The series so far.
As many of us brought up in the Christian tradition can attest, there is a regrettable familiarity that comes from constant contact with Christianity. This includes everything from the order of service, to the songs we sing, and even to what we read in the Bible. As terrible as it feels to admit this, I don’t think I’m alone in saying that the force of the gospel wears off once in a while. Amazing grace is not so amazing the millionth time you’ve heard it. Speaking of this desensitizing, Bradley Birzer writes that there are many “things we have taken for granted or which have become commonplace.”1
This is not because we have fallen away as apostates, but it is hapless condition of human beings: We need constant refreshing and reminding that we are the recipients of a truly amazing inheritance. Meeting weekly as a body of believers is one way to remind us of the riches that we have in Christ, but repetition doesn’t always do the trick.
In 1947 J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-stories” appeared in a collection published by Oxford University Press. This essay put forth Tolkien’s vision for what fairy-stories2 were and what benefits they could bring to readers. One of his main points included the concept of “recovery.” According to Tolkien, we need to see things, not merely in addition (i.e., week after week), but from a new position. We are characters in a marvelous story, and Tolkien firmly believed that the creation and reading of fairy-stories could awaken us to the wonder of reality.
Tolkien describes this new sense of wonder as a “regaining of a clear view…. We need…to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.” Tolkien continues:
This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”3: 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 colour, 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.
Recovery is a concept Tolkien borrowed from G.K. Chesterton (who himself had picked up the idea from Charles Dickens). One dim and cloudy day, Dickens saw the word mooreeffoc on the window of a door. It was a door he had passed many times, but he couldn’t recall having seen that word there before. However, it took him only a split second to realize that he was viewing the word “coffeeroom” from the other side of the pane.
This startling experience caused Dickens to stop and examine the door, something he would have otherwise had no cause to do. Just as we often do in church, with a ho-hum attitude we tend to look right past the “ordinary” things of life, from the miracle of our beating heart, to the fact that a god once walked among us.4 To use Tolkien’s wording, mooreeffoc “was used by Chesterton to denote the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle.”5
Similarly, when literary critic Cleanth Brooks read the British Romantics, he noticed their “preoccupation with wonder—the surprise, the revelation which puts the tarnished familiar world in a new light”:
In his preface to the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth stated that his general purpose was “to choose incidents and situations from common life” but so to treat them that “ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect.” Coleridge was to state the purpose for him later, in terms which make even more evident Wordsworth’s exploitation of the paradoxical: “Mr. Wordsworth [purposed] to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us …” Wordsworth, in short, was consciously attempting to show his audience that the common was really uncommon, the prosaic was really poetic.6
Because of the Fall, we do not see things as clearly as we should, and for Tolkien, the point of “recovery” was a “return and renewal of health”7—a sort of postlapsarian convalescence. It is true that in regeneration Christ removes the veil from our eyes (2 Cor. 3:16), but just as sanctification is a process, we have a need for a constant removing of the veil—not so much the veil of unbelief as the veil of familiarity. Russian Formalists might have called this process “defamiliarization”—that is, helping familiar ideas or objects appear in a new light.8
To aid in this veil-removal, Tolkien suggests that we “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.”9 C.S. Lewis also recognized the essential nature of “defamiliarization.” In one of his essays, he writes the following, describing our veils of familiarity as “watchful dragons”:
I thought I saw how stories of this kind [fairy tales] could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did I find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.10
In his review of The Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis wrote, “This excursion into the preposterous sends us back with renewed pleasure to the actual.”11 Mythology is a form of reification—making something abstract more concrete or real.
While we’re talking about looking at things from another angle, let’s look at this issue itself from another angle. This fall I am teaching several sections of a freshman writing course at a community college. One of the standard pieces of writing advice I give to students is to write a draft well before the due date, and then give their brains time to forget about it. What often happens during last-minute “revision” is that the student skips over blatant mistakes because he reads what he thinks he wrote—what he meant to write. But when he comes back to the paper once his brain has relaxed and forgotten, he is able to analyze it, as if for the first time. This is why true “revision” (literally, “seeing again”) requires a kind of template reset.
I am not suggesting that we take a break from our Bible study or weekly church meetings. But I am suggesting that mythology can provide this template reset that is necessary to see life afresh with a childlike wonder. Tolkien says that “we need recovery,” and “a taste for [fairy-stories] may make us, or keep us, childish.”12 Even through our reading life we can recover our amazement of grace when we see it again for the first time.13
1 J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2003), p. 38
2 Again, I am using a broad definition of mythology, which includes fantasy, fairy tales, etc.
3 Tolkien’s use of appropriation is different from my use of the word in Part 2.
4 Even the fact that I used a small g for God can make us think of, say, Greek gods. Our jaws would drop if we saw a Greek god walking among us, and that minor lettering change—far from trivializing Christ’s deity—can make us exclaim, with a new sense of astonishment, “Wow—it’s like that!”
5 All of the above Tolkien quotes are from “On Fairy-Stories” in The Tolkien Reader (New York: Del Rey, 1986), pp. 77-78.
6 “The Language of Paradox” in The Well-Wrought Urn (Orlando: Harcourt, 1970), p. 7
7 The Tolkien Reader, p. 77
8 Russian Formalists looked to Tolstoy as their ideal literary artist, a writer who uniquely stripped away the “automatic” feeling (one we often get while mindlessly driving a car) and jolted us into perceiving something familiar as if for the first time. See here for more on this “making strange”
9 The Tolkien Reader, p. 77. Similarly, G.K. Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy (New York: Random House, 2001; p. 51): “[Fairy] tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.”
10 “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said” in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories (New York: Harvest/HBJ, 1975), p. 37
11 Qtd. in Faerie Gold (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2005), p. 278
12 The Tolkien Reader, p. 77