Myth and Tribe:

The New Yorker posts this biography of C. S. Lewis, written by Adam Gopnik. It is essentially hostile to Lewis' religion, comforted by doubt, and celebratory of Lewis' affair with a married woman, which Gopnik says was the real source of Joy in Lewis' life. Gopnik's subtitle is "Prisoner of Narnia," but in fact he ends on the opposite conclusion: that Lewis was a prisoner of Christianity, who finally learned to escape into "the darker realm of magic."

I. Heresy

I think that what I just wrote is accurate but unkindly put, which really captures the tone of Gopnik's piece. It is an interesting and thought-inspiring work, but not a kind one, which leads to unfairness. Gopnik chides Lewis' conversion as being insufficiently given to imagination: "[Lewis] is never troubled by the funny coincidence that this one staggering cosmic truth also happens to be the established religion of his own tribe, supported by every institution of the state, and reinforced by the university he works in, the 'God-fearing and God-sustaining University of Oxford,' as Gladstone called it."

The charge can be directed at the author as well. Gopnik himself celebrates Lewis' escape from orthodoxy into "the American cult of salvation through love and sex and the warmth of parenting," having glad words for sexuality in a number of places. Yet one of his original charges against Lewis is perversion; he makes much of his apparent fondness for spanking girls, which Gopnik puts down to the English boarding school culture. Perhaps; but Robert E. Howard, author of the Conan stories among other classics, never went near an English boarding school. As any reader of his knows, he also has a few kind words to say about the pleasures of spanking a willing woman.

It may be that the activity is more primal than perverse. Both Howard and Lewis spent a great deal of time and study on the Northern and Celtic myths, which involve powerful struggles between strong male and female warriors and gods. The power of these myths, as Gopnik himself says, is that they move us deeply and to the roots. Being moved by myths about these titanic clashes between strong and willful male and female heroes might naturally enough express itself in play, and particularly the play of men and women who love each other.

Still, it falls outside of Gopnik's own conception of right-sexuality, and is thus to be scorned as heresy against the true faith. Gopnik sees himself as an advocate of the true faith, the faith of the body. Yet he fails to see that his faith also is hemmed in with heresies and declarations of apostasy, intolerances and scorn.

II. Tribalism

Nevertheless, Gopnik's larger claim has merit. There is something here that needs an explanation:

It seemed like an odd kind of conversion to other people then, and it still does. It is perfectly possible, after all, to have a rich romantic and imaginative view of existence—to believe that the world is not exhausted by our physical descriptions of it, that the stories we make up about the world are an important part of the life of that world—without becoming an Anglican. In fact, it seems much easier to believe in the power of the Romantic numinous if you do not take a controversial incident in Jewish religious history as the pivot point of all existence, and a still more controversial one in British royal history as the pivot point of your daily practice.
It would be odd that a man descended from Angles and Saxons, Jutes and Danes, and Normans whose name was itself a shortened form of "North-man," should practice a variant of a Jewish religion. Christianity's claim, of course, is that it is not a Jewish religion, but is instead the natural and universal religion of mankind. For that to be true, here is another thing that ought to be true: Jesus might have been born a Northman or a Greek instead of a Jew. If Christianity is true, there may be reasons why God chose to incarnate into the particular tradition of Judiasim; but if it is universal, and if God is indeed all God is said by the faith to be, He ought to have been able to teach the same message in any tradition. He should have been able to transform the teachings of Bacchus into Christianity. Just as Jesus turned Judiasm into something entirely different from what it had been -- a faith of forgiving rather than destroying your enemies, a faith of transforming all tribes rather than celebrating one's own particular tribe -- just as Jesus did that, if in fact he was God, he ought to have been able to do the same thing to any other religion.

It should not, then, be odd to see that Lewis finds Anglicanism to be a natural choice for him if he was convinced of the truth of Christianity. It is the point at which the stream of Christianity had most closely crossed the underlying traditions of his own people. Those traditions and myths are deeper than it is really possible to understand. They lie beneath the words of our language, such that Tolkien could retrieve dead forms of Old English and return them to us as living things that English speakers understand, though we don't remember why: ent and orc and warg seem like natural words that really should be what Tolkien said they were, because indeed they do mean those things. They always did. Somehow, though no one living had used the words for a thousand years, they still ring true to the ear.

A similar story from my own background: as a boy my parents gave me a book from the Childcraft series on myths of the world. It included myths from very many cultures, rewritten for children. They were also illustrated in forms that replicated the traditional art of the cultures from which they came. There were several stories that included dragons, stories about Chinese dragons and dragons forced to submit through the prayers of Christian saints, evil lizards and flying dragons. They were all amusing, but none of them seemed like more than a pleasant, obviously made-up story -- none except one.

That was was the Beowulf story. I remember having a clear understanding, which I drew from the text and the illustrations, that this story was actually true. This story, alone of all of them, got it right about dragons; it got it right about how men behaved and what dragons were like, and what kind of force it took to deal with them.

Why should that dragon have seemed real and right to me, among them all? The reason is the reason that myth underlies and moves our hearts so deeply; it is the reason that Lewis and Howard and Tolkien all drew first on the Northern myths. While two of the three felt it was important to reconcile those myths with Christianity, it was really the Northern myths that moved their hearts.

III. Myth and Truth

None of that says that Christianity is true, or that it is not true. As I said, if Christianity is true it ought to be able to work its transformation in any mythic tradition. It should be the case, if the claims of the religion are accurate, that Jesus could have been born a Dane; it should also be true that he shouldn't need to be one. God, if he is the God the Christian teachings say, should be able to work through Tolkien as much as through John the Baptist.

The test for that would be to see if the overarching power of what Jesus taught survives, even when it is entirely removed from the Jewish roots. If you look at the sterner sort of Christian textualist, those who closely read the Gospels but have little use for the Old Testament or the letters of saints, their faith should carry the same power even if it has a different feel. The Lutherans should be dour because the faith comes from a dour people; but it should still be Christian.

The scoring of that test I leave as an exercise for the reader. Grim's Hall has no official position on the truth of any religion (except Atheism, which we've declared to be false), even though I do myself. However, this isn't a church, but a hall for warriors, who are welcome whatever faith they advocate (even Atheism). I simply suggest that if you are looking for a test, this might be an illuminating one to apply.

It might be worthwhile to look at the writing of yet another myth-inspired writer, Fritz Leiber, who wrote a wonderful story entitled "Lean Times in Lankhmar." Leiber himself was (like Howard) not that interested in Christianity, and in fact the story is meant to be a parody of the faith, and how it adapts itself to other cultures. Fafhrd, the great Northern barbarian takes to rewriting tales of a Christ-like figure so that "Issek" begins riding dragons rather than simply being tortured. Leiber is a great writer, and even when writing what he intends as a parody is kind and fair to his subject. I think both Christian and non-Christian readers can benefit from thinking about the story he wrote, and reading it might make it easier to score the test.

IV. The Flower & the Sword

I was not familiar with the image of "the blue flower" before I read the Gopnik piece, but I find the concept familiar.
He loved landscape and twilight, myth and fairy tale, particularly the Irish landscape near their suburban home, and the stories of George MacDonald. Now too easily overlooked in the history of fantasy, MacDonald’s stories (“At the Back of the North Wind,” “The Princess and the Goblin,” and, most of all, “Phantastes”) evoked in Lewis an emotion bigger than mere pleasure—a kind of shining sense of goodness and romance and light. Lewis called this emotion, simply, the “Joy.” With it came the feeling that both the world and the words were trying to tell him something—not just that there is something good out there but that there is something big out there. The young Lewis found this magic in things as different as Beatrix Potter and Longfellow, “Paradise Lost” and Norse myth. “They taught me longing,” he said, and made him a “votary of the Blue Flower,” after a story by the German poet Novalis, in which a youth dreams of a blue flower and spends his life searching for it.
For me, it was a poem written by Tolkien, which is included in The Hobbit:
...For Ancient King and Elvish Lord
There Many a Gleaming, Golden Hoard
They shaped and wrought,
And light they caught
To hide in gems on hilt of sword.
I think I've been looking for that sword my whole life. I haven't found it yet, but I know that I believe in it. I know it's real, somehow, though I don't understand just how it could be. I just know it.

Lewis believed, as John Derbyshire does, that this is not the real world. That is a belief found in many places, and it might be true. I have heard that the ancient Irish believed it so strongly that they would accept debts to be paid 'in the other world.'

If that is true, it may be that seeking things that can only be found in that other world will lead you there. Or it could be that it condemns us to madness, if the world can't be found. Of course, it could also be that it is not true, and those of us who believe it are already mad. That, too, I leave to the reader.

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