Story, the imagination, the sacramental: J R R Tolkien, C S Lewis, and Charles Williams


A fine essay in Colin Duriez‘s J. R. R. Tolkien Handbook (Baker, 1992) opens up the topic of the theology of story. Though the handbook focuses on Tolkien, this particular essay ranges richly between Tolkien, Lewis, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and even a bit of G K Chesterton. (Again, the following uses my typical abbreviations; “xn” is Christian, “xnty” Christianity, “T” is Tolkien.)

I appreciate in this essay especially Duriez’s keen grasp of the romantic underpinnings of the theological meaning of story and imagination for the Inklings, as well as the sacramental element in Williams’s and Tolkien’s thought (what Williams identifies as “the Affirmative Way”). My overall comment on the usefulness of this essay to my “Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants” project follows, and then the essay itself sprinkled with a few of my notes

[Duriez’s essay on Tolkien and Christianity, from the same book, is here.]

Maybe this is useful if I think of “story” or “myth,” at least in the hands of these Inklings authors, as their chief tools in their attempt to “re-enchant the world,” as it had once been enchanted for everyone—that is, during the Middle Ages. They were trying, post-Enlightenment and post-twentieth-century-modernization, to recover the sacramental functions of creation and history; Gregory the Great’s idea that God speaks to us in storms and rocks and trees . . . and the sufferings and griefs and recoveries of our everyday lives. Think of this essay of Duriez’s in that context. Perhaps this, like Tom Howard’s article on JRRT’s sacramentalist thought in the Tolkien issue of Christian History, can become for my “Medieval Wisdom” project a key entry-point, along with CSL’s description in his Discarded Image of “the medieval model,” back into the enchanted world of “angels in the architecture.” Like the Romanticism from which these authors drew, their particular use of story and imaginative literature seeks to find God both in “the everyday” and in “the mythic,” just as CW tried to find God in romantic relationships.

“Like his friends, C. S. Lewis* and Charles Williams,*, T worked in his fiction according to a theology of romanticism* which owed much to the nineteenth-century writer who was Lewis’ mentor, George MacDonald.* The term ‘romantic theologian’, Lewis tells us, was invented by Charles Williams. What Lewis says about Williams in his introduction to Essays Presented to Charles Williams applies also to T and himself.

“‘A romantic theologian [C. S. Lewis points out] does not mean one who is romantic about theology but one who is theological about romance, one who considers the theological implications of those experiences which are [237] called romantic. The belief that the most serious and ecstatic experiences either of human love or of imaginative literature have such theological implications and that they can be healthy and fruitful only if the implications are diligently thought out and severely lived, is the root principle of all his [Williams’] work’

“Whereas a key preoccupation of Charles Williams was romantic love, C. S. Lewis was ‘theological’ about romantic longing or joy,* and T reflected deeply on the theological implications of fairy-tale and myth,* particularly the aspect of sub-creation* (see IMAGINATION).

“In a doctoral thesis, Romantic religion in the works of Owen Barfield, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams and J. R. R. Tolkien, R. J. Reilly saw C. S. Lewis as an advocate of ‘romantic religion’. This was the ‘attempt to reach religious truths by means and techniques traditionally called romantic, and . . . to defend and justify these techniques and attitudes of romanticism by holding that they have religious sanction’.

“In his autobiography Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis reported some of his sensations—responses to natural beauty, and literary and artistic responses—in the belief that others would recognize similar experiences of their own.

“J. R. R. Tolkien was fascinated by several structural features of fairy-tales and other stories that embodied myths. These features are all related to a sense of imaginative decorum; a sense that imagining can, in itself, be good or bad, as rules or norms apply strictly in fantasy, as they do in thought. Meaning can only be created by skill or art, and play an essential part in human thought and language. As T said, ‘The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval.’ As Barfield has shown in his introduction to the new edition of Poetic Diction, the ideal in logical positivism and related types of modern linguistic philosophy is, strictly, absurd; it systematically eliminates [238] meanings from the framing of truths, expecting thereby to guarantee their validity. In T’s view, the opposite is the case. The richer the meanings involved in the framing of truths, the more guarantee there is of their validity.

“G. K. Chesterton once wrote that we should sometimes take our tea at the top of a tree, as our perceptions tend to get dulled. One of the essential features of the fairy-tale or mythopoeic fantasy is the sense of ‘recover’*—the regaining of health or a clear view of things. T pointed out that we too often get caught in the specific corridor of daily, mundane life, and lose a view of ‘things as we are (or were) meant to see them’. Entry into an imaginary world ‘shocks us more fully awake than we are for most of our lives’. C. S. Lewis said the latter of myth, but it applies to this feature of recovery. Part of this recovery is a sense of imaginative unity, a survey of the depths of space and time. The essential patterns of reality are seen in a fresh way.

“Charles Williams’ ‘romantic religion’, though concerned with romantic love, took the form of what he characteristically called the Way of the Affirmation of Images. He developed a distinctive doctrine [I dunno, sounds pretty much like straight-up Pseudo-Dionysius to me] of the two-fold Way of the Affirmation and Rejection of Images. Here we say of any created person or thing in reference to the Creator: ‘This also is Thou; neither is this Thou.’ In his The Descent of the Dove, Williams described the principle like this:

“‘The one Way was to affirm all things orderly until the universe throbbed with vitality; the other to reject all things until there was nothing anywhere but He. The Way of Affirmation was to develop great art and romantic love and marriage and philosophy and social justice; the Way of Rejection was to break out continually in the profound mystical documents of the soul, the records of the great psychological masters of Christendom. All was involved in Christendom . . .’

“The validity of both aspects of the two-fold Way was [239] connected in Williams thinking with another key doctrine of Christianity—co-inherence. This doctrine was captured for him, characteristically, in the beautiful Image of the City. This social image brings out, for Wiliams, the dependence of each of us upon others’ labours and gifts, and the necessity of bearing one another’s burdens.

“Of the friends, Tolkien and Lewis were particularly influenced by Barfield.* He believed that mankind has moved away from a unitary consciousness into a division of subject and object. [The end of intimacy in the modern world.] Lewis came to believe that theoretical reasoning abstracts from real things, real emotions, real events. T and Lewis saw this desirable unity, for example, in the gospel story, where the quality of myth is not lost in the historical facticity of the events. There is no separation of story and history. Lewis wrote:

“‘There is . . . in the history of thought, as elsewhere, a pattern of death and rebirth. The old, richly imaginative thought which still survives in Plato has to submit to the deathlike, but indispensable, process of logical analysis: nature and spirit, matter and mind, fact and myth, the literal and metaphorical, have to be more and more sharply separated, till at last a purely mathematical universe and a purely subjective mind confront one another across an unbridgeable chasm. But from this descent, also, if thought itself is to survive, there must be re-ascent and the Christian conception provides for this. Those who attain the glorious resurrection will see the dry bones clothed again with flesh, the fact and the myth remarried, the literal and the metaphorical rushing together (Miracles, ch. XVI).’” (236-9)

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