Creativity as Deifying: On Fairy Stories, Part II

David Russell Mosley

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Lent
4 April 2014
On the Edge of Elfland Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Dear Friends and Family,
Here is the lengthier part 2 of yesterday’s thesis extract. This section is, in essence, a commentary on J. R. R. Tolkien’s essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’. Let me know what you think.

On Fairy Stories

‘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.’1 One could easily replace fantasy with poetry, make with create or poetise, made with created or a poem, and Maker with Creator or Poet. What Tolkien says about Fantasy and fairy-tales is equally true of poetry. As Tolkien writes, ‘Fairy- stories were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded.’2 In On Fairy Stories, Tolkien is laying out what he thinks fairy-tales are and what they are meant to do. Tolkien, as noted above, tells us that the purpose is to elicit desire. This desire is simultaneously a desire for what is past, namely a nostalgia for Eden. Equally, however, the desire is for what is to come, namely the new Heavens and new Earth, or deification, though Tolkien is not so explicit.

Nevertheless, Tolkien’s own work here bears out that fairy-tales are for more than the awakening of this desire, we might even call it a natural desire for the supernatural, but that it also serves as a kind of corrective lens. In chapter 2 I argued that the Fall incurs and includes an obfuscation of our sight, that humans can no longer see correctly. This is something Faerie can help us overcome. He writes:

Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re- gaining––regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “see- ing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”––as things apart from our- selves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness of familiarity––from possessiveness.3

In Faerie we can see things for what they really are or could be or at least for how we are meant to see them. In any event, the fairy-tale helps us see more clearly. However, Tolkien also makes it clear that fairy-tales are not the only way to do this. ‘Of course, fairy-stories are not the only means of recovering, or, prophylactic against loss. Humility is enough.’4 Nevertheless, fairy-tales mixed with humility will help serve as a corrective lens so that the world may be glimpsed in a the light we were meant to see it. This passage from Tolkien is particularly provocative on this point:

Faërie includes many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.5

Tolkien begins by showing us the things we expect to see in Faerie, or Elfland as Chesterton called it in Orthodoxy: fantastical beasts, mythological creatures, wicked and benign. Then, however, Tolkien shifts to things we see in the mortal world, the first four perhaps have a commonplace in our modern imaginings of Faerie (see Disney’s preference for his heroines to be accompanied by birds and other woodland creatures). Then, Tolkien makes a very deliberate shift that helps knit this chapter together, bread and wine, which is meant to incite images of the Eucharist. Indeed, even the inclusion of water, which may at first had us thinking of Bombur’s en- chanted sleep after falling in the river of Mirkwood, but after seeing bread and wine listed, baptism ought now to be in our minds, perhaps even the stone can evoke images of medieval fonts. Even humanity, when enchanted is encompassed by Faerie.

What Tolkien does here is show forth the notions of a sacramental universe as I described above. All things are or can be more than what they are because all things exist in Faerie. All that is needed is eyes to see them. This is one of the roles fantasy plays, that poetry plays. For Chesterton, this rendering strange is an essential aspect of fantasy. He writes, ‘The only words that ever satisfy me as describing Nature are the terms used in fairy books ‘charm’, ‘spell’, ‘enchantment’. They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.’6 Perhaps one of the first things fantasy can do for us (particularly when written from a Christian perspective) is to show us that the God of Christianity and the Creation of Christianity are not the ones of deism. Rather God is, as I have argued throughout, Poet, Creator, intimately connected with his Creation/Poem.

This alone perhaps shows the purpose of including a long discourse on the purpose of fantasy/poetry in a chapter on redemption in an essay on deification. There is, however, more. Following on what Milbank has said above, the writing of poetry and fantasy, and particularly the act of world-creating, at least according to Tolkien, is a gift and therefore graced and also an aspect of our deification. Alison Milbank provides a perhaps even more crucial link between the writing of fiction (specifically fantasy, but all fiction ultimately) and deification. She writes, ‘And it is in the ability to create––fiction is linked to the Latin verb facere, to make––that the artist comes closest to God. For us to recognize the world as God’s creation, we have to see it as a work of art; for us to recognize the creative power of the artist, we similarly have both to experience his or her fiction as a world but also be aware of its constructed nature.’7 First note that our word fiction is related to facare which provides the latter portion of the word deification. This is the same as noting that the latter half of the Greek theopoiesis, namely poiesis, is the source of our word for poetry. Even more so, however, Milbank, alongside Tolkien, notes that this act of creativity, this act of artistic creation renders the artist as an imitator of God. What is more it reminds us that just as we need to immerse ourselves in an artists creation without forgetting its constructed nature, so too should we not forget the created nature of the cosmos around us because it has a Creator.

George MacDonald writes in an essay on imagination, ‘man may, if he pleases, invent a little world of his own, with its own laws; for there is that in him which delights in calling up new forms–which is the closest, perhaps, he can come to creation.’8 Again, connecting this to Milbank’s notions of our own creativity as a participation in the divine creativity––and indeed noting our creativity as an aspect of humanity being made in the image and likeness of God––, allows us to see this closeness to acts of creation (that is creation ex nihilo) already implies the deificatory and deifying significance of fantasy writing, of world creation. However, as MacDonald, Chesterton, Tolkien, and the Milbanks all make clear, this is a participatory creation. However real it is, however much it can be termed an addition to the Poem, it is still participatory and a gift. MacDonald writes:

In the moral world it is different [from the physical]: there a man may clothe in new forms, and for this employ his imagination freely, but he must invent nothing. He may not, for any purpose, turn its laws upside down. He must not meddle with the relations of live souls. The laws of the spirit of man must hold, alike in this world and in any world he may invent.9

MacDonald while noting that human creators can rework our physical world, as he does when he has a bedroom transmute into a forest glad right on the edge of Faerie, believes that the moral world cannot be changed. We can imagine a world in which humans are kept in cages and apes perform studies on them, but we are not to imagine a world where morality can become amorality, where falsity is given the place of prominence of truth, or evil the place of goodness, or ugliness/disorder the place of beauty.

What MacDonald writes of as almost a kind of suggestion, Chesterton sees as the only true laws of our universe. For Chesterton there are immutable facts even in world-creation:

But as I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened––dawn and death and so on––as if they were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one make three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of imagination. You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by their tales.10

Chesterton is here criticising the sciences which seek to suggest that the things they have observed and can predict with an amount of certainty are laws. The only laws, according to Chesterton, are those things we cannot imagine differently without unmaking them or redefining them. Two and one cannot not make three unless we change the meanings of two, one, and/or three. Similarly good cannot be evil without changing what the word good means. Alison Milbank writes that this view of the world is sourced in Chesterton’s consumption of fairy-tales, ‘Fairy-tales, however, are not natural but cultural productions and it is by means of these fictions that Chesterton comes to view the world itself as magical: utterly real and enchanted at one and the same time.’11 Thus, for Chesterton, the world is real, but it is also enchanted and this affects the way fantasy is written. While Chesterton, in the passage above, is not specifically writing about writing, that is, he is not directly speaking of the act and art of human creativity, it is implicit in what he writes. When we create worlds, whether in poetry, fantasy, science-fiction, etc., we may unhinge the ‘laws’ of nature:

break them open and make them stand on their heads. What we cannot do, however, is break the laws of mathematics or goodness/morality. It is not that the author is not allowed to do these things, but that they are not possible, or at least not possible consistently.

Milbank gives this its most theological voice when he writes:

Of course, in human beings other than Christ there is no absolute coincidence of the human will with the divine creative will; but nevertheless one can logically speak of a ‘participating’ in this creative will, where human action brings about something that is generally now, as in the case of a new sort of legal convention or a new sort of artistic idiom. But because the creative human being is ‘inspired’, and because she does not fully grasp or command the new thing she has brought about, there is no absolute creation here: the new thing invented is also ‘discovered’, given to the creator herself as a mysterious new potency.12

Milbank reminds us that humans cannot create in the same way as God. Not even divine creativity rests in us in the exact same way it does in the Godhead, despite the fact that (or perhaps precisely because) we are made in the image of God. Milbank couches our creativity in terms of gift and participation. It is our participation in divine creativity that allows us to create, yet that participation is a gift. What is more, the very things we create, insofar as they are good, are gifts from God. We receive them just as much as we create them. This is why, for MacDonald, ‘A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer the art, the more things it will mean.’13

MacDonald takes this notion of true art having multiple meanings and applies it to the differences between creations of humans and God: ‘One difference between God’s work and man’s is, that, while God’s work cannot mean more than he meant, man’s work must mean more than he meant.’14 Here, MacDonald is not denying a multiplicity of meaning within the works of God, but that the number of meanings cannot exceed God’s intention. This is not the case with human creation. The numerous interpretations of works by human beings stand as testimony to this. Yet this multifariousness can be a good thing when applied to meaning in human works. In this way Tolkien’s work can be considered both an indictment on capitalism15 through his depictions of the Shire and yet also as providing commentary on the necessity of war but without the love of it particularly in the words of Faramir.

In the end, for Tolkien, the fairy-story serves an even larger purpose, which is the introduction into our minds of eucatastrophe and participation in the Evangelium. A fairy-tale is almost not a fairy tale, for Tolkien, if it lacks a happy ending.16 This is precisely what makes it different from tragedy. Rather than a sudden turn that causes all events to go awry (Hamlet’s mother drinking the wine meant to kill Hamlet, Laertes being stabbed by his own poisoned sword, etc.) there is a sudden turn of events that causes all to go right. Tolkien called this the eucatastrophe. For Tolkien, ‘The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of the fairy-tale, and its highest function.’17 This is so because the happy ending participates in an even greater story. ‘But in the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater––it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.’18

The Gospel is, for Tolkien, the greatest fairy-tale, and is the source for all fairy-tales, even those that come before it. He writes in words similar to those I have used in the previous chapters, ‘But the story has entered History and the primary world; the desires and aspirations of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.’19 The Poet enters the Poem, but it is more than this. The entrance of the Poet into the Poem hallows (deifies, theo-poetises) the work going on within the Poem by us. For Tolkien:

But in God’s Kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, to hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.20

Our creative faculties, that aspect of our being made in the image of God, are redeemed and pulled up to the level of creation. In writing fantasy and poetry we imitate and participate in God as Creator, as Poet. What’s more, we participate in God as storyteller through salvation history, particularly through the story of the Incarnation which serves as the source for our storytelling.

All of this discussion of human creativity in fantasy and poetry, however, needs now to also be connected more directly to deification. Having looked at the foundations and purposes to which poetry and fantasy are put, I want to turn now to two stories about creation to show, in part, how they relate to deification, how they relate to the whole Poem and the process of Poem becoming Theo-Poem.

Sincerely yours,
David Russell Mosley

1 J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘Tree and Leaf,’ in The Tolkien Reader (New York: The Ballantine Publishing Company, 1966), 75.

2 Ibid., 63.

3 Ibid., 77.

4 Ibid., 77.

5 Ibid., 38.

6 G. K. Chesterton, ‘Orthodoxy,’ in Everyman Chesterton (London: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 302.

7 Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2009), 64-5.

8 George MacDonald, ‘The Fantastic Imagination,’ in The Complete Fairy Tales, ed. by U. C. Knoepflmacher (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 5-6.

9 Ibid., 6.

10 G. K. Chesterton, ‘Orthodoxy,’ 121.

12 John Milbank, Beyond Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of the People (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2013), 196.

13 George MacDonald, ‘The Fantastic Imagination,’ 7.

14 Ibid., 9.

15 See the chapter entitled ‘Fairy Economics: Gift Exchange’ in Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2009), 117-141.

16 J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘Tree and Leaf,’ 85.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid., 88.

19 Ibid., 88-9.

20 Ibid., 89.

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A Place for Father Christmas: A Response to Tara C. Samples

Folk tale depiction of Father Christmas riding...

Folk tale depiction of Father Christmas riding on a goat. Perhaps an evolved version of the Swedish Tomte. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

David Russell Mosley

Third Week of Advent
16 December 2013
On the Edge of Elfland
Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Dear Friends and Family,

The Feast of the Nativity (probably a more accurate description for most Christians, and non-Christians, who stay whom on the 25 of December) is nearly upon us. This time of year, along with engendering quite a few more letters here on Letters from the Edge of Elfland, also tends to cause quite a lot of controversy, particularly over one issue. No, it isn’t the Keep the Christ in Christmas issue, nor is it the Happy Holidays controversy. It is the Santa Claus controversy. Every year we see a strange combination of consumeristic Santas (WestJet, Coca Cola, etc.) and Christians who have rejected the use of Santa Claus in their families.

One such example, and the impetus for this letter, appeared on the Sojourners blog by Lincoln Christian University Professor of Counselling and Psychology Tara C. Samples. Samples’ article says this, ‘We have chosen to say “no” to Santa based on our faith, our understanding of social psychology, and commitment to economic justice.’ For Samples, Santa has become a means for consumerism and thus the continuation of economic disparity. There is a truly heart-rending Christmas song called ‘The Little Boy the Santa Claus Forgot.’ The basis of the short and simple song is that this little boy received no presents at Christmas because he has no Father, thus his family lacks the ability to buy him presents from Santa. I myself have at least one friend who determined quite early on the Santa Claus could not be real because the gifts she received from him paled in comparison to the gifts given by St Nic to her wealthier neighbours. Samples goes on to say, ‘The jolly old elf brought a lot of joy into my life when I believed, but as an adult I have discovered Santa’s magic is a poor imitation of God’s grace and his mythology brings joy to only a privileged few.’ Her point? Santa can now only bring joy to those with enough money to buy presents for their children. This is Samples’s main reason for discontinuing the Santa tradition.

Samples does attempt to connect this consumerism to latent theology behind it as emphasised in this video by fellow Christian Joffre.  In the video a little girls is said to have stated in Sunday School that the number of presents one receives is dependent on how sinful one is (perhaps she said it a little differently than that, but you get the idea). Instead, as most Christian parents do who choose not to have Santa in their lives, Joffre and Tara focus on the historical figure Nicholas of Myra. A rather common trend in this day and age.

I want, however, to offer a critique. While I agree that Santa can be used to perpetuate bad theology and economic disparity, I’m not sure he’s outgrown his usefulness as Samples and this blog post suggests. Now I first want to argue that this is partly the reason I am a bigger fan of Father Christmas than Santa Claus. After all, Santa Claus literally means Saint Nicholas (Claus being another nickname for Nicholas like Nic/Nick). Having written on this subject already last year (In Defence of Father Christmas), I will leave it and continue to provide my defence of Father Christmas.

The key thing about Father Christmas is having someone bigger than you or your parents to be thankful to at Christmas time. G. K. Chesterton writes in the ‘Ethics of Elfland’ section of his celebrated Orthodoxy, ‘Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?’ For Chesterton, Santa Claus, or Father Christmas as I suggest, actually teaches us thankfulness. Author and Christian J. R. R. Tolkien believed Father Christmas to be such a good that he actually wrote letters from Father Christmas to his children each year. One might argue that in both cases these men came from (and had) economically privileged families. It would perhaps be mute to point out both that in their day Father Christmas rarely gave as extravagant gifts as he does today and also that Tolkien himself often wrote to his children letters from Father Christmas explaining why they did not get all the things they desired.

Perhaps my favourite depiction of Father Christmas is the ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Rather than a being as old as the nativity itself (see Tolkien’s Letters from Father Christmas), he comes from a family that can be dated back to the Christ event. This ghost’s chief purpose, beyond Scrooge’s salvation, is the spreading of Christmas cheer on food and conversations, those that are kindly given, but especially those that are poor, because, as the ghost himself says, they ‘need it most’. I personally use this, along with gift giving, when I write letters from Father Christmas to my nephews, and will continue to do so with my own children.

There are many arguments I could attempt to make defending the place of Father Christmas in Christianity, from thankfulness for gifts received and joy in gifts given to being able to teach our children (and ourselves) that our very existence is itself a gift. I wonder though, if perhaps there isn’t a bigger issue. Consumerism. Many Christians today repudiate Christmas altogether because of the way the World has taken it over. Yet this seems to be the wrong attitude. If the World has taken something of ours, rather than it give it up as a lost cause, should we not seek to redeem it. To show how we can do Christmas differently, how we can do Father Christmas (or Santa Claus) differently? To be in the world and not of it, its something I write about quite often on here, particularly in relation to liturgy and the Church Calendar. Father Christmas, whose very name more evokes the Feast of the Nativity than Santa Claus does, can be the way we as Christians do that. By all means let him bring toys, but perhaps he also brings suggestions to the wealthier to help the poor (as St James seems to desire). Perhaps as Alison Milbank will suggest in the video below, we can create a community of gift-exchange that centres around Father Christmas, who centres around the Nativity.  It should be remembered that C. S. Lewis, the author with whom Samples ends her article, used Father Christmas to signal the end of the reign of the White Witch in Narnia because he signalled the coming of Aslan into Narnia.

Sincerely yours, this believer in Father Christmas,
David Russell Mosley

Celebrating Theology Faculty from the University of Nottingham: Alison Milbank

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Dear Friends and Family,

Today I want to highlight Dr Alison Milbank. Alison and I share many affinities, particularly a love for combining (or showing the existing relationship between) literature and theology. Alison studied Theology and English Literature at Cambridge, doing her PhD at Lancaster. Alison’s work tends to focus in one sense on religion and culture and in another literature and theology. Her desire is to show how theology is and can be worked out through cultural poetic (that is artistic) processes.

Alison teaches a variety of classes from Religion and Fantasy to Dante. She also tends to teach the sections on Augustine of Hippo and Dionysius the Areopagite in a Master’s level course, From Plato-Hegel. While Alison is not one of my supervisors she has always had time for me to stop by and talk about the relationship between theology and literature, or paper ideas I have combining aspects of theology and literature. The paper I’m currently working on, ‘Avoiding Shortcuts: The Doctrine of Deification in Conversation with C. S. Lewis and the Church Fathers’, stems from multiple conversations we’ve had about deification in C. S. Lewis.

Bibliography

  • MILBANK, A., 2012. The Bible and the novel: apocalyptic reading Modern Believing. 53(1), 22-36
  • ALISON MILBANK, 2012. Returning to the Parish. In: ANDREW DAVISON, ed., Returning to the Church SCM. (In Press.)
  • ALISON MILBANK, 2012. Byron and the Explained Supernatural. In: GAVIN HOPPS, ed., Byron and the SupernaturalLIverpool University Press. (In Press.)
  • ALISON MILBANK, 2011. Dante, Ruskin and Rossetti: Grotesque Realism. In: NICK HAVELY, ed., Dante in the Nineteenth Century: Reception, Canonicity, Popularization Peter Lang. 139-58
  • 2011. ‘A Diminished Church: Revisiting Dogma or Disaster’ Theology in Action: Dorothy Sayers Society Study day.23-32
  • MILBANK, A., 2011. Apolgetics and the imagination: making strange. In: DAVISON, A., ed., Imaginative apologetics: theology, philosophy and the Catholic tradition SCM. 31-45
  • ALISON MILBANK, 2010. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu: Gothic Grotesque and the Huguenot Inheritance. In: JULIA M WRIGHT, ed., A Companion to Irish Literature 1. Wiley-Blackwell. 362-76
  • ALISON MILBANK, 2010. ‘The Sleep of Reason’: reason, Gothic and the Grotesque. In: CONOR CUNNINGHAM AND PETER M CANDLER JNR, ed., The Grandeur of Reason:: Religion, Tradition and Universalism SCM. 432-43
  • DAVISON, A. and MILBANK, A., 2010. For the parish: a critique of fresh expressions SCM.
  • MILBANK, A., 2009. Divine beauty and the grotesque in Dante’s Paradiso The Yearbook of English Studies: Literature and Religion. 39(1/2), 155-168
  • ALISON MILBANK, 2009. Bleeding Nuns: A Genealogy of the Female Gothic Grotesque. In: DIANA WALLACE AND ANDREW SMITH, ed., The New Female Gothic:: New Directions Palgrave Macmillan. 76-97
  • MILBANK, A., 2008. Grotesque Realism in Ruskin’s ‘Praeterita’: Autobiography and the World Beyond the SelfNineteenth Century Prose. (In Press.)
  • MILBANK, ALISON, 2008. Huysmans, Machen and the Gothic Grotesque, Or: The Way Up is the Way Down. In:HORNER, AVRIL and ZLOSNIK, SUE, eds., Le Gothic:: Influences and Appropriations in Europe and America 1st edition. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 83-99
  • ALISON MILBANK, 2008. Sacrificial Exchange and the Gothic Double in ‘Melmoth the Wanderer’ and ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. In: VICTORIA MORGAN AND CLARE WILLIAMS, ed., Shaping Belief: Culture, Politics and Religion in Nineteenth-century Writing 52. LIverpool University Press. 113-28
  • ALISON MILBANK, 2008. Tolkien, Chesterton and Thomism. In: STRATFORD CALDECOTT, THOMAS HENEGGER, FRANCES CAIRNCROSS, ed., Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’:: Sources of Inspiration Walking Tree. 187-98
  • MILBANK, A., 2007. Chesterton and Tolkien as theologians: the fantasy of the real London: T&T Clark.
  • MILBANK, A., 2007. Josephine Butler’s Apocalyptic vision of the prostitute and modern debates on prostitution. In:MILBANK, A., ed., Beating the traffic: Josephine Butler and Anglican social action on prostitution today Winchester: George Mann Publications. 89-104
  • MILBANK, A. G., 2007. Gothic Femininities. In: SPOONER, C. and MCEVOY, E., eds., The Routledge Companion to the Gothic London: Routledge. 155-63
  • ALISON MILBANK, ed., 2007. Beating the Traffic: Josephine Butler and Anglican Social Action Today Winchester, George Mann Publications.
  • MILBANK, A., 2006. A Fine Grotesque or a Pathetic Fallacy? The Role of objects in the autobiographical writing of Ruskin and Proust. In: DICKINSON, R. and HANLEY, K., eds., Ruskin’s struggle for coherence: Self-representation through art, place and society Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Press. 90-105
  • MILBANK, A., 2005. Tolkien and Gift Theory. In: Tolkien Seminar Papers
  • MILBANK, A., OTTO, P. and MULVEY-ROBERTS, M., eds., 2004. Gothic Fiction: Rare Printed Works from the Sadleir-Black Collection of Gothic Fiction at the Alderman Library, University of Virginia: a listing and guide to the microfilm collection Marlborough: Adam Matthew.
  • MILBANK, A., 2003. “My precious” : Tolkien’s fetishized ring. In: BASSHAM, G. and BRONSON, E., eds., The Lord of the rings and philosophy: one book to rule them all Chicago: Open Court.
  • MILBANK, A., 2002. The Victorian Gothic in English Novels and Stories, 1830-1880. In: HOGLE, J.E., ed., The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 145-165
  • MILBANK, A., 1998. Dante and the Victorians Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  • MILBANK, A., 1992. Daughters of the house: modes of the Gothic in Victorian fiction London: Macmillan.

Videos

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Theological Journey

Why Study J. R. R. Tolkien

Why Study Dante

Advent

Ash Wednesday

I hope you’ve enjoyed the videos and will pick up one of Alison’s books to read. If I can make a suggestion, I highly recommend her Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians. It is indicative of her general interests and is an excellent book for fans of Chesterton and/or Tolkien.

Yours,
David

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Lies Breathed through Silver or How God Creates History: Myths and Christianity

Dear Friends and Family,

I believe I’ve mentioned before both the fact that I have a profound appreciation for the writings of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, and that I have been sitting in on Alison Milbank’s Religion and Fantasy module here at the University of Nottingham. Well, a few weeks ago, Alison mentioned a YouTube video depicting a conversation had by Lewis and Tolkien (as well as Hugo Dyson who is left out of the video) from before Lewis was a Christian.

The topic of the conversation was the usefulness of myths. Lewis, having grown up loving Norse mythology and probably being quite familiar with Irish mythology as well, couldn’t reconcile the unhistorical nature of myths with his atheism. For Lewis, while myths were good stories, and even inspired something within him that, at the time, he could not understand, they were nonetheless lies, ‘breathed through silver.’

Tolkien counters this argument by noting that myths aren’t lies, their evidences of truth. For Tolkien all myths ultimately point to the one true myth, that of Christianity. When Tolkien says myth he means the exact opposite of lie, he means truth, or at least partial truth. What separates other myths from Christianity, for Tolkien, is that Christianity is the True myth. Tolkien describes myth making this way: when men create myths, they do so through stories; when God creates myth, he does through history. This doesn’t mean that there are no purely mythical (meaning unhistorical) aspects of Christianity, but that the heart and soul of the Christian myth (the Incarnation, God becoming man) is not only true, but a historical event.

Below I’ve included the video as well as the poem that Tolkien wrote after this conversation he had with Lewis. Please, enjoy both.

Yours,
David

To one [C.S. Lewis] who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though ‘breathed through silver’.

Philomythus to Misomythus

You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow’);
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star’s a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.

At bidding of a Will, to which we bend
(and must), but only dimly apprehend,
great processes march on, as Time unrolls
from dark beginnings to uncertain goals;
and as on page o’er-written without clue,
with script and limning packed of various hue,
an endless multitude of forms appear,
some grim, some frail, some beautiful, some queer,
each alien, except as kin from one
remote Origo, gnat, man, stone, and sun.
God made the petreous rocks, the arboreal trees,
tellurian earth, and stellar stars, and these
homuncular men, who walk upon the ground
with nerves that tingle touched by light and sound.
The movements of the sea, the wind in boughs,
green grass, the large slow oddity of cows,
thunder and lightning, birds that wheel and cry,
slime crawling up from mud to live and die,
these each are duly registered and print
the brain’s contortions with a separate dint.
Yet trees are not ‘trees’, until so named and seen
and never were so named, tifi those had been
who speech’s involuted breath unfurled,
faint echo and dim picture of the world,
but neither record nor a photograph,
being divination, judgement, and a laugh
response of those that felt astir within
by deep monition movements that were kin
to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars:
free captives undermining shadowy bars,
digging the foreknown from experience
and panning the vein of spirit out of sense.
Great powers they slowly brought out of themselves
and looking backward they beheld the elves
that wrought on cunning forges in the mind,
and light and dark on secret looms entwined.

He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers bencath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-pattemed; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.
The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.

Yes! ‘wish-fulfilment dreams’ we spin to cheat
our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!
Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,
or some things fair and others ugly deem?
All wishes are not idle, nor in vain
fulfilment we devise — for pain is pain,
not for itself to be desired, but ill;
or else to strive or to subdue the will
alike were graceless; and of Evil this
alone is deadly certain: Evil is.

Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
though small and bate, upon a clumsy loom
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.

Blessed are the men of Noah’s race that build
their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,
and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,
a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).
Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have tuned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.

I would that I might with the minstrels sing
and stir the unseen with a throbbing string.
I would be with the mariners of the deep
that cut their slender planks on mountains steep
and voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,
for some have passed beyond the fabled West.
I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant king,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.

I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends
if by God’s mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name.
I will not treat your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.

In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.
Then looking on the Blessed Land ’twill see
that all is as it is, and yet made free:
Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.
Evil it will not see, for evil lies
not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in malicious choice,
and not in sound but in the tuneless voice.
In Paradise they look no more awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie.
Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.

Relying on the Bleeding Charity instead of Our Rights: Lessons from Lewis’s Great Divorce

Dear Friends and Family,

This term, I have been sitting on a class taught by Alison Milbank called Religion and Fantasy. It has been an excellent class and an opportunity for me to re-read some of my old favourites and discuss their theological implications with others. One the texts we read for this course was C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. This is a story about a man who finds himself in a bus queue in Hell and makes a journey to Heaven. In Heaven, the denizens of Hell find themselves thin and ghost-like, while everything in Heaven is more solid and real than anywhere else. While in Heaven, Lewis overhears several conversations between people who knew each other on Earth, but one has gone to Hell and the other Heaven. It is the Heavenly beings’ job to try and persuade the Hellions to remain in Heaven.

Below, I have cited in full one of the most interesting conversations. The conversation is between a former factory foreman and one of his workers who had committed murder in his life on Earth. The foreman’s mantra is ‘I’m just here to get my rights.’ He thinks he’s been hard done by and that his rights have been violated. Read the conversation below and see what the Heavenly Spirit has to say about rights and charity in Heaven. I hope you enjoy.

Yours,
David

‘“Don’t you know me?” he shouted to the Ghost: and I found it impossible not to turn and attend. The face of the solid spirit––he was one of those that wore a robe––made me want to dance, it was so jocund, so established in youthfulness.

“Well, I’m damned,” said the Ghost. “I wouldn’t have believed it. It’s a fair knock-out. It isn’t right, Len, you know. What about poor Jack, eh? You look pretty pleased with yourself, but what I say is, What about poor Jack?”

“He is here,” said the other. “You will meet him soon, if you stay.”

“But you murdered him.”

“Of course I did. It is all right now.”

“All right, is it? All right for you, you mean. But what about the poor chap himself, laying cold and dead?”

“But he isn’t. I have told you, you will meet him soon. He sent you his love.”

“What I’d like to understand,” said the Ghost, “is what you’re here for, as pleased as Punch, you, a bloody murderer, while I’ve been walking the streets down there and living in a place like a pigstye all these years.”

“That is a little hard to understand at first. But it is over now. You will be pleased about it presently. Till then there is no need to bother about it.”

“No need to bother about it? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”

“No. Not as you mean. I do not look at myself. I have given up myself, I had to, you know, after the murder. That was what did it for me. And that was how everything began.”

“Personally,” said the Big Ghost with an emphasis which contradicted the ordinary meaning of the word, “Personally, I’d have thought you and I ought to be the other way round. That’s my personal opinion.”

“Very likely we soon shall be,” said the other. “If you’ll stop thinking about it.”

“Look at me, now,” said the Ghost, slapping its chest (but the slap made no noise). “I gone straight all my life. I don’t say I was a religious man and I don’t say I had no faults, far from it. But I done my best all my life, see? I done my best by everyone, that’s the sort of chap I was. I never asked for anything that wasn’t mine by rights. If I wanted a drink I paid for it and if I took my wages I done my job, see? That’s the sort I was and I don’t care who knows it.”

“It would be much better not to go on about that now.”

“Who’s going on? I’m not arguing. I’m just telling you the sort of chap I was, see? I’m asking for nothing but my rights. You may think you can put me down because you’re dressed up like that (which you weren’t when you worked under me) and I’m only a poor man. But I got to have my rights same as you, see?”

“Oh no. It’s not so bad as that. I haven’t got my rights, or I should not be here. You will not get yours either. You’ll get something far better. Never fear.”

“That’s just what I say. I haven’t got my rights. I always done my best and I never done nothing wrong. And what I don’t see is why I should be put below a bloody murder like you.”

“Who knows whether you will be? Only be happy and come with me.”

“What do you keep arguing for? I’m only telling you the sort of chap I am. I only want my rights. I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.”

“Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought.”

“That may do very well for you, I daresay. If they choose to let in a bloody murderer all because he makes a poor mouth at the last moment, that’s their look out. But I don’t see myself going in the same boat as you, see? Why should I? I don’t want charity. I’m a decent man and if I had my rights I’d have been here long ago and you can tell them I said so.”

The other shook his head. “You can never do it like that,” he said. “Your feet will never grow hard enough to walk on our grass that way. You’d be tired out before we got to the mountains. And it isn’t exactly true, you know.” Mirth danced in his eyes as he said it.

“What isn’t true?” asked the Ghost sulkily.

“You weren’t a decent man and you didn’t do your best. We none of us were and none of us did. Lord bless you, it doesn’t matter. There is no need to go into it all now.”

“You!” gasped the Ghost. “You have the face to tell me I wasn’t a decent chap?”

“Of course. Must I go into all that? I will tell you one thing to begin with. Murdering old Jack wasn’t the worst thing I did. That was the work of a moment and I was half mad when I did it. But I murdered you in my heart, deliberately, for years. I used to lie awake at nights thinking what I’d do to you if I ever got the chance. That is why I have been sent to you now: to ask your forgiveness and to be your servant as long as you need one, and longer if it pleases you. I was the worst. But all the men who worked under you felt the same. You made it hard for us, you know. And you made it hard for your wife too and for your children.”

“You mind your own business, young man,” said the Ghost. “None of your lip, see? Because I’m not taking any impudence from you about my private affairs.”

“There are no private affairs,” said the other.

“And I’ll tell you another thing,” said the Ghost. “You can clear off, see? You’re not wanted. I may be only a poor man but I’m not making pals with a murderer, let alone taking lessons from him. Made it hard for you and your like, did I? If I had you back there I’d show you what work is.”

“Come and show me now,” said the other with laughter in his voice, “It will be joy going to the mountains, but there will be plenty of work.”

“You don’t suppose I’d go with you?”

“Don’t refuse. You will never get there alone. And I am the one who was sent to you.”

“So that’s the trick, is it?” shouted the Ghost, outwardly bitter, and yet I thought there was a kind of triumph in its voice. It had been entreated: it could make a refusal: and this seemed to it a kind of advantage. “I thought there’d be some damned nonsense. It’s all a clique, all a bloody clique. Tell them I’m not coming, see? I’d rather be damned than go along with you. I cam here to get my rights, see? Not to go snivelling along on charity tied to your apron-strings. If they’re too fine to have me without you, I’ll go home.” It was almost happy now that it could, in a sense, threaten. “That’s what I’ll do,” it repeated, “I’ll go home. I didn’t come to be treated like a dog. I’ll go home. That’s what I’ll do. Damn and blast the whole pack of you …” In the end, still grumbling, but whimpering also a little as it picked its way over the sharp grasses, it made off.”’

In Defence of Father Christmas

Dear Friends and Family,

As Christmas Day is fast approaching, I thought I would write on a subject rather close to my heart: Santa Claus, or as he is known here, Father Christmas.

A collection of letters J. R. R. Tolkien wrote to his children from Father Christmas

A collection of letters J. R. R. Tolkien wrote to his children from Father Christmas

I believed in Santa Claus until I was 12, nearly 13. All in one day, I lost Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. I realise that I was older than most when I stopped believing. I had to ask my mom pointblank. She said, ‘Do you want the truth?’ Yes. I did. And so she told me there was no Santa Claus. This didn’t shatter my world. Somehow, I still maintained a sense of magic and mystery in the world around me. A few months later, I would decide that Christianity, that Jesus was real and before my next Christmas I had dedicated my life and death, and whatever he chose to give me after, to Christ.

I know that some parents are afraid of introducing Santa to their children because they may give up on God as well. I, however, can honestly say that being raised in a home that put no emphasis on God, loss of Santa did not make Jesus seem less plausible. I truly believe that belief in Santa, in magic in this world, prepared my pre-adolescent heart and mind for belief in one greater than Santa. I understand that Santa can be misused, he can become the face of crass consumerism and can make children of less wealthy families feel misused and abused by the goodly giver who gave them less than the rich boy down the street. However, I think as Christians we ought to take another look at Santa, or as I have come to prefer, Father Christmas.

The reason I prefer Father Christmas to Santa Claus is twofold. First, by making him Father Christmas we detach him from the real figure Sinterklaas, or St Nicholas about whom I wrote on his feast day. This allows us to discuss who the real St Nick was and what he did (i.e. giving gifts and punching heretics). Second, by using the title Father Christmas, he can be as old as the birth of Christ, connecting us ,even more firmly than the Bishop of Myra, to the event that we celebrate in the Feast of the Nativity, namely, the Incarnation of God. Father Christmas can become a figure directly linked with the giving of the gift of God become man.

One thing I do to support the belief in Father Christmas is to write to my nephews every year a letter from Father Christmas. I got the idea of Tolkien and have used similar, but never the same, characters he used to populate the North Pole. This way I can give them a bit of fun, as some kind of adventure or other seems to happen each year, but can also introduce notions about the true meaning of Christmas, that the world is a place where ‘magic’ can and does happen because of the God who created and upholds it.

Below is yet another video from the splendid Alison Milbank. Please watch it and consider incorporating Father Christmas into your family and your community.

Sincerely yours,
David