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I Went to Middle-Earth and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

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02/25/2010

I read an extraordinary thing this week. Michael Weingrad, a professor of Judaic studies with excellent credentials, published an essay in the Jewish Review of Books titled “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia.” He makes a number of claims, some insightful, others bewildering, about the Jewish relationship with the fantasy genre. Namely, he claims that while Jews like to consume fantasy, we just don’t write it, and that disappoints him.

First, this assertion is ridiculous. Weingrad claims he “cannot think of a single major fantasy writer who is Jewish,” yet even my mother was able to come up with Neil Gaiman, author of the Sandman comics, American Gods, Neverwhere and Coraline and winner of just about every fantasy and literary award short of the Pulitzer and Nobel. My baffled friends asked why Weingrad was overlooking fantasy giants like William Goldman (The Princess Bride), Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn), Jane Yolen (The Devil’s Arithmetic) and Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are), not to mention Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay), Daniel “Lemony Snicket” Handler (A Series of Unfortunate Events) and Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything Is Illuminated). My only conclusion is that Weingrad has a very narrow understanding of the fantasy genre, contemporary or otherwise, because given the restrictions he places on his own definition, no wonder he can’t find what he wants.

Weingrad asks why we have no great Jewish works on the level with The Chronicles of Narnia or Lord of the Rings. His essay, couched as a double review of The Magicians by Lev Grossman and The Water Between the World by Israeli author Hagar Yanai, fixates on the idea that only Tolkien-lite qualifies as fantasy works. Fantasy, he says, needs to embrace wonder. (Apparently “the supernatural itself does not define fantasy literature,” so Judaism’s long tradition of ghost stories, miracles, magical realism and mysticism doesn’t count for much — though no less a fantasy luminary than Terry Pratchett recognized golems as a pretty great addition to his Discworld series.) Weingrad writes that “religion’s capacity for wonder found a haven in fantasy literature,” and that Judaism in particular has “banished the magical and mythological elements necessary for fantasy.” (I would tell him to read The Jew in the Lotus by Rodger Kamenetz, which explores Judaism through engagement with none other than the Dalai Lama. Judaism is rife with wonder. It doesn’t necessarily look like non-Jewish wonder.)

I Went to Middle-Earth photo

Circa 2002: Early attempts at a Tolkien-Jewish medley

One problem that Weingrad does acknowledge is that traditional high fantasy authors such as Tolkien or Lewis are writing with nostalgia about a position of power. Neither Narnia nor Middle-earth are explored in depth from the perspective of those outside the ruling establishment, which, historically, has not generally included Jews. This raises the first of many questions about Weingrad’s expectations for “a Jewish Narnia” — where does he want his Jewishness? Would it be the only culture in this setting? What kind of Jewishness does Weingrad want? American Ashkenazim from major metropolitan areas are far from the only perspective.

Why does high fantasy have to mean generic northern European, which typically makes Jews complete outsiders? Why not choose a setting like medieval Spain, or ancient Israel, or 18th-century Vilna, or the Caribbean and South America? Jews have incredible histories in incredible places, all of which are rich in unimaginable ways and all of which can shed light on Jewish experiences that don’t get much air time. I’d much rather read about the Khazars, a Central Asian kingdom said to have converted to Judaism in the Middle Ages, than yet another pseudo-English construct. I know I’m not the only one. (Guy Gavriel Kay, another well-known Jewish fantasy author, set The Lions of Al-Rassan in a Moorish Spain analog. I have it on good authority that the novel is fantastic.)

This issue goes deeper than setting, though: Weingrad specifically asks for an epic work that is as infused with Jewishness as Narnia is with Christianity. He argues that Judaism is too skittish about magic to allow for what “should” constitute fantasy (apparently dybbuks don’t count, because they’re too folkloric), and he offers no proposals for what should replace it. He calls Judaism a “sci-fi religion,” intensely modern and driven toward progress, and chides the Israeli fantasy author for creating a world that is “essentially modern, mundane and technocratic, with magical forces and creatures substituting our fossil fuels and silicon chips.”

Weingrad wants enchantment in his fantasy. Narnia ends with heavenly reward: at the end of The Last Battle, all those who believe in Aslan follow him “onward and upward” into the true Narnia, where every day is better than the last. As a statement of Christian theology, it’s a potent representation. But you can’t just plug in “Jewish” qualities to a generic Tolkien-lite story and claim you’ve done your job. Weingrad himself says the feat “would require at least a Jewish education equivalent to the philological and medievalist backgrounds” of an Oxbridge don. Even that formulation, however, is characterizing Jews as outsiders in a non-Jewish, northern European establishment. If you want to say “rabbinic or Talmudic education,” just say it. I don’t think that’s strictly necessary, however.

Here’s my proposal. Let’s tell a story about how Jews love and use stories. I want a fantasy world in which learning and discussion are valued and are used to engage with the world, supernatural or otherwise. I want a story which recognizes that evil isn’t a thing that can just be eradicated because we don’t like it, and so tikkun olam, the repair of the world, becomes the story’s spine. I want a world that concerns itself with justice, and which is always fighting for betterment. And of course I wouldn’t mind a quest or two. I’m a sucker for a good quest story.

In the meantime, I almost envy Professor Weingrad. The fantasy genre, Jewish and non, is so much greater than sword-and-wizard tales, even when they’re deconstructed, as in The Magicians. Fantasy is a way to explore worlds that could not exist in the world as we know it, and he has so many wonderful books to read and enjoy for the very first time.

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