Theology, fantasy, and The Last Dragon Rider
Trinity student Luke Aylen has written a series of three older children/young adult fantasy adventure novels, the third of which (The Last Dragon Rider) comes out today. Here he discusses the book, fantasy literature, and theology.
Q: Can you tell us a little about yourself?
A: I’m often known as a serial-hobbyist and all-round creative. I love making and learning about new things. It almost doesn’t matter what! Over my life I’ve worked in performing arts and production, media and film, and, of course, creative writing but that really only scratches the surface. I love stories, trying out new things, and hearing people talk about what enthuses and excites them. Perhaps the strangest of my hobbies has been a circus skill called Cyr wheeling (Google it!) which involves spinning around in a giant metal hoop! Alongside the creative endeavours, I have a passion for studying theology, something I am getting plenty of opportunity to do at the moment through the PhD at Trinity I am undertaking as part of my training for ministry within the Church of England.
Q: Some people might think that theology PhDs and middle-grade fantasy literature are worlds apart. How do you see your fiction writing and academic studies relating to each other?
A: I guess they are worlds apart. Fantasy literature is literally about creating new and alternative worlds! In writing fantasy, I get to do away with all the assumptions and norms we take for granted and build something completely different and new. People are willing to suspend their understanding of reality, their worldviews, even to some extent their values, and enter wholeheartedly into Presadia with all its culture, issues, goodies, and baddies. I doubt my PhD examiners or supervisors will do that when reading my academic writing! In many ways, however, my fiction and academic writing are remarkably close. Read any book and the author’s worldview (including theology) permeates the story. Just because the author is making the world up, it doesn’t mean we cease to explore truths about reality and human existence or grapple with the big issues of our day. I almost see my fantasy writing as a way to explore and process theological ideas in a more creative way. I really admire authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, who explore their Christian worldview through narrative. Rather than keeping theology to some academic ivory tower, fiction can make complex and abstract ideas accessible to people who will never have the opportunity or inclination for academic study. Personally I find theology fun, but I realise not everyone feels that way. Fantasy is a medium in which people can, sometimes without even realising, engage with theology whilst having fun. All this is true regardless of age. I always remember, however, one of my lecturers at London School of Theology (where I did my bachelor’s degree) saying if we couldn’t explain a theological concept to a child, we didn’t understand it! Perhaps that’s why I’ve found writing middle-grade books so thrilling.
Q: Are your books are Christian fiction?
A: I have to admit that I flinch slightly at the ‘Christian fiction’ phrase. Although certainly not always the case, this can conjure up expectations of heavy-handed, moralistic teaching, pinned unsubtly to cheesy, squeaky-clean story lines! Personally I don’t find that as relatable. Real life is more complex than that. It can also imply that these are books for Christians only. In many ways, I suspect Christians have the most to gain and draw from the stories but I’ve always wanted my books to be readable whether you have a faith or not.
The first book, The Mirror and the Mountain, was written in partnership with Spring Harvest, a large annual festival held in multiple sites across England each Easter. It is essentially all about perseverance and brave, costly discipleship, drawing wisdom and imagery from the book of James. I have been hugely encouraged to hear so many stories of churches and families using that book to engage with issues of faith across age boundaries. But although there is a huge amount to explore and discuss from an overtly Christian perspective, I’ve been delighted how many schools and non-Christians have enjoyed my stories. In all three books, I tried very hard to avoid being ‘preachy’ or trite. My aim has been to write good fiction, enjoyable stories, which are imbued with some of the gospel message whist not being inaccessible. I think I’ve grown better at this as the series has gone on, with the new book, The Last Dragon Rider, doing this particularly well (I hope!)
Q: You mentioned exploring theological themes in your books–can you give some examples?
A: Probably the closest to my heart is a central theme in the second book, The Forgotten Palace. Right the way through, the idea of brokenness and restoration is explored through Antimony, the main character’s complex past and sense of identity. One of my favourite scenes is a conversation between Antimony (the main character) and a mysterious stranger about a broken mirror that has been lovingly restored. The still visible cracks are talked about. The stranger describes them as a sign of restoration rather than brokenness. He notes how much love and care went into repairing it. The crack are thus not a picture of worthlessness but testimony of its value.
In the new book, The Last Dragon Rider, there is a fun theological theme underpinning the magical ability to time-travel. The characters’ adventures throughout (and general bewilderment concerning) the curious reality of ‘squiggly time’ allowed me to explore some pretty complex questions about pre-destination, free will, and the nature of space and time. You’ll have to read it to see how I handle all that! While I’m sure much may go over younger reader’s heads, I certainly enjoyed grappling with such large concepts and my hope is that even children will come to ponder how their decisions and actions matter, and what it means to live in the present moment rather than obsessing about the past or future.
Q: Can you tell us a little more about the new book?
A: Of course! The Last Dragon Rider is the third book in Presadia. While the first two books run concurrently, this one jumps back in time (literally–there’s time travel!) Through the perspective of street-smart urchin Anavah, it covers the events surrounding the overthrow of Presadia’s good king, an event that threw the Kingdom into the chaos we see in the first two books. I honestly think it is my best writing and possibly the best story of the series.
Anavah is a truly inspiring character who absolutely took on a life of her own. I actually had to re-write the entire second half of the book because as I wrote, she refused to do what I had planned for her in advance! There’s also a lot more dragons, for those who enjoyed their appearances in the previous books and love these wonderful fiery creatures.
If you have read the first two books, this really is a must-read. Even if you haven’t, I tried to write each book to stand alone, so you will still be able to enjoy it thoroughly (you might just miss some of the connections between events and side-characters from the other books). Overall it’s a pretty fast-paced and exciting book with plenty in there for older children and young adults but also for those of us who are grown up but still love a good adventure!
The Last Dragon Rider, third book in the An Adventure in Presadia series, has just released. You can purchase it through Waterstones, Amazon, or most local and online bookshops, along with his previous two books, The Mirror and the Mountain and The Forgotten Palace. You can keep up to date with Luke on his website or by following him on Facebook or Twitter.
Posted 23 October 2020