Are American Fairy Tales Moralistic? (And If So, Why?)

Are American Fairy Tales Moralistic? (And If So, Why?)

Colleen Gillard wrote an article in The Atlantic discussing the difference between British and American children’s stories. The article (which might be mis-titled, since it’s not really about why British books are better, per say, but more about why British and American stories are what they are) addresses a few interesting topics.

Her basic thesis is that British children’s books tend more towards fantasy. Think Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, Wind in the Willows, etc. American children’s stories tend more towards moralism. American stories try to teach children what they ought and ought not do.

I have no standing to judge whether that interpretation is correct or not, but I do want to comment on her reasoning behind that interpretation. Gillard claims that American children’s books are moralistic because they came out of a culture founded by the Puritans and seeped in Christianity. The assumption being, of course, that Christianity de-emphasizes imagination and fantasy tales while elevating hard work. Or, as she says, speaking of why the British tell fantasies, “maybe a world not fixated on atonement and moral imperatives is more conducive to a rousing tale.” In an earlier part of the article, she points out several examples of the American tendency:

“Popular storytelling in the New World instead tended to celebrate in words and song the larger-than-life exploits of ordinary men and women: Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Calamity Jane, even a mule named Sal on the Erie Canal. Out of bragging contests in logging and mining camps came even greater exaggerations—Tall Tales—about the giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan, the twister-riding cowboy Pecos Bill, and that steel-driving man John Henry, who, born a slave, died with a hammer in his hand. All of these characters embodied the American promise: They earned their fame.”

Supposedly, this vision of the American promise is in some way due to the Christian influence on America.

Again, there may be a lot of truth there. I’m not a child psychologist nor am I a mythologist. Yet I do think there is a misrepresentation–however unintentional–of Christianity at play here. See, the Gospel is the exact opposite of what she calls the American promise. The American promise says that “they earned their fame.” The Gospel says that you can’t ever earn your own fame, and if you do it won’t last.

Gillard seems to counter this: “Further, each side has opposing views of naughtiness and children: Pagan babies are born innocent; Christian children are born in sin and need correcting.”

But the Gospel story is the story of a child whose humanity was no different than mine. Yes, the child was God Incarnate, but he was a human child nonetheless. A child saved the world. That sounds far more British than American. Gillard says something similar about British fairy tales:

“Pagan folktales are less about morality and more about characters like the trickster who triumphs through wit and skill: Bilbo Baggins outwits Gollum with a guessing game; the mouse in the The Gruffalo avoids being eaten by tricking a hungry owl and fox. Griswold calls tricksters the “Lords of Misrule” who appeal to a child’s natural desire to subvert authority and celebrate naughtiness: “Children embrace a logic more pagan than adult.” And yet Bateman says in pagan myth it’s the young who possess the qualities needed to confront evil.”

But I would question that conclusion. In British fairy tales, is it really the children who save the world? It certainly isn’t in The Chronicles of Narnia. The children help, but Aslan saves the world. Harry doesn’t defeat Voldemort, in the end. It’s love that defeats Voldemort, a power Harry can’t control, something beyond himself. It isn’t dwarf children who rally and save themselves from Smaug, the evil dragon in The Hobbit. It’s Bilbo, a small, overlooked member of the party who is certainly no child.

Are there exceptions? Of course. Peter Pan seems to follow Gillard’s observations, as do Alice in Wonderland and others.

But the point is this: Christianity, properly understood, might not be so opposed to fairly tales as Gillard seems to imply. In fact, it might be more a fairy tale than much of the American literature Gillard argues it inspired. For isn’t the Gospel the quintessential fairy tale? A child from a far away land comes to fight the dragon and save those trying to fight the dragon on their own. A prince from Somewhere Else arrives to win back his true love from the evil witch who has imprisoned her. A lion becomes a lamb and allows himself to be killed before roaring back to life, defeating evil in the process.

The Gospel is hardly anti-fairy tale because it can’t be. After all, isn’t the Gospel itself, from one perspective, all the greatest fairy tales come true?

The Possibility of Redemption

The Possibility of Redemption

Lest you think I’m going through a voluntary Ancient Classics phase, this is another paper I wrote for school. I’ve enjoyed going through Greek literature, especially seeing the development of various themes. The Aeneid is, of course, Roman literature, but it shares much with Greek culture. This paper picks up on some of the themes of my paper on time and eternity in The Iliad.

Flannery O’Connor once said that, “redemption is meaningless unless there is a cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause.” The Biblical story, and indeed many stories throughout history, have viewed redemption of one kind or another as necessary because the world is not the way it ought to be. For example, Marxist revolutionaries believe the world needs redemption, though to them “redemption” is revolution. But the reason they believe this is necessary is a perceived flaw in the world. There are classes, and in Marxism there ought not be.

If there is nothing wrong with the world then there can be no redemption, for what is being redeemed? What is being set right? The Aeneid by Virgil and The Iliad by Homer approach the world in two different ways. Both grant that the world is full of tragedy, but Homer views this tragedy as natural. It is sad but it is not wrong. Virgil views tragedy as pervasive but unnatural. It is everywhere, but it is wrong.

Homer’s philosophy can be most clearly seen when great tragedies occur. When Achilles and Priam are mourning the deaths of friend and son Achilles declares, “the Immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men/live on to bear such torments–the gods live free of sorrows. (24.613–24.614)” Such fatalism is prevalent throughout the story. Indeed, the entire poem is set in light of “the will of Zeus…moving toward its end. (1.6)”

From this there are a few implications that could be drawn. It’s obvious that the Homeric worldview is fatalistic, but note the response of the characters within the Iliad. Achilles declares determinism, but he doesn’t decry this as fundamentally wrong, unfair, or unnatural. To put it simply, it’s just this way.

When Hector bids goodbye to wife and son he expresses his certainty that Troy will fall, but there is nothing wrong with this. It is tragic, but it is not wrong. But on further examination, of course this is the way it is. The Homeric mythos tells us that the Fates have predetermined everything from the beginning. What they decree is reality. Everything that happens must ultimately be natural because there is nothing else. There is no transcendent standard of “natural,” no Edenic paradise to appeal to. There is nothing to compare this world with.

Virgil paints a different picture, again most evident in tragedy. Take, for example, the story of Nisus’ and Euryalus’ slaughter of Turnus’ troops. These two young soldiers venture out, seized with courage, to slaughter the Latian troops while they lie drunk. After killing many soldiers they are themselves seen and killed. Turnus plants their heads on stakes as they attack Aeneas’ troops the next day. What is the reaction of the Trojans? Think, for a moment, what the reaction would be in Homer’s world. The Trojans would be saddened. They would weep, perhaps they would swear revenge. But they would not be shocked, and they would feel no deep-seeded “wrongness” in the event.

“On the rampart’s left wing–the river flanks the right–

the hardened troops of Aeneas group in battle order,

Facing enemy lines and manning the broad trench

Or stationed up on the towers–wrung with sorrow,

Men stunned by the sight of men they know too well. (9.536–9.541)”

This is not the Homeric response. There is shock and horror here. A similar reaction occurs when Aeneas encounters Dido in Hades. For the first time he realizes her demise and responds with nothing less than agony, declaring that he never intended to hurt her in this way (6.521–553). Virgil even describes her death as an “unjust fate (6.552).”

To put it simply, something is wrong in Virgil’s world. Aeneas shouldn’t be searching for a home, Creusa shouldn’t be killed, Dido shouldn’t be wracked with suicidal grief. This is not the way the world ought to be.

This leads to a large difference between the Homeric and Virgillian approaches to tragedy. Homer views it as natural, Virgil as unnatural. Homer views it as amoral, Virgil as immoral. Homer’s characters expect it, Virgil’s are shocked by it. Both writers recognize that tragedy is, in fact, tragic, but only one recognizes that tragedy is wrong.

But this is far more than a simple philosophical difference. Why does The Iliad have no happy ending? Why is injustice not avenged? Why does the war continue? Perhaps it’s because Homer simply decided against ending the war. But, might there be no happy ending because there can’t be? After all, if there were true peace then there would be an ideal with which to compare the horror of war. Tragedy would be tried and found wanting–peace would be declared “right” and war “wrong.” Homer can’t write a happy ending in The Iliad because the Iliad’s worldview doesn’t allow for happy endings. Or, to put it differently, The Iliad has the happiest ending possible within its worldview.

Why can Virgil end his story with the restoration of justice? Because there is injustice. Aberrations can be remedied, errors can be fixed, wrongs can be righted. But if there is no aberration, no error, and no wrong then there can be no solution. Justice can’t be restored because injustice never occurred.

In terms that O’Connor might like, the beauty of redemption is possible because of the horror of the fall. There has to be a need for redemption or the term is meaningless. Virgil’s world has that need, Homer’s does not. Or, to put it another way, Virgil can hope for restoration, Homer cannot.

Right Now Is All That Matters, or, Eternity and the Present in The Iliad

Right Now Is All That Matters, or, Eternity and the Present in The Iliad

This post is a paper I wrote for school, hence the more formal tone.

First John begins with a startling juxtaposition. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life… (1 John 1:1)” The juxtaposition is this: that the eternal being who “was from the beginning,” has entered time and space and is the Word of life who tells us that “our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:4)” The Gospel presents a hopeful world in part because it declares that there is something beyond the here and the now–eternal life coming from the eternal Savior Jesus Christ.

The Greek epic The Iliad displays a different world, one in which hope is fleeting and tragedy is the only inevitability. This despair is a major theme within The Iliad and it stems from the Homeric concept that there is nothing beyond the here and the now. Against this, the Christian worldview provides a deep and lasting comfort.

As W.H. Auden says, “The world of Homer is unbearably sad because it never transcends the immediate moment.” Auden is right, of course, but there is a nuance to add. Within the Homeric worldview, the gods do transcend the present. Despair stems from the fact that no human can hope to achieve this same transcendence. Auden calls this a tragic “flaw in the nature of existence.” What, exactly, is this flaw? Why does the worldview of The Iliad lead to such despair? What, if anything, does Christianity offer to the characters of The Iliad?

The problem becomes evident in the 6th line of the poem. Homer says that the violence and death caused by the rage of Achilles was “the will of Zeus…moving toward its end. (1.6)” From the outset the poem is set in light of Zeus’ final plan. What happens is ultimately due to the orchestration of the gods.

But as the rest of the poem displays, this is not new information to any character. Greek and Trojan culture has a fatalistic outlook. The characters toil and fight for their cause all the while knowing they are subject to the whims and wishes of the gods. Agamemnon is forced to retreat during a rampage because, “Zeus who rules the world/forbids me to battle Trojans all day long. (11.324­–11.325)” Glaucus before plunging into battle, declares,

“Ah my friend, if you and I could escape this fray

and live forever, never a trace of age, immortal,

I would never fight on the front lines again

or command you to the field where men win fame.

But now, as it is, the fates of death await us,

thousands poised to strike, and not a man alive

can flee them or escape… (12.374–12.380)”

Neither Glaucus nor Agamemnon hope to escape the fate of the gods. They do not hope because they cannot. Zeus’ plan will be accomplished regardless of their actions, and fate will have its way. Though they yearn for peace and life they can have none because they are trapped by their mortality. Their lives–with all their hopes, dreams, fears, and joys–are mere pawns in the hands of the gods.

Perhaps this is nowhere more poignantly evident than at the death of Hector. Athena deceives him into believing that a Trojan warrior, Deiphobus, is by his side as he charges the raging Achilles. She disguises herself as Deiphobus and claims to have come to help him because “the heart within me broke with grief for you. (22.288)” She urges him on, promising to fight side by side against Achilles. Emboldened by this promise Hector charges, but when he calls to Deiphobus for another spear to throw at Achilles, Deiphobus is nowhere to be found.

“yes, and Hector knew the truth in his heart

and the fighter cried aloud, ‘My time has come!

At last the gods have called me down to death.

I thought he was at my side, the hero Deiphobus–

he’s safe inside the walls, Athena’s tricked me blind.

And now death, grim death is looming up beside me. (22.349–22.354)”

Why can’t Hector simply turn and run? He answers the question.


this was their pleasure after all, sealed long ago–

Zeus and the son of Zeus, the distant deadly Archer–

though often before now they rushed to my defense.

So now I meet my doom. (22.355–22.359)”

The moment is charged with despair and tragedy. Hector all alone, the bloodthirsty and near-unstoppable Achilles approaching, is deceived by the gods he worships. He has no chance of escape. Death surrounds him, and his only prayer is that his battle with Achilles will be remembered.

John’s gospel begins similarly to his first letter. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)” The characters in The Iliad would share this idea. There are gods who exist immortally. There is something beyond the here and the now. But the Greek and Trojan worldview lacks what comes next.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (John 1:14)” Their worldview lacks any hope that they can transcend the present moment, or that they can be rescued from the fate that controls their every move. As Auden says, in this world “one is happy, one is unhappy, one wins, one loses, finally one dies. That is all. (Auden 18)” Within the Homeric worldview mortals are locked in their mortality. They cannot escape it. They must fight with everything in them to be remembered for there is nothing more that they can do. The immortals are comfortable to watch at a distance without offering a way of escape. While the gods work within the here and the now, they never enter it, so to speak. They never subject themselves to it. The eternal and the temporal remain two separate realms. One does not enter the other.

Homer scholar Margo Kitts points out the small comfort offered by this worldview. Commenting on the death of Hector she says, “Hector immediately grasps that he was tricked by Athene and that the gods are calling his death (22.297 – 299), but he heroically faces his fate, at least briefly (22.303 – 305).” In the face of this fatalism Homer offers “divine and human care as some small compensation for the lack of human autonomy and for the constraints of fate.”

But this is fickle hope. Divine care is no more than a whim, as another writer observes.

“For while men often petition their gods for favor, few mortals actually confidently expect their god’s beneficence. A man is happy to receive the kindness or protection of the gods, but is not surprised if the gods do not respond, or indeed if those same gods choose deliberately to harm him.”

The Iliad itself reveals that human care is no better. When Hector speaks to Andromache after returning from the battle she pleads with him to stay within Troy. Hector refuses, knowing first that he must defend his wife and son, but also that he has no hope for victory or survival (6.481–6.600). All too soon his care will pass away.

This is the flaw in the nature of existence that leads to such unbearable tragedy. To return to First John, the Greek gods are “from the beginning,” but they have not been heard or seen or touched, and they certainly offer no word of life to complete the joy of mortals.

This is not to say that Greek culture is deistic. On the contrary, the gods are extremely involved in everyday life. But the gods never subject themselves to the here and now. They are bemused spectators who, at best, jump into the fray for fun. Even proud Achilles understands this: “the Immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men/ live on to bear such torments–the gods live free of sorrows. (24.613–24.614)” This is a worldview devoid of lasting hope. The eternal sits comfortably to the side, and no temporal being can ever transcend the present.

Christianity offers an antidote to this despair because it declares that the eternal has entered the temporal. Current circumstances are not the sum total of human existence because the Word has offered the words of life. Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)” Mortality is not an inescapable trap within Christianity. There is no need to fight to be remembered because eternal life can be gained.

The Iliad recounts a terrible war. The Homeric worldview offers no hope to anyone within the war. If they do not win glory they will be forgotten. They cannot transcend this moment of battle. Christianity offers a radically different hope. It declares that eternity has entered history and a greater war has been won. Now, for those who follow Jesus, there is hope beyond this moment–hope that tragedy will give way to joy, that suffering will be conquered by happiness, that death will surrender before life.

We Need Another Atticus

It was kind of a big deal, and people really weren’t happy. News had broken about the revision of Atticus Finch.

Now before I go any further I need to say that I haven’t read Go Set a Watchman. At some point I do intend to, but I’m reading several other books at the minute and I’d prefer not to add yet another novel.

But I want to talk about something that I don’t think requires reading the novel. As many of you may know, shortly before Go Set a Watchman released, it came out that Atticus Finch–the champion of racial justice in To Kill a Mockingbird–was rewritten as a racist. The reaction was immediate and angry. Phrases like, “my hero was destroyed,” or, “my role model has been taken away” were common. Reviews described the book as “the toppling of idols.” Critics speculated about Harper Lee’s intentions.

In short, people weren’t happy.

The whole thing struck me as quite intriguing. To Kill a Mockingbird has been an extraordinarily successful book, and the characters are near and dear to many people. As evidenced by the reaction, many looked up to Atticus Finch and his staunch, unflinching defense of the humanity of Jim, the accused African-American. His ultimately unsuccessful fight for justice was inspirational and heroic.

Others, commenting on the controversy, have taken a different approach. They’ve argued that people need to move on and realize that it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. “He’s just a character,” the argument goes. “He isn’t actually a champion of racial justice. We need to focus our attention on real issues, not on fictional characters. Let’s be angry about real injustice and support real heroes, not fictional accounts of injustice or fictional heroes.”

I think that argument betrays a bit of a misunderstanding about the importance of literature. The argument assumes that literature isn’t true, that stories are just myths, cleverly devised lies. At best, they’re escapist fantasies. But as I’ve argued before, stories are true. While the literal details of To Kill a Mockingbird might not be, the larger story is. There is a champion for the oppressed and the needy. There is someone who will fight for justice in the face of a society intent on looking the other way. He may not be named Atticus Finch, but we all long for this person.

Maybe that’s what caused all the outrage. People wanted a champion of justice, and they got one in Atticus. When that champion was taken away, their longing came right back to the Atticus Finchsurface, betraying the fact that Atticus never fulfilled their longing, he merely papered over it.

But to say that the reaction to Atticus’ rewriting is insignificant or silly is, I think, mistaken. What it shows is a fundamental desire people have. We want Jim to be given justice and set free and when he isn’t we’re heartbroken. Our longing for justice wasn’t fulfilled. We want Atticus to fight for those who can’t fight for themselves, and now that he isn’t, people are heartbroken.

It displays a simple fact. That deep down, at the core of our being, we know the world isn’t how it should be. Some part of us longs for something better, for something beyond the evil and injustice around us. We want another Atticus.

Do Moralists Make Bad Novelists?

A few days ago, in the New York Times, Alice Gregory wrote a short piece on the question, “do moralists make bad novelists?” I commend the article to you, not because I necessarily agree with it, but because it’s a well-expressed and thoughtful answer to the question.

In short, she argued that there are two kinds of moralists: didactic moralists and ambivalent moralists. Didactic moralists are those who write pamphlets disguised as novels, while ambivalent moralists are those who deal with moral questions without forcing them into a novel. I find the distinction helpful, but I want to suggest an additional nuance.

Andrew Peterson, speaking a few years ago at a conference, talked about a particular way to read the Bible. Before searching for a lesson in a Biblical story, he argued, we should let the story be a story. Let the reality of what we just heard sink in. That God split a sea in two, that a blind man saw again, that a dead man came back to life. These are miraculous realities. They contain a lesson, but they are realities nonetheless.

I’m not certain, but I think Gregory expresses this same sentiment about fiction when she says:

“For [the ambivalent moralist], ethics are measured and expressed in nonliteral units: the sorts of people to whom she chooses to extend her theory of mind, the small details upon which her characters disagree, the extent to which they are willing to forsake integrity for social graces. She does not inject her fiction with moral content, but moral content is there nonetheless.”

If by this she means that moral lessons ought not be crammed into novels where they don’t fit, I agree. However, a bit later, Gregory throws a wrench in this understanding.

“We live in an era of constant online castigation and unequaled opportunity to judge and be judged. We are unceasingly exposed to our friends’ and enemies’ real-time (and seldom flattering) calibrations in self-presentation, and novels should offer a relief from that.”

This seems to imply that novels are supposed to be an escape from constant moral judgement. But how can a novel deal with moral content without making some sort of moral judgement? Gregory seems to suggest that it is through “moralism with the intent to question,” in contrast to “moralism with the intent to teach.”

If we take Flannery O’Connor’s advice, however, that distinction might run into some trouble. O’Connor says that, “for the writer of fiction, everything has its testing point in the eye.” If I understand her correctly, she means that the writer must first observe before he writes. He must write about real people, and real worlds. That’s not to say that a writer can’t write fantasy, but that fantasy must be believable. In some sense, it has to be real. Stories must begin by expressing something concrete, not abstract, like an idea.

This leads to Gregory’s point about “moral content.” If we’re writing about concrete things, like actions, we’re going to write about morality because many concrete things carry a moral value. Stealing a cookie from the cookie jar is an action, but it is not a mere action. It is a wrong action. Portraying it as a wrong action is a moral judgement, even though it’s a commonly accepted moral judgement.

This makes me wonder if writing about reality without making moral judgements is, in fact, not writing about reality. Gregory’s distinction may be helpful, but I’m not sure her assertion that novels are an escape from judgement is workable. If we are to have “moral content,” it seems we must make moral judgements. It would simply be dishonest to portray, say, an attempt to slander a friend as amoral simply because we don’t want to make a judgement.

Again, I’m not sure that Gregory is arguing against this–there are some comments in her article, however, that make me wonder if she is.

Perhaps this question–do moralists make bad novelists?–is best answered by O’Connor. O’Connor is all for a distinction between a novel and a sermon, but while she agrees that a story is not a mere statement, statements will inform our stories. Or, as she puts it:

“Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.

Why Interstellar Missed Its Own Big Picture

A few days ago I posted a quote from Blaise Pascal wherein he said this:

“True religion must therefore teach us to worship only him and love only him. But as we find it impossible to worship something we do not know, or to love something other than ourselves, the religion which teaches us these duties must also teach us about our inability. It must also instruct us about the remedies. It tells us that all was lost through a man, that the link between God and ourselves was broken, and that through a man the link was repaired.”

This idea, that true religion tells us about how the link between ourselves and God was broken by a man, and how a man restored that link is certainly fascinating. But what I want to do is use it as a framework for discussing the themes of the film Interstellar.

Pascal tells us that all was lost through a man, and all was restored through a man. Interstellar tell us something radically different, simply by removing the article “a.”

If you recall, the film opens on a drought-ridden planet a generation away from extinction. Agricultural blight is ravaging crops and the vague hints tell us that it’s all due humanity’s abuse of the environment. As a result, mankind makes a desperate attempt to save itself, and the plot of the movie begins.

Interstellar hinges on the audience accepting one thing. I highly encourage you to accept it, because the journey is so very worth it.Throughout Interstellar the theme that develops goes something like this: all was lost through mankind, and through mankind all will be restored. In fact, the theme couldn’t be more clear. The ending of the story, in which (spoiler alert) Cooper sends his daughter quantum information that helps her solve gravity, while at the same time creating the phenomena that led himself to this very spot, quite clearly places mankind in the role of savior.

Even the dialog at the end communicates this. At the beginning of the movie, all Cooper knows is that someone (nebulously referred to as “they” throughout most of the movie) created a wormhole to give humanity a chance at survival. “They” are some kind of higher power, it appears–people who can create wormholes. But at the end, Cooper declares “‘they’ are us. We brought ourselves here.” Mankind is the higher power.

I find this theme rather odd, actually, in light of several events that occur during the movie. For example, around two thirds of the way through, Cooper, the main character, and his crew land on an ice planet found by the leader of the previous mission through the wormhole, Dr. Mann. Everything seems promising until Mann takes Cooper for a walk and ends up trying to kill him.

The scene has been criticized quite a bit, the argument usually going something like this: “they’re halfway across the galaxy, on a mission to save humanity, and they get into a fistfight? Really?” During the film I actually loved the entire scene. Not only was it intense, but I also felt like it said something profound about the human condition. Mann was “the best of humanity,” to quote one of the main characters, and he was sent to save the species. But even he succumbed to selfishness. Two characters getting into a fistfight halfway across the galaxy on a mission to save humanity felt like Nolan’s way of summarizing human nature.

But then (Spoiler Alert) Mann is killed and the mission continues. At this point, however, we’ve sufficiently lost our hope in this team’s ability to save humanity. Yet somehow they still do. Mankind brings itself to the brink of extinction, tries to save itself, attacks itself in its attempt to save itself, and somehow still saves itself.

Interstellar was a good movie (see my review here), but I feel like it missed its own big picture. The overall sketch of mankind Interstellar gives us seems to say that it won’t be long before we’ll mess everything up again. But Interstellar has nowhere else to turn for rescue. According to Interstellar, we are the biggest threat to our survival, and at the same time our only hope for salvation.

This is why Pascal’s formulation, which is really just the Bible’s formulation, is so crucial. Through one man all was lost, and through another man, the Son of Man, all was regained. Without that understanding, we’re left in vicious circles, saving ourselves and endangering ourselves in the same moment.

Tolkien and Reading Security

Randon Billings Noble, writing recently for the LA Review of Books, discussed the idea of Reading Security. This, if I understand it correctly, is basically another way of phrasing the issue of escapism in literature. In other words, what happens when books, when reading, becomes an escape from the real world?

Noble says this as she sets up the problem:

“But then I read Anna North’s New York Times essay “When Novels Were Bad for You,” and wondered if, in some ways, they still are. North uses Emma Bovary and Catherine Norland, (of Northanger Abbey) as examples of readers who are swept too far away by their reading, finding their actual lives either lacking or mistakenly fraught when compared to the romances and Gothic horrors in which they lose themselves. I’m older than they are, and living in a very different time and place, but even though I can indeed distinguish between fact and fiction, I feel the same sense of thrall when I read, and I relish it. But is this “bad” in the way 18th- and 19th century critics thought?”

This is a very interesting paragraph. A standard question is raised: what happens when we realize that the lives we live barely resemble the novels we read? What happens when books become an escape, and we begin to dislike the real world? We should confine ourselves to dealing with the real world, with sophisticated problems and mature ideas, and not try to escape from it, goes the anti-escapist reasoning. Why would escapism be a desirable thing?

J.R.R. TolkienThat’s not necessarily a new question: Lewis and Tolkien dealt with it a lot. In fact, a large part of Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” is devoted to this very idea. And in answer to the question, “is escape bad?” Tolkien gave the same answer Noble does. The difference is in the reason for the answer. Here’s what Tolkien said:

“Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.”

Tolkien here was writing from a worldview that said that there was a world beyond our own, a world beyond the prison. This world was a world that fulfilled the longing we all have, a world where jailers and prison walls were no more. This world was a home, not a jail. Tolkien says there’s nothing wrong with escapism in this sense because we are trying to escape to where we really belong.

In other words, books provide us a glimpse of this real home, and so there’s nothing wrong with escaping to it.

Noble gives the same answer as Tolkien: no, escaping to another world in a book is not necessarily wrong. But Noble has a very different reason.

“…here’s the thing – I do indeed want to divorce myself (if only temporarily) from my everyday life. I want to be in a more sophisticated world than my three-year-olds’. I want complex characters and elaborate language and mature themes…”

I want to ask the question, is a three-year-olds’ world really so unsophisticated? Or if it is, why is that a bad thing? Why would we want to escape from that? As G.K. Chesterton points out, young children are fascinated with the mundane in life–they wonder at everything around them. They don’t walk outside at night and treat the moon and the stars nonchalantly. The moon and the stars are not just there, the moon and the stars are wonderful, intricate, stunning things. It is only when we get older, according to Chesterton, that we lose the wonder inherent in these things.

If one were to combine Tolkien and Chesterton, one might say this about escapism: those who have lost an ability to wonder at the mundane, to see the reflections of another world in our own, ought to escape. There is nothing wrong with wanting to go home, but home may look less like the “sophisticated” world Noble speaks of and more like a three-year-olds’ world.

Complex characters and elaborate language aren’t necessarily bad, but they may not actually be any better than the simple beauty of a child building a sand castle on the beach. The echoes of the home Tolkien speaks of are all around us but they become a bit harder to see, according to Chesterton, when everything is about unceasing analysis and complexity.

When we take things like the world we live in, and try to act “grown up” by dealing with so-called substantial issues and real problems, I think Chesterton would tell us to stop. Before we deal with “important” issues, let’s just step back for a minute and acknowledge the fact that we are tiny creatures, sitting on a large rock, with explosions at the center, hurtling through space at 66,000 miles per hour, around a giant ball of fire.

And we want to be sophisticated. Can we just stop for a moment and wonder at the fact that we even exist?

The real world may not be so different from a three-year-olds’ world.

A world where the sun rising every morning is a wondrous thing. A world where the joy of something simple, like a trampoline, leads to constant repetition of that thing.

The “grown up” world of constant analysis, the “grown up” world where sheer joy and wonder at simple things is shunned, may not be the real world. To use Chesterton’s example, the real world may look more like the world of a child, having just discovered a slide, who says over and over, “do it again!”