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

Joining the Chorus of Martyrs: Culture, Evangelical Copypasta, and the 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste

Today, on the Revised Julian Calendar used by the Orthodox Church in America, it is the feast of the 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste. This feast ...