The Fall, Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Promethean vs. Lapsarian Fantasy

Fantasy literature is often characterized as escapist. I think this misses the point. Fantasy is fundamentally concerned with power, and our relationship to it. The fantastic element in every fantasy is power of some kind, either existing in nature or in the protagonist or the antagonist. It may be power of many different kinds, but it is always power, and with that power comes both danger and possibility.

I suggest that there are two major branches of fantasy, which I will call the lapsarian and the Promethean. They differ in how they deal with the dangers and possibilities of power.

The Promethean branch of fantasy sees power as something to be mastered and turned to good ends. I take the name from the myth of Prometheus who stole fire from the gods to give to man. As a punishment, the gods chained Prometheus to a rock with a raven to eat out his entrails. But they could not take fire back from mankind. The power of gods is, on the Promethean view, something dangerous, but something which, with virtue and discipline, can be mastered and turned to a good end. Fire, as in the myth of Prometheus, is the perfect embodiment of this view: a destructive force that, with care and discipline, can be put to productive use.

Prometheus chained to the rock. Salvator Rosa, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The lapsarian branch of fantasy, on the other hand, sees power as something inherently treacherous which can never be turned to a good end. I take the name from Genesis, the word lapsarian meaning something that is concerned with the fall of man — with Adam and Eve’s lapse from innocence into sin. At the prompting of the serpent, Eve takes the apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and gives it to Adam. They eat of the apple, gain the knowledge of good and evil, and are cast out of Eden.

The Fall, Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The knowledge of good and evil is, of course, a form of power. The serpent is explicit about this:

…in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

Here the object is again an instrument of God which man, at the tempting of the devil, steals, on the promise that its power — the knowledge of good and evil in this case — can be turned to good ends. But while fire is a boon to man (though Prometheus is punished in eternity for the theft), the knowledge of good and evil is a curse on mankind. Adam and Eve are thrown out of the garden to suffer all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

The Promethean and lapsarian fantasy thus come from the same root — power stolen from the gods to give to mankind. They differ in the consequences.

The great progenitor of the modern fantasy genre is a lapsarian fantasy: Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The one ring cannot be mastered and turned to good ends. Everyone who tries to master it is mastered by it instead. The only way to deal with it is to destroy it.

The Ring

What is curious is that the majority of the works that follow The Lord of the Rings are not lapsarian but Promethean fantasies. The preeminent example of this is the Harry Potter series in which Harry goes to school for seven years to master sufficient magical power to take on Voldemort. In the Potter books, the fire of the gods can be mastered and wielded by man. The fact that Harry goes to school echoes the lapsarian myth — it is the knowledge of good and evil that he gains through his Hogwarts education. But rather than being thrown out of the garden, he wields his knowledge to kill the serpent.

You don’t have to be thrown out of the garden, the Promethean fantasy says, you can eat the apple and use the knowledge of good and evil to crush the serpent under your heel. No, the lapsarian fantasy warns, that is a dangerous illusion and will only lead you to your own destruction.

Is fantasy escapist, then? I would suggest that any literary work is escapist if it does not deal with its subject matter in a morally serious way. Such a work is, above all else, an escape from consequences. It is war without mourning or destruction or famine or disease. It is love without heartbreak or resentment or disappointment. Thus Great Big Sea sings:

I want to be
Consequence free
I want to be
Where nothing needs to matter
I want to be
Consequence free
Just sing
Oh, nananananananana

Never were the Nananas more meaningful in a song. They blot out the consequences. Escapist literature is literature that is consequence free. But fantasy need not be consequence free. Fantasy, as a genre, is a great debate on the nature of power, seduction, knowledge, love, pride, and humility. Whether Promethean or lapsarian in character, it can deal with these questions in a morally serious way. I’m not sure that it is possible for a lapsarian fantasy to not be morally serious — is there a consequence-free way to say that power cannot be mastered? — but it is certainly possible for a Promethean fantasy not to be so. I’m not, however, suggesting that a Promethean fantasy can’t be morally serious.

Too often, though, fantasy novels have simply eaten of the apple without seeing its dangers. They do then become mere escapism, promising an escape from the finite, humdrum, and random lives we lead through the mastery of power.

It is curious that the great lapsarian fantasy of The Lord of the Rings has given birth to such a vast hoard of Promethean fantasies. But it is understandable enough. For one thing, the Promethean fantasy appeals to something basic in all of us, the desire for power, and our innate trust in ourselves to wield power wisely and well. This is, of course, a temptation and a delusion, but in terms of making a book appeal to the reader, it is a straightforward appeal to something very attractive to us.

But there is a further difficulty for the lapsarian fantasy: how to achieve a happy ending. After all, if the protagonist cannot master the power, but must be mastered by it, how do you pull them out of the fire and save the day at the end of the book? One option is not to pull them out of the fire but to let them burn. This is the essence of tragedy. It is Macbeth. But we live in the age of the self and tragedies are not an easy sell. Another option is deus ex machina — an outside intervention that saves the day at the end. But that is not a popular option either. This leaves us with three options: the power of love, the operation of grace, and the redeemer.

In the lapsarian fantasy, it is generally the smallest and weakest, the simplest and most loving of creatures who is able to resist and to destroy the object of power. Thus it is Hobbits, and Samwise Gamgee in particular, that has the simplicity and innocence of heart to resist the ring, shepherd it to its destruction, and return to normal life. Gollum, who plays his part in its destruction, dies with it. Frodo is fatally wounded in spirit by it and can never return to normal life. Only the simplest and purest can withstand it. Not master it, but avoid being mastered by it. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall see God. There are elements in this both of the power of love and the operation of grace. Indeed, the operation of grace is always a hidden element and usually operates through the agency of love. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s act of love towards Gollum, when he makes Sam spare him, leads to the moment on the edge of Mount Doom in which the ring is destroyed when Gollum takes it and then falls into the fire. This is an operation-of-grace ending, with an act of love to set it in motion.

An example of the redeemer resolution is C. S. Lewis’s, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The protagonist (Edmund in this case) succumbs to the power of evil and cannot save himself by his own efforts. Instead, he is redeemed by the sacrifice of Aslan. This is not Deus Ex Machina, because Aslan is present in the story from the beginning, not inserted at the end to slash the Gordian knot of an irresolvable plot.

The lapsarian fantasy’s distrust of power does not have to be expressed as distrust of all magic. Magic can also be presented as simply a part of the natural order, something to be maintained, but not exploited. An example of this would be A Wizard of Earthsea. This is not to suggest that A Wizard of Earthsea is as strongly lapsarian as The Lord of the Rings. It is far from being so. Like a Promethean fantasy, it holds that power can be controlled by those who learn virtue. Gandalf refuses the ring, as does Galadriel, knowing that despite their power and wisdom, they will be corrupted by it. But Ogion sends Ged to school to teach him mastery of his power. But then Ged’s pride leads him to release a demon and as he flees from it, he comes to the Court of Terrenon where Serret offers him the same temptation that the serpent offered to Eve: a stone that can confer infinite wisdom and power. And here Ged refuses, as Gandalf and Galadriel refuse the ring. Ged finally conquers the demon he has unleashed by naming it with his own name: an acknowledgement of his sinful nature. Ged does not triumph by becoming more powerful, but by becoming more humble.

It should be pointed out that the Lapsarian fantasy does not claim that evil always wins. Rather, it claims that mankind is fallen, and therefore incapable of mastering power without being corrupted by it. This point is made explicit in The Lord of the Rings by the much maligned character of Tom Bombadil. Bombadil is the one creature in the story who can handle the ring without being tempted by it. He is a prelapsarian creature — one living in Edenic harmony with nature. The ring cannot tempt him because he has no interest in what it offers. This point is brought out in the Council of Elrond, where it is suggested that the ring could be kept safe from Sauron by giving it to Bombadil. But no, Elrond says, Bombadil would not be corrupted by it, but by the same token he would not be interested in it, and would probably forget why he was holding it. He has not the knowledge of good and evil, and therefore cannot guard the ring against evil. It is because we are fallen that we know good and evil, and because we are fallen that we cannot trust ourselves with power. Victory is possible, but not through power or mastery, therefore, but through innocence and love.

The redemptive resolution of a lapsarian fantasy, as exemplified by Lewis, is very obviously an artifact of the Christian tradition and the Christian world view. I am not widely read enough to know of any examples in other religious or cultural traditions. I would be happy to hear if there are any. It may be, too, that my entire schema of Promethean and lapsarian fantasy is open to criticism as too much based on the western tradition. It may not fit the fantasies of other cultures and creeds. The Western is the only one I know well enough to comment on. Still, it seems to me that the subject of the danger and possibilities of power must be universal, so if the exploration of that theme in other cultures takes a radically different form, it would be fascinating to see how it was different.

I write this post not merely as a commentary. I have a motive. I have written a lapsarian fantasy, Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight, which is in search of a home. It would be both useful and interesting to know of other lapsarian fantasies with which I might compare it for marketing purposes. If you know of any, please let me know in the comments.

2 thoughts on “Promethean vs. Lapsarian Fantasy”

  1. I have read a somewhat similar claim in an Israeli article dealing with why Jews historically wrote Science Fiction, but not Fantasy. The claim was that Judaism is not Lapsarian. There is no lovely past from which we “fell”, no nostalgia. Judaism is not even Promethean, in the sense that power is not “stolen from the gods” – power, knowledge, is ours to seek out. Not without responsibility, certainly. But it is a sacred duty to make the world a better place; seeking out the knowledge and the power to make that happen are part of that framework. Our hopes are not in the past, but in the future. (Historically, it makes sense – our past stinks. It’s full of pogroms, exile and being second-class not-citizens.)
    Science Fiction too deals with power, with the responsibility that comes with it, with the consequences of misusing it. But the relationship is different.

    1. Of course, yes! Great point. My scheme depends on the notion that power is stolen from the gods. But such as notion is not essential, as you say.

      But then the other half of your point is interesting too. If not regarding power as stolen from the gods is a reason to write Science Fiction rather than Fantasy, could we extrapolate from that to the idea that Fantasy as a genre depends on the notion that power is stolen from the gods. This would save my distinction, but it would extend the analysis to the wider genre of speculative fiction, where Science Fiction represents a third alternative, which is power found by man rather than stolen from the gods.

      Thanks for helping me see that side of it.

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