Sunday, May 25, 2008

Longing for Home

So, today was the ward conference in the Oxford Ward. The theme was drawn from Paul, "That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God" (1 Corinthians 2:5). The general gist of the meeting was about man's spiritual nature, making sure that we didn't allow the general banality of our lives supersede and overcome our spiritual nature. Our Stake President discussed his roses, which he worked hard to prune and take care of, but which he hadn't yet appreciated. The Bishop, speaking on the same theme, took on Richard Dawkins (although not personally) and discussed the further idea that the only way to know things of God is from God (1 Corinthians 2:11 and 12), but because we are spiritual beings the Spirit can communicate with our spirit. It was a very intriguing Ward Conference, and one which gave me much cause to think.

Again and again, the idea was expressed that we were spiritual beings. The rogue Jesuit scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was quoted by several of the speakers: "We are not human beings have a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings have a human experience." A good quote, and reminiscent of the thought expressed in the Doctrine and Covenants, section 93, "For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected receive a fulness of joy" (verse 33). Of course, D&C 93 deserves discussion on a 'blog dedicated to Latter-day Saint theology, and not a humble fantasy 'blog like this one (so why am I quoting it? Patience, friends, patience). I have often pondered over this idea of being spiritual beings sojourning on this earth.

What does all of this have to do with fantasy and therefore what place does it have on my 'blog. Well, in addition to merely discussing fantasy books, movies, et cetera, part of what I am doing is discussing theories about fantasy, at least from my point of view. My teachers in this are those two stalwarts, Jack Lewis and Prof. Tolkien, both of whom saw the impulse for fantasy derive from the same impulse of religion, and that on some levels it was their Christian understanding that they were spiritual beings that led to the writing of the fantasy novels for which they are most famous (although the Christianity is much more explicit in The Chronicles of Narnia than in The Lord of the Rings--however Tolkien's theory of sub-myths was the more developed, something which will come up in later posts).

The scriptures are replete with a longing for another kingdom, which is expressed by Paul (this 'blog is about fantasy not the Bible, so I can just say that Paul wrote this epistle without discussing authorship) in Hebrews: "and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country" (Hebrews 11:13 and 14). In the Biblical text Paul makes it clear, of course, that the country which the faithful were seeking is Zion, the city of God. However, we all have in our hearts a certain sense that we don't really belong here, a sense which fabulists tie into.

It is not, of course my intention, to say that fantasy is on the same level of scripture (although I often quote Hugh Nibley, who once identified science fiction as "folk-scripture"). I am only expressing an idea, common to my masters in the fabulist arts, that we are looking for something else in our life. As a Christian and a Latter-day Saint I believe that this is a searching for God, because of our nature as spiritual beings, we are yearning for that which we left behind (this yearning is expressed perhaps most familiarly in Wordsworth's Intimations of Immortality and the First Epistle of John, "we love Him, because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19).

This yearning for another country took many forms in the myths and legends of the world (myth being the forbearer of fantasy--or fantasy perhaps being the poor cousin of myth). Of course, moderns idealize the myths, but I personally think there is nothing wrong with this. The Celts had their Summer Country, an Other World which eventually leads us to Faery and Elfland. The Renaissance humanists had their Arcadia, named after the abode of the great god Pan (the great god Pan is dead, but I am also in Arcadia), the true shepherd's paradise. And Paradise itself, modeled after a Persian pleasure garden, reminding us all that like Twain, we are headed back to Eden. Whether back to Eden or forward to the Summer Country, fantasy taps into this longing and feeling that we are "strangers and pilgrims."

For Lewis, fantasy, much like the myths which led him to Christianity, lead properly to the better country alluded to by Paul. For Tolkien, since all myth (including fictional myth like his) was essentially true, sub-creations made by sub-creator reflecting the glory of the Great Creator. Other fantasy writers do not feel this way, and they are welcome to, but I tend to agree with my masters, and ascribe fantasy to sub-creation. Certainly such thoughts give hope and validity to my own fantastic endeavors (such as my writing and my role-playing), so they may only be good for me, and not essentially true. I tend to disagree, but your own usage and experience will vary, of course.

Our final thought comes from Puddleglum in The Silver Chair:
"Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things - trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia.... [W]e're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland."

Thoughts or experiences with the Summer Country? Please share them in the comments.

Further Up and Further In!


Von Schenck said...

Fantasy reaches inside and reflects the longing of the human soul and the older knowledges that we all knew before we came to earth.
For instance a website proclaimed that the story of Christ was just a repeat of the story of the Buddha and drew parallels between them. I thought of this a bit and then was reading in my "Hero with a thousand faces." and realized that perhaps it is the other way around. The Buddha story is the hero story which as a Christian I believe is the reflection of Christ and therefore appears to be the same.
All Myths tell the same story because it is what we long to know.
We long to hear stories about heroes, tricksters, and sages. Because we find all of these in the human story and the story of who we really are.
I agree the fantasy mirrors many beliefs of Christians. However we must be subtle as authors to not beat our readers over the head with it.

Oddly even authors who oppose the Tolkien and Lewis allusions to Christian thought become trapped in it themselves. "The Golden Compass" for instance has the protagonist seeking to kill God. However the author describes the God as a controlling tyrant who would suppress the free will of all mankind that they might be forced to Heaven. Hmm odd isn't it that sounds like a very different person that the individual we call God. While it illustrates the authors misunderstanding of Christian Dogma it also can turn the book in an interesting direction as the protagonist now is seeking to overcome Satan who is Masquerading as the "God of this World" Of course the books become rather acrid towards religion later so the transmutation of the work only goes so far.
My thoughts for now

aleatha said...

After your last post, I was bracing myself, but I got through this post just fine, though I don't role play. I do and always have loved fantasy and myth.

In my Greek&Roman Literature class a while back, the teacher said that to the Greeks, myth was "truer than true". That idea fits with your post, for sure. I like using that phrase for my own spiritual beliefs, too.

Samuel said...

I could not agree more. The joy of fantasy is when the longing for something greater in in the individual reader's life combines with the protagonist's achieving something greater in the story. Reading, fantasy, myths and legends would all be a idle pursuit that should have died out a long time ago if there was not something more worthwhile involved. The various "laws" of survival and evolution state that the only behaviors that survive across the ages are the ones that have a survival benefit. Sure. Great. Using that logic myths, religion, all those sorts of things that scientists tend to poo poo are some of the most important things to the survival of the human species. They continue to perpetuate themselves and influence the live of every human being to some degree or another.

As a Christian, I believe in God and that the reason religion and myths are still around is because God is attempting to reach us, and we are all in some degree reaching for Him. Fantasy and myths are the Lesser Vehicle that God uses to testify of Himself while we search unwittingly for His Greater Vehicle. Star Wars would have no value if it were not a battle between good and evil, and if the ability to destroy a planet were truly insignificant next to the powers of the Force. Star Trek would have no value if the crew of the Enterprise were not always looking to the next star, dreaming of what strange land they might find there. King Arthur is hero not only for what he did, but for his promise to be the future king.

sallysue said...

I have to say the Hebrews 11 quote is perhaps my favorite scripture on faith. As you said, this is not a posting on religion, but if we are not able to believe that there is something out there that is better than here, what is the point? (Thanks for the reference to Puddleglum. Good thing Marshwiggles feet can withstand fire!)
All three of my fav fantasy serial types end with the protagonists going of to some better world - though I tend to think that Narnia is more what I feel to be the most realistic. (The other two [LoTR, Dark is Rising] are limited to birth, which is a bit unfair - though we could go symbolic there, but that takes too much effort.)
After all, even Puzzle goes further in and further up, no?

Matt said...

Yes, yes, yes, yes.

You've struck the nail soundly on the head with this one, pointing out quite deftly what so many apologists, of any stripe, seem to miss.

Truth remains true, even if it never physically happened. This is why it doesn't matter if Job was a real person, or if the Hebrew creation myth is simply allegory compiled from several different source texts, heck, ultimately, it doesn't even matter if Nephi kept a record or if Mormon was an abridger, so long as the things in the book are true. While I wouldn't preach it over the pulpit, for fear of being mis-interpreted, I'll say here that I think the value of scripture lies in what we learn and take from it, and is totally divorced from that truth's mortal author. It's that whole Roland Barthes thing about the Author being dead, and totally removed from the interpretation of a text.

This is why the endless Science vs Religion debates drive me insane. Even laying aside the the secular tendency to let Science replay Religion in toto, complete with deity, saints and demiurges, I find their arguments to have missed the boat entirely - they argue about the providence of the gospels, Darwin's orthodoxy, and the definition of "theory," when they should really be concerning themselves with the nature of truth. It may be that they avoid that topic out of convince, or, perhaps because the Religious groups are, like the Secular groups, in need of evidence to maintain their faith - latter day pieces of the true cross, and St. Thomas' doubting fingerbone, if you will. A link to a mythic past. It drives me mad from where I sit, because, bless me, I'm a bit of a Platonist in my heart of hearts, and see them all as children arguing over shadows in a cave, while being unable to understand the Source of those shadows.

And that's why it doesn't matter to me that we don't have a single source for the book of Genesis, or that Martin Luther was flatulent, that the Popes were wicked, and that Joseph Smith was a money-digger. Who cares? Truth remains true, even if penned by wicked men, even if sophisticated with heresy, and will show itself out to those who earnestly seek it. Milton found the 'lofty Fables and Romances, which recount in solemne canto's the deeds of Knighthood founded by our victorious Kings' to be shining tales in praise of Chastity, Donne is able to write his 'Elegy XX' with the same pen that gives us his 'Meditation XVII.' Everything a reflection of the whole, spelling out eternity in tiny pieces of broken mirror - some showing an eye, or a nose, or the corner of a mouth, for no one thing contains the the entire truth, but must be built up though search, until we can see the reflection clearly.

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