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.
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 Sun. But 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.