‘Why There Is No Jewish Narnia’

I hope if you have five or ten minutes today that you will read ‘Why There Is No Jewish Narnia’ by Michael Weingrad in the Jewish Review of Books. I know very little about Judaism, but what Mr. Weingrad argues in his discussion of why there isn’t a Jewish fantasy tradition to speak of, confirms what I think to be the case about the origins of the English High Fantasy literary stream post Coleridge.Mr. Weingrad writes:

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. [my emphasis] 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.

As I’ve argued here before, I think that the English fantasy tradition grows out of a Coleridgean, anti-nominalist, even sacramental determination to subvert modernity (empiricism, materialism, industrialism, etc.). Weingrad’s thesis about the dearth of Jewish fantasy writers being a consequence of Jewish intellectual fidelity with the modern revolution and worldview is compelling.

On the Christian side he isn’t as good. He mistakes the power of myth experienced through the transparency of Romance (as Frye defines it) for “otherworldliness,” which suggests that Christians are looking to escape from the world through portal fantasy-writing for a short vacation in the Middle Ages. As Tolkien scholar Ralph Wood writes, high fantasy is not about escaping out of the world but into it, which is a sacramental idea springing from traditional panentheism (God is both entirely other and transcendent and nearer than our breath, completely imminent). This might also be a worldview issue that makes Jewish fantasy writing problematic. I don’t know enough about Judaism to have any idea.

The article also has no little insight about Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, which he reads as a Jewish meditation on Narnia and the fantasy genre in general. I don’t think Mr. Grossman would self-report as a “Jewish writer,” but his experiment in crossing the psychological novel and portal fantasy, if read as Weingrad suggests it can be, does offer a fresh perspective on the best new novel I read last year. [More on The Magicians here.]

Again, please read ‘Why There Is No Jewish Narnia’ and let me know what you think.


  1. Pretty interesting ideas here John. At the same time, Jewish mysticism in the form of Kabbalah strays from “traditional” Judaism and yet is welcomed as a highly esoteric understanding of the most traditional Judaism. The Kabbalah certainly flirts with some “fantastical” ideas. Also, I need to think about this more as far as literature goes. But when it comes to theater and film there is no shortage of Jews involved in fantasy. Perhaps you’re not a Spielberg fan or wouldn’t classify him as straight up fantasy but I think there’s a pretty strong case to be made that the roles that Jews have played in entertainment has been profound in terms of that which is fantastical. And there are “very Jewish” reasons why this is the case.

  2. Arabella Figg says

    Yes, I too thought of films, Andrew. I would enjoy your enlarging upon the “very Jewish” reasons for this.

    Great article; I’d never really thought about the subject, although I’ve enjoyed many Jewish SF writers, especially those of the Golden Age.

  3. There’s so much to say on why the fantastical is so Jewish. First off, it’s obviously not true that Jews own the media. That’s a terribly inaccurate and dangerous stereotype. But there are a disproportionate number of us in every facet of entertainment. And why? Well, when a culture is persecuted for a long group of time they develop ways of coping. For Jews, one of those coping mechanisms has been humor. And not just any kind of humor. A kind of refugee humor that allows us to laugh at our current situation – which means laughing at ourselves as well as those in positions of power as they have generally been the source of horrific persecution that we have been subjected to. We got to this country surrounded by immigrants who were quite frankly new to the whole refugee deal. But we weren’t. We were old pros at it. Being a refugee was built into our very cultural DNA. Our entertainment, our style of humor had been developed over centuries and it spoke to what many refugees were experiencing. This is the same humor that permeates so much of what we see in popular culture: Woody Allen is the big obvious example as he is so directly linked to the old way. Further, Woody Allen is so based in tropes of magical realism that to think that Jews don’t engage in fantasy is a bit silly given how fantastical Allen’s work is.

    When Jewish film makers helped found Hollywood, it was their films that resonated most deeply with the American concepts against tyranny and rooting for the under dog. Did Jews do this because they were embracing modernity? Perhaps the movie part was an embrace of modernity but Jews’ highlighting the under dog was nothing new. That is ancient to every facet of our culture and our history. It has come out in our comedy, it has come out in our movies. And these aren’t small time movies. These are big movies that have changed the way storytelling is done. Both the Jewish affect on humor and film has permanently changed the American approach to humor and film and in doing so the world’s approach. When I see this, I mean to point to positive changes. Perhaps we aren’t known for the kind of fantasy that originates in a country (England) who murdered and kicked us out in the name of Christianity (which obviously was anathema to their witness). So yes. It would make sense that a distinctly British fantasy did not emerge. It was a distinctly Yiddish fantasy that did. And it’s not confined to the brilliant Lev Grossman but to the imaginative minds and spirits of so many of our greatest story tellers who have used the symbolism of fantasy to tell a story that is distinctly Jewish: often about a nerdy and intellectual book reader whose world does not understand them and unlocks a world of fantasy that frees and liberates them, but consistent with the social justice element of Judaism, Tikkun Olam (“fixing the world”) liberates and renews the soul of the world, even of those who are in the role of persecutor.

    It is difficult to make this argument that Jews do not engage in fantasy, even the kind of fantasy that involves elves living under mushrooms while a young prince pulls a sword from a stone because so much of literature does indeed have Jewish roots – often hidden. Early modernists like Karl Marx (if you could classify him as such) and a bit later like Einstein and Freud are only some of the examples. And that’s not even touching on the fantasy so much as the application and interpretation and exploration of human fantasy on various facets of reality and life.

    But the distinctly Jewish love for questioning and doubting and arguing with the Higher Power is something that lends itself to imaginative questions and thinking. It’s not the same as the tradition that John is discussing but the fantastical in Judaism is rich, alive, and permeates our world’s stories on every level. So much so that many have viewed Harry Potter itself as in many ways a Jewish allegory. Not intentionally, but it does tell a story that works within that framework. Further, much of the ideas in Christian alchemy are not foreign to Jewish mystical concepts. So this is a pretty big and rich field when discussing the complex and rich culture and history that makes up Jews across the entire world and difficult to draw complete conclusions from.

  4. I initially poo-pooed the suggestion that there was not a strong body of Jewish fantasy literature. Bruno Schulz, Franz Kafka and numerous other eastern european authors immediately sprang to mind. However, Weingrad dismisses these writers because, as I understand it, they don’t write about other worlds in a way that children would necessarily enjoy. Rather, they write about the fantastical nature of this world, or more specifically, the nightmarish quality of a world where everything that you thought you knew has disappeared and been replaced by things you don’t understand. This isn’t a depiction of a fantastical world that you’d love to enter into (if only for a little bit). It’s a depiction of a world we can’t escape from. I am way too ignorant of Jewish culture and literature to claim that this is a “norm” for Jewish fantasy writing. However, I think that your post and Andrew’s wonderful comments raise a whole boatload of fascinating questions. I would love to hear more from both of you on them.

  5. Good poins Carrie! But there’s also Maurice Sendak. The world of the wild things is not simply a reflection of Kafka-esque angst (though admittedly, it is in there). And really, Sendak is only one of many, many examples. I do find this a fascinating issue. I just don’t know if it’s asking the question in an accurate way. I think a far more accurate question is not why Jews don’t have fantasy, because we do, so much as if, how, and where fantasy from Jewish culture is unique from other cultures and then trying to understand why. This is a realm of discussion that I can only make a small contribution towards. I am Jewish but am not a scholar on this subject and it’s a pretty ridiculously big and rich subject!

  6. Fascinating comments, Andrew. I appreciate your perspective, and the depth of thought you’ve given to this question. After reading Weingrad’s article, I actually made the argument that the ‘Christian’ roots of fantasy and sub-creation actually go back to the Torah, and to doctrines that Christianity inherited from Judaism–the creation of humanity in G-d’s image, the Fall, and so on. You’ve certainly given me a bit more to think about.

    John–in re my thoughts on ‘Why There is No Jewish Narnia’, http://mrpond47.wordpress.com/?s=Weingrad

  7. Another component, which may be mentioned in the original piece, is that Jewishly-informed Jews who write general literature Jewishly – are and were often apostates (early Israeli authors that Israelis now ‘struggle’ with understanding and even now in a sense, with the recent crop of american Jewish authors, Englander, et al)! The examples which he seems to use (I WILL b’n read the original piece), are Tolkien and Lewis, Christian mythopoeic authors, master ACADEMICS – renowned for their religious conviction – Lewis of course even a skilled apologist (who married a jew, one of whoms sons was a Baal Teshuvah for a time; Lewis even kept a ‘kosher’ kitchen for him for a time after his mothers death). I think the circumstance of modern literature militated for apostasy (reactionary tendencies against transcendence, adherence to novelty and newness of science, etc), or assimilation (Jewish ignorance, absorption in non-Jewish culture at expense of Jewish), by Jews if they were going to be published and read. Aggadah, Midrash, Kabbalah, etc, had it tough for years in the West under the influence of Western European Jewish rationalism (wissenschaft, etc), and the reactionary Talmudic culture which sought to match the “academic” culture of the rationalism (all the way down to the suits, hats, coats now the hallmark of the yeshivah world – which the academic world has dispensed with). when Aggadah, Midrash, Kabbalah DID come back, it was under academic treatment by Buber and Scholem and their tendentiousness. The consumers often not informed by Jewish experience as much as academic detachment. Scholem himself literally REFUSED the opportunity to learn from living streams of the “fantastic” (when the rosh yeshivah of Bet El said he would be accepted as a student if he didn’t ask questions; Boaz Huss’ article “Ask No Questions”). he stuck to interpreting and reading BOOKS, not engaging people or communities.

    Relying on Buber and Scholem for the source of meaning of Aggadah, etc, instead of living, reading interpreting communities is not unlikely solely relying on Joseph Campbell (yemach shmo – he was a quiet but committed anti-Semite), for mythology and symbolism.

    Scholem’s reading of books instead of engaging in the “kabbalah” of Kabbalah (transmission, passing on; student/teacher, consumer/producer), might relate to how Jews are VAST consumers of fantasy AND sci fi – fandom, geekdom are very Jew-compatible. (just off the top of my own head, “Clan MacIvri” at Pennsic, Minyan at Worldcon, matzah at BaltiCon…)

    What I think is interesting now is that many people I knew who grew up religious of the Gen X era and react against it DON”T go in for the sciences, for the “this worldly” stuff – lots of english lit majors, “Critical theory of whathaveyou” majors, lawyers, etc. Abstract stuff. Back at the onset of modernity, freedom from the Rabbinic communal yoke and powerful ideologies drew Jews away from an already-faltering communal observance, now powerful ideologies are gone.

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