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 Narnia

David Russell Mosley

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Ordinary Time
05 11 2014
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Today I want to continue our discussion of the formation of Sacramental Imagination in children. The world I want to look at today is C. S. Lewis’s Narnia. I thought about how I wanted to do this, and there may come a day soon where I’ll look at each book in turn, but today I want to focus on Narnia as a whole, dipping in and out of the various books as I see fit.

Narnia is world I didn’t come to right away. Unlike The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia were never read to me as a child. I still remember having them recommended to me by a classmate as we sat, not paying attention, during choir when I was in about the fourth or fifth grade. I can’t remember what my first reading of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was like, but I remember sitting at my desk in my bedroom, pouring over The Silver Chair with my desk lamp on. I loved Puddleglum. I’m not sure why. I’m not of a sour disposition myself, but I loved him all the same.

One of the key things Narnia taught as a child was a love for animals, not in a zoological way, but as friends. Every squirrel I met, every bird, cat, dog, toad, snake, whatever, was my friend, someone to whom I could talk and be understood. In fact, I used to believe I had a special way with animals. Even at university, when there was a mouse in my dorm room, I could have sworn I had nearly talked it into coming to me so I could rescue it from the mouse traps all over the place. Sadly, it didn’t listen to me. What Narnia taught me about animals extended the rest of creation (granted Tolkien was also helpful here, but I’m not discussing The Lord of the Rings). Every tree, every field, every flower became special, even while I longed for my own doorway into Narnia.

Narnia did more than simply give me an appreciation for creation, though that is an excellent starting place if one is going to have a high view of baptism, the Eucharist, or chrismation (all Sacraments involving physical objects often used for other daily purposes as well). It also began to form my imagination about the universe as a whole. One of my favourite scenes in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is when the company of the Dawn Treader land on Ramandu’s island and meet the retired Star and his daughter. Eustace, who’s total transformation hasn’t been fully effected yet, blurts out when he’s told what Ramandu and Coriakin are, “In our world…a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.” Ramandu repsonds, “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.” There is a hint, that stars in our world might be similar to stars in Narnia, especially since we’re not told what Ramandu is made of, only what he looks like (one could, of course, delve deeper since Caspian later weds and sires an offspring with Ramandu’s daughter, therefore she, nor her father, can be made of huge balls of flaming gas, but that is not the point Lewis or I are trying to make). Not only does Narnia teach us to view the Earth differently, but the whole cosmos. Stars might be persons, animals might be able to talk, and the death of a creature who is also God by nature might be able to undo all the evil, slowly, of fallen world. If this is possible, then why might not bread become a body, wine, blood, or oil a seal from God.

There is, of course, much more one could point to: the liquid light at the edge of the world, the way this world connects to the next, etc. At heart, however, what Narnia does, what all good fantasy does, is show us that things may be more than they appear and this because there is one who created them and they show forth their creator and participate in him. In short, that the cosmos is enchanted.

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