The Lie of Realism

Small Talk — 2013 National Conference

The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis

I’m here to talk to you about C.S. Lewis for 10 minutes. I kind of like this format. It’s a hit-and-run kind of thing, so I can throw it at you and then I can do the mad dash and then somebody else can hit you before you realize what happened.

The Lie of Realism

The Lie of Realism is what I’m talking about. This is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart because I write fantasy novels. I live in the same literary ghetto where Lewis does. Lewis was always criticized for not doing serious things. He has one great big serious book, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama. It’s a big, fat book. And he finally did that just to get people to shut up, to show that he could do serious academic things if he really wanted to. So he thought, “Fine, there you go, take it.”

But Lewis wrote fantasy stories, not because he was immature, not because he was childish — although he was in the best possible way— but he wrote fantasy stories because he thought (correctly) that that’s what the world was actually like. The lie of realism is that somehow we’ve let people name important fiction in which there is no soul, no spirit, no supernatural, realistic. In “realistic” fiction (realism), there can be no magic.

But more importantly, there can be no supernatural. There can be no God in realism. There cannot even be a soul to the character. The character cannot have a spirit, cannot have a soul, and nor can anything else. But when you look at the stories that God wrote, not just the stories he told in the natural world, which are rich with crazy, but the story, the actual book, what do you have in the book? The Book of Judges is where superhero stories were invented. Here’s a guy with crazy long hair, an unfortunate weakness for women, and a jawbone. Then there’s a little throwaway about Shamgar, another guy like that who apparently kills a thousand people with an ox goad.

What about David? How does David become famous? He’s a giant killer. Okay, here we go. More realism. The giant comes out with six fingers, and he’s huge. Okay, great. Look at the stories that are actually told by God and then look at what we call realism. Someone might say, “Oh boy, I wish Lewis had written some realistic fiction.” Well, he thinks he did. That’s why he wrote it that way. He wrote The Chronicles of Narnia the way he wrote it, and he wrote The Space Trilogy the way he wrote it, not because he thought, “Oh, this world is so boring. I’m going to make something up that’s more amusing to me.” Rather, he wrote it as a tribute to this reality as an imitation of the same kind of reality that God created. He was paying tribute. He’s trying to get people to look, to open their eyes to see the amazingness of the world that they’re in.

Amazed at the World Around Us

When I talk to school children, I say, okay, our dwarves sucked up a bunch of black goop from inside this planet. And, oh yeah, the planet. We’re on a rock, made mostly of molten lava, flying through outer space at about mach 86 right now. We’re just humming really fast. And we’re also going around like a yo-yo being swung, around a ball of fire in the sky. That’s our setting.

Okay, so go with me now. We’re on a ball of rock flying at mach 86 throughout outer space around a ball of fire in the sky. What kind of story are we telling? We’re immediately in the sci-fi fantasy section of the bookstore, embarrassed, hoping none of our really academic friends will see us. That’s this world.

Inchworms wriggle around like little corpulent pills, eat your apples, and then turn into liquid. They liquify and become moths. How does that happen? I tell people all the time, we don’t just lie to children. Caterpillars really turn into butterflies. They actually do. They move around eating and everything like a little kid’s book. And then for my next trick, I will turn into a soup — full on liquid. And I will now reconstitute myself as a gentle flying object.

This is this world. This is a fantasy world. It’s a crazy fantasy world. And this is why Lewis wrote what he wrote. I can’t tell you how many Christians I’ve talked to who say, “Well, I love his non-fiction, but fantasy — I just wish he wrote some serious stuff.” And I think, well, say the same thing to God. Tell him, “I wish you’d do some serious stuff because I’m seeing a lot of beatles. There are ants everywhere. What are you doing? Could we do something serious? We need more college professors.” And at that, we very quickly realize we don’t need that at all. Lewis looked at the world. He was amazed by the world. He loved the artisanship and personality that was in every corner of this world, and so, he imitated it.

The Extraordinary Truth

Where is the first wizard battle in all of literature, a wizard duel. Harry Potter versus Voldemort is in a grand and very lengthy tradition, and it all goes back to when an old dude walked into the court of an emperor in Egypt a long time ago, leaning on a stick. And oh my goodness, it was a magic stick. That’s the first one.

And then even more beautifully, contrary to what modern people who really want it to be realistic would say, they magicians of Pharaoh could imitate it. Modern people would say, “Well, the magicians of Pharaoh, they kind of cheated. It was a sleight of hand. It was like a card trick, really.” What does the Bible say? The Bible said that those guys could turn sticks into snakes. They actually could do it. They could actually turn water into blood. That’s as freaky as it gets.

They thought, “I’m going to turn this stick into a living, slithering serpent.” And Moses says, “Okay, well mine’s going to eat yours.” That’s the world in which we live. Moses turned a river into blood. Moses called down an angel of death, and this is when he starts playing for real. And he gives the people of God a talisman to defend themselves to be passed over. Hello, fantasy novel.

If you submit this to an editor, he’ll say, “Well, this isn’t realism. So I mean, maybe you could send it over to the people who stick their books in the grocery stores. Go over there.” And Lewis and Tolkien understood that the world really is this way. This is how God told it and they imitated it. This is a world in which a man walked on water, in which bread came from heaven, in which bread always comes from heaven, in which we’re still held by God, rocketing around a ball of fire in the sky.

The Unrealistic World Around Us

This is our world and, fortunately, it’s not realistic. Our world is not realistic at all. Check out a frog sometime. It’s just not realistic. I don’t know why God expects me to believe that at all. What about a dragonfly? Really? It’s an insect that’s jet-propelled when a baby underwater, gulping water spraying it out of its hind quarters. It’s a little jet engine. That’s how it swims really fast, eating juvenile mosquitoes. And then it does what? It climbs up a piece of grass, splits open its back, and has a completely different creature crawl out. Really?

And this one is built entirely differently. It’s the only winged insect with piston engines joined to its wings. It’s like there are four wings, individually piston fired. And they have 360 degree vision. What? What is this? How did this happen? By accident? No. But realism is a lie. It’s a profound lie. And Lewis isn’t our little vice as Christians. It isn’t like, “Well, we like Lewis because he said good things in non-fiction. And these are good for children.” These are good for us because the world is wonderful. It is fantasy. It’s not realism as we would call it. And we need to get our eyes open and be more childlike the way Lewis was and the way all the saints in heaven are now.

I’ll leave you with one last thought. If the gates are made of pearls in heaven, do you know what pearls are made of? Right. Envision those oysters.