Arthuriana: Arthur, Inklings, and the Attraction of Logres

David Russell Mosley

11693870_621718160704_455999442244007259_n

Ordinary Time
27 May 2016
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

I’ve been on something of an Arthur kick lately. It started when I decided to buy and then read Avalon, by Stephen Lawhead (a kind of sixth book in Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle). Once I finished it, I decided to do my annual re-read of Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy, which culminates in the intensely Arthurian That Hideous Strength. In the midst of all this Sørina Higgins, over at The Oddest Inkling, who’s been blogging her way through the works of Charles Williams chronologically, decided have multiple bloggers write posts about individual poems from Williams’ Taliessin through Logres. I will have two essays in that series myself (one on “The Departure of Merlin” and one on the final poem, “Taliessin at Lancelot’s Mass”). This kick has led me to pick up a copy of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and request a copy of Le Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Malory (my copy is back in Illinois).

Now in addition to telling you about my reading habits and encouraging you to check out the series on The Oddest Inkling, I wanted to reflect on Arthur a bit. I’ve written about him before (The Return of Arthur: A Conversation with John Milbank and C. S. LewisThat Hideous Strength: The Cosmic and Enchanted Earth), but I want to reflect on something a little different this time around. I want to reflect on the question: why Arthur? Or even, why Logres (the name of Arthur’s kingdom)?

Arthur has had something of an enduring presence that on first blush seems obvious. It’s an idealized time when men were virtuous and righted wrongs; a time when women were strong of character and beauty; when the faith and the state were unified in a nearly perfect kind of way. And yet things were far from perfect. Depending on the stories you read, and when they were written, infidelity, adultery, incest even were rampant. And how many stories end with friends or even brothers harming or killing each other by accident because they were wearing the wrong armor or bore the wrong shield (in order to hide their identity)? Arthur himself is oblivious to his wife’s infidelity and one of his closest friend’s betrayal. Not only that, but he beds his sister and by her sires a child, at once son and nephew, who will eventually strike Arthur down. Arthur and his kingdom are far from perfect, and yet we somehow still idealize both him and his kingdom.

Of course, if we compare Arthur to Old Testament figures, he stands up alright. He’s not nearly as bad as Samson, and even David and Solomon have points at least nearly as low as accidentally sleeping with your half-sister. The comparison between Arthur and the Davidic kingdom is actually a rather natural one and may explain some of the allure of Arthur and Logres. After all, both give us idealized Kingdoms in which the monarch rules within God’s will (when they’re acting correctly). Both also give us stories about a kind of return. The Old Testament is replete with hopes of one from the line of Jesse, who will rebuild David’s tent. With Arthur there is hope for his return one day, when Britain needs him most, in the fulness of time, we might say. Not, of course, that Arthur is Christ, his return could only be an aid, balm to soothe our wounds until the one who can heal them returns. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Arthur endures, despite his faults, like David and Solomon before him, he represents Christ to us, but I think there might be something more, something beyond even Arthur himself.

With all it’s imperfections, Arthur’s Kingdom is what really draws us in. It is Logres that we find so attractive. This makes even more sense when we consider that many Arthurian legends include little action on Arthur’s part, “Sir Launfal,” “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” “Tristram and Iseult,” are all primarily about Logres, about the people who lived in the time of Arthur, were Arthur’s friends or foes. Even when one reads Lewis’ That Hideous Strength or Williams’ Taliessin through Logres one finds very little Arthur. In Lewis the focus is decidedly on Logres, which Lewis makes into an ideal, a haunting, behind Britain that strives with Britain for the soul of the Island. In Williams the focus, in my estimation, is on Lancelot and Galahad and therefore on Logres. Williams’ book ends with Logres having withdrawn to Galahad’s home Carbonek in Broceliande, and yet he calls us to pray for the skill to return to Logres.

So what is it about Logres? I think, and as I re-read my way through some Arthuriana this summer (interestingly, Lawhead refers to Logres as the Kingdom of Summer, something I hadn’t considered when I took up my Arthurian readings) I will be able to better tell, that three things really attract us to Logres. First, I think, is the sense of society. The people who live in Logres have a single (or nearly so) vision of what life is and to what end it is directed. Knights fight for justice and are themselves, mostly, virtuous. It is the kind of society in which people want to live (this is a similar draw that the Shire in The Lord of the Rings has on many people, but perhaps in a way that feels more attainable since it requires far less fighting and far more drinking, smoking, and feasting––two-thirds of which do also feature heavily in Arthurian legends, smoking being a primarily new-world discovery).

Second, I think, is it’s closeness to Faërie. Most Arthurian stories do not take place in Elfland, but they certainly take place on it’s edge (for intensely faeriean stories, I recommend “Sir Launfal,” and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” and “Sir Orfeo”). We like this closeness to nature and the idea that there are deeper realities behind the woods and rivers that we see every day.

Lastly, I think it is the Grail that attracts us to Logres. It’s true that the Grail is a relatively late and primarily French addition to the stories. However, I think the Grail symbolizes something already inherent in the stories, namely the sacramental imagination or ontology behind the Arthurian legends. It is not only trees and mountains and rivers that are enchanted, but men and women (Bertilak, for instance, or Merlin, or Brisen) and even bread and wine. An illustration I often use is that of Gawain praying for a place to celebrate the Christ-mass (Christmas) when on his way to receive a blow to the neck from the Green Knight and having a fairy-castle appear before him where he can so celebrate. The Holy Trinity, Mary, angels, the saints, all are bound up in these stories. Or better, they underpin them. Arthur, as Arthur, and Logres as Logres do not work without the Catholic underpinning. This is what takes the possibly earlier Welsh stories (that may or may not have been pagan) which are primarily national stories and elevates them to the extent that the French begin writing stories about Arthur, that even Dante has heavy Arthurian themes and references in The Divine Comedy. Logres represents the possibility of the Lord’s Prayer (or Pater Noster) being lived out here on Earth. What is more, the other two attractors I mentioned are bound up in this one. Society and even Faërie get their fullest expression in the Catholicity, the Christianity, of Arthur’s Logres.

Sincerely,
David

An Answer to the Call for the Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything

David Russell Mosley

flammarion-woodcut

Eastertide
Octave of the Ascension
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

A few days ago a new acquaintance (really a kindred spirit and therefore friend, though we’ve not yet met) of mine, Michael Martin, wrote an essay on the Angelico Press blog entitled, “The Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything.” For those unfamiliar with Martin, he is the Assistant Professor of English and Philosophy at Marygrove College and has written several works, the only one of which I have read thus far is The Submerged Reality: Ophiology and the Turn to a Poetic Metaphysics. Martin is like me, a believer in faërie, a poet (though a far better one as I understand it). I think we both can sign off on this line from an interview with theologian John Milbank, “I mean, I believe in all this fantastic stuff. I’m really bitterly opposed to this kind of disenchantment in the modern churches.” So I was overjoyed when Martin decided to put tires to pavement in a new way (he’s been living this stuff for some time now) when he wrote this essay.

Martin’s essay is a clarion call to those who are like minded in this endeavor which he calls the radical Catholic (and I would add catholic) reimagination of everything, or one might it even call it the C/catholic unveiling of sacramental ontology, for, ultimately, this is what Martin is driving at. At the beginning, Martin, a proponent of sophiology (something on which I hope to write more as I understand more), notes the call to Wisdom (Sophia) that appears at key moments in the Byzantine Liturgy. He then turns to another part of the liturgy, a hymn called  Megalynarion, “The Magnification of Mary.” You can read those for yourself in Martin’s essay. What I want to draw your attention to is this line from Martin:

“My investigation here is not about the liturgy, however, but about the ways in which phenomenology and sophiology discover the same phenomenon: the shining that illuminates the cosmos. This shining speaks in the languages of poetry, languages that take on a myriad of forms and are sometimes mistaken for science, sometimes for theology.”

Martin is calling us to a different way of seeing, but also a different way of doing, of being, simply put of living in reality. Martin understands that certain strains of theology do not allow for this kind of sight. He notes, via Hans Urs von Balthasar, that Neoscholasticism denuded itself of attention to the Glory of the Lord and that this proper attention was passed through certain poets, philosophers, and scientists while it was lost by the theologians. Even were one to disagree with this genealogy, one need only look at trends in theology today to see that this attention the Glory, to Sophia, to sacramental ontology has been ignored by many (though it is making something of return as theologians find themselves once again desiring to return to the sources).

In the end of his essay Martin issues a call to “poets, artists, scientists, adventurers, teachers, communitarians, distributists, scholars, and visionaries who hanker for something more living in Catholic culture.” He does not desire mere theory, men and women sitting in a room talking about how great it would be if. However, it should be obvious that Martin is not against the study of these issues in order to better inhabit these ideas and live this reality. Rather, Martin wants us to act as we talk. Theoretike and Practike must be united. Some may be Marthas and others Marys, but we need both and we need most of all those who are willing to live the hard life being both at once.

And so this is, in my own small way, my answer to Martin’s call. I am a poet, an author, a theologian, a gardener, a distributist, a husband, and a father (and more besides); I am all of those things bound up together and suspended as one made according to the Image. I am ready not simply to think about a sacramental ontology but to live it. This will be hard, already have I been confronting ways in which my habits did not accord with my beliefs and my knowledge, but I will answer this call. I must answer this call, I can feel it in the very blood that flows through me that this is right, that this is how reality really is. Confronting my son’s cancer was the first step for me in coming not simply to believe that these fantastic elements of the faith are true (I already believed), but to experience them. Yet I have let the shadows overcome me and make me believe that those moments are rare and that real life is lived without experience of the Glory. Well I say no more. I say that that way of living is ultimately damned (though we can be saved from it). Root and branch, twig and bough, I am in. Join me, as I join Martin and others and we radically (which remember means to return to one’s roots) and catholicly reimagine everything.

Sincerely,
David

Levitas and Gravitas, Fairies and Mystics: A Response to Christiana N. Peterson

David Russell Mosley

11693870_621718160704_455999442244007259_n

Eastertide
7 April 2016
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Last week, Image Journal, posted to their blog an essay by Christiana N. Peterson. In the essay, Peterson talks about her daughter’s longing for fairies and its relation to the mystics longing for God. I posted the article to my personal Facebook page saying, “There is more that could be said, but this is a good beginning.” Today, I would like to say a little more.

Some of my friends responded to the article noting that the depiction of mystics was rather sanitized and romanticized. This is true. Peterson writes:

The mystics’ words make me think of wings again, of living in the trees of Middle Earth with the elves. Why, I wonder, would reading the mystics feel like reading Tolkien or searching for fairies in the dying light of summer?
I so want to encounter God in the way of the mystics. I want to know God is with me, right now in the moment, in tangible, visible ways. So I pour over their words and spiritual practices, wishing to have visions but knowing that God often comes to us in more mundane ways.

For Peterson, reading the mystics is like reading Tolkien, but I’m not sure if it’s like reading Tolkien in the right way. For Peterson, the connection is between the deeper realities glimpsed by the mystic and a land populated with things like elves, dwarves, and dragons. Yet when I read the mystics, I feel less like I’m reading Tolkien, in that sense anyway, and more like I’m reading Ezekiel or Dante or Tolkien in a very different sense. Let me explain.

The mystics, who really can’t be categorized together like this, are often giving us insight to one of two things if not both. Often they are giving us translated visions of the deeper reality, of the angels, thrones, and powers, the logoi that stand behind and uphold, through God, the things we experience everyday. Or else they give us an insight into ourselves. Peterson mentions Theresa’s interior castles, but it is precisely that these are castles that exist within us. I think of Augustine’s Confessions where he turns from searching for God in creation to searching for God within himself and as he plumbs the depths of his soul is raised to higher heights. Or again, I think of Dante who takes us through Hell (our own sinfulness), purges us in Purgatory, and gives us that first glimpse of the Beatific Vision and the ecstatic understanding that will be given to us on how God could be so joined to man in the person of Jesus Christ, by extension (or better participation) in us. Or again, I think of Denys and how the Celestial Hierarchy stands behind, upholds, and gives reality to the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy.

For me this reminds me of Tolkien not because of Middle-earth, per se, but what Middle-earth represents, namely the reality of Faërie. Tolkien writes in On Fairy-stories, “It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of words, and the wonder of things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.”⁠1 I’ve written before about this, and other, quotations from Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories, but I want to draw attention to this line again because of the examples Tolkien uses. It is perhaps not inappropriate to see in bread and wine the Eucharist. Here, in a way, we get at the heart of the mystics. For many mystics things we see in everyday life, or fantastical combinations of them (e.g., the griffon), stand for deeper, spiritual realities. They images that serve as symbols of a deeper reality. In the Eucharist (and other sacraments) it is not just pictures but physical objects themselves that serve as real symbols of deeper realities.

What is more, however, is that for Tolkien, Faërie itself is the Perilous Realm. A land in which, should we venture, we will not come out unchanged (as Aragorn says to Boromir before they enter Lothlorien). If, as a friend has suggested, Peterson’s view of mystics is sanitized, so too is her picture of Faërie. The angels, it would seem, are terrifying to behold, if we take seriously their injunctions to “Be not afraid” when they appear to mortals. Lewis uses this to an interesting effect in his Perelandra when the two guiding intelligences of the planets Mars and Venus ask Ransom, the human protagonist of the Cosmic Trilogy, to tell them which will form will be most suitable for introducing themselves to the King and Queen of Venus. Ransom is terrified as they appear to him in forms whose depictions are lifted almost word for word out of Scripture (notably Ezekiel).

Now, like Peterson, I will be raising my children to look for fairies, though perhaps not in broken potsherds, but in large mounds. I hope that this investment in their imagination will do for them what it did for me, open up the possibility that there are things we cannot see or cannot comprehend and categorize. That along with angels and the logoi (insofar as those two are separable) there may be lesser beings both like and unlike us who belong to this world in a way even we do not, and that we might be able to catch a glimpse of them if we correct our vision (which often takes holiness). Yet I hope my children will also learn to seek these things in the right spirit, the spirit that says these things are not safe, they are not tame, to borrow language from Lewis, but that at least some of them are good.

So, I agree with Peterson, there is a connection fairies, or better Faërie, and Mystics. But this connection has to have the right tenor, the right level of both levitas and gravitas. We can at once find both joy and terror in the presence of God, so to in the Perilous Realm, and we need both in order to see them more clearly. A joyless God is not a God worth our worship and yet neither is one who does not inspire us to say, “Woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips.” What we do not need are safe fairies, nor a safe God. Safe reality is not worth our existence. We need stories and a reality that rightly reflect the deeper truths. Consider again the Eucharist. Here is the source, in so many ways, of all our joy. We are united to Christ as we eat his flesh and drink his blood. Yet consider precisely what we are doing, we are eating flesh and blood. We are re-visiting not only the night on which Jesus was betrayed, but his crucifixion, his body torn, his blood poured out. The source of all our joy is a moment of horrific torture unto death. This is something the mystics most certainly understood as their visions make clear (I think of St. Perpetua and her dream about the ladder covered in nails and spikes with a dragon at its base. Yet once she reaches the top, there is joy and peace). It is both levitas and gravitas, life and death, joy and danger, that unites our search for fairies and our search for God and the deeper truths of reality.

Sincerely,
David

anImage_3.tiff

1 J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘Tree and Leaf,’ in The Tolkien Reader (New York: The Ballantine Publishing Company, 1966), 78.

My Lenten Journey with Dante, Augustine, and Samwise

David Russell Mosley

botticelli-augustine

Lent
24 February 2016
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

It’s been a while since I’ve written, I apologize. Early in January I got asked to teach an extra class for Johnson University, one developed by someone else, and I’ve been snowed in by homework ever since. I have finally caught up, however, and am now waiting for my students to turn in their final projects, a research paper on the Apostles’ Creed, this Sunday. While I probably should be working on my conference paper for the NEMAAR in April, or either of the two books I have coming out, I thought I would stop to write a little something about Lent.

A little over a month ago I wrote about trying to return to a life of pilgrimage. While Lent is an excellent time to engage in the journeying nature of the faith, I admit to having struggled with it a bit. My Lenten fasts have been going OK, but I have this sense that this Lent could be particularly transformative for me, if I only allow it. It was, therefore, rather providential that I came across “First Steps, Brancaster” by poet Malcolm Guite. Guite’s poem, while set in Winter, hit me on day when the weather was warm and I was sitting outside. Sadly, it has gotten colder again, it even snowed last night. Nevertheless, read this stanza:

This is the day to leave the dark behind you

Take the adventure, step beyond the hearth,

Shake off at last the shackles that confined you,

And find the courage for the forward path.

You yearned for freedom through the long night watches,

The day has come and you are free to choose,

Now is your time and season.

Companioned still by your familiar crutches,

And leaning on the props you hope to lose,

You step outside and widen your horizon.

This season, Lent, this day, is when I begin the first steps of my journey. I am moving forward, limping, but heading forward nevertheless. I have not only my crutches but my guides. This Lent I am reading several books that I think will help me as they are themselves stories of journeys, quests, and pilgrimages. As I wrote to you in my letter on pilgrimage, I am still reading Dante’s Divine Comedy. Just yesterday I left the ante-room of Purgatory with Virgil and the Pilgrim. Later today I will enter the garden of Eden with them working my way ever closer to the Beatific Vision, or at least whatever glimpses I can get of it this side of the parousia. I am also reading Augustine’s Confessions journeying with him into the depths of my soul, into the depths of my sin, so I can come out of the muck and mire of my sinfulness and reach up and be raised up to the Trinity. Lastly, I’m re-reading The Lord of the Rings, which I read every year. I am joining Frodo, Sam, and the others on a journey to see new beauties and face new horrors in the hope that when I return home, should I return home, I will not return the same.

I hope this Lent will be transformative for me, but even more, I hope it will be transformative for you.

Sincerely,

David

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

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

The High and the Low of Christmas

David Russell Mosley

kung_fu_panda_holiday_cover

Advent
17 December 2015
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

So the other day I was looking for a short kids movie to watch with my sons on Netflix. The featured video was the Kung Fu Panda Holiday. Since it featured all the original cast, and I happen to like the first two Kung Fun Panda movies. Any way, to give you the briefest of synopses: Po (the panda and Dragon Warrior, read really important kung fu person) will be hosting the annual winter, undefined holiday feast at the Jade Palace (place where all the kung fu masters we met in the first movie live). This feast is highbrow. Elegant is the word of the day. Every hand gesture Po makes has meaning. Contrasted with this is the Christmas party Po’s adopted father (a goose) holds at his restaurant. This party couldn’t be more common (as Shifu says). Po feels torn in two. Should he take up the responsibility, and honor, and serve as host at the Jade Palace, or serve noodle soup with his father and their friends from the village. This is the dilemma. Should Po participate in the High or the Low? The answer, in the end, is the low, the common. Here all are welcome. The kung fu master and the low slinger of noodle soup. While cute and adorable and prioritizing family, I think the answer is a bit flawed.

In Christmas particularly do we have a coming together of the High and the Low. Although I think this only possible when we have a church celebration of the Nativity on the 25 of December. Let me explain: Particularly in a high church “style,” but ultimately any time we gather to worship, we experience something of the high. We bring ourselves in a corporate setting into the presence of God (not that God is ever not present, but in worship, in liturgy, we have the opportunity to bring time into eternity). In this sense nothing could be higher. When placed within the trappings of a high mass this becomes even more evident.

And yet a proper celebration of Christmas does not end with a church service. A celebration of the birth of Christ is not complete without feasting with one’s family and friends. Good food, games, and traditional folk songs, along with generous amounts of wine, beer, and spirits. Nothing could be more low, more common. We join in our homes, however “homely” and share in life together: we laugh, we fight, we sing. These are things common to all people. And they are beautiful in their lowness.

Christmas, in fact all of life, requires both the high and the low. I’m reminded of a story told to me by one of my PhD supervisors. He had been tasked to deliver a homily at the wedding for the child of a friend and mentor. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, was performing the actual sacrament. As the stood on the lawn outside the church, the bride along with her family and other members of the wedding party were paraded through the village. After the service, at the reception, the father of the bride gave a long and rather theological speech. When he finished, the father of the groom stood up, noticed the rather highbrow nature of things up to this point and so led the whole reception in singing an old folk song. Everyone joined in, even the father of the bride with gusto. This is a picture of what I’m talking about, the wedding of the high and the low. Both are necessary for a full life and make up the proper celebration of all holidays, Christmas not the least.

So, this Christmas, let me encourage you to seek the high and the low. By all means enjoy time with your family and the giving of gifts, enjoy your family traditions, But also make sure you enter into the presence of God. Enter into the throne room of God by entering into corporate worship with your brothers and sisters in Christ. We must keep the Mass in Christmas as well as the feast in the Feast of the Nativity.

Until then, enjoy Advent and prepare yourselves for the coming of Christ.

Sincerely,
David