Myth and Fantasy at a Time Like This?!

Today I begin the MA in Language and Literature programme that I blogged about previously. My focus is on Classical, Medieval, and Renaissance myths and legends (so more emphasis on the first two categories) with a healthy dose of Tolkien Studies to go along with it.

I don’t think I need to mount a full defense of the humanities here, though recent public events in the United States do strongly indicate that we have need of the kind of formation that the humanities offer — not just in critical thinking and reason, but in forming the virtues and desires of human beings to conform to what is noblest. One can, after all, be a critical thinker and even excellent reasoner who is profoundly wicked.

That aside, one might still ask whether it’s right to spend one’s time on reading ancient and medieval myths and the later authors who loved them when there is so much evil in the world that needs addressing? (As I saw it wittily put in a recent ad from a humanitarian organization: Good People Happen to Bad Things.)

This came to mind while I was watching the first lecture of my first class, which is wonderfully on Tolkien and Tradition. In that lecture, Prof. Verlyn Flieger gave an outline of what is called the folklore movement, a 19th-century conscious retrieval of stories and legends from the “folk,” i.e., mainly rural peoples who maintained in memory stories of not just former pagan beliefs but also what might be thought of as anthropological or even archaeological clues to pre-Enlightenment and pre-Christian life among various peoples. It might be hard to believe this now, but interest in the stories that such people told and sung around their fires was not really interesting to “civilized,” educated people for centuries prior. But at some point, certain educated people grew to have the sense that something quite important, something necessary for human life, had been lost in the rationalism of the Enlightenment.

The Invention of History

It is not an easy concept to grasp now, because we take our modern sense of memory and history somewhat for granted, but pre-modern people really did not think of memory and history the way we do. How is it different? I am still learning, but I think that perhaps we are more self-conscious about it now. We have a sense of “looking back” at things that are no longer present — it is about records — while my impression of the pre-modern use of memory and history is more about monumentality and sacramentality, that what is remembered is in fact still present and active. To use the Ancient Greek concepts, then, modern memory is mneia (basically recall) while pre-modern memory is anamnesis (invocation). (I am simplifying here and probably oversimplifying.)

So what does learning about ancient stories “do” for us now? Is it even “useful”?

My own aim in this study is not merely so that I can tell some more stories to my children at bed-time or even just to be able to analyze the works of J. R. R. Tolkien better — though in this latter vein, reading literature such as the Kalevala or the Volsungs can certainly help. Tolkien himself was part of the folklore movement and reflected that in numerous ways, not the least of which is the frequent sense in his books that something beautiful and powerful has been lost.

I know of people who have become Orthodox Christians because of this sense, and in some ways, my own story includes this theme: Why did no one ever tell me this before? (Insert proverb about babies and bathwater.)

But how does this study contribute to mankind at a time like this? Are there are not starving people to feed, injustices to be set right, and cults of evil to be put down?

The “Use” of Mythic Study

Among other things, I believe that our war against the demonic powers — and make no mistake about it: that is what Christianity actually consists of — cannot be properly waged if we are ignorant of the truth about the unseen world. And what are myths and legends but stories that describe that unseen world? It does not matter which ones are “true” in the sense of being a kind of “record” of history (as we now understand history). But what a thorough study of them shows is that the ancient world understood a lot about angels and demons, about spirits, that we moderns have largely forgotten. But we forget to our peril, because these spirits are still with us and still actively permeate us.

I am not speaking here of esoteric spiritual knowledge, by the way. This understanding of the spiritual world is in fact plainly embedded in the Scriptures and in the rest of Orthodox Christian tradition. We are simply mostly ignoring it. (Thus, the Lord of Spirits podcast.) And again, this is to our peril.

So, my study of this lore has two purposes, really:

First, it is to the aim of all humanities study, that is, to shape virtue within myself and others so that we might be the kind of people who engage in almsgiving and other acts of compassionate, active love. We as a modern society are great at pointing out injustices. But we are terrible at getting people to care about them. You can’t care about injustice done to others if you do not desire to be just yourself. And of course Christians will point out that justice is righteousness, and that the Sun of Justice (or Sun of Righteousness, cf. Malachi 4:2) is the Son of God, Jesus Christ, Who will vindicate His people. True righteousness and vindication are not about revenge on one’s enemies (which is how they are usually enacted these days) but about giving what one has for the sake of the other. And vengeance will come with the Day of the Lord.

Second, it is to this more unseen purpose, to perceive more clearly the truth about the spirits of this world — angels, demons and saints. It is not so that we might study their arts in some dark, obsessive way (that way lies the Sarumanic fall), but so that we might interact with them properly. I am not studying the Kalevala so that I might be able to do battle specifically with some demon (or demons!) who at some point called himself Ukko the sky god. The project is larger than that and not about techniques as though this were some kind of video game. But as Christians we are all exorcists, which means that we have to understand who and what demons are better — not their inner minds, but rather their energies in this world. And we are all being assisted by angels and saints. And we would do better at participating rightly with the spirits obedient to God if we understand that whole world better, to see them as part of our community and ourselves as part of theirs.

So, yes, it seems to me that myths, legends and even fantasy (which is modern myth-making) are not only not inappropriate at a time like this, but needed even more than ever.

3 comments:

  1. Good stuff Father! I look forward to following your journey, because I find this extremely interesting, especially as it connects to us today plus I love medieval fantasy! I may well have to start seeing you as the Orthodox answer to Joseph Campbell.

  2. Oh my gosh…this was so good. So on point to my desire to read novels where there is that battle between good and evil. Thanks for sharing this. Sharing with my son…

  3. Father, your intuition on the difference between what we call history now and the pre-modern understanding is spot on. Especially the sacramental nature of things. Long story but those kinds of stories and the dances of the Native American Southwest are how I first began to appreciate the sacramentality of life.

    The stories do indeed “make present” the life of the people, both seen and unseen. Modern rationalism and utilitarianism have always been contra sacrament.
    That mind is one of the reasons we have such trouble with stuff like COVID. Even we Orthodox tend to look at sacrament as only rituals in the Church.

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