A Jewish Narnia?

Okay, this is fascinating. In a new publication called The Jewish Review of Books, a writer named Michael Weingrad asks, why is there no Jewish equivalent of J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis?

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?

Weingrad has garnered some criticism for this essay, because his argument is circular: he either ignores existing Jewish fantasy writers (Michael Chabon, for one) or he excludes their work from the definition of fantasy (Isaac Bashevis Singer, Cynthia Ozick, Siegel and Shuster). Basically, he’s saying, why aren’t there more Jewish writers of Christian allegorical fantasy?

That’s like asking, why don’t more rock bands play classical music? The answer is (1) because then they wouldn’t be rock bands, and (2) some of them are playing the equivalent of classical music — music that is complex, structured, melodic — but you refuse to see it as classical music because it doesn’t fit your definition of it.

Similarly, Abigail Nussbaum critiques Weingrad:

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with introducing Jewish window dressing to traditionally non-Jewish genres… but that’s not Jewish fantasy, and Weingard… does not seem to acknowledge this, or the fact that… there are already plenty of Jewish writers producing the kind of fantasy he’s talking about.

In Weingrad’s defense, I think he means his essay to be not a polemic but an open-ended exploration. Here is one of his own answers as to why there aren’t more Jewish fantasy writers:

[W]e 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.

Another blogger, Samuel Goldman, agrees with him:

In the first place, the landscape of most fantasy novels is essentially the numinous forest of the Teutonic Dark Ages. It is not so much a Christian world as a world on the cusp of Christianity: a pagan Götterdämmerung.

I like this. And “the numinous forest of the Teutonic Dark Ages” is particularly evocative of the possibly antisemitic Wagner, specifically Parsifal or the Ring cycle (speaking of Götterdämmerung). Or perhaps it evokes those other German fantasists, the Brothers Grimm: Hansel and Gretel, say.

But of course, Jewish European folklore has mystical beings and supernatural occurences; Isaac Bashevis Singer was fond of this kind of thing, wasn’t he? And Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay features a golem early on.

Goldman goes on to say:

Jews can, of course, appropriate this setting for literary purposes. But I don’t think it has the same imaginative gravity that it does for Christians. Similarly, the warrior values that animate a lot of fantasy are not traditionally Jewish. One could, I suppose, write a story around around a learned rabbi -– but surely that would not be as interesting as one focused on knights, errant wizards, and chieftains of mounted hordes.

One of his commenters disagrees, pointing out that biblical history contains numerous Jewish warriors. But, I say: what about those wizards? What’s more stereotypically Jewish than a scholar of ancient lore who casts ingenious, mysterious magical spells to make up for his physical weakness? Isn’t Merlin kind of Jewish? Isn’t Gandalf kind of rabbinical?

Going back to Abigail Nussbaum:

Weingard touches only lightly on the real-world factors that discouraged Jews from exploring the fictional avenues that Tolkien and Lewis did. To put it bluntly, there is no way that a Jewish writer working in the early decades of the twentieth century could have produced The Lord of the Rings, a work steeped in a yearning for a lost pastoral world that Jews, who have for various reasons tended to congregate in urban and commercial centers, would have had little or no experience of.

I don’t necessarily agree with this: Fiddler on the Roof and, again, the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer are surely “steeped in a yearning for a lost pastoral world.” But her larger point is valid: “A Jewish Narnia… will be nothing like Narnia.”

Another reason Weingrad says there are so few Jewish fantasy writers is because Jewish philosophy doesn’t contain a very strong concept of good vs. evil, or dualism:

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.

Or, as Ross Douthat puts it:

Tolkien’s Sauron makes sense in a Christian universe; he makes less sense in a Jewish one.

I think that’s rather brilliant.

(Speaking of Douthat, I found out about this whole discussion through his blog post, and now I’m kind of curious about a sci-fi writer he mentions: China Miéville, who apparently writes novels that are “a kind of Marxist critique of Tolkien.” I don’t know if I’ll get around to reading him, but that idea intrigues me. I like the idea of literature that comments on other literature. I guess I’m a fan of postmodernism.)