Certain readers in the Christian world believe fiction should be “safe”—safe from swearing, safe from sex, safe from violence, safe from sin. That is, when we read a book, we should get straightforward morals, nothing too scary, and a happy ending.
In contrast, readers in the general market see sex scenes and swearing as fair game, even in young-adult novels. They often expect endings to be ambiguous and grim. Many stories are nihilistic and many heroes are morally gray, because that’s considered more “real.” This popular genre trend is known as “grimdark.”
Yet when we look back at the founding father of fantasy fiction—himself a devoted Christian—neither “safe” fiction nor grimdark feel like good descriptors. Where exactly do we fit J. R. R. Tolkien?
Hobbits as heroes
Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings lacks swearing and sex scenes. While the epic is full of war, none of the books dwell on gore. Yet people die. The power of evil seems overwhelming. Hope feels distant, and even good people are corrupted.
Still, despite that overwhelming evil, the ends never justify the means. Gandalf does not become truly “gray” by embracing the dark power of the One Ring to defeat Sauron. Aragon does not depose weak leaders in Rohan or Gondor to better prepare the people for war. Frodo does not kill Gollum despite the danger Gollum poses.
Perhaps strangest of all, The Lord of the Rings’ greatest heroes are not knights in shining armor. They are hobbits—small, kind, simple folk, whose joy and resilience make greater difference than any warrior’s blade.
In 2017, fantasy author Alexandra Rowland coined the term “hopepunk” to describe a genre that was both realistic and hopeful:
Hopepunk says that kindness and softness doesn’t equal weakness, and that in this world of brutal cynicism and nihilism, being kind is a political act. An act of rebellion.1
That’s the kind of story Tolkien told—a story unafraid to show evil in the world, yet also unabashedly hopeful that goodness can overcome it.
The shadow of death and the candle of hope
As the publicist for Mountain Brook Fire, I’ve had the opportunity to work with several speculative fiction authors who share Tolkien’s vision, and they have truly inspired me with their work. Take Bradley Caffee for example. Bradley has walked through his own valley of the shadow of death—pastoral burnout—and it deeply influenced the fiction he reads and writes. Here’s Bradley’s story in his own words:
Looking back, I now see that I lived my life on the false premise that a life lived well for God would avoid hardship. I honestly believed that if I devoutly remained close to God and steadfast on the mission he’d given me, then I would successfully avoid true, life-altering trials.
Then, it all came crashing down. Despite my best efforts, I lost my career. I watched as my once loving church treated my exit from ministry like an ugly divorce, tossing me and my family to the curb. I questioned my calling. I wondered about my future. I doubted my salvation.
God, hadn’t I followed you? How could this happen?2
If we have faith that only expects green pastures and still waters, we will struggle to see God in the valley of the shadow of death.3 Too often, that valley isn’t acknowledged by the Christian community or in Christian fiction. Yet as Bradley wrestled with these dark questions, he found hope through reading and writing in a genre that seems the very opposite of hope: dystopian fiction.
I can’t get enough of dystopian fiction. Something about characters who flourish in the pressure-cooker of a future world that wishes to squash them has always inspired me. Seeing someone, even someone fictional, throwing off the oppression that works so hard to keep them in line and freeing others to do the same hits a soul note that lights me up from the inside out.
To be honest, there are dystopian books out there that really don’t end on a very positive note. After all, this genre is about “the world as it shouldn’t be.” But in dystopian, there is also an incredible opportunity to show how brightly light shines in darkness. A single candle may not seem like much, but imagine how brightly that single candle shines when surrounded by pitch blackness—and imagine how far that light can reach.4
So, that’s the kind of dystopian stories Bradley writes: a world of darkness where the smallest acts of goodness shine bright for all to see. A world full of trouble, yet one that inspires us to take heart—because it has already been overcome (John 16:33).
Carrying the light
At Mountain Brook Fire as well as at Lorehaven and in the Christian spec-fic community at large, we have the chance to carry on the torch—or perhaps a candle. In a world split between those who embrace darkness or attempt to avoid darkness, we can uplift the stories that carry light into that darkness. One candle of imagination can light another, then another, then another, so that every spark of hope reminds us of the light of the world, the greatest hope of all.