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November 18, 2017 | ‎כ״ט במרחשון ה׳תשע״ח‎

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How Reading Fantasy Novels Helped Me Understand Creation

How Reading Fantasy Novels Helped Me Understand Creation

As a child, I was taught a very literal interpretation of how our universe came to be. Every single thing that would ever exist was created in six days. First, there was light, then land and sea, plants, planets, and animals.

Then I learned about evolution: how creatures and plants adapt to their environments, how changes occur slowly over time, how only the most resilient and versatile survive. I liked believing that I was created by a loving G-d, but I also acknowledged the importance of science and of understanding the world around us.

I lived with these contradictory truths. I didn’t want to question science, which I knew was carefully tested and proven. I also didn’t want to question my religion, my lifestyle, and everything that I knew to be true because that was how I lived.

My parents and teachers taught me to believe in G-d. They taught me our rich and beautiful Jewish traditions, our history, and our connection to one other as a nation and as a family. Science and religion coexisted within me, sometimes comfortably, sometimes in conflict.

Contrary to all of that, growing up, I absolutely loved reading fantasy. Physics-defying magic and biology-defying creatures existed alongside Greek and Norse gods, witches who practiced blood and bone magic forbidden by Torah, and all kinds of things that could never exist in our world.

I loved suspending my disbelief for hours at a time, and completely immersing myself in rich, detailed worlds in which unlikely heroes made friends and rode dragons and put their lives on the line to save the people they love.

Jewish books never satisfied my wild imagination. They weren’t written well enough, the stories were simplistic, and the characters were one dimensional. So I continued, on one hand an observant Jew, and on the other a rabid reader, leading a thousand lives of power and bravery and wonder.

We all live in contradiction. Synthesizing ancient knowledge and modern life is not easy. Neither is taking a rulebook and making each tradition meaningful for every individual. Don’t kill, don’t steal? Sure. No problem. Shake a group of plants, don’t cook for a day, dress a certain way? A little more complicated to live with.

But the answers exist if you keep looking. That’s what my mother told me. And sometimes the answer that makes sense to you isn’t the answer that works for your friend. Ask questions. Keep searching until you’re satisfied. I did. And I discovered that sometimes breakthroughs of understanding could come from unexpected places.

One of the questions that bothered me for a long time came from the Creation story. Was everything really created in those six days? What about technology that didn’t exist three years ago? If you showed Moshe Rabbeinu an iPad he wouldn’t know what to do with it, even though he was an expert on tablets.

Imagine explaining the internet to Bruriah, showing Rambam how to use Snapchat, or teaching Devora Haneviah basic road safety. Their lives and ours are literally worlds apart; we may as well live on different planets. Good thing, then, that I’m an expert on other worlds.

One of my favorite fantasy series is called Mistborn. It’s about a street urchin and a professional thief plotting to steal from the evil Lord Ruler until he can’t pay his armies. It’s awesome.

Mistborn. Image courtesy of GoodReads.com.

While most fantasies take place in an approximately medieval European setting with creatures such as unicorns, dragons, and goblins, this author, Brandon Sanderson, is known for his unusual and inventive settings. In this particular world, volcanoes throw ash into the air in a constant flurry, while nobles and slaves alike cower in fear of what lurks in the mists.

The most interesting aspect is the magic system, called Allomancy. Magic users, or Mistborn, have the ability to swallow different metals and receive corresponding abilities. Tin enhances the senses and pewter strengthens the body. Steel allows one to telekinetically push against any metal, corresponding to one’s weight. A coin will be flung away but a lamppost can be an anchor for flight.

I spent plenty of time reading and watching interviews with Sanderson, and learning about how he designs his worlds, his plots, and his characters. Many of his books take place in the same overarching universe, on different planets at different times.

I was fascinated. A few times he mentioned that he planned Mistborn as three trilogies*. The first takes place in a technology level of approximately the 19th century. There are cities, horses, and carriages, and servants who manually clean the ash off important buildings.

The second planned trilogy is to take place in a technology level similar to earth in the 1990’s. The third trilogy will use the magic as a function for space travel and connect all of the worlds from the different series.

My mind was blown. Pushing on metal, enhancing the senses… it’s a lot of fun, but also very basic. I couldn’t understand how it could be transformed into a complex mechanism for space travel. In fact, there is a group of fans dedicated to figuring out how exactly Allomancy can be used to travel faster than light, and they haven’t even gotten close to the answer yet.

It took some time, but I realized I had my answer about Creation. When people create anything, but particularly when they create worlds and peoples, they imitate G-d.

I’ve read enough of Sanderson’s works to believe he knows what he’s doing when it comes to world creation, and to trust him as an author that there is a real logical way his plan will work out. I believe he planned the capability of space travel into a 19th century tech-level world, despite many smart people scratching their heads trying to figure out how.

G-d is infinitely smarter than any person who will ever exist. Of course, G-d can do whatever a person can but on an infinitely larger, more awesome scale. People can only create from what already exists, while G-d can create from absolute nothing.

Here was my proof. Complex technologies that we create from raw materials were thought of long ago. G-d knows exactly what is possible when you combine the human thirst for knowledge and the universe we’ve been given to explore. He planned it all far in advance and made sure that everything we needed was available for us, once we figured out how to harness it.

Maybe it took us thousands of years to get to airplanes and iPads, but that’s because we’re only human. We took what we have and made what we can with it. We’re capable of amazing inventions and monumental discoveries. But that’s exactly what we’re doing. Discovering. Revealing what was already there. No more, no less.

Many will say that fantasy is a waste of time, it’s ridiculous, and it’s dangerous to read about things that are forbidden. But when you remove something a little from reality, when you put real situations into another world, that allows us to see a different perspective on something we hold too close to see objectively. And sometimes, it gives you answers to questions so abstract that they can only be answered in the realm of the fantastical.

We all have questions. We all struggle with life and meaning and our purpose here. Keep looking for answers though. They’re out there, and you might find them in the most unlikely of places.

*An additional series was later added between the first and second trilogies, starting with ‘The Alloy of Law’. In place of three trilogies there are now 4 Eras of Mistborn. As of the time of writing this article, Era 1 and Era 2 have been published.

Author: Devora Bannett

Devora has been an avid reader and writer from the moment she was literate. She believes in the power of language to help people think, grow, and connect. She loves meeting new people and finds their perspectives crucial in her quest for truth, empathy, and understanding.

  • Commenter

    DL, what a treasure! and so beautifully written!!!

    I loved your piece, learning more about your own journey of discovery and what lampposts of truth you used to anchor your flight of discovery.
    To explore in a way that enables you to deepen your wonder and yet strengthens your Emunah is a true gift that to my mind speaks volumes about your character!

    A little tidbit that connects into your point about human discovery, if you read a little history of science, many “inventions” – technological and scientific – were discovered by different people, but around about the same time.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiple_discovery

    So, for you, does this strengthen evolution? or G-dly creation? 🙂

    Thank you so much for sharing!