Lo! We have heard how near and far over middle-earth Moses declared his ordinances to men . . .
(The Old English “Exodus” poem, translated by J. R. R. Tolkien)
Although it might seem unlikely that anyone would wonder whether the author of The Lord of the Rings was Jewish, the Nazis took no chances. When the publishing firm of Ruetten & Loening was negotiating with J. R. R. Tolkien over a German translation of The Hobbit in 1938, they demanded that Tolkien provide written assurance that he was an Aryan. Tolkien chastised the publishers for “impertinent and irrelevant inquiries,” and—ever the professor of philology— lectured them on the proper meaning of the term: “As far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects.” As to being Jewish, Tolkien regretted that “I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.”
Needless to say, C. S. Lewis wasn’t Jewish either, though he did marry a Jewish convert to Anglican Christianity (played by Deborah Winger in the film Shadowlands). In fact, when one of her two sons from a previous marriage became increasingly observant, Lewis turned to the great Jewish historian Cecil Roth for advice on finding kosher food and shabbat hospitality for his stepson. But of course no one would suppose the author of Mere Christianity and the Chronicles of Narnia to have been Jewish himself. Tolkien had famously converted his friend and fellow Oxford don from skepticism to Christianity through a series of conversations that led Lewis to the realization that “the story of Christ is simply a true myth.”
Tolkien and Lewis’s gentility would hardly bear comment were it not for the fact that they are not isolated examples in this regard, but only the most well-known figures within an entire literary genre—perhaps the only such genre—in which Jewish practitioners are strikingly rare. I cannot think of a single major fantasy writer who is Jewish, and there are only a handful of minor ones of any note. To no other field of modern literature have Jews contributed so little.
So why don’t Jews write more fantasy literature? And a different, deeper but related question: why are there no works of modern fantasy that are profoundly Jewish in the way that, say, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is Christian? Why no Jewish Lewises, and why no Jewish Narnias?
My interest in these questions is partly personal. Tolkien and Lewis loomed large in my childhood and, as I read them to my own children, I wonder what they ought to mean to us as Jews. But my thoughts are also stimulated by the recent publication of some apparent exceptions to the rule: from the United States, The Magicians, a fantasy novel for adults by novelist and critic Lev Grossman, and from Israel, Hagar Yanai’s Ha-mayim she-bein ha-olamot (The Water Between the Worlds), the acclaimed second installation of a projected fantasy trilogy, which, when it is finished, will be the first such trilogy in Hebrew.
Asking these questions is hardly frivolous when fantasy, especially children’s fantasy, has today become a multi-billion dollar industry. In addition to the perennial popularity of Lewis and Tolkien, there is of course the publishing tsunami that is J. K. Rowling, as well as the lesser but still remarkable successes of recent fantasy authors such as Philip Pullman and Jonathan Stroud, all magnified immensely by the films based on their books. Fantasy is big business.
Indeed, one wonders why, amidst all the initiatives to solve the crisis in Jewish continuity, no one has yet proposed commissioning a Jewish fantasy series that might plumb the theological depths like Lewis or at least thrill Jewish preteens with tales of Potterish derring-do. Granted, popularity is rarely cooked to order and religious allegory sometimes backfires (a mother once wrote Lewis that her nine year old son had guiltily confessed to loving Aslan the lion more than Jesus). But still, what non-electronic phenomenon has held the attention of more children (and not a few adults) during the last ten years, than Rowling’s tales of Hogwarts? And, as Tom Shippey has shown in Tolkien: Author of the Century, the Lord of the Rings trilogy consistently tops readers’ polls of their most beloved books. Why the apparent aversion to producing such well-received books by the People of the Book?
Some readers may have already expressed surprise at my assertion that Jews do not write fantasy literature. Haven’t modern Jewish writers, from Kafka and Bruno Schulz to Isaac Bashevis Singer and Cynthia Ozick, written about ghosts, demons, magic, and metamorphoses? But the supernatural does not itself define fantasy literature, which is a more specific genre. It emerged in Victorian England, and its origins are best understood as one of a number of cultural salvage projects that occurred in an era when modern materialism and Darwinism seemed to drive religious faith from the field. Religion’s capacity for wonder found a haven in fantasy literature.
The experience of wonder, of joy and delight on the part of the reader, has long been recognized as one of the defining characteristics of the genre. This wonder is connected with a world, with a place of magic, strangeness, danger, and charm; and whether it is called Perelandra, Earthsea, Amber, or Oz, this world must be a truly alien place. As Ursula K. Leguin says: “The point about Elfland is that you are not at home there. It’s not Poughkeepsie.”
To answer the question of why Jews do not write fantasy, we should begin by acknowledging that the 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. Ever since the Crusades, Jews have had good reasons to cast doubt upon the romance of knighthood, and this is an obstacle in a genre that takes medieval chivalry as its imaginative ideal.
It is not only that Jews are ambivalent about a return to an imaginary feudal past. It is even more accurate to say that most Jews have been deeply and passionately invested in modernity, and that history, rather than otherworldliness, has been the very ground of the radical and transformative projects of the modern Jewish experience. This goes some way towards explaining the Jewish enthusiasm for science fiction over fantasy (from Asimov to Silverberg to Weinbaum there is no dearth of Jewish science fiction writers). George MacDonald’s Phantastes, thought by some to be the first fantasy novel ever written, begins with a long epigraph from Novalis in which he celebrates the redemptive counter-logic of the fairytale: “A fairytale [Märchen] is like a vision without rational connections, a harmonious whole . . . opposed throughout to the world of rational truth.” Contrast Herzl’s dictum that “If you will it, it is no Märchen.” The impulse in the latter is that of science fiction—the proposal of what might be—and indeed Herzl’s one novel Old-New Land was a utopian fiction about the future State of Israel.
Lev Grossman’s clever new novel The Magicians would seem to bring the Jewish disenchantment with medieval fantasy into the heart of the genre. His characters (who are urban sophisticates but not identifiably Jewish) are underwhelmed by their encounter with the fantasy world, in this case a Narnia clone called “Fillory.” When presented with the predictable quest to become king of this magical land, Grossman’s protagonist, a recent college grad named Quentin, finds it unpalatable and, well, a little unrealistic:
There was hardly any central government, so what would a king actually do? The entire political economy appeared to be frozen in the feudal Middle Ages, but there were elements of Victorian-level technology as well. Who had made that beautiful Victorian carriage? What craftsmen wove the innards of the clockwork mechanisms that were so ubiquitous in Fillory? Or were these things done by magic? Either way, they must keep Fillory in its pre-industrial, agrarian state on purpose, by choice. Like the Amish.
The novel is serious, too, and its goal is to ask the question of whether fantasy and adulthood are mutually exclusive, as the process of becoming an adult means accepting the reality principle rather than “looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life,” as one character puts it. Of course, such an either/or does not do justice to fantasy literature, which, at its best, confronts loss, pain, and frustration. Grossman does not, for instance, turn his satirical sights on Tolkien’s Middle Earth, which after all is a world saturated with failure and loss, and his send-up of Narnia’s divinely incarnated lion Aslan falls short of grappling seriously with Lewis’s actual theology.
Moreover, his overeducated, young, single protagonists—like Whit Stillman characters thrown into a Harry Potter novel—can offer only a thin slice of what it means to be an adult. Nevertheless, Grossman’s experiment of placing real, urban, early twenty-somethings in a Hogwarts-and-Narnia-like environment is often dazzling. What he shows is the extent to which medieval magic cannot make our human unhappiness disappear.
Aside from an aversion to medieval nostalgia, there is a further historical reason why 20th-century Jews have not written much fantasy literature, and that is, inevitably, the Holocaust. Its still agonizing historical weight must press prohibitively upon Jewish engagement with the magical and fantastical. It is not that fantasy writers must be innocent naifs. Tolkien and Lewis were deeply influenced in their portrayals of evil by what they knew of 20th-century political barbarity. As Shippey notes, Tolkien especially grapples in his novels more seriously than many supposedly more sophisticated modern literary works with the evils of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, for Jewish writers working after the Holocaust, classical fantasy must have made redemption seem too easy. Certainly, the notion of magic and wizards existing in our own world—as in, for example, the Harry Potter books—becomes all but impossible. (Or at least must raise the question of why Hogwarts, like the FDR administration, never tried to bomb the railroad tracks.)
C. S. Lewis was always clear that he did not set out to write The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe as a didactic project. It began, he said, with an image in his head of an umbrella-toting faun standing in the snow. Nonetheless, when he wrote the Narnia books, Lewis drew deeply from his Christian beliefs. In this, he and the many Christian fantasy writers have an advantage over not only the few, largely assimilated Jewish fantasy writers, but even over a deeply knowledgeable and religiously committed Jewish writer who might seek to create a work of fantasy dramatizing Judaism in the way that the various Narnia books dramatize Christianity. The Jewish difficulty with fantasy is not only historical and sociological. It is theological as well, and this has to do with the degree to which Judaism has banished the magical and mythological elements necessary for fantasy.
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. Let us take two central examples: the magical world and the idea of evil.
Christianity has a much more vivid memory and even appreciation of the pagan worlds which preceded it than does Judaism. Neither Canaanite nor Egyptian civilizations exercise much fascination for the Jewish imagination, and certainly not as a place of enchantment or escape. In contrast, the Christian imagination found in Lewis and Tolkien often moves, like Beowulf or Sir Gawain, through an older pagan world in which spirits of place and mythical beings are still potent. Nor is this limited to fauns and elves. This anterior world can be dark and frighteningly alien, as Tolkien has Gandalf indicate in The Two Towers. “Far, far below the deepest delvings of the Dwarves,” the wizard says, “the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not.” Lewis sounds the same note in Perelandra when, far below the surface of the planet Venus, his protagonist catches an unsettling glimpse of alien creatures, and wonders if there might be “some way to renew the old Pagan practice of propitiating the local gods of unknown places in such fashion that it was no offence to God Himself but only a prudent and courteous apology for trespass.”
Contrast this with the treatment of the great and symbolic monster of ancient Judaism—the sea-creature Leviathan, whose terrifying pagan majesty as the personification of the watery depths the rabbis were determined to strip away:
Raba said in the name of R. Yochanan: The Holy One will make a feast for the righteous out of the flesh of Leviathan, and what is left will be portioned out and made available as merchandise in the marketplaces of Jerusalem.
(Bava Batra 75a)
To subject the primal abyss to the forces of commerce is to demythologize with a vengeance—and to do it wholesale at that.
In general, Judaism is much warier about the temptation of dualism than is Christianity, and undercuts the power and significance of any rivals to God, whether Leviathan, angel, or, especially for our purposes, devil. Fantasy literature is often based around conflict with a powerful evil force—Tolkien’s Morgoth and Sauron and Lewis’s Jadis and the White Witch are clear examples—and Christianity offers a far more developed tradition of evil as a supernatural, external, autonomous force than does Judaism, whose Satan (or Samael or Lilith or Ashmedai) are limited in their power and usually rather obedient to God’s wishes. In Mere Christianity, Lewis writes:
One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe—a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease, and sin. The difference [between Christianity and Dualism] is that Christianity thinks this Dark Power was created by God, and was good when he was created, and went wrong. Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel.
Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.
This is of course the plot, in a nutshell, of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and much of Lewis’s Space Trilogy too—which, for that matter, concludes with the forces of good being led not by a Christian but by the pre-Christian Merlin. Judaism is far more skittish about acknowledging the existence of powers acting apart from God, even in rebellion—which leaves a lot less room for magic.
To be sure, all the elements necessary for classic fantasy—magic, myth, dualism, demonic forces, strange worlds, and so forth—can be found sprinkled here and there in biblical and rabbinic literature. Much of it is developed in Jewish folklore, and theoretically developed and dramatized in the kabbalistic literature, especially the Zohar, which may even draw on the medieval literature Lewis lovingly described in his scholarly work The Allegory of Love.
For the last hundred years, various anthologists have attempted, with greater or lesser ideological urgency, to collect these elements and weave them together into a usable Jewish “mythology.” Hagai Dagan’s Ha-mitologiyah ha-yehudit (The Jewish Mythology, 2003) and Howard Schwartz’s Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism (2004) are only the most recent compilations that posit and seek to restore a supposedly repressed or marginalized Jewish mythic vitality, a project that runs back through Buber’s Hasidic collections and Berdichevsky’s emphasis on Judaism’s earthy, pagan side. Yet the very necessity of all these attempts to retrieve and weave together these elements suggests their marginality. While Lewis could remain within orthodox, or at least “mere” Christianity in writing his books, the Jewish writer leaves the realm of the normative in order to develop the mythologies that are the fantasy writer’s natural materials. Put another way, Tolkien and Lewis both referred to Christianity as the sole true fairytale. Jewish thinkers are far less likely to consider this praise.
The absence of fantasy writing in Israel is, if anything, even starker than in the Diaspora. The fantasy genre has always been disparaged in modern Hebrew literary culture as being a frivolous distraction from the serious political and artistic missions facing the Jewish people and its writers. Of course, Israelis are just as avid consumers of fantasy literature, film, and games as any other nation. Israelis have flocked to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, their bookstores are filled with Hebrew translations of writers from Tolkien and Rowling to Robert Jordan and Orson Scott Card, and their children play Hebrew editions of Dungeons & Dragons games. And yet none of this production is local. As one writer lamented, in an article in Ha’aretz in 2002 on the absence of Israeli fantasy literature:
Faeries do not dance underneath our swaying palm trees, there are no fire-breathing dragons in the cave of Machpelah, and Harry Potter doesn’t live in Kfar Saba. But why? Why couldn’t Harry Potter have been written in Israel? Why is local fantasy literature so weak, so that it almost seems that a book like that couldn’t be published in the state of the Jews?
As it happens, though, the author of these lines, Hagar Yanai, has recently attempted to fill this gap, along with a few other Israeli writers who have in the last few years begun to produce fantasy books—not magical realism or surrealism or postmodernism, but serious fantasy. Yanai’s Ha-livyatan mi-Bavel (The Leviathan of Babylon) was published in 2006, followed by Ha-mayim she-bein ha-olamot (The Water Between the Worlds) in 2008, with a third scheduled to follow. Both of these books won Israel’s local Geffen awards for best original Hebrew fantasy or science fiction novel of the year (a prize that, significantly, has existed for only a few years). But the enthusiasm has been mainstream as well. Yanai was awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize, along with more established writers such as Ariel Hirschfeld and Haim Sabato, “for the way in which [she] introduces mythological and fantastical elements from various eras and strata of Jewish tradition into a contemporary Hebrew work … Yanai has ‘resurrected’ a neglected stream in Hebrew literature.”
This is a questionable resurrection, for Yanai draws only superficially on the sort of materials that Schwartz and Dagan have lovingly anthologized—despite pulling an epigraph from the latter. Nor does her work really show the influence of authors like Tolkien, Lewis and LeGuin. If anything, the overriding ambience is that of Hollywood action films, from James Bond to The Matrix and Pirates of the Carribbean. Yanai loves spectacle, chase scenes, prison breaks, explosions and slapstick, all of which she does well. Her literary influences are drawn mainly from contemporary fantasy (Philip Pullman, Rowling, Stroud) and like these authors, Yanai’s fantasy world is essentially modern, mundane, and technocratic, with magical forces and creatures substituting our fossil fuels and silicon chips. There is little true enchantment here, just crystal balls instead of iPhones (electrically charged demons power the generators in Yanai’s Babylon).
The plot of Yanai’s trilogy-in-the-making centers on two Israeli teenagers, Ella and Yonatan, who travel via an inter-dimensional portal from Tel Aviv to a world ruled by the oppressive (and entirely unbiblical) Babylonian Empire. In this dystopian world, depression is a crime. Ella and Yonatan become separated, Ella joining a group of anti-imperial rebels led by the dashing young warrior, Hillel Ben-Shachar, while Yonatan befriends a demon with a penchant for scatological humor and falls into the clutches of the imperial priesthood. In the second book, they discover that their own parents have long been deeply embroiled in the trans-dimension machinations of Babylon, and that the fate of multiple worlds, including our own, is at stake.
Yanai’s decision to set her fantasy world in an alternative Near East is intriguing. Indeed, probably the most fantastic element in these novels is the portrayal of a Middle East throughout which two young Israelis can travel more or less freely. No matter what fearsome monsters, demonic armies, and diabolical villains they have to contend with, Yonatan and Ella clearly come out better than if they were trekking through the Syria, Iran, or Saudi Arabia of our own world on Israeli passports.
Yet these books are not really very interested in the various Near Eastern mythologies they draw from. Yanai does not (at least in the first two-thirds of the series) explore, say, the implications of a Middle East without monotheism, or what it might be like to live in a world in which the transmigration of souls is a known reality. Instead, Yanai’s central borrowing—the mythic battle between the great god Marduk and Leviathan’s Sumerian cousin Tiamat, embodiment of the primal abyss—is used to conduct what seems to be a rather odd polemic against our contemporary psychotherapeutic culture. Babylon is a civilization that seeks obsessively to police, banish, or destroy the powerful, dark, and unpredictable currents in the human soul, represented by Tiamat and the watery abyss. The evil priests of Babylon are described as “soul-doctors,” who use “soul-scopes” to inspect the inner recesses of their patients’ psyches, a process that leaves their patients feeling horribly violated and exposed. The population is kept docile with injections of psychotropic drugs, and those who lapse into depression are sent to therapeutic concentration camps. Finally, it emerges that the Babylonian priesthood is in cahoots with an international drug conglomerate. (Yanai seems to feel about Prozac the way that Philip Pullman feels about Christianity.)
Writing for teenagers, it is perhaps not surprising that Yanai’s heroes are heroic nonconformists. Yet their deepest struggles are expressed in the language of contemporary self-actualization. “Before I can return with you to any human realm and be who you expect me to be,” Yonatan tells the empress with whom he has fallen in love, “I have to deal with who I am.” The empress meanwhile learns that, to fulfill her own magical quest, she must discover that “the abyss is within you … you must jump into the depths within yourself.” Yanai’s former involvement in Israel’s New Age culture—she wrote for a prominent New Age magazine, spent time in a Buddhist monastery in Japan, and edited a volume of literary erotica by women before turning to fantasy—makes itself felt here. In fact, Yanai writes particularly well when she touches the raw nerve of her teenaged characters’ erotic and sexual insecurities. But, as is often the case with such adolescent quests for personal authenticity, the overall process is less than interesting to follow. Her characters display the conventional anti-conventionality of most Disney movies, with girls looking for their princes and boys for their princesses, and everyone singing about how they need to be who they are. I would hesitate to give this book to a teenager, not because there are things in it they shouldn’t know, but because there is little in it that they don’t already.
Yanai’s Babylon trilogy, when it is complete, will sit on a very short shelf of recent Israeli fantasy books, the most interesting of which is poet and critic Shimon Adaf’s Ha-lev ha-kavur (A Mere Mortal). The novel is particularly intriguing because Adaf makes an attempt to base his lyrical and chillingly creepy tale on biblical and midrashic sources. His villain is Amraphel, the King of Shinar, whom Abraham defeated in the Book of Genesis, and who has returned to stalk a southern development town in Israel based on Adaf’s native Sderot. This attempt is disappointingly truncated, though, less an exploration of Jewish sources than, like Yanai’s Babylon, a springboard for concerns purely his own.
We will probably see more Jewish writers producing fantasy, as younger Israeli writers seek to follow global trends, and as younger American Jewish writers shed older instinctive hesitations about the genre. But we will have to wait some time, if not forever, for a genuinely Jewish fantasy work to appear. It may not be impossible, but it will take some audacity and may require more literary stimulation than any anthology of forgotten Jewish mythic materials, such as Schwartz and Dagan have given us, is likely to provide. It would require at least a Jewish education equivalent to the philological and medievalist backgrounds of the Oxford and Cambridge dons Tolkien and Lewis. Perhaps there is some Jewish Studies professor or yeshiva student even now scribbling in a notebook.
Mara Benjamin provides a deeply philosophical account, in loving, sometimes humorous detail, of what it is like to live under the Law of the Baby—and uses it, together with incisive readings of classical Jewish texts, to explore the nature of obligation in Judaism.
Most liberal Israelis once believed the 1990s-era Western narrative about Israeli-Palestinian peace: that the Palestinians would eventually be satisfied with a state alongside Israel, that everyone desired the same kind of progress, that maximalist rhetoric on the Arab side masked more modest goals, and that the Palestinian talk about millions of refugees and their “right of return” to Israel was a starting position that was bound to be bargained away.
I reserve the right to chat with you about all of my reading, whether there be dragons or not.
The long, brutal winters and meaty cuisine of Eastern Europe don’t immediately make one think of garden-fresh vegetarian recipes.