Saturday, March 6, 2010
Ross Douthat joined The New York Times as an Op-Ed columnist in April 2009. He is the author of "Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class" (Hyperion, 2005) and the co-author, with Reihan Salam, of "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream" (Doubleday, 2008).
In Search of a Jewish Narnia
Why is there no Jewish Narnia? That’s the provocative question raised by Michael Weingrad’s essay on Judaism and fantasy novels, published in the inaugural issue of the Jewish Review of Books.
Ooh, Ooh! I know! Call on me!
It's because Narnia is a made-up place from a book? And there is also no Christian Narnia, or Buddhist Narnia, or any Narnia because that book is fiction?
But really he’s raising a deeper issue, one that goes to the nature of the genre itself: “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 [C.S.] Lewises, and why no Jewish Narnias?”
Um, maybe because Jewish people have better things to do with their time?
maybe the Jewish literary world was too busy producing Howard Zinn, J.D.Salinger, Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer to come up with a Jewish C.S. Lewis?
Fantasy novels tend to involve re-workings and re-imaginings of the medieval and ancient European past, and they’re often shot through with nostalgia for agrarian communities, chivalric codes of social order, and pre-modernity in general. These conceits, Weingrad notes, “are not especially welcoming to Jews, who were too often at the wrong end of the medieval sword,”
And they all swore a pact never to write a fantasy novel. Because there is absolutely no Jewish folklore on which to base such a novel.
Except a quick check of Wikipedia does turn up this:
An example of typical mythology in the Talmud (חולין נט ע"ב - ע"ב, Chullin 59b) exists as a discussion about a giant deer and a giant lion which are both originated in a mythical forest called "Dvei Ilai".
Nope, no way you could write a fantasy story about giant lions in mythical forests!
In Jewish folklore, a golem (גולם; English pronunciation: /ˈɡoʊləm/ GOH-ləm) is an animated anthropomorphic being created entirely from inanimate matter. In modern Hebrew the word golem literally means "rock,"
The most famous golem narrative involves Judah Loew ben Bezalel the late 16th century chief rabbi of Prague, also known as the Maharal, who reportedly created a golem to defend the Prague ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks
Yeah, there's just no Jewish source material for fantasy!
Nobel prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer also wrote a version of the legend. Elie Wiesel wrote a children's book on the legend. [of the golem]
Yeah, but they weren't Jewish, were they? Those sound like Irish names to me.
Part and parcel of Judaism’s resistance to explorations in the realm of faerie, he goes on, is a discomfort with the semi-dualism that’s necessary to classic fantasy — the idea of a Devil figure, in other words, who seems capable of actually conquering the mortal world (be it Narnia or Middle-Earth) and binding it permanently in darkness. As Weingrad notes, correctly I think: “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.” Tolkien’s Sauron makes sense in a Christian universe; he makes less sense in a Jewish one.
Yeah, they totally don't get the whole good vs evil, God vs Devil thing in the Jewish culture. Except. . .
According to historian Bernard McGinn, the combat myth's imagery influenced Jewish mythology. The myth of Hashem's triumph over Leviathan, a symbol of chaos, has the form of a combat myth. In addition, McGinn thinks the Hebrews applied the "combat myth" motif to the relationship between God and Satan: originally a deputy in God's court, assigned to act as mankind's "accuser" (satan means "to oppose"), Satan evolved into a being with "an apparently independent realm of operation as a source of evil" — no longer God's deputy but his opponent in a cosmic struggle.
Hmm, God's "opponent in a cosmic struggle." But also "limited in power" and "rather obedient to God's wishes."
What he seems to have demonstrated is that modern fantasy depends on Christianity, or at least a Christian-pagan synthesis of some kind, for its forms, conventions, and traditions. This suggests that you could write a novel that embodies a kind of Jewish critique of fantasy. . . But the genre itself will remain irreducably Christian, and a truly Judaic fantasy would have to belong to, or invent, a different genre altogether.
A Jewish Narnia, meanwhile, will be nothing like Narnia, and the real question raised by “Why There is No Jewish Narnia” isn’t whether such a work will ever exist—it’s whether Michael Weingard will be able to recognize it.
Actually, I think there are two real questions raised by this essay.
#1--Who gives a fuck whether there is a Jewish Narnia or not?
#2--What the hell happened to the standards at the New York Times?