Why is there no Jewish Tolkien?

Do Jews write science-fiction, while Christians write fantasy?  Why are Jews so well-represented in science-fiction (Asimov, Ellison, Brin, Turtledove), but not in fantasy, where the luminaries include Christians such as Tolkien, Rowling and C.S. Lewis?

In a fascinating essay in the inaugural issue of The Jewish Review of Books, Jewish studies professor Michael Weingrad tackles this phenomenon, which I had never noticed but now seems so evident.

Weingrad concludes there are very good reasons why Jews tend toward SF and Christians toward fantasy. For one, high fantasy tends to be set in medieval times. Christians associate that era with dashing knights and fair maidens; Jews associate it with being burned at the stake. For another, the shadow of the Holocaust made it difficult for Jewish writers to believe in some magical force of goodness, because such a force would have quenched the ovens of Auschwitz.

To put it crudely, if Christianity is a fantasy religion, then Judaism is a science fiction religion. If the former is individualistic, magical, and salvationist, the latter is collective, technical, and this-worldly. Judaism’s divine drama is connected with a specific people in a specific place within a specific history.

Weingrad’s argument has its limits. If there any group in this world that is inclined to be atheist or at least non-practicing, it’s Jewish SF writers. But Jews are an ethnic as well as a religious group, and even non-observant Jews tend to be affected by Jewish culture and history. Weingrad is right to point out that while Christianity is prominent in fantasy such as Lewis’ Narnia, there are no major fantasy works with prominent Jewish themes (golems don’t count – they are more supernatural than fantasy).

My wife is Jewishly observant. I’m not. But when we read Weingrad’s essay, we both had the same thought. Christianity focuses on the hereafter, on salvation, on Armageddon and Apocalypse that will end in redemption. Thus Tolkien’s epic battle between Good and Evil; Good triumphs, and the elves sailing off to Elven Heaven. Judaism focuses on tikkun olam, the commandment to strive constantly to perfect the world. Thus Star Trek, a show quintessentially Jewish (certainly much of the original series cast, writers and producers were), where the theme is of making the universe – our universe, the one that we live in – a better place.

Addendum: Here is a list of SF authors by religion: http://www.adherents.com/lit/sf_other.html

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9 Responses to Why is there no Jewish Tolkien?

  1. libtree09 says:

    I love this observation…I have never heard of tikkun olam but it certainly explains the heroes of Comic books, another gift from the Jewish Community to America.

  2. Michael Roston says:

    It’s a shame, you know, that Mel Brooks never got around to making ‘History of the World Part Two’ where we’d get to see ‘Jews in Space’ and the warp-powered Magen David.

  3. kenya says:

    What is really interesting about Weingrad’s article is the fact that Israelis are making a deliberate effort to encourage fantasy writing – a prize offered, for example. A pity. Despite there being a few good yarns in the genre, it is a candy store for the sweet-toothed snackers, literarily speaking.
    As for why Jews don’t do fantasy – fantasy doesn’t do Jews.(At least as far as I have read.) Jewish characters make too much of a point about themselves to fit into the great dualistic cliches. Makes it hard to avoid satire, let alone suspend disbelief, for a Jew to enter Big Wonderland. Middle-Earth is Judenrein. Is Gandalf or the headmaster of Hogwarts Jewish ? I think not. And, conversely, the “demons” (dark angels, vampires and other monsters) in these worlds are connected – by image if nothing else – with the demonisation of Jews.
    By the way, I have a theory that many of the Klingon words in Star Dreck are based upon Jewish names, perhaps the names of the writers. “Kaplan” – the Klingon for “farewell”.

    • Michael Peck says:

      Conversational Klingon as a Yiddish derivative? Not so far-fetched. Kaplach sounds like something your grandmother would bake.

  4. Considering the amount of both fantasy and science fiction that has been written in the last century and a half, don’t you think that your examples are fairly limited? Did H.P. Lovecraft focus on Christian-based fantasy? What about H.G. Wells’ science fiction? I will admit that most of the Jewish writers I have read are 19th and early 20th century Russians (Babel and Gogal et al) I just don’t think that your (and thus Weingrad’s) argument stands up.

    • Michael Peck says:

      How many of the Jewish writers that you’ve read have been been fantasy writers? The question isn’t whether fantasy is Christian literature. The question is why Jewish writers are far more prominent in science-fiction than fantasy.

      • When I was reading fantasy as a kid (30+ years ago) I can’t really say that I was paying attention to nationality/ethnicity. Now for the most part, I have moved on to other styles/genres of writing. I guess it also means what you define as fantasy. I’m certainly willing to expand my reading list, but are you saying there are no Jewish writers that have done anything fantastic? I include in the realms of fantasy such writers as Borges and Calvino.

  5. Sounds more like Kreplaj, an actual Yiddish food. Small dumplings filled with meat or potatoes.

    There are a few Jews that do write fantasy, Neil Gaiman for example. though no more come to mind.

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