Catholic or Pagan Imagination: A Response to Colleen Gillard

David Russell Mosley

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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

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Forming a Sacramental Imagination

David Russell Mosley

Ordinary Time
21 October 2014
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

As many of you know, I am a proponent of handwriting letters. One of my correspondents calls them ’49 cent miracles’. Actually, he called them 44 cent miracles, but stamps cost 49 cents now.  Well, in a recent letter from a friend, he pointed out that while neither he nor I were raised in liturgical/sacramental churches, we have both found our way into liturgical/sacramental understandings of reality. While we’re both theologians, it isn’t merely our study of theology that led us here. We were, he suggests, prepared for a sacramental imagination by the works we read as children. While he and I will be exploring this more in our letters, I thought I would give some time to it here as well.

I’ve written time and again about the importance of fantasy and poetry for theology. I have a whole category called Faeriean Metaphysics. Nevertheless, the focus has almost always been on reading these works now, not about reading them as or to (or with) children. I have been a father for five, nearly six months, now and without even really thinking about it, I’ve been reading to them books that will help build their sacramental imagination. So far we’ve read Smith of Wooton Major, The Hobbit, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and we are currently in the middle of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. These books, even reading them now, will, I think, help form their imaginations and how they see the world around them. When I was a child, I began with The Hobbit, my mother reading it to me in the cradle. I also developed a love for Greek mythology reading various versions of all the great tales, Heracles, Perseus, Theseus, etc. Later I discovered Narnia and Neverland; and later still, I rediscovered Middle Earth. From there in college I expanded out even more. My imagination kept growing with each new story and each new world. It was this, even more than my first reading of Gregory of Nazianzus or Augustine or John Cassian that led me into a study of theology and a sacramental imagination.

Over the next few weeks, I want to look at some of these worlds and examine the ways in which they can help us, both as adults and as children, to develop a sacramental imagination. But I also want to leave you with this question. Many of you come, as I do, from a rather non-sacramental background. For people from the Restoration Movement, we tend to be sacramental about baptism, but not about Communion, though we do it every week, and certainly not about any of the other things which have been deemed sacraments over the centuries. Others may come from completely non-sacramental backgrounds, that is, things like baptism or the Eucharist are not sacraments but rituals or remembrances with no deeper reality to them. This causes me to wonder, is it even right to have a sacramental imagination? Of course, I think the answer is yes, but so many Christians might disagree. Therefore, as I look at these various worlds and the sacramental imagination they help foster in children, I will also be looking at the sacramental imagination as such, and the view it takes of these things we call sacraments. So look out for my next letter looking at the first world to which I was ever introduced, Middle Earth, and what relationship it has to a sacramental imagination.

Sincerely yours,
David