C. S. Lewis

Orthodoxy, Allegory and Fantasy

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The Last Homely House, by J. R. R. Tolkien

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.)

Aslan is on the move

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The Lion of St. Mark, from the Echternach Gospels (8th c.)

The Sunday of Forgiveness, March 6, 2011

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

“They say Aslan is on the move.” With these whispered words, the seventh chapter of the allegorically Christian novel by C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, introduces the character of Aslan. “Aslan is on the move.”

I happened to hear those words again this week when watching the film version of this story with my daughter. We began reading the book together, as well. Those of you who have read the book perhaps feel a bit of the excitement of those words: “Aslan is on the move.” But for those who haven’t, here is the next thing that Lewis writes:

And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning—either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in his inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realise that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.

I, too, felt something curious upon encountering those words, words I’ve been seeing again and again for many years since I first read them as a child. What occurred to me this time was this juxtaposition: “Lent begins next week. Aslan is on the move.”

In Lewis’s tale, Aslan is a great lion. He is not only a talking lion, but happens also to be the rightful king of Narnia, the fictional land into which Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy stumble. Narnia is at first dominated by the White Witch, who makes it always winter in Narnia, but never Christmas. Yet Aslan is more than a lion, for he is also a symbol of our Lord Jesus Christ. But when the four children first hear his name, they have no idea who he is. But they know that he is coming, and with him, comes the springtime.

In most languages, the holy season we are about to embark upon is called simply the Great Fast, but in English, we have inherited our terminology from Latin, and it is called Lent. The word Lent now is used almost exclusively to refer to this season in the Church’s calendar, but its older meaning has nothing to do with fasting or extra church services leading up to Pascha. Lent means “springtime.”

We have had a fairly heavy winter here in the Lehigh Valley this year, and if you are at all like me, the coming of spring is most welcome. Indeed, I feel a strong sense of anticipation for some sunshine, warmer air, and for signs of life to begin emerging. And here, precisely where we are balanced between winter and spring, weary of the heaviness and darkness of the past season, here we encounter Lent, the springtime of the Church.

I think many people greet Lent not with a sense of anticipation but, many times, with dread! Such people, if they are trying to be serious about their spiritual lives, may feel what Edmund does in the book, a sort of “mysterious horror” or perhaps drudgery, as they think about the fasting, the extra church services, the sermons about repentance, and so on. They may even think that this attitude of suffering is what God wants for them. And if they are not serious, Lent is probably all the more tedious, because here is yet another thing impinging upon their perfectly busy lives. They are probably hoping to stay insulated both from winter and springtime, kept in a perfect box of perfect weather with a thermostat to keep their spiritual life from being anything but utterly bland all the time.

But we do not have to be those people. For a great adventure is now beginning. We can, like Peter, feel “suddenly brave and adventurous,” that there is a great task set before us that will define us and fulfill us. Or like Susan, Lent can be “as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by,” a time of intense and often heart-rending beauty. Or perhaps we greet Lent like Lucy, with “the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realise that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer,” for freedom is at hand, and everything becomes possible.

Springtime is precisely about freedom. We are able to go outside again, to stretch our arms and legs, to reconnect with life. This is the time to stretch not only our limbs but also our spirits, to clean not only our homes but our hearts. Repentance, the theme for Great Lent, is not fundamentally something dark and negative, but rather beautiful and powerful, because, like springtime, it is the cleaning out of our hearts, the rededication of ourselves to what truly matters. In this spiritual springtime, we emerge again from the traps we’ve devised for ourselves so that we can be watered with the showers of divine energy, to turn our faces clearly toward the sunshine of the love and healing of God, to grow toward Him once again.

This Sunday is called the Sunday of Forgiveness, and this evening at Forgiveness Vespers we will give and receive from each other precisely that great gift. If we do not forgive, if we do not show up and make that forgiveness real, then we cannot expect that God will forgive us. Indeed, we essentially pray again and again that He will not, because we pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” If we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven. And if you are at all like me, you need forgiveness.

Forgiveness is the restoration of relationship. It is when we come home by the path of repentance. In this Great Lent, most especially if you have never done it before, come with us on the journey. This journey cannot be taken only by coming to church on Sunday morning like you always do. Lent is almost invisible on Sunday morning, because Sunday is always a celebration of the Resurrection. But in the bright sadness, the secret glory of the Lenten services during the week, something else emerges, something that gives that resurrectional celebration its true meaning.

When I was watching the film, and it came to the part where Aslan was going willingly to be sacrificed on behalf of a traitor, to give his life in exchange, I became a little concerned that my four year old daughter was perhaps not quite ready to see that sort of thing on screen. But although the film makes it clear what happens, the act itself is essentially done off-screen. But all my concerns were wiped away by what happened a few moments later.

You see, after the grief of Susan and Lucy at seeing the great lion killed, they hear a great crack, for the stone table on which he had been sacrificed breaks in two. And then his body disappears. And suddenly, he’s back, standing on the crest of a hill in glory. At that moment, my little daughter’s face lit up in a way I’ve never seen before, and she immediately said, “Oh, I love him!”

When I asked her at the end of the movie how Aslan was like Jesus, she said right away, without any hesitation, “He rose again!” And he did.

So here we now stand, perched once again at the edge of the great adventure, the turn of the season from the dark entrapment of winter to the refreshing freedom of springtime. Will we follow the King the whole way? Will we enter into His time of glory? And when we see Him emerge from the tomb on that Great and Holy Day of Pascha, will we quite naturally say, “Oh, I love Him!”?

May it be so for you.

May the God of forgiveness and of resurrection, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, be therefore glorified always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Cultural Recusancy in Quotations from Men Whose Names Start with Initials

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…the spirit of wickedness in high places is now so powerful and many-headed in its incarnations that there seems nothing more to do than personally refuse to worship any of the hydras’ heads. – J. R. R. Tolkien, from a 1969 letter to Amy Ronald

The world is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time; so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and to save the world from suicide. – T.S. Eliot, “Thoughts After Lambeth”

The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. – C. S. Lewis, from his introduction to St. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation

The comedy of man survives the tragedy of man. – G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News, 1906

My attitude toward progress has passed from antagonism to boredom. I have long ceased to argue with people who prefer Thursday to Wednesday because it is Thursday. – GKC, Orthodoxy, 1908

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.ibid.

Men invent new ideals because they dare not attempt old ideals. They look forward with enthusiasm, because they are afraid to look back. – GKC, What’s Wrong With the World, 1910

Comforts that were rare among our forefathers are now multiplied in factories and handed out wholesale; and indeed, nobody nowadays, so long as he is content to go without air, space, quiet, decency and good manners, need be without anything whatever that he wants; or at least a reasonably cheap imitation of it. – GKC, Commonwealth, 1933

…In the brown bark
Of the trees I saw the many faces
Of life, forms hungry for birth,
Mouthing at me. I held my way
To the light, inspecting my shadow
Boldly; and in the late morning
You, rising towards me out of the depths
Of myself. I took your hand,
Remembering you, and together,
Confederates of the natural day,
We went forth to meet the Machine.

- R. S. Thomas, “Once”