The Sacramental Imagination of Smith of Wooton Major

David Russell Mosley

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

Dear Friends and Family,

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely yours,

David

The Sacramental Imagination of The Hobbit

David Russell Mosley


Ordinary Time
Richard Hooker
03 11 2014
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Today I want to continue our conversation about forming a sacramental imagination in children. As I said before, I want to focus on the works the helped form my imagination as a child. The first book on the list, therefore, is J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I am limiting myself to The Hobbit because attempting a brief overview of the sacramental imagination in this book will be hard enough without also delving into The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, or what’s more, the History of Middle Earth series. Therefore, if you read this post and see that I’ve left out Ents, Galadriel’s Mirror and phial, silmarils, etc., you will understand why.

As I’ve said on multiple occasions, there has never been a particularly long period of my life where The Hobbit has not featured in it. It is one of the earliest books that was read to me in the cradle and his been my closest companion these many years. The book, for those who haven’t read it or seen the first two films of the trilogy based on it, is about a hobbit, a creature of about three and half to four feet tall called Bilbo Baggins. Bilbo lives a rather bourgeois life. He’s a bachelor, has a well stocked larder (pantry), doesn’t seem to need to work any longer at the middle age of fifty (hobbits living to 100 as like as not). He doesn’t have much use for anything he can’t see with his own two eyes and anything fantastic he believes in, say dragons or goblins or even wolves, merely frightens him at the possibility of their existence. He is, for all intents and purposes, a rather standard, post-enlightenment, upper middle class gentleman. Then all of a sudden he encounters a wizard and not long after thirteen dwarves who convince him to go on an adventure.

Bilbo is meant to represent us in the story in many ways. Even in height he rather matches many of the children who would about his stories. Of course most of them, and us, would not be quite so stolid as Bilbo, bemoaning missing handkerchiefs, desiring pipe tobacco (from experience anyway), etc. But still, like Bilbo, most of us have never seen dwarves or wizards or elves or goblins or dragons or great kingdoms carved out of mountains. If we knew the dangers, I dare say most of us would rather stay home and eat bacon than go attempt to steal treasure from a sleeping dragon. And yet, like Bilbo, we don’t know the danger and so, as he goes on his adventure, we join him, and we, like him, gain something in the end.

It is obvious, when you reach the end of the book, that Bilbo has changed. He has encountered goblins, Gollum, a dragon, dangerous elves, rock giants, and more. And yet, he does not leave behind his old self completely. He still loves good food and drink more than treasure; he still dreams of bacon and enjoys throughout his adventures smoking his pipe (the very scene with which the book ends). Yet as he sings his song, ‘Roads Go Ever, Ever On’, as Gandalf notices, he is not the same hobbit he was at the beginning. He has been transformed. The narrator casts this transformation in two different sets of terms. The first is prose versus poetry; the second, Took versus Baggins. In the Took and Baggins dichotomy, nothing is lost. Bilbo is as much a Baggins at the end as at the beginning, but he is a Tookish Baggins or a Bagginsish Took. He still, as I’ve said, loves good food and pipes by the fire, but now his guests are not simply other hobbits, but dwarves, wizards, and even elves. From prose to poetry, however, there is truer transformation. Bilbo takes no part in the songs sung throughout the book, though he is at times moved by them. I think it striking that Bilbo does not, so far as we know, sing until the very end of the book where he not only sings, but sings a song of his own creation and what’s more, his own creation on the spot! Bilbo, the narrator tells us, was never so prosy as he imagined, but at the end he no longer even imagines himself prosy, he is now a poet.

I think it is this that helps us form a sacramental imagination, the dual recognition that we need not leave this life behind in commitment to a sacramental cosmos, just as Bilbo must not leave behind Baggins to become a Took. We can still love food and comfort, but now because we know the depth of these things, because now we know with whom we dine for Christ is present at every meal, though much more so and in a different way at one in particular. Nevertheless, the more we give in to the sacramental cosmos, the more we become poets, leaving behind pure prose. Thus, not only how we see the world has been changed, but how we talk about it has been changed as well. This is, in part, what we, like Bilbo, gain at the end of the story, a wider context in which to live our lives and new language in which to describe it.

Sincerely yours,
David

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