The Role of Religious Studies in Fantasy Films: A Literary Analysis of Lyden, Marsh, and Mullen.

Leonard O Goenaga

Professor Vilanova

REL3111 Religion and Film

April 28, 2007

Religion and Film Literature Review

The Role of Religious Studies in Fantasy Films: A Literary Analysis of Lyden, Marsh, and Mullen.

A common error made by critics, scholars, and religious personal is the mistake of tossing Fantasy aside as being the spawn of wishful thinking and sporadic imagination. While some may make this mistake of casting it aside at its face value, Christians sometimes make the greater mistake of labeling it as heresy, evil, and even demonic. Good fantasy couldn’t be any further from these common misconceptions. Fantasy is mainly expressive of the human condition, and it’s many religious undertones. To eliminate the possibility of religion playing a role in fantasy films is to make the mistake of interpreting the film as merely myth, without realizing it’s theological convictions. As Joseph Marty explains in a quotation found in John Lyden’s To Commend or To Critique? The Question of Religion and Film Studies, cinema:

“brings back to life the sense of mystery by making us love what is not immediately perceivable, what is beyond appearance and evidence. It suggest the invisible…Thus, cinema binds us again with the poetic and religious expression of humanity…Everything that is human, every relationship to the world and to nature, treated artistically by the cinema becomes a poem, a tale, a re-reading, a proposal of meaning, a celebration—in short, something that resembles a first religious step.”[1]

This is exactly what high fantasy, through theological and religious evaluation, can resemble to us.  This leads us to ask whether all fantasy films accomplish this, and whether there are exceptions. In addition, we must also ask ourselves how should we evaluate these fantasy films, and whether or not there is an approach that yields the ‘ripest fruits’. Throughout this literature review, we will examine the literary works of Eve L. Mullen[2], John Lyden[3], and Clive Marsh[4] to come to the conclusion that good fantasy may resemble “a first religious step”, as well as there being a particularly beneficial approach to interpreting and evaluating religion in fantasy film (as proposed by Clive Marsh). 

            Before we begin we must define several terms to aid in the understanding of the ending conclusions. As already noted, there seems to be an emphasis placed on the ‘High Fantasy’ and ‘Fantasy’ genre, but how do we define these two? To borrow from’s online encyclopedia, Fantasy is defined as “a genre of art that uses magic and other supernatural forms as a primary element of plot, theme, or setting.”[5] Breaking down this definition, we will look to define Fantasy Films as films with fantasy themes; such as magic, the supernatural, imaginary made-up creatures, and exotic make-believe worlds. Throughout the literature review, we will be discussing two specific genres within fantasy; High Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery Fantasy (also known as ‘Sword and Sandal’). We will borrow again from Reference’s website to define High Fantasy as:

“stories…generally serious in tone and often epic in scope, dealing with themes of grand struggle against supernatural, evil forces. Typical characteristics… include…elves, dwarves, magic, wizards, invented languages, quests, coming-of-age themes, and multi-volume narratives.”[6]

Another genre that we will be comparing and contrasting is the Sword and Sorcery/Sword and Sandal genre, defined as:

“a fantasy subgenre generally characterized by swashbuckling heroes engaged in exciting and violent conflicts. Unlike works of High Fantasy, the tales, though dramatic, focus mainly on personal battles rather than world-endangering matters. Films often set in Biblical or classical antiquity. Often inferior production values, over-the-top acting, and body-builder characters.”[7]

Other fantasy subgenres worth mentioning but not addressing in this essay are Contemporary Fantasy, Historical/Romantic Fantasy, and the after-life inspired Bangsian Fantasy.

            Before we can target a specific way of evaluating religion in Fantasy films, we need to address the issue of what makes a ‘good fantasy’. It is imperative that we discern which fantasies are worthy of religious/theological evaluation, and which should be cast aside as Hollywood fodder. By comparing and contrasting Eve L. Mullen’s article on Orientalist Commercialization with our two Fantasy subgenres (High Fantasy and ‘Sword and Sandals’) we can see which genre should be ignored and which should be discussed later in this review. Let us first compare the types of High Fantasy and Sword and Sandal films. High Fantasy includes The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Chronicles of Narnia, and Harry Potter (in a contemporary form). Sword and Sandal includes films from the 50’s, 60’s and 80’s that usually focus on big burly meatheads like Hercules, Samson, Ursus, Goliath, and gladiators. A more modern example of this genre and it’s character/storyline is Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Sindband of the Seven Sea’s (1988). As Eve L. Mullen critiques in her article, Hollywood takes such films as Kundun, Little Buddha, and Seven Years in Tibet and completely commercializes them. Hollywood takes the Dali Lama’s religion hostage, and portrays it in a way to appeal to moviegoer’s tastes and pockets. Fantasy is guilty of this as well, but not entirely. Mullen’s critique can be applied to the ‘Sword and Sandal’ genre, which was mainly devised to ‘hi-jack’ fantasy into poorly mass-produced, macho-man action movies. Films such as Conan and Sindband do not reflect the complicated storytelling and religion addressing power of High Fantasy, and for this reason the ‘Sword and Sandal’ genre should be treated with as much respect as a GI Joe action figure. Due to this mass-consumerism approach to the ‘Sword and Sandal’ genre, we will ignore it as we discuss High Fantasy and it’s religious undertones.

One other comparison to point out between Mullen’s article and Fantasy is that as Americans we have “suffered feelings of helplessness amidst escalating violence,” and this may be the root of our fascination with High Fantasy. This same situation could offer a psychological explanation for the recent success of fantasy films. Like the Orientalist films, the public enjoys the fantasy settings in film because 1) They allow us to temporarily leave a society in which terrorist fly planes into our buildings and seek to do us harm, 2) Allow us to forget the political issues and leaders of our day (War, terrorism, etc), and 3) Good always win; which may be reflexive on our desire to defeat evil (terrorism) in our modern day society. In addition to these points, films such as The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter clearly discern whose evil and whose good. In The Lord of the Rings, we have a rather dualistic approach to good vs. evil, and can clearly associate the role of Sauron and the Orc’s to Osama and his terrorists. In the case of Harry Potter we can associate Voldemort and his ‘pure-blood’ wizard minions to Osama and terrorists as well. In both films, we can relate to a leader and his associates seeking to disrupt the gentle balance of the fantasy worlds (whether The Shire, Hogwortz, or New York).

We have already begun to address theological issues such as evil, yet how should we go about this? Should we take a theological approach and base ourselves on the proclaimed-truths of one religion over another, or should we seek a universal religious net in which to draw comparisons? We’ve determined ‘good fantasy’ as High Fantasy and not Sword and Sandals fantasy. Now we shall review and respond to John Lyden’s analyzing approach.  We first look at Lyden’s view on popular film. He states that, “popular films tend to be lumped together as ideological, largely due to the fact they are created by a major American capitalist industry which is more interested in profit and producing pleasing fantasies than in making challenging and subversive art films.” Although the ‘Sword and Sandals’ productions of the 50’s, 60’s, and 80’s may fall victim to this analysis, it is ignorant to cast it over the fantasy genre in general. As we will learn, high fantasy can be a creative re-explanation of Christianity and the human condition, and we can see the message of love, redemption, and evil in Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. The message of free will and evil as expressed in both films should merit them worth, and shouldn’t fall prey to what he later calls as ‘another form of elitism’. Even though John Lyden states that “the cultural context…disqualify them [films] from being legitimate sources of values,” Our two fantasy films, both made by major corporations, defy this generalization. When viewed through a Christian theological perspective, both can provide “legitimate sources of values,” and values that can stretch a cultural context. Different cultures and generations can relate to the proclaimed truths of Christianity, and allow us to draw these Christian ‘values’ from the films regardless of our culture or generation. This ability to base our understanding of a film, regardless of ones culture or generation, on a specific theological and religious perspective is key to interpreting a film (as I’m sure Clive Marsh will agree). Lyden continues in his article to define his purpose as being “to point out the danger present in ideological criticism if it is the primary method of interpretation.” I disagree with him because I can see the value in interpreting films for the sake of drawing a modern relationship between Christian themes/lessons in films. Clive Marsh is in agreement when he says in his article: “If I myself…choose to commend a particularly Christian theological framework…I believe that such a discussion is likely to be especially fruitful for the exploration of film.” As we will see when we review Marsh’s paper, Lyden’s stance on rejecting a specific ideological/theological framework isn’t effective in evaluating film. John Lyden first provides us with two approaches (one completely rejecting film, the other a sexist and racist hegemonic discourse), that are equally weak, and his ‘third way’ of rejecting an ideology isn’t especially fruitful, as we will see.

Clive Marsh points out this ‘third way’ weakness when he says “for Lyden to take up the position he has, requires that he be more explicit than he has been, about the value system he inhabits, out of which he is able to undertake the task of ‘commending’ and ‘critiquing’.” He supports this claim by pointing to evidence of this in Lyden’s own article, where Lynden uses his Lutheran background to criticize myth. With this, we shall explore Clive Marsh’s approach to Religion in Film, and then adapt it to a quick evaluation of Fantasy films. Marsh also maps out three approaches to evaluating film, with particular emphasis on “theology in critical dialog with culture” (Marsh). Like Marsh, I disagree with the “theology against culture” approach, and favorable side with the third as being “much practical use to people who believe film has something to offer theological discussion,” (Marsh). The main complaint against Lyden’s approach is that his “position requires greater attention to the particularity/ies implied in the dialogical approach to film he adopts.” (Marsh). And where does this lead Marsh? It leaves Marsh to conclude that he “cannot see any other way forward for a scholar of religion than to dabble in theology.” However, Marsh is not talking about using a broad net of religious knowledge, but that “film interpretation—and the religious ‘use’ of film—draws on particular religious and theological traditions in order to do its work.” (Marsh). One needs to ground himself within the “competing truth-claims of different religious traditions,” in order to really generate criticism that is fruitful and easily evaluated. This is not to say that one person’s theological and religious interpretation is superior because of his religion’s claims, but rather implies that comparing these religious interpretations allows us to determine which interpretations are bad, and which are good. We cannot use a general net of religious knowledge, and freely pick and choose, because “it must be challenged by the recognition that ‘religion’ like ‘myth’ is not reducible and exists only in particular, exasperatingly concrete and diverse forms.” (Marsh). That leaves individuals to “undertake the task of religious interpretation” by “draw[ing] on very particular traditions.” (Marsh).

Once again, we must remember that in no ways is Marsh saying that one religious interpretation of film (say interpreting all films with a Christian perspective) is better than all others. On the contrary, certain are merely more effective than others given a certain film. In the case of The Chronicles of Narnia, it would be extremely foolish to try and examine it with a Buddhist (or Egyptian) perspective. Is this to say Buddhism shouldn’t be used in interpreting film? No. Certain films warrant a Buddhist evaluation, while a film such as The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, should be handled by Christian scholars and theologians. A reason for this is that The Chronicles of Narnia is a film with clearly Christian inspired themes with a Christian apologetic author, and to borrow from Marsh, it would be “especially fruitful”.

We can see this usefulness in comparing our two Fantasy films with two he mentions. The first film he discusses is the “glaringly un-theological character” in Shirley Valentine. This same observation can be made in our Harry Potter film. Upon observation, Harry Potter would be a last place you would find Christianity; much like Shirley Valentine. Harry Potter has often been mistaken for being evil in its use of witchcraft. Yet when one begins to dig deep into Harry’s character, one begins to find deep Christian themes: such as love, redemption, temptation, and sacrifice. One of the leading issues made obvious throughout the Harry Potter films is self-sacrifice for a higher good (Johnston)[8].  In the first movie Ron sacrifices himself during a chess match. In the second movie Dobby (the house-elf) risks his life protecting Harry. In the third film Sirius Black escapes Azkaban to protect Harry. The fourth example of self-sacrifice is in the fourth film where Harry fights Voldemort over Cedric’s body (Johnston). This self-sacrificial theme is the climax of the biblical narrative, and is all too familiar of the loving sacrifice Jesus made on the cross. For an individual to claim that the Harry Potter series is blasphemy or demonic, is to degrade that very same message spoken and acted out by Jesus Christ.  When using Marsh’s approach, we can see beyond the child-appealing storyline of Harry Potter, and begin to see the rich lessons of Salvific Love (Johnston), and how the Harry Potter films retell that old story of someone sacrificing and laying their life down for others (as seen in Harry Potter’s mom). As we see in Harry Potter, evaluating the film from a specific theology (Christianity in our case) can yield the fruits of the gospel’s message in a fantasy and modernized setting.

Another observation done in Marsh’s analytical style is in evaluating The Lord of the Rings and The Shawshank Redemption. Knowing that J.R. Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and with the words ‘Lord’ and ‘Redemption’ in the titles of both movies, we can see these as being “film which invites a ‘religious’ reading of some kind.” (Marsh). Being a practicing protestant, and knowing J.R. Tolkien, I can rightfully assume that evaluating the film in a ‘Christian light’ can be especially fruitful. In a way, as I first quoted, I may find the evaluation to be a ‘religious step’ or even a religious experience. After all, the basis of a relationship with God is in loving Him, and one way this is done is through knowing more about Him. In a way, evaluating The Lord of the Rings can be a form of ‘worship’ or love, in that we’re exploring new ways in understanding Him. Here’s an example of Marsh’s method as done with my Christian theological and religious background. First I could ask myself what can The Lord of the Rings teach Christians about free will and evil? Throughout the films, it is obvious that evil and free will play a heavy role. As we find in the film, two sets of characters can tell us the results of allowing evil to corrupt our will, and the results of following evil. Our first characters are the Orcs. When you follow their storyline, you learn that the Orcish characters used to be beautiful elves, and when they chose to follow Melkor (a fallen ‘Holy One’, think fallen Angel/Satan), they were hideously enslaved and transformed. Their willful decision to choose evil over good left them with a tortured and suffering state reminiscent of those who willfully reject God and destine themselves to hell. We shall define sin as rejecting God’s will for our next example. The Nazguls, also known as the Ringwraiths, were nine men who were given rings of power, but later allowed power to corrupt them. This reminds us of the teaching of Paul in chapter 6 of Romans, where he asks us whether we wish to be slaves to sin or slaves to righteousness.  God gave us freewill when He made us in His image, and breathed His life into us. Just as the nine humans were given power, so were we given power in the form of free will. In the Nazgul’s and Orc’s case, they choose evil (Melkor) over goodness (aka God), and the result of their free-willed selfish decision was their eternal servitude to this evil. In addition to the issue of enslavement to evil, The Lord of the Rings forces us to ask whether evil is a physical force (such as Sauron’s army) which we must battle on a daily basis, or whether our own free will and choices are evil. This couldn’t be made any more evident than in the power of the ring. The ring given to Frodo is the true representation of evil. Although we have a physical face to evil (Sauron), evil is still immensely present in Frodo’s ability to control the ring (aka his will), and the ring’s seductive advances of promising power. Characters ranging from Bilbo, Gandalf, and Frodo feel the temptation of the ring (also could be interpreted as the temptation of sin), and where these three successfully reject the ring’s seduction, one character, Boromir, allows the ring to control him, leading to his death. The ring leading to death if not rejected, can be compared with Jesus Christ’s teaching that choosing sin leads to death. This is an example of how we can interpret Religion in Fantasy Film using Marsh’s approach.

In conclusion, I stand in agreement with Clive Marsh’s closing remarks: First, that “we are indebted to John Lyden for spelling out the approaches he sees at work in the use of film in religious studies.” Lynden’s ideas helped spawn our own connections, conclusions, and remarks, which lead us to strengthen our own interpretation of religion and fantasy films. Second, that “such conversations must acknowledge that theology is necessary within religious studies, and that some understanding of the role of religion/religions is essential for theologians.” This is expressed through the connections made between Christianity’s claims and ideas as found in the Fantasy films we discussed (Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Harry Potter). Without Christianity, we would have a problem effectively addressing and evaluating the two films. Third, “all interpreters of film have to be more upfront about the baggage they necessarily bring to their interpretative task.” This does not mean that our analysis of fantasy films through a Christian lens is a “thinly-veiled autobiography,” or that it’s an ignorant one-sided approach. Rather, it’s an honest hermeneutical-inspired interpretation of film, which can be compared with other ideological interpretations to determine “which ideologies are the least bad, and why.” For these reasons, we can conclude that Marsh’s approach to evaluating religion in High Fantasy films yields the ‘ripest fruits’.  We can also conclude that High Fantasy can act as a window to our modern age in redressing and retelling arcane religious stories in vibrant colorful language.


Works Cited and Footnotes Below


Works Cited 

Johnston, Kristin Kay. “Christian Theology as Depicted in The Lord of the Rings and the

Harry Potter Books.” Journal of Religion & Society. Volume 7 (2005).  28 April

2007. <>

Lyden, John. “To Commend or to Critique? The Question of Religion and Film Studies.”

JR&F Journal of Religion and Film. Vol. 1, No. 2 (1997).  28 April 2007.


Mullen, Eve L. “Orientalist Commercializations: “Tibetan Buddhism in American

popular Film.” JR&F Journal of Religion and Film. Vol. 2, No. 2 (1998). 28 April

2007. <

Marsh, Clive. “Theology and Film in a Postmodern Age: A Response to John Lyden.

JR&F Journal of Religion and Film. Vol. 2, No. 1 (1998). 28 April 2007


Reference Encyclopedia. Wikimedia. 28 April 2007.



[1] Joseph Marty, “Toward a Theological Interpretation and Reading of Film: Incarnation of the Word of God – Relation, Image, Word,” in New Image, pp. 135-136.

[2] Orientalist Commercializations: Tibetan Buddhism in American Popular Film.

[3] To Commend or To Critique? The Question of Religion and Film Studies.

[4] Religion, Theology and Film in a Postmodern Age: A Response to John Lyden.

[8] See Kristin Kay Johnston’s Christian Theology as Depicted in The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter books.


One thought on “The Role of Religious Studies in Fantasy Films: A Literary Analysis of Lyden, Marsh, and Mullen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s