I am a card-carrying fantasy nerd. Nerds such as I were highly anxious when we heard that Peter Jackson was adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s sacrosanct Lord of the Rings trilogy into movie form. The high praise given to Jackson’s adaptation from nerdy sources was largely due to relief that he hadn’t botched it like we’d feared.
I am also a fairly stereotypical fantasy nerd in that I harbour dreams (read: delusions, we’re good at those) of some day writing my own fantasy epic that will force me to modestly turn aside comparisons to Tolkien’s great work. Of course I couldn’t compare to him (but thanks for stroking my creative ego).
But, as I’ve collected notes and ideas towards a half-dozen or so possible stories, I’ve been increasingly stymied by the fact that most standard tropes within high fantasy (wizards, castles, etc.) are about redemptive violence. The truly good, just, and heroic in this regard are those who wield violence against evil judiciously and courageously, as opposed to the indiscriminate and capricious methods of those who use it evilly.
Aragorn stands as an excellent example of a courageous wielder of the sword against evil. Unlike the corruptible Boromir, Aragorn takes no pleasure in violence and will only exercise his well-honed martial skills when righteousness and the greater good demands it. He seeks no glory for himself, as opposed to Boromir, who can think of little else.
This is all deeply problematic for someone such as myself who is committed to Christian nonviolence. I am highly critical that anything that justifies human violence in terms of righteousness, justice or holiness. I believe that the Cross is God’s final judgement on our sordid history of violence, as there we went so far as to attempt to destroy the very source of our being in the name of righteousness.
Now, the subversion of violence and the exaltation of self-sacrificial love in the mode of the Cross is not without precedent in the fantasy genre. Frodo defeats Sauron not through combat, but rather through a journey based on friendship, self-sacrifice, and a steadfast commitment to doing what’s right and true in the face of seemingly certain defeat. But this is after many battles and much bloodshed that is largely cast in an heroic light. Some subversion of violence is better than none, but why must nonviolence so often be portrayed as an option to be considered when all violent options have been exhausted and deemed ineffective?
To further compound matters, those who resist war and desire peace in the fantasy genre are largely portrayed as non-virtuous weasels who are weak and deluded at best, and—more often—collaborators with the enemy at worst. To stick with the Lord of the Rings examples, Wormwood is one who bewitches King Theoden to desire “peace,” but this is only because of his allegiance to the enemy wizard Saruman. In the fantasy genre, the virtuous are those who have the will to kill the enemy. The exception to this is the Hobbits, who are mostly romantically portrayed as those for whom violence is not an option that would be conceived.
I do not pretend to be an expert on all matters fantastical. I’m sure there are many examples of fantasy that call violence into question and present nonviolence as more than an option to be considered when all violent means have been exhausted. I commend them, wherever they may be labouring in obscurity. But they have not yet made a dent in the genre as a whole, and they likely will not, for it seems that the fantasy genre merely mirrors humanity’s pathological exaltation of violence as the right means for the right people. I will continue to do all that I feebly can to be a part of the people with enough imagination to dream—and write—otherwise, God help us.