For a few bright shining moments in 1977, a 9-year old boy named Dean Briggs sat in a darkened theater in Tulsa, OK with his jaw on the floor and his heart in outer space. I was watching something too real to be special effects, and too true to be untrue. That night, common cellophane became life-transforming metaphor. By the time my parents had gathered our family around my grandma’s little kitchen table to discuss the various layers of Christian meaning, I had already enlisted in the cause. Without reservation, I joined the Rebellion against the Empire—against a world system led by a fallen, dark lord. Even more than I wanted an Atari (and I really wanted an Atari), I wanted a light saber so that I could destroy minions of the dark side.
Luke became my proxy. Leaving his old life as a sand farmer, he told his new Jedi mentor, “There’s nothing left here for me now. I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father.” We were both making this decision. Complain if you want about the messy theology, or how the various symbolisms don’t line up perfectly with Christianity. Get cranky about it being New Age-y. Whatever. I don’t care.
For me, the story struck a chord that still vibrates into my adulthood. It was near enough to the heart of the matter to become a launching pad for my own faith. I was a devout little boy with a wild imagination that needed fuel. Bless ‘em, the Boxcar Children (or their “Christian” equivalent, the Sugar Creek Gang) just didn’t cut it. Star Wars decisively recast my faith as a mission of cosmic scale and terrible importance. Choosing holiness was no longer merely submission to God, it was wild rebellion against everything else. If I was going to live on planet earth, I was going to be a force to be reckoned with, or die trying.
This is the power of speculative fiction: to focus the mind and liberate the imagination; to form real and symbolic connections about things that matter; to viscerally associate yourself with a desirable, grand-scaled life. I am drawn to stories of such dire consequence that everything must be put on the line or the mission will fail. Hardship is all but guaranteed, yet I am quietly assured, in the end, it will all be worth it. So…beginning with the Bible, fueled by Star Wars, I came to depend on, and therefore trust, only stories of sufficiently epic scale. In print, Tolkien was master of this realm, but he was not alone. In Middle School, The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper supplied another plotline, when thirteen year old Will Stanton discovered he was really an Old One, servant of the Light, one of a mystical race of humans caught up in an ancient, perilous war against The Dark. That’s me, I thought. Or at least that’s what I wanted to be. I recommitted to the cause.
Much later in life when my wife died—leaving me with four young boys and many, empty questions—I did what you’re supposed to do, investing in a dozen or so non-fiction “grief books.” I didn’t finish a single one. Instead, I eventually returned to Patricia McKillip’s Riddle Master trilogy. Having read it many years before in high school, I remembered the agony and confusion of the protagonist, Morgan of Hed, shaped through a series of trials, pain and betrayal into his ultimate destiny over the course of three books. Furthermore, and most important for me, was the shock that occurs when he finally discovered who was at work in the shaping, Somehow, I was reminded of the sovereignty of God. What Morgan endured was somehow necessary. In the numbing devastation of my grief, I found reassurance of Higher Purpose in fantasy. McKillip’s flight of epic fantasy was the only thing that reached me. That and a poor schmuck named Job and a confused, angry fugitive named David.
I write fantasy because I read fantasy. I write it for my own sons, for their journey through the world. I want them to see what things others might miss within the symbolic milieu of life. I want them to be trained: find purpose; find a battle; fight it. Do we need to be rooted in a biblical worldview? Of course. That was never the question. Just give it wings, people. Give it wings.