David Russell Mosley
Feast of St. George
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire
Dear Friends and Family,
In this short video to you all I recite three poems I wrote about two years ago. I hope you enjoy.
Feast of St. George
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire
Dear Friends and Family,
In this short video to you all I recite three poems I wrote about two years ago. I hope you enjoy.
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.
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.
An excellent post from Megan Von Bergen resonant with several things I’ve written here on Letters from the Edge of Elfland. Including Faeriean Metaphysics: A Diet of Poetry and Faeriean Metaphysics: The Necessity of Poetry, Fantasy, and Faerie in Theology.
During a recent visit to my local art museum, I found that the museum was displaying the St John’s Illuminated Bible, commissioned by the monks of St John’s Abbey. Curious, I made it a point to see the Bible.
It was breathtaking.
In a dim room there were twenty-five glass cases, each holding a portion of the Scripture and opened to reveal the most beautiful illuminations. St John’s Gospel announced the Word Incarnate with a gold figure on a royal purple background; Revelation, the Second Coming with a cacophany of colours marching across the pages, speaking to the terror and joy of the apocryphal books.
I stood in the dim museum light reading page after page, entranced by the glory of the illuminations.
I recalled this enchantment recently, reading Marilynne Robinson’s essay “Freedom of Thought”. There, Robinson wonders sadly whether there is any place in modern education for this…
View original post 1,035 more words
Dear Friends and Family,
Something Lauren and I decided to do this year is to celebrate Name Days. It’s primarily a Catholic and Orthodox practice, but a good one, I think. Sadly, we didn’t decide to do this until Lauren’s, Theodore’s, and Edwyn’s name days were already passed. I may, on another day, go into more detail about what a Name Day is and how it is or can be celebrated, but today I’ll keep things simple. In short, a Name Day is a day to celebrate the saint after whom you are named (whether or not that was intentional). It isn’t a practice everyone can celebrate, but that shouldn’t stop us who can. The really important thing is to remember the saint anyway.
So today is my Name Day. St David of Wales was a sixth century monk and later archbishop of Wales.St David was actually called Dewi but when his name was latinised it became Davus and eventually David. He is remembered for many things: his simplicity of life in his monasticism, his poetry, and his preaching against the Pelagian heresy. He is credited with expelling Pelagianism (a works based salvation, suggesting we can attain perfection and salvation without the aid of grace) from Wales.
I can’t remember who first suggested it, but someone had suggested to me writing a poem in honour of my namesake, and so that is what I have done. I present to you my first annual St David’s Day Poem.
O Cymric saint by none forgotten,
Patron of Poets, my prayer do hear,
As I try to write a few words devoted
To you. O Saint of God, do draw near.
Son of a King by power revolted,
The monastic habit you chose to wear.
You preached against accurséd heresy.
Then the ground uprose, the dove descended;
That dove who is the Spirit Holy.
Lowly Earth to its Poet ascended
To meet the dove who on the Lord
First landed, to teach us His divinity.
Pray for us poets who speak the Word.
Pray we may attain, by Grace, eternity.
Pray in the name of the Holy Lord,
Father, Son, and Spirit, most holy Trinity.
Dear Friends and Family,
Last week I posted some notes on my writing processes as well as the first two chapters of my Faërie Romance. I also promised to post my alliterative Arthurian poem. I certainly have not mastered the Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse style. My poem lacks the proper caesura in each line and the lines themselves are too irregular. Still, I post it here for your thoughts and comments. It is my first real foray into narrative poetry.
Comes King Arthur and his cousin Gawain,
Two men might in mirth and in battle,
To the lake locally called Windermere
One day long before the darkening of Camelot.
The fenced fiercely on the fells together
And sang sweetly in the valleys below,
Wending their way downward to the lake Windermere.
A beautiful woman, brightly adorned, came begging,
‘Good lords,’ said the lass, ‘Please come save us.’
‘Pray,’ said Arthur, ‘What problems have thee, pretty maiden?’
‘My father has fought the beast, but has foundered.
His steel was not quick enough to kill the creature.’
‘Come, Cousin,’ said Gawain, ‘let us kill the craven
Monster. Many needs such as these must we knights
Undertake.’ ‘Tis true!’ cried Arthur ‘Tell us where
The beast takes it board and bed and we shall banish it.’
Thus the knights went forth following the Lady.
Down the fells they followed her right to the Lake.
‘Here haunts the beast of hell,’ said she pointing to the Water.
At the edge they spied a sword and shield but no man to whom they belonged.
They saw no sign of knight nor serpent.
Arthur then did declaim, ‘I will dive into the deep,
And seek out this serpent and will draw it forth.
Then you and I, Gawain, with our God’s protection,
Will defeat the beast and free the region.’
Gawain tried to dissuade his dear Cousin and King,
But Arthur had disrobed and dove his sword at his side.
Gawain prayed God would protect his noble and good servant.
Long it seemed they waited by the Lake, Gawain and the Lady.
Suddenly splashing forth out of the water came the Serpent.
Arthur was at its side attacking with his sword Excalibur.
Gawain drew his axe and gave the beast gruesome wounds.
Together the two cousins triumphed over the Serpent.
Its corpse they carried to the craggy shore.
The whole village welcomed the virtuous knights,
And they were fairly feasted for their fierce might.
It is said the serpent had spawned ere it died
And that its sons and daughters can be seen this day.
With Arthur, Gawain, and their ilk gone, Who
Will discover and defeat them for us, none can say.
David Russell Mosley
On the Edge of Elfland
Dear Friends and Family,
Advent and Christmas tend to put me in the mood for fairy-stories and fantasies. After all, it is a time of magic, of enchantment, for the God has entered Creation. Easter, however, puts me in mind for poetry. Right now, for instance, I’m attempting to read The Divine Comedy liturgically. The poem begins on the day before Good Friday and ends, apparently, on the Wednesday after Easter. Now, I haven’t reached Paradise yet, but I want to share a passage from there with you.
“All things, among themselves,
possess an order; and this order is
the form that makes the universe like God.
Here do the higher beings see the imprint
of the Eternal Worth, which is the end
to which the pattern I have mentioned tends.
Within that order, every nature has its bent, according to a different station,
nearer or less near to its origin” (I.103-110)
All of Creation, made by God, is tending toward him. Every inch of Creation has a trace of God within it. In this sense, we can call Creation sacramental because it points toward its origin. It is even, says Dante, tending toward that origin, just as we are. That is, just as we are intended for union with God in the life to come, intended for deification, so too is Creation intended to unite with God, according to its station, according to its place in the Cosmos. This is why, as I wrote over at Theology Think for Palm Sunday, Easter brings hope to Creation and not simply humanity. Let’s remember that as we celebrate the Resurrection of Our Lord today.
I deal with this subject in a few places in my thesis, key to my understanding of Creation’s role in the life to come is Maximus the Confessor who writes:
With us and through us he encompasses the whole creation through its intermediaries and the extremities through its own parts. He binds about himself each with the other, tightly and indissolubly, paradise and the inhabited world, heaven and earth, things sensible and things intelligible, since he possesses like us sense and soul and mind, by which, as parts, he assimilates himself by each of the extremities to what is universally akin to each in the previously mentioned manner. Thus he divinely recapitulates the universe in himself, showing that the whole creation exists as one, like another human being, completed by the gathering together of its parts one with another in itself, and inclined towards itself by the whole of its existence, in accordance with the one, simple undifferentiated and indifferent idea of production from nothing, in accordance with which the whole of creation admits of one and the same undiscriminated logos, as having not been before it is (Amb. 41 1312A-B).
Maximus is arguing several things here, but the key is twofold. First, it is essential to note that Maximus sees humanity as playing a role in God encompassing all creation into himself. God does this, ‘with us and through us’ (Amb. 41 1312A). Humanity, as I argued in the first chapter, has a priestly role to play for the rest of Creation and this is due, in large part, to humanity’s microcosmic nature, that in humanity is there a convergence of all created beings, ‘things sensible and things intellectual’ (Amb. 41 1312A). God encompasses all this in himself in the Incarnation. In this way, using the microcosmic nature of humanity, God unites all created beings to himself.
The second key is that all of creation is included in this. Maximus does not delineate between mineral, vegetable, and animal, some being included, others not. All beings are related to one another and to God, as Maximus writes:
For in their true logos all beings have at least something in common with one another. Amongst the beings after God, which have their being from God through generation, there are no exceptions, neither the greatly honoured and transcendent beings [angels] which have a universal relationship to the One absolutely beyond any relation, nor is the least honoured among beings destitute and bereft since it has by nature a generic relationship to the most honoured beings (Amb. 41 1312B-C).
Here, Maximus goes further than Aquinas, who only seems to see a role in the eschaton for mineral creation, humanity, and the angels. For Maximus, this cannot be, for all created beings are related to one another, even the lowest is related to the highest, by virtue of being a created being. What it more, all beings are held together by God through Jesus Christ.
What this means is that God in Christ and through us is raising up all Creation to himself. We must remember our brothers and sisters outside the human race in the rest of Creation. Remember Christ’s words, ‘”I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”’
Let me leave you with, compared to Dante’s (and many others) some rather base verses of my own:
The flowers all grow towards an end;
Trees and rivers clap for joy.
The mountains on their knees bend;
The birds make a joyful noise.
For water from the holy side
Spilled out, and red blood
Poured onto Creation’s hide.
At last we understood,
Redemption is not for us alone.
If we were silent,
Every rock, and every stone,
Every bird and beast and violet,
Would with one breath
Proclaim the death
Of Jesus Christ, Our Lord.
David Russell Mosley
4 April 2014
On the Edge of Elfland Beeston, Nottinghamshire
Dear Friends and Family,
Here is the lengthier part 2 of yesterday’s thesis extract. This section is, in essence, a commentary on J. R. R. Tolkien’s essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’. Let me know what you think.
‘Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.’1 One could easily replace fantasy with poetry, make with create or poetise, made with created or a poem, and Maker with Creator or Poet. What Tolkien says about Fantasy and fairy-tales is equally true of poetry. As Tolkien writes, ‘Fairy- stories were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded.’2 In On Fairy Stories, Tolkien is laying out what he thinks fairy-tales are and what they are meant to do. Tolkien, as noted above, tells us that the purpose is to elicit desire. This desire is simultaneously a desire for what is past, namely a nostalgia for Eden. Equally, however, the desire is for what is to come, namely the new Heavens and new Earth, or deification, though Tolkien is not so explicit.
Nevertheless, Tolkien’s own work here bears out that fairy-tales are for more than the awakening of this desire, we might even call it a natural desire for the supernatural, but that it also serves as a kind of corrective lens. In chapter 2 I argued that the Fall incurs and includes an obfuscation of our sight, that humans can no longer see correctly. This is something Faerie can help us overcome. He writes:
Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re- gaining––regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “see- ing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”––as things apart from our- selves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness of familiarity––from possessiveness.3
In Faerie we can see things for what they really are or could be or at least for how we are meant to see them. In any event, the fairy-tale helps us see more clearly. However, Tolkien also makes it clear that fairy-tales are not the only way to do this. ‘Of course, fairy-stories are not the only means of recovering, or, prophylactic against loss. Humility is enough.’4 Nevertheless, fairy-tales mixed with humility will help serve as a corrective lens so that the world may be glimpsed in a the light we were meant to see it. This passage from Tolkien is particularly provocative on this point:
Faërie includes many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.5
Tolkien begins by showing us the things we expect to see in Faerie, or Elfland as Chesterton called it in Orthodoxy: fantastical beasts, mythological creatures, wicked and benign. Then, however, Tolkien shifts to things we see in the mortal world, the first four perhaps have a commonplace in our modern imaginings of Faerie (see Disney’s preference for his heroines to be accompanied by birds and other woodland creatures). Then, Tolkien makes a very deliberate shift that helps knit this chapter together, bread and wine, which is meant to incite images of the Eucharist. Indeed, even the inclusion of water, which may at first had us thinking of Bombur’s en- chanted sleep after falling in the river of Mirkwood, but after seeing bread and wine listed, baptism ought now to be in our minds, perhaps even the stone can evoke images of medieval fonts. Even humanity, when enchanted is encompassed by Faerie.
What Tolkien does here is show forth the notions of a sacramental universe as I described above. All things are or can be more than what they are because all things exist in Faerie. All that is needed is eyes to see them. This is one of the roles fantasy plays, that poetry plays. For Chesterton, this rendering strange is an essential aspect of fantasy. He writes, ‘The only words that ever satisfy me as describing Nature are the terms used in fairy books ‘charm’, ‘spell’, ‘enchantment’. They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.’6 Perhaps one of the first things fantasy can do for us (particularly when written from a Christian perspective) is to show us that the God of Christianity and the Creation of Christianity are not the ones of deism. Rather God is, as I have argued throughout, Poet, Creator, intimately connected with his Creation/Poem.
This alone perhaps shows the purpose of including a long discourse on the purpose of fantasy/poetry in a chapter on redemption in an essay on deification. There is, however, more. Following on what Milbank has said above, the writing of poetry and fantasy, and particularly the act of world-creating, at least according to Tolkien, is a gift and therefore graced and also an aspect of our deification. Alison Milbank provides a perhaps even more crucial link between the writing of fiction (specifically fantasy, but all fiction ultimately) and deification. She writes, ‘And it is in the ability to create––fiction is linked to the Latin verb facere, to make––that the artist comes closest to God. For us to recognize the world as God’s creation, we have to see it as a work of art; for us to recognize the creative power of the artist, we similarly have both to experience his or her fiction as a world but also be aware of its constructed nature.’7 First note that our word fiction is related to facare which provides the latter portion of the word deification. This is the same as noting that the latter half of the Greek theopoiesis, namely poiesis, is the source of our word for poetry. Even more so, however, Milbank, alongside Tolkien, notes that this act of creativity, this act of artistic creation renders the artist as an imitator of God. What is more it reminds us that just as we need to immerse ourselves in an artists creation without forgetting its constructed nature, so too should we not forget the created nature of the cosmos around us because it has a Creator.
George MacDonald writes in an essay on imagination, ‘man may, if he pleases, invent a little world of his own, with its own laws; for there is that in him which delights in calling up new forms–which is the closest, perhaps, he can come to creation.’8 Again, connecting this to Milbank’s notions of our own creativity as a participation in the divine creativity––and indeed noting our creativity as an aspect of humanity being made in the image and likeness of God––, allows us to see this closeness to acts of creation (that is creation ex nihilo) already implies the deificatory and deifying significance of fantasy writing, of world creation. However, as MacDonald, Chesterton, Tolkien, and the Milbanks all make clear, this is a participatory creation. However real it is, however much it can be termed an addition to the Poem, it is still participatory and a gift. MacDonald writes:
In the moral world it is different [from the physical]: there a man may clothe in new forms, and for this employ his imagination freely, but he must invent nothing. He may not, for any purpose, turn its laws upside down. He must not meddle with the relations of live souls. The laws of the spirit of man must hold, alike in this world and in any world he may invent.9
MacDonald while noting that human creators can rework our physical world, as he does when he has a bedroom transmute into a forest glad right on the edge of Faerie, believes that the moral world cannot be changed. We can imagine a world in which humans are kept in cages and apes perform studies on them, but we are not to imagine a world where morality can become amorality, where falsity is given the place of prominence of truth, or evil the place of goodness, or ugliness/disorder the place of beauty.
What MacDonald writes of as almost a kind of suggestion, Chesterton sees as the only true laws of our universe. For Chesterton there are immutable facts even in world-creation:
But as I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened––dawn and death and so on––as if they were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one make three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of imagination. You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by their tales.10
Chesterton is here criticising the sciences which seek to suggest that the things they have observed and can predict with an amount of certainty are laws. The only laws, according to Chesterton, are those things we cannot imagine differently without unmaking them or redefining them. Two and one cannot not make three unless we change the meanings of two, one, and/or three. Similarly good cannot be evil without changing what the word good means. Alison Milbank writes that this view of the world is sourced in Chesterton’s consumption of fairy-tales, ‘Fairy-tales, however, are not natural but cultural productions and it is by means of these fictions that Chesterton comes to view the world itself as magical: utterly real and enchanted at one and the same time.’11 Thus, for Chesterton, the world is real, but it is also enchanted and this affects the way fantasy is written. While Chesterton, in the passage above, is not specifically writing about writing, that is, he is not directly speaking of the act and art of human creativity, it is implicit in what he writes. When we create worlds, whether in poetry, fantasy, science-fiction, etc., we may unhinge the ‘laws’ of nature:
break them open and make them stand on their heads. What we cannot do, however, is break the laws of mathematics or goodness/morality. It is not that the author is not allowed to do these things, but that they are not possible, or at least not possible consistently.
Milbank gives this its most theological voice when he writes:
Of course, in human beings other than Christ there is no absolute coincidence of the human will with the divine creative will; but nevertheless one can logically speak of a ‘participating’ in this creative will, where human action brings about something that is generally now, as in the case of a new sort of legal convention or a new sort of artistic idiom. But because the creative human being is ‘inspired’, and because she does not fully grasp or command the new thing she has brought about, there is no absolute creation here: the new thing invented is also ‘discovered’, given to the creator herself as a mysterious new potency.12
Milbank reminds us that humans cannot create in the same way as God. Not even divine creativity rests in us in the exact same way it does in the Godhead, despite the fact that (or perhaps precisely because) we are made in the image of God. Milbank couches our creativity in terms of gift and participation. It is our participation in divine creativity that allows us to create, yet that participation is a gift. What is more, the very things we create, insofar as they are good, are gifts from God. We receive them just as much as we create them. This is why, for MacDonald, ‘A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer the art, the more things it will mean.’13
MacDonald takes this notion of true art having multiple meanings and applies it to the differences between creations of humans and God: ‘One difference between God’s work and man’s is, that, while God’s work cannot mean more than he meant, man’s work must mean more than he meant.’14 Here, MacDonald is not denying a multiplicity of meaning within the works of God, but that the number of meanings cannot exceed God’s intention. This is not the case with human creation. The numerous interpretations of works by human beings stand as testimony to this. Yet this multifariousness can be a good thing when applied to meaning in human works. In this way Tolkien’s work can be considered both an indictment on capitalism15 through his depictions of the Shire and yet also as providing commentary on the necessity of war but without the love of it particularly in the words of Faramir.
In the end, for Tolkien, the fairy-story serves an even larger purpose, which is the introduction into our minds of eucatastrophe and participation in the Evangelium. A fairy-tale is almost not a fairy tale, for Tolkien, if it lacks a happy ending.16 This is precisely what makes it different from tragedy. Rather than a sudden turn that causes all events to go awry (Hamlet’s mother drinking the wine meant to kill Hamlet, Laertes being stabbed by his own poisoned sword, etc.) there is a sudden turn of events that causes all to go right. Tolkien called this the eucatastrophe. For Tolkien, ‘The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of the fairy-tale, and its highest function.’17 This is so because the happy ending participates in an even greater story. ‘But in the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater––it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.’18
The Gospel is, for Tolkien, the greatest fairy-tale, and is the source for all fairy-tales, even those that come before it. He writes in words similar to those I have used in the previous chapters, ‘But the story has entered History and the primary world; the desires and aspirations of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.’19 The Poet enters the Poem, but it is more than this. The entrance of the Poet into the Poem hallows (deifies, theo-poetises) the work going on within the Poem by us. For Tolkien:
But in God’s Kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, to hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.20
Our creative faculties, that aspect of our being made in the image of God, are redeemed and pulled up to the level of creation. In writing fantasy and poetry we imitate and participate in God as Creator, as Poet. What’s more, we participate in God as storyteller through salvation history, particularly through the story of the Incarnation which serves as the source for our storytelling.
All of this discussion of human creativity in fantasy and poetry, however, needs now to also be connected more directly to deification. Having looked at the foundations and purposes to which poetry and fantasy are put, I want to turn now to two stories about creation to show, in part, how they relate to deification, how they relate to the whole Poem and the process of Poem becoming Theo-Poem.
David Russell Mosley
1 J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘Tree and Leaf,’ in The Tolkien Reader (New York: The Ballantine Publishing Company, 1966), 75.
2 Ibid., 63.
3 Ibid., 77.
4 Ibid., 77.
5 Ibid., 38.
6 G. K. Chesterton, ‘Orthodoxy,’ in Everyman Chesterton (London: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 302.
7 Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2009), 64-5.
8 George MacDonald, ‘The Fantastic Imagination,’ in The Complete Fairy Tales, ed. by U. C. Knoepflmacher (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 5-6.
9 Ibid., 6.
10 G. K. Chesterton, ‘Orthodoxy,’ 121.
12 John Milbank, Beyond Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of the People (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2013), 196.
13 George MacDonald, ‘The Fantastic Imagination,’ 7.
14 Ibid., 9.
15 See the chapter entitled ‘Fairy Economics: Gift Exchange’ in Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2009), 117-141.
16 J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘Tree and Leaf,’ 85.
18 Ibid., 88.
19 Ibid., 88-9.
20 Ibid., 89.
27 March 2014
On the Edge of Elfland
Dear Friends and Family,
Since my review of David Constantine’s Poetry was posted on Christ and University yesterday, I thought I would share a poem or two of my own. They are probably quite bad (the rhythm and metre is often a mess). So, feedback (preferably constructive) is welcomed. These two poems were written on a sunny afternoon in my back garden. Two quick etymological notes. The word dumbledore is colloquial eighteenth century British term for a bumble bee. Also, the term gnome has its origins in one of the Greek terms for knowledge (gnosis). It was also at one point somewhat interchangeable with elf or fairy (Tolkien calls his high elves Noldor in part for this reason). Ok, on to potentially poor poetry.
My dear Dumbledore,
I hope you won’t think
Me such a humble bore
If I dedicate some ink
To writing you this letter.
My green bush with blossoms pink
You seem to love none better.
But my flowers red and blue
They never see the likes of you
Within their expectant petals.
What have they said or done
That you treat them like common nettles?
I’m sure they meant naught but fun.
Come back, my friends, and say hello.
I’ll put on the biggest of my kettles.
We’ll drink to cheer, to nectar sweet;
We’ll sup sumptuous honey;
We’ll drink mead, put up our tired feet.
One thing I ask, it is not money,
Leave your weapons at the door
From Gardener, your friend,
To little Dumbledore.
Of all the creatures on God’s green earth
None is wiser, nor longer living than the gnome.
They write no books, nor build things of worth,
Caves built by other serve for home.
And yet their knowledge goes back to the beginning
Before the human race began its tradition of sinning.
For what immediate end God made them
No one can be sure; perhaps they do not know.
Some call them devils sent to tempt us unto sin;
Others that they do not exist and there is naught to know.
Both camps are wrong, they truly must be.
In truth, we have simply forgotten how to see.
David Russell Mosley
Dear Friends and Family,
First, if you haven’t checked out the articles on Christ and University, make sure you do so. Second, here is a review I recently did for them. Let me know what you think.
Reviewed by David Russell Mosley
Christ & University desires to emphasise the theological nature of education. Education seeks to help make women and men more like Christ through the various disciplines. The Literary Agenda series, begun by Oxford University Press, has a related goal in exhorting that closer attention be paid to the humanities in general and literature in particular. Poetry by David Constantine fits within the themes and desires of Christ & University, its call to return to reading and writing poetry as essential to society and as belonging to every person, not simply the elite few. Poetry is ultimately about human expression and formation. While not explicitly theological or Christ centred, this book serves as a reminder of the place of poetry within society and therefore within education, which is to make it implicitly about the conformation of the reader of…
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David Russell Mosley
6 September 2013
On the Edge of Elfland
Dear Friends and Family,
Yesterday I wrote to you about the importance of being poets and theologians. In order to be excellent poets and theologians, however, we need a steady diet of poetry ourselves. With that in mind, I submit to you some excellent poets, poems, or books of poetry for your consumption. Read and be transformed.
This post will focus primarily on Western poetry since that is the poetry I know best. This isn’t to say Western poetry is the only good poetry, the only theological poetry, or the only poetry concerning Faerie. It is simply what I know and love personally.
The first poetry with which all theologians need to familiarise themselves is the poetry of our Hebrew ancestors. The Psalms teach us the importance of confessing our faith, our pains, our confusion, our rejoicing, our worship, in song and verse. The Psalms have been a traditional part of the Church’s worship since the Church’s inception. We must remember that the Psalms are poetry and read them as such.
The Iliad and The Odyssey
Perhaps the first epic poems, I highly recommend these two works by Home (probably) as some of the earliest evidence that poetry tells stories as well as describes Nature. Homer teaches us that poetry can truly be epic.
Along with Homer, Virgil must also be read. Perhaps lesser in talent, Virgil’s work was part of the common fare of the Latin Church. His images and words, his story of the founding of Rome became part of the common imagination.
Gregory the Theologian
Gregory as I noted in the previous post, was a poet. We need to be reading his poetry to see what one of our best theologians put into verse to help give us ideas and concepts for our own. You can find a copy of these in translation here.
The Divine Comedy
Dante is perhaps one of the most well known Christian poets, along with John Milton and John Donne. Dante’s Inferno has received various, and primarily awful, treatment in the past. You must read the whole comedia to truly see the brilliance of Dante both as a poet and a theologian.
One of the earliest poems written in a language we can technically call English, Beowulf is a shorter epic poem about the triumph of good over evil. Beowulf teaches us about the power of goodness against the evils of Satan.
The Pearl Poet
The anonymous poet who, more than likely, penned the three works Sir Orfeo, Pearl, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an excellent introduction into the Medieval Faerie tradition. His or her poems are wonderfully written and tell us stories of Faerie. These are necessary for anyone who is interested in the development of our understanding of Faerie.
Herbert is relatively new poet to me. An Anglican Priest, Herbert’s impact on Anglicanism cannot be undervalued as some of his own poems have made their way into the Common Worship.
Milton’s Paradise Lost reminds us that even the brightest star can fall dim. We learn from Milton that Satan is wrong. It is much better to serve in Heaven than to reign in Hell.
MacDonald is perhaps one of my absolute favourite authors in general. He truly teaches the importance of Faerie. His poetry is often undervalued, but it is nevertheless worth reading.
The Romantic Poets
Despite often sliding into paganism, pantheism, deism, and other issues, the Romantics are excellent examples of both style and content. After the Enlightenment, they began the project of seeing nature as more than a passive object.
Chesterton, Tolkien, and Lewis
Tolkien and Lewis are most well-known for their prose, but both authors were, at heart, poets. An education in poetry and faerie would be incomplete without them. Chesterton is perhaps more well-known for his non-fiction and essays (as well as for Father Brown) than for his poetry, but Chesterton too was a poet before all else.
There are perhaps many more poets who could be named, Seamus Heaney, Dorothy Sayers, Charles Williams, John Donne, etc. This list is woefully incomplete, and as I said at the start, focuses almost entirely on the Western Poetic Tradition. Nevertheless, these poets/poems are some great places to begin. Reading these poets will teach us to see the world differently, will teach us to see Faerie, and will help us to do better theology, theology that is beautiful.
David Russell Mosley