Catholicism and Fantasy

Today is the feast day of St. Severian, a martyr of the Fifth century AD, having taken part in the Council of Chalcedon, and thus the triumph of Orthodoxy.

One of my favorite authors named the main character of his series ‘Severian,’ probably after the Saint. Other names he uses are Dorcas and Thecla, (really cool) names of other, lesser known saints. The author, Gene Wolfe, is a Catholic convert from Texas, who also, bizarrely, invented the machine that makes Pringles. Small world.

His books are incredible, and meditate on some of the stranger and more difficult teachings of the Church. He is a captivating and elusive writer, full of erudition and surprise, and also a very masculine writer. All here who enjoy Tolkien should strongly consider reading The Book of the New Sun. The Book of the New Sun, which includes four books and a coda, is about a professional torturer who is ousted by his guild for an act of mercy to wander the Urth (millions of years in the future, when the sun is fading) meting out executions, meeting aliens, and learning magic. That’s making it sound boring. And I won’t spoil anything else. If this was a fifties movie teaser I would shout, “Romance! Murder! Thrills! Anthropophagy!” And unlike a fifties movie teaser, this would all be actually true and even fall short of the mark.

What is it about Catholics and fantasy? Tolkien was perhaps the most important fantasist of our age, invented the modern form. But Gene Wolfe takes pages from his book (no pun intended), and writes similarly rich and sweeping, haunting and mysterious works that meditate on the teachings of the Church without writing directly about theology. The most important book I’ve read on Tolkien is Bradley Birzer’s J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, which demonstrates that Tolkien’s Catholicism did more to motivate the plot and purpose of h is Lord of the Rings Legendarium than any other factor. Of course, much can be said to Tolkien’s fascination with high modernist literary works from great poets like Eliot, and his very obvious love, respect, and knowledge of pre-Christian Northern European culture. But it was his humble and persistent love of Christ, especially as present in the Eucharist, that formed the structure of our beloved literature. 

Tolkien

I would argue the same for Gene Wolfe, although not many post-modern literary critics would not understand where I am coming from. They like to focus on Wolfe’s literary wizardry rather than his obvious moral worldview that seeps through each page. But while Tolkien uses Catholic salvation history to inform LOTR, Wolfe uses the Catholic worldview. Every moment and person and object and symbol is filled with God (known as the Increate in the books). And being thus filled, Severian is constantly reminded that we humans are not in control of even the most supposedly human things: “We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges… The would-be sorcerer alone has faith in the efficacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all.”

The modern world, especially in Western European countries and the Americas, is desperately trying to simultaneously destroy and reclaim an enchanted worldview. The popularity of fantasy literature attests to this desire; and the fact that fantasy frequently carries a ‘medieval’ atmosphere hints that even stylishly agnostic modern teenagers feel ‘nostalgia,’ a word that refers to the disease of “severe homesickness,” for a Catholic world. Interestingly, the world portrayed in most fantasy books–even if it feels ‘medieval’–is a de-Christianized world. But the imaginary reaching out to Christ through beauty, through story, and through song is at the very heart of Catholic fantasists like Tolkien and Wolfe. There is nothing indulgent about them (reading one page of Wolfe’s terse, scholarly, and hauntingly beautiful prose will convince you of that), and reading works of such majesty reminds me frequently that the Christian world is beautiful as well as good and true.

In many ways, the word ‘fantasy’ is a misnomer. All fiction is fantasy. Wolfe and Tolkien write authored myths.
Like I said, I would highly encourage all here to read Wolfe’s masterpiece, The Book of the New SunBut many of his other works (okay, all of his other books) are worth reading. All are informed and structured on the moral teachings of the Church, and even the most obscure are fascinating, intoxicating reads.

Perhaps that is one way to bring people to Christ and His Church. To show them not only the intellectual rigor of Catholic teaching, nor only the goodness of the Catholic life, but also the haunting beauty of an enchanted worldview–the terrifying and dignifying roiling storm of significance that engulfs us and cries out from every mouth, be it human, animal, or stone: worship the Lord thy God, who made thee.

 St. Severian, pray for us, that we may walk gently and eloquently in the Truth.

3 comments

  1. I’ve heard a lot about Gene Wolfe and I think after reading this post I must get myself down to the local library check out his books! The fact that Catholicism and fantasy are so closely intertwined shows that this mighty religiously tradition makes sacral even the imaginative process itself, producing creations shot through with its immutable teachings. The works by Lewis, Tolkien, MacDonald etc seem themselves ageless because of their higher origin.

  2. Dominic Vieira · · Reply

    I have not read Wolfe’s books, but I infer from this article that they are closer in kind to C. S. Lewis’ style of fantasy than that of J. R. R. Tolkien.

    Chesterton argued for a re-appraisal of Catholic beliefs, not in kind, but in understanding — seeing the uniqueness of man and the infinite uniqueness of Christ through a detached examination. To see all things as new. Lewis seems to have heeded this advice more so than Tolkien. Lewis’ work is often so close to the reality of the Christian faith, that his works are seen as allegorical, despite his protestations to the contrary. Tolkien is also subject to this threat of allegorical interpretation, despite his adamant rejection if such allegations. Nonetheless, his works are remarkably pertinent. As Tolkien explained, the reader sees the applicability of certain real truths and principles in the fantasy, without their having been explicitly referred to by the author. George Macdonald was of a similar mind. Having read his works, the correlation of ideas is startling.

    I am nonetheless intrigued by Wolfe’s work, and will certainly read them — if for no other reason than to examine this hypothesis. Thank you for a revealing article.

  3. Eiruamun,
    I think you are correct about a sacramental worldview making the imagination holy–but remember it is not the only thing that is holy. There is a firm but slippery line between fantasy and theatre on the one hand and meditation and liturgy on the other. It is the Eucharistic world we live in as Catholics that sacralizes not only the imagination, but also the body, the spoken word, and reason. Catherine Pickstock has an excellent book about the spoken word called *After Writing.* In it, she refers to all words being made holy because all words are an act of worship. She calls this the ‘Doxologic.’
    Dominic,
    Wolfe’s fantasy mirrors Tolkien’s style more than Lewis’, especially in that it is meant for adults only. Although truly, since the books in the Solar Cycle are written mostly as first-person accounts, they are in a class all their own, striking a new road for Christian fantasy as a genre. Also, we should not forget that although Lewis was totally steeped in a Christian worldview, there are moments and passages in his writing that mirror more closely Protestant/Esoteric Renaissance Humanism than Catholicism. It is important to remember that especially when reading the Space Trilogy. He is not totally within Orthodoxy, while Tolkien wrote completely within the possibility space of orthodoxy. I would say Wolfe is very Chestertonian, although he does not emphasize the uniqueness of Man–unlike Lewis, who I would say overemphasized it. Wolfe instead sees man as the thoroughly unremarkable yet inexplicably necessary agent of redemption. I think this is closer to an Orthodox view of Man: an animal–gifted by consciousness but only *ennobled* by the grace of Christ’s glorious presence in our own flesh and blood.

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