Fantasy Writing and the Spiritual Quest

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

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.