Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Speaking of Mysteries: Atonement in Teenage Fantasy Books

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posted on 2021-11-15, 09:25 authored by van Gend, Anne

The question of how we can speak of a transcendent God and God’s relationship with creation has been pondered for millennia. Today particular difficulties arise when communicating Christian atonement theories to a generation for whom the world of the Bible is increasingly foreign, and in a time when theologians and philosophers are questioning both the violence of some atonement theories and the existence of “superior transcendence.” This study explores the presence of biblical motifs in the stories of atonement in young adult fantasy works. It suggests that the use of these motifs to make sense of atonement within fantasy worlds may assist readers to make sense of the same motifs when they are used to portray the Christian story of atonement.  The investigation begins by discussing the place of imagination, reason and transcendence in religious language and argues for the centrality of metaphor and myth in religious expression. It suggests that young people today still seek intermediaries—“priests and prophets”—between themselves and the unknown, but they now find them in the fantasy authors who continue to use imaginative language to communicate transcendence.  A central trope in contemporary fantasy fiction is that of a death that saves the world. Contrary to the expectations raised by René Girard’s work, these are not the violent deaths of a helpless scapegoat. The biblical mythologems incorporated in these works allow the authors to explore instead ideas of divine and human self-giving. This is demonstrated by tracing how mythological understandings of blood, victory and covenant in the Bible are incorporated into the atonement process of three fantasy series: the Old Kingdom Chronicles by Garth Nix (1995-2003), the Mortal Instruments trilogy by Cassandra Clare (2007-2009), and the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling (1997-2007).  The thesis proposes that the presence of biblical mythologems in contemporary fantasy stories of atonement means that a better understanding of their use in each domain can both enrich our appreciation of this kind of literature and provide teenagers with an imaginative language with which to consider aspects of Christian atonement. The prevalence of atonement ideas within recent fantasy books suggests that, by attending to the mythologems of atonement drawn from the Bible, the church might both rediscover the imaginative power of her own story and convey it meaningfully to young readers of fantasy literature today.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Religious Studies

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970122 Expanding Knowledge in Philosophy and Religious Studies

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies


Marshall, Chris; Walls, Kathryn