Michael Weingrad’s brilliant essay “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia” in the Spring 2010 issue of the indispensable Jewish Review of Books offered several reasons for the lack of fantasy writing among Jews:
• “[T]he conventional trappings of fantasy, with their feudal atmosphere and rootedness in rural Europe, are not especially welcoming to Jews, who were too often at the wrong end of the medieval sword.”
• The “still agonizing historical weight” of the Holocaust “must press prohibitively upon Jewish engagement with the magical and fantastical.”
As a consequence of their history, Jews find “the notion of magic and wizards existing in our own world — as in, for example, the Harry Potter books” — hard to accept. (Warning: Weingrad gives no evidence of having read all seven Harry Potter books before daring to say such a thing.)
The main reason that Jews have largely avoided the genre of fantasy, though, is religious. C. S. Lewis was the author of The Chronicles of Narnia (1950–1956), perhaps the greatest series of fantasy novels ever written in English. Rereading the books as an adult, I was struck by what soared over my head as a boy: the Christian theology that organizes the series. But Lewis is not alone. J. R. R. Tolkien is now widely understood to be a Christian writer, and Christianity Today ranked his Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954–1955) among the top ten Christian books of the twentieth century. Even the Harry Potter books, if Bruce Charlton is to be believed, are works of “covert Christian supposal.” And no wonder.
Fantasy is ideally suited for Christianity’s kerygma, but it is a bad fit for Judaism. As Weingrad wonderfully puts it:
To put it crudely, if Christianity is a fantasy religion, then Judaism is a science fiction religion. If the former is individualistic, magical, and salvationist, the latter is collective, technical, and this-worldly. Judaism’s divine drama is connected with a specific people in a specific place within a specific history. Its halakhic core is not, I think, convincingly represented in fantasy allegory. In its rabbinic elaboration, even the messianic idea is shorn of its mythic and apocalyptic potential. Whereas fantasy grows naturally out of Christian soil, Judaism’s more adamant separation from myth and magic render classic elements of the fantasy genre undeveloped or suspect in the Jewish imaginative tradition.
Weingrad goes on to examine the differences between Christian and Jewish conceptions of magic and evil, which are essential to fantasy. But I’d like to draw attention to a third element.
Speaking as both an author and scholar of fantasy, Lewis said in a 1947 essay that “To construct plausible and moving ‘other worlds’ you must draw upon the only real ‘other world’ we know, that of the spirit.” No statement about the genre has ever been more definitive. The bedrock premise of fantasy, which cannot be waived without voiding the genre, is the existence of a spirit realm. Lewis’s Narnia, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Rowling’s “wizarding world,” parallel universes of all kind are imaginative reconstructions of Christianity’s first principle: namely, that the “kingdom of heaven” is the only true world.
G. K. Chesterton illustrated the connection between fantasy and a belief in the spirit realm quite entertainingly in Orthodoxy (1908):
Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense. It is not earth that judges heaven, but heaven that judges earth; so for me at least it was not earth that criticised elfland, but elfland that criticised the earth. I knew the magic beanstalk before I had tasted beans; I was sure of the Man in the Moon before I was certain of the moon. This was at one with all popular tradition. Modern minor poets are naturalists, and talk about the bush or the brook; but the singers of the old epics and fables were supernaturalists, and talked about the gods of brook and bush.
But Jewish tradition stands at a right angle to “all popular tradition.” Jewish children’s literature has developed only since 1935. Traditionally, Jewish children were taught the stories of the Bible and the Midrashim that filled in the biblical gaps, but the clear emphasis was upon practical religious lessons.
More to the point, there is no spirit realm, no “other world,” in Judaism. There is no Ascension in the Jewish religion. On the contrary, there is God’s “moving about in the garden at the breezy time of day” (Gen 3.8), there is God’s decision to “go down to see whether [Sodom and Gomorrah] have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me” (Gen 18.21), there is God’s exposing his backside to Moses (Exod 32.23). The dualism of matter and spirit, shadow and fulfillment, is foreign to Judaism.
If some Jewish readers have been exempt from the public enthusiasm for J. K. Rowling and the Harry Potter books, the explanation may lie as much in religious instinct and training as in literary criticism.