Thursday, September 15, 2016

Figuralism and Allegory in Tolkien and Lewis

My dear acquaintance Proto wrote a piece about the cosmology of Tolkien and Lewis and its interplay with Christian theology, Medieval context, and the demonic ideology of Dominionism. I wanted to add some additional thoughts:

I grew up with Lewis and Tolkien, like many boys, and fell in love with the stories. This was long before I converted, and in both cases I had little to no understanding of the quite obvious parallels in their works. In the years that I've been a Christian, I've learned to appreciate these fantasies for their interesting cosmological discussions and play in a beautiful world.

However, I want to root my discussion in a brief tiff between Tolkien and Lewis over the latter's Narnia chronicles. Tolkien thought that Lewis was being lazy and not creative with his particular world. At first, when I heard about this, I thought that Tolkien was being a snob. This was a case of intellectual elitism, or literary pride. And, in addition, I chalked this up to Tolkien's lack of evangelistic zeal that motivated Lewis. Narnia was trying to reach more people, bringing down Christian symbols into an easily digestible form. Tolkien was not being a missionary in his fiction.

Or so I thought. I now see problems with this rebuttal of mine. And in a reversal, I think Tolkien was right, though perhaps for the wrong reasons, to disparage Narnia.

The problem with Narnia is with the very fact of its parallels and cosmological paralleling of the Bible. This is the danger with allegory. Best exemplified by St. Paul, allegory is how one situation reveals the Real. Sarah and Hagar show the interplay of God's free city and those who seized upon the promises to build God's promise in their own image, corrupting it. Thus, Hagar becomes the mother of the shackled and the earthy. It is not opened up to God's creative transformation, but is another attempt at Babel. It's man for God, but working against Him.

Allegory is not, in and of itself, bad. But the warning that should be present is the connecting of the Real with historical event. Aesop's allegorical stories may be true or may not be true, but by connecting fantasy through this is to highlight the moralism of the task. It's a kind of argument for the world that exists. But isn't this part of the purpose of the Bible? In some sense, Narnia's function as a tool of evangelism through allegory is an absurd doubling. Why not read of Christ's passion and not Aslan's? Because, as the lion says, "find me in your own world"? It's in this that Narnia functions as a kind of propagandistic fashion. In some ways, that should offend Christian ethics, it is a trick. It's a clever turn.

Despite a previous post highlighting Lewis' spy career, I am not imputing this sort of methodology at the heart of Narnia. But what is the point of Narnia besides a shadow commentary on the inadequacy of the Bible or a kind of shadow evangelism through ignorant parents. The functionalism of modern day Evangelicals, when it comes to art, is disturbing. This explains, perhaps, in part why Evangelicalism can't make good art, as all art functions as propaganda. Narnia is an amended Bible.

I am being harsh, I admit, but I think it's for good purpose. All art makes an argument, that is without a doubt, but there's a difference between art-has-argument and art-is-argument. This is a collapse of any metaphysic of Beauty and denying creation as having any integrity derived from God's will and act. God's pronouncement of good upon the creation is not merely a judgement per Human words, but the fundamental ontological creative-judgement of the Word. It's in such a vein that the Word of God took flesh for the sake of redemption and transformation. Despite whatever Lewis' intentions, Narnia has taken on a major role of a propaganda tool and a replacement Scripture among quite a few Evangelicals. This fits into the kind of domionist-mindset.

However, Tolkien's Middle Earth was different. It took a long time to realize that Middle Earth was shaped by serious Christian convictions. It's because his tale is not an allegory, as I've defined it. Instead, his world provides the backdrop for an interplay of different figures. This is still making an argument as to the Real, but it's in a different key. There is no Christ figure in Middle Earth, but there are different characters that embody the figures that Christ assumes. Tolkien paints a fantastical picture that mixes and matches these figures in ways that explore different angles or themes. This is what makes fantasy good.

This sounds somewhat like Lewis, but Middle Earth is not suppose to be merely another world, colonized with the same narrative. It's different. It instantiates these figures into different contexts and allows a different kind of play. This might be misunderstood as Neo-Platonic, but it isn't necessarily. Christian orthodoxy and Neo-Platonism share a metaphysical commitment to a Real, whether it's the realm of Forms, Emanations or, in the Christian case, the Mind of God. Tolkien is not trying to write another Gospel in this, but is allowing a mind soaked in the figures of Scripture to play and create. Tolkien is arguing for a particular reality, but that's not why he is writing. There's something about Middle Earth that resonates, perhaps, because it merely reflects how things really are or how things ought to be, without trying to replicate particular narratival themes.

Tolkien's reprimand to Lewis that he was too obvious was not an appeal to cleverness only. It also has to do with the very fabric of art. Narnia comes off as an alternative world, whereas Middle Earth is a fantasy. I know the distinction I'm trying to draw is very subtle, but it's important. Aslan pretends to being Christ in a way that Frodo or Aragorn do not and cannot. Narnia ends up turning the Bible on its head as another fictional world. While wisdom, courage, salvation can take form in a wholly fictious world, Christ cannot. Nor should we ask for such, except in the very particularities of His life.

Hopefully, this might help rethink how we assess art, recognize propaganda, and proclaim the Gospel.

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