Amy Stimson

PhD Student in English Literature

We Lose That We May Find: Fantasy and Defamiliarisation in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien

Supervisors: Prof Kathryn Walls & Prof Peter Whiteford


It has been said that art is repetition with variation. My research examines the technique of defamiliarisation – that is, making the familiar strange in order to re-invigorate wonder in the familiar – in the fantasy fiction of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien by exploring the fairy tale and the fantastic mode as useful vehicles or structures for the embodiment of theological themes within story. As Tolkien and Lewis were writing within a largely “de-mythologising” cultural moment, they attempted to write fiction that would re-mythologise not only the genre of fantasy, but central elements of belief. Their fictions are an experimental, collaborative, and creative space, and yet are still a product of the complex relationship between the theological and the fantastic in the stories of invented worlds. I aim to provide a reading of the possibilities of fantasy as both an invitation to experience and explore invented worlds as unknown territory, as well as a sophisticated and engaging product of theological discourse.

Given that there has been prominent criticism that denounces theological fantasy (and particularly Lewis’s Narnian chronicles) as a site of the didactic project engaged in the socialisation of the child, there seems to be an opportunity to propose alternative readings that emphasise the possibility of a theologically-inspired fantasy that attempts to be engaging and provocative. That is, defamiliarised texts can be read as an space for the exploration of ethics, emotional engagement, and imaginative potential. It would seem a lens is required that keeps both in focus at the same time: that which is familiar (contexts, stories, and genres) and that which is imaginative invention. The familiar must first be lost, that it may be rediscovered in the strange.

Looking in turn at motifs of (sub-)creation and the Fall, the mystery of the divine (riddles and paradox), soteriology (typological Adam and Christ figures), and ultimate redemption and restoration (death and endings), as well as the conception of the role of the artist, I argue that defamiliarisation is an appropriate paradigm through which to discover the restorative vision of Christian fantasy, seeing it as a story mode that embodies theological tradition even as it performs the same restorative view upon the theology and beliefs of which it was born. Through examining how these authors have defamiliarised Biblical characters, plots, and motifs, we can envision the possibilities of critical thinking, human empathy, and creative participation in story. We can understand techniques used to prompt readers to explore and evaluate for themselves, to think outside of the box, to make meaning in the narrative gaps, and how the authors explore belief.


Amy Stimson completed her BA (English and French) at the University of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa, where she grew up, and later her Master’s degree in English Literature (1st class) at Stellenbosch University in 2015. Her PhD thesis at Victoria University of Wellington focuses on the embodiment of theology in defamiliarised form as fairy tale.