Re-Enchanting the World, Part Three

The third part of a talk I gave recently. Those who read my A-to-Z blog challenge posts will see a number of similar themes … Please see the past two posts for the earlier sections.

In Kenrokuen

The Re-enchantment of the World: fantasy, the imagination, and Christian life, Part Three

We need to redeem our imaginations and our metaphysics. God is not the distant sculptor of creation, now finished with his work and resting; he is an author, or even more a novelist, whose book we are characters in and which we are reading in progress. Again, we have faith that it will be a good story; one that we love.

If such paradoxes are central, crucial, this is why it is good to turn to the poets and the novelists. Some novelists write about this world, or something close to it; others write about the world that might be, that ought to be, or that ought not to be. Romance novels, fantasy, mysteries, fairy tales: these are all stories that at heart affirm that truth can be told by lies, that made-up characters can be teach us about being human, that ideas are important, that the world has meaning. In his essay “On Stories,” C.S. Lewis writes that one of the functions of art is “to present what the narrow and desperately practical perspectives of real life exclude.”[1] He is talking about the difference between stories about going to the Moon and actually going to the Moon – which had not yet happened. He suggests that if one were actually locked out of safety on the Moon, one would be afraid of death – not the existential horror of the infinite emptiness of space weighing down upon one, which is awhat we get from some of novels on the subject. An adventure to the Moon is about the world, really. Without all those centuries of books, the story of the Moon Landing would be only half a story. (As I somewhat wonder about Mars. Mars is cool: but the Moon is cooler.) It is because we have both wonder and fear that we think it a particularly fine event; because we believe that the universe at large has meaning that we ask what it is that the astronauts saw, looking out.

Lewis points out that the fantastic is not an escape from reality, but a way into it. I think this is very important. We read of Toad of Toad Hall in The Wind in the Willows, and come not to any strong views on toads, but almost all of us to an exaltation of good food and friendship and the love of the natural world. We read The Horse and his Boy half for the description of butter when Shasta first tastes it. Why do fantasists create new worlds? Why is the food in The Hobbit somehow better than a straight description of a real meal could be? It’s not the food itself; Bilbo’s pantry could be any of ours, if we so chose. It’s the unexpected arrival of thirteen dwarves and a wizard, tales of dragons, songs of gold and exile, the knowledge that this is the beginning of the story, the frisson of Bilbo not being quite human – all these things are there because it is a story, because it is a fantasy, because it is not real.

But yet when we have a tea party, we invoke that party. When I describe my One Day House to people, they say: you want a hobbit-house! (Meaning: comfort.) I eat sausages thinking of Narnia; and they taste better for it, in the same way that when I first read the Divine Comedy and got to the Earthly Paradise at the end of Purgatorio, I recognized it as Aslan’s country from The Silver Chair and The Last Battle: and both the Narnia books and the Comedy are the better for it. So too is any garden with a mead of flowers alongside a stream, in my imagination or my experience or my desired creation, because it will have echoes of nymphs and blessed spirits.

Why do fantasists create new worlds? Why do we tell stories about our lives? We remember the stories we have told, the shaping we have given to experience: our memories are the stories we have told of them, tumbled over by handling until they are smooth and somewhat distant from their rough past as they may be. I think we do this because we are human, we do not like to be animals, we do not want to be bound by the merely necessary. Oh! we say, we ate; because we had to. But it is better to learn to make seedy cakes because Bilbo had them, and because we don’t have to have them.

We delight in the utterly inessential. I said earlier that I reckoned there is a limit to the extent someone would go to perpetuate a practical joke, and that in my opinion writing a secret athetistic tract in the form of the greatest (and exceedingly intellectually and artistically demanding) poem is too incredible. And so I think it is.

But it is not incredible that someone should spend decades writing that poem. It is not incredible that another person should spend decades inventing an epic – whole worlds, customs, climates, histories – around a language he – also made up – nor that another should build a replica of great ship out of matchsticks or Lego; or another spend half her life building a garden or trying to perfect a jam, or creating an elaborate encyclopedia of earthly knowledge. These things are human things to do, paradoxical as they are in their demand for attention, for labour, for money, for time, while being at the same and exact time – and we know this – hugely, fundamentally, absolutely, unnecessary.

As I said, I believe we need mysteries.

All the really good stories have some paradox at the centre, some sense that the world is a kind of bait-and-switch that ends with us laughing in delight — or weeping in a kind of holy awe and terror — and wanting to read it over again. There is magic in the stories, and mystery, and a sense in which there are patterns beyond our thoughts, half intelligible and half intuited. This is there in the universe, too. Not just the wonders elucidated by science, which are many and glorious. There is more than that.

This is what I think we’ve lost in our reading of Scripture and the world, and what we can regain. That is how Dante read history and why he wrote the Comedy using real people: he read them as being significant in themselves. He meets his beloved teacher Brunetto Latini in Hell, and also his beloved author Virgil whom he never met in real life; and every reader of the Divine Comedy hopes Dante is wrong about Virgil – I might even say vehemently believes, would cry out the peculiarly unjust justice of Dante’s placement, would decry utterly that the God of Love whom Dante describes could do such a thing.

We can redeem our imaginations not just by learning our biases, of our age and others. We can redeem them through championing our poetry, our making — however that works, whether in clay or music or words or cookery — by our exuberant delight in the inessential. Chesterton notes that a love of the inessential, of art, is really what separates us from the animals and brings us close to God, [2] who after all is the one who, being perfectly sufficient in himself, created the world. Dorothy L. Sayers argues that is as creators that we are made in the image of God, that God of whom nothing is predicated before that line but that he made the universe.[3]

It is no coincidence that the major literary genres have, and always have been, such romances. They can be deeply theologically grounded and often are, for they are built upon a foundation that revels in meaning unfolding through time. The Christian God is a storyteller: he tells fairy tales. Author of all creation, with all its inessential beauties — and terrors — its hidden patterns and convoluted but coherent mysteries (which it is the task of science to unravel and describe), but also in the fairy tale he wrote for himself; and also in the parables he, incarnate, told.

Animals pursue the necessary, but we, being made in the image of the Creator, make gloriously unnecessary things.

 

[1] C.S. Lewis, “On Stories,” in Of Other Worlds (San Diego and London: Harcourt, 1966), p. 10.

[2] G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), p. 34.

[3] Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker (San Francisco: HarperSanFranciso, 1987), p. 22.

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