The Theology of Faërie: Part 3, The Wonder of Things

What does the land of Faërie look like?

According to J.R.R. Tolkien in his lecture "On Fairy-Stories" the enchantment of Faërie is characterized by three particular qualities. Tolkien calls the characteristics of Faërie Recovery, Escape and Consolation. We'll devote a post to each.

What is the enchantment involved in what Tolkien calls "recovery"?

Life in "the real world" is often burdened by boredom and weariness. As it is said, there is nothing new under the sun. We move numbly from entertainment to entertainment, pleasure to pleasure, screen to screen.

Worst of all, our relationships with others becomes affected by this "taken for granted" feeling. We feel the tragedy of this, a feeling of monotony even among those we love most dearly, but we struggle to regain contact with wonder, surprise and awe.

The enchantment of Faërie, according to Tolkien, helps us recover these lost feelings. What was old becomes new. What was boring becomes surprising. What was grey becomes bright. What was dead comes back to life again. Tolkien writes:
Before we reach such states [like boredom and tedium] we need recovery. We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses—and wolves. This recovery fairy-stories help us to make. In that sense only a taste for them may make us, or keep us, childish.
Enchantment is not a fanciful fleeing of the world. Enchantment isn't "pretending." Enchantment is the recovery of the world. Enchantment is looking at green again and being startled anew. 

Enchantment is "re-gaining the world," recovering "the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle." A long paragraph of Tolkien describing recovery, but so rich it is worth quoting in full:
Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiars are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their color, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them. 
Many things to unpack here. Enchantment is less about a realistic "seeing things as they are" than "seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them." Enchantment is an act of resistance. Enchantment is the daily work of "cleaning the dirty windows" of both our perceptions and affections so that the familiar again surprises us with joy and gratitude. 

And why do the windows get dirty in the first place? What causes the familiar to become trite?

Tolkien gives a surprising answer. Triteness is the penalty of appropriation. Boredom is the price of possessiveness. Monotony is the cost of taking, acquiring and hoarding.

And the possessiveness here is fundamentally epistemological in nature, thinking we "know" these things. Mentally "taking" something. Cognitively and intellectually acquiring the object.

This temptation to mentally appropriate the world--which has been source of modern disenchantment--is driven by the mechanistic view of the universe that emerged during the Enlightenment. The world has come to be viewed mechanistically and objectively, as raw material to be controlled and shaped into useful technologies. A disenchanted world is no longer hallowed or sacred and, thus, neutral "stuff" to be manipulated for our own purposes.

According to Tolkien, then, the posture of skeptical and scientific "adulthood" is to adopt this mechanistic view of the cosmos. Which is to say, to see the world as an "adult" is to adopt a posture of domination over the world. And it's this posture of domination that disenchants the world, stripping it of its enchanted, sacred character.

And we can extend this into the social realm as well. Wherever there is domination over others the view of human beings had become disenchanted, people have been stripped of their sacred and hallowed nature.

By way of illustration, in The Lord of the Rings we can see how Mordor incarnates a disenchanted, mechanistic view of the world. Mordor uses the world as fuel for domination.

In contrast to Mordor is the enchanted imagination of Faërie, epitomized by the elves and the humble people of the Shire.

And speaking of the elves, if Tolkien desired dragons with a profound desire (see the previous post) I desired Lothlórien with a profound desire. I wanted to walk with the elves through the trees of that forest. And to this very day, whenever I see fireflies dancing among trees this deep and profound ache--what C.S. Lewis named as Joy--fills my soul. I desire the woodland paths of the elves with a profound desire.

Enchantment is the recovery of the world as "a thing apart from ourselves," as something we cannot take or own, as something alien and therefore strange and wonderful.

And if that stance is childlike it is because children remain surprised by the world, experiencing it as enchanted and miraculous. Enchantment is the sacramental experience of the world, where common and ordinary things become symbols and signposts. Inbreakings of the divine. Gateways to heaven.

And that might be enchantment at its most basic, cultivating the ability to be surprised, interrupted and arrested--again and again--by the world. And especially by each other.

Love is a form of enchantment. To love is to enchant, to experience our beloved as source of wonder.

As Tolkien writes, Faërie recovers "the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine."

Shall we leave the final word to Gerard Manley Hopkins?
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
       It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
       It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
       And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
       And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
       There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
       Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
       World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Enchantment is experiencing a world seared by trade as still charged with the grandeur of God.

To see this bent world with fairy-eyes, where the Holy Ghost broods over us with bright wings and warm breast.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply