Spirituality in Fantasy Fiction

I often frequent forums that discuss famous fantasy writers. First, I find it entertaining to hear what people get out of a book I’ve also read. But mostly I do it because I want to know what people like. A recent post concerning Brandon Sanderson caught my eye.

“I think Sanderson is very good because of the incredible breadth of his world – the continuity, the “science” of magic, the structure, the detail… sprawling that over 36 books is a Herculean task, but I have no doubt that he’ll make it internally consistent and logically rigorous. I think his books aren’t great because they don’t mean anything. They’re not representative of anything besides themselves. There’s no discussion of issues, no metaphors, no depth. They are entertaining adventures in detailed worlds. Full stop.”

In other words, his books are good because they tell interesting stories, but according to this reader they aren’t great because they don’t have a message.

First off, I disagree wholeheartedly. I don’t think a good story can be told without the writer having something to say that’s burning in his or her heart. I don’t find Sanderson to be any different. At the end of The Way of Kings, Sanderson addresses the issue of what people value most through a character named Wit. 

After a lengthy discourse by Wit, the last Herald of the Almighty stumbles into a fortress and cries out, “The Desolation has come. Oh, God…it has come. And I have failed.” 

Wit whispers the following words in reply. “What is it we value? Innovation. Originality. Novelty. But most importantly… timeliness. I fear you may be too late my confused, unfortunate friend.”

The question of what people value most is surely a philosophical question if not a spiritual one. In addition, each of Sanderson’s books have characters that are God or part of a pantheon of gods. How can that be considered void of spirituality?


People accept religious themes in fantasy.


I have found that most people want to be entertained when they read. They don’t want to be force-fed politics or religion, but they also don’t want a story with an empty soul. Every book I’ve read on the craft of writing says that if you don’t have something to say, then don’t write. Because if your story doesn’t spring from a passion in your heart, it will show on the pages. R.A. Salvatore has gone on record saying that almost all his books deal with the issue of fate vs. human choice. Robert Jordan often referred to the spiritual themes in Wheel of Time (and there are tons of them). Tolkien said, “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first but consciously in the revision.”

I think that’s why fantasy is one of the greatest tools to tell stories with spiritual themes. Very often the things that burn in our heart can be put on paper, but readers don’t feel like their being force-fed those themes. Because they are completely fictional worlds, the world becomes a character in the story. And the reader wants to know more about that character, including its history and religious ideas.

This is why Christians need to be a part of the fantasy genre. If tons of people are reading fantasy works, and the best authors are touching people’s hearts with their passionate worldview, why shouldn’t we? Why shouldn’t the true themes be penned about in an entertaining way with a passion behind them?

I remember finally getting around to reading Game of Thrones. By the end, I felt dirty and despondent. It was hard to cheer for anyone. And the only character I wanted to root for died in the end. And not for a sacrificial reason. The writer killed him off a bit haphazardly due to the defiant act of an impetuous child-king. When I finished, I made a conscious decision not to read any more of the series. While Martin can weave an interesting tale, his theme was clear. The only way for good to overcome evil is to become evil. And in the end, that means no one wins. I don’t know if that’s what Martin believes, but it doesn’t bring much hope either way.

My hope in writing is to give my readers a rollicking adventure, and to leave them with something to think about when the process is over. Those are the books that I enjoy the most.

So, what about you? What fantasy authors have entertained you, but also impacted your life in someway?

About Will Ramirez

Will Ramirez grew up with a love for God's Word and fantastical worlds. The first passion led him to pastor Calvary Chapel Lighthouse for the the last 17 years. The second led him to create the world of Adme, the setting for his coming debut novel, an epic fantasy titled Soul Yearning. He lives in Central Florida with his bride of seventeen years and their four children. Since 2010, he's been a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers and serves on the leadership team of Word Weavers of Orlando. He is currently working on the second book of the Godslayer series as well as The Unspoken, book one of a dark fantasy trilogy. In the land of Adme, powerful beings rule as deities and compete with one another for followers. But when a young priest is revealed as the prophesied godslayer, the pantheon unites to destroy him.

10 comments on “Spirituality in Fantasy Fiction

  1. Nancy Springer, Louise Cooper, Richard Monaco, Charles DeLint, Barry Longyear, Gordon Dickson, Keith Laumer — the list of authors I enjoyed and whose stories impacted me is very long (whether they were fantasy or SF — in some, the lines blur).

    And I agree — a fantasy (or any other genre) lacking the spiritual dimension falls flat; it becomes about as interesting as an uber-dry documentary.

    But the problem a number of Christian writers have in approaching and exploring the spiritual dimensions and issues in fantasy is that they confuse passion and worldview with evangelism. Story is crippled or sacrificed for a salvational message. The driving force in the story becomes less about the character struggling through to resolution and more about a deus ex machina that fixes everything in the end.

    Christian writers seem to have a problem in presenting the spiritual sides of different belief systems without passing judgment on the page. It’s as if they think as they write, “I have to make it clear that this utterly devout and kind pagan is still hell-bound without salvation.” And then, again, story devolves into sermon.

    This isn’t to say that Christians can’t or shouldn’t write Christ-centered fantasy or SF. There are publishers which welcome blatant Christian themes, usually geared toward more application-type stories, but they are Christian to Christian, “in house” themes in which both the writer and reader have belief in common.

    But Christian writers who are fired up for evangelism should perhaps reconsider whether fantasy is what they need to be writing. Gospel tracts would be more effective in spreading the news of salvation.

    • Thanks for posting Glynda! I totally agree that a story without a spiritual dimension falls flat. I find myself asking “why am I watching/reading this?” Cloverfield comes to mind….

      I’m not sure I can speak to the issue of preachy Christian fiction. I pretty much exclusively read speculative stuff, and I’ve never found any Christian authors who sound preachy to me. Some came off more subtle (Jim Rubart – EXCELLENT STUFF if you haven’t read him). Others had very clear Christian themes (Jill Williamson’s Blood of Kings trilogy comes to mind). Yet all of them have been wonderful stories that I could get lost in.

      I confess I’m a little prickly when I hear people say Christian writers are preachy. Robert Jordan was a self-professing Druid (Wiccan). Those religious themes are very prevalent in the Wheel of Time Series and he beats the reader over the head with it. It just so happens that most people aren’t Wiccans, so they don’t notice. The Wachowski Brothers openly claimed Hindu themes were the message of The Matrix Trilogy. George Martin has confessed that his worldview is why A Song of Fire and Ice is so dark.

      “I think the books are realistic. I’ve always liked gray characters. And as for the gods, I’ve never been satisfied by any of the answers that are given. If there really is a benevolent loving god, why is the world full of rape and torture? Why do we even have pain?”

      Maybe that’s why he writes the childhood rape scenes with Daenerys among the Dothraki, yet never hints at a wrongness in the behavior.

      I guess the question I ask is this. Why can everyone else but a Christian share a story from their worldview without being accused of being preachy? I found Martin’s darkness much more preachy than any Christian novel I’ve read.

      I’m also not sure any person is qualified to say gospel tracts are more effective in preaching the gospel. I’ve seen people who were moved by music, art, or literature way more than any gospel tract could penetrate. I think it’s a testimony to God’s creative power and diversity that so many of us respond uniquely to different modes of communication 🙂

      • “I confess I’m a little prickly when I hear people say Christian writers are preachy. …Why can everyone else but a Christian share a story from their worldview without being accused of being preachy? ”

        I empathize. I’ve asked that same question on forums but there never seems to be an answer. The Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic influences in Dune are hard to miss; and the Wiccan/New Age focus in all too many fantasies is nearly universal.

        The only answer I can come up with on my own is that the word preachy is strongly associated with Christian preachers; but most people also assume that when we become followers of Christ, we’re supposed to leave all our baggage and not so nice quirks behind. From a non-believer’s viewpoint, our claim of salvation is equal to claiming we are better than everyone else.

        You and I know that’s not true. Salvation brings us back into relationship with God, but our personal transformation — the rebuilding of our minds and hearts — by the indwelling Holy Spirit is often a slower process. It’s not according to anyone’s timeline but God’s nor anyone’s standard but God’s. Folks who equate religiosity and churchianity with salvation and relationship with God are very disappointed when they see we’re still as human as they are, and so they’re quick to label any Christian expression as hypocrisy.

        But — getting back to Christian writing — I’ve seen some that’s horribly hokey just because of the very obvious evangelizing agenda. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen stories like that at earlier, prepublication stages; and I have to confess that in my own early years of writing I, too, produced some outlandishly hokey stuff. Really, not much more than Sunday school lessons with aliens/unicorns/trolls, the Acts church with gnomes.

        There’s another pastor/writer I respect very much who calls his kind of Christian SFF “asymmetrical evangelism”. The worldview and values in his stories are Christian, but the characters are honest ones who have struggles, doubts, fears, and anger — they’re as real as any fictional character can be. The point of this asymmetrical evangelism is not to present the steps to salvation or the sinner’s prayer; it’s to prepare the soil of hearts ahead of those real people who do the person-to-person, real life presentation of what God does in our lives. In a fallen world so badly askew, even the simplest scriptural concepts (law versus justice or mercy, forgiving an enemy, the price of idolatry, sacrificial love) has little to no relevant meaning in many lives. His stories examine scriptural themes without bashing anyone over the head with “thou shalt” and “thou shall not or else” and with real compassion toward all humanity.

        I loved Jill Williamson’s Blood of Kings books, but I have to wonder whether most of her audience is comprised of believers (or churched readers) if only because the publication vehicle for her books is Christian rather than secular. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the audience predominantly becomes an “in house” one when that route is taken. If a Christian book falls into the hands of an unbeliever and it genuinely moves him/her enough to seek more knowledge of God, we have to wonder if God has already been at work on that person, if the yearning for God is already present. We are saved by His grace.

        When I edit (or write) for the Cross and the Cosmos, I know most of the stories will be more or less blatantly Christian, up to and including the message of salvation. The target audience is Christian and the publisher is passionate about providing good SFF stories for his Christian audience. When I’m acting as a consulting editor for Port Yonder Press, I know the target audience is mainstream and crossover with a literary bent; the stories have to live up to stout literary standards. One of the publisher’s passions is proving the children of God can hold their own in the toughest literary arenas without resorting to evangelizing or proselytizing.
        There’s a place for each of them.

        Each of us is charged with the Great Commission, but not all of us are called or gifted to be evangelists. The Great Commission is some thing we **do** in the trenches of daily life rather than something we write.

        You’re right about my gospel tract part of the comment. Mea culpa.

  2. I love the Harry Potter series on so many different levels. One element that hit me was when Voldemort couldn’t touch Harry because of Harry’s mother’s sacrificial love, and light went on in my head. Just like Jesus’s sacrifice for us. The enemy can’t touch us. Of course, we all know the story of Job and how Satan can ask for permission and all. But that was one element of the Harry Potter stories that illuminated something for me. Another story that had impact was The Blaggard’s Moon by George Bryan Polivka. I finished that book with a feeling of renewed loyalty, integrity, etc no matter the cost. Kind of like The Man in the Iron Mask. To devote one’s life to something beyond themselves, to be true no matter the cost. I loved Heartless by Anne Elisabeth Stengl, The main character’s struggle with the dragon really resonated with me, being a momma of a 3 year old and 1 year old and my struggle with my own short-comings. Okay, I’ll stop there. 🙂

    I hope to be able to create that kind of stories as well.

    • Thanks for posting J.L. I got Heartless a few months ago, but haven’t started reading it yet. Now you’ve got me curious 🙂 I had a similar experience when I read Stephen Lawhead’s Byzantium. The message of the ending scene was so powerful, it changed how I viewed trials and suffering. Great stuff!

  3. One series that I read this year that impacted me more than anything I’d read in the last few years was The Hunger Games series. The series is dark, and gets darker as it goes on, but at the very end it’s a beautiful picture of how joy can come even after so much pain and misery and loss.

  4. For some reason it won’t let me reply to your above post Glynda, so I hope this one doesn’t get lost at the bottom 🙂

    I totally get what you’re saying here. Being someone who’s had a much wider range of exposure to people’s writings, I can imagine you’ve come across some material that comes off the wrong way.

    I’ve not heard of the term asymmetrical evangelism, but I loved how you described it. I’m not sure I’d be able to write a story with flawless characters. What makes the Bible so interesting to me is how much I relate to the flaws of the people in it. That Elijah was a man just like me is hard to see when he’s calling down fire from heaven. But it’s easier when he’s pouting in a cave.

    I’m not even sure I could write a fantasy story with the gospel spelled out clearly (not that that’s wrong if it fits the story). My heart in writing is to give a person something to think about. I find that too often our culture doesn’t think things through, so we dismiss unpopular ideas (like Biblical concepts) out of hand. I prefer to throw a character of struggling or no faith into a scenario that forces them to (re)consider a core truth they hold to that motivates their actions in life.

    My worldview is going to come out in that – much like it does in other books from different worldviews. My hope is that while enjoying the story, it might bring to the surface a question or two that person has, but maybe they’ve never looked at it from my angle 🙂

    I really enjoyed the discussion and am glad you posted!

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