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How the Gospel is like Pixar’s Onward, but better

Pixar’s Onward is now top of the Pixar charts for me. It’s a stunning movie, and it seems a terrible shame that its cinematic release was stunted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The movie follows two brothers on a path to re-enchantment; one is a hopeless cynic, the other, his a hopeful, wishful even, older brother who dreams of dragons. It’s a fairy tale that embraces all the best bits of the genre and dares to put forward a message that maybe, just maybe, our modern, technological life has made our view of the world, and experience of it, a little less magical. If you haven’t watched it, I’m not about to spoil it for you, but here’s the trailer.

The younger brother, Ian, grew up without a father, and for one magical day he has the chance to meet his dad; the veil between life and death will be pierced as magic returns to his world (and perhaps, the world at large). It’s a story that follows all the fairy tale tropes as closely as possible; Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ is traipsed with what seems like deliberate care and attention, while the ‘big bad’ is literally, rather than metaphorically, a dragon. And the brothers emerge from their experience transformed, with a new view of life, and even a world transformed by their heroic sacrifice and love. Both are heroes, and it turns out that older brother Barley has been traversing the path of the ‘hero’s journey’ for Ian’s entire life, and his optimistic ‘magical realism’ is vindicated. His desire for dragons reflects a realer reality than an outlook truncated by technology and a myth of self-sufficiency in a closed off world where magic and the supernatural are dismissed as delusions.

Onward is the kind of story emerging with what’s been called ‘the new sincerity’ — the end of cynicism, and perhaps a modern probing into the limits of secular modernity’s closed off universe. Whether or not magic is real, life certainly seems more exciting and the ethical possibilities greater when we live like it is and pursue heroic and costly love. It’s a vivid picture of a growing dissatisfaction with the promises and effects of the technology driven life; and it’s perhaps a delicious irony that the movie is essentially only available via a streaming platform, and made by a company rescued by Apple’s Steve Jobs that produces all its movies with cutting edge computer technology that allows our storytellers to imagine and create such visually stunning worlds.

The story doesn’t simply owe its pathos, or structure, to Joseph Campbell and his myth-making archetype, it is a rich expression of Tolkien’s oeuvre, and his vision for fairy tales in his essay On Fairy Stories.

Tolkien’s essay unpacks the human (or elvish) capacity to create worlds, and sees this as an expression of our created task as sub-creators who are made in the image of a creating God. He sees humanity’s ‘desire for dragons’ — or at least his own — both expressed in the stories we tell and reflecting of deeper, Spiritual truths. And in both his essay, and his writing, saw enchanted stories as a pointed critique of a disenchanted world where we rely on technology to produce ‘progress’ — where technological creation that is not ‘sub-creation’ aligned with the purposes of the creator becomes not ‘elvish’ but orcish — both dehumanising and destructive. In a letter about his development of middle earth he talks about his use of non-elvish magic as a metaphor for technological disruption of the natural world.

By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of the development of inherent inner powers or talents – or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised.”

Then, he describes the role of the Elves…

The Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference. Their “magic” is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation.

And his understanding of evil…

“The enemy in successive forms is always ‘naturally’ concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines; but the problem: that this frightful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others — speedily and according to the benefactor’s own plans — is a recurrent motive.”

The magic in Onward — at least the good magic wielded by the trainee wizard Ian — is the sort of nature-extending sub-creation Tolkien imagines as elvish. It’s about beings discovering and working with the fabric of the ‘natural’ universe. It helps that Ian and Barley are elves. The ‘enemy’ — throughout the story — is the status quo assumption that magic isn’t real, and that the boys must stop and conform to the technological world and its benefits. Right up until the world is confronted with the reality of magic, and that there’s a sinister, beastly, dragon-like (literally in this case) force opposed to life and love, and geared towards destruction.

While Tolkien detested allegory, wanted mythic worlds to be consistent all the way down to the roots of the trees (and so had issues with Narnia for both its obvious Christianity, and the inclusion of Santa Claus and a random hodge-podge of mythical creatures from a variety of traditions), and didn’t think Christianity could be imported into these mythic worlds, or mythic worlds as expressions of human traditions (such that his letter linked above describes a desire for an English fantasy that didn’t contain obvious allusions to the Christian story), he was a Christian writer who saw all fairy stories as innately produced in us as a result of our relationship to the world-building creator, and all ‘fall stories’ and destructive dominion (via technology) as expressions of something in the human condition.

In On Fairy Stories, Tolkien says we want a world where Elvish art, ‘sub-creation’ — a particular sort of magic is possible that is unlike the destructive magic embodied in our tech-obsessed world.

“At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realized sub-creative art, which (however much it may outwardly resemble it) is inwardly wholly different from the greed for self-centred power which is the mark of the mere Magician.”

Onward gets as close to openly embodying this desire. It also contains Tolkien’s most revered feature of a true fairy story — a ‘eucatastrophe’ — the good catastrophe — the joyous turn at the end of a story that makes for a ‘happily ever after’ finish, rather than a tragedy. Again, no spoilers, but the movie is particularly satisfied. For Tolkien all happy endings like this were expressions of the ‘like but better’ true myth at the heart of the universe; the reason the fabric of the universe and this desire for dragons produces these stories almost universally in human cultures is because there is a true fairy story that both produces and ultimately satisfies our longings and desires.

The peculiar quality of the ”joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly): “Ifyou have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.” That is enough for the artist (or the artist part of the artist). But in the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world…

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy story,or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christis the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story ofthe Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.”

Onward is a story that points us forward to the goodness of the true myth; the Gospel of Jesus, that invites us to ponder how our sense of ‘elvish’ sub-creating art and true magic has been obscured by our reliance on our own ingenuity and ability to dominate the natural world with technology, and invites us to consider too that the path of heroism involves a loving act of sacrifice that defeats a dragon and pierces the veil between life and death, not just momentarily, but forever.

It’s a beautiful story, because as a beautiful piece of sub-creation, it draws from and throws light on, the beauty of Jesus, whether it knows it or now.


The author

Nathan loves stories. He gets to tell the greatest story in the world — the story of Jesus — as a job, and to his kids. But he also loves how many other stories help us see and feel our way through the world. And Like But Better is a way to bring these loves together.

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