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Forgotten Christian Fantasy Pioneer Robert Siegel

Speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction, related genres) is a strange and wonderful movement with many writers you’ve never heard of. This is especially true when it comes to the Christian publishing market. Most Christian Fiction fans have heard about modern writers like Bryan Davis and Ana Zogg who write science fiction or fantasy novels. Some remember writers like Kathy Tyers and David E. Lawrence who broke new ground in the genre. Robert Harold Siegel (1939-2012) is one of the groundbreakers who’s well worth remembering. In the 1980s, his first fantasy novel was profiled in Christianity Today. His Whalesong trilogy gained many awards for its engaging mix of fantasy and ecology. In between publishing novels and teaching at several prestigious colleges, Siegel also wrote acclaimed poetry.

Here is what you should know about this surprising, underrated author.

Top 10 Events in the Life of Robert Siegel

1. On August 18, 1939, Siegel was born in Oak Park, Illinois, to Frederick William and Charlotte Lucille Chance Siegel.

2. In 1961, Siegel received his Bachelor of Arts in English from Wheaton College. The same year, he married Roberta Ann Hill; they had three daughters.

3. In 1963, Siegel started his Ph.D. at Harvard, studying under Harvard’s poet-in-resident Robert Lowell.

4. In 1973, Siegel published his first poetry collection, The Beast & the Elders

5. In 1976, after teaching at Dartmouth, Princeton and Wheaton, Siegel became an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He continued teaching there throughout his academic career, achieving professorship in 1983 and becoming professor emeritus in 1999. 

6. In 1980, two of Siegel’s books were published: the poetry collection In A Pig’s Eye and his first fantasy novel, Alpha Centauri.

7. In 1981, Siegel published Whalesong, the start of an acclaimed trilogy combining fantasy elements with ecological concerns.

8. In 1989, Siegel published an article in the Atlantic Monthly alerting people to a housing development planning to demolish Walden Pond, the well-known property of Henry David Thoreau. His article started a grassroots campaign which, combined with other efforts, kept the property intact. 

9. In 2010, Siegel wrote and read “In My Beginning is My End,” an inaugural poem for Dr. Philip Ryken’s installation as the eighth president of Wheaton College.

10. On December 20, 2012, Siegel passed away at 73. His final book, the poetry collection Within This Tree of Bones, was released a year later. His papers are archived at Wheaton College.

10 Things You Should Know about Robert Siegel

1. He was a great poet. Many readers may know Siegel best for Whalesong; poetry was an equal, if not larger, passion in Siegel’s life. He was particularly known for capturing the wonder of natural creation in his poems. Dana Gioia wrote that “Siegel’s imagination is excited by the nonhuman world, and he writes about plants and animals with surprising immediacy…A compassionate observer… he looks at them as mysterious and wonderful signs of a greater order.”

2. He was a trailblazer in Christian Fantasy. In a time where Christian speculative fiction writers frequently win Christy Awards, it’s easy to forget that Christian publishers used to find such stories weird (if not anti-Christian). Former Crossway Books editor Jan Dennis spoke in 2007 about how when he published Alpha Centauri, it became the first speculative fiction novel published by a Christian publisher and reprinted by a general market publisher. It was also only the second speculative fiction novel that Dennis had published.

3. He set records. Not only did Alpha Centauri break ground by being reprinted by a general market publisher, but it was also the first speculative fiction novel to win the ECPA Christian Book Award.

4. He loved nature. As the Gioia quote and the Whalesong trilogy show, Siegel had a great love for creation. He would continue to promote ecology and writers who shared his love until his death. One of Siegel’s last published works was a Books & Culture review of the eco-fantasy novel Alpine Tales

5. He loved the Inklings. At Wheaton, Siegel met Clyde S. Kilby, founder of the Marion E. Wade Center, which houses one of the largest collections of C.S. Lewis papers. Siegel would continue to refer to C.S. Lewis’s ideas throughout his life, as well as ideas by Lewis’ friends J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams.

6. He loved words. Poets take great pains to craft the words in their work, so it’s not surprising that Siegel loved words and wrote several essays about why poets craft words so carefully. Several essays refer to Owen Barfield’s theories that language means much more than we realize.

7. He was part of a movement. Colin N. Manlove describes in Christian Fantasy how Siegel fit into a wave of Christian fantasy writers “heavily influenced by Lewis and Tolkien.” Some of these writers became better known than others, but they all gained committed readers.

8. He belonged to a Christian community of writers. Siegel was a founding member of the Chrysostom Society, a group of Christian writers who met “to uphold standards of excellence and integrity in the realm of Christian publishing.” Fellow members included Eugene Peterson, Philip Yancey, and Calvin Miller. 

9. He knew Madeleine L’Engle. One of Siegel’s Chrysostom Society colleagues was Madeleine L’Engle, famous for writing A Wrinkle In Time. In The Swiftly Tilting Worlds of Madeleine L’Engle, Siegel described how they met in 1974 at a writers’ conference, and L’Engle complimented a story he showed her. “When Alpha Centauri and Whalesong appeared,” Siegel continued, “she welcomed them with praise more generous than a writer dare hope for, even from a friend.”

10. He wrote a mystery. Siegel contributed to several anthologies of works by Chrysostom Society members, including, Stories for the Christian Year. One of the more surprising books he contributed to was Carnage at Christhaven, a fun “round-robin” novel where a different author wrote each chapter. His chapter picked up after the first murder, describing the suspects before another body is found.

10 Inspiring Quotes by Robert Siegel

Siegel’s poetry may give the best insights into how he saw the world, but his nonfiction is equally interesting.

1. “Poetry begins in a moment of sharp awareness when things rise up as words and words become things. The mind and what it observes fuse for a moment, and the circle of meaning is complete. The working out of the poem is an attempt to record and elaborate that experience.” — Interview with Harold Fickett, published in Christianity Today

2. “It was a time when poetry opened up life, and life, poetry. With each author and literary period I felt myself immersed in a new way of looking at everything… Whenever the analytical materialism of some professors broke the world into hard lifeless pebbles, poetry melted it down and gave it back mint-fresh. Poetry was the golden currency from the mines of academe. Strangely, most of the academic world (it struck me then as well as now) spend their lives measuring the slag heap from those mines.” — “Musings: On a Life with Poetry,” in The Classics We’ve Read, The Difference They’ve Made edited by Philip Yancey

3. “In a rationalistic age there’s a tendency among Christians to block out that whole aspect of themselves, to concentrate on rational belief and the will—which of course are very important—but to ignore the feeling and intuitive side of themselves. Yet God, being a jealous God, wants all of us.” —Christianity Today interview 

4. “Writing poetry is a joy, a delight; it’s like having every porthole of a pore open on a fine spring day. Writing fiction, on the other hand, is (according to a poet friend of mine) like shoveling snow off the freeway between Chicago and Davenport with a kiddie shovel.”—interview with Harold Fickett, published in Christianity & Literature

5. “Even while revising a poem, which is often very down-to-earth, sober business, you have the poem (if it’s short) all there before you. You can leave it and come back to it, tinker with it for years, yet never feel lost in the middle of it. Writing Alpha Centauri increased my respect for novelists. They have more character than poets because they can glue themselves to a chair without knowing (whatever their feelings) whether the whole thing’s going to work or not.” — Christianity & Literature interview

6. “… the writer should avoid trying to impose her convictions upon the material offered by the fantastic imagination. To do so often results in the wooden and artificial, or the thinly transparent allegory. It is better to concentrate on the story and allow one’s deepest concerns to come out indirectly, as they invariably will. If one writes as well as he can, taking the story seriously, his deepest convictions will live in the work, however unapparent on the surface.” — “The Well at the World’s End: Poetry, Fantasy, and the Limits of the Expressible,” in The Christian Imagination, edited by Leland Ryken

7. “Though fantasy has much else to offer, its strongest attraction for us may lie in its power to take us out of our skins—away from the small, limited, half-life that is our ordinary consciousness—and to give us an experience of a larger, more complete life, in which we hear the music of the turning spheres.” — “The Well at the World’s End”

8. “One thing I learned while teaching in our graduate program in an urban university [University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee] is how much talent there is out there, and how many people with talent fail to fully develop it—often for understandable reasons. This has always seemed to me to hint at the reality of an afterlife—there is so much more to people than can be fully discovered and developed in one lifetime.” — Interview with John Leax, published in Church of England Newspaper

9. “The sense that all phenomena reflect some deep, underlying unity, a reality of which we only catch glimpses, and that even the words of a poem are part of the reality that they represent, remains part of many poetic credos.” — “A World of Light” in The Swiftly Tilting Worlds of Madeleine L’Engle, edited by Luci Shaw

10. “Our best experiences with literature and the arts are contemplative, a union of ourselves with the beauty before us. Literature and the arts can help us to forget ourselves and experience a completeness, a wholeness, for a moment or an hour. We forget our incomplete, divided selves and for a time are made one with what we are contemplating. This unitive experience can lead us to see beyond the work of art itself to what may shine through it, the world of the spirit.” — Church of England Newspaper interview

10 Great Books by Robert Siegel

Here are some of Siegel’s best books (or books containing essays that he wrote).

1. Alpha Centauri

2. In A Pig’s Eye

3. The Whalesong trilogy

4. The Kingdom of Wundle

5. The Wyrm of God

6. A Pentecost of Finches

7. The Stargoose

8. Waters Under the Earth

9. The Swiftly Tilting Worlds of Madeleine L’Engle

10. Within This Tree of Bones

Great Books about Robert Siegel

While Siegel may not have achieved a huge reputation, scholars singled him out many times as an important writer. Here are some important books that mention him.

1. Christian Fantasy by Colin N. Manlove. Manlove analyzes Alpha Centauri as an important part of the 1970s-1990s American Christian fantasy movement, along with writers like L’Engle and Stephen R. Lawhead.

2. Christian Mythmakers by Rolland Hein. Hein analyzes Siegel alongside Hannah Hunnard and Walter Wangerin, Jr. as modern Christian authors who create mythic works in the tradition of C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, and older masters like John Bunyan.

3. Reading Between the Lines by Gene Edward Veith, Jr. Veith discusses Siegel several times, calling him “a master of both fiction and poetry.”

Further Reading:

Who Were the Inklings Besides C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien?

15 Great Christian Sci-Fi Books for Kids and Adults

30 Inspiring George MacDonald Quotes

15 Classic Christian Fantasy Books for Kids and Adults

10 J.R.R. Tolkien Stories You’ve Never Read

Photo Credit: Graphic by G. Connor Salter. Photo provided by Luci Walsh of the Chrysostom Society. Do not use without permission.

Connor SalterG. Connor Salter is a writer and editor, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. In 2020, he won First Prize for Best Feature Story in a regional contest by the Colorado Press Association Network. He has contributed over 1,000 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.

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