Hope in Secondary Worlds
A reader’s question had me pondering the difference between the secondary worlds invented by Christians, such as Narnia and Middle Earth, and those invented by heathens, such as Earthsea, or The Dying Earth.
I am beginning to believe the difference between the two worlds we make are profounder than what it first seems, and this is because the difference in the worldview is profound.
In the Christian worldview, no final victory here in his world is possible, but that final victory when the world is remade is inevitable. Hence, in Middle Earth, the men of the west struggle onward without any glimmer of hope. The hopelessness of the quest is emphasized in many places (including in the true meaning of Strider’s true name). In Narnia, nothing done by Tirion can halt the Last Battle or the final downfall of night. In both cases, the protagonists are humble: schoolchildren or hobbits.
George Orwell, in a famous essay “The Scientists Take Over“, dismisses THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH on the (shallow) ground that if God Almighty is on the side of the characters in a story, the story lacks drama.
Orwell is not an insightful critic. His claim is that Lewis hates science, on the grounds that the bad guys in STRENGTH use bogus science as the idol to hide their true purposes. This is not a conclusion any honest reader of what is actually written in the text could reach: the only real scientists in the drama, Hingest, is killed precisely because he is interested in science, not totalitarianism. But pretending science opposes Christianity and will soon replace it as the source of meaning in life is a shibboleth of the Left, and Leftists repeat such ideas whether they believe them or not. So there is a degree to which Orwell is merely being partisan and dishonest in his criticism.
There may also be a degree to which he is sincere, but sincerely unable to grasp a worldview alien to his own. Orwell missed entirely the point of the Christian worldview and how it differs from the pagan: the question is not which side will win. In Christian stories, evil is strong, but evil destroys itself. The question is which side will the protagonist cleave to. Lucy (particularly in CASPIAN) was loyal; Edmund was not. Sam was loyal, and gave up the Ring; Boromir was not.
Contrast that with the worldview in, let us say, Earthsea, which is rather Taoist in flavor: Has my dear reader read WIZARD OF EARTHSEA or THE FARTHEST SHORE? (If not, you are in for a treat. These books were famous in my youth, and strangely forgotten now, albeit I hold them to be better than nearly every fantasy story written these days.)
In Earthsea, there is an equilibrium, a balance, which is disrupted if men act with undue passion or ambition, as when Sparrowhawks attempts a spell beyond his power to raise the dead, and instead unleashes a glebbeth, who turns out not really to be the demon it at first might seem; or as when Cob, yearning for eternal life, drains the magic out of the world and ends by forgetting his own true name.
There is no final promise of hope of anything. There is no Aslan who returns from death in Earthsea, there is only gentle resignation to death.
The difference between the two worldviews is sharp. Armageddon is the end of the world, but the battle ends in victory. Ragnarok is the end of the world, but the battle ends in defeat.
The difference in the way the conflict is framed is sharper. In the ILIAD, the fight is between Achilles and Hector, and the outcome is not certain; but when Hector falls, it is grisly and without glory, because basically the gods deceive, ambush, and coldcock him.
In paganism, the giants win. Fernis wins. The wolf wins. The wolf always wins. And Prometheus ends up being tortured forever.
Compare that to the story of David and Goliath.
From a pagan point of view, the story of David and Goliath is absurd. Hercules kills giants, not shepherd boys. There is no drama, no conflict, because a boy slaying a giant with a lucky shot is ridiculous. But this is a story as oft retold and as dramatic as anything in literature: because the drama is in the fact that the army of professional soldiers, and David’s own older brothers, are terrified, and will not fight, and David will fight. There is no mystery as to who will win: God Almighty is on David’s side. The mystery is why and how David finds the strength to believe that impossible, unlikely, unearthly truth.