On Jewish –and other — fantasy stories

I keep coming on posts this week that I want to add to my next linky post, only I find I have more to say about them than can fit in a linky post. Like when lnhammer pointed me to coffeeandink’s post about not framing Jewish religion — or any other religion either–in terms of Christianity. That in turn led me to this article I’ve been meaning to read for ages: Why there is no Jewish Narnia.

Which I found myself disagreeing with early and often. This in particular irritated me as patently untrue — “Aside from an aversion to medieval nostalgia, there is a further historical reason why 20th-century Jews have not written much fantasy literature, and that is, inevitably, the Holocaust. Its still agonizing historical weight must press prohibitively upon Jewish engagement with the magical and fantastical” — as did the later claim that Judaism was naturally more sympathetic to science fiction than fantasy. But really, I found myself disagreeing more and more strongly throughout, with the exception of the one intriguing claim that Judaism isn’t a good vs. evil religion the way Christianity is, so not as prone to good vs. evil battles — I don’t think that’s entirely accurate, but there might be something going on there that would be interesting to poke at at in more detail.

Mostly, though, I found myself thinking about the fact that the author strikes me as looking for “Jewish fantasy” in the wrong place: in the trappings of the worldbuilding. I’ve only written two clearly Jewish stories (one dealing with Hanukkah and issues around violence/nonviolence; the other dealing with Passover and vampires). But of course all my stories are Jewish. It informs my worldview. I don’t construct narratives quite the same way a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Tohono O’Odham writer. All our worldviews inform our work, and this is non-trivial.

One example, just because it’s still fresh in mind right now: in the draft I just turned in, which is now sitting on my editor’s desk, I went around with issues of forgiveness–I have characters who played a direct role in the War that destroyed their world, and who are still living with what they’ve done almost 20 years later, and those characters also are speaking up a little bit more in this book than in the first book I wrote set in that world.

So. I’m aware that, in Jewish theology, prayer is a way of repenting for wrongs done against God, but that harm done to another person can only be made right by directly making amends to the person who was hurt–only the individual who was harmed can grant forgiveness for that harm. In its way, praying to God directly is easy. Walking up to those we’ve hurt and directly apologizing and asking for their forgiveness is hard, and something I’ve struggled with and not always succeeded at through the years.

I became more and more aware, as I wrote this book, how much that influenced how my characters who played a role in the War dealt with the fact, as well as which responses both they and I had sympathy for.

Which to my mind makes this book about faeries, with little religion on stage, a Jewish book.

Jewish writing isn’t in whether the fantasy trappings represent medieval Europe or the Middle East or anyone else, and it isn’t in whether dybbuks or seraphim puts in token appearances on a story’s pages, either. It’s in the ways in which each Jewish writer processes his or her experiences with–our reactions to, workings through of, even rejection of–the various things we’ve learned and experienced as Jews.

I’m guessing this is true for those from other religious backgrounds, too, though I can’t say this for sure, neither having been raised in nor adopted those traditions. I know there are storytelling elements I do think of as Christian (one particular–the way forgiveness often comes as an act of grace that results more from internal repentance than external action), though practicing Christians, who know their theology more deeply than I do, may see it very differently.

Of course, no two stories by writers from a given background will be the same, because we all process our experiences differently, and the common ground can probably only be seen in retrospect, over the long term. Even Tolkien and Lewis created very different worlds.

And even Narnia is not Christian because Christ more or less shows up on stage. It’s Christian because of its notions of how one lives a worthy life, how wrongdoing can or can’t be redeemed, and what the rewards and punishments are for living or not living life properly. Aslan doesn’t make Narnia Christian. It’s how Lewis uses that lion and his world that makes it so.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *