Why You Should Read The Dresden Files: Fantasy Literature and Deep Reading (with help from Origen and CS Lewis!)

            “When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so.  Now that I am fifty I read them openly.  When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up

CS Lewis, On Three Ways of Writing for Children in On Stories, 50

            There was a time in my life when I stopped reading fantasy stories, with one or two exceptions, because I thought I had outgrown them.  As an adult, I thought I was supposed to read history and philosophy and theology and, well, grown-up books.  Eventually I broke out of this and returned to the stories I read as a youth, as well as discovering new stories.  Now, while I still work my way through history and theology (and love it!), I also devour fantasy novels. 

Why You Should Read the Dresden Files

            Last summer, I decided I wanted to reread The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan.*  This series is one of the best epic fantasy series in existence.  I first began reading it sometime around 1999 and finished it when the final book was released in 2012.  Unfortunately, Robert Jordan passed away before he could finish the series and Brandon Sanderson* ended up completing the final three books.

            I had not reread the series yet, but with an Amazon TV series on the way, it seemed like the time was right.  That said, these books are door stops.  The shortest one is over 700 pages long.  There are well over a thousand named characters.  It was not the kind of series I would want to read straight through.  I needed, what might be said, a palate cleanser.

            I had heard of the Dresden Files and saw that each book was around 400 pages long.  My perception was that they were not huge epic sagas, but fast-paced adventures.  They seemed the perfect series to read in between the Wheel of Time books.

            The Dresden Files are told from the first-person perspective of Harry Dresden, the only wizard for hire in the Chicago phone book.  I like to describe this series to people by telling them to imagine Harry Potter opened an office in Chicago as a sort of wizard private investigator (the common names make such a comparison convenient).  Throughout the series Harry battles werewolves, vampires, fairies and dark wizards.  At times he has help from the Chicago police, specifically his friend Karrin Murphy, but for the most part, non-magical people do not believe magic exists.  This is explained by a simple bias against magic: even people who witness magic will tell themselves they did not see what they saw.

            The first couple books in the series, Storm Front and Fool Moon, are pretty good.  They are just what I was looking for: fast paced, light, action and adventure stories.  Again, they were the perfect book to read as a change of pace from Wheel of Time.  That said, Harry is very juvenile in these early books, saying things that sound like the sort of things a teenage boy might say.  I am not sure if that was just Butcher writing him in this way by accident, or on purpose, but it was quite eye-rolling from time to time.

            The third book, Grave Peril, turns a corner for many reasons, specifically the introduction of Michael Carpenter and the Knights of the Cross.  Michael is one of the best characters in the series as a man of deep faith and conviction who is holds one of three swords that possesses a nail from Jesus’ cross.  I admit, as a person of faith myself, perhaps I am biased towards Michael.  But any perusal of reviews will show that almost everyone likes Michael and his family. 

            Further, speaking of religion, one of the best aspects of this series is the way Butcher includes a variety of ideas from religion and mythology with respect.  Harry speaks of and recognizes there is a God, though God does not get involved in the fights against evil.  Michael would argue that God does indeed get involved, through all the people like himself who fight evil alongside Harry.  Evil certainly makes an appearance, especially in the Denarians.  These are demons who possess each of the thirty pieces of silver that Judas was paid to betray Jesus.  A person holding a coin will be possessed by one of the demons, given great power but also turned to evil. 

            It was in Harry and Michael’s conflict with one of these demons that I got my first hint that this series was getting far deeper than I anticipated.  The third and fourth books were steps up from the first two.  We then meet those Denarians in the fifth book, Death Masks.  In a chilling scene, (minor spoilers ahead) one of the men holding the coin gives the coin up.  He was about to be killed by Michael, so giving the coin up was how he saved his life.  Without the coin, Michael will no longer kill him.  Harry is perplexed by this.  It is clear to Harry, and to Michael, the man has not turned away from evil.  But Michael explains the job of the knights of the cross is to save the men possessed, not just kill them. 

So why should you read The Dresden Files? They are fun, entertaining stories that are told in a world that gets bigger with each book AND as the stories go they hit you on deeper and deeper levels.

            When I read novels, I am always on the lookout for deeper meaning.  This idea of levels of meaning is rooted, for me, in how the church has historically interpreted the Bible. 

Origen’s Three Levels of Scripture[1]

            Origen was a theologian in the 200s.  He is one of the most influential, and controversial, theologians of the early church.  Prior to Augustine, he was probably the most brilliant.  Later on, his work was condemned at the Second Council of Nicaea (553 AD) but more recent scholarship has questioned how many of his actual teachings were reflected in what came to be called “Origenism.”  If you are going to read one of his works, the most vital is his magnificent work On First Principles.

            He states that “For as man consists of body, and soul, and spirit, so in the same way does Scripture.”  Origen then goes on to explain the different senses of scripture:

  1. Bodily Sense – The plain sense (“literal” sense)
    • “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.” Deuteronomy 25:4
  2. Soulish Sense – Takes the plain meaning and applies it to the Christian (“application”)
    • “For it is written in the Law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.’ Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the ploughman should plough in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop.” 1 Corinthians 9:9-10
  3. The Spiritual or Allegorical Sense – how these events point to Christ (“theological”)
    • “But the interpretation is ‘spiritual,’ when one is able to show of what heavenly things the Jews ‘according to the flesh’ served as an example and a shadow, and of what future blessings the law contains a shadow”
    • *Not ever scripture includes all three senses

            Origen’s understanding of levels of scripture was common throughout the early and medieval eras of the church.  Recently I have been reading a book on Maximus the Confessor and another on Isaac of Nineveh.  Both of these saints interpreted scripture in this way.  So too did the western church which developed four levels of reading scripture.  These are similar to Origen: literal, typological (connecting OT – NT, seeing Jesus in OT), moral, anagogical (future, end-times).

            The more I have studied the early church and how they read the Bible, the more I think they were absolutely correct in this.  I think many of our contemporary problems with scripture are rooted in losing this idea.  At some point through the Reformation, the scientific revolution and rise of the modern world, Christians in the west devalued the spiritual levels of scripture.  All of a sudden, we thought the most important thing was the literal.  This is why we struggle so mightily with the theory of evolution: on the surface it conflicts with our surface reading of Genesis.  It plays out in other areas too, from the violence of God in the Old Testament to apparent contradictions in the scripture.  I suspect Origen, Maximus and so many other Christians who lived prior to 1500 would wonder why we are so obsessed with the surface. 

            Its not that the surface levels do not matter.  That’s where we start, and it tells us a lot.  But there’s more beneath the surface.

            Likewise, I think we can approach our fiction reading the same way.  We can enjoy a book as a simply entertaining story.  Maybe even that’s all it is.  But every now and then we find depth we did not expect that tugs at our hearts and mind.

From the Bible to Other Reading

            It we take the ideas from Origen and others; we can apply them to fiction such as The Dresden Files.  First, there is the “Bodily Sense.”  This is reading for the pure enjoyment.  Perhaps it needs to be emphasized: for a Christian, reading for pleasure can be an end in itself.  Just like we do not want to ignore the deeper levels of scripture or any reading, so we do not want to ignore the surface level.  There is value in enjoying a piece of art just for its own beauty, whether this is a painting, a song or a novel. 

            As Leland Ryken writes:

            “We might say that the biblical view of creation encourages us to believe that artistic beauty needs no justification for its existence, any more than a happy marriage does, or a bird, or a flower, or a mountain or a sunset. These things have meaning because God made them. Artistic beauty has meaning in itself because God thought it good to give beauty to people, quite apart from any consideration of practical usefulness.” – Leland Ryken, Triumphs of the Imagination, 39.

            As we read though, we can be open to deeper ideas.  A second level is “Application” – Seeing commentary on the real world or being inspired by the story.  In The Dresden Files, this might be seeing some pictures of friendship or loyalty.  It may be Harry’s musings on why people ignore the supernatural, which make us wonder if people in our world see the supernatural but explain it through a natural lens.  Finally, the third and deepest level would be the “Spiritual Sense.”  This is where we see grace, the gospel and Jesus in a story.  For me, this is where I see examples of self-sacrifice and love that make no sense on the surface and point us to the reality of Jesus’ crucifixion.

            This reminds me of how some early church writers saw the philosophy of the Greeks as preparing people for the gospel of Jesus just as the Law prepared the Hebrews.  Wherever truth is found, it points to God.  For Jews, it was the Law.  For Greeks, it was philosophy. Perhaps for us, it is fictional stories.  As CS Lewis says,

            “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact…The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.  The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened” – CS Lewis

            In other words, truth, wherever it is found, will point us to the one who is Truth.

            (As a side note, The Legendarium Podcast often speaks of the same idea.  If you like fantasy, check out their podcast.  In one episode they discuss the levels (https://www.thelegendariumpodcast.com/151-three-levels-story/):

  1. A “ripping good yarn”, escapist reading
  2. State of the world – political or social commentary
  3. State of the soul – self-evaluation, insight into how we can be better human beings
    1. *Their 2&3 are combined in my #2 above)

Insights from CS Lewis

            Thoughts on deeper readings and Origen aside, I did not expect The Dresden Files to hit me on level three.  Maybe I should have been open to the idea, for CS Lewis warns us that we do not know which books will lead us there.  CS Lewis argues in An Experiment in Criticism that we cannot know going in which books may move people into levels 2 or 3.  It is possible, Lewis argues, to read good books badly.  If we are reading solely to find pieces of moral or spiritual truth, or quotes to sound smart, we are “using” and not “receiving” the book.  On the other hand, what we think are bad books may be level 2 or 3 for some people (he does not use this level terminology).  The key move, for Lewis, is to “receive” and not “use” the story:

            “Now the true reader reads every work seriously in the sense that he reads it whole-heartedly, makes himself as receptive as he can” – Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism.

            “A work of (whatever) art can be either ‘received’ or ‘used’. When we ‘receive’ it we exert our senses and imagination and various other powers according to a pattern invented by the artist. When we ‘use’ it we treat it as assistance for our own activities…. ‘Using’ is inferior to ‘reception’ because art, if used rather than received, merely facilitates, brightens, relieves or palliates our life, and does not add to it”- Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

            This is convicting to me, as well as reminding me why I read fiction.  When I read a thick theology or philosophy book, I am often reading with the goal to find some good parts to highlight that I can use later in preaching or teaching.  Thus, Lewis convicts me because I realize I am “using” these books rather than fully receiving them.  Yet when I come to fiction, I am just receiving the book for what it is, I am not looking for level 2 or 3.  This is why it is wonderful to be surprised by level 2 or 3!  That said, Lewis argues to fully receive a story, to allow it to hit us at levels 2 and 3, may require repeated reading:

            “We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading.  Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savor the real beauties” – Lewis, “On Stories” in On Stories, 24

Back to Dresden

            That scene I mentioned above from book five was the first time in the series I was moved to level 3.  It was not the last.  There have been moments, such as in book seven when Michael’s daughter Molly is in trouble and needs help from Harry, where I hit level three again.  I have even been moved to tears, such as at the end of book 11, Turn Coat, when a minor character who first showed up in book one demonstrates how two people can respect one another and work together even if they do not like each other much.

            All that said, you should not just read The Dresden Files for these moments.  Somewhere around book six or seven, the series has become epic fantasy.  It is no longer just a book I read to take a break from The Wheel of Time.  Instead, it is epic in its own right.  Butcher has done a masterful job of building a world and introducing us to characters in the early books who are filled out as characters in later books.  It is no longer just Harry and one or two others, but it is a world of characters we care about. 

            After finishing the twelfth book of Wheel of Time, I read book ten of Dresden.  Then eleven, which I stayed up till 1 AM finishing.  The next day I started twelve (what can I say, in social distancing, I have more time to read!).  I was planning to finish twelve and go back to Wheel of Time, then twelve was the first one to end on a cliffhanger! 

            I still went back to Wheel of Time.  But it is no longer one series I love and one as a change of pace, it is a rotation between two series I love. 

            This is why I highly recommend the Dresden Files.  It is a ripping good story that satisfies all your needs for a level one story.  But if you are open to it, it will over time hit you at those deeper levels. 

            That said, while the title and point of this post is to convince you to read The Dresden Files, you really should read whatever you want.  Just read something.  If you like fantasy, read Dresden!  If you like history, read history.  Read YA or classics or whatever.  My hope is that more people turn off their televisions and put down their phones and lose themselves in reading stories.  If that story is Dresden Files, great!  If its something else, that’s cool too!

*You should also read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.  It is EPIC.  It is Tolkienesque. 

*You should also read Brandon Sanderson.  Start with the Mistborn series, then go on to Stormlight Archive. 

[1] https://etimasthe.com/2017/09/20/the-three-levels-of-interpretation-of-scripture/#_ftn1

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