Screwtape on Fantasy: A Response to Todd Friel

Todd Friel of the ministry called “Wretched” and others have come out against fantasy fiction having any place in the life of a Christian. You can find his video on Youtube, concerning “wizard fiction.”

In response, I wrote my idea of a possible “Screwtape Letter.” I do hope it does no dishonor to C.S. Lewis.

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My dear Wormwood,

I am writing to address your inquiry in your most recent letter, regarding the use of the fantastic in the Patient’s reading habits.

In truth, the subject in and of itself is of little use to Our Father Below, and I expected better even from the likes of you. I must once again indulge the holding of your hand through this matter.

When fiction is the reader’s chosen subject, he ventures into a cinema or into the pages of a book, knowing full well the story’s author is not presenting a documentary or a statement of belief. It is what one might call a neutered lie. All the sinister pleasures of deception have been defanged, because almost all Patients will not take the story as descriptive of reality. Since our goal is to cast illusions and phantoms across the face of real life, attempts to harness fiction to our Father’s cause are severely hampered before we’re even out of the gate.

It is true that a human’s worldview influences their process of artistic creation, and therefore influences those who partake in it. But the medium itself, as a neutered lie, in most cases can only impart a watered-down influence. Even here, however, there can be some meager potential, which I shall explain in a moment.

The human art of pretend storytelling (including the more fantastical varieties) is comparable to any of their other artistic endeavors. Art is not a den of sin by nature. Whatever use fiction has against the Enemy, it cannot give of itself, any more than a bucket can provide water of its own accord. It has to be filled with whatever you wish to provide.

But even then, the best use we have for fiction is not to drag them to our Father’s house, but to reinforce a dragging that is already underway. For instance, Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy does carry a note of delicious subversion, and has in a tiny handful of cases been helpful in bringing humans before our Father’s leering grin. The key is that it is helpful, not foundational. Pullman needed to be guided and coaxed before he could instill his anti-Enemy worldview into a single paragraph. And as with the author, so with the reader. You will notice that a large majority of his devoted admirers already held the Enemy in healthy contempt, or were well on their way to doing so.

Thus, we can see fiction for what it is: a sort of “working out” of a Patient’s heart, with an influence that has to supplement whatever is already present. It is spice, not entree.

Of course, you were mainly interested in fantastic fiction, particularly with magical figures in the story, who commune with spirits and turn into animals, and the like. I am afraid that even these are of use that is as limited as it is dependent.

It might be a different story if High Command did not have the standing order to (in your Patient’s culture, at least) conceal our presence unless otherwise necessary. Magicians are much more charismatic when they are taken seriously, not laughed off as charlatans or fringe lunatics. Rank materialism is closer now to being hybridized with belief in the supernatural than it was a century ago, but for now most of the links are still tenuous. The best of both worlds is still just beyond our grasp, and we must give it time to mature.

Therefore, as always, your Patient’s particular vulnerabilities will decide the angle of attack. If he is one of the precious few in his culture who regard real Magicians as commanding authentic power, you might be able to work some favorable influence. With the right kind of fiction, that is.

Fiction that subverts the Enemy’s declarations – whether overtly or with subtlety – can sometimes make all the difference. You can often see our own whispers into an author’s mind, filtering through the pages. In that case, I reiterate that this fiction has value, but only as a means of reinforcing whatever else we have encouraged and cultivated. Otherwise, a novel that has reinforced one soul’s journey to Hell might disastrously be used by the Enemy to wake another Patient to that same journey, whereupon the human is in great danger of reversing course and wandering into the Enemy’s embrace.

That explosion can be ignited by a thousand short fuses. Perhaps the Patient is awakened to the need for a transcendent reality and, unless promptly guided to one of the many decoy religions we have established, will be on a fast track to Heaven. Or the beauty and gravity of the fictional world might rekindle a hunger that will have him asking all the wrong sorts of questions, which of course the Enemy will be delighted to barge in and answer.

As for fiction that is not subversive of the Enemy, those varieties of fantastic fiction and characters hardly ever were of use for our Father’s cause, except perhaps as idle entertainment that distracts instead of edifies. Be sure your Patient avoids any and all fiction that the Enemy has encouraged in humans. He is crafty, and you stand to only make half-hearted and ham-fisted attempts of subversion against a foundation He has already laid.

As always, if you find yourself in the enemy’s camp, see if you can exploit the legalism inherent in a pharisaical teacher, who commands or coaxes other believers to regard every variety of fantastic fiction as an encouragement to the Occult.

Such humans are eminently amusing, spreading strife where it need not occur, and souring the seeds of the Enemy’s will for many a budding storyteller, all because they lack (or have not exercised) the insight, or craftiness, or creativity of the very God they endlessly claim to speak for. Alexandria never lost so many books to fire as we have successfully suppressed in Christians who were convinced by such teachers to withhold their stories from the world.

Your affectionate uncle,

Screwtape

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Double Review: The Never Prayer, and The Whitefire Crossing

On the Colorado writing scene, there are many fine talents and local stars. I have had the great privilege to read two of the books on that scene in recent months: The Never Prayer by Aaron Michael Ritchey, and The Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer. Today, I finally get to review them for you.

In short, both novels are excellent, and I highly recommend them if they sound like your kind of books.

The Never Prayer by Aaron Michael Ritchey is a YA urban fantasy novel that hits harder than most in that genre. Teenager Lena’s parents died in the aftermath of a car crash, and she is trying to support her little brother in a small Colorado town that is facing hard times of its own. Lena is desperate to bring in money, even if it means being courier for some drugs at her high school. Things go from bad to worse when she winds up in a tug-of-war between a demon and a “fallen” angel as they try to influence humans, pushing them toward good or evil.

I liked how Ritchey keeps Lena’s head above water in terms of social status. She’s unique, and a lot of people feel sorry for her or don’t like her, but she’s not a complete outcast, and can adapt well enough to move through the various cliques of her school. He also does a terrific job at giving us reason after reason to care for Lena’s plight without turning her into a pitiful mess. She is simply trying as hard as possible to provide for what’s left of her family, and that makes her a character worth cheering on.

You also have to admire his willingness to admit that doing the right thing is often the most painful. There are consequences you may not want when you make the right choice, and he pulls no punches in having his characters glean that lesson. The book is kept intriguing along its journey, even when you realize the trajectory it’s taking, and it hit me with a strong ending I did not expect, but played fair with the rules Ritchey had established.

If there was a complaint I had, it’s a minor one. Lena seems very quick to accept that she’s part of a supernatural conflict. Even though the angel is revealed in a dramatic fashion right beforehand, most likely she would still have a harder time taking in the change of circumstances.  But that’s hardly anything but a nitpick, so don’t let it stop you from picking up a copy of Ritchey’s remarkable debut novel. This book is dark, thrilling, and thought-provoking, and I am more than happy to recommend it to you. I can’t wait to see what else Aaron has in store.

It can be a tricky situation if your freshman novel is an epic fantasy. Most of the time in that situation, an author succeeds by coasting on a few great strengths, but the book’s quality is dragged down through equally strong weaknesses (for example, you might get a book with great dialogue and worldbuilding, but its characters are flat and the storyline is confusing). And it’s easy to make the work derivative, giving regular readers of the genre very little reason to pay you any attention.

Thankfully, none of that is an issue with Courtney Schafer’s debut The Whitefire Crossing. This is a book I cannot recommend enough. Seriously, if you read fantasy books, please read this one. Pretty much every aspect of it sings with quality and dedication. The story is one that hooks you right from page one and keeps you invested through the next three hundred, the worldbuilding is excellent when it comes into play, and the characters are absolutely satisfying in their depth and choices.

The story has two viewpoint characters, equally captivating and relatable. First there’s Dev, a smuggler who takes magical charms from the city of Ninavel, across the Whitefire Mountains and into the country of Alathia. Mages rule Ninavel like sin rules Las Vegas, but in Alathia almost all magic is outlawed, so Dev finds steady work in “clandestine imports” of magical items. Only problem is, he’s been cheated out of his money, and he’s taking anything he can get to fulfill a friend’s dying wish. The second viewpoint character is Kiran, a mage who is desperate to hire Dev to smuggle him across the mountains and into Alathia, the one place in the world where Kiran can escape and hide from a vicious authority figure.

To call this an “adventure novel” might be downplaying the tough journey Dev and Kiran take together. They suffer through this story, and no decision is an easy one. Normally I don’t care for novels that are quite so ruthless toward their characters, but Whitefire was such an enrapturing, detailed, and fast-paced book I had to keep turning the pages.

One of the best strengths in this book is the magic system Schafer has set up. Based around simple or familiar things in fantasy magic, like blood, charms, runes, and metals, she constructs one of the most intelligently built magic systems you’re likely to find. For a worldbuilding nut like me, it’s a delight to see her lay out the rules of magic, usually in bite-sized chunks that don’t slow down or halt the story. She keeps things moving, and gives you a chance to learn a lot of her world along the way.

If I told you anymore, I’d probably risk contaminating the enjoyment and level of surprise that this book delivers. Schafer’s debut is a strong one, and she is certainly an author to watch in the coming years. Plus her sequel The Tainted City has just been released, and I can’t wait to get my copy to continue Dev and Kiran’s story.