Friday, March 8, 2019

II. Can the Singer Enter the Tale? Tolkien and the Sacraments, Part 3

In this series of posts, I am trying to articulate what might be called a "language of beauty."

In the first post in the series, I shared a rather autobiographical prologue of my early awakenings to beauty in the world and in the Word.

In the second post in the series, I laid some groundwork in the form of a thesis: The classical Christian approach to art, poetics, and wonder must be understood in light of the Incarnation. The great Christian artists have possessed something I have called the "sacramental imagination" that was born out of the basic confidence that the world (created or sub-created) could be a real means of communion with God. In other words, if there is a Christian "language" of beauty, the sacraments are its grammar.

In the previous two posts, I began an examination of how this "sacramental imagination" works itself out in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. Today's post concludes those reflections.


I would argue, the thing that held all of this together for Tolkien was the Blessed Sacrament itself: the Holy Eucharist. Writing once to one of his sons, who was undergoing a crisis of faith, he said,
“Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament… There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth…” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p.53)
Elsewhere, speaking of a dark period in his life and of his own failings as a father, he wrote,
“But I fell in love with the Blessed Sacrament from the beginning – and by the mercy of God never have fallen out again: but alas! I indeed did not live up to it…Out of wickedness and sloth I almost ceased to practice my religion – especially at Leeds, and at 22 Northmoor Road. Not for me the Hound of Heaven, but the never-ceasing silent appeal of Tabernacle, and the sense of starving hunger. I regret those days bitterly (and suffer for them with such patience as I can be given); most of all because I failed as a father. Now I pray for you all, unceasingly, that the Healer (the Hælend as the Saviour was usually called in Old English) shall heal my defects, and that none of you shall ever cease to cry Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.” (Ibid. no. 250).
Between this, and the Reformed-Puritanical-Protestant approach to worship, there lies a fundamental epistemological difference. As a devout Roman Catholic (and particularly a pre-Vatican II Catholic), Tolkien did not go to Church to meet God merely in a sermon, but in a sacrament--not with his head only, but with his whole being. The Eucharist, like every Sacrament (and perhaps especially as the Sacrament of Sacraments), is the Recovery of the ordinary to its proper place. In it, the materials of bread and wine are caught up into the true myth of the God-Man who gave himself for all and on behalf of all. And even though the elements be changed, yet we are never quite able to look at "ordinary" bread and wine the same way again.

Flannery O’Connor, another Catholic author who wrote numerous times on her deep love for the Eucharist (and who attended Mass daily), said once that anyone who expects a writer to preach does not believe in the sacredness of the writer’s calling. The Evangelical really does expect the writer to preach just as he expects the preacher to preach. But for Tolkien, creation and sub-creation require not just a mind, but an Incarnate mind. To really experience truth we must live it, we must meet it in the flesh.

So Tolkien didn’t make sermons. He made myths. In doing so he worked out his absolute confidence in the Incarnation, of humanity caught up into the Godhead, and he had the virtue to Hope that by doing so he might restore his own humanity—and ours—to its priestly role by partaking in the sacramental act of sub-creation.

That is what he means by the closing lines of On Fairy Stories,
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. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.

Currently reading: For the Life of the World, Fr Alexander Schmemann
Current audio book: The Brothers Karamazov
Currently translating: The Aeneid, Virgil

Monday, March 4, 2019

II. Can the Singer Enter the Tale? Tolkien and the Sacraments, Part 2

In this series of posts, I am trying to articulate what might be called a "language of beauty."

In the first post in the series, I shared a rather autobiographical prologue of my early awakenings to beauty in the world and in the Word.

In the second post in the series, I laid some groundwork in the form of a thesis: The classical Christian approach to art, poetics, and wonder must be understood in light of the Incarnation. The great Christian artists have possessed something I have called the "sacramental imagination" that was born out of the basic confidence that the world (created or sub-created) could be a real means of communion with God. In other words, if there is a Christian "language" of beauty, the sacraments are its grammar.

In the previous post, I began an examination of how this "sacramental imagination" works itself out in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. Today's post continues those reflections.



No discussion of Incarnational theology in Tolkien’s works would be complete without a discussion of suffering. For the Christian, there is no Incarnation without suffering. When St Athanasius the Great writes his landmark work on Christian theology, probably the most important extra-Biblical Christian text which has ever been written, he calls it On the Incarnation. But what does St Athanasius mean by “Incarnation?” He calls it that which is “a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks,” the same phrase which Paul uses to describe Christ crucified in the first Epistle to the Corinthians.

We usually think of the Incarnation as the act which took place in the womb of Mary (and quite rightly, as I have pointed out in a previous post), but whenever Athanasius talks about it he always means the cross. When he asks “why did God become man?” what he always means is “why did God have to become a man and suffer?” And the only way for us is to follow Christ’s example, to suffer and die to this world, to bear witness with our blood, to participate in the living sacrifice which Christ offered up once and for all to the Father. For the Christian, the distance between earth and heaven is measured by the Cross.

Tolkien knew this very well—in fact, I think he knew it better than a lot of his critics acknowledged. Critics at the time as well as subsequent fantasy authors (people like Michael Moorcock) have criticized The Lord of the Rings for being morally simplistic, a kind of happily-ever-after fantasy in which everything comes out all right in the end. One wonders which copy of The Lord of the Rings they were reading.

If Tolkien develops a theology of sub-creation, we must not think he is blind to the potential abuses of the artistic gifts. One could argue that the whole history of his legendarium is a working-out of what happens when the sub-creative urge is malformed or disordered: when it mutates into the desire to possess and control. Melkor “the strong,” mightiest among the Valar, becomes Morgoth “the dark enemy of the world” ultimately because he wants to create in isolation instead of community, because he wants to control what he makes rather than give it over to the Children of Illuvatar who will inherit it. Later, the seeds of sin in Feanor’s heart—and the whole long and sad history of the Noldor as it plays out in The Silmarillion—are sown when he crafts the Silmarils, and desires to possess rather than to share them.

The impulse to create alone instead of in community is a marring of the image of God: for God does not create alone. The Holy Trinity is persons in communion, not an individual, a lonely genius, producing works for his own pleasure. One might say in Tolkien’s economy, as in Dante’s, all the individualists are in hell (or in this case, Angband).

The ultimate icon of corrupted art is, of course, the One Ring, which is the supreme work of art in The Lord of the Rings, and also the weapon of ultimate control. It’s telling, I think, in an age where the highest good is to “be all you can be,” that rejecting the One Ring always means rejecting your full potential. Gandalf, Frodo, even Sam could all be much more than they are—more effective, more efficient, more dreadful, more lordly, more deadly—if they would just use the Ring.

We see this most vividly in Galadriel’s test. In my opinion, it’s one of the most powerful scenes in literature. Galadriel can take the Ring which Frodo has offered. If she does, she’ll be a Queen—not just of Lothlorien, but of all Middle-earth. But if she rejects it—and this is what we can sometimes forget—she won’t merely stay where she’s at. Right now she’s Galadriel, Lady of Lothlorien, wielder of one of the three Elven rings, the greatest of the elves who yet remain in Middle-earth. She’s the daughter and sister and grandmother of kings and queens, perhaps the greatest and fairest of the Children of Illuvatar in the world since the time of Luthien. And if she lets the One Ring out of Lothlorien, she loses all of that. She has to go away into the West, where she will be “only Galadriel.” When you think about all of the good things she might still do for Middle-earth, the waste seems almost criminal, and I think that is one of the reasons that the elves’ leaving Middle-earth at the end of The Lord of the Rings feels so tragic.

There’s a line that’s easy to miss that I think says everything we need to understand about Tolkien’s attitude towards suffering. It’s in Galadriel’s description of Celeborn and the three ages that they have spent together in Middle-earth. She says that “together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.” Tolkien lived through two World Wars, through the collapse of modernism, to the death of every close friend he had in the trenches of France during WWI. Tolkien lived as a Roman Catholic in an age when Christendom was coming apart at the seams. He was no defeatist, but at the same time he knew that to live in this world—to be Incarnate in it—is to suffer and to die. His whole work is shot through with that tension. What the Christian story has done—the myth become history, the ultimate Eucatastrophe—is given all of our suffering a purpose. Here is what he says in the epilogue of On Fairy Stories:
The Gospels contain a fairystory, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration 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… The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, 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.
The good news of the Gospel is this: everything that we are as humans made in the Image of God now has a purpose, not just to vaguely “impact the culture for Christ,” but to actually assist in the salvation of the universe. I want to recall once again our working definition of Recovery: An Incarnate Mind, working with the materials of Primary Reality, creates a work of Fantasy, by which Primary reality is restored to is proper place. And I think now we are prepared, or nearly prepared, to see how Tolkien believes this concept has its ultimate fulfillment in Christ.


Something which is clear in the very first iteration of the Silmarillion material is the idea that things have gone wrong, and that some sort of intervention is needed if they are ever to be set right again. This idea plays out in the “themes” of Illuvatar, the second music he makes and which the Ainur [the angelic powers and demiurges who sub-create within the themes of Illuvatar/God, though The Flame Imperishable (the Logos) which gives real substance to creation resides only with Illuvatar] do not understand.

The core idea, expressed and developed in a variety of ways throughout Tolkien’s lifetime, is that the Children of Illuvatar (men and elves), and not the Ainur, will be the means by which the hurts of Arda are finally healed. In the earliest versions of the Legendarium, this included a Ragnarok-like battle at the end of time in which Turin Turambar would (with a little help) be the one to strike the final blow against Morgoth, taking vengeance for all the hurts of men and elves. Tolkien eventually scrapped that idea, but the role of the Children of Illuvatar—and particularly that of Mankind—remains in Tolkien’s eschatological vision. As stated in The Silmarillion,
Death is their fate, the gift of Ilúvatar, which as Time wears even the Powers shall envy. But Melkor has cast his shadow upon it, and confounded it with darkness, and brought forth evil out of good, and fear out of hope. Yet of old the Valar declared to the Elves in Valinor that Men shall join in the Second Music of the Ainur; whereas Ilúvatar has not revealed what he purposes for the Elves after the World's end…
This is pretty vague, and it hits upon one of the main “problems” for any Christian who digs deep into Tolkien’s Legendarium. You and I and Tolkien know that death, at any rate human death, is an aberration. It is a wound inflicted by sin upon the world. It is only in Christ’s trampling down of death by death that it becomes something more than us. How then can Tolkien say that death is a gift? I think that answer, at least in part, is that Tolkien isn’t really saying that. The elves (who are the authors of the Quenta Silmarillion within Tolkien’s narrative frame) are saying that. One might see how, to the elves, death might come to be viewed as a gift.

When Tolkien’s elves die, they don’t really die. They go to the Halls of Mandos, in the Undying Land, from whence after a time they are given new bodies and reincarnated in the world. The lives of the elves are bound up with the life of Arda (the world), and when it comes to an end—and they know it is going to come to an end—they don’t know what will happen to them. From that point of view, the nature of man to “seek beyond the world,” and to not be bound within its circles after their death, might truly be viewed as a gift.

But if you aren’t entirely satisfied with that answer, you aren’t alone. Almost nobody in Tolkien’s fiction ever is. One of the most remarkable examples of this is in a short story memorably called the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth. Athrabeth means “debate,” and The Athrabeth is a debate between Finrod Felagund, an elven-king (who features prominently in The Silmarillion) and Andreth, a mortal woman who is counted among the Wise of her people. It’s a deeply beautiful, sad, and hopeful story, and it is typical of the sort of metaphysical and theological bent that Tolkien’s writing took towards the end of his life. I can’t summarize it all here, but it begins with Andreth’s bitterness over her love for Finrod’s brother Aegenor, whom she loves, and with whom she cannot be because he is immortal and she is not, and he is soon to die in the Battle of Unnumbered Tears (which he has foreseen).

As far as Andreth is concerned, the Shadow of Morgoth and the fear of death are one and the same. The Wise among men do not believe that men were made to die, she explains, the elves have heard wrong. She believes they were made to be always undying as the elves are, but that something has gone wrong and death has been imposed upon them. It was this Shadow in the East that the Three Houses of Men were fleeing when they first came to Beleriand (the westernmost lands of Middle-earth, where most of the action of The Silmarillion is set). The clear implication is that the Wise have retained a cultural memory of Eden.

[It may bear explaining at this point that Tolkien always envisioned his Legendarium as a sort of pre-historical mythology for Northern Europe, so it’s always meant to be set in the “real world.”]

The debate goes back and forth. Finrod assumes death is a normal part of human existence. Andreth believes it’s an aberration of nature. Elves are intended for Arda (the physical world); now that it is marred, they wear out faster than they should. Humans are intended for life beyond Arda in some kind of eternal state. Untainted “death” (leaving the circles of the world) would be a good end, says Finrod. Death has been imposed upon humans as a punishment, says Andreth, and is therefore not good. Are our bodies part of the problem, wonders Finrod? No says Andreth, the body is intended for its dweller, it is a part of the dweller, and not to be despised. If that’s the case, why do bodies (human or elvish) wear out? Finrod ultimately suggests that perhaps the purpose of humanity, before their fall, was to uplift the whole world beyond its time-bound existence and so fulfill its eschatological purpose. That’s the context for the remarkable exchange that follows:
‘Alas, lord!’ she said. ‘What then is to be done now? For we speak as these things are, or as if they will assuredly be. But Men have been diminished and their power is taken away. We look for no Arda Remade: darkness lies before us, into which we stare in vain. If by our aid your everlasting mansions were to be prepared, they will not be builded now.’
‘Have ye then no hope?’ said Finrod.
‘What is hope?’ she said. ‘An expectation of good, which though uncertain has some foundation in what is known? Then we have none.’
‘That is one thing that Men call “hope,’ said Finrod. ‘Amdir we call it, “looking up.” But there is another which is founded deeper. Estel we call it, that is “trust”. It is not defeated by the ways of the world, for it does not come from experience, but from our nature and first being. If we are indeed the Eruhin, the Children of the One, then He will not suffer Himself to be deprived of his own, not by any Enemy…”
In this, Finrod could be anticipating St Athanasius. Andreth is not convinced, though she admits that there are those among men of the “Old Hope” who believe that not “the might of Men, or of any of the peoples of Arda” will be their salvation. But rather,
‘They say,’ answered Andreth: ‘they say that the One will himself enter into Arda, and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end. This they say also, or they feign, is a rumour that has come down through the years uncounted, even from the days of our undoing.’

‘…the saying of Hope passes my understanding. How could Eru enter into the thing that He has made, and than which He is beyond measure greater? Can the singer enter into his tale or the designer into his picture?’
I will leave the end of the story for you to go and read. It is a story of sorrow and healing, and here I have only told a small part. In the Athrabeth, then, Tolkien tries to wrestle with what is, what was, what might have been, and ultimately with what will be again through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Matter is not evil, it was made to be brought up into the divine, not to be obliterated. Through the Incarnation, man is restored to his place as the priest of creation, offering up in thanksgiving what God has made. In the Divine economy of Tolkien’s Legendarium, even the elves are waiting on Christ.

Let’s return to our working definition of Recovery one last time: An Incarnate Mind, working with the materials of Primary Reality, creates a work of Fantasy, by which Primary reality is restored to is proper place. Tolkien saw our role in creation as exactly this, but in order to accomplish it, the Mind of God had to become Incarnate, working with the materials of material reality, and make myth become fact, so that all creation could be restored to its proper place in the Divine Order.

This, I would argue, is the theology which underwrites all of Tolkien’s mythopoeia. It is the premise for all of his own subcreative acts, and it is the idea he is constantly working out through the Valar, the Elves, and the men of his mythology. It is the basis of the Hope for which he struggled through the senseless destruction of the West and the collapse of modernism in the first half of the twentieth century, and it is the basis of the Hope which gave meaning to the languages and poems, the hobbits and elves, the wars and woes of Middle-earth.
The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, 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.
Tolkien worked. He suffered. He died. But he thought he could see that all of these things had a purpose which was not just “useful.” It was salvific.

In my next post, I will look at some of Tolkien's more explicit statements about his own sacramental theology, and offer a few concluding thoughts before moving on to my next case study.

Currently reading: For the Life of the World, Fr Alexander Schmemann
Current audio book: The Brothers Karamazov
Currently translating: The Aeneid, Virgil

Thursday, February 28, 2019

II. Can the Singer Enter the Tale? Tolkien and the Sacraments, Part 1

In this series of posts, I am working towards trying to articulate what might be called a "language of beauty." In the previous post I laid out a core thesis which might be expressed as follows: The classical Christian approach to art, poetics, and wonder must be understood in light of the Incarnation. The great Christian artists have possessed something I have called the "sacramental imagination" that was born out of the basic confidence that the world (created or sub-created) could be a real means of communion with God. In other words, if there is a Christian "language" of beauty, the sacraments are its grammar.

Over the course of the next few posts I want to explore how this works itself out in art--both in the liturgical arts, but also in poetry and storytelling. The next two or three posts will be dedicated to examining the sacramental imagination in the works of the 20th century Christian sub-creator par excellence, J.R.R. Tolkien.

The following thoughts on Tolkien were first developed in a talk I gave at the Eighth Day Institute in October of 2018. This is the first time they have appeared in Print, digital or otherwise.


I want to begin with a quote from Tolkien’s famous (and famously difficult) essay On Fairy Stories. This essay is usually the first stop along the way for any Tolkien fan who wants to read beyond the Finarfins and Fingolfins and Finrods and Finduilas’s of The Silmarillion and tries to understand just how Tolkien’s art succeeded so supremely where the vast majority of his many imitators have failed. It’s one of the three primary attempts Tolkien makes to work out his philosophy and theology of “sub-creation,” the idea that as humans made in the Image of God, who is first a Creator, to make things—and most of all to make stories—is not just our God-given prerogative, it is our God-given right. This essay is not about On Fairy Stories per se, but since I’ll be referencing the essay a few times it might help to give a very high-level overview.

The essay is divided into three basic parts: The first part tries to answer what a “fairy story” is and why people have made them for longer than we have recorded history. This is the hardest part of the essay, mainly because in it Tolkien makes many oblique references to a variety of mythographical theories which were then in circulation. These references can be difficult to track.

The second part of the essay tries to argue for why making fairy-stories is both necessary and “useful.” Tolkien identifies three main things which fairy-stories can accomplish better than other kinds of stories: Escape, Recovery, and Consolation. By Escape, Tolkien means the escape of the prisoner from his cell, not the escape of the deserter from the front lines. Real Escape allows us to confront evil in the world rather than be imprisoned by it. By Recovery, Tolkien means “regaining a clear view” of reality, something we’ll come back to more in a moment. By Consolation, Tolkien has in mind the all-important idea of Eucatastrophe, the sudden breaking-in of Grace or Joy into an otherwise hopeless situation, which culminates in the “happy ending.”

The third part of the essay is neglected in every academic presentation I have ever heard given on On Fairy Stories. It’s the Epilogue, in which Tolkien explicitly ties these ideas to the Christian experience of “True Myth” through the Incarnation and the Resurrection, by which means the human vocation of storytelling is given not just a “Christened,” but a salvific role. That’s where I’d like to end this series of reflections. But to get there we’ll have to go the only way we could possibly go with Tolkien: the long way.


The quote with which I want to begin is usually cited as, “the mind, the tongue, and the tale are coeval” has been popularized within Tolkien studies by Verlyn Flieger’s “bumper-sticker” formulation found in an earlier draft of the essay: “mythology is language, language is mythology.” What both quotes mean to say is simply this: literature and language cannot, should not be divorced. If we don’t understand the words people use to make stories, we won’t be able to come to an understanding of the stories themselves even if we study them in translation. That’s an audacious claim (though one I agree with) but it isn’t what I want to focus on. Instead, I’d like to point out that the quotation is usually misquoted. In fact, in context it reads like this:
The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent.
According to Tolkien, stories aren’t created apart from language. But they’re also not created apart from matter. According to Tolkien, the “incarnate” mind is the mind that produces language and story. It is only a mind incarnate in matter which can see green-grass for being green as well as being grass, only a mind bound to a world which has the faculty to imagine other worlds. It is difficult to avoid hearing in this echoes of the Gospel of St John: Christ the Word, Christ the Logos—by whom all things are made and upheld—became incarnate to dwell among us. God, who exists always and forever outside of time, actively participates in His own creation.

The Incarnation underwrites all of Tolkien’s sub-creative activities. Tolkien’s thesis about sub-creation is best summed up in a single line from Mythopoeia, a poem which states clearly in verse what is sometimes buried in Tolkien’s prose: “We still make by the law in which we’re made.” In other words, we are incarnate minds made in the image of a Mind who became incarnate. We are sub-creators made in the image of a Creator. God can make something out of nothing, and as His image-bearers we rightly make something out of something. Our sub-creation must use the tools of reality: green grass, cold iron, bread and wine.

In fact, Tolkien would argue, doing so is the only way to reclaim and redeem reality. In the second half of On Fairy Stories, he suggests that there are three things which imaginative literature accomplishes: Escape, Recovery, and Consolation. By Escape, Tolkien means not the escape of the deserter from the front lines, but rather that of the prisoner from his cell. By Consolation, Tolkien means the absolutely crucial idea of Eucatastrophe, the sudden breaking in of grace, the happy ending. These two ideas, and especially the latter, are so important that I think Recovery is often overlooked. Here’s what Tolkien says about it:
Recovery… is a re-gaining… of a clear view… I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves… Fantasy is made out of the Primary World, but a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the art of making can give. By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory… It was in fairy stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.
Like any child I climbed trees; in my teens I occasionally worked at a horse camp during the summers; but I did not really see trees until I met Treebeard. I did not really see horses until I met Fledge the Flying Horse, and Bree the Talking Horse, and Jewel the Unicorn. It was the bread and wine at Coriakin’s table that was my first glimpse of the truth of the Christian sacrament. That is what Fantasy does for us. That is what sub-creation does for us, as both writers and readers. It takes the familiar things which we think we know, we think we possesses, and so we have “written off,” and it sets them free.

We could formulate Tolkien’s idea of Recovery this way: An Incarnate Mind, working with the materials of Primary Reality, creates a work of Fantasy, by which Primary reality is restored to is proper place. Tolkien’s classic example of this is the idea of the “Green Sun,” an image he returns to again and again throughout his essays. The basic idea is this: if you could imagine a world with a green sun, and then work out all of the possible implications of a sun where the world is green, you’d have recovered something about the sun and something about greenness which you would have otherwise taken for granted.

Perhaps we can think of other examples from our own experience and reading: It’s Aslan, awakening the trees to dance. It’s the song of the elves when they first wandered in the starlight of the primeval world, teaching the trees and rocks and pools and valleys to speak and to sing.


Following the elves is always a good strategy when you are trying to understand Tolkien, and particularly when you are trying to grasp his philosophy of sub-creation. For although he is often meandering and obtuse as an essayist, he is a master myth-maker, and nowhere is he more at home than when he tells stories about the sub-creators of Middle-earth. There are the Valar, of course, and there are the sub-creative activities of humans in his mythology (which we shall come to in a moment), but it’s in the activities of the elves, the Incarnate Minds to whom the greatest artistic gifts have been given of all the children of Eru, that we see his ideas most clearly.

One of the real problems for Tolkien—which would probably not have occurred to a less detail-oriented person—was Elvish linguistic development. Human linguistic change happens for lots of reasons—we hear things imperfectly, we remember things imperfectly, we repeat things imperfectly. Over time these changes lead, by small developments to their own idiolects, then dialects, then languages, then language families. Tracing these developments by regular and irregular sound shifts—particularly within the Germanic and to a lesser extent the Celtic language of families—was part Tolkien’s day-job as a Germanic Philologist. And Tolkien enjoyed using that same skillset to create not merely dialogue for a few TV episodes, but entire families of languages for which he could demonstrate the “family-tree” of regular sound shifts which resulted in a single proto-language becoming the Quenya and Sindarin (or Noldorin) languages which we readers encounter in The Lord of the Rings.

[He was actually much more interested in this sort of development than he ever was in publishing a dictionary of conversational Elvish, which is why you can’t really pull together dialogue in Elvish for a film without mashing up vocabulary and grammar from several different stages of his linguistic development. But I digress.]

The problem with all of this is that Tolkien established that elves don’t have the same reasons for language change that humans do. For one thing, Elves have perfect recall, or at least something approximating to it in human terms. When Legolas stops midway through the Lay of Nimrodel, he is lying, or at least not telling the whole truth when he says he does not remember the rest (actually, Elves don’t even experience time the same way we do, but that’s another essay). Why then does Elvish language change? The answer seems to be that the Elves need to change their words the same reason you and I need to make new words and languages and stories: to recover enchantment.

Tolkien explores this idea in the Dangweth Pengoloð, a short story he wrote in the early 1950s. In it, Pengolod—an elven philologist and author in the Dangweth's narrative frame—answers this question in a way which sheds important light not only on why Elvish languages change, but on Tolkien’s thoughts about language change in general:
Weak indeed may be the memories of Men, but I say to you, Ælfwine, that even were your memory of your own being as clear as that of the wisest of the Eldar... your speech would change.... For Men change both their old words for new...and this change comes above all from the very changefullness of Eä; or if you will, from the nature of speech, which is fully living only when it is born, but when the union of the thought and the sound is fallen into old custom, and the two are no longer perceived apart, then already the word is dying and joyless...and the thought eager for some new-patterned raiment of sound. (PME 397)
According to Pengolod, the motivation for creating new words is the same for both races: when the union of sound and sense falls into “old custom,” the word and sound are no longer perceived as separate things. The word becomes “dying and joyless,” and a new sound is needed. The primary difference between human and elven language change lies in the latter’s skill. The elves consciously change whole sound patterns instead of individual words, in a manner reminiscent of how Christopher Tolkien described his father’s language invention process. (LR 378-9)

So the “tongues of the Quendi [the elves] change in a manner like to the changes of mortal tongues” albeit more artfully and deliberately. (PME 398, 400) This is in fact an echo of an idea Tolkien developed much earlier in his Secret Vice lecture and essay, which is the clearest he ever states his philosophy of language development. It is the first appearance of the “green sun” motif we mentioned earlier. In this essay, Tolkien develops what one scholar has called his “linguistic heresies,” two of which are: that human language change is often deliberate, not accidental, and that we do it for a specific reason (even if that reason is not always known to us):
And with the phonetic pleasure we have blended the more elusive delight of establishing novel relations between symbol and significance, and in contemplating them... as soon as you have fixed even a vague general sense for your words, many of the less subtle but most moving and permanently important of the strokes of poetry are open to you. For you are the heir of the ages. You have not to grope after the dazzling brilliance of invention of the free adjective, to which all human language has not fully attained. You may say green sun or dead life and set the imagination leaping. 
Language has both strengthened imagination and been freed by it. Who shall say whether the free adjective has created images bizarre and beautiful, or the adjective been freed by strange and beautiful pictures in the mind? (Monsters and the Critics 218-19)
Earlier, we defined Tolkien’s idea of Recovery as An Incarnate Mind, working with the materials of Primary Reality, creates a work of Fantasy, by which Primary reality is restored to is proper place. I would argue that if Tolkien’s philosophy of language invention is the purest development of this idea, his actual glossopoeic activities are among its most successful applications. I can still remember as a young boy, thrilling at the sound of the name “Gondolin” and the teasing references to the Elven wars of old, long before I knew that Gondolin was a “real” place (go on, tell me it isn’t!) with a history which predated The Hobbit not just in the fiction, but in the real world. Tolkien’s kings and wars and swords and lineages and names and languages “baptized” my imagination in a way that has always made me love the real world—with its histories and kings and wars and lineages and names and languages—much more than I would have otherwise. And the cosmic struggle, the frequent losses, the heartache and pain which evil causes in Middle-earth has helped me to understand the sin which is at the root of all of our pain and suffering in this World Under the Sun.

In my next post, I'll continue my examination of how Tolkien's sacramental imagination works itself out, this time specifically in his treatment within the legendarium of the problem of pain.

Currently reading: For the Life of the World, Fr Alexander Schmemann
Current audio book: The Brothers Karamazov
Currently translating: The Aeneid, Virgil

Towards a Language of Beauty: I. Beauty and the Incarnation

"Then we went to Greece, and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men... for we cannot forget that beauty."
- The Primary Chronicle, account of the conversion of the Kievan Rus

It is the classical Christian conviction that all of history, time, creation, and meaning begin and end--and "live, and move, and have their being" in the Logos of God, who is the second person of the Holy Trinity, and for our sake was "incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man." It is for this reason that, for most of church history, one of the primary objects of Christian art--one might say the favorite meditation on beauty--is that of the Christ child seated on the lap of the Virgin.

Madonna and Child, Catacombs, c. AD 150

The Adoration of the Magi, detail from sarcophagus, c. AD 200

Theotokos Hodegetria "She who shows the way", Hagia Sophia, c. 9th Century
In the typical image, the Christ child--who appears in Eastern iconography not as a normal baby, but with an enlarged forehead to show him as the Word and Wisdom of the Father--sits enthroned upon the lap of the Virgin Mary, she (the source of his humanity) framing him, directing our eye toward him, "showing us the way" to worship him.

It must be stressed first and foremost that such images are icons of the Incarnation. Christians do not believe that God became every man, or just any man, but a particular man who like all particular men had a particular mother. And it was only in that particularity that the real universality of the Gospel was achieved. The fact that attempts have been made--and indeed are still being made--to erase the mother from the image entirely perhaps says something about our inability to come to terms with this particularity, and with our confused and damaged sense of individualism in which we seek to know each piece of the mosaic apart from all the others. But we do not know Christ apart from his full humanity, and that humanity is not an abstract idea. It is a person.

The hymnography of the Church has never tired of meditating on this image, poetically understanding Christ as the same God whom Ezekiel saw enthroned in glory upon the cherubim:
I behold a strange and wonderful mystery:
The cave a heaven, the Virgin a cherubic throne,
And the manger a noble place in which hath lain Christ
The uncontained God.
Let us therefore praise and magnify him.
- Katabasiae of the Nativity
This paradox--what Tolkien described as the "singer entering into the tale"--is the whole basis of the classical Christian understanding of beauty and wonder. It is the source of the absolute Christian confidence that finite creation can be the means of knowing an infinite God. Thus, by extension, bread and wine, water and oil are not merely things, nor are they some kind of an audio-visual aid to our teaching, but rather the real means of real participation and communion with one who is unknowable, and yet makes Himself known.


I have begun with the Incarnation and the Sacraments due in part to a set of articles by Peter Leithart, published in First Things back in 2016. The provocative title of the article series was, “Why Protestants Can’t Write.” You could sum up Letihart’s argument in his very first sentence: “Blame it on Marburg.” For those who don’t know, the 1529 Marburg Colloquy was the first major “church split” of the Magisterial Reformation, between the German Martin Luther—and his followers—and the Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli and his followers. The dispute was over the Eucharist: Luther held with a fifteen centuries-old reading of the New Testament and argued that that Eucharist was really the body and blood of Christ, although rejecting explanation of Transubstantiation.

To Zwingli, on the other hand, “myth or ritual… was no longer literally and symbolically real and true.” The traditional understanding of the Eucharist was, in other words, superstitious nonsense. And the vast majority of Protestantism followed Zwingli’s view that “literal truth is over here, while symbols drift off in another direction. At best, they live in adjoining rooms; at worst, in widely separated neighborhoods.”

That brings us to Leithart’s thesis, which he offers “in a fit of gleeful reductionism”:
“Modern Protestants can’t write because we have no sacramental theology. Protestants will learn to write when we have reckoned with the tragic results of Marburg, and have exorcised the ghost of Zwingli from our poetics. Protestants need not give up our Protestantism to do this, as there are abundant sacramental resources within our own tradition. But contemporary Protestants do need to give up the instinctive anti-sacramentalism that infects so much of Protestantism, especially American Protestantism.”
And, if my own story is anything to judge by, any Protestant writer who can survive the immediate spike in his blood-pressure long enough to read Leithart’s argument to the end will see that he has a point. But the problem goes back much farther than Marburg. Anti-sacramentalism is really part of a distinctively Gnostic way of viewing our relationship with the God who is Truth.

This is probably easiest to illustrate when we consider the differences in corporate worship between the average evangelical service and the churches of catholic tradition: The focus of evangelical protestant worship is the sermon, because God can only be apprehended mentally. Terry Johnson, a contemporary Reformed theologian, puts it this way:
“the worship of Reformed Protestantism is simple. We merely read, preach, pray, sing and see the Word of God… True faith comes through the word (Rom. 10:17). True worship then must be primarily (though not absolutely) non-material, non-sensual, and non-symbolic.” (Johnson, Reformed Worship, pp. 38 & 47.)
At more than one point in Protestant history, this tendency has extended towards docetist beliefs about the Incarnation itself; Puritan catechist, iconoclast, and Bishop of the Church of England Gervase Babington made it very clear that the Incarnation was at best a temporary occurrence:
Where the scripture spoke of Christ having parts such as feet, hands and face, these were merely temporary forms in which he appeared to men and in which ‘he lay hid even when he was seen’…
By contrast, the focus of Christian worship everywhere before the Reformation (and still in the
churches of more orthodox Christology) was and is the sacrament: meeting God and communing with him with our whole being, our bodies as well as our minds. In this sense Christ is truly the mediator--he "mediates" the experience of the Holy Trinity and the experience of humanity, enabling real participation, right now and in the flesh, with the Life which is the source of all life.


So how does this affect our understanding of beauty? For the Puritan, the Incarnation was a hat-trick that God pulled off at one point in time—Christ folding himself down into physical space for a little while, or only "seemed" to be human, so that he could pay for the wrath of the Father on our behalf. Beyond this, it does not have any kind of ongoing implications. We therefore meet with truth by learning about and then agreeing to true things.

At its worst, this line of thinking leads to some of the ugliest examples of iconoclasm as illustrated by Cromwell and his Roundheads. At best, art produced by this mindset will tend towards moralism and sermonizing. Its most successful contemporary expression is probably the half-dozen or so films by the Kendrick brothers. It has been said that the Kendrick brothers themselves do not consider what they are doing to be art: they are preaching through the medium of film.

For the classical Christian, the Incarnation makes possible the heavenly liturgy and the perfect sacrifice offered once and for all “at the end of the ages.” Because it is eternal, it is ongoing, and therefore it continues to have ongoing implications. It is the catching up of the physical into the spiritual, the earthly into the heavenly, so that there is a real man with a real body offering a real sacrifice really seated at the right hand of the Father. All of physical creation, therefore, but especially human activity, is potentially salvific if it participates in the work of Christ. That is why theologians such as Alexander Schmemman have characterized the Church not as an institution with sacraments, but as the sacrament itself, one with the institutions and rites necessary for taking everything human and earthly and bringing it up into the life of the Holy Trinity.

This understanding of the Incarnation was used by St. John of Damascus in a series of three treatises he wrote defending the use of sacred art (which included not only icons, but vestments, crosses, and beautiful church buildings) in Christian worship. Writing against the iconoclast heresy of the 8th Century, St. John eerily anticipated Evangelical worship in America today:
If you say that God ought only to be apprehended spiritually, then take away everything bodily, the lights, the fragrant incense, even vocal prayer, the divine mysteries themselves that are celebrated with matter, the bread, the wine, the oil of chrismation, the form of the cross.
The Incarnation, St. John argues, has confirmed the use of holy things in worship—something prefigured by the tabernacle, cherubic images, the ark, the rod of Aaron, the tablets of stone, the manna and the shewbread of the Old Covenant, but brought to its fullness in Christ. Perhaps the words of Holy Scripture itself are most revealing: in the Bible, the Word of God is a person, not a book; the New Covenant is bread and wine, body and blood, not a contract or an agreement. We apprehend the Truth with our whole being, not just our intellect.

To put it another way, in her article on the sacramental imagination in the writings of George
MacDonald, Heather Ward argues that “we can regard Christian fantasy-writing as the outcome of an imagination that works in sacramental terms, seeing the material world as participant in, and mediator of, the divine.”

This view of the Incarnation has, to one degree or another, underpinned the greatest monuments of Christian art, both in literature and in the fine arts. It produced Mozart and Bach, Rubilev and Da Vinci, Notre-Dame de Paris and St. Basil’s Cathedral. It gave us Dostoyevsky and Dante. And, I would argue, it gave us Tolkien and Lewis, though they articulated and implemented it to different degrees and in different ways. In the next post in this series, I will begin an examination of the sacramental imagination in Tolkien's legendarium.

Currently reading: For the Life of the World, Fr Alexander Schmemann
Current audio book: The Brothers Karamazov
Currently translating: The Aeneid, Virgil

Towards a Language of Beauty: An autobiographical prologue

In the posts which follow, I am going to try to work out, largely for my own benefit, my own growing sense of something, of beauty as an objective reality--substantial, like holiness, and like holiness possessing a myriad of expressions which are quite individual while nevertheless variations on the same great theme. Indeed, I do not think this similarity between holiness and beauty is coincidental.

The study of the relationships of those expressions might be called a "science" or even a "theology" of beauty. But because both of those terms seem rather cold, and because I am philologist, I have settled on the metaphor (though it may be more than metaphor) of language.

This impression began at a very early age, as I suspect it does for most people, but has been influenced for me by my lifelong interaction with Christianity and the art, literature, and languages of the Middle Ages. In this prologue, it is simply my desire to record some of the early impressions which first brought about the awakening of my consciousness to beauty in the world and in the word.


One of my earliest memories is of reading Paradise Lost. I had discovered this book due to the happy accident that, because I was from a large family and because I was the only boy, all of the books were stored in my bedroom. It was part of one of those "Great Books" sets which I believe had belonged to my mother, and which had come (like most of the fiction in the house) with her into the marriage.

10 or so might be a somewhat precocious age to come to Milton, but I had been taught to read largely on King James's English, so the language was less of a barrier than it might otherwise have been. There were numerous classical mythology references which I did not understand and which went largely over my head, but the Biblical references I did understand. And the parts I did understand proved to be rich enough that I was able to let the others pass for the moment.

Because I've always been the kind of person who shares his enthusiasm with other people, I was very keen to make sure everyone in my family was as interested in Milton as I was. We got the book on audio and began to listen to it on a road-trip. After about ten minutes, my father switched it off, saying that he found it boring. That is the first moment I can remember feeling really alone, and it is the first moment when I realized that there are some things which some people enjoy which other people find dull and boring.

I'm more generous now, as an adult. I understand that a lot of people don't care for poetry, and that an audio book on a road trip may not be the best medium for encountering Milton for the first time. But I've never been able to shake the impression of that moment.


Beowulf came to me around the same time, not as lightning out of a clear sky, but as the treasure-laden funeral ship of Scyld: grey prow and mast and ropes looming up out of the mist, the guilt edges of the golden sail billowing just beyond sight.

When I first read the poem, as a young lad, I could only see the faintest outline of its dragon-headed prow. It was a story full of monsters, one which happened "in days of yore" in a land and culture so far from my own that it may as well have been on another planet. But there was something familiar about it even then, though I did not know what, and discovering the poem was like remembering something that I had forgotten.

As I grew older and read the poem again and again the outline of the ship became clearer, and I even began to mark the significance of the strange carvings on its ring-whorled prow. Or rather, I began to attempt to infuse them with significance of my own, for I knew that they must mean something, so I tried to give them meanings which they could not hold. The ship was fixed, like an island in the sea; it would endure, it was I who was falling away into the mist.

Then I first began to see where other men and women had also struggled to draw the ship into their own harbor, catching it with great hooks of iron and trying to drag it out of the mist and re-purpose it for their own use. "This is a fine ship," they said, "and it is a great shame that it should hold only the bones of a dead man. We will draw it into our harbor and make it useful again, to carry more practical cargo or make raids upon our enemies.." But it could not be done. For when those men had drawn their catch to shore they found they had not captured a living vessel at all, but only dead flotsam and jetsam - unsound vessels which could not keep out the sea.

Abandoning this plan, I began to chase the ship itself, determined that if I could not bring it into my own harbor, I would instead cling to some rope or spar, and let the ship carry me where it would. It was only when I learned to read Anglo-Saxon that the whole outline of the ship became clear to me for the very first time: tall, icy, ring-whorled, the beds of ancient kings and heroes laid out upon biers of gold under ancient standards, gray ropes trailing through the mists. I can see only the faintest glitter of that treasure now, and yet I no longer wish to fill my pockets with rings and gems to take home and strew among my pet causes and soapboxes. I cling to the side, damp with mist and the spray of the sea-foam, and hope that Scyld's ship will take me back, by the straight road, to Those who sent him.


I discovered Tolkien's Legendarium not long after I discovered Beowulf, and I cannot remember a time when Lewis's Narnia books did not permeate my imagination. They, along with the Acts of the Apostles and the Apocalypse of St John, are the first things I can remember reading. Of Narnia and Tolkien's Legendarium--and of the Apocalypse too--I want to say much more elsewhere, since they are so essential to the question of this language of beauty. But for now, it is enough to say two things: the imaginative debt I owe to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair is incalculable. I have never written a story which did not somehow contain those two stories within it.

Regarding Tolkien, my love for his works is deep and prolonged, and has only intensified as I got older. Yet, the first time I read The Lord of the Rings, it was the Appendices which most sparked my imagination. I can still vividly remember sitting on my bed in my room, reading Appendix F "On Translation" in which Tolkien discusses the etymology of the name of the Brandywine river. The realization struck me like a thunderclap: you could name a river.

I'd always loved stories, but from that moment forward I have primarily thought of myself as a writer of stories, a teller of tales. Adulthood, necessity, and the grace of God have required me to become many other things, but this was my first sense of calling, of vocation. That was the moment I knew it would not be enough to consume, enjoy, or appreciate beautiful things. I would have to learn to make them myself.


Somewhere along the way, that sense of vocation and those early stirrings towards beauty were buried, lying dormant for a time. It may be important to briefly recount the reasons: the exigencies of adult life, which involved finishing school, finishing college, starting a family, starting a career. My wife, Sophia, was always the living spark of beauty and joy throughout all of this, and she never stopped loving my stories even when I, for a time, stopped telling them. There was also a strongly pietistic, moralizing attitude towards art and storytelling that was part of the particular brand of Christianity in which I was actively involved starting at around the age of 16 which purged many things of beauty, transcendence, and solidity from my bookshelf and from my life. Narnia survived the purge, so did Beowulf. Tolkien did not.

It is hard to speak about this time, because I do not want to be uncharitable to people I still love and admire, but at the same time it is hard not to use very strong language to describe this marring of the Gospel--for that is what it is, and nothing less. It was a brand of Evangelical Fundamentalism which was and is a kind of prosperity gospel which says: let us teach people how to manage their finances well, how to raise happy families, how--in other words--to live out the "American dream" under the auspices of being well-off materially and financially so that we can "accomplish more for the Kingdom." People will then see how well we are doing as Christians--even, how much better off we are than they are--and be persuaded to convert as well. One slogan we heard a lot was "showing the world a better way of life." But that better way of life was not the way of the Cross.

It need hardly be said that this was not the approach Christ took in the Gospels, nor was material success a great distinguishing feature of the Church of the first four centuries, the Church of the martyrs, the Church which turned the world upside-down. But this approach possessed a certain allure. It promised Sunday's triumphalism without Friday's cross.

But if this particular theology had no room for suffering, it also had no room for beauty. Even when it did not reject beauty in a self-aware way--as indeed it sometimes did--there was simply no room for something which did not contribute to the categories of "success" it recognized. It is the kind of theology which leads to nice houses and driveways full of cars, but shabby churches which at best resemble conference centers or concert halls, and at worst are dingy and poorly maintained relics to American consumerism. All of this was, in turn, layered over a fairly typical Evangelical Fundamentalist approach to history and culture, which saw everything between the Apostles and Martin Luther as little more than a deep abyss of error.

Beneath all of this, and beneath the daily cares of life as a young husband, father, professional, and pastor, my early movement toward beauty lay dormant. And in a strange way, I think this was necessary. "Except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit."


The reawakening began, not coincidentally, around the time of (I think, shortly before) the birth of my first child. Those early seeds of beauty which had been planted in my childhood--primarily by great literature, but also by the Baroque and Classical composers my parents had taught me to love--began to sprout and bear fruit. There has to be something more, I often said to myself in those days, and I have found that every time I have said that to myself, it has been true.

I did not yet know what was missing. But I knew that something was missing. And I knew that I wanted that something for my children. So I returned to the sources of beauty in my childhood, who I now intuited had a far better grasp of the other transcendentals--truth and goodness--than my own context. I went back to Lewis. I returned to Tolkien. Two works, absolutely crucial to this period and to my whole life after, were On Fairy Stories and The Discarded Image. Both are, I think, critical texts for a rediscovery of the Language of Beauty in the West, and so I will devote more detailed essays to each in due time.

On Fairy Stories showed me the place, the crucial role, of imagination in the Kingdom of God. And The Discarded Image introduced me to what Lewis called "the medieval model." I can only describe the difference between the modern and medieval ways of viewing everything--man, God, the whole of the cosmos--via a series of similes: it is like being raised in a hut and then being taken into a cathedral for the first time. It is like seeing the entire world through a small, grainy, black-and-white screen, and then being taken out into the vivid colors and smells of the open air. It is like believing your whole life that you are the only person in the world, only to wake up in the midst of a vast and impossibly ancient city.

And the modern man does not know what he is missing, because a fish does not know when he is wet.


That vision of the world which I found, first in The Discarded Image, and then later again in The Divine Comedy, drew me into a prolonged and detailed study of the language, literature, and theology of the Middle Ages. At the distance of so many centuries, these things could be encountered safely, at a time I would not have been able to meet them as living reality. But beauty is "not a tame lion," and by degrees and by many strange "chance, if chance you call it" encounters, I found myself standing in the nave of an Orthodox cathedral on the feast day of St Seraphim of Sarov. And I fell on my face, quite literally, before Beauty Himself.

Here, the Medieval Model was still alive. Here, the Incarnation--so central, as I had come to believe, to any understanding of beauty in the created world--was a physical, immanent reality, made present to our senses by sacramental art, and by the "tremendous Reality on the altar." And I was no longer safe.

Within this ancient Church, I found--among many, many things--the unifying principle which I had sought. There is an interplay between the Church's iconography--very different from Western religious art, both in its style but also in its conventions--and its hymnography, sacred Scripture, and liturgical calendar which show Truth, Goodness, and Beauty not to be the three rigid legs of a stool on which we may sit in judgment over the modern world, but rather as three partners in the intricate and beautiful dance of the soul towards God.

The posts which follow will be a series of reflections, or essays, aimed not at offering an apologetic for beauty--for beauty is its own apologetic--but rather at studying the steps of the dance. I confess that one of my motives in all of this is to try to put into words a sense of how someone who is not an iconographer, or a hymnographer, or clergy but is, as I am, a storyteller, might nevertheless understand their vocation in these terms.

Currently reading: For the Life of the World, Fr Alexander Schmemann
Current audio book: The Brothers Karamazov
Currently translating: The Aeneid, Virgil

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

An Inklings Toast

In October of 2018, I was invited to speak and offer a series of toasts at an Inklings festival hosted by The Eighth Day Institute. For the toasts, I focused on things which the Inklings, despite their many differences, shared: an oddball sense of humor, a love of language and what could be done with language, and a confidence (at least on the part of Lewis, Tolkien, and Dyson) in the idea of "True Myth." Here's the final toast.


On an early Sunday morning in September of 1931, three 30-something Oxford dons took a stroll together on Addison’s Walk in the grounds of Magdalen College. They were a 32-year-old C.S. Lewis, a 39-year-old J.R.R. Tolkien, and a 35-year-old Hugo Dyson. Their conversation had begun the evening before during dinner and had gone late into the night. Tolkien had left around 3 AM, and Lewis and Dyson continued to talk until 4 AM before retiring in their rooms there at the college. The next day, Lewis wrote to his dear friend and long-time correspondent Arthur Greeves:

We began on metaphor and myth—interrupted by a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We all held our breath, the other two appreciating the ecstasy of such a thing almost as you would. 
We continued (in my room) on Christianity: a good long satisfying talk in which I learned a lot: then discussed the difference between love and friendship—then finally drifted back to poetry and books.

Later in the letter, discussing the writings of William Morris and George MacDonald, Lewis said:

These hauntingly beautiful lands [of Morris's fiction] which somehow never satisfy,—this passion to escape from death plus the certainty that life owes all its charm to mortality—these push you on to the real thing because they fill you with desire and yet prove absolutely clearly that in Morris’s world that desire cannot be satisfied. 
The MacDonald conception of death—or, to speak more correctly, St Paul’s—is really the answer to Morris: but I don’t think I should have understood it without going through Morris. He is an unwilling witness to the truth. He shows you just how far you can go without knowing God, and that is far enough to force you . . . to go further.

Lewis's letters to Greeves provide a valuable "inside look" at his conversion. What they reveal is something deeper than either intellectual assent or an emotional surge; it is a complete paradigm-shift, a new way of looking at the world through "mythic" eyes. When Lewis wrote to Greeves again the next month, he put it this way:

Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself . . . I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant’. 
Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.

Many years later, Lewis would write a poem called "What the Bird Said Early in the Year." It is, not coincidentally, set on Addison's Walk, and it compares this paradigm-shift to a spell being broken--perhaps a spell of perpetual winter, broken forever by the coming of the King of the Wood?

I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear:
This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.

Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees
This year, nor want of rain destroy the peas.

This year time’s nature will no more defeat you,
Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.

This time they will not lead you round and back
To Autumn, one year older, by the well-worn track.

This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell,
We shall escape the circle and undo the spell.

Often deceived, yet open once again your heart,
Quick, quick, quick, quick!—the gates are drawn apart.

Each of these toasts has been to celebrate something of significance to the Inklings, a love which they shared--humor, language, myth. But this final toast is to the one great Thing which binds all other things together. Glory to Jesus Christ, who breaks every spell, and makes every story come true!

Currently reading: For the Life of the World, Fr Alexander Schmemman
Current audio book: Out of the Silent Planet, CS Lewis
Currently translating: Beowulf

Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Riddles of Gestumblindi: Riddle 10

As usual, here's the answer to the previous riddle:

"Góð er gáta þín, Gestumblindi, getit er þessar. Þar fara svanbrúðir til hreiðrs síns ok verpa eggjum; skurm á eggi er eigi höndum gert né hamri klappat, en svanr er fyrir eyjar utan örðigr, sá er þær gátu eggin við."

"Your riddle is good, Gestumblindi, but I have guessed it. Swan-maids* go to their nests and lay eggs; the shell of the egg is not by hand or hammer forged, and the swan by whom they previously got the eggs sits upright outside the islands."

Riddle 10

Þá mælti Gestumblindi:

"Hverjar eru þær rýgjar
á reginfjalli,
elr við kván kona,
þar til er mög of getr,
ok eigu-t þær varðir vera?
Heiðrekr konungr,
hyggðu at gátu."

Then said Gestumblindi:

"What are those ladies
On the mighty mountain,
Woman begets by wife,
So that she bears a son,
And those women have no husbands?**
Heiðrekr king,
Ponder this riddle."

*Female swans.
**This is an idiomatic rendering of (in literal word-order): and having-not [i.e. marriage] those women be.

Currently reading: Reclaiming the Atonement, Patrick Henry Reardon
Current audio book: Out of the Silent Planet, C.S. Lewis
Currently translating: Hervarar Saga, "The Riddles of Gestumblindi"

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Riddles of Gestumblindi: Riddle 9

First, here's the answer to riddle 8:

Heiðrekr mælti: "Smækkast nú gáturnar, Gestumblindi, hvat þarf lengr yfir þessu at sitja? Þat er hrafntinna, ok skein á hana sólargeisli."

Your riddles grow small, Gestumblindi, what need is there to sit any longer at this? That is obsidian*, when shone on her a sunbeam.

Riddle 9

Þá mælti Gestumblindi:

"Báru brúðir
ambáttir tvær
öl til skemmu;
var-at þat höndum horfit
né hamri at klappat,
þó var fyrir eyjar utan
örðigr sá, er gerði.
Heiðrekr konungr,
hyggðu at gátu."

Then said Gestumblindi:

"Maidens bore,
Serving-maids twain
Ale to the store-house;
Not turned by hands
Nor beaten by hammers,
Though far outside the island
The maker sat upright.**
Heiðrekr king,
Ponder this riddle."

*Literally "raven-flint."
**The thing which was not turned by hands or beaten by hammers must refer to the cask in which the ale was carried, not the ale itself.

Currently reading: For the Life of the World
Current audio book: The Man Who Was Thursday
Currently translating: Hervara saga, "The Riddles of Gestumblindi"

Friday, January 11, 2019

That Tremendous Reality

 "...much too frightened of that tremendous Reality on the altar."

With these words, G.K Chesterton explained why he put off his conversion to Roman Catholicism until the last 14 years of his life. It wasn't until recently, reading a sort of biography of Chesterton (Chesterton: The Nightmare Goodness of God) that I realized what a late convert he was. It surprised me that the man who could write so intimately of confession in the Father Brown Mysteries had not actually "crossed the Tiber" when most of them were written. He delayed, in his own words (not that we can trust authors when they speak of themselves, but that's often all we have to go on), because he was "much too frightened" of the Sacrament of Sacraments, the Holy Eucharist.

I've been mulling over this thought the last couple of days because of something that happened in my own experience, being in the process of converting from a Southern/Independent Baptist upbringing to the Orthodox Church. There were many "tipping points" along the way--it might be better to describe them as a slow progress up the mountain. But for a long time I had been content with the idea of reading "sacramental authors"--Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton, but also Ratzinger and Vigen Gourian and Alexander Schmemann--and importing their ideas as much as possible into my own Baptist experience.

One day during a Sunday morning service in which we were to take "The Lord's Supper" (which at the church where I have been on staff the last 10+ years is done 2-3 times a year), one of the pastors stood up before communion and gave a little talk, reminding everyone that what was about to happen was just, and I quote, "just crackers and grape juice, and nothing more." My oldest daughter (6 at the time) wanted to know why the pastor "did not believe in communion." And that is when I knew we had to make a change.

But what is interesting to me, and what the Deacon who teaches the catechumen class at our new church pointed out to me, is the fact that people have to be reminded, not that something significant is happening in communion (though probably there are people who need to be reminded of that), but rather that nothing whatsoever is happening. There is a fear in these churches, quite justified, that the act of ritual itself will impart the sense that something significant is taking place. And that brings me back to Chesterton's fear, his intuition, about the reality made imminent on the altar.

Admitting that different Christians can mean very different things when they speak of "sacraments," it seems to me that the sacramental view of the world is the native language of creation. It is what even merely human rituals and even merely pagan religions hint at, so that if for a moment we let our guard down we find that our nominalism does not really hold up.

This is not to say that everyone understands fully what is happening. I am not sure that I ever will. But I see it as significant that it is precisely in these moments--communion, baptism, marriage--that even Baptists will revert back to traditional liturgical formulas. Without knowing why, after he spent several minutes telling us all that this was only juice and only crackers, the pastor proceeded to say "this is my body, which was broken for you" and break the bread, and "this cup is the new testament in my blood" and distribute the juice. There is an intuition, deep down in the quiet places of the heart, that something awful is happening, or ought to be happening, and that these words and no others will do.

What I have called nominalism, this insistence on seeing things for nothing more than they appear to be--we might say even less than they appear to be--is a defense. It is a defense against the terrible alternative of the world breaking in upon us, of showing itself to be the world, and the shift in gravity this might cause.

Let us stand aright. Let us stand with fear.

II. Can the Singer Enter the Tale? Tolkien and the Sacraments, Part 3

In this series of posts, I am trying to articulate what might be called a "language of beauty." In the first post in the series,...