Fantasy Writing and the Spiritual Quest

Smaug from Tolkien's The Hobbit, as illustrate...

Many fantasy writers experience our craft as being more than a hobby, or even a career choice.  For us, it is a calling.

On my tenth birthday I received a precious gift: a hardback edition of The Hobbit, illustrated by Michael Hague.  This marked my first foray into fantasy literature, and it irrevocably touched my life.

Upon discovering Tolkien I experienced a new realm of possibilities. While clearly fictional, the world which he described had a distinctive aura of truth to it. It was a place of magic, where unseen power filled every aspect of life. Although my mind told me differently, my heart recognized something very real.

Soon thereafter I made a decision. Although barely a decade old, I knew that I would become a fantasy author. Fantasy writing would forever be a part of my spiritual journey.

A Hidden World

As I grew older my love for fantasy was challenged. In school I was taught a crass form of materialism. All that is real, I was instructed, is what we can see and touch. There are no hidden spiritual powers, nor anything resembling magic.  I was told that fantasy writing is but an escape – an attempt to forget the realities of life. I was advised to let go of this dream and pursue a real career. A career in which I could make a difference. So I set off to college to become a lawyer.

Still, the call of fantasy writing continued tugging at my heart.  Although I lacked the time to write, I read voraciously. It was when reading C.S. Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy, that I came upon a pivotal passage.  In it Lewis described what he experienced when first exploring Norse Mythology:

I was uplifted into huge regions of the northern sky; I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described….  and then…. found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.

The distance of the Twilight of the Gods and the distance of my own past Joy, both unattainable, flowed together into a single, unendurable sense of desire and loss. . . . And at once I knew that to “have it again” was the supreme and only important object of desire.

What Lewis felt is what I experienced when first reading Tolkien. And for Lewis, this sensation was but a glimpse into a deeper, far more powerful spiritual reality. Having read this, I recognized that my passion for fantasy was never fueled by a desire for escape. Rather, it is driven by a longing for an invisible, yet far greater world.

The Call of Fantasy

I never did become a lawyer. After years of classes and internships, I escaped that particular fate. Some lawyers are legitimately happy and truly love their work. Yet I knew that I could never be one of them.  And so I travelled a far less sensible path, and became a professor and author.

My first book was a success. It found a respectable audience and garnered terrific reviews. Yet it wasn’t a fantasy novel, but a work of academic scholarship. I still hadn’t answered that original calling.

A few years ago I became serious about pursuing my real dream. I read everything that I could find on fantasy writing, filling the gaps in my knowledge. The most poignant discovery was from an interview with Robert Jordan, author of The Wheel of Time series:

Even if you do it unconsciously, you have to refer to religion if you’re writing fantasy. You’re stepping into the realm of the supernatural and so you’re stepping into the realm of religion.

A few years ago I found myself thrown into the company of theoretical physicists on panels. I thought, ‘I’m not going to be able to talk with these men because my knowledge of this field is 25 years out of date.’ But I found that I could hold my own not by talking physics but by talking theology.

This confirmed my earlier intuition. A fantasy writer is exploring important spiritual possibilities, and doing so by means of stories. It’s no coincidence that many of the greatest spiritual teachers, including Socrates, the Buddha and even Jesus, primarily taught through stories. As fantasy writers we carry on this tradition of spiritual exploration.

A New Adventure

And this brings us to the present, to the founding of Mythic Scribes. In the fall of 2010 the vision came to me for an online community of fantasy writers. It appeared spontaneously, name and all, in a matter of minutes. And soon everything fell into place to make it a reality.  To my amazement just the right people appeared at just the right times to help realize this dream.

Bringing together other fantasy authors has proven to be endlessly rewarding. It has provided me with inspiration and renewed motivation.  Yet I know that this is only the beginning of something far greater.  For the quests of our fantasy heroes often mirror our own spiritual journeys.

In my personal journey I have crossed into a new chapter, so to speak. And this means that new possibilities will emerge.  I may encounter unseen wonders on the road ahead, and perhaps even the dangers that lurk in the shadows.

And strangely, I find this reassuring. After all, embarking on this journey is integral to writing fantasy.  For we are called to explore new possibilities, and to embrace the likelihood that there is more to this world than what we can see.  For those who are called, having the courage to pursue this path is a cause for endless joy.

16 thoughts on “Fantasy Writing and the Spiritual Quest”

  1. Great article. I had a similar experience, being told that I should look into another career. Now I’m 20 years into that career but trying to follow my dream.

  2. Good Stuff! Love writing fantasy and about fantasy worlds…sometimes a little too much. I wander about, weaving through different realms, wishing I could stay longer. But I revisit them often. And yes, I do use some of my worlds to escape some of the daily hustle and bustle or the humdrum of my reality. Thanks for inspiring words.
    ~A.M. Day

  3. What is imagination if not the “Third Eye?” C.S. Lewis used innocence and faith in his Narnia stories to try to experience the “Ultimate Reality.” Children (who’s faith is purer because of their innocence) were his protagonists. Even when exploring the dark and frightening, writers like R. E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft envisioned “things which should not be” and conjured onto paper examples of horrific truth (which in the case of Howard, met its demise on the edge of Conan’s Battle Axe!) Fantasy is powerful because like myth, it contains an element of truth. Its captivating, I believe, because it opens the gate of imagination in our mind to greater realities without denying the aspects of the mundane. We experience the “real world” with our minds and our bodies. But the spirit is what experiences ultimate reality. This is the real magic.

  4. Below is another quote from Surprised by Joy that touched me. The conversion of C.S. Lewis started with his imagination first after reading Phantastes by George MacDonald.

    “That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me[,] not unnaturally, took longer. I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes.”

    Spirituality cannot be thoroughly explored without the utilization of one’s imagination. After reading C.S. Lewis’s Christian apologetics I am thoroughly convinced of this.

    On a similar note, I believe that my obsession with Sufi Parables had a profound affect on me growing up. I felt them waking parts of me up as well as the Tao Te Ching and Buddhist Kōans. These, along with Fantasy Writing are ways of exploring things that are beyond the senses, and beyond conditioned reason.

  5. Thank you Tom for not throwing your smelly socks. Although I’m used to socks being thrown in my direction… since my little daughter figured out how to take them off all by herself. 😉

    The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are two very different creatures. As mentioned in the article, I adored the Hobbit when I first read it as a child. I still do. But then I picked up Fellowship of the Rings, and couldn’t get through it. I stalled out at the Mines of Moria, and didn’t pick it up again until I was older.

    Now Lord of the Rings is my all time favorite book. It’s deep and multilayered. It’s an adult book, though, in the sense that it requires some work on the part of the reader. The Hobbit, on the other hand, is very much a children’s book. It is best appreciated at that level. I can totally understand how it is possible to appreciate one and not the other.

  6. Hmm…if it’d been LotR we might’ve had some common ground. As it is, even as a child I found The Hobbit a risible piece of pony excrement. Thankfully, my brother also had LotR in his collection (along with Bradbury, my personal God), and after deciding to give Tolkien another go I became immersed and then addicted. As a fan of Tolkien you have my respect; as a fan of the Hobbit I have to restrain myself from throwing smelly socks at you. So it goes. You’ve obviously gone on to bigger and better things, so consider my socks a shadow of the past (that’s quite possibly the only clever thing I’ll ever say on this forum. Treasure it.) Great article, though. Live long and prosper, or whatever people are supposed to say in these instances. I quite enjoyed it, and if you knew me in real life you’d know that that’s about the highest praise you’ll ever prise from my lips.

  7. There is something organic about it, if that makes sense. It doesn’t feel like a contrived story. Like I don’t feel like I’m reading a story, as weird as that sounds. I haven’t finished it yet, but I really enjoy the interactions between the characters and such. The first time I tried to read it, I got bogged down in the beginning where all the dwarfs come in . But now I’m glad I gave it another try!

    • I know exactly what you mean, Phil. It feels like a tour through a real, living world. And the story itself touches upon so many key archetypes that it reads like something more. It’s as if it’s tapping into something buried deep within the human psyche.

  8. Nice read! I am just now reading The Hobbit for the first time (I know, shame on me) and I’m getting this feeling that THIS is what fantasy is all about. I can understand why so many people have copied Tolkien. His writing really makes me feel immersed in the world and not like I’m reading a story. Got Lord of the Rings waiting on me next!


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