Arthuriana: Arthur, Inklings, and the Attraction of Logres

David Russell Mosley

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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

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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

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

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

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness: Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother Renders Her Strange

David Russell Mosley

Christmastide
St Basil and St Gregory of Nazianzus
2 January 2015
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

The first fairy godmother I want to look at is Cinderella’s. The first thing to note is that she does not appear in the Grimm’s version of the tale. I could speculate what that might say about early nineteenth century Germany and the nature of protestantism, or why it is in the more Catholic French version of the story where the godmother appears, but I won’t, not fully anyway. So, it is to the Charles Perrault version of the story I must turn. I must admit upfront, I am using an English translation (my French is so poor, poor is not an appropriate enough term for it), and it is from Andrew Lang’s Fairy Book editions. Now, to the fairy godmother.

She first appears after Cinderella watches her step-family go off to the king’s ball. At first all were told is that her godmother sees her crying and asks why. Cinderella tells her and then Perrault writes, ‘This godmother of hers, who was a fairy, said to her, “You wish that you could go to the ball; is it not so?”‘ Her being a fairy is presented in an incidental way. She’s her godmother, and she’s a fairy. But then another unexpected layer is added.

Not only is she a godmother and a fairy, but she apparently has a chamber either in the house or on the grounds, ‘Then she took her into her chamber, and said to her, “Run into the garden, and bring me a pumpkin.”‘ Now this need for Cinderella to go into her godmother’s chamber before going into the garden suggests to me that the godmother’s chamber serves as a kind of threshold into Faërie. It is from a garden accessible from her godmother’s chamber that she must go to to get the pumpkin which will become her chariot as well as the lizards who become her footmen.. It is from a mousetrap in her chamber that the mice who become horses are collected as well as the rat who becomes her coachman. Aside from the prohibition necessary to a fairy tale according to Tolkien (the midnight curfew), the only other role she plays in the story is to transform Cinderella’s clothes when the prince finds her showing to her step-family the true beauty she has always had.

Following on Pickstock’s discussion of godparenthood, we do see some fairly standard godparent duties being discharged. Pickstock writes of godparenthood, ‘It represented the creation of a formal ritual friendship, symbolized by gifts and festivals, to which natural kinship could only aspire.’ Cinderella’s godmother is most certainly a gift-giver and the gifts she gives are to allow Cinderella to attend a great festival. Now it is likely this is not the kind of festival Pickstock had in mind, but there is nevertheless an inherent relationship between giving gifts and festivals cementing Cinderella’s relationship to her godmother. Also, there is certainly a compaternitas here, as the godmother is a better kin/parent than those closest to her, her step-mother and step-sisters. And then there is the psuchic, or spiritual/soulish nature of the care that is meant to be provided by a godparent. It is easy to pass over, but when Cinderella tells her godmother that she does wish she could attend the ball, her godmother says, ‘”be but a good girl, and I will contrive that you shall go.”‘ Cinderella has already proved herself a good girl. We are told about Cinderella that she was ‘of unparalleled goodness and sweetness of temper, which she took from her mother, who was the best creature in the world.’ That her stepmother ‘could not bear the good qualities of this pretty girl, and the less because they made her own daughters appear the more odious.’ But what is more, Cinderella herself is more than beautiful, she is truly good and shows it in the way she handles her abuse, ‘The poor girl bore it all patiently, and dared not tell her father, who would have scolded her; for his wife governed him entirely.’ Also, the stepsisters, in their preparations for the ball, which Cinderella will not attend, ‘They also consulted Cinderella in all these matters, for she had excellent ideas, and her advice was always good. Indeed, she even offered her services to fix their hair, which they very willingly accepted.’ Even at the Ball where she might rub her newfound clothing and situation in her step-sisters faces, rather ‘She went and sat down by her sisters, showing them a thousand civilities, giving them part of the oranges and citrons which the prince had presented her with, which very much surprised them, for they did not know her.’ It seems clear that Perrault’s Cinderella is the unification of truth, goodness, and beauty and it is her godmother who helps bring this out and make it evident both to herself and to her step-family. And this leads to the spiritual uplifting of the step-sisters as much as it does to the change in station of Cinderella. Clearly, then we can say that the fairy godmother was not godmother only to Cinderella, but to her whole family, again as Pickstock suggests, ‘Its principle was that of compaternitas, which affirmed that a godparent was kin not only to the child, but to his natural family as well.’

This leads me finally to observe what role Faërie plays in all of this as well. Clearly, if all we see the godmother as doing is providing Cinderella with a ride and beautiful clothes, then a rich aunt or grandmother or human godmother [or a famous Renaissance painter as the demythologised version starring Drew Barrymore had it] might have served just as well. Yet it is a fairy godmother and the riches she provides are not initially lasting. As she returns from the second day of the ball she is dressed in rags having only one glass slipper left from her previous magnificence. So it is more than the finery, the ornamentation that she provides. It is, as I said above, the spiritual or psuchic parenting that she provides and in a way befitting Faërie, which isn’t simply to say the magic. Yes, the fairy godmother uses a wand and performs magic, but it is so much more than this. What she does is what, I have argued, Faërie/Fantasy in general do, she rendered Cinderella strange in order for others––the Prince, her step-family––to see her for who she truly is: beautiful, good, and true. This is why she must be a fairy godmother, for only in this way, in this marriage of the Kingdom of God and the realm of Faërie can we see the coincidence of truth, beauty, and goodness in a world that is often dressed in the rags of familiarity and even fallenness.

Sincerely yours,

David

Why Have a ‘Fairy’ Godparent: Faërie and Godparenthood

David Russell Mosley

Christmastide
30 December 2014
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

I’ve been thinking about godparenthood lately. My own boys don’t yet have godparents, the Restoration Movement having no real place for this in its liturgical or ecclesiological practices. Nevertheless, I am drawn to this practice. There is a beauty to it, this notion that your children have other parents, not merely to raise them should something happen to their natural parents, but to help raise them in the faith. Which leads me to the purpose of this letter, to consider, what is the role of the fairy Godmother (it is nearly, so far as I know, always a woman). I will write a series of letters discussing the way fairy godmothers function in their stories. To begin, then, we must try to understand what a godparent is.

Catherine Pickstock in her excellent book After Writing has this to say about Godparenthood:

‘Godparenthood, in the high Middle Ages, was more than a metaphor; it was one of the most immediate forms of kinship. Although the parenting was spiritual, it was no less a real parenting, so real, in fact, that marriage between godparent and godchild was forbidden by the barrier of incest. Its principle was that of compaternitas, which affirmed that a godparent was kin not only to the child, but to his natural family as well. It represented the creation of a formal ritual friendship, symbolized by gifts and festivals, to which natural kinship could only aspire. And such psuchic parenting, or care for the soul, was the very thing which mediated between blood relations and the wider community. The principle of compaternitas, or development of a society structure based upon contractual “bonds”‘⁠1 (143).

A godparent, argues Pickstock, is now in a real relationship with their godchild. There is, through the rites and rituals––and, note well, the gifts––, a bond created, not unlike that of the bond of marriage between the godparent and the godchild’s family. There are many elements both from the passage in Pickstock and in godparenthood’s history that are worth studying. However, there are three key aspects I want to focus on: first is the gift-giving aspect that solidifies the relationship between godparent and child, and this plays out in fairy tales; the second is the kinship that is forged between godparent and child; and the final is the ‘psuchic parenting’ this care for the soul aspect of godparenthood.

I will look at these aspects in a few key stories: Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty as instances in more ‘traditional’ fairy tales; and The Light Princess and the Curdie stories by George MacDonald. So join me as we examine fairy godparenthood and what role Faërie plays in raising us in the faith.

Sincerely yours,
David

1 Pickstock, After Writing, 140.

The Sacramental Imagination of Smith of Wooton Major

David Russell Mosley

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Ordinary Time
19 November 2014
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Today I venture into the books I didn’t read as a child. I think this is important because I came to many of these books both as a Christian and often as a theologian. This means that what I see in these books is in no way coloured by my childhood experiences of them. So, the first book I want to write to you about is one of my favourites, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Smith of Wooton Major.

The story behind Smith of Wooton Major is actually really funny. Tolkien had been asked to write an introduction for a new edition of George MacDonald’s ‘The Golden Key’, another excellent story that I will likely feature in this series. The problems are twofold, however. For starters, Tolkien was a perfectionist. The Hobbit first came out in 1937 and he was soon asked for a sequel. The Fellowship of the Ring came out in 1954, seventeen years later. The other problem is that Tolkien isn’t always very good at explaining things. Dr Corey Olsen, the Tolkien Professor himself, were discussing this aspect of Tolkien just last week. What Tolkien is rather much better at is telling stories. So, in the process of writing this introduction to ‘The Golden Key’, Tolkien decides to undertake to define what a fairy tale is. In order to do this, he decides to construct an example. This example became the story Smith of Wooton Major and the introduction was left unfinished.

The story, Smith of Wooton Major, tells us the story of a person called Smith who lives in a town called Wooton Major. Wooton Major has a rather prestigious position of Head Cook. The Cook is expected to cook various meals throughout the year, but every twenty-four years he is expected to cook for the Twenty-Four Feast. At this feast, twenty-four children are in attendance. The pièce de résistance at this feast is the cake. It is on this cake that the cook’s reputation is made or falls. One particularly year, when Smith is a child and in attendance something strange happens at the feast. The Head Cook, a man called Nokes, who had taken over from Smith’s grandfather, rather than the apprentice Alf decides to put treasures inside the cake for the children to find, including a star which Alf tells him comes from Faërie. Smith finds, or rather, doesn’t realise he finds this star in his piece. One day he coughs, the star pops out and he claps to it his head. From this day on Smith is transformed. He sings as he works. He works of ironmongery are beautiful, he makes no weapons, and best of all, he has gained access to Faërie.

Smith makes many adventures to Faërie, trying to scout out the whole of the land and experience everything he can. He eventually meets both the King and Queen of Faërie, as well as many of its inhabitants (all of whom are human in shape and size, though they are Fairies). He is frightened at times and goes places he shouldn’t. Perhaps what is most interesting, however, is that eventually, Smith must give up his star. Alf, the apprentice, had become Head Cook some time before and was preparing for his second Twenty-Four Feast and asks Smith for the star. With the star, Smith gives up some of the light it gave to his eyes and has, it would seem, lost his passport into Faërie. We feel the hardness of this for Smith for we are like him, most of us. We are ordinary people and yet we have gained access into Faërie as we have followed Smith into it. Yet it is not all bad, and I think this an important aspect.

When Smith returns from his final visit to Faërie, after he has returned the star, he meets with his son. His son, it would seem, has taken on the lion’s share of the work as of late, what with his father taking frequent trips into Faërie and all. His son tells him he hasn’t been able to go to a family party for all the work and wouldn’t go to the Feast the next day. Smith, however, tells him to make it a holiday, for there would now be four hands at the work. I have always argued that one of the key things fantasy does is render the world around us strange so we can see it for what it really is, so we can see it with fresh eyes. I think there is a relationship here to the function of the church (the building as well as the gatherings) and the celebration of the Eucharist. Smith still has work to do once his time in Faërie is done. Life isn’t over now that his time in Faërie. In fact, it almost seems that Faërie was a preparation for the rest of life. Similarly, our celebration of Eucharist is, in part, a preparation for the rest of life. Sunday is the first and eighth day of the week, both the beginning and the end and out from it flows the rest of the week. Now, unlike Smith and Faërie, Sunday sends out into Monday through Saturday only to return us to Sunday. Smith, it would seem, is not intended to return to Faërie, but we are intended to return to Sunday and one day to that Eternal Sunday that we practice in worship, the Son of God come down in glory. Faërie enabled Smith to be a better blacksmith, to be better in general. The Eucharist similarly enables us to go about our lives, taking Christ with us and reclaiming the rebellious and false kingdom of this world for the Kingdom of God.

Sincerely yours,

David