As a reader of fantasy, I know I’ve encountered more mythical creatures than I can count. From phoenixes to centaurs, from unicorns to mermaids, these legendary animals and hybrids have added variety, originality, and depth to the stories I’ve read. But with so many creatures, many of them based on pagan myth, how does an author of spiritual fantasy justify using them in their story worlds?
Well, I’m here to tell you that there is a way, and that way has been demonstrated by well-respected authors of spiritual fantasy such as Tolkien, Lewis, Dekker, and others. First we’ll look at the common usage of these fantastic beasts in mainstream fantasy literature, and then we’ll look at how the pros of spiritual fantasy used some of these same creatures in radically different and meaningful ways.
Mainstream Fantasy Creatures
In modern fantasy like Harry Potter, we have a diverse cast of fantastic creatures. Very often these creatures remain wholly uninvolved in human affairs and live by cultural codes that are mysterious to the human characters whom they sometimes run across. For instance, the centaurs Ronan, Firenze, and Bane from “Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone” show their reluctance to get involved and help Harry get out of the Forbidden Forest, where the terrifying Voldemort is lurking about preying on unicorns. In a similar way, in “Sabriel” written by Garth Nix, the character Mogget, outwardly a large white cat, is [SPOILER ALERT] really a powerful immortal being. Mogget tried to stay neutral in the overall conflict that drives the plot in the Abhorsen trilogy, but is forced to serve the protagonist’s goals. In mainstream fantasy you will find a lot of this kind of moral neutrality in the fantastic creatures, which presents a gray area in an otherwise black-and-white set-up of antagonist versus protagonist.
This brings up another important point. Notice that both Rowling’s centaurs and Nix’s Mogget, though very different creatures, all possess something magical about them. The centaurs claim to predict the future using the stars, a clear reference to the pagan practice of astrology. This practice of theirs is seen as mysterious and even somewhat noble—their stoicism and even apathy in the face of Voldemort’s obvious evil is based on this ‘knowledge’ that they have gained through the stars. Their philosophy is that they cannot change fate, and therefore they must not work against it.
In Nix’s “Sabriel,” Mogget also displays a sort of stoicism, though his comes from his being forced to serve the protagonist although he wishes to remain safely on middle ground. It also comes from being trapped in a powerless state when his true state is immensely powerful beyond description, and this stoicism gives way to violence when Mogget does manage to get free of his prison on a few separate occasions. This shows that in mainstream fantasy, mythical creatures are often given powers and abilities that make them extremely dangerous to both protagonist and antagonist, and the neutrality they claim makes them even more so and represents a view of the world as apathetic and morally gray.
Spiritual Fantasy Creatures
Now, let’s take a look at spiritual fantasy. The first character that comes to mind is Lewis’ classic Mr. Tumnus. Mr. Tumnus has a decidedly more human outlook on life, and though he starts out on the side of the White Witch, he very quickly changes his mind when he meets Lucy and they share a connection through tea and the photo of Mr. Tumnus’s father, who was killed in a war. Here we see a distinct lack of moral neutrality and of any magical powers, and though Mr. Tumnus does not present much of a gray area, his presence and repentance still keep the story interesting and adds spiritual depth that might have otherwise been missing.
Also, in Dekker’s “Circle” trilogy, we have the Shataiki and the Roush, who quite literally draw a distinct line between black and white– the creatures themselves are black and white, representing evil and good, respectively. They represent a world where good and evil are clearly contrasted, though the protagonist himself may be confused; this is a more accurate representation of how the (spiritual) world works and how we as humans view it, rather than the other way around, as mainstream fantasy likes to paint it. They also do not possess any supernatural powers beyond what the ‘creator’ in the story gives them, and the ones that rebel against this creator’s rule are obviously corrupted versions of the high creatures they could have been. This is a clear reference to the angels, who are divided along the line of good and evil, and who all made a choice for one or the other and could not remain neutral even if they had wanted to.
What to Remember
This lack of neutrality is the main thing, I think, that distinguishes the fantasy creatures of spiritual fiction from those of mainstream fantasy literature. And it should be the main thing that helps you determine where your fantasy creatures fit in with your story and your theme as a whole. Do they contribute in their loyalties to the world you are setting up? Do they switch loyalties throughout the story? How do they help or hinder the protagonist?
It’s okay for the creatures to have personal goals that are separate from the plot goals of the protagonist, but every character, creature or not, has a goal and a loyalty to something. And that something, when writing spiritual fiction, will always be connected in one way or another to either the side of good or the side of evil, even if it seems indirect, because that’s simply the way the spiritual world works. If you can remember this, and take advantage of the many facets of good and evil in your story, you can still come up with a stellar, complex fantasy creature who is interesting enough to keep your readers guessing, but stable enough to give your readers a sense of where they will stand in the bigger conflict.
Remember that the world is not gray. It’s black and white, and the gray areas we perceive are only those areas in which our understanding fails us. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you on the next ship in!
Tell me your opinion: What do you think about various mythical creatures you’ve encountered in your own reading? How did you perceive them? Were there any that you particularly liked or remembered? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments below!