Returning to a Life of Pilgrimage

David Russell Mosley

michelino_danteandhispoem

Epiphanytide
Sts. Timothy and Titus
26 January 2016
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
For I had wandered off the straight path.
-Dante, The Inferno, 1-3.

While I cannot claim to be quite midway through my life (or so I hope, though Dante proved to be wrong about this himself), I have recently begun my annual re-read of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I’m doing it a littler earlier than usual for two reasons: First, I’ve just been dying to re-read it, and this year I bought myself individual volumes for each part. Second, Pope Francis has recommended Dante’s poem as beneficial reading for the Year of Mercy. While I’m not a Roman Catholic, I’m certainly not one to ignore the advice of those far holier than I. As I read it, perhaps even more closely this year due to its multi-voluminous nature, I’m struck rather forcibly by the notion of pilgrimage.

What I mean is this: Traditionally, the main character in the Divine Comedy is called the Pilgrim. This is to separate Dante the Pilgrim from Dante the author since he is a character in a story, similar to how there is Lewis the author and Lewis the character in Out of the Silent Planet. So we call the character the Pilgrim. But we do this also because he stands for us as a kind of Everyman. It is not only his pilgrimage from Hell to Heaven, but ours as we journey with him (Bilbo works in a similar way in The Hobbit, as do hobbits in general in The Lord of the Rings). In this sense, that the Pilgrim is a representative for me, can I say that I am the Pilgrim. This is not because there is anything special about me but precisely because I am interchangeable with any other. I am, in my own way, just as much an Everyman, just as Dante is also an individual. In a way, I replace the pilgrim. I am the one journeying through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. I am on a pilgrimage, not to Rome or the shrine of a particular saint (though I hope to make this kind of journey someday) but to God himself. The Pilgrim and I go on this journey together, our identities sometimes being blurred.

Augustine will often talk about our journey in life as one that is intended to end in our Patria, our Fatherland. The allusions to Philippians 3 are obvious, but Augustine also means that our journey in life is to the Father, the Beatific Vision. A misunderstanding of this view has, unfortunately, led some to the conclusion that this world itself does not matter. Of course this is precisely not true for our journey to the Patria is not a spacial one. We do not move from Earth to Heaven. Rather Earth itself, in fact the whole cosmos, is moved to both Hell and Heaven. It is this pre-resurrection life that is not our homeland, not our Patria, not creation itself. This is key, I think, to living the Good Life. We must recognize that it is not material existence in a material creation that we are journeying away from. Instead, it is sin, evil, death itself; these are the things we hope to leave behind as we journey to God. Even as we journey on, we bring the rest of creation with us, lifting it up as priests to God, but also offering thanks on its behalf.

So I am trying to return to a life of pilgrimage. I am trying to remember that this life is a preparation for the life to come when Christ returns and makes all things new. This should mean that everything I do in this life be done as if by a pilgrim. I ought not to tie myself to sin and death, to the corruptible, but to set my sights on things eternal. Only in this way can I have creation, including my own, as I ought. Only in this way can I be in right relationship with the world around me. I must remember first that I pilgrim journeying to the Patria, in the process of being deified. Christ has paved the way and journeys on with us; the Spirit guides us, corrects us, points us back to Christ and his saints; and the Father is our journey’s end. Join me, won’t you, in this pilgrim life?

Sincerely,
David

Advertisements

Is Narnia an Allegory?

Dear Friends and Family,

You may remember that a few years ago I wrote you concerning whether or not the Chronicles of Narnia is an allegory. I cam out firmly against it. Here, Brenton Dickieson goes into much greater detail, being the better (and proper) Lewis scholar, showing you what allegory is, what Lewis thought of it, and why Narnia is not an allegory. Do give it a read.

Sincerely,
David

A Pilgrim in Narnia

No. It’s not.

Allegory of Love CS Lewis new reprintWhile tempted to leave it at that and produce the shortest blog of history, I think it is important to let the Narnian himself address the question. C.S. Lewis was, after all, a literary scholar who had written an entire academic book about the development of medieval allegory (The Allegory of Love). He knows what allegory is, when it works well, and how to use it when it is the best genre to use. He liked Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and George Orwell‘s Animal Farm. He himself wrote an allegory, The Pilgrim’s Regress, and never chose to do so again.

When Lewis turned to writing for children and his earlier science fiction books, he could have easily chosen allegory. Instead, he wrote fairy tale and space romances. J.R.R. Tolkien hated allegory “in all its manifestations” (see his 2nd edition foreword to The Fellowship…

View original post 918 more words

On the Passing of Alan Rickman and the Adaptation of Books to Film

David Russell Mosley

 

alan-rickman-as-the-sheriff-of-nottingham

Epiphanytide
14 January 2016
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

As many of you have already heard or read, Alan Rickman, an excellent actor, has died. Rickman has always been one of my favorite actors. My first introduction to him was in the simultaneously wonderful and terrible “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.” While Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood leaves much to be desired (including hair), Rickman’s Sheriff was a revelation. The line, “I’ll cut your heart out with a spoon!” will never leave me, for better or for worse. In addition to being the evil sheriff, Rickman will remain for the epitome of Colonel Brandon, the once jilted lover who has now fallen for the emotional and opinionated Marianne Dashwood. His gravitas in that role made me believe that he not only loved the young girl, but himself suffered heartache from a lost love. For many, however, especially of those younger than me, Rickman will forever be remembered for, in some ways a similar role, his adaptation of Professor Severus Snape. Rickman, of course, has played many roles over his career, but I focus on these for two reasons. First, they are those most well-known to me. They come from some of my favorite films. Second, they are characters whose origins are in books.

Christopher Tolkien, youngest son and second youngest child of J. R. R. Tolkien, is famous for his opinion that Peter Jackson’s adaptations of his father’s work have no value. They have evacuated any sense of beauty or theology that underpinned them. Or so Christopher Tolkien believes. He, however, misses something and this returns me to Rickman’s career as an actor who played literary characters. Any adaptation of a book, however good or bad, tends to do one very good thing: it inspires the viewers who have never read the book to do so. This isn’t always the case, but I believe it often is. Many have turned from Jackson’s films to Tolkien’s books for the first time, precisely because they saw the films. In Rickman’s case, this was how I came to read Sense and Sensibility. I watched Ang Lee’s adaptation and loved it and so turned to the book. Similarly was I turned to various Robin Hood stories thanks in large part to “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.” Many have likely begun to read the excellent Harry Potter series because of the film adaptations (some of which are quite good and others of which are really not). Rickman, often playing the villain, therefore serves as a conduit from film to book for many. I for one can no longer read the lines of Colonel Brandon or Severus Snape without doing so in Rickman’s voice. He has helped shape my imagination concerning those characters.

Rickman was an excellent actor and he will be missed. However, we still have his body of work and I hope and believe that those portions of it which are adaptations of books will continue to help shape the imaginations of new readers and help them discover new books that might not have read had they not seen the film first.

I leave you with this spectacular video of Rickman making an epic cup of tea:

Sincerely,
David

Catholic or Pagan Imagination: A Response to Colleen Gillard

David Russell Mosley

11693870_621718160704_455999442244007259_n

Epiphanytide
7 January 2016
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Yesterday an article went up on The Atlantic by writer Colleen Gillard titled, “Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories.” A friend sent it to me today and I will admit initially to being sympathetic to the title. After all, as most of you will know, fairy-tales, of which the British have many and Americans few, are my bread and butter. Nevertheless, as I continued to read the article, I could not bring myself to agree with the precise reason why British children stories are superior to American ones.

Things were going along fine at first. The first line of the article, a kind of one sentence summation of the article in toto, says, “Their history informs fantastical myths and legends, while American tales tends to focus on moral realism.” Gillard goes on to provide evidence for this by first contrasting Huckleberry Fin to the Harry Potter stories. As Gillard writes, “One defeats evil with a wand, the other takes to a raft to right a social wrong.” American children stories especially from the nineteenth century onward tend to focus on life in the frontier and usually have a strong moral ethic to them that involves working hard, or being cunning enough to get others to work hard for you, sticking to your guns against an immoral society or an amoral nature. Gillard, citing Harvard professor Maria Tatar, connects the American side to the Protestant work ethic. Again, I find myself agreeing. Yet it is when Tatar suggests that it’s simply that, “the British have always been in touch with their pagan folklore…. After all, the country’s very origin story is about a young king tutored by a wizard.” Now Gillard, and Tatar, is going a bit awry if you ask me. First of all, King Arthur, while an essential story within British culture, is not exactly the country’s origin story. That’s not quite the role it’s meant to fill. But putting that aside, Merlin being a wizard and Arthur’s tutor (which sounds much more like Gillard is getting her Arthurian legend through T. H. White rather than, say, Chretien de Troyes or the Gawain Poet or many, many others) doesn’t make those stories pagan.

The rest of the article goes on to pit Britain’s pagan past against America’s protestant, and particularly puritanical foundations. This is, I think, quite, quite wrong. I’m not adverse to giving the pagans their due in forming some of the foundations for what would become later British fairy-tales and children’s stories. But there is something else I think that is missing from this picture: Britain’s Catholicism, both Roman and Anglo. Gillard seems to forget that if Arthur is famous for having a wizard as a counselor, he is just as famous, if not more so, for the quest for the Holy Grail, the cup in which Christ’s blood and water was caught when he was pierced by the centurion. She forgets that Tolkien, who’s riddle game in The Hobbit is given as an example of pagan folklore, was a devout Roman Catholic who admitted that The Lord of the Rings existed in Catholic, albeit pre-Christian, Cosmos. She forgets that Lewis was a High Church Anglican and Christian apologist, that Philip Pullman wrote his stories as an atheist anti-Narnia. She forgets that Rowling herself admits that Harry Potter is an essentially Christian story. Paganism, or better Faërie, plays an important role in the British imagination, one that is often lacking in the American imagination, but it is Faërie baptized more often than not.

One of my favourite fairy-stories, the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, makes the connection between Faërie and Christianity quite firm. Gawain is on a quest to find the Green Knight and receive from him a blow with an axe on his neck, Gawain had given the knight such a blow and severed his head, which the Green Knight summarily picked up and rode off with. During his quest to find this knight and receive the blow from him, Gawain quite clearly enters into Faërie. This is clear when he enters “countries unknown” where “with worms [dragons] he wars, and wolves also,/at whiles with wood-trolls that wandered in the crags,/and with bulls and with bears and boars, too, at times;/and with ogres that hounded him from the heights of the fells.” Here we see Gawain, who it should be noted had a picture of the Virgin Mary painted on the inside of his shield, battling normal creatures one might meet in the wild––wolves, bears, bulls, boars––but also with the darker creatures of Faërie: dragons, wood-trolls, and ogres. Clearly, Gawain has left the human world behind and has entered Faërie. But perhaps the most obvious connection between  Faërie and Christianity is when Gawain is lost in Faërie on Christmas Eve and prays for a place to celebrate Mass and a castle appears before him. The people he meets there are evidently denizens of Faërie and yet the worship the Holy Trinity. You see Catholic Christianity as it spread throughout Europe did not simply do away with the old stories and beliefs; neither did they simply change out gods for angels, heroes for saints, pagan celebrations for Christian ones. Instead there was a baptism of the pagan. The old stories were seen in a new light, in the light of Christ, God become man and the cosmos attendant to that. For Christianity during this period angels moved in the heavenly spheres, bread and wine became the body and blood of Jesus Christ, water and oil became vessels of God’s grace. All of creation, from the highest Empyrean to basest matter is imbued with grace, is upheld by and participates in God at all times. It was a cosmos where angels were attendant at the Mass and in the home. And it was a cosmos that had room for the longaevi, the long-lived, the elves, the fairies.

This is what Gillard, and in my opinion the experts on folklore, are missing. They don’t understand the relationship between Christianity and Faërie. They don’t understand that Arthur is a Christian King whose exploits often take him into Faërie or at least its edges. Now, they are quite right that much American story-telling is missing this as well. The kind of protestantism that served as the religious foundation of America was a denuded one (though it should be noted that the Puritans were often famous for reading omens from God in everyday events). Nature slowly became an un-Christian space to be conquered, rather than our fellow creatures. This is not to say that Faërie is necessarily absent from America, but that white-American culture at the least lost the ability to see it, if they ever had it.

A final point before I leave you: I read fairy-tales still. They are not, as the article somewhat suggests, only or even especially for children. This is a lesson Tolkien learned after he wrote The Hobbit when he wrote and delivered his lecture On Fairy-stories. Instead, fairy-tales and fantasy ought to serve as continued reminders that creation is a gift (something the article somewhat notes), that it is graced, and that for those who have the eyes to see it is enchanted. And all this is so, not because it is pagan, but precisely because it Christian. Precisely because reality is sacramental, because the cosmos is itself liturgical, is it enchanted, is there a place for Faërie. This is what the Beowulf Poet, the Gawain Poet and earlier Arthurian authors understood, what Chaucer understood, what Shakespeare understood, what MacDonald, Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien all understood: British fairy-tales aren’t better than American ones because they are more pagan, but because they are more Christian.

Sincerely,
David