Tag Archives: Tolkien



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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Filed under Christian Fantasy, HIGH FANTASY, Medieval Model

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:  http://www.TheSwordofFire.com/from_asulon.htm

  1. On ancient literacy levels see: http://thriceholy.net/literacyf.html.
  2. On Sehnsucht see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sehnsucht


Bill McGrath


Filed under Christian Fantasy, HIGH FANTASY