I’m intrigued, if not entirely convinced, by some of the arguments Erik Kain explores here about whether fantasy is an inherently Christian genre. He quotes D.G. Meyers on C.S. Lewis, who writes that:
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.
I’m not sure I agree with the premise that fantasy depends on the idea of another world. Certainly there’s some fantasy that depends on escaping entirely to a parallel universe, whether it’s accessible at the back of a wardrobe or through a competitive, Ivy League-style entrance exams process. But another world is hardly a Christian concept: Islam has highly developed and debated visions of limbo, judgment, hell, and heaven.
And there’s also fantasy based on the idea that we simply don’t know everything about the world that we live in, that there is power that we can access here and now if we know where to look for it and are determined enough to exercise it, all of which give us plenty of hooks in Jewish and Islamic tradition. In the former, take the legend of the golem, the idea that by very hard work and access to esoteric knowledge, rabbis were able to summon protectors for the Jewish people from the earth. There’s also a strong tradition of Jewish mysticism and Messianism, which suggests a permeable boundary between realms and regimes. Judaism has a demonic tradition that includes creatures like Dubbyks and Mazikeen, just as Islam has Jinns, Ifrits, and angels. Christians aren’t the only ones to have fairy realms or ghosts. And in Judaism, the Reconstructionist drive toward human transcendence and elimination of oppression is a framework for an epic quest that can take place in the here and now.
I think the point is more that, as a modification of how Erik puts it, that the fantasy that we see on the American market is “not founded in Christian themes so much as it is rooted in distinctly Anglo-Saxon mythology. And not just the mythology of the Medieval, feudalistic period, but the pre-Christian myths of the faerie-folk as well.” That we see certain things on the market doesn’t mean that fantasy is limited to those things, or inherently grows out to those things. It just means that we’re reliant on old patterns. I don’t think Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is perfect, but it is a rich illustration of the possibilities of Egyptian gods of death, of pre-Christian totem spirits, of Ifrits on the streets of New York for fantasy even if it doesn’t fulfill all of that promise itself.