The Theology of Faërie: Part 1, The Enchantment of the Inklings

I recently finished the very good book The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip and Carol Zaleski. The book focuses upon four of the Inklings, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams. But most of the book is taken up following the careers of Lewis and Tolkien. If you're interested in these authors or the Inklings generally The Fellowship is an excellent book.

One of the things that struck me in reading The Fellowship is how the Zaleskis describe the literary project of the Inklings as an attempt to "reenchant" the world in the face of modernity. The Inklings did this, we know, by combining fantasy with the Christian faith. This is most obviously seen in Tolkien's books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Lewis's Narnia books and Williams's supernatural novels.

The Inklings didn't write much about themselves and they never formally articulated their shared goals, but according to The Fellowship if there was a manifesto that articulated the project of the Inklings it was Tolkien's Andrew Lang lecture delivered in 1939 at the University of St Andrews. The lecture "On Fairy-Stories" was eventually published in 1947.

Given that I'm interested in the project of reenchantment I thought I'd take a few posts to summarize the main points of "On Fairy-Stories" to sketch out "a theology of Faërie" and how that theology might be used in discussions about faith and belief.

Beyond this theology of Faërie, let me end this introductory post by pointing out some other characteristics of the Inklings's particular attempts at reenchantment.

That the Inklings used fantasy and the Christian faith to reenchant the world faith goes without saying. But their imagination wasn't just fanciful or whimsical, it was infused with both reason and morality. That's a combination that interests me, enchantment that is the product of Christian faith, imagination, reason and morality.

As an example of the role of reason in enchantment consider the conversation the Professor has with Peter and Susan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Peter and Susan are trying to puzzle out if Lucy is lying about the wardrobe and meeting a faun in the forest. Hearing their skepticism the Professor counters with a discourse on logic:
“Logic!" said the Professor half to himself. "Why don't they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn't tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.”
These are lines that echo a famous moment in Lewis's apology for the Christian faith Mere Christianity:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
I don't here want to adjudicate the adequacy of Lewis's famous "Liar, Lunatic or Lord?" trilemma. I simply want to note how he inserted it into a children's story, using logic as a tool of enchantment. That blend isn't unique to the Inklings, but it was a mark of the Inklings's imaginative art. We could also go to Lewis's science fiction novels to make similar observations about how Lewis used reason and science to create enchantment.

Tolkien's use of reason was different from Lewis's. More than anything Tolkien was artist so he didn't go in for Lewis's analytical and logical fireworks. As we know, Tolkien's use of reason was demonstrated by his creation of a dense and comprehensive mythological world, complete with Elvish languages of his own devising. Key for Tolkien was the inner consistency of that world. Achieving that consistency, given the richness and size of the world Tolkien was creating, was one of Tolkien's great accomplishments. It was Middle-Earth's intellectual integrity and richness that made it so believable. Once again we find reason to be the engine of enchantment.

In short, enchantment for the Inklings wasn't "pretend" or "make-believe," it was serious intellectual business.

Accompanying this intellectual seriousness the fantasy produced by the Inklings embodied a strong moral sensibility, one informed by the Christian faith. The moral journey Edmund makes in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is an example. And so are the hobbits in Tolkien's novels. In Tolkien's Catholic hands the hobbits become incarnations of Mary's Magnificat:
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate
An appeal to the "moral law" also played a large part part in Lewis's apologetics. In fact, if you recall, Lewis starts off Mere Christianity with an appeal to a shared, common morality:
Everyone has heard people quarreling. Sometimes it sounds funny and sometimes it sounds merely unpleasant; but however it sounds, I believe we can learn something very important from listening to the kind of things they say. They say things like this: "How'd you like it if anyone did the same to you?"—"That's my seat, I was there first"—"Leave him alone, he isn't doing you any harm"— "Why should you shove in first?"—"Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine"—"Come on, you promised." People say things like that every day, educated people as well as uneducated, and children as well as grown-ups. Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man's behavior does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behavior which he expects the other man to know about. And the other man very seldom replies: "To hell with your standard." Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard...It looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some kind of Law or Rule of fair play or decent behavior or morality or whatever you like to call it, about which they really agreed.
These infusions of reason and morality into the fantasy of the Inklings won't be featured when we turn to "On Fairy-Stories" in the coming posts, but I did want to mention these characteristics here at the start as it's this combination of imagination, reason, morality and Christianity that gave the enchantments of the Inklings their distinctive and peculiar quality.
"But do you really mean, Sir," said Peter, "that there could be other worlds--all over the place, just round the corner--like that?"

"Nothing is more probable," said the Professor, taking off his spectacles and beginning to polish them, while he muttered to himself, "I wonder what they do teach them at these schools.”

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