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.

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I’m Publishing my Faërie Romance: On the Edges of Elfland!

David Russell Mosley

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Ordinary Time
21 August 2015
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

As I announced on my personal Facebook page and both twitter accounts yesterday, I have had my faërie romance, On the Edges of Elfland (still just a working title) accepted for publication with Wipf and Stock Publishers under their Resource Publications imprint. While more well known for their theological books, they’ve also published several works of fiction as well as one volume of poetry from theologian John Milbank. Needless to say I’m overjoyed. I’ve spent the last four years of my life writing about the deificatory importance of human creativity, particularly that of poetry and fantasy. Now I’m being given a chance to show that I at least attempt to live this out.

You may have several questions like: what is my story about and when will it be available? To answer the second question first, the answer is, I don’t know. It will likely be available on Wipf and Stock’s website approximately 3-5 months after I’ve submitted the final manuscript. About six weeks or so after that it will be available from online stores like Amazon and about four to six weeks after that will an ebook be available. As for when I will be submitting the final manuscript, I’m not sure. I still have thesis corrections to do, so it likely won’t be ready until sometime after October.

Now, for what the book is about: Here’s an abstract I wrote for my publication proposal for Wipf and Stock:

When Alfred Perkins was a young boy, growing up in a pub in a small English village, he was often told stories by his godfather, Oliver Cyning. Mr Cyning’s stories always dealt with elves and fairies, and they were usually placed in the past of Alfred’s hometown. Alfred grew up believing these stories and spent many hours in the local forest looking for the denizens of Elfland. After a traumatic childhood experience, Alfred stops seeing his godfather and ceases to believe that Elfland exists. Now grown and having graduated from university, Alfred is forced to believe that his godfather’s stories were true. This discovery also leads Alfred to the knowledge that a plot is afoot to destroy both Elfland and his village. Now he must join together with friends from his village and Elfland in order to stop the evil plots of the Goblin King and take his rightful place in both the village and Elfland.

If this sounds interesting to you I hope you’ll consider buying the book once it comes out. I’m also trying to think of people to provide blurbs for the book so if a fairy-tale for adults is your thing and you have a name that might mean something (no offence to my many friends and family but I don’t think they’d accept blurbs from just anyone, sadly) or you know someone who might be good for providing a blurb for a book like this let me know by emailing me at elflandletters at gmail dot com. I’m also looking for copyeditors if you’re interested, let me know.

In the mean time I’ll keep writing here about the various and sundry topics covered by this blog. Also, to those of you who have read the portions of the book I’ve posted here or read earlier versions of it, I thank you. This book wouldn’t exist without you.

Yours,
David

A Brief Theology of Poetry and Fantasy: A Thesis Extract

David Russell Mosley

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Eastertide
St George’s Day
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire,

Dear friends and family,

Well, with a thesis submission deadline of 31 May, and my wife getting a new job (which means I’m watching the boys while she’s at work), I have not had much time for blogging. So, today, I thought I would post a short section from my thesis introduction. In this section I try to develop a theology of poetry by looking at the works of David Constantine, Rowan Williams, and John Milbank. There are so many others I could have turned to, Coleridge would make the most sense, but these authors serve as a great connectors between poetry, fantasy, theology, and deification. I hope you enjoy.

The argument of this essay is that human creativity, particularly, but not exclusively that of poetry and fantasy is an essential aspect of deification. I am intentionally equating poetry and fantasy, not because every poem is a work of fantasy; I do not mean that true poetry only happens if it contains elves, fairies, goblins, dragons, and the rest. Nor is all fantasy poetic in the sense that it obeys certain rules of metre, rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, etc. Instead, I am arguing for a similarity in goal that allows us to equate poetry and fantasy. According to Josef Pieper, poetry, as well as philosophy, is concerned with wonder.⁠1 It does this by ‘transcending the everyday world’.⁠2 Poetry takes the reader out beyond the world of our everyday experience, allowing the her to return to the world seeing it through the eyes of wonder. According to J. R. R. Tolkien, fairy-stories⁠3 have a similar goal. For Tolkien, the fairy tale’s chief aim is desire.⁠4 There are certain desires Tolkien associates with this, the ability to speak to animals, for one, and ‘survey[ing] the depths of space and time.’⁠5 However, these desires point the reader back even farther to an Edenic relationship with the world, one of intimate connection, of difference but not division. Fairy-tales awake, but do not fully fulfil this desire. If a fairy tale has done this, according to Tolkien, it has succeeded. What is more, works of fantasy serve, like poetry according to Pieper, to take the reader outside of the world, in order to return them to it. Tolkien 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 “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”––as things apart from ourselves. 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.⁠6

I will go into more detail about the effects of poetry and fantasy in the final chapter. What I will argue is that these twin abilities of poetry and fantasy are human imitations of and participations in God the Creator, and are therefore part of the process of deification. In order to understand how this is so, it is necessary to provide a theology of poetry and fantasy. This will lay the foundation upon which the human creativity elements of this thesis are built. I will do this by examining two authors on the subject of poetry––David Constantine and Rowan Williams––before turning to John Milbank on the subject of fantasy and myth.

David Constantine in his book Poetry,⁠7 Rowan Williams in the fourth chapter of his The Edge of Words,⁠8 and John Milbank in his article ‘Fictioning Things,’ provide a useful grounding for a theology of poetry that will be underlie the rest of this essay. None of these authors goes so far as to suggest that the creation or reading of poetry and fantasy is deifying. However, their understandings of poetry can be utilised to uphold my argument that poetry/fantasy is deifying for both poet and audience.

Poetry, for Constantine, is a fundamental of human society. It is not a superaddition, but rather an integral cornerstone. He writes, ‘I don’t think poetry a grace or a luxury that society might adorn itself with from time to time and drop altogether when it pleases. And I don’t think that poetry is for the few, happy or not. It is for the many, belongs and can only thrive among them, speaks of and to their concerns.’⁠9 Constantine is arguing both that poetry is necessary for society, but also that it is for all of society. It is not only for the high, for the learned, for the “elite” but for all. In this sense, poetry is common, is vulgar, is meant to be part of all human life. This integral nature of human creativity in the form of poetry will be connected to deification in the final chapter of this essay. Poetry, therefore, is for all people, but what role does it serve?

Constantine has various answers to this question. However, he begins to explain it when he references a poem by Robert Graves, ‘From the Embassy’. In this poem, Graves calls the poet, ‘an ambassador of Otherwhere.’⁠10 The poet is seen as an almost alien creature from another realm making that realm known to us the readers. ‘The currency of that land, its language, is ‘Otherwhereish’. Made of our common words, poetry sounds, in the company of those words, like speech brought to us by translation from abroad. Poetry signals its strangeness.’⁠11 Poetry, like fantasy, re-crafts language, breaks it, as we shall see Rowan Williams argue, and puts it back together in new and strange ways allowing the reader/hearer to see reality afresh. This reality, says Constantine, is not always pleasant, even if it can be categorised under pleasure, one of the key functions of poetry. Constantine writes:

Beauty gives pleasure. Beauty is the form in which truth is brought home to us. The peculiarity of the pleasure that poetic beauty gives us lies in the fact that the truth the poem faces us with may, as fact in real life, be deeply unpleasant, even unbearable. And it may be that truth altogether––the immanent presence of it––is hard to bear, whether the facts-in-life of it are pleasant or unpleasant. The effects that a line of verse may cause a reader or listener to experience, may be indistinguishable as physical effects from those of terror or horror.⁠12

For Constantine, poetry takes truth and renders it strange, unbearably so. Remember Tolkien’s understanding of the fairy tale as awakening desire, but not fulfilling it. The awakened desire, says Constantine, might be unbearable (whether pleasant or unpleasant). This is the grotesque, the unbearably strange that allows the reader to see the truth more clearly.⁠13

Constantine also notes the inherent religiousness of writing poetry. The poet sees herself as a conduit, as not simply a writer, but a receiver of something given. He writes:

Realizing, materializing, embodying, incarnating: many of the words we might reach for to describe what happens when a poem is made have religious connotations; and some poets whose concerns can fairly be called religious (in any named faith or none) have understood the making of a poem not just as an image of the working of divine presence but as the very bodily experience of it or, even more boldly, the means by which that devoutly wished for consummation might be induced to happen.⁠14

These ‘religious connotations’ are not enough, however. Constantine is unwilling to make the absolute statement that the poet is a receiver, not only of her poetry, but of her place as poet. The poet is made in the image of the Poet, as I shall argue. This lack means he can only tell us so much, in this text, about the nature of the poet as poet.

He also has, I would argue, an incomplete view of what poets, and artists in general are trying to do. For Constantine, ‘Literature, and the arts altogether, are the chief means by which human beings attain to consciousness of their condition. Poets and novelists, makers of fictions, try to say what it is like being human now; what the truth of our condition is, what responsibilities that truth entails.’⁠15 This is true, but not I think, in the way Constantine seems to mean it. Constantine seems to be arguing that poets are here to help humanity understand itself, in its brokenness, in its goodness, in every aspect of life. Further, Constantine wants to hint that there is a response on the reader’s or listener’s part to the truth imparted in poetry. Yet Constantine limits this to ‘what it is like being human now.’⁠16 Yet what about humanity’s future condition? What about trying to say what it ought to be like being human now, or what it will be like to be human in Paradise (or Hell as Dante does)? If Constantine means, instead, that the poet describes the human condition as it is in reality––in God’s reality––then I will agree. This is not what Constantine says, however.

In the end, Constantine’s vision for poetry is laudable, but shortsighted. He desires poetry to become commonplace, to be available to all and not only the elite.⁠17 This is good and necessary if, as I will argue, poetry is a necessary aspect of deification. Nevertheless, this grander end of poetry, its deifying nature, means that poetry should be in the hands of all people in order to transform them.

Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, and poet, argues similarly in The Edge of Words––composed from his Gifford Lectures––to Constantine concerning the strangeness of poetry. For Williams, poetry is concerned with trying to explain reality through other words, ‘The poet is under the discipline of routinely trying to see one thing through another; the language is marked as poetic by such obliqueness.’⁠18 The key way Williams interacts with poetry’s strangification is through rhyme. It is of course true that not all poetry rhymes, it has gone out of fashion in much of modern poetry. Nevertheless, the act of rhyming, says Williams, is one way poetry seeks to draw connections through unrelated words. He writes:

And the various techniques of rhyming perform another function, perhaps most important for the poet. Finding a rhyme––and ideally finding a rhyme that is not merely conventional––requires a unique moment of holding an idea in suspense while the writer looks for a way of saying it that will echo specific sounds. For the reader/hearer, the resultant echo will leave at least a trace of the sense of an unexpected connection. For the poet him- or herself, it will have been a matter of finding new phrases generated by the pressure of a discipline, meaning that a fresh perspective has been brought to birth. The most relentlessly complex schemes of assonance, like the classical rules of Welsh cynghanedd, intensify this as far as it will go, requiring not only rhyme by consonantal groupings and deliberate stress shifts on top of that.⁠19

The rhymed words, which are often unrelated, become related by the virtue of rhyming and the reader or listener is left to contemplate what connection might lay between two words. To take an example from the poetry of J. R. R. Tolkien, in his poem ‘Earendil’, Tolkien has an interesting rhyming scheme. To give a sample of it:

In panoply of ancient kings,

In chained rings he armoured him;

His shining shield was scored with runes

To ward all wounds and harm from him.

First note the combination of internal and external rhyming schemes. The last phrase of the first line rhymes with the first phrase of the second; the final phrase of the second rhymes with the final of the fourth; and the final phrase of the third line rhymes with the first phrase of the fourth line. Beyond this structural complexity, the reader is left to contemplate the connection of ‘ancient kings’ and ‘chained rings’––though this is not too difficult since ancient kings in Tolkien’s world often wore armour when they went to war. The connection of rune to wounds is more interesting, for here is the suggestion that words and symbols can serve as conduits of protection from bodily wounds. What we see, however, is how right Williams is, rhyme in poetry causes the reader or listener to bring together two words they would not previously have connected and to contemplate their relationship. Each word is rendered strange as she attempts to understand their new meaning together.

Williams goes on to suggest, as does Constantine, that there is something received in the creation of poetry. The poet is not the sole source of the poem. Williams notes that, ‘Poetic practitioners will often speak about the experience, in the composition of poetry, of listening, of being taken aback by what is heard and then said.’⁠20 Now Williams, like Constantine does not make explicit to whom are the poets listening, whom are they hearing. However, Williams, unlike Constantine, is using poetry in general to argue for language being evidence itself of God’s existence. The poetry that is created by this listening, says Williams, ‘may set out to reconstruct perception as if things were indeed being seen anew.’⁠21 Poetry changes the way reality is seen and causes both poet and audience to see things in a new light. Williams connects this ultimately to all storytelling and works of imagination. Telling a story becomes a way of ‘[disclosing] unnoticed wounds or unimagined possibilities or both.’⁠22 Here Williams agrees with Constantine that poetry, here meant in the broader sense of creations with words, is meant to represent the truth to us, even if that truth is unbearable or unpleasant. Again, here Williams goes further than Constantine. For Williams, poetry uncovers the deeper nature of the cosmos, both revealing it to the reader and mystifying it by revealing this nature through extreme language. Williams writes:

This element of ‘relearning our way’ in becoming human takes us back to the fundamental theme of why things are made strange in the work of imagination. The environment we encounter and inhabit is more than it seems; sometimes it takes extreme and excessive speech to prompt this acknowledgement, and the deliberate ‘making extreme’ of our language is a tool of discovery.⁠23

Poetry becomes a tool by which humanity relearns the deeper nature of the cosmos. This deeper nature, as I will argue in the following chapters is the sacramental nature of the cosmos. Williams does not go so far in this text, but that is likely due to the subject matter, namely natural theology.

Williams then argues that all human art renders humanity strange to itself.⁠24 This allows humanity to grow more fully by allowing us to become self-reflective, seeing ourselves in this strange new light. It allows us to understand, ‘hat our stability or virtue always stands under scrutiny and is always to be suspected of not being what we should like it to be.’⁠25 This is another place where Williams goes further than Constantine, for Williams recognises that this perspective garnered by the creation and experience of art causes us to realise that we are not, ‘the originator of speech but always the respondent; we are always at a disadvantage in our speaking in the sense that we do not ever ‘possess’ the first utterance that begins the exchange, and are aware of shaping our speaking selves always in answer to what we have never completely or definitively laid hold of.’⁠26 God is the originator of speech, and therefore when humanity creates art and experiences we are attempting to understand our position as respondents to the first speaker. Poetry and other versions of extreme language, like fantasy, therefore, ‘is simply this process at its most challenging and adventurous.’⁠27 For Williams, therefore, poetry and extreme language ‘is a necessary tool of human maturity’⁠28 precisely because it teaches the reader or listener to see the world, and themselves in it, differently. It causes us to view ourselves as respondents, attempting to read the world, as an instance of God’s speech to us, rightly and respond to it accordingly. Williams is willing to call poetry necessary concerning our maturity, but this maturity seems to be a pre-resurrection maturity. Limiting himself to natural theology, in this instance, he cannot go on to say that poetry is equally necessary for humanity’s ultimate maturity, namely our deification, but this is a logical conclusion if we see earthly maturity as an essential part of eternal maturity, something I will come back to when I discuss the natural desire for the supernatural.

A final text that is important to turn to is John Milbank’s ‘Fictioning Things’.⁠29 Milbank’s article lays out both the essential fictioning nature of humanity, the relationship between myth and folktale, and their relationship to Christianity and children’s literature. By fictioning, Milbank means the act of creating fiction; by fiction, he means works of imagination including, but not limited to, fantasy, fairy-story, and myth. Milbank, in this article, provides the beginning of a link between deification and the writing and reading of poetry and fantasy. He provides the rest of the link his book Beyond Secular Order,⁠30 which I will return to in the final chapter. Milbank also provides the same group of fantasy writers that I will focus on in this essay. He calls them the MacDonald tradition: George MacDonald, G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien.⁠31 For Milbank, this tradition, beginning with MacDonald, though having its roots in Romanticism both German and British, particularly through Novalis and S. T. Coleridge, is an attempt not merely to, ‘re-presents Christianity in a fictional mode, as that it re-envisages Christianity altogether, in continuity with certain strands of the Romantic tradition, in terms of the categories of the imagination, the fairy realm and of magic.’⁠32 I will refer to this same group as the British Faërie⁠33 tradition for each of them emphasises the fairy-realm, which we shall examine more below, as the place where one’s vision is reoriented and Christianity is re-mythologised or re-enchanted.

Milbank begins his article by noting the lack of public influence from theologians, and yet ‘a public theological debate’ continues ‘through the medium of children’s literature and fantasy.⁠34‘ For Milbank, fantasy allows for the consideration of counter-factuals which in turn allows readers to see ‘the specific value of this elective set of circumstances.’⁠35 To give evidence of this, Milbank turns to George MacDonald’s fairy-tale ‘The Light Princess’.⁠36 In the story, a king and queen become the parents of a girl who was cursed at her christening to be without gravity (in both of its senses). MacDonald puts things in rather stark terms:

She [the Light Princess] is if anything a damaged, autistic child, gaping amorally at the world of gravity as if at the harmless bangs and crashes of a Disney cartoon, and the point of her fictional creation by MacDonald is to point out how our subjection to gravity is what literally helps to make us metaphorically “grave” and to value our being held-down, pulled towards finite things, including in a sexual sense.⁠37

Milbank alerts us to a key function of fantasy that I will return to in the final chapter, namely that it helps the reader to see their own world in a new light through seeing it first rendered strange. This princess who lacks subjection to gravity makes the reader aware not simply of the physical effects of gravity, but of the metaphysical as well. It is telling that the princess in MacDonald’s story is not only gravity-less, but is also levity-less. She laughs often, but never smiles. MacDonald’s story serves, in part, to teach us the nature of gravity and gravitas.

Milbank also recognises the importance of multiple purposes for children’s literature/fairy stories and play, under which category the reading of fairy stories certainly fits. The fairy-story, especially a national fairy-story can aid in, say, political critique. Milbank gives this example: ‘To sustain, for example, a political critique, within the United Kingdom, she must retain the mythical sense that the island of Britain belongs not just to the current government but to nature, to the past, to the future, and to many hidden communities and changing racial configurations….that the islands really belong to the Longaevie, the fairies (or else to the giants) is to do with just such an exercise of the critical imagination.’⁠38 One could critique Milbank for an overly anglo-centric example, but his point is valid that play, that fairy-stories are necessary as reminders that we are stewards of the nations in which we live and that they may belong more rightfully to the more inherently natural longaevi, the long-aged (the fairies or elves) more than they belong to us.⁠39 It is a short step from here to the reminder that non-even our very being belongs to us but is given to us by the Creator.⁠40

Milbank then shifts to a discussion of the difference between myth and fairy-story or folktale, relying primarily on the work of Marcel Detienne⁠41 and A. J. Greimas.⁠42 Milbank suggests that the term mythology, particularly as put forward by Detienne, ‘would simply denote the entire world of oral narrative reasoning––including what we tend to think of as fairy-stories as well as what we tend to think of as “myths.”‘⁠43 For Milbank, myth means something of the cosmogonic or cosmic origination stories: the breaking of Ymir to make Midgard, Marduk making the world out of the slain body of Tiamat.⁠44 These stories involve violence and typically the breaking of something in order to make the natural world. Fairy-stories, on the other hand, present their stories within a world, ‘where the bias of physical reality favors the doing of justice or the elevation of the weak in the shape of magically self-renewing sources of food, or Cinderella’s carriage, and so forth.’⁠45 In myths, the focus is on the players, the actors, the main characters who move the plot along, but not in the fairy-story; ‘in the fairy-tale, it is the girdle, the ring, the vessel etc. whose circulations move the plot––so much so that, as Greimas says, one can reduce the fairy-tale actors to the status of mere occasional sources for the shifting positions of significant objects.’⁠46 Fairy-tales emphasise ‘misty personages’ whom Milbank calls sender-helpers. These figures give the heroes and heroines, whom Milbank considers ciphers in their stories, the magical object or advice/secret knowledge that allows them, so often unlike their divine and heroic counterparts in myth to ‘in the end triumph, thanks to the mediations of the magical objects and a series of exchanges at the meta-narrative level with the “other” fairy realms.’⁠47 This brings the discussion to the nature of gift and gift exchange, a main theological emphasis of Milbank’s.⁠48

This becomes important for this essay when Milbank notes that the gift-exchange economics of the fairy-story is founded in and directed by the divine realm:

On the one hand, one could suggest that the entire inter-human and human-fairy interaction is teleologically lured through spiralling gift-exchange by a higher divine realm which the stories only ever remotely hint at. On the other hand it is notable that, for the usually mythological outlook, the divine realm itself is often seen as subject to fateful drastic reversal––so from this perspective it is more as if the fairy-tale narrates a mainly immanent reversal that leads to stability, and that this narrating has a wistful, ungrounded quality to it. An adequate grounding in a stable divine good is only provided first by Plato and the Hebrew Bible and later by Christianity. In this way the fairy-tale is elevated and newly granted an ontological disclosiveness beyond the power of myth, which its former wistfulness only intimated.⁠49

One can perhaps see this difference evidenced when one looks at the more Catholic ‘Cinderella; or, The Little Glass Slipper’ as transmitted by Charles Perrault. Unlike the German, Protestant version of the tale laid down by the Grimm brothers where Cinderella is aided by nature in order to go to the ball, Perrault’s version has Cinderella aided by her fairy-godmother. Fairy-godmothers have made their way into modern fairy-tale parlance, but one must remember that godparenthood, a distinctly Christian (and primarily Catholic) position was one of intense spiritual and familial closeness.⁠50 This relationship too is filled with gifts, not unlike the sender-helper identified by Milbank.

Milbank explains the relationship between Christianity and fairy-story in this way, ‘The Christian narrative is more fairy-tale than myth. Initially, God confronts no primordial beast, but shapes a thing, the Creation, and then does further things with that thing. Human beings and even angels enjoy no original and independent spontaneity, but being and remain entirely objects of the divine shaping.⁠51‘ Christianity includes no breaking of a great beast or god in order to make the cosmos. Even the primordial chaos is not a divine being but impersonal disorder that is reordered, non-violently by God. For Milbank, this and much of the preceding allow us to see the MacDonald tradition (the British Faërie tradition) in a new light. Milbank writes:

For it is possible to read Christianity as finally imagining the origins and ending, the whole human and cosmic story, in terms of the hitherto inner-tribal local folktale, just as Christianity projects founding gift and gift-exchange beyond the inner-tribal also to this fundamental ontological level. These twin developments perhaps show us in a new way just why Christianity proposes itself as the universal religion, since it seeks to ensure that every locality, every tradition, is also the ultimate and universal location and tradition now that it no longer needs to undergo self-estrangement at its own borders. It is conceivable that Christianity properly understood is the metahistory of sending-helping which should rescue and not imperially overrule local tales and revelations.⁠52

This sending-helping leads to the ultimate gift from the divine realm, the Eucharist, ‘which as food is the most exact example of an object necessary for subjective identity which nonetheless ultimately subserves that identity. (In consuming this food, unlike all other food, says Augustine and many others, we must become what we eat.)⁠53‘ The sacramental nature of fairy-stories does not end with the Eucharist,⁠54 the whole of nature is shown to be sacramental, of pointing to something within and behind it in the fairy-story. Fairy-stories contain that, ‘integrity of nature to be respected, its own life which we cannot fully understand and yet which constantly teaches us in symbolic mode, ethical and aesthetic lessons––patience, hope, joy, keeping the right distance and perspective and so forth––if we will but pay attention.’⁠55 These stories, these works of human art, therefore point toward the divine through nature and Faërie. Milbank connects the art of the fairy-story to the art of the liturgy.

Liturgy is another theme to which I will return⁠56, but here Milbank makes explicit the connection between, if not fairy-stories per se, then at least Faërie itself. He asks the question, ‘if the supreme art is liturgy, does not this art magically invoke the divine through human work?’⁠57 Milbank is not implying that this “magical” invocation is the same kind the medium is said to preform, or the necromancer, who commands the spirit, demon, familiar, etc., with certain words and rituals that the other being must obey. Neither, however, are the invocations of liturgy ‘merely convenient pedagogic instruments for self-education.’⁠58 Instead, liturgy stands in the in between. Referencing Iamblichus,⁠59 Milbank states that the words and rituals of liturgy ‘”attune” us to the divine and so as it were “magically” channel divine power, even though God of course ultimately and entirely shapes our very invocations.’⁠60 Milbank moves from the preeminent instance of human art, liturgy, to the preeminent instance of art, namely creation. Milbank proposes that creation is a divine work of beautiful art and that the proper human response ‘is the grateful making and ethical exchange of things of beauty in turn….’⁠61 This leads Milbank to see Christianity as a fairy tale and the implications attendant to that claim:

Therefore, if the Christian narrative can be taken as a fairy-tale that centrally concerns the proper use of material things and their sacramental nature, it remains truer than we have suspected to the magical nature of the fairy-tale sign-object which is gift (and then supremely the Eucharist as Grail), just as it takes more seriously than we have suspected the immanent mediation of valuation that can be identified as “the fairy realm.” (The most astonishing example of this is the Presbyterian minister Robert Kirk’s neoplatonic and Biblical presentation of Scottish fairy-belief in his 1692 treatise, The Secret Commonwealth.)’⁠62

There is a natural and inherent relationship between Christianity and fairy-tales. Christianity, one can argue from Milbank’s preceding arguments, is what makes the fairy-tale possible. All the happy endings are either foreshadows of the ultimate happy ending in the resurrection of Christ or point back to it.⁠63 Christianity, therefore, not only legitimizes fairy-tales––and Faërie itself as Milbank seems to be arguing––but makes it necessary that fairy-tales continue to be read and written. Milbank writes, ‘By contrast, belief in God and in the triune God can perhaps only be revived if we re-envisage and re-imagine the immanent enchantments of the divine creation which appropriately witnesses to the transcendent One through a polytheistic profusion of created enigmas. The new tellers of fairy-tales to children and adults open out just this real horizon.’⁠64 Like the others above, Milbank, in this article does not go so far as to connect the reading and writing of fairy-tales/poetry to deification. Nevertheless, the connections are there. Fairy-tales and fantasy not only open up to its readers the sacramental nature of material things, but of the deeper meaning of themselves as made in the image and likeness of God. Connect this to the participatory and imitative relationship between the human creator of fairy-stories and the Creator and the deifying implications of writing and reading fairy-tales begins to become clear. This is what I will argue in this essay by way of examining the theological foundations of deification, by sourcing it in God’s act of creating, and human creativity, looking at humanity as imago dei and also as fallen sub-creators to use Tolkien’s language. Following the arguments laid out in this section, it is important to note that throughout this essay works of fiction and poetry will be used as arguments for the theological points I am making. If works of fantasy and poetry are truly humanity’s deifying participation in and imitation of God, then the works produced ought to stand alongside those works of philosophy and theology having the same level of authority or ability to speak on theological and philosophical matters coming from the imagination primarily, with a foundation in reason (Logos) and revelation.

Sincerely yours,
David

1 By wonder I mean something like enchantment or a sacramental ontology, seeing every thing in the cosmos as more than what we can see and pointing us beyond it to its Creator.

2 Pieper, Leisure The Basis of Culture, 95.

3 Throughout this essay I will be using, fairy-story, fairy tale, fantasy, and even the general term Faërie synonymously.

4 J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘Tree and Leaf,’ in The Tolkien Reader (New York: The Ballantine Publishing Company, 1966), 63.

5 J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘Tree and Leaf,’ in The Tolkien Reader (New York: The Ballantine Publishing Company, 1966), 41.

6 Tolkien, ‘Tree and Leaf,’ 77.

7 David Constantine, Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

8 Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).

9 David Constantine, Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 2.

10 Cite Graves here.

11 David Constantine, Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 3-4.

12 David Constantine, Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 60.

13 For more on the grotesque see Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians (), Ch. 2.

14 David Constantine, Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 77-8.

15 David Constantine, Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 95. Emphasis original.

16 David Constantine, Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 95. Emphasis original.

17 David Constantine, Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 139.

18 Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 131.

19 Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 133.

20 Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 134.

21 Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 134.

22 Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 137.

23 Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 139-140.

24 Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 147.

25 Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 147.

26 Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 147.

27 Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 147.

28 Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 153.

29 John Milbank,  ‘Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative,’ Religion and Literature, 37:3 (Autumn 2005): 1.

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

31 John Milbank,  ‘Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative,’ Religion and Literature, 37:3 (Autumn 2005): 2. Milbank categorises the latter two, Lewis and Tolkien, under the writing group of which they were a part, namely the Inklings. While it is true that other Inklings such as Owen Barfield (see Michael Vincent Difuccia, Owen Barfield: Theology as Poetic Metaphysics. PhD Diss. University of Nottingham, 2014), Charles Williams, and others have written works countering the demythologising of modernity, Lewis and Tolkien are not only the most well known but put the most focus on the writing and reading of fantasy and the role of Faerie.

32 John Milbank,  ‘Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative,’ Religion and Literature, 37:3 (Autumn 2005): 2.

33 By Faërie, I mean the realm in which, or on the borders of which, most fairy-stories take place. It is synonymous with Chesterton’s Elfland, see G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, …. and Chapter # ….

34 John Milbank,  ‘Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative,’ Religion and Literature, 37:3 (Autumn 2005): 1.

35 John Milbank,  ‘Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative,’ Religion and Literature, 37:3 (Autumn 2005): 6.

36 George MacDonald, ‘The Light Princess,’ pages in The Complete Fairy Tales, ed. by U. C. Knoepflmacher (New York: Penguin Books, 1999).

37 John Milbank,  ‘Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative,’ Religion and Literature, 37:3 (Autumn 2005): 6.

38 John Milbank,  ‘Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative,’ Religion and Literature, 37:3 (Autumn 2005): 9.

39 The notion of elves belonging more to nature than we do can be seen most beautifully examined by J. R. R. Tolkien in The Silmarillion.

40 I will return to this in Chapter 1.

41 Marcel Detienne, The Gardens of Adonis: Spices in Greek Mythology (Atlantic Highlands: The Humanities Press, 1977); L’Invention de la Mythologie (Paris: Gallimard, 1981).

42 A. J. Greimas, ‘La Littérature Ethnique,’  Sémiotique et Sciences Soicales (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1974);  Introduction à la Sémiotique Narrative et Discursive, ed. by J. Courtés (Paris: Hachette, 1976); On Meaning: Selected Writings in Semiotic Theory, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesote Press, 1993).

43 John Milbank,  ‘Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative,’ Religion and Literature, 37:3 (Autumn 2005): 11. Cf. Detienne L’Invention de la Mythologie, 15-50.

44 Dennis Bratcher, ‘Enuma Elish: “When on High . . .”

The Mesopotamian/Babylonian Creation Myth’ http://www.crivoice.org/enumaelish.html. accessed on 17 April 2015.

45 John Milbank,  ‘Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative,’ Religion and Literature, 37:3 (Autumn 2005): 13. It should be noted that one cannot be certain that Milbank’s distinction between myth and folktale can be applied to all stories that fit within that category or that difference might not be recognised by other cultures with their own myths and folktales/fairy-stories. The importance, however, of the distinction, which comes up later in Milbank’s article, is that Christianity is more akin to fairy-stories than it is to myths in the sense in which Milbank defines them.

46 John Milbank,  ‘Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative,’ Religion and Literature, 37:3 (Autumn 2005): 15.

47 John Milbank,  ‘Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative,’ Religion and Literature, 37:3 (Autumn 2005): 15.

48 Cf. ‘Can a gift be given?’…Theology and Social Theory, Being Reconciled, The Word Made Strange, as well as “Fairy Economics” in Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians.

49 John Milbank,  ‘Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative,’ Religion and Literature, 37:3 (Autumn 2005): 22-3.

50 See Catherine Pickstock, After Writing (), 140(3).?

51 John Milbank,  ‘Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative,’ Religion and Literature, 37:3 (Autumn 2005): 24.

52 John Milbank,  ‘Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative,’ Religion and Literature, 37:3 (Autumn 2005): 24.

53 John Milbank,  ‘Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative,’ Religion and Literature, 37:3 (Autumn 2005): 25. I will return to the Eucharist in the penultimate chapter.

54 Milbank makes some interesting connections between the Arthurian Grail legends and the Eucharist, that while interesting are not necessary to get into here. See John Milbank,  ‘Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative,’ Religion and Literature, 37:3 (Autumn 2005): 26.

55 John Milbank,  ‘Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative,’ Religion and Literature, 37:3 (Autumn 2005): 26.

56 See Chapters £ and £.

57 John Milbank,  ‘Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative,’ Religion and Literature, 37:3 (Autumn 2005): 29.

58 John Milbank,  ‘Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative,’ Religion and Literature, 37:3 (Autumn 2005): 29.

59 Cf. Iamblich, On the Mysteries, trans. Emma Clarke et al. (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003).

60 John Milbank,  ‘Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative,’ Religion and Literature, 37:3 (Autumn 2005): 29.

61 John Milbank,  ‘Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative,’ Religion and Literature, 37:3 (Autumn 2005): 29. Milbank goes on to connect this the “magical connectors” of Proclus and suggests that he is behind Aquinas’ analogy of attributes. He further suggests that Pico della Mirandola retains this magical dimension of the analogia entis better than the neo-scholastics.

62 John Milbank,  ‘Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative,’ Religion and Literature, 37:3 (Autumn 2005): 30.

63 See ‘On Fairy Stoies’…. and Chapter £.

64 John Milbank,  ‘Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative,’ Religion and Literature, 37:3 (Autumn 2005): 31.

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

My Faërie Romance: Chapters 5 and 6

David Russell Mosley

 

IMG_2835
14 June 2014
On the Edge of Elfland
Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Dear Friends and Family,

I’ve been hoping to do a response post to a recent Mere Fidelity podcast on the Trinity and the Bible with Fred Sanders. I was hoping to have it done by Trinity Sunday (tomorrow). This seems unlikely as I have one son sleeping on my chest and a loaf of bread that I’m baking. In short, I think Sanders approach to the Fathers, while sensical from a sola scriptura approach, is simply wrongheaded. I will try to defend this (and inherently reject sola scriptura) eventually. For now, however, I leave you with the next two chapters of my Faërie Romance. Please, let me know what you think.

Chapter 5

As Alfred and Balthazar entered deeper into the wood, Alfred noticed a change. The air seemed richer, more fulfilling, the colours seemed more vibrant. ‘That’s the air of Elfland you’re breathing in, my son,’ Balthazar said without turning around, as if he knew what kinds of affects it was having on Alfred. ‘For most humans it makes them confused, it’s why they get lost. For seers, however, it has the opposite effect. You will feel your senses getting clearer, sharper. Goodness becomes amplified in the good, badness in the bad.’ This made Alfred afraid and so he checked the pride beginning to well in his heart.

‘Can non-seers ever be taught to see?’ he asked the gnome.

‘Not in the way you do. They can never see dreams of Elfland, or anywhere else for that matter. They can, however, be taught to see Elfland with their waking eyes. The air here can have the same effect on them. Even when it does confuse it almost always has a positive effect on those who breathe it. But while true seers are born, great seers are first born and then made.’

Alfred pondered this. ‘You mean the ability is innate, but its application must be practiced.’

‘Tried would be truer, but yes, that is the general idea. You must learn how to see with the sight you have been given.’
‘How will I learn?’

‘By patience, by exposure to Elfland, and by telling me all you see in dreams.’

They marched on for several more hours, with no sign of relenting. It was now that Alfred realised Balthazar was not walking on top of the ground, but wading through the forest floor as if it were water. ‘Is that how you always walk?’ he asked, hoping he was not being impolite.

‘Gnomes are at home in the dirt in nearly the same way fish are in water. Or perhaps more like whales, we do not draw our breath from the earth, but we swim and glide through it. It is our home.’

They continued on in silence. Balthazar stopped. At first, Alfred thought he had offended the gnome with an impertinent question. Balthazar, however, turned to Alfred and whispered, ‘Go stand behind one of these trees, and be quiet. I’ll be back quickly.’ With that, Balthazar burrowed into the dirt, or perhaps dove better describes his entrance into the earth so that he vanished from Alfred’s sight.

Alfred did his best to remain quiet as he moved behind one of the trees. He heard voices in the distance and a loud plodding as if feet which were marching to different beats were trying to keep pace with one another. He crouched down behind a tree and held his breath. What he saw frightened him, and had he not been in Elfland for many hours now, he might have fainted from fear. As it was, it took all of his courage not to scream and run away.

Lumbering before him standing perhaps four and half feet high and three feet broad, with arms that would drag on the ground if not folded, skin a muddy mixture of black, brown, and green, eyes fierce and large, and teeth razor sharp walked two goblins. From how very wicked they looked did Alfred guess rightly that they were goblins.

‘Ar, I hate walking in the sun, even if the trees are dense. It hurts my eyes and makes me feel too warm’ said one goblin to the other.
‘You’d hate the punishment you’d get if refused to do your duty,’ replied the other.

‘That’s the truth of it. Oh, I can’t wait to be done. We’ll take over that mountain and never have to venture into the sun again, except when we want to torture someone. Oh it will be nice.’

‘Keep your voice down, you lumbering idiot. We’re in enough danger as it is.’

‘I still say you were smelling things as weren’t there, Hogsnout.’

‘And I’m telling you, I smelt human, and a human this close to those accursed elves and dwarves will do us no good. I promise you that. My nose has never failed and I tell you there was human nearby. If the smell’s getting dimmer it either means he’s spent too much time in this accursed place and is beginning to smell like it or he’s gone. Neither option is good for us, nor our mission.’
‘Well then let’s get on with what we’ve come to do. Do you think they’ll join us?’

‘Oh I’m sure of it. Our king will offer them land, and plenty of human and elfin flesh to eat. The trolls and giants will be on our side, no worries there. The hobgoblins may be harder to convince. Anyway, let’s move on. You’re right about one thing, whatever’s happened with that human, our best bet is to finish with our mission and get back.’

The two goblins lumbered off, making more racket than was probably good for them. Alfred breathed a sigh of relief and then jumped with a start when he felt something tapping him on the shoulder. He grabbed stick nearby him and swung as he jumped away from whatever it was that had accosted him.

‘There you go, knocking my hat off again. I shall have to make a new one, or have the brownies do it for me, before my time with you is done,’ said Balthazar as he picked up his crumpled hat and dusted it off.

‘So the goblins have found their way out of the mountain. Things are far worse than I feared.’ Balthazar soon began mumbling to himself, ‘Going to get trolls and giants? Things are far worse, far, far worse than any of us have imagined. What are we going to do? What am I going to do with the boy? So much for the wisdom of the gnomes.’ He said finally as he sat down next to Alfred.
‘Is it really so bad?’ Alfred asked, breaking the silence.

‘My son, Elfland has been at a relative peace for the past 300 years. Now war is upon us and we are so near to being caught unawares that anything we can or have planned up to now is just as likely to fail as to succeed.’

What can I do? thought Alfred to himself. After all, he was just one man, and a young one at that. He had never been trained to fight and only found out all of this was real this morning. Still, it could be exciting. Fighting against the forces of evil, protecting his village, really his whole world from the evils of Elfland. He would be remembered as mythic hero, dying fighting back the advances of darkness like the last of the three-hundred Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae. Yes, to die in battle, a sword in one hand, a shield in another, a true warrior, one who had to look his enemy in the eye, to recognise goodness alongside evil and to fight on and to die fighting for what is right.

It was when he started to think of death that he noticed the forest had suddenly gotten very dark and that coming toward him was a small cavalcade. The music he had heard in his dream or a music very like it was playing.

‘Hello, my brothers,’ called Balthazar to them.

‘Hail, Balthazar!’ said an elf who alighted from his horse and walked towards them while the others began to make camp. ‘Well met, faithful gnome. I see you have the young seer with you. Word has traveled to us through the forest, that you were bringing him. We have also felt a darkness being awoken. Come, we shall eat and drink. Tonight we feast ere the morrow brings us joys or woe.’ Alfred noticed many things about this elf. He was tall, his dark hair was worn long, as was his beard. His clothes were a beautiful mixture of greens, reds, and browns. On his chest there were four beasts: a bear, a bull, a boar, and lion, all rampant.

The elves prepared a feast, they had clearly been hunting and a large white deer was roasting over an open fire they had prepared. ‘Tell me, Carlyle,’ Balthazar said to the elf who had first approached them, ‘what are your plans? You have heard our news about the goblins. What are the king’s orders?’

Carlyle drained his cup, ‘The King has given but two orders: help the dwarves and trust the seer.’

Me? thought Alfred to himself. Alfred could not help feeling small, even insignificant amongst all these faerie-folk. To ask questions and observe seemed to be the only things for which he was needed, and those qualities did not seem to be desired. The music still lived on in his chest, making him feel brave, but his bravery seemed completely unnecessary. As he turned over in his mind what had happened to him since yesterday morning, he began to wonder about the two times previous he had come upon, if not this very camp, then one exceedingly like it. ‘Please,’ he asked Carlyle, ‘could you tell me why the first two times I approached your camp, you vanished and I was left sleeping on the ground?’

‘Well, lad,’ Carlyle responded, ‘the reasons are three. First, even in peace we rarely allow ourselves to be seen by mortals, let alone when danger is upon our very hearth. Second, we believed it too much for your introduction to our fine country to begin with a host of evils. Third, even if we had not, it was Balthazar’s duty to meet you first. Come, we have feasted, we will sing and then rest, for tomorrow may bring yet more woe if it is true we now have trolls and giants with which to contend.’ Somehow, Alfred thought the idea of woe and battle was both pleasing and saddening to Carlyle. It was as if his hands longed to feel his sword and to fight for goodness, but that such measures were necessary grieved him beyond anything. So much Alfred could read in his face, it was as if that face could not conceal truth or emotion, but must always wear whatever it felt. Alfred wondered if this was simply true of elves or if his eyes simply saw more now that he was under the influence of the air of Elfland.

Whatever singing there was, Alfred remembered very little of it. As soon as the music began he felt himself getting dreary. A she-elf, also dressed in a warrior’s garb, led him to a tent prepared for him. Alfred laid down without undressing and was instantly asleep. It was not, however, a restful or dreamless sleep.

As Alfred slept, he found himself awake, conscious, but unable to see. At first he thought he was blind, or that he was still in his tent with his eyes closed, so he pulled them open but still saw noting. He continued to worry that he was blind until in the distance he saw a fire. He felt relieved, he was not blind, he was dreaming, and it was the same as the old dreams of the elves. Something, however, was different this time. The ground beneath his feet felt more solid. He reached out his hands to feel for trees, but instead felt rock and stone. He stumbled as he walked, but made his way towards the fire.

Like in his previous dream, the world around Alfred, as it became brighter, remained fuzzy, indeterminate. Again he heard voices, but could not understand what they were saying. He stumbled closer to the fire, trying to make as little noise as possible. Still he almost shouted when he began to understand what was going on. The smell of burnt hair was in the air, and dark figures danced about the fire, while another figure, much smaller, was being turned over and over, as if on a roasting spit. The roasting figure shouted, not from pain it seemed, but anger. Alfred cursed his inability to see or hear clearly. One thing, however, was evident, the goblins were amassing in the mountain, and they had caught at least one dwarf and were torturing him.

Alfred awoke with a start. He knew he had to tell someone what he saw. However, as he stepped outside of his tent all he could hear were shouts and a thunder of feet and hooves. The first thing Alfred saw outside of his tent was Carlyle throwing a sword at his feet while using his own to battle a goblin. The joy had left his eyes. Alfred saw a steeled demeanour. However much Carlyle might normally joy in arms, he had no joy in this fray. This was as far as Alfred was able to think, however, for soon enough the goblins started making their way to him. He unsheathed his sword and prayed he could find that bravery the song of the elves usually stirred in him.

Goblins were now completely overrunning the camp when Alfred felt the earth shake. Several goblins lay dead at his feet, though his mind could little remember how they had died. His sword was smeared with blood and he himself was covered in cuts and bruises. The shaking grew worse. One of the elves standing near Alfred cried ‘Ettin! Ettin!’ It did not take Alfred long to understand this word. Wading and crashing through the trees came an ugly, fearsome, albeit stupidly so, looking creature. It stood nigh 19 feet high. ‘Giant,’ Alfred whispered to himself.

Swinging its mighty club, the giant began clearing a path in front of it. Indiscriminately it struck down both goblin and elf. Whether this was due to the malice that burned its heart or sheer stupidity is uncertain, but whenever anything got in its the giant swiped it away into the distance with its club. Alfred could hear the goblins shouting to it, trying to control it. Heedless to their cries the giant kept moving forward, straight to Alfred.

‘Run!’ shouted the elf standing next to Alfred. ‘We are no match for this brute, you and I.’ Alfred, however, stood firm and so the elf stayed with him. Both of them, swords drawn charged at the giant. Alfred swung his sword at the giant’s tree-trunk of a leg, but it glanced off. He had only one idea. Alfred turned the sword around so it pointed down and raised it high above his head. The giant howled with anger. ‘Puny creatures,’ it shouted and swiped its club directly into Alfred. The force with which Alfred was hit took the breath out of him and sent him flying high up into the air and far away from the battle.

When Alfred woke the sun was shining. ‘That giant must have sent me a good ways from the battle,’ he said to himself. He felt his arms, legs, and chest to check for any broken bones. His arms and legs felt stiff but fine, his chest, however, was incredibly sore and it hurt when breathed. Probably broke a few ribs, he thought. But what was he to do now? Was it safe to call for the others? ‘Carlyle!’ he shouted, ‘Balthazar! Carlyle! Mr Alvin!’ No one answered. He looked around, but could not recognise what part of the forest he was in. He walked, hoping to find someone or somewhere familiar. Eventually he found his way to a lake. He could not remember there being a lake in Fey Forest, but nothing surprised him now. He knelt at the lake with some difficulty, cupped his hand, filled them, and drank. The water was cool and refreshing. He immediately began to feel better.

The water felt so good on his hands and head that he decided a swim would do him nicely. How different Alfred was, if could have stopped to think. Not even two days ago he would never have thought of stripping down to go for a swim in a lake, let alone do so after having battled goblins and a giant. He had pulled off his clothes and found most of his cuts had already begun healing, but he was still covered in bruises and his chest still smarted something awful. He waded into the water and his body immediately began to relax. He could feel strength returning to his limbs. He felt well enough to try a proper swim. It stung his chest at first, but the more he swam the better he felt.

After about an hour of swimming all of Alfred’s cuts and bruises seemed to be healed. Even his ribs, which he thought broken, only caused him a small amount of pain. Alfred got out of the water and dried himself by simply lying on the soft down of the grass. After a short rest, he got dressed, and suddenly all that had taken place before he landed near this lake returned to his memory. He girded his sword and was about to set out in search of the elves and Balthazar when he noticed a cottage nearby. He walked toward uncertain of what he would find inside. Stories from his childhood told him it good be a witch, an elf, a beautiful princess, or an ogress. He felt, however, braver than he had before. Perhaps it was the encounter with the giant or lasting effects from the lake, but he was ready to meet any challenge. He knocked at the door. ‘Hello!’ he shouted. ‘Is anyone home?’ An elderly woman answered the door.


Chapter 6

‘Come in, young man. I can see by the sheen of your hair and your countenance that you have been swimming in my lake.’
‘Yes, it has had a wonderful effect on me. I feel almost fully well, though my chest seems still to pain me.’ He looked around the inside of the woman’s cottage. It was homely, but goodly so. It brought to mind home and hearth, the kind of things one wants to return to after a long journey. The old woman was meanwhile busy in her kitchen.

‘Here,’ she said, returning with a damp cloth. ‘This has been soaked in my lake and I have said a few good words over. Wrap about your chest under your clothes and leave it for the rest of the day. Then you shall be completely healed, albeit changed.’

Changed? thought Alfred to himself. Whatever doubts he had were dispelled, however, when the woman continued, ‘Something must be done about those goblins young man, and as you are the seer it seems only right that you ought to be the one to do something about them.’

‘I feel ready to do almost anything, so long as it is good, honest, and worthy of poetry,’ as the words left his mouth, Alfred marvelled at himself. Had he really just said that? Was he desirous of being turned into a poem? He had always felt listless, little likely to do much of anything except in the service of his parents, and then usually with a fair bit of grumbling.

‘You are surprised at yourself, I can tell. I may be old, but I can still see quite well.’

‘To tell you the truth, I am surprised. I have never sought adventure, never wanted to do anything brave. I just wanted to do something, something I loved, something that suited me.’

‘Did it never occur to you that what you wanted was to be good, honest, and poetical? Hmm? Did it never occur to you that this is what you wanted?’

Alfred thought back to all of old Mr Alvin’s stories. He had always felt invigorated after listening to Mr Alvin. Knights saving princesses, slaying giants and dragons, paupers becoming princes because of their virtue. It was Mr Alvin’s stories that caused him to study literature at university. It was this study, however, that caused him to stop loving the stories, or so it seemed to him now. ‘Tell me, Lady,’ he said after reflecting, ‘is it the water of your Lake that has awakened this in me or the air of Elfland or the music of the Elves?’

‘It is all three. No mortal can enter Elfland without becoming poetical unless they be too full of cynicism, none can hear the elfin songs without having even the smallest amount of bravery fanned into flame unless cowardice has too much hold on their heart. And none can swim in the waters of my Lake without having either their goodness or badness brought to the fore. Faerie makes the good things better, but exposes the bad for what it truly is.’

Alfred briefly felt rather proud, but as the pride in him began to rise, the old woman stared hard at him and he heard in his mind, ‘but exposes the bad for what it truly is.’ He squelched that rising pride and turned his thoughts to finding the elves and stopping the goblins. ‘You will need to leave soon,’ said the old woman, ‘in order to stop the goblins.’

‘Indeed, I believe you’re right, Mother,’ Alfred said turning to her. ‘Only I do not know which way to go. I have lost the elves and Balthazar Toadstool. Can you tell me, Mother, which is the best way for me?’

‘The only way, Seer, to save Carlisle, the dwarves, and all of Elfland is to return from whence you came. Go back to the beginning and there you will find your answers.’

Alfred was dejected. He did not wish to leave Elfland. He finally felt at home, finally felt as though he belonged in the world for the first time in his life. To return now, he feared, would cause him to disbelieve everything he had seen and experienced until now.
‘My dear boy,’ said the old woman, ‘you do not belong forever in Elfland. Mortals are meant to live on the edges, living on the borders and entering in occasionally. When you started this journey, you simply wanted to save Carlisle, do not forget that.’

Alfred knew that the old woman was right. He prepared to go immediately. ‘Hold on there, young man,’ she said suddenly. Alfred stopped as he was reaching for the door. ‘You will surprise people enough when you return without being dressed like the elves, openly carrying a sword.’ Alfred looked down and realised she was right. He could barely remember how he used to dress, though it had been only a few days, but despite the feelings he had always dressed this way, he knew this was not so. The woman pulled out of a closet somewhere the clothes he had worn when he entered the forest. ‘Balthazar brought them to me,’ she said.

Alfred went into another room in the cottage. This room had a small bed and a small mirror in it. He was surprised when he saw himself. The old woman’s words had caused him to expect to see big changes in himself. Instead he saw his beard starting to come in and his hair a bit matted. He found under the mirror a bowl of warm water, some soap, and a razor. He washed his hair and face, but decided to leave the beard, ‘It’s the only reminder I’m going to have of my exploits here,’ Alfred said to himself. He changed his clothes, folded his elfin garments, and laid his sword on top, bringing them out to the old woman.

‘You keep those,’ she said to him. ‘You never know when they might come in handy.’

‘Thank you,’ said Alfred with a little less rejection in his voice. With his things all packed in his rucksack, Alfred shouldered the bag and headed towards the door.

‘Remember what I told you,’ the old woman called out behind him. ‘Go back to the beginning, only then can you save Elfland and Carlisle.’

‘I won’t forget, Mother,’ he said turning around as he exited the door. The cottage, the old woman, even the lake was gone. Alfred was not surprised. He had face giants and goblins, a faerie godmother was the last thing to surprise him now. And so Alfred sauntered on. Resolve and doubt mixed in him. In the end, what could he really do to stop an incursion of goblins. Surely the elves could take care of it without him. He would talk to Mr Alvin when he got home, he would tell Alfred that it was his job to watch and not fight.

Hours went by and the forest began to grow more familiar. There was the tree he hid behind when he had thought something was chasing him as a child. ‘I wonder if something was chasing me then?’ He asked to no one, who promptly answered in silence. As he walked on he noticed the ground began to be damp. Apparently it had rained in this part of the forest recently. He kept a close eye out for mushrooms, hoping to find Balthazar. Instead he came upon a fairy ring of just the mushrooms his mother would want, but no shepherd guarding them. He picked them all, stowing them in his rucksack for his mother.

With no incident greater than finding the mushrooms, Alfred arrived at the edge of Fey Forest. He was disappointed. He had expected an attack, he had expected the elves or Balthazar or someone to arrive to divert his journey home a little while longer, but with no such luck. Perhaps the goblins were as yet unaware of him, or, like Alfred was beginning to believe, perhaps they simply felt him unimportant. With a sigh, Alfred stepped across the border separating the forest from the village and began to the two mile walk back home.

Sincerely yours,
David Russell Mosley

My Faërie Romance: Chapters 3 and 4

David Russell Mosley

 

IMG_2835
4 June 2014
On the Edge of Elfland
Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Dear Friends and Family,

As I continue to make slow and steady work reading through my thesis, and as I continue to learn what it is to be a father and a husband, I haven’t the time to write proper letters right now. However, I do not simply wish to give up writing altogether. Therefore, after receiving kind remarks on the first two chapters of my Faërie Romance, I have decided to continue posting chapters, two at a time, every now and then. I have no real aspirations for publishing it, so I don’t mind sharing it here. Also, I firmly believe things ought to be done well, even when done for pleasure (perhaps especially so). Therefore, your comments and criticisms will be taken to heart and I will do my best to amend what is wrong or confusing. With that said, I now present to you the next two chapters. Enjoy, and remember to tell me what you think.

Chapter 3

Alfred had been home for little less than a week when one morning, well before sunrise, Alfred’s mother knocked on his bedroom door, ‘Alfred, would be a dear, and go into the wood to fetch me some of the mushrooms for my mushroom soup? It’s rained overnight and there ought to be a fair few to be had.’ Jessica Stidolph’s mushroom soup was famous several miles around Carlisle, particularly for its rarity and freshness. Jessica only used a certain kind of mushroom, and then only fresh picked. Alfred stumbled out of bed, pulling on trousers and a jumper she had knit last winter, it being a chilly morning. Alfred had a quick bite of toast and glug of coffee and went out into the mist.

It is about two miles from Alfred’s home to the edge of Fey Forest, so Alfred had to walk by the old church St Nicholas’, which had burn marks on the stones still from some attack back in the late middle ages or early renaissance. Alfred could never remember. Local history did not interest him too much, and no one could settle on the date anyway. Some said it happened during the reign of Queen Elizabeth when all the old Catholic churches were being burnt down. Others said it was during the time of Oliver Cromwell. Still others said it was a much more ancient and diabolic attack from early in the church’s history. Whatever the truth was, no renovation was allowed since it was deemed a historical landmark.

When Alfred reached the forest’s edge the mist had gotten even worse. ‘It’s going to be damn near impossible to find mushrooms in this mist,’ he said to himself. ‘Oh well, in I go.’ With that he plunged into the wood. The trees were close together in this small wood and blocked out whatever sunlight might be burning the mist off outside of it. Alfred had put his headphones in his ears and was listening to music as he searched, none too carefully. He yawned, another thirty minutes and he would simply give up and tell his mother there were no mushrooms yet. Off in the distance Alfred saw a light. As he walked closer to it, he could tell it was several lights, as if from torches. Wondering what on earth could be going on he decided to walk towards them.

If Alfred had not had his headphones in he would have been surprised to still be hearing music. He would have heard music that could leave no listener unmoved. It was both morose and jovial. It sounded both as if it were the music of another world and yet as if it were the rocks, trees, streams, Nature herself singing this song. But all Alfred could hear was his own music pulsing through his ears as he walked ever closer to the torches, looking like phantoms of red and orange in the mist.

Although Alfred could not hear the merry voices and beautiful music, he could smell the food: roasted meat, delightfully prepared vegetables, and wine. The mist obscured his sight even more as he ventured closer. He was quite near the torches and could almost taste the food when suddenly all the torches vanished. The dark enclosed his senses and he fell.

‘I must have fallen asleep,’ said Alfred out loud as he pulled his headphones out of his ears and stowed them in his pocket. He looked around confused. ‘Well,’ he thought, ‘I must have been tired than I realised this morning. Imagine, me thinking there was a party going on out here in this mist, this early in the morning.’ He looked around for any signs, but all he saw was a fairy ring, mushrooms in a perfect circle with one enormous mushroom directly in the middle.

‘Well, today’s my lucky day,’ Alfred said. ‘Just the mushrooms Mum needs for her soup. I think I’ll grab this big one first.’ Alfred reached down, but as he did so he knocked the top off the mushroom before he even got his hands round it’s base.

‘That’s not a very kind way of introducing yourself, knocking off my hat, Alfred Stidolph.’ Alfred looked around. ‘Down here, my son. My how you humans persist in not seeing what’s right before you. I said down here.’ Alfred could not believe what his eyes beheld. Standing before him not more than two feet off the ground was a brown, dry-looking figure with a sort of green tunic and shoes on. It had almost no nose and its eyes were a loam brown, and it appeared to have no teeth or discernible ears. All Alfred could see at the moment, however, was a talking mushroom without its cap.

‘Well, it seems I will have to re-collect my own hat. Oh, and don’t be worried, my son, you are not dreaming. I promise you I am quite real. My name is––’ The creature had bent over to pick up its cap and Alfred took his chance and ran.

Alfred ran past several other collections of mushrooms, shuddering as he did. ‘I was still half asleep,’ he told himself. ‘I couldn’t find any mushrooms, laid down, and fell asleep dreaming of fires and talking mushrooms. Yes, that’s it. There can’t be such things as talking mushrooms. There just can’t.’  Alfred stopped running when he reached the church. He needed to collect his thoughts before he got back home. He had decided to tell his mother that it was too soon after the rain for there to be any mushrooms yet.

‘Well, no mushroom soup today, then,’ his mother said when he arrived back at home. ‘You look a little put out, why don’t you lay back down.’

‘That’s alright, I’ll go see if Dad needs me in the brewery.’

Alfred went down into the brewery where he found his father next to a large wooden beer barrel. ‘Alfred!’ He shouted. ‘Just in time, my boy. I was about to do a little taste test. I’ve got a new amber ale I want you to try.’ Alfred’s father took great pride in his beer. It was part of what gave The Broken Spoke its charm, all house brewed cask ale. Alfred was lost in thought. He wandered out of the cellar, leaving his father to his brewing revelries and spent the rest of the day in a kind of stupor. He helped his parents in the garden, milked the cows, fed the chickens and served in the inn at night.

Alfred was collecting mugs and pint glasses outside when he saw him. Old Mr Alvin was sitting outside, as he had to nowadays, smoking his pipe. ‘How old is he now?’ Alfred thought to himself. ‘He seemed ancient when I was a little kid.’ Old Mr Alvin was old indeed, probably the oldest member of the village of Carlisle. If you wanted to know anything about the history of Carlisle or Britain in general he was the man to ask. He could tell you stories about Alfred, Merlin, and Gildas; or about Churchill and the War. He noticed Alfred staring at him, took a big puff on his pipe, blew out a glorious smoke ring, tamped his pipe, place back between his teeth and said, ‘Bee in your bonnet, Alfred?’

‘Just a bit distracted today, Mr Alvin.’

‘Yes, I heard you fell asleep out in the woods. Right next to fairy ring, if young Sammy’s eyes didn’t deceive her.’

‘Oh um, would mind not mentioning that to my mum. I was supposed to be collecting mushrooms for her soup––’

‘Your mother makes a damn fine mushroom soup.’

‘Yes, well I was supposed to be collecting mushrooms, but I must have fallen asleep and had a terrible dream. When I woke up I forgot all about the mushrooms and ran straight back home.’

‘Oh,’ said Mr Alvin. Taking a long draw on his pipe, he closed his eyes. Alfred thought he had fallen asleep when suddenly he heard Mr Alvin murmur,

‘And what was your dream about?’

‘Um,’ said Alfred nervously. ‘I can’t really remember, mushrooms I think. A-a talking mushroom.’ Alfred did not want to say too much. He was not sure which frightened him more, the idea that people might hear him, or that Mr Alvin would believe him. Oliver Alvin was well-known for believing the unbelievable. He had a reputation that inspired both a kind of reverence at the breadth of his knowledge and an incredulity at the things he found credulous.

‘Damn,’ swore Mr Alvin.

‘Sorry?’ Alfred replied.

‘My pipe’s gone out. Can you see if your mum or dad have any matches I can borrow?’

‘Sure,’ said Alfred. Not at all unhappy to have the subject changed. Or so he thought at first. When Alfred returned with the matches Mr Alvin was gone. Alfred could not help feeling a little let down. It would have been nice, as well as terrifying, to have Mr Alvin believe he really saw a talking mushroom.

That night, as Alfred drifted off to sleep he really did have a dream, but not about talking mushrooms. He was walking in Fey Forest when he saw the torches again. This time they were much clearer. He could hear the music as well, since he was not wearing headphones in the dream. The music made him feel brave, but sad, as if he was meant to be the last defender of a dying cause. It gave him the kind of courage not to overcome insurmountable odds, but to be defeated with dignity and hope. The music was nothing, however, to the people he saw there. They were pure beauty. Men and women, feasting, laughing, singing, drinking, looking as though the belonged to a medieval tapestry rather than the woods just outside a twenty-first century village. Their clothes were magnificent, bright blues and greens and golds, reds and yellows, no colour seemed missing. Yet the clothes were not ostentatious, nor opulent. They were the colours of the woods themselves in early summer when everything was blossomed.

As Alfred drew nearer he found that he could not quite make out what they were saying. It seemed clear that they spoke English and yet the dream kept him from comprehension. Suddenly the scene changed. The lights of the beautiful people turned blue. Stern, determined looks washed over their merry faces. Weapons were drawn by men and women alike: bows and arrows, swords, clubs, knives, daggers, lances, axes. Horses appeared, as if commanded, but Alfred had seen no one go for them or call for them. Some mounted, others remained standing and they went forward as if for battle. What happened next was a complete mystery for just as the enemy of the beautiful people was about to appear, Alfred awoke.

‘Alfred, dear,’ he could just discern his mother calling, ‘you said you would look for mushrooms again today.’

‘Be right out, Mum,’ he mumbled in reply.

Alfred splashed cold water on his face, dressed and went out into another misty morning. He took his time walking to forest. Whether it was because of the dream or being woken up suddenly he could not decide, but he had left his headphones behind. Alfred stopped to look at the church as the sun was just beginning to rise over its steeple.

‘Have I ever told the story of how this church was nearly burnt down?’ said a familiar voice behind him.

‘Mr Alvin,’ said Alfred both startled and relieved, ‘where did you go yesterday? When I came back to bring you your matches you had gone.’

‘Hmm? Oh, I found some in my pocket and had a sudden urge to take a walk in the forest.’

‘You did?’

‘Yes, your story had me interested. I believe you told your mother there were no mushrooms, yes?’

‘Yes,’ Alfred said a little dejectedly. ‘I didn’t want her to think me mad for running scared out of the forest.’

‘Mmhmm. Is that where you’re headed now?’

‘It is. She really wants those mushrooms.’

‘Would you mind if I joined you? I do like a good walk in the morning.’

‘Sure,’ Alfred replied, hoping for an opportunity to discuss his latest dream.

‘You know,’ Alfred said slowly, ‘I don’t think you have ever told me your version of what happened to St Nicholas’s.’

‘Oh! Well then, you are in for a treat.’ Alfred only half-listened while he and Mr Alvin walked closer to the woods. He thought he must be hearing him wrong, for when he would occasionally tune back in he heard words like goblins, trolls, feys. He thought Mr Alvin must have started in on a fairy tale.

‘No, Mr Alvin,’ Alfred was exasperated. ‘I mean the real story of what happened to the church.’ However, as Alfred said this he turned and noticed that Mr Alvin was no longer next to him. He found himself lost in a fog in the forest. ‘Now where did Mr Alvin get to? Where did I get to, for that matter? It wasn’t this foggy when I got up this morning.’ Alfred looked around but did not recognise where he was in the forest. He kept trudging forward, occasionally shouting ‘Mr Alvin!’ thinking the old man had gotten lost in the fog as well.

Alfred walked for what seemed hours, knowing that the right thing to do was to stay in one place and wait for the fog to clear but being unable to do so. It was as if something was drawing him further and further into the forest. Suddenly, as if a veil had been lifted, Alfred saw before him the torchlights, just as he had yesterday morning and in his dream. This time there was no music. He could make out the sounds of voices, but could neither see their owners nor understand them clearly. The tone, however, was clear: anger. It was a stern anger, even a proper anger, but it was anger nonetheless. The whole forest seemed full of it.

Alfred proceeded as quietly as he could, moving ever closer. He began to make out the forms of those speaking. They were the beautiful people from his dream. He was staring in disbelief as he continued to edge closer when suddenly SNAP. Alfred had trodden on a small twig. The torches disappeared in an instant and everything went dark.

Alfred awoke on the ground, once again next to a circle of mushrooms. He was feeling himself to make sure no permanent damage was done when he heard a voice nearby. At first he thought it was Mr Alvin. ‘Thank goodness,’ he said aloud. ‘I thought I would never find you.’

‘I’ve been here the whole time.’

‘Well, at least we’re together again. Maybe now we can find our way out of the blasted forest.’

‘Oh I don’t know about that. Who would watch over my mushrooms?’

In horror did Alfred turn around to see the thing to which the voice belonged. It was the talking mushroom again. ‘B-but––’ he stammered.

‘You’re not going to knock my hat off again, are you, my son?’ asked the mushroom.

Alfred’s head was swimming. A blackness descended on his eyes. He could just hear the voice saying, ‘Goodnight’ as his head hit the ground and Alfred knew no more.

Chapter 4

Alfred woke slowly, barely opening his eyes, too afraid of what he might see. Once they were opened, he was relieved by what he saw. He was no longer in the forest. He was in what looked like an old cottage. ‘Good, you’re wake. You gave me a right turn, boy,’ said a voice in the distance. This time, Alfred was quite sure it was Mr Alvin’s voice. This, however, was no immediate reassurance. Alfred’s mind was suddenly flooded with questions, where was he? How did he get there? How long had he been unconscious? All of these questions he put to Mr Alvin.

‘One thing at a time, boy. Here, drink some of this.’ He handed Alfred a glass. It tasted like wine but was earthier and drier than any wine he had had before. Alfred drank quietly. Hoping Mr Alvin would answer all or any of his questions. Mr Alvin went briefly out back, into what Alfred could only assume was his garden. Alfred sat looking around, trying to take in his surroundings. He was on a couch in what looked like the sitting room of an old stone cottage. The walls were lined with bookshelves, there were even books on the mantlepiece over the fireplace. Books of history, philosophy, mythology, fairy tales, medieval manuscripts, old books of theology, even some fiction and children’s stories seemed to be included in this antiquated library.

Whatever it was Mr Alvin had been doing in his garden, he came back in smiling, but there was a concerned look in his eyes. ‘Well, boy, how are you doing?’ was all he said. Alfred’s head began screaming with questions. Again he tried to get Mr Alvin to answer them. The old man seemed reluctant, as if he wished not to say too much or too little. Alfred looked at the old man, pleading for answers with his eyes. ‘It’s time you know,’ Mr Alvin said slowly. At last, Alfred was going to get some answers.

‘Come with me out into the garden, bring your wine,’ he told Alfred. They walked outside, the sun assaulted Alfred’s eyes. ‘Passing out two days in a row isn’t helping you keep your feet, is it?’ said Mr Alvin as Alfred stumbled.

‘I’m fine, just a little weak still.’

‘Well, keep drinking that wine.’ Mr Alvin produced a loaf of bread and the two of them sat out in his garden under the shade of a large weeping willow facing what Alfred assumed was Fey Forest. In the distance Alfred could just make out the mountain rising high above the forest. Mr Alvin produced a pipe, tobacco, and some matches from his various pockets. Puffing slowly he turned to Alfred, ‘It’s all true, boy.’

‘W-what do you mean?’ asked Alfred terrified of the answer.

‘The dreams, the ancient one you’ve met in the forest, the torches, all of it is true. I know, it sounds ridiculous, but it’s true all the same. Faerie is all around us. The world is so much bigger than you’ve dreamt of. It’s like what Hamlet told Horatio, there’s more in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophies.

Look, Alfred, I’ll be honest with you, elves, gnomes, dwarves, goblins, giants, dragons they’re all real. The ones who are good are better than you could ever imagine, but the wicked are darker than anything. Most people live their whole lives thinking Faerie is just another word for imagination or the supernatural. They never get the chance to see. Ah, we’ve been cursed with blindness for so long now. Not that Faerie has ever been easy to see, far from it, but we weren’t meant to be completely ignorant of it. Arthur knew Faerie, this wood was named after his half-sister, you know. Morgana was, well, she was confused she was. Robertus Kirk, MacDonald, Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien, they all understood, they believed in Faerie, even if they infrequently got into it, they knew it was there. You’re lucky, well, maybe that’s the wrong word. You’ve been given a gift, you’ve spent your whole life on the edge of Elfland, as it were, and now you’ve stumbled in.’

Alfred did not believe what he was hearing. Faerie? Elfland? Goblins, dragons, gnomes? No. He lived in a world where science had dispelled all those old beliefs. There was no way this could be true. Alfred was just about to say so when he noticed a ring of mushrooms right next to weeping willow. He let out a shriek he would have normally been ashamed of as suddenly an enormous mushroom from the centre of the circle began walking towards them. It removed its cap and wiped its brow, ‘Told him the truth at last, eh, Oliver? I told you should have done it years ago. He would have believed you and I could have been left out of it.’

‘I know what I’m doing. I’ve been at this a long time, Balthazar.’

‘Of course, sir.’

Alfred was still staring, though the horror he felt at first was beginning to transition to curiosity. Hadn’t he always loved fairy tales and legends when he was a boy? It was at university he began to despise them as a fashionable exercise in popularity. ‘What’s going on? What, or I suppose I should say who are you?’

‘Balthazar Toadstool, historian and mushroom shepherd, which is to say a gnome, at your service.’ The gnome gave a bow.

‘Alfred Stidolph,’ Alfred mumbled out, still somewhat in shock.

‘Gnomes are among the wisest creatures in Faerie, Alfred’ said Mr Alvin. ‘And old Balthazar here is accounted wise even by his own kind.’

‘You do me honour, sir,’ was the gnomes reply.

‘What I really want to know,’ said Alfred, ‘is what the devil is going on?’

‘You’ve been having dreams, haven’t you, my son,’ said Balthasar. ‘Dreams about a wondrous folk in the forest. But your dreams have turned darker, haven’t they? It’s no surprise. Evil never really goes away, we’ll never truly see the end of it in this life. You have been given a gift, my son, the gift of the second sight. All humans can see Faerie, or Elfland as many of us call it. They work at not seeing it. Even you tried not to see it, explaining away your dreams and the two times we have met, but unlike most humans you cannot not see Elfland. More than that, you have dreams of the goings on of Elfland. There’s a darkness brewing, such as we have not known for a long age. It’s been plaguing your world more than our own. All these wars you have been having, the hatred of humans for their brothers and sisters, but Elfland has been left relatively alone. We are the poorer for not having your world interact with ours, we grow static, but we endured in peace. Now, however, the evil plaguing your own world is making its way into ours.

‘The dwarves first alerted us to it. They heard them in the deep recesses of the mountain, digging, coming in from the Elfin King knows where. The dwarves, crafty as they are and even knowing the mountain as well as they do, cannot tell where they are or if they have come out. Your dreams tell us one thing, however, they are coming and they will bring destruction with them when they do.’

Alfred sat in rapt attention. ‘Who is coming?’ he asked, breaking the ominous silence.

‘Goblins.’

‘I’m sorry. Did you just say goblins?’

‘Yes, my son, goblins. Some of the fiercest and most wicked creatures ever to cross the face of the earth.’

‘What are they? I mean, I remember reading about them in books, but they’re usually small mischievous little creatures, lesser demons or imps, awful for sure, but not this menacing.’

‘Yes, well did your books tell you that mushrooms were cared for by gnomes?’

‘No.’

‘Then I would not use them as your guide through Elfland. That’s what I’m for.’

‘Wait, what do you mean? Mr Alvin, what does he mean, he’s my guide through Elfland? If there are goblins in there and they’re as bad as you say, shouldn’t I stay out of it altogether?’

Mr Alvin sighed heavily. Alfred in looking at him began to realise how very old, even careworn, the eccentric old man of Carlisle was. It was as if he was looking at him for the first time and rather than an old man, it was a wizard, a sage, druid bard sitting next to him. ‘Alfred,’ he began slowly, ‘Carlisle sits in a perilous place. While Faerie may be all around us and everywhere, there are some places closer to it than others. As I told you, you are quite lucky, having grown up on the edge of Elfland and being given a glimpse. A glimpse, however, is not all you’ve been destined for.

‘Carlisle, because of its proximity to the major home for elves and dwarves, both the Elfin King and the lesser dwarf king have their thrones in Fey Forest, has often known great beauty and wonder. Alas, it is also known more grief and woe.’

‘And caused more as well,’ said Balthazar quietly.

‘Too true,’ replied Mr Alvin. ‘Alfred, trouble has often come from Elfland and attacked Carlisle, trying to find entrance into the world of men and overthrow it. The goblins especially hate humanity. Do you remember the story I told you about St Nicholas’s?’

‘Only a little. Didn’t you say something about goblins then?’

‘Indeed I did. They tried to burn down the church on Christmas Eve over a thousand years ago. They were beaten back by the villagers, with the help of the faeries, and the flames around the church were extinguished.’

‘Why did they want to burn down the church?’

‘Suffice it to say that they hate humanity and wanted to do them harm. The whole village was inside at the time, as was the custom, and they thought to bring the whole town to ruin. From there they could have spread into the rest of the human world.’

‘Why do they hate us so much? And why do they have enter our world through Carlisle?’

‘Those are complicated questions. Balthazar, would mind answering the boy?’

‘My pleasure. You see Alfred, goblins were not always goblins. Some say they are men mixed with elves who have gone bad. Others that they were elves once, but they turned their back on the Elfin King. Still others say they were dwarves who lost themselves in the mines they worked for the Elfin King and when they finally emerged it was with a burning hatred of the Elfin King. Whatever the truth is, they were not always evil and they did not always look as they do now. The reason they hate humanity is because the Elfin King protects you. It is because of him that goblins and other wicked creatures cannot come into your world unless your civilisation is physically close to our own. Because humans have moved away from the forests and the wilds of the world, even from the beginning, this happens rarely, but there are still pockets. In most places there is still silence, in some evil has won out, but here in Carlisle there is ever a tension. The greater and lesser kingdoms being here means both a greater chance of mutual benefit and a greater chance of mutual harm.’

‘So where do I fit in to all of this?’

Balthazar and Mr Alvin looked to each other and then both turned to look at Alfred. Mr Alvin spoke first, ‘Faerie is always better when connected to humanity. The separation between the two is unnatural. When evil like this comes forward is important for Faerie to find a human with the second sight to help. What your proper role will be, there’s no telling. This is why Balthazar is to be your guide. He will get to know you and determine where your strengths lie. From there, only time will tell what part you will play, but it will be a great one, lad, I can promise you that.’

‘Come along, my son,’ Balthazar said to Alfred.

‘Wait, I’m leaving now? What about my family?’ Alfred exclaimed.

‘There’s no time, boy. The goblins will come and attack the village. If you don’t go into Faerie now, there may be no Carlisle to return to. I know its hard. I had hoped to better prepare you myself, but there we are. Alfred, the goblins are ruthless, their king hates humanity more than most. He comes from a long-lived goblin line and was part of the attack against the village when they tried to burn St Nicholas’s. He will stop at nothing. He’s been biding his time far in the North, for they were banished from England for a thousand years, all that time to foment and plan for his revenge. A young villager had caved in part of his face with a mattock, and since then he has vowed revenge against humanity for the loss of his eye, not to mention a fair few of his teeth. He will have trained his goblins to be ferocious, cruel, loving to give pain. You must go, and now.’

Alfred remembered the music from his dream, he thought of how much he loved his parents, his village. He was confused, about so many things, but one thing was certain, he trusted Mr Alvin, everything he had read about Faerie, all of it incidental, had at least taught him to discern good from evil. He knew evil must be fought, even in the face of defeat, which he hoped it would not come to. Without realising it, he found himself resolved to do whatever he could. He could think of nothing that made him special, that made him worthy, but this too he knew so often essential in fairy tales. It was not about him, but what needed to be done.

‘Alright,’ he said at last, ‘I’ll do it. Lead me where you will Balthazar.’

‘Into the forest then, my son.’

‘Good luck, Alfred,’ called Mr Alvin. ‘The hopes of Faerie and earth rest with you.’

Alfred looked changed, as if the air of Elfland had already begun to flow in him. His walk became more determined, less that of a listless twenty-something, as he entered the forest, being guided by the small gnome, not knowing what his fate would bring him.

 

Sincerely yours,
David Russell Mosley

Faeriean Metaphysics: Why Faerie and Fantasy Matter in Christian Theology

Novgorod school, 15th century,

Novgorod school, 15th century, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

David Russell Mosley

 

Festival of St Monica, mother of St Augustine
27 August 2013
The Borders of the Perilous Realm, Beeston, Nottinghamshire

 

Dear Friends and Family,

 

Today I want to write yet again about something very close to my heart: Faerie and Fantasy in Christian theology. I have posted on this topic enough times now that I have included a whole menu above to it. This theme is one that has brought quite a bit of ire my way, though never directly. That is, people like to comment about my posts without commenting on them. Still I trudge on.

 

One of my favourite critiques is a backhanded comment. It usually goes something along these lines: ‘I bet it gets funding.’ I think this humorous. First, and perhaps this is what confuses them most, I don’t write posts that are intended as academic articles. I don’t have an idea for something I think could make a good journal article and then decide to write a blog post about it instead. My blog is primarily for hobbies and passions of mine. The second funny thing about this is the backhanded nature of the comment. By suggesting that my work will receive funding they are implying that only a certain kind of work receives funding, work they disdain and not their own work, thus since they aren’t getting funding, they assume my work will. I enjoy good critiques, but would prefer them be about the substance of what I write, not suppositions about my motivations or the nature of my research.

 

Moving on then, I want today to write about the importance of fantasy or belief in Faerie for doing good Christian theology.  J. R. R. Tolkien writes in ‘On Fairy Stories’ ‘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.’ Faerie is thus the world when viewed through enchanted eyes. It is completely consonant with our own world, we just lack the eyes to see it.

 

For Chesterton, Fairyland is the place of common sense. He writes in the section ‘The Ethics of Elfland’ in his Orthodoxy, ‘Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense.’ This land of common sense, however, is not a land of laws, not primarily. In Fairyland there is one test to find out if something is a law, imagination. I have written more about that here. The point here is that if you can imagine it differently, then it is not a law. There are, however, unimaginable things: Three take away two is always one; black is never white; good is never evil. These words lose their meaning if we try to define them as their opposites.

 

Simon Ushakov's icon of the Mystical Supper.

Simon Ushakov’s icon of the Mystical Supper. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Thus for both authors, Faerie is the place where the world can be seen rightly. It is the place where the ordinary is seen to be extraordinary. This is necessary to theology. Notice what Tolkien wrote above, Faerie includes wine and bread and man enchanted. Faerie contains the world and renders it strange, it renders trees into dryads, and populates the world with creatures beyond humanity’s knowledge. We need to understand this in theology, for only then can we begin to see how, as the old hymn says, ‘This is our Father’s world.’ Theologians are in the job of rendering the ordinary extraordinary. Wine and bread become blood and flesh; humans become gods; the timeless enters into time; the deathless tastes death. As Tolkien writes, ‘God is the Lord, of angels, and of men––and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.’

 

“The Death of King Arthur”

“The Death of King Arthur” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Sincerely yours,
David Russell Mosley

 

P. S. This post was getting too long, be on the look out for my next post which will discuss the necessity of writing fantasy for Christian theology.