I do not know how aware most folks are of what books shape their basic imaginations—the formation that to a large part determines what brings them delight, what strikes them as worth attention, what gives them a vocabulary for the world. For me, there are really two sources that give me that shape—the Bible and the fiction works of J. R. R. Tolkien. This post is about the latter.
Today would have been his 122nd birthday, so I’m thinking about him especially today. Now, I know that he has been so much talked about that I am sure I cannot say anything original about him, but I did want to mention how what he wrote has shaped me, at least in some points, and perhaps that might be of interest to a few readers.
It’s not so much that I see hobbits and dragons everywhere, mind you (though it is arguable whether there are still dragons about). I think most of what I’ve unconsciously absorbed from Tolkien is his use of language. I don’t use Commonwealth English spellings, to be sure, but I still have an inner feeling, for instance, that the plural of dwarf should be dwarves and not dwarfs (a usage that put Tolkien at odds with his contemporaries and countrymen). (He also insisted on elven over elfin.) And I will also admit to indulgence in archaisms, as well, not because I think they make the user sound smart or artful, but just because my inner sensibility is that this is just how language ought to sound at its best.
But there are other things, too. I recall when I was a teenager and then in my twenties, that a young lady who seemed most attractive to me was best described for me as an elven-maid. No doubt some of my belles didn’t quite get the level of compliment I was paying them, that I was comparing them to the race that was highest, most beautiful, most noble and immortal. Mind you, men have been calling women that kind of thing since at least Petrarch, but for me, there is something specifically elven about that business. And though my wife would probably find it silly, there is certainly something for me that is elvish about her, though there is also quite a lot that is hobbitish about her, too. She is a civilizing person in the sense peculiar to both those races.
I really don’t remember the first time I read The Hobbit, though I think I was quite young. My family owned a large illustrated edition put out at some point in the ’80s (long ago fallen to pieces), as I recall, using pictures from the Rankin-Bass cartoon that I still love. (To this day, when I read Tolkien’s Middle-earth books out loud, the voice I do for my kids for Gandalf is not Ian McKellan but rather John Huston.)
My dad had old paperback editions of The Hobbit and the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings from the ’60s that were yellowing and adorned with Tolkien’s own illustrations on the covers. I received them all at some point. They are too brittle to be read, but they still have a pride of place on my highest shelf, next to several “reading” copies of the same books, and a couple large “heirloom” copies in slip covers.
I don’t think I finally read The Lord of the Rings until I was in high school, and I’m not really sure why. Certainly The Hobbit had always delighted me. But perhaps my imagination was not quite ready for the degree of complexity that the latter book has in comparison with the former, shorter volume. In any event, I came away from my first readings of the three-volume book with a sense that Middle-earth was a place I very much wanted to go and even to live.
And what I received most from those books at that time was something that has long stayed with me—a sense of longing for what has been lost. Loss is a major theme especially in the larger story, and it’s touched on particularly by Aragorn and the Elves, who all remember much that has been lost and mourn it.
It may well be that this sense of desiring what is ancient and powerful had a strong influence on my first encounter with Orthodox Christianity in my early twenties. Here was contact with what was not only older than my world, but very much better. Yet unlike in Tolkien’s world, what has been lost for the Orthodox Christian can actually be recovered and restored, yet it can only be recovered to the degree that we internally realize we have lost it—not “Holy Russia” or “the glories of Byzantium,” but rather the loss of innocence and purity in the human soul. Some writers have called this aspect of Orthodox spirituality “nostalgia for Paradise.”
This thing more than any other from Tolkien is what shapes my imagination and informs much of my thinking and even feeling—a kind of melancholy of remembrance. But unlike Renaissance melancholy with its dark obsessions (which very much interested me in my undergraduate days), it is a remembrance that brings beauty into the present.
And for that, I will always be grateful. And I will also teach it to my children, mainly just by reading to them.
I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again. —Frodo Baggins
I happened upon this quotation again yesterday evening, while I was reading my daughter The Lord of the Rings. It seems a dauntingly long tome to read to a five-year-old, but of course we have years, if need be. She’s also already listened to the whole of The Hobbit and liked what she heard and wanted to hear more about hobbits. So of course I could not resist. Naturally she will not remember everything or understand all the details this time around, but that doesn’t particularly matter. So it goes with all of the good tales for any of us, including, I think, the Book itself.
As someone who is in some sense homeless (though not houseless), having lived now in twenty-two separate dwellings across fifteen towns, six states and one unincorporated territory, these words from Frodo in anticipation of his great Quest always make me a bit sad. Much of Tolkien’s work is about a sense of loss, of remembering things that never will return, and when Frodo speaks these words to Gandalf, he has no idea yet how much he will lose, that he will indeed lose the Shire for himself, even while he saves it for others.
The sadness that I feel is not quite Frodo’s sadness, though, because there is no geographic place that I have left behind and can return to or at least hope for while I am in my wanderings. And while I do intend to spend the rest of my days here in Emmaus, I think that it is too late for me to have a home. Though I am not old, I am too old for that. I’ve done it backwards from Frodo—I have tried to find a home after my wandering rather than embarked upon my wandering from a home already found and already loved.
My point here is not really about me, though. My life is what God has permitted it to be, even if I’ve muddled it up here and there, and I am grateful for what I have received. No, the point is about that “firm foothold” that Frodo mentions. For him, it is the Shire, and he carries memories of the Shire throughout the Quest to destroy evil. I do not have a Shire of my own, not in the sense that there is some specific place I can place my mind’s feet to gain that firm foothold.
But even though some of us are homeless in this life, I think that we nonetheless have the possibility for such a firm foothold, for a memory of beauty and homeliness (to use homely in its British sense, roughly homey in American English, though not so rustic). I hope I can say this without sounding like a romantic, but for me that firm foothold has become the worship of the Church, most especially in its Byzantine iteration, with which I was first imprinted in Orthodoxy. It is not quite the same as having a home in the earthier sense—a sense I encourage all to develop as best they can, even in such a homeless state as I find myself—but there is certainly a firm foothold to be had there, a power and glory and sense of belonging that can be carried along in any place of wandering, any struggle, any peril, as we pursue our own great Quest.
There are many instances throughout the history of the Church in which the saints, those people who were most infused with God’s presence here on earth, did something peculiar as they faced imprisonment, torture and even death—they sang hymns. I cannot help but think that their experiences in worshiping the one True God in His Body the Church became for them the firm foothold that made their wandering bearable. And when faced with the gravest of circumstances, they called to mind that power and energy, and they brought it forth again in an act of anamnesis (a term usually referred to the invocational memory that brings Christ’s passion and death into the here and now as the Eucharist). While Frodo could only engage in mneia (recall), we Christians have the possibility for anamnesis, bringing the Savior Whose salvation we remember into the very present by means of collective invocational memory.
As we do that, the orcs and Uruk-hai and evil wizards and the Ringwraiths and even the Enemy himself can be borne rightly, with patience and even with love and with joy. And in so doing, like Frodo, we can also destroy evil and loosen its hold on our hearts.
On Saturday, May 12, Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: Exploring Belief Systems Through the Lens of the Ancient Christian Faith turned one year old!
It’s honestly a little hard to believe. This little path has now been winding about for more than three years.
O&H was originally done as a series of lectures offered at St. George Orthodox Cathedral in Charleston, West Virginia, beginning in November of 2008. At the time, I conceived of it as something of an exercise in encyclopedia-making, an attempt to catalogue nearly every religious movement in the world (especially Christian) and offer a brief summary of its similarities and differences with the Orthodox Church. I had no expectation that hardly anyone would actually attend the lectures, since I figured that relatively few folks would have an interest in such questions. The folks at the cathedral proved me very much wrong.
When I came to St. Paul Orthodox Church in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, in July of 2009, I wanted to offer some adult education classes that Fall, and since there were already so many other things happening connected with newly taking up the pastorate at a parish that made any major writing projects almost impossible, I figured I would pull O&H out of my files, give each talk some revision, and then deliver them again.
Before I actually delivered the talks, I ran into John Maddex, CEO of Conciliar Media (which includes both Conciliar Press and Ancient Faith Radio) at the Missions and Evangelism Conference at the Antiochian Village in September of 2009. I grew up as the son of radio missionaries, and with his extensive background in Christian radio, we found we had some things in common. He was even aware of who my father is, and it turned out that he had helped run a local Christian radio station in northern Ohio that I listened to as a kid.
In the course of our conversations, I mentioned my plans to deliver O&H here in Emmaus, and he and his wife Tonya both agreed that they would be interested in recordings of the lectures for Ancient Faith Radio. Not long after that, I received in the mail a box containing a microphone / mp3 recorder, something of a step of faith on their part, since they had never heard me speak or even read what I’d written!
That Fall, I recorded O&H in Emmaus. Turnout at those lectures was also quite good, filling our parish hall nearly to capacity. Soon after the recordings began, O&H started airing on AFR as a podcast. I also started getting a lot of email from listeners—some highly critical and even hostile, but mostly exceptionally kind and positive.
In late February of 2010, I got an email from the acquisitions editor at Conciliar Press, saying that John had asked her to contact me to see if I would be interested in making O&H into a book, that the podcasts had been so popular that they were convinced it would also do well in print. In all honesty, I was exceptionally surprised.
I had in my younger days imagined myself being a published writer, but eventually I put away that childish vanity and settled on the idea that blogging was pretty much going to be my only real publication. So when CP approached me with the proposal, it hardly seemed real. Nevertheless, within about 45 minutes of receiving the initial email from CP, I responded positively. How could I not?
I then entered the process of getting hierarchical approval for the publication and, once that was secured, began working on a complete overhaul of the original manuscripts. I reordered the chapters, did some renaming, corrected errors, nuanced some things that had been phrased too absolutely, and added some new material. I started out with lectures totaling about 60,000 words and ended with a book that was roughly 72,000 words. Along the way, CP did a lot of work to refine the editing and also produced the cover featured above. It went to press the following Spring, in 2011, and went on sale in May. The following November, it was made available as an e-book.
I have been honored and humbled by this whole process, and I am most especially immensely grateful to my wife who is a good check on my temptation to vanity. I’m grateful to John Maddex who put the resources of Conciliar Media behind this material twice and also to all the listeners to the podcasts and to the readers of the book.
You may already be aware that I also have another, ongoing podcast with other lectures (and recently, sermons) entitled Roads From Emmaus, and I’ve also signed a contract with CP for another book tentatively entitled An Introduction to God: Encountering the Divine in Orthodox Christianity which is in the revision process. We’ve also lately been discussing the possibility of a book of essays, as well.
Again, thank you for your prayers and support in all of these projects. I love doing them, and I hope they’re useful to you.
Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker. —J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”
There is a new post today on MyOCN‘s “Orthodox Writers, Readers, and Artists series,” whose title caught my eye: Is it Orthodox to Read and Write Allegory/Fantasy Children’s Books?
Friends and long-time readers will imagine that my hackles immediately went up when I read this. Of course, I’ve encountered the attitude in this piece before. I once spoke, for instance, with an Orthodox Christian who was putting together a homeschooling curriculum. He insisted that imaginative fiction of every kind was essentially sinful, that it was phantasia—a word used in monastic literature (and sometimes spelled phantasy or fantasy) to refer to sinful imaginations. This is essentially the same attitude that, when intensified, will condemn Tolkien and Lewis as pagan sympathizers (not to mention those bewitching Harry Potter novels!).
To be quite frank, I think this attitude is puritanical nonsense. I don’t blame those who hold it, though I do believe that they have mistaken the phantasia that the monastic fathers warned against for the fantasy that is imaginative fiction. (I will from here on use those two spellings to make that distinction.) That is, they have turned a specific piece of monastic technical language regarding meditative prayer into a general principle—a literary theory, even—to exclude something that those monastic writers weren’t remotely talking about.
Phantasia is a danger in ascetical writings not because it uses the imagination. Rather, it is a use of the imagination that fixates the heart on created things. More specifically, it is a fixation that is an obstacle to the pure prayer of the heart. In pursuing meditative prayer, the ascetic (who is not just the monastic, but all of us) is called upon not to try to imagine God, to picture Him, or to become obsessed with any created image in order to reach Him, because doing so is essentially idolatry. It is also simply prejudicial, just like relating to any human person by means of imagination rather than through encounter.
But fantasy (even the specific literary genre that goes by that name) isn’t about prejudicial obsessions with created things that block us off from God. If imagination qua imagination were only phantasia in the sense that the monastic fathers warn us of, then many of the great Fathers of the Church would be in rather deep trouble, for a good many of them had rather thorough educations in fiction—even in explicitly pagan literature. No less a luminary than St. Basil the Great admonished the young on how exactly they ought to make use of pagan literature! No puritan he, Basil taught his readers how to sift what they read, how to find the face of Christ even in works specifically designed to promote religion that the Church was in the process of conquering.
Now, the writer of the piece linked above does not quite seem to have it in for all fiction (being a writer of children’s books), but I am unclear on what basis the argument against fantasy is being made if it is not simply that it is to be identified with phantasia. After all, if the problem with fantasy is that it is “whatever the mind imagines end[ing] up on paper,” then that would apply to all fiction. (But what writer actually just writes “whatever” his mind imagines? Any writer worth his salt—or, you know, magic fairy dust—sifts, revises, etc.) But the exit from this charge for the writer seems to be through allegory, because allegory is the specific use of fictional imagery to attempt to teach something.
Because of this, the writer lets Tolkien and Lewis off, because they are supposedly allegorists and because they still lived in a time when “little ‘o’ orthodoxy was still pretty free from relativism, so what they are teaching is, at least for the most part, not contrary to Orthodoxy.” Aside from the fact that “little ‘o’ orthodoxy” by definition is free from relativism (no relativist would claim to be orthodox, even with the little “O”), this again misses the basic point.
But first, let us tackle the writer’s accusation against fantasy, that it is “a pure expression of the passions,” that it contains “werewolves and vampires and a celebration of evil,” that it consists of “a lustful voyeurism so that people constantly want more and more perverse and graphic fantasies.” Yes, one can certainly find such things out there, and I think I may know what the writer has in mind with the tip of the cards offered later: “modern fantasy generally has some sort of romantic involvement of the characters,” one that is properly “described as downright pornographic.”
No doubt it is Twilight (which happens to be written by a devout Mormon) and its ilk that is in mind here. But really, aren’t such things really just “romance” novels that have only the most superficial resemblance to the fantasy genre, which is populated with writers the likes of Tolkien, Lewis, Eddings, Brooks, Jordan, Salvatore, McCaffrey, Kurtz, etc.? I don’t know whether the writer has read much of the works of the big names in “modern fantasy,” but I’m really starting to suspect not. I think what the writer really doesn’t like is romance novels with werewolves and vampires. If that is really the case, why condemn a whole (barely related) genre?
But let us return to allegory.
It is true that Lewis was fairly self-consciously allegorical, but only with a certain minority of elements in his works. True allegory would have every rock, tree, beast and boy as a stand-in for some other person or lesson. Lewis doesn’t quite do that.
However, the far more masterful storyteller of the two, Tolkien, was vehemently explicit about his rejection of allegory, something made plain in his foreword to The Lord of the Rings:
I should like to say something here with reference to the many opinions or guesses that I have received or have read concerning the motives and meaning of the tale. The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them…. As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical…. I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
It seems to me that the columnist would indeed prefer the “purposed domination of the author,” that the only good fiction is allegorical fiction, but it had better be trying to teach some sort of Christian lesson, “trying to get a person who has been spiritually deadened by this world, and everything in it, to see clearly spiritual principles using imagery that is not familiar to the person,” to get them to see “new worlds with new creatures that have not been co-opted by evil.”
But I am not interested in reading a book where everyone is perfectly happy and good, not “co-opted by evil.” Why? Because such a book would not speak to the reality in which I actually find myself, in which nearly everything around me—including me!—has been co-opted by evil. (To be honest, though, since when have vampires and werewolves ever not been “co-opted by evil”? Twilight‘s mistake is probably that it is attempting to co-opt such evil images as good.) Even the Scriptures themselves are rife with people and things co-opted by evil. And their point is redemption, just as it also is with good writers of fiction, whether they are being explicitly allegorical or not.
This rejection of fantasy as phantasia (accompanied by all of phantasia‘s ills as apparently exemplified by the romance novels with blood and fur and such) is really a denial of the Orthodox anthropology of man as being made according to God’s image. He is our Creator, and as such, we may (to use Tolkien’s language) become sub-creators. We are not merely imitators or allegorists. Such a veiled didacticism will hardly reach anyone these days, anyway. The moment a reader suspects he is being taught a lesson, that the author is “trying to get a person who has been spiritually deadened by this world, and everything in it, to see clearly spiritual principles,” he will reject the story.
I think we can do no better than some of these meditations from Tolkien’s brilliant reflection on such things, On Fairy Stories:
When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.
An essential power of Faerie is thus the power of making immediately effective by the will the visions of “fantasy.” Not all are beautiful or even wholesome, not at any rate the fantasies of fallen Man. And he has stained the elves who have this power (in verity or fable) with his own stain. This aspect of “mythology” —sub-creation, rather than either representation or symbolic interpretation of the beauties and terrors of the world—is, I think, too little considered. Is that because it is seen rather in Faerie than upon Olympus? Because it is thought to belong to the “lower mythology” rather than to the “higher”?…
Children are capable, of course, of literary belief, when the story-maker’s art is good enough to produce it. That state of mind has been called “willing suspension of disbelief.” But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed….
But the error or malice, engendered by disquiet and consequent dislike, is not the only cause of this confusion. Fantasy has also an essential drawback: it is difficult to achieve. Fantasy may be, as I think, not less but more sub-creative; but at any rate it is found in practice that “the inner consistency of reality” is more difficult to produce, the more unlike are the images and the rearrangements of primary material to the actual arrangements of the Primary World. It is easier to produce this kind of “reality” with more “sober” material. Fantasy thus, too often, remains undeveloped; it is and has been used frivolously, or only half-seriously, or merely for decoration: it remains merely “fanciful.” Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough—though it may already be a more potent thing than many a “thumbnail sketch” or “transcript of life” that receives literary praise.
To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode….
Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion.
For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it. So upon logic was founded the nonsense that displays itself in the tales and rhymes of Lewis Carroll. If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen.
Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. Abusus non tollit usum. Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.
In the end, I have to confess that what I think I read in the column linked above was really a distaste for romance novels in the guise of fantasy, with the objection framed in language from the Fathers that was never intended to refer simply to imaginative fiction, whether it happens to have werewolves or not. But the objections to such things were on all the wrong grounds. Those grounds were made to serve other arguments and contexts. The problem with the “fantasy” disliked by the writer is not that it is not Christian allegory, or simply that it is fantasy, but rather that it glorifies that which is base. True fantasy instead redeems that which is base and thereupon reveals its glory.
Addendum: Something that occurs to me to add here is that, unless a publication is explicitly about theology, Church history, saints’ lives, etc., I think it does something of a disservice to the work to put an “ORTHODOX™” label on it. The last thing we Orthodox need is to create our own brand. Orthodoxy is not a brand. It is the Body of Christ. There is no need for us to put out a line of ORTHODOX™-approved books, toys, clothing, etc. (And we’d look dumb doing it.)
Theron Mathis, author of The Rest of the Bible: A Guide to the Old Testament of the Early Church, has graciously conducted a brief interview with me regarding Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy and other matters on his weblog Sword in the Fire.
Excerpt from the introduction:
Fr. Andrew does the seemingly impossible in a mere 224 pages. He gives a broad scope of Orthodox belief, but details every imaginable brand of Christianity, cult, and world religion.
The book originally began as a podcast series on Ancient Faith radio with the same name, but don’t be afraid of redundant content, there is plenty of new information expressed clearly for the religion teacher and the non-specialist.