Monday, February 09, 2004

Romanticism, Lord of the Rings, Richard Wagner, C.S. Lewis, & Incarnational Theology

I am a thoroughgoing Romantic. I am using the word in a sense which means far more than giving your wife or girlfriend roses or going to a restaurant with soft-lit candles and strolling violin players (though those things are certainly aspects of Romanticism, and delightful ones at that).

The larger sense of the word refers to a huge movement in art, literature, music, poetry, photography, and other areas (even overlapping into religion), which (arguably) culminated in the 19th century.

Catholic cultural historian Christopher Dawson, notes that the religious roots of Romanticism are actually quite deep:

"[T]he religious element in Romanticism, whether Catholic or non-Catholic, goes much deeper than the superficial aesthetic appeal. It has its roots in the fundamental principles of the movement, which differed not merely aesthetically but also metaphysically and psychologically from those of both seventeenth-century Classicism and eighteenth-century Rationalism."

( Religion and the Romantic Movement, The Tablet, 1937)

G. K. Chesterton noted how romanticism was promulgated through fairy-tales:

"Fairy-tales are as normal as milk or bread. Civilisation changes; but fairy-tales never change . . . its spirit is the spirit of folk-lore; and folk-lore is, in strict translation, the German for common-sense. Fiction and modern fantasy . . . can be described in one phrase. Their philosophy means ordinary things as seen by extraordinary people. The fairy-tale means extraordinary things seen by ordinary people. The fairy-tale is full of mental health . . . Fairy-tales are the oldest and gravest and most universal kind of human literature . . . the fairy-tales are much more of a picture of the permanent life of the great mass of mankind than most realistic fiction."

(From "Education by Fairy Tales," The Illustrated London News, 2 December 1905)

J.R.R. Tolkien hits the nail on the head, in his seminal essay, On Fairy Stories:

"The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous 'turn' (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially 'escapist', nor 'fugitive'. In its fairy-tale -- or otherworld -- setting, it is a sudden or miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

"It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the 'turn' comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality . . .

"In such stories when the sudden 'turn' comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart's desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through . . . in the 'eucatastrophe' we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater -- it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world. The use of this word gives a hint of my epilogue . . ."

(From C.S. Lewis, editor, Essays Presented to Charles Williams, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,
1966; originally Oxford University Press, 1947)

C. S. Lewis, in writing about myths in general and his "master", George MacDonald, stated:

"It begins to look as if there were an art, or a gift, which criticism has largely ignored. It may even be one of the greatest arts; for it produces works which give us (at the first meeting) as much delight and (on prolonged acquaintance) as much wisdom and strength as the works of the greatest poets. It is in some ways more akin to music than to poetry -- or at least to most poetry. It goes beyond the expression of things we have already felt. It arouses in us sensations we have never had before, never anticipated having, as though we had broken out of our normal mode of consciousness and 'possessed joys not promised to our birth'. It gets under our skin, hits us at a level deeper than our thoughts or even our passions, troubles oldest certainties till all questions are re-opened, and in general shocks us more fully awake than we are for most of our lives. It
was in this mythopoeic art that Macdonald excelled . . .

". . . I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself. Hence his Christ-like union of tenderness and severity. Nowhere else outside the New Testament have I found terror and comfort so intertwined . . ."

(From George Macdonald: An Anthology, edited by C.S. Lewis, New York: Macmillan, 1947,
Preface, 14, 16-22)

For much more reflection along these lines, see my compilation-paper: The Relationship of Romanticism to Christianity and Catholicism in Particular.

Lewis, in fact, first became a theist when he was talking with his good friend J.R.R. Tolkien, who explained to him that Christianity was a myth, but that it was a true myth. This realization came as a thunderbolt to Lewis, who was already deeply immersed in mythology, Romanticism, and the music of Richard Wagner (particularly the Ring).

Lewis had become enchanted with Romanticism in large part due to Wagner and Norse mythology. He recounts in his autobiography:

"Wagnerian records (principally from the Ring, but also from Lohengrin and Parsifal) became the chief drain on my pocket money . . . "Music" was one thing, "Wagnerian music" quite another, and there was no common measure between them; it was not a new pleasure but a new kind of pleasure, if indeed "pleasure" is the right word, rather than trouble, ecstasy, astonishment, "a conflict of sensations without name."

". . . You will misunderstand everything unless you realize that, at the time, Asgard and the Valkyries seemed to me incomparably more important than anything else in my experience . . . More shockingly, they seemed much more important than my steadily growing doubts about Christianity . . . If the Northernness seemed then a bigger thing than my religion, that may partly have been because my attitude toward it contained elements which my religion ought to have contained and did not. It was not itself a new religion, for it contained no trace of belief and imposed no duties. Yet . . . there was in it something very like adoration, some kind of quite disinterested self-abandonment to an object which securely claimed this by
simply being the object it was . . . Sometimes I can almost think that I was sent back to the false gods there to acquire some capacity for worship against the day when the true God should recall me to Himself . . .

"Secondly, this imaginative Renaissance almost at once produced a new appreciation of external nature . . . I was always involuntarily looking for scenes that might belong to the Wagnerian world . . . But soon . . . nature ceased to be a mere reminder of the books, became herself the medium of the real joy. I do not say she ceased to be a reminder. All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still "about to be."

(Surprised by Joy, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955, 72-73, 75-78)

Lewis's experience was very similar to my own. He loved mythology; he loved Wagner and nature (he was an avowed "Autumn fanatic" as I am, too); he had an extended atheistic period in his life (I toyed with the occult in my religiously-nominal childhood and teen years -- though I was never an atheist). Lewis -- my favorite writer, if that is not evident by now -- combined love of mythology and fantasy and imagination with rigorous logical thought (as I seek very much to do in my own apologetics). I was a nature mystic searching for something more. I have written about this period of my life:

"In my own vague, ethereal, only half-conscious Romanticism -- before I was educated enough to be able to understand, let alone articulate, Christian doctrines and dogmas -- I subconsciously sought out religious experiences or intimations which transported me into "religious," "mystical," "supernatural," "fantastic" realms. Romantic orchestral music (above all, Wagner) served this "secondary" function for me. Nature was another such medium. I found everything there symbolic and parabolic. The forest wilderness, for example, represented the "other," the unattainable, the transcendent, the fairy-tale environment.

". . . I didn't know how many other people possessed these feelings. Nor was I likely to inquire. I was happy to find out that my wife Judy felt much the same way (she loves Wagner, too), as did C.S. Lewis . . . Alas, at that time I had no inkling of the fact that what has been called the "mythopoeic imagination" is deeply, profoundly Christian and substantially identical with the "medieval worldview." Malcolm Muggeridge wrote about this symbolism in an article entitled "Nature is a Parable" (after a phrase from Newman):

'Everything that happens to us or in connection with us, all the happenings in the world, great and small, the whole exterior phenomenon of nature and of life - all that amounts to God speaking to us, sending out messages in code, and faith is the key whereby we may decipher them. It sounds very simple, but it's somehow difficult to convey exactly . . . Nature is speaking to us. It is a parable of life itself, a revelation of fearful symmetry . . .'

(National Review, December 24, 1982, 1608)

I wrote further:

"I was experiencing God and Christianity on an unconscious level, by means of nature, fantasy, myth, and music. Christianity is the fulfillment of all this longing. C.S. Lewis often makes the argument throughout his works that such intense, painfully powerful yearnings within us are grounded in the fact that we were made for heaven. The fleeting pangs of nostalgia, melancholy, vivid dreams, idealism, the Quest, paradise, (deja vu?), etc. which so infect us are thus explained as having an origin in ontological, spiritual, divinely-ordained reality.

". . . Perhaps also we retain a consciousness of the Garden of Eden and the pristine, luminescent, perfect, unfallen paradisal earth, which reappears in frustratingly short-lived instances of the painful Nostalgia or sehnsucht which Lewis describes so marvelously."

For much more along these lines (and my "pre-conversion to evangelical Christianity" story), see: Romanticism, Wagner, C.S. Lewis, Christianity, and Me.

C.S. Lewis developed a "theology of longing for heaven" which provides, I think, a fruitful avenue for further thought and reflection. Peter Kreeft has written much on this, and I would very much like to explore it further. Lewis writes:

"It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? . . . Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. It had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison. The second glimpse came through Squirrel Nutkin; through it only, though I loved all the Beatrix Potter books . . . it administered the shock, it was a trouble. It troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn. It sounds fantastic to say that one can be enamored of a season, but that is something like what happened; and as before, the experience was one of intense desire. And one went back to the book, not to gratify the desire (that was impossible - how can one possess Autumn?) but to reawake it. And in this experience also there was the same surprise and the same sense of incalculable importance. It was something quite different from ordinary life and even from ordinary pleasure; something, as they would now say, 'in another dimension' . . . [it was] an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy . . . anyone who has experienced it will want it again . . . I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world."

(Surprised by Joy, London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955, 16-18)

For more on this aspect of sehnsucht, see:

C. S. Lewis and the Romantic Poets on Longing, Sehnsucht, and Joy.

I explore these areas of theology and Romantic speculation in the above-three papers, and on my web page: Romantic and Imaginative Theology (which includes a section on J.R.R. Tolkien).

See also my very popular C.S. Lewis Web Page, which is regularly recommended by the evangelical magazine Christianity Today to its readers who want to pursue studies of Lewis, and is perhaps the 2nd or 3rd most-extensive Lewis links page on the Internet.


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