The Medieval Mindset

I read a great opinion piece by David Brooks on the Medieval Mind in the New York Times about a month ago that I’ve been meaning to share. In it, Brooks bemoans the disenchantment that is the hallmark of the modern world. And while modern society has benefited from growing knowledge about the world that surrounds us, we have lost the sense of wonder and magic that seems so pervasive to the medieval worldview.

Brooks notes that, for the premoderns, the night sky was an “intimate and magical place.” The heavens, to them, were a ceiling of moving spheres, rippling with signs and symbols, and moved by the love of God.” C.S. Lewis once noted that the medieval world “was tingling with anthropomorphic life, dancing, ceremonial, a festival not a machine.” For us moderns, it is an expanse of “black, cold, mostly empty vastness, with planets and stars propelled by gravitational and other forces.”

Brooks closes his article by reflecting on writers like C. S. Lewis and John Ruskin who “seized on medieval culture as an antidote to industrialism — to mass manufacturing, secularization and urbanization.”

I sometimes wonder if knowledge must lead to disenchantment. I remember when I was a kid and I looked at the stars in the night sky in blissful ignorance. They looked so beautiful and ethereal in the night sky. I loved gazing at them. I even believed they would grant wishes (thank you Disney Pinocchio). Then a loving adult–I think it was my mom–informed me that the stars were actually just balls of gas. This was, um, not quite so romantic. It was like something snapped in my head. I continued to wonder at the beauty of nature, but it was a little depressing and disenchanting.

People often say that familiarity breeds contempt. I don’t believe this is necessarily true–some things (and people!) you love even more as you get to know them better. But I also think that one of the reasons I love, say, my husband, even more as I spend more time with him, is because I believe he is more (pardon the expression) than just the some of his parts. I think that is one of the most important lessons that we can bring away from our medieval predecessors: there is more to this world than meets the eye.

C.S. Lewis on Technology and Natural Law

“What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.”–C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man

It’s no secret that I love technology. I got my first computer back in University and I’ve hardly looked back since. Email is an indispensable tool. Without Facebook I would never be able to keep in touch with a lot of my friends. I love my ipod too! I wonder how I ever survived riding public transport without it.

Nevertheless, despite my abiding affection for the convenience of technology, I believe it raises serious concerns. I am not prepared to go as far as William Morris, who would have preferred to revert to as technology-free a world as possible. For one thing, even the stone-age utopia described in News from Nowhere includes technological innovations, however basic. Similarly, while I respect the Amish and way of life, I don’t think it’s possible to draw a line in the sand that will determine at which point technology becomes unacceptable (should we draw the line at electricity? Steam engines?). And I don’t think that fleeing from the problem helps us address the root of the problem.

The problem with technology is, as Lewis points out in Abolition of Man, that “each new power won by man is a power over man as well.” For every benefit gained through new technologies, there is a price paid to those in power. For example, Facebook brings us closer to old friends, but this benefit often comes at the cost of our privacy (if you haven’t heard of Beacon yet, give it a google–oh, wait a minute…that just feeds the system!). As Nicholas Carr has pointed out, the web is, at best, amoral. The reality of “man’s power over man” in the world of technology is terrifyingly obvious. And short of homesteading in Alaska or Northern Canada (minus my blog, of course) it’s impossible to escape. So what’s a girl to do? Since I’m not about to give up my laptop, ipod or Facebook, I guess I’ll have to think of another way to come to terms with my consumption of technology.

Back to C.S. Lewis. In The Abolition of Man, Lewis addresses the soul-sucking status of modern education. As Lewis wrote this series of lectures during World War Two, modern educators were busy trying training schoolchildren to see a world stripped of all the emotions and sentiments that might cloud their judgement–to a see a world beyond good and evil where costs and benefits were the ultimate measure of success. If we teach children moral relativity, we shouldn’t be surprised when, Zuckerberg-like, they grow up to invent technologies that spy on us for their own financial gain. In this sense, I would have to pinpoint our liberal democratic educational system as the root of most of our problems as a society, including our runaway technologies. By positing self-interest as the highest good and permitting moral relativism, they promote dangerous narcissism.

What was Lewis’ prescription for the self-interest that represents the malaise of modernity? The Tao, or Natural Law. The Tao is the law in our hearts. It is “the doctrine of objective value” “the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are” (Lewis). Although the notion of the Tao might seem a bit quaint to those of us reared in the school of scientific materialism, it has a lasting appeal that is difficult to escape.

For Lewis, knowledge of the good is the beginning of critical thinking. Before we can properly engage in the modern world, we need to know what is true, good, and beautiful and be able to recognize it when we see it.

Our society has exchanged the mysteries of creation (man’s humanity, in particular) for knowledge about their quantitative processes. This doesn’t mean that we as a society need to reject innovations and attempt to return to a pre-modern way of life. It means that there is value in retaining moral absolutes. Moreover, it means that we as a society need to return to reverence for the value, not only of creation itself, but also of humanity itself. Technological innovations need to be evaluated in terms of their continuity with the law that is written on our hearts and be used in a way that does not violate that law.

Reading Fantasy for Pleasure

The Daily Telegraph printed an excellent essay a few years ago entitled “Tolkien Was not a Writer.” As a huge fan of Tolkien’s work, I was initially a bit put off by the title, but on closer inspection, I found it hard to disagree. As a kid, I found The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings difficult to read, though I soon realized the great payoff as the stories began to take on a new life in my imagination. Tolkien may not have been the world’s greatest, but the power of his storytelling was (and is) incredibly compelling.

I think this is the case with a lot of great fantasy writers. Reading George MacDonald’s Phantastes or William Morris’ The Well at the World’s End is tranporting–whether or not either of these stories would have had a shot at garnering a literature prize. These works have a deeply enjoyable, mythic quality that transcends most forms of literary criticism–something C.S. Lewis really appreciated about them.

In his essay “Toward a Rhetoric of Nineteenth-Century Fantasy Criticism,” Bruce Edwards discusses C.S. Lewis’ treatment of the writings of George MacDonald and William Morris. While Lewis recognized these authors’ shortcomings (he once said “if we define literature as an art whose medium is words, then certainly MacDonald has no place in its first rank–perhaps not even in its second”) he enjoyed reading their work, and sought to have it recognized for its contribution to the mythic tradition. Edwards argues that, unlike many critics, who attempt to “reclaim” literary works by forcing them into popular critical categories (Lewis hotly contested Freudian analysis of George MacDonald’s writing), Lewis sought to “rehabilitate” the writings of Morris, MacDonald and others by appreciating their unique qualities (70).

Image from Kelmscott edition of The Well at Worlds courtesy of University of Glasgow

By the way, you can purchase a gorgeous edition of George MacDonald’s Phantastes through illustrated by Arthur Hughes, the Pre-Raphaelite painter (he and George MacDonald were close friends).

Victorian Fantasy

I finally received a copy of Bruce Edwards excellent essay “Toward a Rhetoric of Nineteenth-Century Fantasy Criticism” from the library today. It is included in a volume of essays entitled The Victorian Fantasists, edited by Kath Filmer and published by St. Martin’s Press. I highly recommend the book as a whole. There are some great essays on William Morris and other great fantasy writers.

I will be doing a more in-depth review of articles from the book later, but I thought the book’s introduction by David Jasper merited some attention as well. While reading it, I had a sudden epiphany: In the same way that many of my favourite fantasy writers use a sort of idealized version of the Medieval period for the setting for their novels, many of today’s fantasists are using the Victorian times as a loose basis for their own fiction (the Steampunk sub-genre of fantasy literature is the best example of this–Golden Compass is the most obvious example of this genre that I can think of–if you’ve read Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels, they are also rather Victorian-inspired).

The nineteenth century is so evocative that I think we are naturally drawn to it. The world of Victorian fantasy was rich partly because of the romance and ritual that permeated everyday life. Bebe over at Peaches and Dreams made reference to this on Saturday, when she was writing about the movie Kate and Leopold. The 19th century was a time filled with ritual and thoughtful contemplation of what might today seem unimportant details. As Bebe notes, “a man spent time learning about the Language of Flowers so that when he sent (or gave) a certain lady a bouquet, his intentions would be clearly defined.” Sadly, she goes on to note that “the rituals are so unlike today, where running into a supermarket for the first plastic-wrapped, turbo-preserved bundle or dialing for a teddy bear mixed assortment is commonplace.” Sad, but true.

Of course, while the 19th century might seem romantic to us today, men like William Morris who actually lived through it were already bemoaning the rapid changes of the industrial revolution. I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective. Do you think fantasy writers in the future will be inspired to write about our generation? Perhaps. I suppose you could say that the Harry Potter series is an example of this, but the stories are so infused with Medieval elements that I think it’s difficult to see them as being very contemporary. In any case, I think both the middle ages and the Victorian era will continue to hold a great deal of romantic power over readers as well as writers. How could they not?

William Morris and C.S. Lewis

I am always surprised at how truly and deeply interconnected my interests are. The other day it occured to me to do a bit of research into the connections between William Morris and C.S. Lewis. I’ve been a great fan of Lewis since I first read The Chronicles of Narnia as a young girl. My interest in William Morris began somewhat later. While I was familiar with his designs and political philosophy from reading books on the Pre-Raphaelites, it was not until my third year in university that I picked up a lovely 1905 edition of his poem The Earthly Paradise at a used bookstore in Olympia, Washington. Since then I have been enamoured with his imaginative writing and impressed with his ability to create modern quest-type fantasies well before they became widespread during the 20th century. Like Lewis and Tolkien, Morris was steeped in Norse and Arthurian legend and he created beautiful and mysterious fantasy novels that have retained popularity among fantasy readers in spite of intense criticism. While Morris prose abilities may have been limited, one can only imagine what he may have been able to produce had he focused on a single enterprise (writing) rather than choosing to develop such a myriad of talents (writer, designer, political activist).

The connection between C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald is well known and has been explored by many writers. However, William Morris’ fiction was an important influence on the work of both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (Tolkien acknowledged Morris’ The House of the Wolfings and The Root of the Mountains as inspiration for The Lord of the Rings).

Lewis first read William Morris after borrowing a copy of The Well at World’s End from his good friend Arthur Greeves. In Lewis’ correspondance with Greeves, Morris is mentioned more frequently than any other author besides George MacDonald (75 times!). In his autobiography, Surprised By Joy, Lewis writes that Morris was his “great author” throughout his youth (source: The Cumberland River Lamp Post). C.S. Lewis later wrote two lectures on the subject of William Morris in which he defended Morris against his literary critics, arguing that “even the sternest of theories of literature cannot permanently supress an author who is so obstinately pleasurable” (source: J.P. Leishman, “Rehabilitation and Other Essays” The Review of English Studies, 1940). It has also been suggested by Robert Boenig that the character of Prince Caspian was in fact based on Morris’ Child Christopher (link to article).

I’m excited to do some more research on the connections between Morris and Lewis. I’ve ordered an essay by Bruce Edwards entitled “Toward a Rhetoric of Victorian Fantasy Criticism: C. S. Lewis’s Readings of George MacDonald and William Morris” which I hope to read very soon. I can’t wait to share my findings!