the truth
To persevere to the end in any enterprise begun
To respect the honor of women
Never to refuse a challenge from an equal
Never to turn the back upon a foe.

-The Song of Roland. 11th century – Charlemagne’s Code of Chivalry

“The king established all his knights, and gave them that were of lands not rich, he gave them lands, and charged them never to do outrageously nor murder, and always to flee treason; also, by no mean to be cruel, but to give mercy unto him that asketh mercy, upon pain of forfeiture of their worship and lordship of King Arthur for evermore; and always to do ladies, damsels, and gentlewomen succor upon pain of death. Also, that no man take no battles in a wrongful quarrel for no law, ne for no world’s goods. Unto this were all the knights sworn of the Table Round, both old and young. And every year were they sworn at the high feast of Pentecost.”

-Sir Thomas Malory. Le Morte d’Arthur, 1485

Please notice that in each of these warrior codes, the majority of the rules concern conduct outside of physical battle. Now why is that? Yes, these codes were an attempt to make more humane the rules of war at the time, but just as important, they were an attempt to guide the knight’s conduct in times of peace. What were these knights and what did they represent, especially as it concerns their roles in literature?

The Medieval Model in literature follows the hierarchical structure of medieval society as a whole, (more on this in a future post). The king was the servant of God upon the earth, while the barons (lords) represented the king in their fiefdoms. A knight was the representative of his lord at the local level. Therefore, the codes were intended to remind the knights that they were more than just fighters, they had a higher calling and should conduct themselves as representing their heavenly Lord as well as their earthly one. If the earthly king represented God’s sovereignty then the Christian knight should represent the service of the angels. To those above them, the knights did service as warrior angels, while to those below them, the knights did service as guardian angels. Between these two functions they also served as messengers for their lord’s word and law.  So when we look at good knights in High Fantasy literature we should remember that they are servants first and foremost. To be called to knighthood is to serve both those above and those below you. Just as a doctor serves with the skills of healing, compassion and council; a good knight serves with the skills of protection, proclamation and the execution of justice. So if we are to understand the role knights play in the literature of the Medieval Model it helps to look at them in their trifold roles as warrior and herald angels in service to the king and guardian angels in service to the people.

I try to use this concept of the threefold service of true knights in my own novels.
You’ll find a section from my novel Eretzel below. In this scene the hero Daniel explains to his young student what it means to be a warrior. They begin with issues you expect would concern a warrior-in-training, but very quickly the conversation moves to the non-fighting aspects of the knight’s code. In book one, Daniel takes on the role of knight as older warriors mentor him. In book two he takes on the role of mentor to a young man he has been training in the warrior arts, acting in this scene as a guardian angel, protecting the young man not with his sword, but with his words. How do you find I handled the issue? Please post a comment and tell us your thoughts on knights and angels and their place in High Fantasy stories and the Medieval Model.


“Courage is not the lack of fear. Courage is doing what you must despite your fear,” said Daniel. “My father used to tell me that courage is not your goal. It is the tool you use to reach your goal and, as is true with most tools, it is neither good nor evil, but can be used by good men and evil men equally to achieve their needs.”

“And honor?” asked Raviv.

Daniel and Raviv sat near a small fire, watching the embers glow as a hunk of pork roasted on a spit above the coals. Daniel had chosen to take Raviv alone with him hunting instead of also including Elan and Ehud on the trip. The two other boys still had their father. Raviv had lost his at an age when a boy needed his father most. Daniel was using their time alone to tell Raviv of the warrior ways of his people.

“Honor is doing what is right no matter the cost. Honor is walking the right road whether that road is smooth or rocky, flat or over the highest mountain.”

Raviv nodded solemnly.
“Next is wisdom, right?” he asked. “I know what that is. Wisdom is knowing everything about something.”

“Close,” said Daniel, “but what you speak of is knowledge. Wisdom is not exactly the same thing. Knowledge is like a map of a land. The map may show every mountain range and river, but it will do you no good if you do not know where you are and where you need to go. Wisdom tells you these things, for wisdom is the compass that gives you direction. It is the ability to know why something is right or wrong, not just that it is so.”

“But what about fighting?” asked the boy.

“There is much more to being a warrior than just fighting,” Daniel said. Raviv stared at Daniel intently. Raviv’s father had always been kind to him, but had never had the time to show him this kind of attention, and the boy was taking in Daniel’s words more ravenously than any meal he had ever eaten.
“The warriors of my people are called paladins,” said Daniel. “They are the warriors of the king’s house and are mostly made up of men of his own family. They are the protectors of the realm in time of peace and the leaders of the army in time of war. Being of the king’s house, they are held to a higher standard than mere fighters.”

He drew forth the knife his parents had given him and held it before Raviv.
“Wisdom, honor, courage, faith are the words written on the handle, but what a paladin stands for is much more than that. Here is a poem we used to say to remind us.”
Daniel began to recite.

Courage in battle,
Honor in doing,
Truth in speaking—
That is the way of the warrior.

Leading from the front,
Asking not from others
What you would not do yourself—
That is the way of the warrior.

Wisdom in council,
Patience in study,
Encouraging many—
That is the way of the warrior.

Working hard,
Laughing harder,
Serving best—
That is the way of the warrior.

Openhanded to the poor,
Showing others the way
That true treasure is stored—
That is the way of the warrior.

Know your battlefield,
Know your weapons,
Know your equipment—
That is the way of the warrior.

Mercy to the weak,
Keeping the peace,
In word and deed—
That is the way of the warrior.

Daniel stopped, and both he and the boy were silent for a time, staring into the fire.

“I shall be a warrior when I am a man,” said Raviv after a time.

Daniel stirred the coals with a stick, thinking a moment before he replied.
“My father would often say that to be a man is to be a warrior, and it matters not whether the man holds  a sword in his hand or a pen or a plow. To be a warrior is to be the protector of those in your charge; therefore many men are warriors. It is not the type of fight that makes you a warrior. It is the fact that you fight at all and the heart within you while you do it.
“I have seen farmers back home who had a warrior’s heart, for they fought against a hard earth every day to feed their families. Too much or too little sun or rain or wind all made war against them, and yet these farmers toiled on, fighting without giving up. To fight each day against forces greater than yourself and not give up, then to get yourself up the next morning and begin your battle all over again, that is as good a description of a warrior as I have heard.”

Daniel looked over and was surprised to find tears falling down Raviv’s face.

“My father gave up,” said the boy. “He was no warrior.”

“Yes, I know,” agreed Daniel, both understanding the man and hating what he had done at the same time. “Your father’s father left him when he was your age; did you know that?”

“No,” replied Raviv looking up, “he never spoke of it.”

“The sons of Anak saw your father the night he left, and he told them that,” said Daniel. “He thought that since he had survived such a thing, you would be able to do so as well. He thought that, and so do I.”

“But if his father did that to him and he to me, will I abandon my own family one day?”

Daniel turned to face the boy better. “It is not set in stone that a son must repeat the mistakes of his father. You have not the same heart as your father; you are a different person, are you not? The family you grow up in is only a part of what you are. You are like a tree, and your family is the soil that you are planted in. But whether that tree is beside a stream or on a mountain top, grows in time of rain or drought, many things besides the soil determine how that tree shall grow. Look at the sons of Anak: seven warriors raised in the same house, yet as different as seven types of trees when it comes to the hearts within them. And men are not trees. We have minds to decide our own paths and feet to take us down that path. Does the son of every baker become a baker? Do all the sons of wool merchants become wool merchants? Some do, but many seek their own way. You must decide your own path and then follow it.”

“I shall be a warrior in my heart,” replied Raviv. “I do not know if I will earn my living with a sword or a pan, or a pen, but I will never abandon those under my care. I shall be a warrior.”


Bill McGrath


Filed under Christian Fantasy, HIGH FANTASY, Medieval Model

High Fantasy and the Medieval Model

Fantasy literature and the Medieval Model 

(part one of seven)

Copyright 2011 William R. McGrath


Joseph Campbell’s book on myth, “Hero with a Thousand Faces” remains one of the most influential works for modern storytellers from Stanley Kubrick to Arthur C. Clarke to George Lucas. It’s influence can be seen in movies as diverse as The Lion King and the Matrix trilogy and in television series such as Lost. When a fellow writer asks me to recommend books on story building, Campbell’s work is on my short list. Campbell’s theory describes what he called the Monomyth, the idea that most ancient myths and epic stories contain the same character archetypes, structures and themes. This monomyth concept has become, in some writing circles, what a unified field theory would be for physicists; a central theory that explains everything. However, as encyclopedic as Campbell is, he can be a bit daunting for many folks these days, so I often suggest Hollywood script consultant Christopher Vogler’s “The Writer’s Journey. Mythic Structure for Writers” as a short, accessible presentation of Campbell’s theories (and a book without Campbell’s own bias against the Judeo-Christian tradition, which mars so much of Campbell’s otherwise useful work).

Vogler was a script evaluator at Disney who wrote a seven page memo that condensed Campbell’s monomyth theory down to terms a layman could follow. “The Writer’s Journey” grew out of that memo to become a handbook for screenwriters looking to add mythic structure to their stories (“Secondhand Lions” and “50 First Dates” are two examples of movies that clearly show Vogler’s influence).

Another book I’ve been recommending lately to my fellow fantasy writers is C. S. Lewis’ last book, a scholarly work titled “The Discarded Image. An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature.” While Campbell’s work gave me an understanding of the basic structure of my favorite fantasy stories, Lewis’ book helped me to understand their texture, color and flavor: why Tolkien’s elves and their longing for the lost lands across the sea spoke to me while the elves of so many Tolkien imitators seemed little more than guys with pointed ears who spoke funny: why Lewis’ Merlin in “That Hideous Strength” is my favorite version of that character; why I enjoyed “The Chronicles of Narnia” while other fantasy stories aimed at kids left me flat. Lewis’s book showed me the specific elements that gave depth to the fantasy novels I most enjoyed and made their stories resonate deep in my soul.

Lewis’s book, while shorter than Campbell’s, is still a rich scholarly work, and, unfortunately, I haven’t found a book that tells its theories in simple form as Vogler does for Campbell. These seven articles, I humbly submit to you dear reader, is my attempt to do for Lewis’ study of medieval and renaissance literature what Vogler’s memo did for Campbell’s theories of the hero’s journey, to make his work accessible to the common person, specifically the common writer of fantasy literature.

Lewis called his theory of European thought as presented in the literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance “The Medieval Model:” a worldview of man and the universe based on a mix of classical philosophers and Christian teaching. When I hear professors of medieval literature cite the novels of Lewis and Tolkien as excellent introductions to medieval literature for modern readers, it is this worldview, this “Medieval Model” that they are recognizing.

As we look at this Medieval Model during the Middle Ages and Renaissance and its influence on modern fantasy literature, the proper place to start is defining our terms. When were the Middle Ages and Renaissance? The Middle Ages began (depending on which historian you ask), either with the fall of Rome to the Goths in 410 A.D. or in 476 A.D. with the abdication of Romulus Augustus, the last Roman emperor in the West (why these events are important to High Fantasy literature will be explained in my next post).

The ending date of the Middle Ages range from the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453 AD to Columbus’ discovery of North America in 1492: after which the Renaissance is said to have begun-which itself ended in the latter half of the 1600’s, when the so called Age of Enlightenment began.

And what is fantasy literature? First, we should acknowledge the fact that the myriad of genre definitions in literature we see today are a fairly recent invention. (Plato had just three categories, poetry, drama and prose, and I suspect if you go a bit farther back, all tales would have simply been “stories”). The way we categorize novels with terms like, “fantasy,” “sci-fi,” “horror,” “thriller,” “techo-thriller,” etc; comes from booksellers trying to make searches easier for customers trying to find a particular type of book. I can imagine these early conversations at bookstores went something like this: “Well Mr. Renfield, if you liked that Dracula story,  then you might also like the books in this new section we call ‘Horror.’”

So then what is a fantasy story? To keep things simple, I would broadly define the fantasy genre as any work of fiction that contains a supernatural element. This would include the epic fantasies of Tolkien, Lewis and Rowling, as well as fairy tales, ghost stories and horror tales that have a supernatural cause. What I would like to examine in this series is a sub-genre of fantasy known as High Fantasy, since this has been the most popular type and it is the type that best exemplifies the medieval model: (the prime examples being  the works of the aforementioned Tolkien, Lewis and Rowling) and compare this to the other genre of speculative fiction that fantasy shares shelf space with at the bookstore, namely Science Fiction.

I began thinking about the contrast between the two genres (or at least how they are expressed by their most famous authors) when one of the writers newsgroups I belong to began discussing the definitions of Fantasy and Sci-Fi. I recalled reading a quote from Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in which he described the differences between the modern and the classical novel and thought that, with a bit of tweaking, his description also worked well to define some of the differences between Sci-Fi and Fantasy stories. Here’s the gist of what Solzhenitsyn said going from memory (I haven’t been able to find the full quote on the net, so if you recognize it, I would appreciate a link to the source).

The quote went something like this:

The Modern story takes place in an urban environment. Its focus is on Man the Smith, the maker of things. Its plot revolves around what an individual protagonist wants.

The Classical story take place in a rural setting. Its focus is on Man the Shepherd, the protector and servant. Its plot revolves around what the hero and his people need.

While I  am going to use this definition as a starting point in our discussion, I am not so presumptuous as to try to set laws on what a sci-fi or fantasy story must have, but rather identify the common practices of the most influential authors in the two genres. To further clarify the differences, I thought it would be helpful to contrast two sub-genres of sci-fi and fantasy,  High Fantasy and Hard Sci-Fi, because in many ways each is the mirror image of the other.

Here’s the definitions of Hard Sci-Fi and High Fantasy as defined by a fan of each sub-genre (from Wikipedia):

Hard Science Fiction:

Hard Sci-Fi is a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific or technical detail, or on scientific accuracy, or on both. The term was first used in print in 1957 by P. Schuyler Miller in a review of John W. Campbell, Jr.’s Islands of Space in Astounding Science Fiction. The complementary term soft science fiction (formed by analogy to “hard science fiction” first appeared in the late 1970s. The term is formed by analogy to the popular distinction between the “hard” (natural) and “soft” (social) sciences. Neither term is part of a rigorous taxonomy—instead they are approximate ways of characterizing stories that reviewers and commentators have found useful. The heart of the “hard SF” designation is the relationship of the science content and attitude to the rest of the narrative, and (for some readers, at least) the “hardness” or rigor of the science itself. One requirement for hard SF is procedural or intentional: a story should try to be accurate, logical, credible and rigorous in its use of current scientific and technical knowledge about which technology, phenomena, scenarios and situations that are practically and/or theoretically possible, and later discoveries do not necessarily invalidate the label. 

High Fantasy:

High Fantasy or Epic Fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy that is set in invented or parallel worlds. High fantasy was brought to fruition through the work of authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, whose major fantasy works were published in the 1950s. High fantasy has become one of the two genres most commonly associated with the general term fantasy, the other being sword and sorcery, which is typified by the works of Robert E. Howard. These stories are often serious in tone and epic in scope, dealing with themes of grand struggle against supernatural, evil forces. Some typical characteristics of high fantasy include fantastical elements such as elves, fairies, dwarves, dragons, demons, magic or sorcery, wizards or magicians, constructed languages, quests, coming-of-age themes, and multi-volume narratives.

(This rather lightweight definition of high fantasy is the best I could find through Google and it does little more than say “stories like Tolkien and Lewis wrote,” though each author would have had some problems with the rest of the definition.  A better definition would be “Epic fantasy stories based on the Medieval Model, which consists of…” the elements I am about to discuss on this article).

Now let’s look at the contrast between Hard Sci-Fi vs. High Fantasy that I’ve extrapolated from Solzhenitsyn’s definition of classic vs modern novels and Lewis’ exploration of the  medieval model.

Part One

Urban vs. Rural. 

Campbell, in his “Hero with a Thousand Faces” described the commonly seen elements in classical mythology. One such element is the “Enchanted Forest”,  an important place on the hero’s journey known for healing and gifts, but also for mystery and danger. Its roots begin in the wilds of Eden and in the tended garden which lay to its east, for they are the model of all that followed. Here is the Garden of the Hesperides and the Land of Faire. The Wild Hunt sounds its beckoning call in these woods. We find this theme in medieval and renaissance literature with its castles in deep forests where great treasures are kept and perilous quests are begun. We see this in Tolkien’s Fanghorn, the most ancient of forests and in his Eden-like Lothlorean, in Lewis’  lush Handramit on Mars and the unfallen planet of Perelandra, we find it in the dark Forbidden Forrest next to Rowling’s castle-like Hogwarts school.

While many fantasy stories do contain cities, most of the important action takes place and most of the important people are met in rural, if not wilderness settings. The magic of these stories is most often seen in the wild places. The wild places of fantasy stories often seem a character in and of themselves. Homes (whether castle or cottage) of important characters are usually surrounded by wild lands in fantasy. The good guys in fantasy tales are often masters of wood craft and know the secret paths through ancient forests. In the high fantasy stories of the last hundred years, cities are often the abode of corrupt politicians, traitors or thieves. In Sci-Fi much takes place in modern cities or on board space ships or other man-made vessels or structures, nearly all of which are morally neutral. If a wilderness is shown in Sci-Fi, it is there that you will find the primitives, the troglodytes, fools and Luddites. I’ve yet to find the equivalent in Sci-Fi  of a powerful character regarding a rural person with the respect of Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil who, “made no secret that he owed his recent knowledge largely to Farmer Maggot, whom he seemed to regard as a person of more importance than they had imagined. ‘There’s earth under his old feet, and clay on his fingers; wisdom in his bones, and both his eyes are open.”

Chapter one of my fantasy novel Asulon contains a scene which introduces a young man surviving alone in the wilderness and a description of that wild place. You can read this sample chapter or listen to it as an audio book at:

See my next post for part 2. Advanced Future vs. Golden Past (coming soon).

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Blast from the Past

Here’s a blast from the past. An article on my novels from 1983 that appeared in a small west Texas newspaper called The Big Spring Herald.

Click link below to read article.

sof article

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This article started life as an email to a friend who is a fellow Tolkien fan. I present it here to act as my FAQ page for my thoughts on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and fantasy literature in general.

I grew up reading my parent’s National Geographic magazines at the time George Leakey was excavating Olduvai Gorge in Kenya in the 1960’s.  When I was six, I announced that I wanted to be an archeologist like Dr. Leakey. I was fascinated by the idea of uncovering things long hidden.  The nickname “Rockturner” Simon calls Daniel in the beginning of my first novel (Asulon) could have been my own nickname as a child because I was constantly turning over rocks and logs to discover what was underneath them.

While reading The Lord of The Rings (LOTR) and the Silmarillion, I felt like I was opening an archeology of ancient lore, a bridge between the heart of those old myths and something more; if not a true history then at least a high allegorical truth.

Remember my response when we discussed Tolkien previously.  I said the thing I liked most about his work was the sadness of the elves.  This is what makes Tolkien’s elves work when the elves in the books of so many Tolkien imitators are just guys with pointy ears. They are sad because they are longing for something lost, and that thing is the same thing for which I long.

Here is an excerpt from the end of Chapter 13 of Asulon, where Simon is explaining magic to Moor.

“What attracts most people to magic is an innate desire in the human heart to regain the world as God first made it, before mankind fell, for we instinctively know what was lost and long for its return.  We all long for a time when we had power over creation and were its caretakers, when we could command the wind and the earth and the waters, when death walked not and sickness was unknown, when we could understand the speech of animals and none would do us harm.  That is why children are so fond of magic in their fairy tales, for they know that is the way the world should work, even if it does not now.  But all of us long for the return of Eden whether we know that name or not.  We seek to satisfy our homesickness for a land we have never seen but know, as surely as we know our hearts beat and our lungs draw breath, once existed and will exist again.”

I first read LOTR at the age of eighteen and for me it was like a culmination and fulfillment; the Rosetta stone of all the myths, legends and fairy tales that I had read before.  Everything prior was merely an appetizer; LOTR was a perfect feast, satisfying in every way.  Here I was, viewing myself then as this tough, streetwise guy, and when I finished the book I nearly wept, so much did I not want the story to end. I heard a lecture on swordmaking once in which the swordsmith said a good sword must be “strong and sharp and beautiful.” Tolkien’s work is like that for me; strong in its story, sharp in its sadness, beautiful in its wisdom.

To me, the best fantasy stories are, at their core, not about elves and dwarves, but are really about hope.  What makes a fantasy tale work for me is more than just its supernatural elements or characters.  These alone could also describe most “Sword and Sorcery” tales and much in the horror genre.  For example, Steven King writes mostly horror, while Dean Koontz’s writing feels very much like fantasy to me, despite the lack of elves or dragons in his books, because of his hopeful outlook.

The first Star Wars movie (Episode IV – A New Hope) is referred to as a “science fiction fantasy” because of its hopeful good-triumphing-over-evil element.  Thus, I still bring it all back to hope.  In my mind, fantasy and hope are so closely tied together that I sometimes worry about people who dislike fantasy. I have to wonder if they have given up on hope.  I suspect that it isn’t the elves or wizards that they find “unrealistic,” but the happy endings.

Do you remember the 1940s version of Miracle on 34th Street?  Even though this version of the movie had no elves or dragons, I think it is more of a true fantasy story (because it is a story of supernatural hope) than many of Tolkien’s imitators who do have their elves and dragons, but whose stories have no hope. Remember in the movie it is the divorced mother who tells her daughter that there is no such thing as Santa Claus.  When asked why, she calls him a fairy tale and goes on about how fairy tales lie to children.  “They get them dreaming of a Prince Charming, but when he finally arrives he lets you down.”  That is when the man who asked the question realizes she has stopped talking about Santa Claus and is now talking about her ex-husband. I think many jaded critics are like that, they have been so wounded by life that they have lost hope in their own happy ending. A person in such a place won’t like Tolkien.

Another major theme in Tolkien’s work is sacrificial love.  Frodo is willing to die to save the world from evil and Sam is willing to sacrifice his own life to save Frodo.

If you can’t see yourself dying to save something that you love, if you don’t believe in self-sacrifice for a greater good, then you won’t like Tolkien.

In The Return of the King, there is a part where Aragorn uses a flower (which a learned physician is familiar with, but says is useless) to heal the wounded Faromir.  There is the idea here that the king’s hands are healing hands and that the true king will be revealed in this way.  In Aragorn we see a man better than we are.

If you can’t believe in someone greater than yourself, then you won’t like Tolkien.

When all is at its most hopeless in the story, the day is saved because Frodo has had mercy on Smeagol. If you don’t believe in the wisdom of mercy, then you won’t like Tolkien.

Good vs. Evil is a common theme in fantasy.  And when I use the word hope, it is specifically the hope that good will prevail over evil.  Many Tolkien critics specifically point to this aspect of Tolkien’s work as what they most disapprove of, the strong theme in his writing of moral absolutes.  While everything in the world is certainly not exclusively black or white, neither is everything solely a subtle shade of gray.  That is the problem so many of Tolkien’s critics have with him.  How can you enjoy a story about the battle between good and evil if you don’t believe in the existence of good and evil? And more than that, this great battle between good and evil must have each of these opposing forces directed by a conscious mind or upon what does the hero’s hope in an ultimate victory reside?  It is alright for the villain to rest his faith in victory solely on his own strengths, but the hero of a fantasy story should have faith in something or someone greater than himself.

I know that Tolkien wrote that he disliked allegory, but perhaps he meant allegory of current events because he certainly used allegorical characters in his story:  Gandalf’s death and resurrection (and the friends who don’t recognize him at first); Frodo’s sacrificial love and mercy; Aragorn, the king who heals. Hmm, I wonder to whom Tolkien was referring?

What are the common denominators between the three most popular fantasy authors in the last hundred years:  Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and J. K. Rowling?  They all were well educated in classical literature and they all use deliberate Christian themes or symbols in their works.

Tolkien uses these three themes in his work:  hope, sacrificial love, and belief in someone greater than oneself.  Of these, I think hope is the common denominator for the fantasy stories that have endured before and after LOTR was published. Lewis gives the most important part of the Gospel story in the first book of his Chronicles of Narnia.  In his Space Trilogy, Lewis deals with the Fall of Man and original sin, the Tower of Babel and the pathways leading to the Great Tribulation, but he ends with redemption and hope. Rowling constantly uses both biblical and Medieval Christian themes and symbols in her Harry Potter series:  the Griffin, half eagle – king of heaven, and half lion – king of earth; the Stag whose antlers represent the two trees of Eden; the Phoenix – the resurrection bird; and of course Harry is “The Boy Who Lived” who Evil tried to kill and whose own sacrificial love for his friends leads to evil’s defeat.

I keep going back to that word hope, but in the case of fantasy, I think I can be specific about that hope.  I believe it falls into two categories among fans.

1.  Those who don’t openly believe in God, but hope He exists.  I believe that fantasy is popular because such people think, even if secretly, very deeply within themselves, that if even one supernatural thing exists (even if it is the very smallest thing), then that opens the door to the possibility that the greatest of all supernatural things (God) exists.  And, to take this hope to its logical conclusion, if God exists then perhaps we have an immortal soul and the most important part of us shall not end with the death of our bodies. As C. S. Lewis wrote: “You don’t have a soul, you are a soul. You have a body.” Much of the best fantasy (especially what is called High Fantasy) rests upon this knowledge.

2.  Those who openly believe in God and have faith that He will set things right in the end.  Once you overcome the hurdle of believing that God exists, the next question you ask yourself is “Can I trust Him?”

Heroes in fantasy stories often put their faith in the surrogate God character (Gandalf, Aslan, Obi Wan, Dumbledore) and are forced to ask themselves; “Can I trust him to be wise and strong enough to win?  Can I trust him to be good?  Can I trust Him to care about me?” I think that this hope in a God that is wise and strong and good and caring is why Tolkien’s work resonates so much in the Western mind and why he is listed as the all-time favorite author when a poll is taken on the Christian writers newsgroups to which I belong.

Most good fiction has to read like non-fiction.  It has to feel true (at least while you are reading it). Now most fantasy, even something like Watership Down, where the characters are not human, still must tell us a truth about human nature in order to feel real to us. In LOTR, I believe that Tolkien’s aim was higher, to tell us not about the nature of man, but rather the nature of God.  Tolkien wrote a book about God hidden in a book about elves and hobbits and wizards.  Not just about the existence of God, but about His nature and what He has done for mankind.  Tolkien did more then tell us a truth, he told us an important truth.  For me as a writer, Tolkien is the gold standard, the ruler by which I measure my own writing now.  My goal is for my writing to have the same emotional impact on my readers as Tolkien had on me.

He affects me today, because I wish to do what he did, to tell an important truth and hide it in a story that entertains on several levels. My goal is to tell not just a good strong story, but to tell what it means to be both good and strong and that these two things are not diametrically opposed (as so many today seem to believe).  I am writing about what it means to be a godly warrior. My goal is to tell the good that it is not wrong to be strong and to tell the strong that it does not lessen their strength to be good.  This important truth I am hiding in a book about giants and dragons and swords, i.e., a fantasy novel. Just like Tolkien.

Non Omnis Moriar,

Bill McGrath

Author of The Sword of Fire series

Asulon, Eretzel, Apocalypse

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Begging for Envy

Long ago in an ancient city there were two beggars named Cain and Abel. Both men were crippled, but Cain was crippled in both his legs while Abel was crippled in just one. In this city there was a pool of water around which was built a stone portico, for this kept the water shaded and cool. It was said that every so often an angel would come and stir the water with his finger and that the first one who touched the water after this would be granted his heart’s desire. Now Cain and Abel would stay near this pool to rest in the shade of the portico and to beg from the people coming there. Many times the waters of the pool would stir and many times Cain and Abel would hurry as best they could to the water’s edge, each wishing to be healed of their infirmity and each time Abel, with his one good leg, would get to the pool first. But each time the stirring of the water was caused by the wind, not by an angel, so Abel was left a cripple. Even though Abel was not healed, Cain began to hate Abel, envying him his one good leg which gave him such an advantage.
“It’s not fair, not fair at all,” thought Cain, cursing Abel in his heart.
One day the king came into the ancient city to make a sacrifice there. Both Cain and Abel knew that the king would pass by a street not far from the pool, but it was only Abel who left to go beg along the route the king would take.
“It is well enough for Abel to go beg along the street. He can use a crutch to stand upon, while I will be too low to be seen by the king,” thought Cain bitterly.
As Cain was thinking this the waters of the pool began to stir. There was no one else near the pool but him for all the city was along the route to see the king. Cain shook his head and almost didn’t crawl down to the pool; so often had Abel beaten him there, so often had he been disappointed. But he went anyway, more out of habit than of hope. He touched the water. As he expected, nothing happened. Then the shaded water of the pool began to shimmer in the center as if lit by a strong beam of sunlight. From this light an angel rose up from the waters until he towered above Cain.
“Man favored by God, your day of blessing has come. What is your heart’s desire?”
Cain did not hesitate but said, “I wish that you cripple Abel’s good leg.”
More stories like this can be found in The Sword of Fire novels, Asulon, Eretzel and Apocalypse.
Bill McGrath
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“And the people became weak and fearful of strength; but rather than seek to make the weak strong, they sought to make the strong weak.”

From Asulon, The Sword of Fire, book one.

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Advanced Future vs. Golden Past

So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

– Genesis 3:24

To recap, this series is examining what C. S. Lewis called the “Medieval Model,” a view of man and the universe that formed during the Middle Ages and Renaissance as described in his book “The Discarded Image.” I’m contrasting the elements of this model that one sees in the High Fantasy works of Tolkien and Lewis with the literary sub-genre that is its literary mirror image, Hard Sci-Fi. 

High Fantasy and the Medieval Models

Part Two: Advanced Future vs. Golden Past

Copyright 2012 William R. McGrath

Two things occurred of great importance during the early Middle Ages that affected the literature of Europe for centuries to come: the fall of an empire and the rise of a religion.

The Roman Empire fell during the 5th century, an empire that had lasted for over a thousand years. Rome, despite the brutality of the Colosseum and the cruelty of an economy based on conquest and slavery had worthwhile elements that were lost after its fall and which writers in the Middle Ages and Renaissance envied. Rome had roads that spanned its great empire, elegant buildings made of hydraulic-setting cement (the secret of which was not regained until the 19th century), a well organized central government and a literate citizenry. (1)

From the end of Roman persecution of Christianity in the 4th century until the Muslim conquests of the 7th century, there was what many in later times would consider the golden age of Christianity. This is when Christianity spread beyond it’s origins in the Holy Land into most of Western Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. This was when early church fathers wrote foundational books on doctrine such as  Augustine’s City of God. An age when monasteries were started throughout Europe (and their schools and universities which preserved the literature of the Roman world). Renaissance writers saw this as a period largely free from the corruption that developed in the more powerful church of their own era. One feels in the literature of the Renaissance a nostalgia for much of the classical world; the stability of Roman civil government, Roman oratory and Greek literary arts as well as the piety of the early Christian church. This nostalgia shows itself in the literature of that time with plot lines that contain a golden age of long ago. They would have learned this concept first of course from their Bibles, with the account of Eden and unfallen man. Of patriarchs with lifespans measured in centuries, of strong men like Samson and wise kings like Solomon.

Turning now to Hard Sci-Fi, we find a focus on the future, and one not necessarily better or brighter, but one that is almost always more technologically advanced. Hard Sci-Fi looks forward. Science fiction is about,  let’s face it, science. In High Fantasy, it is the past that holds a golden age, an Eden, and it is mankind and his works which have declined since then. We can call this difference in world views Evolution vs. Devolution (remember, it is Hard Sci-Fi we are looking at – not dystopian tales such as Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451 or 1984). In Hard Sci-Fi the world of the story represents the current point of an evolution upward: human society at the time of the story is at its most advanced. In High Fantasy stories the world has devolved from a better time and has grown less.

In older stories from the classical world it is the physical fall of man that is emphasized. The heroes of the Iliad throw huge stones to great effect at the enemy; each stone of such a size that the poet Homer says would take two or three men of his own time to even lift. In the Odyssey, Odysseus, returns home after twenty years from the Trojan War (and a rather eventful journey back) and, disguised as an old beggar, draws and shoots a bow that none of the young men in the room can bend. Nestor, the oldest of the Greek warriors at the siege of Troy (it was said that he had lived for three generations of men), states that in his youth he fought “single-handed against such men as no mortal now alive on the earth could do battle.”

This doctrine that the older generation was stronger than the younger was so deeply held in Greek heroic literature that the reverse was taken as a thing both extraordinary and dangerous. Thus Zeus and Poseidon both end their courtship of  the goddess Thetis when an oracle reveals that whoever she weds, her son would grow to be stronger than his father. Therefore Thetis was sent to marry a mortal and see her son doomed to a short, mortal life. Achilles was the result. This mortal fate was why Thetis dipped the newborn Achilles into the River Styx, which made his skin impervious to all weapons. Unfortunately, she forgot to dip the heel she held him by, and, well you know the rest.

When Christianity rose to prominence in Europe, this decline of man in stories became spiritual as well as physical. In Arthurian tales of the late middle ages and Renaissance, good knights like Gawain and Percival receive as much praise from the troubadours for their morality as for their fighting ability. True knights in the old tales had a pure heart as well as a strong arm.

We see this devolutionary view of history in modern fantasy stories as well. When old Ben (Obi Wan) Kenobi first meets Luke Skywalker and showed him his father’s Lightsaber (a relic from the “Old Republic”), he described it as “An elegant weapon, from a more civilized age.” When he did this the old Jedi put Star Wars firmly in the fantasy camp: though you should have known this already from the opening credits, as the events take place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”

This longing for things past is echoed in fantasy stories by a respect for the old. Old people, old books and ancient weapons are treated with respect in most fantasy stories. Old people especially will appear far more often as powerful characters (both good and bad) in fantasy tales then they will in sci-fi stories. In fantasy you have Tolkien’s Gandalf and Saruman, Rowling’s Dumbeldore and Professor Mcgonagall, Lewis’ Merlin and Grace Ironwood. Bilbo’s poem about Aragorn (80 years of age when we meet him in LOTR) echoes strongly of this respect:

All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,

A light from the shadows shall spring;

Renewed shall be blade that was broken,

The crownless again shall be king.

When an old man is addressed in a fantasy story he is often called “father” or “grandfather” as a sign of respect (at least by the good guys). In modern tales it is often “Hey Pops” and the tone is not respectful at all. Parents in general are treated with much more respect in fantasy tales than in most modern tales in general. (This is even true of the bad guys. The parents of Slitheryn House may be evil, but none of them are the weak, silly fools that are the parents and old people one sees so often in modern fiction, especially from Hollywood).

Both Tolkien’s and Lewis’ works have characters looking back, towards times greater and more wondrous than the time of the story. When someone or something both good and powerful enters into the tale it is often a remnant or representative of this lost golden age that is brought into the time of the story.

There is usually an implied backstory in good fantasy tales that suggests a long history before the story we see begins. Rowling’s Hogwarts is a very ancient place started by four wizards of Merlins time. The Sorns in Out of the Silent Planet show Ransom a petrified forest with ancient fossils from a time when the entire surface of Mars was habitable, not just its green, valley-like Handramit. Merlin, in Lewis’ That Hideous Strength is described as more than an old druid who came into the 20th century from King Arthur’s time: rather he represents a remnant of a far more ancient race that survived into Arthur’s era; survivors of a land we would call Atlantis and Lewis’s friend Tolkien would call Numenor.

Tolkien’s own history of course is “The Silmarillion,” a tale that spans from before the world was made until long after then events of The Lord of the Rings have reached their conclusion. The Lord of the Rings gets its depth from The Silmarillion, for, while we only get scattered glimpses of this older tale in LOTR, it was ever in Tolkien’s mind as he wrote his latter works, (he began writing what would become The Silmarillion in the trenches of WWI).

There is a Sehnsucht (2), a nostalgic longing, built into the basic fabric of the best fantasy stories. This is what made The Lord of the Rings feel the most real to me. This feeling, this nostalgic longing, showed itself most strongly in the elves, but it is shown by nearly all the old creatures of Middle Earth. One of the most significant themes in The Lord of the Rings (and something missed by most Tolkien imitators and critics) is that the elves are leaving Middle Earth at the time of the story. We are losing the elves and we mourn at the loss, for the world is changing, diminishing and the elves are a reminder of a time when the world was first created. You get glimmers of this lost golden age throughout The Lord of the Rings. Again, this is not a minor point. I call it a “Homesickness for Eden” and I use the same idea in my own novels because I believe it’s fundamental to all good high fantasy tales.

Here is an excerpt from my novel Asulon that illustrates this.  Here a priest called Simon is explaining magic to a swordsman named Moor and thereby this longing.

“What attracts most people to magic is an innate desire in the human heart to regain the world as God first made it, before mankind fell, for we instinctively know what was lost and long for its return.  We all long for a time where we had power over creation and were its caretakers, where we could command the wind and the earth and the waters, where death walked not and sickness was unknown, where we could understand the speech of animals and none would do us harm.  That is why children are so fond of magic in their fairy tales, for they know that is the way the world should work, even if it does not now.  But all of us long for the return of Eden whether we know that name or not.  We seek to satisfy our homesickness for a land we have never seen but know, as surely as we know our hearts beat and our lungs draw breath, once existed and will exist again.” 

You can read more at:

  1. On ancient literacy levels see:
  2. On Sehnsucht see:


Bill McGrath


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