“Our homes are under miraculous skies”- GK Chesterton’s “The House of Christmas”

Today marks the end of the Christian liturgical year with Feast of Christ the King.  Today, during the homily, Father Jim urged us to remember that though we anticipate Advent and the celebration of the Incarnation, let us not forget Christ enthroned at the right hand of the Ancient of the Days.

Which I won’t, of course, but I am indulging in a bit of GK Chesterton as evening yawns into night, and this poem came to mind, with all its anticipatory and beautiful imagery.  So cheers to the new year approaching, the night air chill, but the house warm and snug, a house under miraculous skies:

The House of Christmas

G. K. Chesterton

There fared a mother driven forth

Out of an inn to roam;

In the place where she was homeless

All men are at home.

The crazy stable close at hand,

With shaking timber and shifting sand,

Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand

Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,

And strangers under the sun,

And they lay on their heads in a foreign land

Whenever the day is done.

Here we have battle and blazing eyes,

And chance and honour and high surprise,

But our homes are under miraculous skies

Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,

Where the beasts feed and foam;

Only where He was homeless

Are you and I at home;

We have hands that fashion and heads that know,

But our hearts we lost – how long ago!

In a place no chart nor ship can show

Under the sky’s dome.

This world is wild as an old wives’ tale,

And strange the plain things are,

The earth is enough and the air is enough

For our wonder and our war;

But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings

And our peace is put in impossible things

Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings

Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening

Home shall men come,

To an older place than Eden

And a taller town than Rome.

To the end of the way of the wandering star,

To the things that cannot be and that are,

To the place where God was homeless

And all men are at home.

Screwtape Letters and The Hobbit

Screwtape advises Wormwood on the modern human mind and how it differs from those of the past in Letter One:

 “At that time the humans…still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning.  But what with the weekly press and other such weapons we have largely altered that.  Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head.

So how does Bilbo Baggins factor into this?  Well, CS Lewis did dedicate the book to JRR Tolkien when it was first published in the 1940s.  But aside from that…

Malcolm Guite writes in a recent post about running to catch his plane:  “I was obliged to pass through all kinds of searches and high security electronica at various airports. Now I had forgotten I would have to do this and had set off on the adventure, like a certain middle aged hobbit before me, without so much as a pocket handkerchief, but with the usual assortment of bits and pieces in the pockets of the trousers, waistcoat, and old tweed jacket I happened to be wearing when… I dashed for the plane.”

Guite happens to have in his pockets an assortment of pipes and pipe cleaning devices, which render a bit of concern to the security folks.  To Guite, it was a perfect time to reflect on Gollum’s question to Bilbo in The Hobbit (“What has it got…”) and GK Chesterton’s famous essay “What I Found in my Pocket.”  GKC ponders on each sundry item and the eternal possibilities of each.  At the top of the post, he shows a picture of Bilbo running to join the dwarves from Peter Jackson’s upcoming movie.

Having read his post, and thinking about this first post about the Screwtape Letters, I realized that Bilbo had, prior to his mad dash and through the encouragement of Gandalf, been moved into a course of action by a chain of reasoning which would alter his life forever, even if he wasn’t cognizant, and even hostile, to the reasoning and action initially.  Therefore an undercurrent of Screwtape’s first letter exists in Bilbo’s transition.   I argue that this wasn’t purely rational, but more of a poetic reasoning, bordering on instinct, which stirred the deepest core of his being.

We read at the beginning of the Hobbit that Bilbo thinks adventures as “nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things.”  Yet Tolkien takes some time to relate Bilbo’s ancestry, and that deep in Bilbo’s bones there perhaps lay a bit of “Tookishness,”waiting to emerge.  Gandalf, apparently, sees this in Bilbo, and has arranged, without Bilbo’s consent, to have him as part of an adventure with 13 other dwarves.

If this new course of action is to take place, something which would bind Bilbo to his prior action must be forfeit.  Bilbo’s sedentary life revolves around comfort and food.  Thus, when the “throng” of dwarves arrive,” they proceed, quite rightly in this sense, to eat Bilbo out of house and home.  They demand Raspberry jam and apple-tart, mince-pies and cheese, porkpie and salad, red wine, eggs, coffee, cakes, ale. When Gandalf calls out to him to just “bring out the cold chicken and pickles,   Bilbo states “’ [He] Seems to know as much about the inside of my larders as I do myself!’ thought Mr. Baggins, who was feeling positively flummoxed, and was beginning to wonder whether a most wretched adventure had not come right into his house.”

Which it had, of course, but before Bilbo can even consider going on said adventure, the food supplies of his comfortable home are rapidly depleted.  It is almost as though Gandalf is subtly setting up a transition from the comfortable and ample provisions of dear old Hobbiton, to meals which “didn’t come as often as  Bilbo would have liked them (Ch. 2).”

The plainly physical obstacle or desire removed, Bilbo then experiences a poetic epiphany which showcases Bilbo’s change of path and reasoning.  He hears of strange and wondrous things as the dwarves begin to tell of past adventures:

“As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking stick. He looked out of the window. The stars were out in a dark sky above the trees. He thought of the jewels of the dwarves shining in dark caverns. Suddenly in the wood beyond The Water a flame leapt up–probably lighting a wood-fire–and he thought of plundering dragons settling on his quiet Hill and kindling it all to flames. He shuddered; and very quickly he was plain Mr. Baggins of Bag-End, Under-Hill, again.

He got up trembling.  He had less than half a mind to fetch the lamp, and more than half a mind to pretend to, and go and hide behind the beer barrels in the cellar, and not come out again until all the dwarves had gone away.”

I love that last part.  Here the core of his being is stirred to new heights, and he wants to hide.  But the spell has been cast: he is looking at things in a new way.  Far from “a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing around in his head, (Screwtape)” Bilbo experiences clearly a single focused desire far beyond his humble hobbit home, seeing, perhaps for the first time in his mind’s eye, caves, mountains, waterfalls, and dragons.  There is poetic reckoning here.

And in the end, after a bit of a freak-out (“Lightning, Lightning!”) and some negotiation via his “business manner,” off Bilbo goes, albeit late, to join Thorin and the dwarf party.

“To the end of his days Bilbo could never remember how he found himself outside, without a hat, a walking stick or any money, or anything that he usually took when he went out; leaving his second breakfast half-finished and quite unwashed-up, pushing his keys into Gandalf’s hands, and running as fast as his furry feet could carry him down the lane, past the great Mill, across The Water, and then on for a mile or more.”

But we as readers recognize and remember, however, for we too join Bilbo on his adventure, just waiting for that narrative moment when he finally agrees, and the story may truly begin.

What a contrast from Screwtape’s patient, the “sound atheist,” which he uses as an example to Wormwood to point out the necessity of keeping people mired in “real” life, a life devoid of an untold myriad of potentialities!

“I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who used to read in the British Museum. One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way. The Enemy, of course, was at his elbow in a moment. Before I knew where I was I saw my twenty years’ work beginning to totter. If I had lost my head and begun to attempt a defense by argument, I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control, and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch.”

Screwtape’s patient is unable, or unwilling to “believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before [his] eyes.” Screwtape shows him a newsboy selling the paper, and a bus passing by, and convinces his patient of remaining sedentary in his comfortable “real life.” His life remains ordinary, and ultimately, ignorant.

What might have happened, someone may posit, if Bilbo had decided not to go?

No story.  No adventure.  No stirring of the Tookish poetic inside his soul.

And what of us?  What incompatible philosophies and distractions do we allow to dance about in our heads?  I declare myself the worst of this lot.  Whether thinking about the next errand, mucking about online, worrying and fretting about minor things, letting my mind drift during conversations instead of being in the moment, the willingness to turn on the TV and allow wave after wave of insignificant advertisements and talking head point of views interrupt whatever peace of mind and sense of adventure the Lord desperately desires to plant in my soul.  And then I wonder why I am so stressed out.

Rather, with Grace offered, let me listen to the possible Took inside me, who so often looks out the window onto a glorious day and sighs, citing responsibilities and restrictions and distractions rather than immersing in contemplation, and the possible adventure which lies ahead.

The Man on Thursday

I have been diving into GK Chesterton again:  purchased What’s Wrong With the World, Tremendous Trifles, and am tempted this evening to buy his novel Manalive,  which includes one of the most exquisite opening paragraphs I’ve read in a long time.  Here it is:

A wind sprang high in the west, like a wave of unreasonable happiness, and tore eastward across England, trailing with it the frosty scent of forests and the cold intoxication of the sea. In a million holes and corners it refreshed a man like a flagon, and astonished him like a blow. In the inmost chambers of intricate and embowered houses it woke like a domestic explosion, littering the floor with some professor’s papers till they seemed as precious as fugitive, or blowing out the candle by which a boy read “Treasure Island” and wrapping him in roaring dark. But everywhere it bore drama into undramatic lives, and carried the trump of crisis across the world. Many a harassed mother in a mean backyard had looked at five dwarfish shirts on the clothes-line as at some small, sick tragedy; it was as if she had hanged her five children. The wind came, and they were full and kicking as if five fat imps had sprung into them; and far down in her oppressed subconscious she half-remembered those coarse comedies of her fathers when the elves still dwelt in the homes of men. Many an unnoticed girl in a dank walled garden had tossed herself into the hammock with the same intolerant gesture with which she might have tossed herself into the Thames; and that wind rent the waving wall of woods and lifted the hammock like a balloon, and showed her shapes of quaint clouds far beyond, and pictures of bright villages far below, as if she rode heaven in a fairy boat. Many a dusty clerk or cleric, plodding a telescopic road of poplars, thought for the hundredth time that they were like the plumes of a hearse; when this invisible energy caught and swung and clashed them round his head like a wreath or salutation of seraphic wings. There was in it something more inspired and authoritative even than the old wind of the proverb; for this was the good wind that blows nobody harm.

Whimsical Imagination and a New Addition to the Forest

The following article over at Transpositions interweaves C.S. Lewis, George Macdonald, GK Chesterton, and Lewis Carroll.  The article is really jumpstarting some observations I’ve making on the connection between theology and Pixar.  More on that later, perhaps…

Whimsical Imagination.

Oh, and by the by…something special arrived on Easter weekend at my house:

Rowan William Pyne

As We Enter the Dark

Good Friday is upon us. For followers of Christ who have already “seen the other side,” that is, who know Easter is right around the corner, unlike the apostles, who did not understand and were in despair over the death of their Lord and King, this day focuses on one single question:

Would you still stand in the hope of God were all hope seemingly eradicated?

I have been reading GK Chesterton’s epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse. In the poem’s dedication, there is an attitude of stalwart courage in the face of adversity that I find fitting to this day. GKC writes:

Ride through the silent earthquake lands,
Wide as a waste is wide,
Across these days like deserts, when
Pride and a little scratching pen
Have dried and split the hearts of men,
Heart of the heroes, ride.

Later on, in Book I: “Vision of the King,” The Virgin Mary speaks to Alfred the Great about his upcoming battle:

“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”

“Faith without a hope.” This sums up the essence of Good Friday. One cannot help but call to mind, as well, the ultimate Good Friday moment in recent film history. No, I’m not talking about The Passion, but rather the final battle scene of The Return of the King. In the face of seemingly absolute defeat, with the clothes of Frodo, their last hope of victory mockingly given to them by the enemy, not knowing that Frodo was indeed alive, Aragorn faces a crossroads. All hope is gone. They are outnumbered, outflanked, and outmanuevered. How to proceed? “For Frodo,” that’s how. Therefore, what should we as followers of Christ say?

The Man on Thursday 5: Ordinary Imagination

The whole object of real art, of real romance- and, above all, of real religion- is to prevent people from losing the humility and gratitude which are thankful for the daylight and daily bread; to prevent them from regarding daily life as dull or domestic life as narrow; to teach them to feel in the sunlight the song of Apollo and in the bread the epic of the plough.  What is now needed most is intensive imagination.  I mean t power to turn our imagination inwards, on the things we already have, and to make those things live.  It is not merely seeking new experiences, which rapidly become old experiences.  It is really learning how to experience our experiences.  It is learning to enjoy our enjoyments.

The Man on Thursday 3: Children

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

The Man on Thursday 2: On Friday (Sigh)

Alas, my promise to myself last week to keep up on these “Man on Thursday” posts is broken- in the second week.  I blame my over-preparation for the coming school year.

That being the case, let’s make it one on education, a rather pointed critique in an age of FCAT and “Race to the Top”:

Obviously it ought to be the oldest things that are taught to the youngest people; the assured and experienced truths that are put first to the baby.  But in a school today the baby has to submit to a system that is younger than himself.  The flopping infant of four actually has more experience, and has weathered the world longer than the dogma to which he is made to submit.”

What If Books Contained a Story?

Anne Jackson recently posed a question asking “What’s missing from today’s books?” I’m a bit disappointed that, on the surface anyway, her query was geared toward an analysis of “the market,” but I see where she is going with this. As an English teacher, the question jumped off the screen and sat on my lap, begging to be answered, but drooping lids prevailed and I retired early to bed (without setting the alarm- let me tell you, it was an exciting morning!).

Here’s C.S. Lewis on the subject of great literature:

Literature enlarges our being by admitting us to experiences not our own. They may be beautiful, terrible, awe-inspiring, exhilarating, pathetic, or comic… My own eyes are not enough for me. In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in a Greek poem, I see with a thousand eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself: and am never more myself than when I do.

This is a quote I share with my students at the beginning of the year. The desire and ability to “become a thousand men and yet remain myself,” is the essence of an intelligent and broad perspective reaching out to understand the world around him/her.

But is this the literature of which Anne speaks? My assumption (and this is only an assumption) is that she is speaking about books akin to her own, such as Mad Church Disease. I’m not sure. However, I did find an article I thought quite illuminating on what the current market demands. In a nutshell: kids’ books. Susan Carpenter of the LA Times writes in the article “Young Adult Lit Comes of Age” that

It used to be that the only adults who read young adult literature were those who had a vested interest — teachers or librarians or parents who either needed or wanted to keep an eye on developing readers’ tastes.

But increasingly, adults are reading YA books with no ulterior motives. Attracted by well-written, fast-paced and engaging stories that span the gamut of genres and subjects, such readers have mainstreamed a niche long derided as just for kids.

Recently, I whipped through CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, both in print and in a wonderful radio drama version, and currently I am dipping a tentative foot into Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief, about a boy who finds out he is half Greek…god.

I am starting to label myself a Recovering English Major. I went through my modernist and post-modern lit as an undergraduate, read and over analyzed “deep” literary fiction, and ultimately came up with the novel idea of actually reading a STORY. It took some heavy lessons learned and essays culled by CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, GK Chesterton, and George MacDonald, among others, to realize that “sometimes fairy stories may say best what’s to be said.”

Is it what the market wants? Apparently. Is it what the market needs? Definitely.

Now you’ll have to excuse me…I already know the dragon exists, but I must continue my quest to defeat it.