The Ongoing Debate Over Jewish Fantasy Literature

Jewish Studies Professor Michael Weingrad’s essay “Why there is No Jewish Narnia,” touched off a massive debate over the validity of his claim that there is no Jewish fantasy literature, including my own humble critique. Abigail Nussbaum has posted a helpful roundup of the debate. Weingrad himself responds to his critics here.

Like Nussbaum, I found the response unpersuasive. Indeed, it further undermines Weingrad’s case by pointing out that Guy Gavriel Kay – one of the most prominent fantasy writers of the last 35 years – is actually Jewish (which I didn’t know before). As Weingrad notes, Kay is not only a Jewish fantasy writer, but one who has actually incorporated the issues of Jews and anti-Semitism into his novels, especially The Lions of Al Rassan. Weingrad tries to distinguish Kay’s later work on the grounds that it is “historic fantasy” and not “high fantasy.” But virtually all of Kay’s “historic fantasy” works include such classic high fantasy elements as the use of magic, heroic quests, and a quasi-medieval setting. “High fantasy” and “historic fantasy” are not mutually exclusive categories. Indeed, J.R.R. Tolkien’s work (which Weingrad points to as the prototypical example of high fantasy) incorporated many historic elements from his research on early medieval languages and society.

Weingrad also admits that he “cannot state with any detailed precision what a Jewish alternative [to standard fantasy] would look like.” Without a clear definition of what he means by Jewish fantasy, it is always possible to manipulate the concept in such a way that none of the many fantasy works written by Jewish writers or addressing Jewish-related themes qualifies. Alternatively, Weingrad could define Jewish fantasy extremely narrowly, so as to exclude all of these works. But barring such gambits, I think it’s pretty obvious that there is a great deal of important fantasy literature by Jewish writers, and a smaller but still significant number of fantasy novels that directly address issues related to the Jewish experience. When one recalls that Jews are only a tiny fraction of the population of Britain and the United States (the two nations that produce most modern fantasy literature), there is no underrepresentation of Jews in this field to be explained.