The Impact of Phantastes on C.S. Lewis

“It must be more than thirty years ago that I bought – almost unwillingly, for I had looked at the volume on that bookstall and rejected it on a dozen previous occasions – the Everyman edition of Phantastes. A few hours later I knew that I had crossed a great frontier. I had already been waist deep in Romanticism; and likely enough, at any moment, to flounder into its darker and more evil forms, slithering down the steep descent that leads from the love of strangeness to that of eccentricity and thence to that of perversity. Now Phantastes was romantic enough in all conscience; but there was a difference. Nothing was at that time further from my thoughts than Christianity and I therefore had no notion what this difference really was. I was only aware that if this new world was strange, it was also homely and humble; that if this was a dream, it was a dream in which one at least felt strangely vigilant; that the whole book had about it a sort of cool, morning innocence, and also, quite unmistakably, a certain quality of Death, good Death. What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptise (that was where the Death came in) my imagination. It did nothing to my intellect nor (at that time) to my conscience. Their turn came far later and with the help of many other books and men.” C.S. Lewis in his introduction to Phantastes, by George MacDonald.

Father’s Son: A Faith Journey — Book I

Over on a now-inactive blog where I used to write poetry and prose you will find the first book of what will hopefully become a short trilogy entitled “Father’s Son: A Faith Journey.” I began writing the book a few years ago while I was in Brazil. It’s nothing special, but I hope to go back to writing it (and a lot of other prose) sometime soon.

For the complete table of contents, click here.

Undefined Desire

“That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of ‘Kubla Khan’, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.” – C.S. Lewis in The Pilgrim’s Regress

August 1994 was my first month of college. I was living at the Bible college dorm in Moberly, Missouri but taking most of my classes at the community college. Never having been around people from the independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ before, there were a lot of surprises in store for me that first year. At lunch in the cafeteria the first or second week of college, one young lady came and sat with me and several others, bubbling over with her experiences from camp. She was a returning student, and had spent her summer working at Christian camps as a part of one of the Bible college “camp teams.” Her eyes went wide as she declared how unbelievable some of the family backgrounds of kids at camp were. I was expecting her to talk about drug abuse or parental misconduct. Instead, she gasped and then snorted in derision as she told us about a boy who said he actually played “AD&D,” and didn’t see anything wrong with it.

As a fan of fantasy fiction and occasional role-playing gamer, I kept my head down and said nothing. Was she right? Was it wrong to play AD&D? Fortunately, I didn’t entertain such foolish questions for very long. This girl, however well intentioned, had a very distorted idea of what the fantasy genre in general was all about, no knowledge of the many Christian roots of modern fantasy, and most certainly had never played a role playing game herself. For her, it was just one of those items on a list of worldly evils that all good Christians must avoid.

Before I was ten I was already playing AD&D from time to time with my oldest brother and his friends. Then I got my hands on photocopies from the Arcanum and played out a few campaigns with friends in the woods near my home. It was purely imaginary and childish, but there were moments in those woods when I caught a fleeting glimpse of some undescribable other…something good though distant, like sweet strains of music that is both melancholy and hopeful, playing just behind the sunlight. This interest in fantasy, along with the occasional experience of the ineffable mystery, continued through my teen years as I collected and played the entire series of “Lone Wolf” books and also read Dragonlance books and the ElfQuest comics.

In all this my fascination went beyond mere hobby, but was by no means a sick obsession. At times on a walk in the pasture or listening to a song I would also sense this something I couldn’t explain, a longing for I knew not what. What I didn’t quite realize was that my search for God and the “truth” was one and the same with that odd yearning that came to me now and again. It was a grasping after the mysteries of God, a desire that could only be satisfied by finding that which I thought I had seen from time to time in the woods or between the covers of a fantasy novel.

In recent years we have seen a dramatic upsurge in interest in fantasy, both in print and in film. Harry Potter has spawned countless knock-offs, and a generation has been initiated into the realms of fantasy. Christian leaders often attack fantasy in general, claiming it is from the devil. What few seem to know or understand is that the foundations of modern fantasy were laid not by pagans (or neo-pagans), but by Christian writers like George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Perhaps for Tolkien fantasy was more of an escape (I don’t know, though I’ve read indications to this effect), but for George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis much more was involved. Yes, Mr. MacDonald hoped to make a bit of money from his fantasy (the church he pastored cut his salary in half at one point to try to make him leave, but he just stayed), but both he and C.S. Lewis seem to have been chasing after that same thing I would find myself seeking in the late 20th century.

Those who read J.R.R. Tolkien’s excellent works of fiction will find essentially the same kind of world you’ll encounter in a Dungeons & Dragons novel. If you go back to George MacDonald the feel is more like a fairy tale with elements of legend and medieval bardic traditions. In C.S. Lewis you’ll encounter as nearly an integrated Christian view as you’ll ever see in fantasy. Yet all three men were people of faith. George MacDonald was a Congregationalist, C.S. Lewis was Anglican and Tolkien was Roman Catholic.

Many people in our times are pursuing the undefined desire, that inkling of another world, the whisper of the unknown, in much the same way as I did. Fantasy seems to be a powerful force for evoking this strange sense. In this way I would argue that modern neo-pagans and many Christians are not far apart in their starting point. Where the Christian believes she has found the realization of the sacred in Christ, the neo-pagan pursues it by attempting to live out the fantasy that evokes the desire.

While I would sincerely want any Wiccan, Druid or other practitioner of earth-based religion to encounter the fulfillment sought in the Good News of Jesus with his promise of resurrection and new earth, I also hope that Christians can take some time to listen to the song of the fantastic in the words of neo-pagan believers. Too often the faith of Christ becomes a sterile religion of correctness, rather than the vibrant message of another world right here and now, and it may well take a conversation with a friendly pagan to remind us of the wonder of our Creator and Redeemer.

“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind” (Isaiah 65:17 NRSV).

September 2007 Synchroblog

Tomorrow, Tuesday, September 25 a number of bloggers will be blogging on Christianity and Paganism. A wide variety of perspectives will be explored, so check out these blogs on the 25th! My post for the Synchroblog will be coming in the morning.

____________________________________________

Matthew Stone at Journeys in Between

“Christianity, Paganism, and Literature” at Notes from the Underground

John Smulo at JohnSmulo.com

“Heathens and Pagans and Witches … oh my!” at Calacirian

Sam Norton at Elizaphanian

Erin Word at Decompressing Faith

“Chasing the Wild Goose” at Eternal Echoes

“Visigoths Ahoy!” at Mike’s Musings

Phil Wyman at Phil Wyman’s Square No More

Steve Hollinghurst at On Earth as in Heaven

“Undefined Desire” at Igneous Quill

“A Walk on the Wild Side” at Out of the Cocoon

“Observations on Magic in Western Religion” at My Contemplations

Tim Abbott at Tim Abbott

“Spirituality and the Zodiac: Stories in the Cosmos” at Be the Revolution

“Rejection, Redemption, and Roots” at One Hand Clapping

Hag’s Hovel

Based on The Atlantean Trilogy fantasy RPG system, copyrights at the time this was written were held by Stephan Michael Sechi, who gave permission for this work.

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this short story are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

Copyright 2002 Adam W. Gonnerman

Lira Rihod had traveled far seeking knowledge. Across scorching deserts and Demon’s Maw Abyss, through lush plains and verdant prairie, across the treacherous Goblin’s Peaks and now into the vast Moaning Wood Forest. Here and there she has stopped, hoping to find some old forgotten spell or ancient artifact. Her efforts had been rewarded, but scarcely as much as she had hoped.

Unconsciously she her right hand thumb fiddles with her only ring, a simple silver piece of jewelry with an inset blue stone. She had been crossing a shallow lake only a few days before in a small hired boat, when a madman came up out of the water and pulled her over the edge of the boat. Tales of a monster in the lake kept most natives away from the body of water, and had reportedly driven up the cost of passage across.

Down, down into the muddy water they descended. Probably the fool had slain others this way, she thought, but they hadn’t the benefit of Cloak of Free Action. Swiftly she drew her short sword and plunged it into the man’s chest. Blood poured out into the already murky water, and in the dim half-light she could vaguely make out his shocked expression as he died.

Touching bottom and almost out of breath, she ran through the murk and found her way back to land. Lying a while on the rocky beach, the boat she had hired nowhere in sight, her gasping became regular breathing. Gathering herself, she took a deep breath and went running back into the water, moving as normally in the thick mud as she would on dry land because of her enchanted red cloak. With a great deal of luck she found the corpse and in the gloom felt what she expected on one of the hands: a ring that permitted her to breath water.

Thus she came into possession of two most useful items. The first having been given by a grateful city mayor whose life she had saved from a band of wandering zombies. (He had later tried to recover the cloak and have Lira burned at the stake, but that’s another story.)

Being a spell-caster already raises suspicions in the minds of simple villagers and farmers, but being a woman spell-caster was even more difficult. Her chosen field was witchcraft, and as she did practice Black Magic, she tried her best to maintain a low profile.

She was young, barely 17 when her mistress was slain by a mob of angry townsfolk. In spite of the help the old witch had given them through the years, they had never really trusted her and finally worked themselves into a frenzy when an infant was stillborn and some sheep disappeared the same night. Thinking her to be to blame and that some demonic scheme was involved, they hired a band of thugs and rushed her secluded cave at the base of the cliff.

Lira saw it all from a distant hillside. Returning from gathering herbs in the jungle of this Basilinian-held region of Yassatonia, she heard the cries and screams of the dying from a distance. Looking across the valley, the setting sun at her back, she watched her desperate mistress defend herself. She held them off with her magic, slaying the thugs and quite a few of the villagers before, high above, several men managed to dislodge a rocky overhang. Two fell with it, directly on top of Lira’s lady.

Horrified, Lira ran. She ran until deep into the night. She ran without caring, without thinking, without considering what dangers the jungle held. That night was seared into her memory.

Only four short years had passed, and the pain was as deep now as ever. One day, she vowed, she would return more powerful than her slain mistress and destroy that village. Zoe, Lira’s mistress, had shunned the power of Black Magic, devoting her time and energies to Elemental Magic and Enchantment instead. Had she studied the darker arts, she would have been able to defend herself, Lira reasoned. This thought drove her forward, day after day. This conviction drove her to abandon the weak tinkling of Enchantment in favor of the power of Black Magic. Yet in her few years of travel, her skill and power had grown precious little, at least in her opinion.

Word had it that a hag resided in these woods. The weak-minded simpletons of one of the logging villages at the southwestern edge of the great forest had set her on the trail of this crone, and subsequent contact with other travelers and woods dwellers confirmed her presence. Other dark beings stalked the shadowy undergrowth of this region of ancient trees, but thus far her trip had been relatively peaceful.

“Well hello there,” a jovial voice called out in booming New N’rodic from beside the trail. Startled out of her reverie, in an instant she had her short sword drawn and at the ready. The tall, bulky man that approached her from among the trees had a hefty woodsman’s axe slung casually over his shoulder. He grinned a big, toothy grin and introduced himself as Delmar the Tall. Ignoring Lira’s drawn weapon, he casually explained that he was in the area scouting out a specific and relatively uncommon type of tree for his company to come in and fell in the near future. A wealthy aristocrat in Jimjine City, a ways to the southeast, had contracted them to bring in the finest of woods for the interior of his new mansion.

“So, if you don’t mind my curiosity, what’s a fair lady like you doin’ way out here by herself? You haven’t heard of the werewolves around here?”

“You don’t seem worried,” Lira replied in faltering New N’rodic. She’d only begun to learn the language a year ago, and with almost no regular contact with others, her mastery of the tongue hadn’t gotten very far.

With that, the fellow laughed heartily and shook his head.

“Aye, but I be a bit bigger than you, red lady.”

“My name is Lira, and I can take care of myself.”

"Oh, I see,” he frowned, looking her over once more and apparently understanding that she was a magic-user of some kind.

“Now if you don’t mind,” Lira turned to walk away, sheathing her sword and choosing a spell to use should the lummox decide to pursue.

“Well then, see you later,” he ventured. Lira didn’t bother to respond.

Indeed she had heard of werewolves in the woods, and suspected that there could be some truth to the local superstitions. This forest was big, home to many monsters, no doubt. And she was intent on meeting at least one of them.

In an isolated village composed of only 10 houses and one trading post Lira purchased a basket and filled it partially with provisions. She also placed some of her finer and rarer herbs and spell components in the basket, which she intended on giving to the hag. She hoped to win the creature’s willingness to take her in and teach her the arcane lore.

Night was falling, but Lira pressed on. From the worried talk of the townsfolk, the hag’s hovel was very near.

The moon rose and partially illuminated the trail. She had kept a steady pace for nearly an hour before being brought up short by the figure of a man a short distance ahead of her, standing at a fork in the road.

Resolute, Lira lowered her head and called to mind a spell as she continued forward. Nearing the man, she glanced up to find that he hadn’t moved, and was staring at her expressionlessly.

Stopping once more, she saw that he was human, about middle-aged and quite handsome. Most striking was the fact that he appeared to be an albino.

“Would you like some company, my dear? It certainly isn’t safe out here.”

His voice was smooth. Armed only with a dagger, wearing simple brown clothing and with only a rucksack slung over his shoulder, he might have been merely a peasant traveling to another town. Something about his style, though, the way he carried himself, told her that this man was no simple villager. Then she noticed the magical inscriptions on his wooden staff, and she realized that he was likely a fellow spell-caster.

“You’re the second to offer. No, I am fine.”

“Surely you are going to the next town. It is still far from here. We could keep each other company on the journey,” he said, indicating the well-worn path to his right.

“No, I go left here.”

Looking curiously at the narrow, overgrown path to his left and then back to Lira, he commented, “Unusual choice. You do know the stories of a hag at the end of this trail, don’t you?”

“Yes, I plan to meet her.”

“And this basket in your hand? For her?”

“Perhaps.”

“Well, good luck. You’ll be needing it, I believe.”

The man continued to stand at the junction as Lira turned down the windy, dark trail.

Strange, nighttime noises sounded out continuously from the forest around her. It made Lira more than slightly edgy, and twice she almost turned back. Her determination pushed her forward, her thirst for power negated her reasonable fear of the encounter she planned to have. Normal people avoid hags. Even powerful magic-users generally know enough to keep their distance from them.

Crossing a small, rotten wooden bridge, Lira found the path becoming clearer. In minutes she was at the door of the hovel, the smell of wood smoke filling the air.

“Mistress of the night, o wise women, forgive the intrusion of your humble servant,” she began in the Dark Tongue, trying to maintain her calm as she recited from memory, “your handmaiden comes bearing gifts. It is hoped that the powerful keeper of secrets who dwell herein might allow this unworthy one to be of service.”

A long paused followed, panic beginning to rise within her. Lira used all her energy to resist and stand her ground. Her heart leaped and she almost lost control of her bladder when a voice, creaky like an old rusty hinge, said from within, “Very well young one. Open the door and make yourself known.”

Trembling, Lira opened the crude door and ducked inside.

The only light was coming from a roaring fire beneath a black pot in the fireplace. The odor in the place was rank, stinking of rotting meat, dung and wood smoke. Books and scrolls were strewn about haphazardly. This hag seemed truly careless with her belongings, thought Lira, as she realized that she was standing on a page from a spell book.

“Closer, child” creaked the voice from a straw bed against the wall to Lira’s left.

The covered figure seemed larger that expected for a wizened crone, and a black hood was pulled up over her face, exposing only her chin in the dim light. The scene was far stranger than any Lira had imagined, and only got stranger as she noticed white hairs beginning to sprout out of the hag’s face at an alarming rate. The hag’s hands also were becoming covered by white fur.

“Forgive my curiosity, mighty one, but your form is much bigger than I had anticipated, and you appear to be transforming,” she said, backing away.

With a roar, the beast leaped out of the bed and upon her, casting away the black cloak and blankets that had covered it. It was a great white werewolf.

No spell readily in mind and taken quite by surprise, Lira fell heavily to the ground, the werewolf’s weight driving the wind out of her lungs. The creature clawed at her body, sending waves of pain coursing through her. With great exertion she doubled up and kicked out with both feet, knocking the werewolf away and allowing her to draw a few gasping breaths.

The white monster roared, leaping towards her again. This time she was ready and cast an Eldritch Fire spell that shot out a bolt into the werewolf’s chest. Yelping loudly as the bolt struck home, leaving a gory black mark on the beast, it continued its assault. No time left to draw her sword, the creature was on her again, tearing at her chest and belly, attempting to bite her neck.

A loud crash came from the door, and a wet, cracking sound was followed by blood and brains dropping down into Lira’s face. A large silver-headed axe was sticking out of the now quite dead monster’s head. As she watched, the axe was withdrawn and the werewolf transformed back into a human. To her amazement, it was the man from the junction.

Rolling the corpse off of her, the woodsman helped Lira to her feet.

“Hope you don’t mind that I followed you. Truth be told, I’m not a lumberjack,” at that he guffawed. Seeing that she wasn’t amused, he continued, “Actually, the villages around these parts got together and hired me and a few other fellers to kill the wolfman, but the first time we found him he was normal, except he’s a witchdoctor!”

“Your fellows were killed, weren’t they?” Lira finally spoke, apparently startling the stout man.

“Yes, well, harrumph! Yes. Pretty bad way, too. I barely escaped, took me weeks to recover. Anyway, I figured I could kill him when we was in his wolfish form, so I’ve been skulking around these woods for days, waitin’ for my chance.”

“Lucky for me,” commented Lira, even feeling some sincerity in that statement.

“So, uh, you’ll be headin’ back with me then? I mean, I’d just as soon not stay here too long. Makes me sort of uneasy.”

“No, I intend to stay a little while. I’d like to have a look around.” Pensive a moment, she wondered out loud, “Suppose there was ever a hag here?”

“If there was, that were-witchdoctor must have finished her off.”

“Hags are quite powerful, often living on other planes,” this last word being from Basalinian, as she didn’t know the corresponding word in New N´rodic. It didn’t seem to make much of a difference to the woodsman/bounty hunter. “If the witchdoctor actually slew her, then it’s no small wonder that you escaped him alive.”

At that the tall man shuddered visibly, and Lira turned to sorting the parchments that were strewn about.

The bounty hunter gathered up the still form of the slain were creature and departed, pausing only briefly to make certain that Lira didn’t want to go with him.

For a moment she regretted not killing him, as surely he suspected that she was a magic user and would tell the villagers. Then again, he had saved her life, and more than likely superstition would keep the commoners away long enough for her to find out the hag’s/witchdoctor’s secrets. Deciding not to let it bother her, she stacked the parchments and gathered together what items she suspected might hold magic. After lighting a hooded lantern and a few candles, then eating some provisions from the basket, she sat down to the first evening of study among many.

And what dark marvels she found.