Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Moving on the Earth

Moving on the Earth
Ken Craven

            Nathaniel walked on into the fall of the year, gathering twigs and thistles and cockleburs on the ancient winter frock coat his father had worn when he walked in the fields.  He moved deliberately through the wasted, scrubby knob farms that lay to the east where James said the land was so damned poor with juniper and man-high anthills that jackrabbits carried packs when they crossed it.
            Nothing and no one stopped him.  Sometimes he walked right through tenant yards and cabins, striding through hog killings and marble games and wood chopping and the putting up of jams and jellies and whatnot.  Before people had time to react, he was out of the yard and the house and into a field or down a road or railroad track.  There were some small eruptions—whup! what!  this one or that one starting to take offense—before people sensed that from this gaunt, bearded strider with the wide eyes there was none.  Most saw that he was a man of troubles and let him be.  Once in a while he would stop in a house or barn—walking right through kitchens or milking pens—and pick something up, a pan or a sickle, and turn it over in his long fingers as if he’d never seen anything like that before.  Children and dogs gave way quietly, showing neither fear nor threat, guessing he was bout some serious and necessary business.  When women looked up from their shucking or sewing or soap making, they saw sorrow trailing from him like broken cobwebs.
            Sometimes he was gone from home for a few days—sleeping in ditches and barns, Aunt Ish said, like he had no home, like a common tramp—and some Salt River farmer, figuring someone ought to fetch him where he belonged, would take him by the arm and haul him into Bardstown and leave him by the slave auction block beside the court house, where he would stand like a penitent, staring across the square, until someone got word over to Woodlawn and James, clicking his tongue, would come for him.  Other times the monks at Gethsemane would see him cross their lands, a stalking partner in their silent work, his gangly arms swinging slow and his thin hands dangling from his wrists; or he would go thirty miles the other way, to the big mother house at St. Catherine’s or the priory of St. Rose, and the nuns or Dominican priests would see him—ghastly and sallow and so miseried of face that he rivaled the big Jesus hanging in the apse—standing up in the middle of the aisle during the consecration, his arms at his sides, his head bowed, “as if he was trying to find a place to turn himself in,” James said, “and I wish to hell he would.  I’m tired of hauling him around like a sack of feed.”  “He’s walking it out,” Jefferson on the dock at the feed store said, “whatever it be, whatever they done to him over in that place, him and God walking it out.” 
            When he had first come back from France it was still deep summer—mindless days when the land steamed in haze, warm nights when people slipped out in their yards to sleep on quilts under big moons—before the late thunderstorms brought the creeks back up.  They didn’t know he was coming. The foreman at the section house sent a colored boy up the road to say Marse Nathaniel was come home from over there and was sot down on a bench where the milk train from Louisville left him. When James got down there the foreman said the train had put him out like a piece of freight, the baggage tag was still tied to one of his button holes, and he was just sitting on the bench, staring off somewhere.  Miss Carrie came over to help James clean him up and after struggling with him for a day—handling his arms and legs was like folding and unfolding a large scarecrow—they laughed and cried at the same time, hugging each other and the bearded ragdoll brother and cousin and joking about where to prop him up next.  James said put him in the cornfield to get them crows out but then he choked and went to the barn, cussing every rock on the way. For a while Miss Carrie stayed and sat by her cousin’s side and did her piece work.  After coming over to James’s porch and trying this a few days and spooning soft-boiled eggs into Nathaniel and watching them dribble down his shirt front, she would sit by his side and do her piece work as neighbors walking down the street waved with that attitude that says what, I don’t know, Carrie told James, but I hate the worrisome solicitude.  Go home and take care of your own, she hissed, with all this flu going around, you’ll soon enough have troubles of your own.  After a few days, she tried putting some of his books in his hands but he let them fall on the floor.  She played the mandolin and sang songs and fussed at him, “Nathaniel, you could at least speak or look at me.”  But he stayed where he was, staring into some other place.
            It puzzled them that Nathaniel showed up at the station wearing what looked like mission barrel hand-me-downs instead of his army uniform.  And if he was sick or wounded, how come he wasn’t in some hospital?  There were no answers.  James went down to the county newspaper but all he could find out was that the hospitals in Lexington and Louisville were choked with veterans and influenza victims and he came back home more disgusted that he usually was.  Maybe, someone said, he was already in a hospital and they put him out too.  He can walk, can’t he?
            For weeks he sat wherever James put him.  He would eat enough to keep bone and fat together, he would do his necessaries, James told Dr. McCarty who was too busy with the flu to do more than nod, but he would not speak or give any sign that he heard.  When led, he went; when stopped, he stood or sat.  His face was a mask and his eyes in a deep study.  But when the late summer rains came and the creeks swoll out of their banks he suddenly got up in the middle of the “worst straight-down flood of the goddamned century, walked out of the house and into the fields behind the tobacco warehouses, moving like he had somewhere to get,” James told the farmers at the sorghum mill.  “At the first I tried to stop him.  I’d throw him down in the street and Carrie would get ahold of him.  He wouldn’t fight us but when we let go, he’d spring up and walk away from us like a shot, rain notwithstanding, sense notwithstanding, not a damn thing notwithstanding. So we followed and watched him for a while and then let him go.  He stopped for horses and Fords and trains, so we figured somehow he knew what he was doing.”
            “Or,” he added, looking down at his boots and tugging his ear, “so I reckon.”
            Nathaniel walked.  He walked from first light until after dark, getting drenched in the heavy cloudbursts that ended the parched summer and drying out in the sun like the stubbled fields and dirt roads. Carrie saw him pass the L&N section house by Aunt Sukey’s spring three times in one day, each time from a different direction.  He walked steadily through late August and September but he would stop sometimes in barns and on people’s porches and sit, looking away somewhere as if he were expecting something,  until there were bowls of soup in his hands or shawls on his shoulder where this one or that one would coax him by a stove to steam off his clothes.  He still said nothing.  One man found him fallen in a ditch by the cheese factory and “howling out these long despairing wails that sounded like no pain I’d ever want to know.” So they said to each other, the ones that heard him.  But quiet, guarded, nodding, they let him be, and tended him as much as he would let them.
            In October the hunting for rabbits and quail started and more than one hunter told of the wild-haired, wild-eyed man in a long coat who walked up and snatched the shotgun from their hands and threw it away.  James followed this trail for a while, explaining, making peace, talking it out on his haunches with a piece of straw in his mouth.
            Then there was a silence.  After a week during which no one came forth or brought Nathaniel back, James went looking, cussing and snorting.  He went east and west, asking, but no one had seen his brother.  The goldenrod was blooming in the meadows, and heavy washboard clouds made him look up and shiver.  Got to get him laid up for the winter, he found himself thinking.  Finally he went south and east through Gravel Switch to see if the Prophet—his new name for his brother—had gone back into the knob country.  At last he found him in a colored shanty town by an unused railroad siding.
            The tale James told the stove sitters at the McCabe General Store in Woodlawn was, generally, this: that he heard a strange white man “with the promise” in a long coat and beard was living with the niggers and figured, yes, why the hell not, he’s done everything else.  It was a Sunday when he got there,  a cold November day with a little sleet tatting on the shanty roofs, and the first thing he saw when he opened the door to the little church was Nathaniel sitting up next to the preacher and the barrel stove, slapping his hands on his knees and singing in a croaky baritone, “Walking in Jerusalem Just Like John,” and smiling around.  When the service was over, “Nathaniel came out with niggers handing all over him and petting him like he was Jesus himself.”
            “I walked up and said, ‘Nate, time to go home now,’ and he looked at me right in the eye for the first time since he got back, and said ‘this will do for now, Brother James, this will do for now.’ And then, just after I got back in the T, he came over and patted me on the leg. ‘My books,’ he said, ‘please send my books.  And give my love to Carrie.’”
            That was it, James told them in Woodlawn. “I reckon he knows what he’s doing down there.  But anyhow, he’s got a warm place for the winter even if he is eating hog parts and drinking chicory like any jig.”

©Copyright 1992 Ken Craven


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The review below was written in 1979.  Young readers today may have difficulty recognizing many in the cast of characters, but I hope they will see that the nightmare of the present time has been with us for a long time, and the issues of our day are monstrous, putrid blossoms from sick seeds sown long ago.  Our Lady, pray for us!

Dark Night, Black Hopes

The Death of Christian Culture, by John Senior. Arlington House, Publishers: 165 Huguenot St., New Rochelle, N.Y. 10801. $10.00.

Reviewed by Dr. R. Kenton Craven

The last year has brought us a number of books that ought to serve as town criers to the West. While we have had a veritable tradition of such warnings throughout the modernist era--Chesterton, Benda, Ortega, Eliot, Tate, Voegelin, Burnham, et al.—I don't believe that there has been a time since the Thirties in which alarums have been sounded more insistently or in such happy profusion. The recent crop, taken together, is reminiscent of the coalition that formed the American Review (1933-37); it includes the subject of this review, John Senior's The Death of Christian Culture; Jacques Ellul, Betrayal of the West (Seabury,1978); Arianna Stassinopoulos, After Reason (Stein & Day, 1978); Joan Colebrook, Innocents of the West: Travels Through the Sixties (Basic Books, Inc., 1979); and Russell Kirk, Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Learning (Gateway, 1979). The points of view differ greatly.  Senior is a Catholic with medieval foundations, Ellul a Calvinist, and so forth, but each has glimpsed the future that is already here, and seen its desolation of spirit, and each calls for a return to the values of the West.

Ordinarily, such a statement might seem jejune, to be marked by the teacher as "generalization! which West?" But the point is that in these extraordinary times, when the threat is to the very existence of the West, with all its inner contradictions, the crisis must be stated in Tolkien's terms: the Men of the West v. Eastern Mordor. Though he disagrees with them radically, Senior can find Hume and Voltaire closer to his basic assumptions than Kung or Russell. The question is, can the West survive? Have we gone so far that we cannot return? In To Jerusalem and Back, Saul Bellow wondered whether we do not all "go about lightly chloroformed," while a "dark power" enslaves our thinking. This loss of perception of what we are now in relation to what we have been exercises the wits of each of the authors, and summons apocalyptic moods and rhetoric. Belloc had laid it down that "Europe is the Faith, the Faith is Europe." The New Humanists were willing to reform the proposition to "the West is a set of moral standards and limitations," though they were mightily_ excoriated by the late Allen Tate for this reduction. But even this rarefied formula has become increasingly repugnant or incomprehensible before the triumph of a night-marish modernism which seems, as both Senior 'and Ellul observe, to have seized the minds of even the· best thinkers with a perversity that looks upon everything Western as outmoded and discredited. Colebrook and Stassinopoulos join Senior and Ellul in wondering at what James Burnham called "the suicide of the West,” while Kirk drolly reviews the self-destruction of the intellect in a disintegrating culture.

It is against this background that Senior writes, his academic concerns at one with his life as a teacher. Since the book first appeared last January, it has been taken to task by several reviewers, as well as some readers, for what is perceived as a difficult, annoying, even perverse style. I confess that I have not had this problem in reading him, perhaps because I can identify so readily with the spirit of anger and exasperation which informs his lively prose: daily in my teaching I encounter the same problem which exercises both his and Ellul's wrath-a matter-of-fact assumption that "all that" has been left behind us in the kitchen-midden of the West, that now we are embarked on a new journey in spaceship Earth, or in in a new lifestyle in the global village commune, where all the religious, and epistemological assumptions of the past are obsolete or quaint. Perhaps some of my readers can identify with the urge to clenched fists and battle cries in the spirit of Roland. In The Way Down and Out, a much earlier book by Senior, he wrote “perhaps in the end we shall be reduced to a set of clenched teeth." While no means been so reduced, he has (like Ellul) been angered, and his prose has an urgency about it born of trying to contend with epidemic error and general fog. When one is encircled by Dark Riders, it is no time for the polite nothings of the university presses.

Nevertheless, Senior's book is not hysterical; quite the contrary, its arguments are cogent and sound. It is what he has the audacity to say that is unpalatable to reviewers. He commonly returns us to first principles in the spirit of his mentors, Belloc, Cardinal Newman, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Plato. In relation to the seriously confused ecumenical movement, he offers Aristotle's Principle of Contradiction; to those hankering after Eastern mysticism, a clear discussion of the metaphysical opposition of East and West; to those confused about Church and State in education, a refreshing discussion of the difference between true and false liberalism. Beginning with a question, "What is Christian Culture?" Senior examines the idiocies of the current scene for topsy-turvy revaluations of all values and a perverted sense of compassion, and begins a contrast which he uses effectively throughout the book, between the jaded decadence of fashionable thinking and the basic premises of Chris­tian Western man, grounded in love, work, family. realist metaphysics, prayer, and God.

Perhaps the best and most needed section of the argument is the pursuit of the "modem" at its roots. For Senior, the Modernist movement in literature and culture begins precisely where it ends—Rimbaud and Baudelaire do not differ essentially from Ginsberg and Co.—for they commence by rejecting and hating the West and, with inexorable predictability, proceed to a love of the East which, as Senior analyzes with skill, is nothing but a love of the nothingness that is not there. Historically we may observe the accuracy of Senior's thesis, from Plato's struggle with the sophists to Paul's with the Corinthians to the romantic's pursuit of the lotus to the streetcorner gurus and befuddled theologians of the 1970s. What is characteristic of the East is gnosticism, and disbelief in the concrete individual thing or person, and when the West falters in its first principles, it opens itself to that invasion of that spirit in every dimension of its existence—religion, family, art, education, work, language—which men like Augustine and Voegelin have fought so well. Senior challenges the comfortable orthodoxies of the "modern tradition," and the scriptures (Joyce, Proust, Lawrence, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Rimbaud, etc.) on which it founds its anti-church. We have not seen such literary irreverence since Chesterton: it is delightful to have it from a professor of classics who knows the modern world very well indeed.

        Senior's attack on the popular assumptions of the time proceeds through many topics, but his progress is also a regress—to the first principles of philosophy and the Christian Catholic Faith, and its greatest exemplification in the medieval period, which he opposes to the current corruption in the Church as in the "philosophical imbecility of Hans Kung." The cure for this latterday nonsense Senior sees as no different, for church or society, from what it has always been when the Dark Ages threaten—monastic centers of contemplation and education. Drawing on the basic principles of monastic education, he makes an eloquent plea that centers based on these principles be at least permitted existence in the modern university, a gentlemanly allusion to his own embattled Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas (see Russell Kirk's report in Decadence and Renewal, pp. 325-328). As for the church, it too must return to its monastic center. In “Dark Night of the Church,” he remarks that there is little hope for the Visible Church, that we have no reason now to be Christians except the right ones, the true ground of hope.

       While I agree generally with the conclusion as with the mood of the argument, I wonder if the bulk of the book was not written before the accession of John Paul II. As I write, the Pope is in Poland, that beautiful country that has survived Munich, Yalta, Potsdam. Addressing his fellow countrymen, John Paul argued that Poland is of the West because it is Christian, and he called for a reuniting of the Christian West. Turning from the TV, I found this passage in GK's Weekly, No. 2, March 28, 1925:

Certainly that nation has proved itself perpetual under conditions when it was thought that anything would have perished. And if indeed we come to a chaos in which it seems that everything has perished, if this Semitic sophistry does link up the Teutons with the Slavonic hordes, if there returns that welter of barbarism which Europe has often seen, many who do not now understand may find themselves saying, if only under their breath, "there is always Poland.”

Thus Chesterton. We may observe that, as far as Poland was concerned, the Germans and Russians did unite to crush it, and crush it again. To Senior's witty chapter, "Black is Beautiful," in which black becomes symbolic of the real thing, we may add the hope of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. Malachi Martin has written that the future of the Church is in the East, not in the West, where Christianity has been trivialized or diluted, to which Senior would, I believe, reply—“of course, where the West is clearly understood to be on the front lines, and knows its enemy."

Reprinted with the permission of Gerald Russello of the University Bookman.  Thanks to Robert Craven for computer assistance in rescuing the text.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

A Writer’s Litany

by Ken Craven

Lord,  that we may pray like brooks and books,
Our words and wishes clear and wild,
That we may pray in Spirit and in Truth
In pebbles cracking down in streams
In words in tongues in improbable shouts
Lord, have mercy upon us
A serpentine tribe of Dan mingled with your people,
Poets whose vindictive hearts long for thee
Poets who need thy lightning and thy terrible silence.

That we may kneel down in the street in the rain
Mad and prayerful as Kit Smart
(Lord bless his cat Geoffrey and his whisking)
Doomed Doctor Johnson at our side
Dour and holy in his written prayers
Surprising in love with the chained madness he feared
My we kneel with them, doctors of raging hope,
Streams of cool grace running down our faces
Lord we pray for simplicity of mind

That we may chirp tune like Cary—Joyce—
Rejoicing in the foolishness of literary crickets
That we may worry less about small sins
Like Gulley Jimson, genius and good thief,
Hot for new canvas and for her
And pray hard running from the Law
Laughing in flight from Pharisees
For the forgiveness of the large sins
Of art its presumption and pride
Lord we pray for merriness of heart

That we may listen hard for angels
Clinking in tea things and engraver’s tools
Like Bill Blake mad hungry for vision
For a gift God will not give
Prophetic freedom from the law
(Lord, bless his hubris and his delight)
That we may listen for the grace of tiger roar
That we may establish Jerusalem green and free
That we may speak with angels in our living rooms
And watch for devils in the streets and malls
Lord we pray for poems acid-deep on copper plates
Lord we pray for poems sure as swords of iron

That we may sit on florid streets and watch
For the right license plate
The right true sign before we turn and amble
In our white linen suit up the steamed verandah
To write of power and glory and dark Scobied hearts
And tangled vines of sin and grace
Greene, generous green in knowledge of the cross
Where he wrote and watched
Men rage into the Jesus arms outstretched
In unimagined ways and wretched jokes
Where he saw men scheme destruction
Like boys after wars, hungry for evil
In the falling towers and bombed streets
Lord we pray for the heart of the matter

That we may sling stones and curves
At death, carve firm letters spelling
Out our graceful doom in holy prayer
One eye cocked at sex in eternal joy
Fixed in stone, fecund words,
Dominic preaching in Eric Gill
Rough street man from Nazareth
Whence comes nothing smarmy good
But only necessary rules and few
Lord we pray for poems that stand and prophesy like tombs

That we may sweep forth on swing
With Hopkins priest, his lilting hope and loss—
Hang heavy hard hammers on cynghanned and crack
Unstopped unEnglish lines like rattling Welshland wagon tongues,
Unleash all-colored all-efflorescent prayers that
Open buds and hearts and greyveiled storms where
Dying nuns affirm their King, Hope-hefting,
Storm walking on all-apocalyptic waves
Saving each  soul, each, with words wrung hard
From saw and awl and awe-struck pins
In a small shop, at dawn, in a poor town.
That we may follow Lord in fallow days
Lord let us pray for words that buckle like diving birds.

That we may pound tables in the dining halls
And settle, unsettle Manichees and monks
With sentences that spell doom and resurrection
That we may be wholly one in tongue and mind
Deep as the water that pours out the words of wave
Hot as the iron brand that Thomas burnt into the door
Spurning all enticements to turn and write
Of worship small or meretricious
That we may always measure by the Monstrance
And test our tiny offerings against
The words that make us kneel and sing
O Salutaris Hostia, Tantum Ergo, Panis Angelicus
Golden honeyed eternal poems
That we may write such and sing such
Lord let us learn speech in silence let us learn

That we may in heart and soul hear the
Sagas of Undset, wry tales of O’Connor
Know the endless turnings of the demons’ ways
And feel  them turning in subtle coils
In every move we make, in every prayer
We dare to offer:  that in tales of Olaf and
Kristin and Lavrans and Hazel and Tarwater
We see ourselves, good country people of
The fijords and backwaters of kudzu and lime,
And know the first country, the slithering
Come-ons of the first serpent, the taste
Of fruit that concealed the blade of razor bite
The ringing of the axe of revenge
The wilderness of the South and North
The Nazis come to Sweden, Sherman to Georgia
Lord, that we may pray not to be taken by surprise.

That we may learn heart from connatural men
Who trusted in the line, the word, the taste and touch
Of time, who held sentences like guns and rods
And felt the pull of old men and the sea, of tigers
And rhinoceri, of the tough wrenching of sails and rope,
Of the big guns and dazzled eyes and red dawns
That we may learn from Hemingway and Campbell
From Pound and Kipling, Buchan and Faulkner,
Conrad and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Melville
And miners and sailors and cowboys and men of steel who
Left letters or journals or scrawls on underground walls
All who wrangled with dust or felt the thwart of wind
Whose forbears axed the tree that made the cross
And were loved by the carpenter who graced the tree
That we may know the earthly sacraments
Of tried and true and plank roads to the fort
Prophetic emptiness in gated openings for grace
The astonishment of loss, the fields of rotting soldiers
That we may know the love of sentences like taut wire
Lord, we pray for honesty like men lost on rafts at sea

©Copyright 2014  R. Kenton Craven 

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Once Upon a Time

Once Upon A Time

Ken Craven

Love’s feet are stained with clay and travel-sore.   Francis Thompson, “House of Bondage.”

I could never conceive or tolerate any utopia which did not leave me the liberty for which I chiefly care, the liberty to bind myself    G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Once upon a time—how soon? I can’t say—a steam locomotive rolls down the track in the heavy morning fog, spraying a morning rime of frost into the half-frozen creek and screeching to a stop just before an old C&O tunnel. In other days, it would have been an odd place for a stopping, just between two ridges so steep that the railroad cut had probably taken a year to carve sometime in the Unholy Past, as the people here call it. The creek turns aside at the tunnel mouth and runs off into an old field of boulders where it disappears. It has not come far, only from the next community two miles down the track. Wooden flats, really old mine elevators, descend on swinging cables and the unloading goes quickly. We are on the end of the line, not much left in the cars. Soon the flats disappear upwards and the train, an old coal-fired switch engine and three cars, one of them a caboose, rolls slowly into the tunnel and shuts down. There is time for the smoke to pass off before the fog goes. A successful run, using the night and the mountain fog as cover from the rare spotter plane.

Only a few flats are needed. There doesn’t seem to be much food or much else coming lately from the friendly guerrillas who scour the Interstates. Probably too many patrols. Even the Pakistani truckers or their shotguns are carrying shoulder-fired missiles now. That may be just as well, as I told Father Penance last night. We must become more self-reliant this year. For the time being, at least, the World State has too much on its hands in dealing with Islamia to worry about a few Christian cranks in the hills. Their chief concern is making their own world. Later, they may have other plans.
I walk back to where Brother Gregory ministers to the handful of refugees that were brought up in the caboose. Most of the others up that came up on the train from the Kanawha River left the boxcars in the lower communities where they are better equipped to deal with young families—traditional Catholics, Orthodox, and evangelicals—fresh from the other states. Here we specialize, as I had learned when I first came ten years ago, in helping refugees who have escaped from processing centers of World State V, those still in partial shock from the aggressive retraining. As usual, they all look healthy and perfectly normal. Even their eyes betray little terror or anxiety.

A bright-looking young man approaches. The others, two men and three women, seem to regard him as their spokesman. We introduce ourselves, I tell them I’m Father Schall. The spokesman is Ted; the other men Ben and Simon; the women Frances, Cheryl, and Dawn. I explain that I usually walk newcomers back up to the settlement, built on the site of an old coal company town, which is now accessible only by a path. The road is long since gone from strip-mining, and it’s not even on most old maps. I don’t tell them that the walking has a purpose, maybe several. For one, I want to watch their reactions.

After we cross an abandoned narrow gauge railroad bridge over Decision Creek, I invite them to sit on some boulders.

“Why have you come here?” I ask.

 The others look at Ted, who gives the first sign of his emotions.

 He looks around as if the small hollow contains thousands of watchers. The others exchange looks with him.

“I can tell what you’re doing, Ted. You’re wondering what you’re supposed to say.”

“Supposed to say?”

“Yes, what is the correct thing to say?”

“What would that be?” Ted nearly growls, then lowers his head.

I laugh softly. “Anyone else?”

“You might have had better food on the train,” the small one named Dawn says suddenly.

“Might have,” I say.

“Look, we can go back you know,” Cheryl says. She fairly spits at me.

“Yes, I know. And that is why I have stopped here. I always stop newcomers here so they can consider their decision. If you wish, you can start walking down the track. It’s only a hundred miles to the first federation outposts on the Ohio. I repeat, why did you come? You would not be here if you had not given a sign to one of our people up North. And given it more than once. Something must be wrong with your existence up there.”

“You’re asking us a question, aren’t you?”

The broad-shouldered one named Simon cuts in. “I’ve heard about that. “A question,” he says again, as if saying a new phrase in a foreign language. “Socrates asked those,” he says with some satisfaction.

“You’re the one who attended one of our secret classes in Boston,” I say quietly.

“Your people didn’t tell us about that. They said we would have freedom down here,” Cheryl shouts at me. “They said there would be choices in our lives if we came with you.” She shivers and clutches her jacket.

“There is only once choice to be had here,” I say, glancing briefly at Frances, who is pulling her coat down and scratching her tattooed shoulder.

I looked down at the rushing creek. “Last summer here I saw a hummingbird hover over a flower at the water’s edge. Like the bird’s movement to the flower, its sweetness and color and taste. That’s not choice exactly, but it carries its inner similitude.”

“That sounds like something I heard once. A friend of mine who is here no more said it was some kind of Zen poem,” said Simon.

“Something like that.”

“I don’t care about that s___. I care about the freedom you guys promised. Hellooooo???? Wasn’t that the deal?” It’s Cheryl again, turning and making as if to leave, squinting back across the bridge into sun, which is burning the last frost off the tracks.

“Let me ask a question. Dawn, let me ask you.”

She stops and looks at me as if I had made a proposition.

“What is marriage?”

It is like pushing a button. Her eyes become pinpoints.

“Marriage, if by that you mean the outmoded practice of one person of the male gender mating for life with one person of the female gender, often under some sort of neo-fascist religious authority, is an artificial mental fiction used by the power classes for the purpose of social stability. This artificial union provided a legitimacy for sex and often resulted in high-risk offspring.”

“Now you have told me what you have been taught by the deconstructionists. Do you agree with that proposition?”

“I told you, what’s to agree?”

“I’m asking whether or not you think that definition of marriage—or rather that non-definition—is true?”

I can tell that there is restlessness in the group, as if I had thrown a small bomb in their midst, so I change tack.

“Okay, let’s go back to the first question. What do you want here? What do you want from me? Our Father Richard told me that you really wanted to try this . . . .”

“Wait.” Frances speaks for the first time. “That stuff about marriage. Marriage is only a metaphor. We live by metaphors. Everything is only a metaphor. That’s what she said, my teacher.”

“That we can see into things by virtue of metaphor, I would agree,” I reply. “That things are only metaphors and only mental fictions is a symptom of the radical disease of relativism from which the World State—and your teachers—are suffering. And you. The 20th century author Susan Sontag wrote many books on cancer and AIDS as metaphors and when she realized that her bone-marrow cancer transplant had failed, she screamed in outrage, ‘but that means I am going to die!’ As death came near, she told her son, ‘this time, for the first time, I don’t feel special.’”

“Gross,” Cheryl says. “We don’t say ‘death’ anymore. We just go into the Oneness.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“It‘s getting on toward our prayer and mid-day meal,” I say.

“Briefly, what we offer here is not teaching so much as un-teaching. We try to get you out of the diseased state of mind you’re in and lead you into the real. All I can promise you is that it’s hard, that freedom comes with a price that costs not less than everything, and that includes pain and suffering. If you’ve read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, you have a choice to make now between the life of the World State—a life based on forgetting, pleasure, and general mindlessness, a life based on acedia, one of the seven deadly sins first catalogued by the Desert Fathers in the 5th century AD—and a life that is more like that of the Savage, who in his self-accepted pain discovers Time, Death, and God.” To Ben’s questioning eyes, I add, “acedia means without care, or not caring. It is the sin of sloth.”

“That’s why I came,” Ben says. “Because I am tired of not being able to care about anything except the next fun thing. Because it’s like there is a hole in me somewhere, bit I don’t know what to do about it. Sometimes it seems as if I am supposed to do something, but I don’t know what. That’s why I ran, I got tired of the constant watching, and them saying over and over, ‘nothing means anything except what the World State says.’”

“If you have discovered the hole in yourself, you are ready for change,” I tell him. “When some people in the early 20th century glimpsed what was coming in the Unholy Age, they retired to a community very much like ours. Like a famous poet they prayed, ‘teach us to care/and not to care. Teach us to sit still.’ What one must learn is what to care about and what not to care about. That is the whole of true education. That is what you have not learned.”

“You mean we don’t know anything now?” The voice is that of Frances, and plaintive now.

“What is worse, you think you do. What we have in the community on the other side of the ridge is a little University of What Is and What Is Not. Unless you want to turn back now and go back to the nation you came from, let’s continue the discussion after prayer and a meal. Maybe a little rest.”

No one moves until I do. Then, slowly, like men condemned to a life sentence, they follow me up the path. I can hear Cheryl and Ben exchanging the kind of peevish comments tired travelers make.
 “You’ve brought me to an effing monastery?”

After a few moments, a light snow begins to fall, the fog moves back in, and there is only the sound of our boots crunching the snow.

In the chapel, the monks are chanting Terce in Latin as I lead the refugees into the back rows. I recognized the passage in Psalm 119:

Instruct me, O Lord, in the way of your statutes,
That I may exactly observe them.
Give me discernment, that I may observe your law,
and keep it with all my heart.

After a light meal of bread, soup, cheese, and apples, I make sure that several of the brothers take the refugees into one of the bunk houses and stow them away for a nap. After Vespers, I have them brought to our classroom building.

“I know you’re still tired from the journey and unsure of why you’ve come here. I’m simply going to accept that you had some reasons for leaving the world you know. You’re all in your twenties, so you were born after the collapse of America and the inception of World State V. It’s all you’ve ever known, and all you’ve been permitted to know. If I understand correctly, soon you will be the last remnants of the last generation in World State V to be born of natural parents, and in the natural way. That, by the way, will make you dangerous, and could mean a shorter life. Soon they will want no one around who can remember having parents.”

“Father—is that what I am supposed to call you? —that’s right. I heard that the first wave of the new babies are hatching in the experimental nurseries, all in vitro, and that an alternate experiment is underway in which babies are, um, being carried by surrogate mothers. These will all be raised by gay couples in closed communities and educated in special nurseries. I’m afraid some of them may be my children. You see, they took my sperm in a special collection program based on selected parents . . . .”

It’s Ben again, hanging his head slightly.

“And the idea is . . .?” I muse, waiting for someone else to speak.

“Perfect breeding, perfect children, disease-free, ready for a complete values program that will begin even before they’re out of the womb,” Dawn recites perfectly, as before. “The final destruction of all the vestiges of Western so-called civilization.”

“Then let me ask you again, what is marriage? What is the true nature of marriage?”

“Look, let me say this again,” Cheryl says. “I came here for some vague promise of freedom. Like, I don’t know what all this crap is about definitions and marriage and the nature of things. Nature is nature, period. You sound retarded, Father. Can’t we get to the freedom part?”

“No, we can’t. You’re still in prison, and it sounds as if you would like to stay there.”

“Prison? How am I in prison?”

“Do you think that marriage is, as Dawn said this morning, a purely artificial social construct?”

“Well, why not? It makes just as much sense for two women to marry each other, or two men, as it does for a man and a woman.”

“And for three women to marry each other?"


“The whatever could include a man and his dog?”

“Like I said.”

“And that all sounds perfectly reasonable to all of you?”

There is a moment of silence. Cheryl picks at her nails and does a good imitation of a lost soul.

“Cheryl, I don’t think it can be perfectly reasonable to you because I don’t think you believe in reason,” Ben said suddenly. “If you believed in any form of reason, you would see that there are some contradictions in our official versions of things in the World State. Like things having natures.”
I am surprised, but I had heard from Father Richard that Ben was the most promising candidate he was sending up.

“Why are homosexuals the way they are, Cheryl? What do we say about that in the processing centers?”

“Come on, Ben, because it’s the way they are, the way they’re made, everyone know that.”

“Well, I’m not so sure that’s true, but what is certain is that in this case, you think that it’s because they have a certain nature, isn’t right?”


“It’s a contradiction. A flat-out contradiction. Like so much of what we’ve been taught to think. If one thing has a nature, why don’t other things?’

“Hold on,” Frances breaks in. “Homosexual, that’s a physical thing. Marriage is still a social construct people make up, isn’t it?’

“Last time I checked, when a man and a woman have sex with each other, that’s pretty physical,” Ben responds. “And if nothing interferes, the physical result can be a child. Isn’t that the nature of marriage? Or part of it?”

“Look,” Cheryl said, “all these definitions and stuff, that’s old Western Civilization crap, right? Like this stupid monastery or whatever it is. And what marriage is, that’s all relative, don’t you know?”

“And that answers everything for you, doesn’t it?” I say. “When do you break out of the prison of relativism?”

They all begin to talk at once. I let them wind down.

“Where did you think you were coming?” I ask, glancing at Ted.

“I thought it was like a wildlife refuge for thinking and stuff.”

“So think. Do things have natures, and is any action right or wrong?”

“It DEPENDS,” Cheryl fairly shouts, “can’t you people get that?”

“On what?”

“On your point of view."

“So I’m asking your point of view. Is anything right or wrong?”


“A man named Scalia once said, if it all depends on the individual’s point of view, nothing can be said to be right or wrong, and the rule of law is superfluous. If the definition of marriage depends on your point of view, then there is no such thing. There would only be as many such things as you wanted to hypothesize. For example, you can say marriage is a joining of dirt and water. And in that case, you cannot be free because you have no real choice, only a selection of equally fictitious imaginings. A choice is of something other minds can recognize as real. And more: when you make a genuine choice, something happens inside you.”

“I’m tired,” Cheryl says. “And I don’t even know why we came all the way down here to talk about marriage, which isn’t even something I’m interested in, and if I were, it would be, like, very personal, you know?”

“Bedtime,” I said. “Class for those who are staying meets in the morning after Lauds. By the way, the reason that the question of marriage is being raised is that that is all we have to offer you by way of education and reality. Unless you want to enter the monastery. Goodnight.”


I walk briskly across the yard to Compline with Brother Gregory, who has been sitting in on the discussion. After the Nunc Dimittis, I ask what he thinks of the group.

“Two will stay, the others will head back North.”

 I suspect that he is right but try not to give up on hope. I know that those who get back to the World States can slip back into their state of perpetual anomie tempered with drugs, no doubt, with a great sigh of relief. Courage is in short supply, and the odds are so great. In the spring, they say, the World State may reach of its many uneasy alliances with Islamia, and let slip the dogs of war against us. If the World State allows the Islamists to exercise Sharia Law in the areas they conquer, many of us will be put to the sword, or become slaves. Others may journey south toward Justicia. What I think of as I try to say my rosary is the madness of our times. The “remaking of all values” that was called for in 1967 has swept over the West with a vengeance, and there are only a few pockets of sanity left in the world. I console myself that it has happened before. During the Dark Ages, the Benedictine monasteries arose as centers of learning, farming, shelter, and hope. Without them, we wouldn’t even have the Bible. But this thing, this new thing, this attempt to “go beyond good and evil” and remake human nature itself, is an unspeakable monstrosity. And here I have with me, these walking wounded, prisoners, burnouts.

Morning breaks with some hope. Without being prodded, Ted and Simon somehow make it into Matins at 4 AM and sit there quietly. Dawn and Frances catch me before breakfast and say they want to stay and hear what I have to say. “Stay for a while,” I say, “we’ll keep you warm and feed you as best we can, and if it’s no go, we’ll help you back on the train next month.” Cheryl opts out of everything and stays in her bunk, then approaches Brother Gregory and asks him for some food. She is out of here, as clueless as she came, and I am sorry for that. I suspect she will think she has escaped from a madhouse but will always wonder, just what was all that about? It’s a long way North. Maybe she will come back.

As planned, several families have walked up from the first village down the track, and the children are chattering in the dining hall. Our refugees gape.

 Frances explains that where she lives there are no children and that she hasn’t seen any since her childhood. The children peer around their mother’s long skirts at the strange clothing of the visitors. I have selected Tom and Mary Therese Preston to make the presentation. They explain they will speak briefly and then answer questions. “They look like the pictures I’ve seen of Mennonites or something like that,” Frances whispers to Dawn. “Check out those skirts!”

Brother Gregory shoos the children into a makeshift nursery by the kitchen. Tom begins with a prayer and grins broadly, saying “welcome, Father Schall has asked us here as sort of exhibit families, I guess. We’ll make a few points and then let you ask questions, and then we have to get back to the goats and cows. Mary and I have been married for ten years and we have seven children, five boys and two girls. She escaped from a conditioning center in Delaware and I jumped off a troop train in Virginia. We met up here and we both soon joined the Church and were married. I like animals and hunting and growing things, and we teach our children ourselves together with other parents, sort of pooling our talents. Both our moms and dads were incinerated in one of the cleaning waves that came right after the second World State Congress and the New Laws. All I knew about anything I could believe in was an old book of Fairy Tales I found in a recycling bin, and the words that meant the most to me were ‘Once Upon a Time,’ which kept my mind free when the Conditioners worked on me in school. The Fairy Tales taught me that something had to be real, somewhere, and that it had something to do with absolute law and fidelity and purpose. And I knew that I was something much more than what the teachers told me. So here we are.”

Mary stood and smiled. “I know you will have many questions, so I’ve decided to keep it short. The most important things in my life are God, my children, my husband, my marriage. I’ll say one more thing. In the World State, I began to feel completely closed off, locked up. I’m sad to say that I had sex with many men, and I was always on the pill. I had no idea of what love was, but I somehow knew that wasn’t what I was having with those men. I didn’t know that marriage was a sacrament and the way into true freedom. I didn’t know that love is an absolute commitment in which we must always be open to each other, to God, and to new life.”

I can tell that Tom and Mary had stirred something in our “patients,” as I sometimes call them.
I listen.

BEN: What does that mean, always being open to new life?

TOM: It means no contraception. As long as a couple practices contraception, they are withholding love from each other. If they are not open to new life, they’re shutting out God and, frankly, each other. It’s like having a big Maybe in your lives, all the time. It would be like spraying all the garden seeds with plastic.

SIMON: But, I mean, how does that work?

TOM: Well, with seven children, I’d say it works very well.

DAWN: But you can’t, you just can’t do that all the time, can you?

MARY: Well, it does take that old thing, discipline.

TOM: She means I sometimes chop a lot of wood.

FRANCES: But what if your feelings change? Maybe you won’t love each other forever.

MARY: You must think that love means going on having the same feelings forever. No, feelings change. Love isn’t a feeling, though it sometimes comes with feelings. Our mistake is to confuse the two. Love is an act of the will. That’s why it’s a vow. That’s where true freedom comes in.

DAWN: It sounds like the opposite of freedom to me.

MARY: Your child won’t think so when he or she knows that you love them forever. It’s knowing that that gives the child the inner freedom of feelings. He or she can hate you, be angry at you, and so on, just because they know that the vow is still there—the vow to each other and to God. Once I make a genuine vow, it’s like God’s covenant with Israel, it will not fail.

TOM: And if I have to worry that your love of me depends on your feelings of the moment, then there is no security for anyone, including the children. What a great thing that is, the fidelity of the vow. The whole society and its sanity depend on it. That’s why you will find our communities very happy places, where people know who they are, and where they know what is and what is not.

MARY: And going back to the contraception, placing that “maybe” or “not now” between the man and the woman, that is the destroyer. It means always holding oneself back, no trust, no love. The poet Ezra Pound wrote a comparison of usury and the sterility of contraception. He said that with usura as the dominant principle in society—that is, with the constant anxiety over making money, there is no good art and no good love. “It lieth between the bride and the bridegroom, CONTRA NATURAM.” That is, both capitalism and contraception are unnatural and destructive. Both of them place that awful maybe, that anxiety, that lack of trust at the center of every human relationship.

FRANCES: Surely in these communities you have here, there must be some other principle at the center. It can’t work unless there’s more tolerance, more gray areas.

TOM: Have you found that tolerance works in the World State? From what I hear, the result of the Universal Toleration Act is that no one is allowed to say, or even think, anything that is not politically correct. Just about every thought is hate thought or thought crime. And since all things are worthy, nothing is worthy. Isn’t that so? The world has been reduced to ashes in the mouth?

MARY: But to answer your question, Frances, life is not a gray area. The value of individual life from conception to birth, that’s our central principle, and that’s why marriage is sacred and contraception not practiced among us. It seems to be that everything in the World State—money, power, pleasure—is absolute except human life, which can always be manipulated or disposed of.

SIMON: It sounds good, but I am not sure I get it yet. It sounds so hard.

MARY: You won’t get it in just the class room from Father. You have to get it from being here, from talking to the children. And frankly, from just being in the hills with us, even despite all the threats and danger. Because here you are away from the media that has glutted your minds and hearts with lies and trash. It took me a year just to be able to sit under a tree and read good books and listen to the birds. You might begin asking yourself what your nature as a human being is. The World State considers you a bundle of constantly changing feelings and appetites to be manipulated for its ends. It rules out and even forbids knowing, willing, choosing, loving. It has robbed you of your very existence as a person for it denies person altogether. Think about it, yes, but also come with us and just learn to BE for a while.

As the days go on in this hard winter, I cannot be more pleased. Ben and Simon have decided to stay, as have Dawn and Frances. Ben is thinking of entering the monastery as a novice, and Simon is thinking of Dawn. Ted has indicated to me he wants to stay and talk about his “homosexuality.” Faith, hope, and love grow in good soil, and that is what we are trying to build here, good soil. And yes, it may be necessary that the good soil be moistened with martyrs’ blood as well as sweat and tears. I walk down the path under the rising moon and hope I will see Cheryl walking back to us with that most precious of all things, a question seeking an answer. I don’t see her, but I know she cannot be untouched by her short time here, that is how grace works. The really sad thing about “the dictatorship of relativism” in the World State is the way it kills hope, which is a virtue that appreciates reality in its fullness and roundness. I know. I, too, was one of the walking wounded, a prisoner of doubt and fear, and I still carry the inward scars. They nearly had me, the conditioners and the sophists. Now, here in the West Virginia hills, I look down the tracks and pray for the next train to roll in bearing pilgrims for the True West.


Copyright 2005 R. Kenton Craven
4961 words

[1] In footnote 62 of Roe vs. Wade, Chief Justice Blackmun favorably cited an article called “The New Biology and the Future of Man.” The article says:

“Taken together, [artificial gestation, genetic engineering, suspended animation] constitute a new phase in human life in which man takes over deliberate control of his own evolution. And the consequence is arresting: There is a qualitative change to progress when man learns to create himself. . . . For our appropriate guidance in this new era, a reworking of values is required, which will take into account the new, and which will be as rapid and effective in its evolution as are the new techniques. . . . Our task will be easier if we regard value systems as complex adaptations to specific sets of realities, which adaptations must change when the realities change. . . . Chastity is not particularly adaptive to a world of effective contraception. . . . Respect for elders is less and less adaptive to a world in which life-spans greatly exceed the period during which great-grandchildren find their senior progenitor’s wisdom of any interest. Submission to supernatural power is not adaptive to a world in which man himself controls even his own biological future. . . . High regard for the dignity of the individual may prove difficult to maintain when new biologic techniques blur his very identity. . . . What counts is awareness of the unmistakable new fact that in general new biology is handing over to us the wheel with which to steer directly the future evolution of man.”

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Mad Hermit Remembers the Reel Things

For My Grandson, Hunter Michael Guire, now being graduated from High School (Home School), and working as a theater usher in a very different era. The Mad Hermit continues his story.

On the plane returning from Oman and my defunct island hermitage, I watched a movie and mused. The movie brought up the smell of popcorn, and suddenly I was standing in the popcorn roo
m with my Dad in the early 1950’s. The smell of popcorn was rich with the odor of hydrogenated coconut oil, now on the forbidden list in the politically and dietetically correct days of the 21st century, a time I had never guessed could exist back then.

Then, when I walked to school or carried the newspapers, I would often try to figure out if I could live until the year 2000. Nah, I would always conclude, not possible. My Dad was born in 1903, so he was still in his early 50’s then. So, how could I, Kenny Craven, make it to 2000? Born in 1938, I would be 62, ancient. It wasn’t the arithmetic so much as imagining myself as an old man, like the old winos that walked the street below the popcorn room. “Jake legs,” Dad said of their funny walk, “from drinking cheap wine.” Nevertheless, he would toss dimes through the exhaust fan, and laugh when a wino saw money fall from the sky. “They get seven, they can get a bottle of wine from the liquor store.” Both of us tossed kernels of popcorn the fan to watch the pigeons scrambling for it on the street below. This memory came back to this old Hermit fresh, like the smell of popcorn. I didn’t know then that Dad would die at the age of 55. Nor did I understand that not only would I achieve ancient years, but that I would enter, in a series of scudding shocks, a strange time called the Post-Modernist, Post-Christian Era.

The popcorn job was an extra one his Dad had taken on at the movie theater where he was a projectionist. In that time, all the popcorn was popped at night and stored in five gallon cans. It was usually one to three days old before it made it to the customer. When it was poured into the glass frame of the concession stand and heated up, customers would say it was the best popcorn ever, much better than fresh popped. It was.

After Dad finished the last show, especially on weekends when big movies were on the bill for the next day (Alan Ladd held the popcorn sales record, even passing up John Wayne and Clark Gable), I would wait for him in the popcorn room backstage. Originally designed as a dressing room for stage plays like Tobacco Road, the room had been converted into a popcorn production factory. Another backstage room held thousands of pounds of South American hybrid popcorn in fifty pound bags and tons of congealed coconut oil, which had to be melted in a large cauldron that held fifty pounds of the stuff. Two popcorn kettles with revolving agitators popped a can of popcorn each, thirty-three cans, or 165 gallons of popcorn an hour. Each kettle load poured into “shakers,” which allowed the unpopped kernels to be shaken into refuse trays underneath. Once we finished shaking, we carried the tray and dumped it down a large metal funnel, where the popcorn fell into a can waiting underneath. In three and a half hours, we filled some 110 cans, all neatly stacked and ready for hauling. After a can was loaded, we reloaded the kettle. A quart of popcorn kernels, a handful of salt, and a half-pint of coconut oil, and a new batch was soon on its way, while the other kettle was just finishing. A real production line, which frequently occasioned stories of Henry Ford from Dad, who lived in awe of the technical marvels of his time.

I loaded sixteen cans on a wooden hand cart with wheels (called “the truck”) and hauled them either to a storage room near the Granada Theater concession stand or to a similar room a block down the street at the company’s other theater, the State, where Class B movies, endless westerns, and re-runs dominated. I loved walking that rattling thing down the street: important me, on a mission. On a busy Sunday, both theaters would start running out of popcorn in the early afternoon and my Dad and I would be back in the popcorn room. I gobbled popcorn, smelled popcorn, hauled popcorn, and contrary to the food gurus of the present time, stayed small and skinny. When one of the “colored” janitors went on vacation, I substituted, and after the last movie ended at 11, I swept tons of popcorn and cardboard popcorn boxes into huge barrels for hauling to the city dump where thousands of birds would peck at the kernels. We fed the multitudes and the birds of the air.

I had the feeling that I lived in a kind of mystery of which ordinary boys had no notion. Dad and I popped the popcorn, sometimes until three in the morning, and then walked home through the cool or cold Appalachian night, listening to the never-ending sounds of the railroad, the hissing of steam, the clanking of coal cars being assembled into a train, the long steam whistles up and down the valley.

Sounds: after smells, the next part of the mystery. In Walden, Thoreau harkened to the sounds of the forest and the pond, but he also listened for the trains that ran past one end of the pond. Now that I grow increasingly deaf, this old Hermit misses the sounds of the world, even as he jokes that he is glad he cannot hear annoying sermons or speeches or rap music. Thoreau knew we were sensual beings who first knew the mystery of the world through smells, sounds, sights, and touch. Standing next the popcorn kettles, I warmed to the rat-a-tat popping of the corn, one kettle machine gunning to the max while the next waited to begin with single-shot detonations. Quiet in their metal cans, the popcorn slept until shoveled into boxes, and soon hundreds of people would be sitting in the theater munching away and waiting for the sights and sounds of movies.

At certain times, when the sound track went soft, what could be heard was the clicking of the sprocket wheel from the projection booth at the back, which sat up high, above the colored section, and its carbon-arc beam of light poured forth from one of two small, square windows, and through them the constant chatter of the sprocket wheels ratcheting down the 35 mm film, one frame at a time. These formed the metallic background of the motion picture mystery.
Blissfully unaware that the screen where they were watching the movie was totally black every 1/48 second, the audience munched their popcorn and candy bars and beheld the story they came for, sometimes with their own sounds of hah! And ah! And ooooh! In those days there were “shorts” that asked the audience to sing along as the bouncing ball marked the lyrics, which they did, belting out “Come along with me Lucille,” “Casey would waltz with the strawberry blonde,” or “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do,” with unabashed gusto. Or they laughed, and sometimes I could see and hear real sobbing, maybe in a war movie or Gone with the Wind. (not likely in the 21st century, but then people were more easily given to genuine emotion; now they seem to live in hard, coruscated shells impervious to joy, and “ooh” is reserved for images of chainsaws cutting into bodies).

I knew about the screen being totally black because my father was the movie Wizard, and he inculcated in me a sense of wonder at the magic of the movies. Somehow our popping popcorn and watching the movies—and just as important, watching the people watch the movies—gave us an extra dimension, as if we were Olympic gods looking down on it all, as Shakespeare clearly enjoyed looking down on the audience watching Elizabethan plays. Mostly my Dad and I shared all this silently, as part of our being father and son, but occasionally we remarked on this or that. And yes, when you watch the same movie a dozen times, you have favorite scenes, and as I carried emergency cans of corn out to the mezzanine, I would pause in the dark and not so much to watch the scene again, but more important, to watch a different audience reacting to the same scene.

I don’t know what kind of voyeurism this is or if it has been classified, but it is also possible to step quietly behind the big movie screen. Those screens are not like white sheets, they have millions of holes in them, which the light comes through. Standing in the dark, I could hold out my arm and see movie images floating across. And standing behind the screen and the big speakers made it possible to enjoy a movie in yet another way. I could see the picture on the screen from behind, hear the characters talking as if in an echo chamber, and I could see the first ten or so rows of the audience as well. Silence, darkness, secrecy—those aspects of movies defined part of my being. And I was alone, enjoying something none of my friends could ever know by experiencing the mystery of the movie theatre (in West Virginia, we never said “cinema,” and most people called it the “pitcher show”) from a secret angle. In all the old stories from ancient cultures, secrecy is the guardian of mystery. Today, the Hermit thought, in the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, in the confession prayer we promise not to reveal the secret of the Eucharist to non-Christians.

It was very, very rare in those days for a movie to come to town that we were not allowed to see. Father Burke (RIP) kept us aware of the Legion of Decency ratings that appeared weekly in Our Sunday Visitor, our major print link with the Church Universal, and we all dutifully stood in church to take the Legion of Decency Pledge. Remember, in those days it was a shock to audiences when Clark Gable said, “frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” The worst moment came when a torrid and buxom actress named Jane Russell appeared in a movie called The Outlaw, in which someone ripped her dress and one breast was exposed for a gasping millisecond. That one earned Father Burke’s jeremiad that ended, “any man who respects his wife, his mother, or his daughter cannot see this film without risking his soul to hell fire.” A Friday night boxing fan, Father Burke never went to movies, but at my Dad’s urging, slipped into the colored section to roar laughing at John Ford’s The Quiet Man when John Wayne beat the stuffing out of his father-in-law.

Soon it was not only sexy images that were disturbing, but content and message. Otto Preminger produced a movie called The Moon is Blue, which was whispered about. I was not allowed to see that one, but I never could figure out why. And I began to hear my Mom and her friends speak in hushed tones of scandals, actresses getting divorced (shocking!), like Ingmar Bergman. But never, by the way, of anything “gay,” not even a hint. I was becoming aware that the movies, once a pure delight of heroes honored and villains crushed, were becoming a danger zone, and that we Catholics were somehow separate from the rest of society. About that time I was graduated from Sacred Heart school and had to go to the public high school, where one shock followed another and my peers laughed at my tender sensibilities about sex.

But the mystery of the movies was not altogether gone. The sights, the sounds, the smells, and the mystery of the big carbon-arc 35mm machines: they formed the backdrop for my growing up in the movie theater with my Dad, working with him, walking with him, laughing with him, and sensing when he was sad or scared about money and politics. He was the president of his Union Local of the IATSE—the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, one of the unions that made up the AFL-CIO, in days when unions really worked for people. Any time you watch a movie, any movie, you can see the IATSE Logo in the credits. His identity as a union man and a Democrat (before the Democrat Party became socialist baby-killers and perverts) kept me aware at all times that we were different, under suspicion and fire from the Republican businessmen who ran our town, and also part of something rather grand. When stage shows or operas or the “Ice-capades “ came to town, they snubbed the local electricians and called for union stagehands. I could tell that my Dad beamed quietly with pride when that happened. That the Catholic Church supported the right to unionize deeply impressed him. He was raised as a Methodist but became a Catholic a few years before he died.

All that gave my childhood and youth a different dimension and permanently affected my life and, I am sure, my imagination. As a theater usher through most of high school and college, I must have watched thousands of hours of movies of every kind. Several times in my life I have become bloated with movies, and true to my addictive personality, swore off, sometimes for several years.

The carbon-arc projectors emitted a slightly blue haze in the projection room and made my Dad cough constantly. He was a heavy smoker, yes, but he was also aware something was wrong in the hot booth where he spent thousands of hours. Many times he begged the management to install an exhaust fan to carry out the millions of tiny carbon particles that seeped into his lungs. True capitalist Republicans, they always refused. Doctors diagnosed him repeatedly as afflicted with chronic bronchitis. Finally, struggling to breathe, he was moved to the University of Virginia where he was pronounced the worst case of emphysema they had ever seen., and where he died gasping for breath. The day before the ambulance took him away, he raised himself on one elbow and rasped, “what’s playing?” I answered, “Darby O’Gill and the Little People.” He smiled and slept, perhaps dreaming of colorful leprechauns.

Two things dominated my childhood and youth: the traditional Catholic Mass and my life in it as an acolyte, and the movie world my Dad and I lived in. From his death on, the two worlds grew more and more apart until they have become two planets. The traditional Catholic Mass is now a rarity, hidden in small parishes in poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods when one can find it. And the movie world--?

Well, it’s not difficult for sane people to measure the distance to this alien planet, because it is the one we inhabit, ourselves the aliens, with most people unaware of how completely the culture of death , drugs, and demons enters into virtually every story on the cinema or TV screen. The movies permanently affected my life and, I am sure, for both good and ill, my imagination. As a theater usher through most of high school and college, I must have watched thousands of hours of movies of every kind. Several times in my life I have become bloated and disgusted with movies, and true to my addictive personality, swore off completely, sometimes for years. I confess I always come back for this or that flick, hopeful that it will be at least acceptable. I am rarely pleased. The culture that produces the movies is sick, and even when people imagine they are seeing an acceptable movie, they usually miss its underlying assumptions, just as they miss the silent and seductive ambiance of relativism in the public schools. For what it’s worth, I list some of my own favorite movies below.

In the days of my Dad and me and the movies, audiences often applauded really good movies. When was the last time you did?

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Mission
Lawrence of Arabia
Apocalypse Now (original version)
High Noon
African Queen
The Quiet Man
A Man for All Seasons
The Shawshank Redemption
The Family Man
A Bridge Too Far
The Great Escape
On the Waterfront
It’s a Wonderful Life
The Exorcist
The Passion of the Christ
Paths of Glory
Schindler’s List
Man Who Shot Liberty Valence
Rain Man
All Quite on the Western Front
Song of Bernadette
Hotel Rwanda
Stalag 17
To Kill a Mockingbird
Das Boot
Ben Hur
The Third Man
Gran Torino
Cool Hand Luke
Groundhog Day
The Fugitive
Bridge on the River Kwai
The Bicycle Thief
The Kite Runner
Singing in the Rain
No Country for Old Men
The Road
Grapes of Wrath
Twelve Angry Men
Life is Beautiful
Enemy at the Gates
Sophy’s Choice

© Copyright R. Kenton Craven June 2013

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Catholic Poem in Time of War: The Lord of the Rings


In The Lord of the Rings, I believe Tolkien does exactly what he said he was doing, communicating a religious, Catholic vision through a Secondary World.

A great Catholic poem, The Lord of the Rings, a poem about a great war, was born from three great wars. As any essay is an explication of its title, this one will sound out the meanings of poem, Catholic poem, great wars, and J.R.R. Tolkien's story of Faerie. In a time in which language itself has been destroyed, recovering the true meaning of words is a difficult , wizardly task. High meanings must be unfolded, as they are to Frodo, with the sense of reverence demanded by true tales of old things that are ever new in the telling. So I begin with apology.

First, the word apology. It does not mean an admission of guilt or even regret, but rather is an explanation or defense of a position or point of view that justifies what has been said. Thus, John Henry Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua, his great explanation of the basis for his conversion to Catholicism from Anglicanism, is in no way an "I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings." It has, more, the quality of Pauline thunder, born of trying to explain the wisdom of one era to the confusion of another.

This business of unfolding the words of the title is characteristic of Tolkien himself, who was an ancient living in modern, horrible times. Ancient — he was a word man living in a world that does not care about the spellbinding mystery of the right words. As The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were close to publication in the culturally dangerous world of America, the ancient poet Tolkien chaffed and spluttered to his publishers about the blurbs, the cover art, and the mouthings of critics. He was already aware that anything he said or made was about to be taken awry by the uninitiated, prompting him to guard against the critics, especially the academicians, "who have their pistols loose in their holsters." Simply put, he did not want his great work profaned, and sometimes regretted that he had published it.

J.R.R. Tolkien was an Ancient in the sense that he never wanted to live in the present time, but in saner ages and in eternity. He was a traditionalist who saw himself in the great tradition of English poetry beginning with Anglo-Saxon poems, including his beloved Beowulf and all its Scandinavian kin in Eddas and Sagas and Icelandic myth. He did not cotton to much after Chaucer, and he could be dismissive even of Shakespeare. Tolkien is as ancient as Treebeard, a mossy poet who lived in the languages and poems of the Dark Ages. About as modern as he allowed himself to go was the medieval poems prior to the so-called Renaissance. As a scholar, he left us his superb translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a poem close to his soul.

Called a Luddite by the cognoscenti of today, he didn't like automobiles, trains, planes, or for that matter, any kind of machines that separated man from his work and life. He loved trees and became angry when they were cut down needlessly. He walked, conversed, wrote, sang, smoked his pipe, and went to Mass as often as he could. And he had the high sense of dignity of his generation — he remarked that he could not remember himself or C.S. Lewis ever calling each other by Christian names. The entire garbage truck of modern culture and materialism left him only with disgust. He preferred archaic lore and language. And he believed that a rational man could arrive, independently, at the condemnation of modern machines and war tools that 'escapist' works achieved implicitly. "Many stories out of the past have only become 'escapist' in of their appeal by surviving from a time when men were as a rule delighted with the work of their hands into our time when many men feel disgust with man-made things."

It has been my good fortune to live and be taught among ancients, from whom I learned to care about right words and right things. Arvid Shulenberger (The Orthodox Poetic), Frank Nelick, A.C. Edwards, and John Senior (The Death of Christian Culture, The Restoration of Christian Culture) were giants in an age of hostile pygmies, and elfish Dennis Quinn, who is now publishing a book on the nature of Wonder, is the last of that generation at the University of Kansas. The story of how Sauron destroyed the bower of bliss that was the Integrated Humanities Program has been well told by one of their students, my friend and ex-student Bob Carlson, in Truth on Trial: Liberal Education Be Hanged). Listening to them — and that is the first thing one does with great teachers, listen to them as the monks listened to St. Benedict — taught me about a handful of words.

From my time with them, I began to speak words like poem in a different way because they used it in the ancient way of the Greeks, in the way of Aristotle, who set poetry against history and philosophy as a third way of knowing characterized by symbol and myth, or metaphor and story. A poem — lyric, epic, or dramatic — is an imitation of reality through metaphor and story. Whether it is comedic or tragic or elegiac, or expressed in verse or verse narrative or prose tale, is accidental to its nature. Metaphor and story are the souls of poems as vegetative and rational souls are the essential principles of broccoli and men. To enter into the deep nature of a story requires deep listening to a poet, a maker (that's what the word poet means), who says, "I will you a tale unfold." The Lord of the Rings is such a tale and such a poem, a long story that unfolds something that "imitates" reality. Tolkien called this act of the poet "sub-creation," as distinct from the Creation of the first poem by the first Maker, which is the world and the story we live in, and he knew that if his tale worked for hearers, it would put them in touch with high and holy things. Just as I came from one of the seminars of these Ancients in elder days, an ancient mariner placed in my hands The Lord of the Rings, just then (October 1965) appearing in paperback in America. He might as well have repeated Dante, "enter these enchanted woods ye who dare."


I read the tale with wonder, and my son soon read it through himself at the age of nine. Like most people who read it, we knew that we had touched something very different from the tone of most modern popular literature, and entirely different from the flood of pallid, perverse Tolkien imitations that we have seen for half a century. W. H. Auden, an early admirer, wrote that he would no longer trust the literary judgment of anyone who disliked The Lord of the Rings. From its appearance it was a loved poem among the millions, who return to it time and again. Predictably — as predicted by Tolkien himself — it was often handled by the cognoscenti like beads and mirrors given to natives. That in itself is not a bad thing. Like spells placed on things and words to keep them from evil doers, the air of mystery is entirely suitable to great poems, and protects them from the wreckers of salons and English departments, who still snarl and snap when the world's readers prefer Tolkien to the modernists. In 2001, polls of English readers showed that they ranked The Lord of the Rings as the greatest work of English literature of the 20th century, followed by Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984, a fact that drives the deconstructionist literati nearly mad (they call Tolkien a racist, fascist, sexist Luddite) rending their garments. Imagine: a white traditionalist male writing a patriarchal tale that smacks of sexism and morality that both children and adults want to read. It is, rather, a traditional poem that depicts things, including male and female, in their right relationships (good) and wrong relationships (evil). Like the defeated Sauron, the postmodernist wizards will suffer the worst of fates, allowed to hit the road as themselves.

American culture's — I use the word with some hesitation — refashioning of Tolkien began in 1965 when Time magazine observed that no freshman would go off to college without his Hobbit books and Tolkien shibboleths. Since that time, the tale has been processed by the usual suspects, Freudians and Jungians and all their New Age progeny. The Lord of the Rings is back again, this time in three movies made with all the machinery (Aristotle's term for stage magic) Hollywood can muster, together with sexuality and the usual plot meddling, though this is (I understand) lighter than expected. As Tolkien wrote in his famous essay, "On Fairy-Stories," fantasy is a great human right that allows us to enjoy making because we are made in the likeness of the First Maker, the Creator. It is a fundamental process that offers us the human necessities of Recovery, Escape, and Consolation. The true road of escape is recovery of the real — that is the mystery of imitation — or "a regaining of a clear view," or "seeing things as we were meant to see them." "Escape" for Tolkien was, far from being the negative thing the literati view with "scorn or pity," is a return to real life from the false life most call real. "Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?" he asked. "The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it." Here, as throughout Tolkien's writings about his own tales and fairy-stories in general, is an echo of the Gospels themselves, what he called, in the same essay, "a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world."

Introducing this thought at the end of his essay, Tolkien realizes that he has touched on a "serious and dangerous matter," and in a way, as the ancient poet leaning over to confide to the most serious of his listeners, he has let the veil slip slightly, a comparison he himself jokingly used to describe the screen between his creative soul and the world. And when the veil slips, what do we glimpse? I have called it a Catholic poem.

In saying that The Lord of the Rings is a great Catholic poem, I do not mean to say anything but this: it is a great poem about the ultimate things made by a Catholic imagination steeped in the greatest of Western traditions. It is a poem that unites the two great passions of Tolkien's life, Northern Germanic mythology (Tolkien included England and all Scandinavia under "Germanic"), and the sacramental mysteries of the Catholic Church. Who could have predicted such a poem, such a uniting of North and South cultures? When I first read it in the 1960's, I knew nothing about the author, but I knew intuitively that the writer was a Catholic, and when I said this to literary friends, I was immediately dismissed as a reactionary crank. There is something deeply immanent in the made things of traditional Catholic minds that cannot be had any other way, even if those minds — like the mind of Joyce — are in rebellion against Catholicism. For one thing, Catholicism is a religion, a fact that even many of its modern adherents do not grasp. That means, as Chesterton observed in Orthodoxy, it is a religion like all other religions on the earth in having "priests, scriptures, altars, sworn brotherhoods, special feasts." While there are no altars or religious ceremonies in the world Tolkien has created, the reader will hear the echoes of traditional Catholicism on every page. But, as Chesterton also observed, though these features are universal to all genuine religions (as opposed to the anti-religion born in the Reformation), Christianity tells an entirely new story that radically transforms them.

By Catholic, I am not using the term as modern theologians do, as sort of a horizontal "we are the world" theology in which all cultural truths end up in a tasteless — and useless — stew. JRR Tolkien was a Catholic who had traditional Catholicism, the Catholicism of altars, feasts, fasts, heroic suffering, rituals, saints, miracles, doctrines, and mysteries, in his very bones. The Trinity and the Mass are as familiar to him as his garden or his beloved Beowulf; nay, more, because these Catholic things, as he saw it, are parts of the one true myth, expressed in the Apostles and Nicene Creeds. Real Catholics (and most other Christians) believe in this story as the foundation of their souls. Tolkien breathed it. He was a frequent Mass-goer who rarely received the Eucharist without first confessing. But he was an English Catholic, and like Evelyn Waugh, he early learned in life that as a Catholic he was something less than a Jew in England, despised and distrusted. He suspected one of his best friends, C.S. Lewis, of being a covert anti-Catholic, a reasonable suspicion based on Lewis's shameful treatment of the South African poet Roy Campbell. And, he wrote to his son, "Hatred of our church is after all the real only final foundation of the C[hurch] of E[ngland]." As an English Catholic, he knew that he saw the world in a secret, fundamentally different way, and he withdrew into the making of myth — a huge myth that by the very circumstance of its origin, could never fail to echo the Catholic myth.


I well understand the objections people make to any suggestion that there is "meaning" in The Lord of the Rings. They object, rightly, on two grounds, 1) it's a wonderful story, and 2) Tolkien himself resisted allegorical interpretations of his poem. Tolkien resisted such interpretations because he meant no allegory and, in fact, detested allegory. An allegorical interpretation of any of Tolkien's works fails because he did not write allegories. What most people mean by interpretation is "what does Gandalf mean? What do the rings mean? What do this and that mean?" They want the story they assume to lie just under the surface of the story. There is not much help for this point of view; until people learn to love story again for its own sake, they will miss the mark or go off disgusted. These are the same people, by the way, who attempt to apply allegorical interpretation to Christ's parables. These attempts fail because Christ did not make allegories either, he made parables, a distinctive literary form like no other that is probably closer to reverse Zen koans than it is to allegories with their one-to-one correspondence between elements of the story and things or concepts outside the poem. He was particularly upset when people assumed that the rings represented nuclear power. As it became evident that people wanted such instant meanings, Tolkien resisted all such readings and did all he could to discourage them. After all, he confessed that sometimes he had no idea what his imagination was unfolding. At the same time, when he looked back at his work, he was often willing to "find meaning" or to make comparisons of things in the tale to things happening in the world. He wrote that he did not "invent" the tale but received it, and was even elected for it. As such, Tolkien is merely one reader of the tale he has been given. Like any reader of a mysterious tale, he can be ambivalent or self-contradictory, sometimes in relation to the person he is addressing in a letter, and sometimes by the times as they unfolded. In many of his letters, he first dismissed any suggestions that "this means that," and then flip flops.

For example, when Strider appeared in the tale, the author did not know who he was. He had to discover the answer like the little old lady writer who said, "How do I know what I mean until I see what I say?" Tom Bombadil first appeared in a separate story where he embodied, for Tolkien, the spirit of countryside vanishing from England, but he found his way into The Lord of the Rings. It is interesting to follow Tolkien's musings about this. "He is just an invention," he writes,

but: he represents something important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely. I would not, however, have left him in if he did not have some kind of function. I might put it this way. The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object except power, and so on; but both sides want a measure of control, but if you have, as it were taken a 'vow of poverty', renounced control, and take your delight in things themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war. But the view of Rivendell seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends. Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left to him in the world of Sauron.
Reading Tolkien's comments on other aspects of the tale, it's as if he is looking into a separate universe and trying to make sense of it in reference to his own, but never in a reductionist way. Reductionism and scientism, as well as a kind of fundamentalist Biblical approach, forever deny mystery; as approaches to The Lord of the Rings, they invariably contradict each other or become so ingenious that they mystify rather than illumine mystery. Giving up on that mechanical approach, people then resort to, "it's only a wonderful story." Precisely, Tolkien would say, but nothing wonderful is "only" anything. That is the curse of scientism in our thinking and beholding — the curse of Ramus, Descartes, Bacon, positivism, and video games. A wonderful story doesn't mean anything except being full of wonders, which ought to be enough. It is meaningful in the way a human person is meaningful, inexhaustibly rich, never caught by the factory machines of univocal interpretation, and richer as it draws closer to God. A wonder is meaningful because it is an opening into seeing, into truth.

Tolkien knew precisely what he was doing when it came to the kind of story he was making and what that kind of story could do. Because he is carefully staking out his turf for people who know little about the subject, he takes his time in explaining what a "fairy-story" is and isn't. It isn't a child's story in the usual sense, he says, and it is only accidentally, by reading them to children, that it is thought of so. If such stories relied on mere credulity, they might so be considered. They do not. Instead they rely on "literary belief," which both children and adults may share. Such belief occurs when the maker of the story is a successful sub-creator who gives us a "Secondary world which your mind can enter." Such stories, do not respond, Tolkien says, to the question of belief. They respond to the human desire to know. To the extent we believe that Fantasy — an act of desiring truth — is good for people, we will value it. Faerie, the mysterious land from which such stories come, is the product of deep human desire to know "other worlds."

Knowing other worlds is the activity such stories elicit from us. For what reason? The modern psychologist, a reductionist at heart, can only make comparisons downward, as Robert Frost says. He therefore regards fantasy as a matter of wishing, not belief. We are not seeing the world as it is through fantasy, but as we would wish it to be. For that reason stories are regarded either scientistically, as machinery for interpretation, or psychoanalytically, as clues to the psyche. In his poem, Mythopoeia, Tolkien mocks this failure to understand poetry:

Yes! Wish-fulfillment dreams' we spin to cheat
our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat.
Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,
Or some things fair and others ugly deem?
The poem makes clear that the "wish" is in fact desire for the Blessed Land, where the real is no longer broken or bent by Evil. There, all true poets will draw directly from the Pure All, enjoying the direct poetry of seeing face to face.

Mythopoeia is a poetic manifesto in the form of a prayer. "Blessed are the makers" is the theme, "who shall see God." Partly a litany of blessings on legend makers and minstrels, the poem is also a prophetic declaration of independence from the mind of modernism and all its works:

I will not walk with your progressive apes,
Erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends —
if by God's mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve
the same unfruitful course with changing of a name.

By contrast with the meddling of progressive apes, "Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys/garden nor gardener, children nor their toys." The salvation of things in true poetry is the opposite of the diminishment of them in reductionism, which demands that we follow a "dusty path and flat,/ denoting this and that by this and that." In this hell on earth man has made, "your world immutable" has no part for the "little maker or the maker's art." Outside that hell, poets on earth voyage on a "wandering quest beyond the Fabled West," where common activities can bring "the image blurred of a distant king . . . . a lord unseen." In Paradise, however, the poets "shall have flames upon their heads" like the Apostles at Pentecost, and "there each shall choose for ever from the All."

The Lord of the Rings is a tale from the land of Faerie. As such, it harkens back to that "serious and dangerous matter" mentioned above. "Danger" is another special word for Ancients like Tolkien. It does not merely mean a hazardous condition; the "daungier" of old romaunce suggests a spiritual peril, like that faced by knights on their quests. The serious and dangerous matter grows, for Tolkien, from the sudden turns that occur in fairy-stories, when the reader or hearer experiences "a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart's desire." These moments Tolkien calls "Eucastrophe."

That glimpse of joy, he says, results from a turn in the story that allows us to glimpse underlying reality or truth. At this point, "true" is no longer "true only in that world you have made." This is perilous, and Tolkien knows it. He is, in effect, claiming that the well-made story is an occasion of grace, an opening into the infinite for finite man. The Gospel is the perfect story, a true Fairy-Story, which begins and ends in joy, and at its core is the "Great Eucastrophe," the joy of the greatest moment in time, the Resurrection, that is also the greatest entry into eternity, the moment at which all heaven and earth break into a Gloria in excelsis Deo! Because the Christian story is the ultimate fairy-story, all tales, especially those with happy endings, are thereby hallowed, made holy. Everything, no matter how humble, has now been redeemed, and therefore all tales that prefigure or portray participation in happiness are true. Art has been verified because the art of the maker can carry us into moments of joyous truth of the highest order. Echoing Thomas Aquinas on why truth is first communicated in story and symbol, Tolkien's poetics centers on the heart of the common man, on tales that, in the words of Sir Philip Sidney's Defense of Poesy, "call children from their play and old men from their chimney corner." A serious and dangerous matter, indeed; The Lord of the Rings may lead through the baptistery into the gates of heaven.

When Frodo and Sam have completed the Quest to destroy the Ring and all seems lost in the wastes of Orodruin, the Eagles rescue them and carry them to Ithilien where Sam wakes in a blissful state under Gandalf's eye. Sam wonders how long he has been asleep and asks where he is. The past seems like a long dream, and he is surrounded by softness and fragrance. "I'm glad to wake." When full memory floods back, Gandalf tells him that the Shadow is dead, he is in Ithilien and in the keeping of the King. Sam exults in the recognition that things have been restored in music and joy and laughter and tears, and that there is at last a good King ruling over all the Western lands. It is heart-healing Eucastrophe, and it is not too much to say that it is a prefiguring of Heaven.

Tolkien is a great Catholic Christian poet for modern times because he has made a myth about a world in which Creation, the Fall, Sin, Guilt, Redemption, Forgiveness, the battle against Evil, and Grace are major themes that speak to anyone. The Numenoreans, who are men, know God in Eru, but they fall more and more under the spell of Sauron and desire immortality as they move farther from Numenor, "the True West," and into the Fall. Tolkien said simply that he did not think it was in his poetic power to write directly about the Incarnation. The poem yearns for salvation, but beautiful as it is, neither Middle Earth nor Numenor can offer more than a blessed preternatural state achieved through love of beauty and wisdom. Like the world before Christ, Tolkien's world contains high virtue and a longing for something else, spoken cryptically in its tales and cultures. Only the Incarnation can bring the hope that fulfills that longing. Both Elves and Men in Tolkien's world view death as an enemy, and the Numenoreans can fall when they do not see and accept dying as a gift of Eru. Such individuals want to reverse the order of things to achieve immortality. The most dangerous road to immortality is the Ring itself, whose power enslaves the soul, giving it power but robbing it of life.

For those Evangelicals and other fundamentalist Christians who find Tolkien threatening or foreign, The Lord of the Rings, with its dragons and demons and monsters, may appear as forbidding as the Potter books. The fundamental difference is, in a world in which magic is a given, the whole issue is how to use it and for what ends. True power grows from sacrifice, renunciation, and love, as exemplified by Frodo and Sam. At the center of Tolkien's vision lie the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament. Listen to what the elder Tolkien says to his son Michael:

Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament . . . . There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death, by the divine paradox, that which ends life and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexity of reality, eternal endurance, which every man's heart desires.
Those who do not accept the sacramental life of the Catholic Church may enter Tolkien through a lesser door, through his moral vision of good and evil. Take, for example, Tolkien's constant reminder that the Machine (the Ring) is magic which uses power to gain domination over wills and gain ultimate control of all souls. It is this kind of Magic that Tolkien's work warns us against on every level. No other tale can awaken hearts to pure goodness and pure evil as Tolkien's can, and if you view it as a pre-Gospel work, well and good.

Tolkien was quite clearly, in everything he wrote and said, a Catholic Christian whose mother suffered greatly after her conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism, and whose education under the Birmingham Oratorians was redolent of the founder of that second home Tolkien found after his mother's death, Cardinal Newman, whose own conversion from the Church of England to Catholicism shook 19th century English society. From both he learned a particularly English version of Catholicism, one inspired by Saints More and Becket, the Catholicism of three hundred years of hidden chapels and martyrs like St. Edmund Campion, executed for treason because they celebrated the Mass on English soil. Myths grow in the imagination from such a soil. Tolkien's myth grew from remembered and experienced suffering, and from a profound sense of loss of all things sacred. Though the myth that informs The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings takes place for the most part in a monotheistic but, for the most part, pre-religious world, it nevertheless turns on the temptation of sin and the lure of power. The Elves fight evil but are also drawn by it, and the upheavals of the Second and Third Age point to the end of both the high kingdoms of the Elves and the vestiges of the Numenorean True West. There is an air of melancholy about it all, a deep melancholy that yearns for the joy of Eucastrophe and laments the passing of all that is good and beautiful. That rhythm of joy and lamentation is at the very root of the Psalms and of Christian life.

The reductionists and fundamentalists among us may be taught something by Tolkien if they learn to listen to the resonance of such mythic rhythm. "Mythos" in Greek means story or plot, not something false. Both the poorly thought-out scientific reductionism and literalist fundamentalism unite to destroy a proper appreciation of story in the sense Tolkien meant it. Even C.S. Lewis, certainly a classically educated man, originally thought of the Greek and other primordial myths as "lies," until on a walk with Tolkien, the latter suddenly turned in one of those great moments of revelation and firmly said, "they are not lies." The "true myth" of the Gospel is "a myth that has really happened," Tolkien said, but because it is through God's gift that men are story tellers, every story is a partial reflection of the True Light that has come into the world, from man's beginnings to the present. God expresses himself through the minds of poets. The difference was that God is the poet who made the true story of the Gospel. This revelation, a personal word from Tolkien to Lewis, was so earthshaking that shortly after, Lewis became a Christian and began his own famous mythmaking about the great war at the heart of all myths.

Before New Agers and Jungians get excited about this, they must see that believing that all myths are true does not mean that all myths are equally true nor that all religions are equally true. Believing this, like Joyce and Jung, they move in an endless Circean circle of titillating doubt. One of the greatest Catholic writers of the 20th century, G. K. Chesterton, had already dismantled the arguments for the endless Jungian maze that many wander in now by pointing out that though all the stories point to a truth, there must be a Truth for them to point to, and that new story of Christianity is a new poem of joy unlike anything the Pagan world, trapped on the wheel of sorrow and suffering, had to offer. Classical and primitive myths could strain toward truth as echoes harken back to the original. When men sense or experience glimpses of truth in such stories, the perennial annoying question of "is it a true story?" is answered. Yes, it is. You have had a moment of truth — and of grace, the"eucastrophe," "a sudden joyous turn representing a miraculous grace never to be counted on to recur." Such a moment can occur in many stories and fairy tales, but all such moments depended on the ability of man to count on the very thing itself. The Gospel is, in fact, Tolkien argued, a Fairy Story in itself; in the Incarnation, we see the ultimate Eucastrophe of the Resurrection and enter into a kind of real joy the world before Christ did not have to offer.


The deep myth that Tolkien made was his inner home for most of his adult life; indeed, it may have be said to have begun in his childhood, when he first began to play with words. But if his poetic life began in the Shire, first in South Africa, and then in England, it found its focus and drive in war. He had written of dragons as a child, but it was battle which gave birth to the first glimmerings of the vast tale of which The Lord of the Rings is only a part. On March 2, 1916, while in the trenches of France in the First World War, he wrote his newly wed wife that between military lectures he was improving his "nonsense fairy language." "I often long to work at it and don't let myself 'cause though I love it so it does seem such a mad hobby!" The mad hobby was the germ of his life's work. Years later, when he wrote his essay "On Fairy-Stories," he confesses that "a real taste for fairy stories was wakened by philology on the threshold of manhood, and quickened to full life by war[italics added]." Later he recalled that a particular peninsula in France inspired the "kernel of the mythology," resulting in the tale of The Fall of Gondolin. In the letter in which Tolkien recalls this, he writes movingly of his own story as if someone else had written it, admiring, and being moved by, particular events, even particular sounds.

As he struggled with bouts of trench fever, Tolkien's love of faerie and language led him to begin creating the great cosmogenic myth that is the Silmarillion, which began in notebooks in 1917. Though its story of the history of a world was the center of Tolkien's vision and the mythical force behind his other writings, it was not published in its final form until four years after his death. It as if Tolkien had to write a Bible before he could create a derivative tale. Early on, after the success of The Hobbit, he attempted to get publisher Raymond Unwin to publish the whole as a single unit, partly because he thought no one would understand the one without the other.

Tolkien began The Lord of the Rings in 1937, as the dark clouds of Mordor were again gathering over the West, but he often said that neither of the World Wars had anything to do with it. Again, he was usually resisting allegorical interpretations when he so demurred. Privately, he knew that these wars of the West generated much of the vision of the wars of his Secondary World. Writing to son Christopher in May 1944, Tolkien urged his son to write to find a way to deal with the horrors of war, and said he generated Morgoth and the History of the Gnomes in "grimy canteens, at lectures in cold fogs, in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in the dugouts under shell fire." In the same letter, he commiserated with the soldiers who found themselves in stupidity and scarcity caused by "planners" and "organization," and lamented war as an inevitable evil due to "humans being what they are" short of "Universal Conversion." The war was an "evil job, for we are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring. And we shall (it seems) succeed. But the penalty is, as you will know, to breed new Saurons, and slowly turn men and elves into Orcs . . . . and we started out with a great many Orcs on our side . . . .Well, there you are, a hobbit among the Urukhai. Keep up your hobbitry in heart, and think that all stories are like that when you are in them. You are inside a very great story."

Having grown up in a non-Catholic and anti-Catholic landscape, the southern West Virginia coal fields, I learned like Tolkien to love Catholicism "and the very great story" as the one secret road of adventure and to loathe industrial wastelands as the product of the Machine. The tiny stone Sacred Heart Catholic Church a block from our house was a way into a different world, and perched over the endlessly banging, huffing, whistling, smelly, cinder-spouting, coal-laden railyards, it offered God rather than coal dust. "Anyway all this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine," he wrote of his myth, firmly asserting that the Machine was a kind of enslaving black magic. The detestation of industrial magic and his experience in World War I came together in a military hospital where, after becoming the only survivor in his unit of the horrendous Battle of the Somme, he began to write the "Fall of Gondolin," which details the brutal destruction of the fabled city of Gondolin by the dark power of Morgoth. Wounded in a similar war which drained and spiritually depressed a generation, Tolkien, as one writer put it, had turned in his hospital bed toward the wall and begun dreaming of another world and another war of good and evil.

As we read The Lord of the Rings during the beginnings of what is said to be another great war, it is worth listening to Tolkien's own thoughts about the two great wars he lived through. He fought as a soldier in WWI and served in the reserves in WWII, he helped designed a curriculum for naval and air cadets at Oxford, and he agreed to assist in cryptography if called upon. He despised the Nazis against whom he could be colossally angry and said he wished he could fight Hitler personally. There can be no questioning of Tolkien's patriotism, which he considered a high virtue. He knew evil when he saw it and knew it had to be defeated — but defeated, not destroyed, for even hurling the Ring into the crack of doom ends only one chapter, and vigilance is ever required of the protectors of the West. The letters also reveal that Tolkien never saw either of the wars in popular ways or believed government propaganda, which he despised. At this point, Tolkien knew that no war can be properly understood apart from the larger war in which we are engaged until the Last Judgment. Because human beings are under the Fall, he observed, there will be no end to wars, and it is folly to think so. We cannot, he said, truly win a war nor enjoy or even estimate outcomes, nor can the victors enjoy the fruits of victory, "not in the terms that they envisaged; and insofar as they fought for something to be enjoyed by themselves (whether acquisition or mere preservation), the less satisfactory will 'victory' seem."

Because of the Fall, at every point of battle, we must know that the real battle is like the battle that goes on inside the individual nation and soldier, like the battle that goes on inside Frodo — and Frodo loses the fight, succumbs to temptation, but is saved by Grace. He gains a great wound from his struggle and the healing of that terrible wound requires exile, suffering, and higher powers. "The Quest," Tolkien wrote to the editor of the New Republic, "was bound to fail as a piece of world-plan, and also was bound to end in disaster as the story of Frodo's humble development to the 'noble,' his sanctification." Frodo 'apostatized,' Tolkien says, and until he read a 'savage' wartime letter from a reader insisting that Frodo should have been executed as a traitor, he did not realize how the story, conceived in outline in 1936, would appear "in a dark age in which the technique of torture and the disruption of the personality would rival that of Mordor and the Ring and present us with the practical problem of earnest men of good will broken down into apostates and traitors." The ultimate judgment of Gollum, Tolkien says, must be left to what medieval poets called "God's privatee," but Frodo's pity and forgiveness of Gollum is what saves him in the real world of good and evil. His succumbing to power of the Ring, like Smeagol and Saruman, must be understood, like the weaknesses of the inhabitants of the Shire, from the perspective of the Gospel. Because the power of the temptation is so great, the final scene of the Quest, when Frodo fails and Gollum falls, the catastrophe of the tale, can only be understood from the Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."

One may compare the quest of another soldier by another Catholic writer. In Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy of World War II, Guy Crouchback, sickened by the evil of the Nazis and Fascists, hears of the fall of Prague to the Germans, knows that war is inevitable, and understands with joy that he can now be a Christian soldier. Seven days earlier, Russia and Germany had pledged to split the spoils of a world ripe for plunder, plunging European communists into despair and opening a window for those who hated both totalitarianisms. "He [had] expected his country to go to war in a panic, for the wrong reasons, or for no reason at all, with the wrong allies, in pitiful weakness. But now, splendidly, everything had become clear. The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in Arms. Whatever the outcome, there was a place for him in that battle."

Like one of his ancestors, Crouchback pledged his quest at the tomb of a Christian crusader who fought the evil of Islam. After Germany changes sides and attacks Russia, and when it becomes clear to him that England has united its cause with atheistic Soviet Communism, he is greatly disillusioned and crushed, and can only fall back upon his personal honor as a motive for soldiering on. The insanity of war and the absurdity of his own army and government finally reduce him to a numb disillusionment. At the end, his personal pity for a small community of Jews in Yugoslavia, where he is stationed, is the only motive for action. The question of joining a Christian West against evil, except in spirit, is now dead. Crouchback returns to England where, as a Catholic, he can devote himself to the only thing he can now understand, his family.

Like Guy Crouchback, in the thick of the realities of war, Tolkien found it impossible to maintain a simple desire for revenge or a jingoistic correctness. Though he never seemed to lose his anger against the Nazis, his feelings did not extend to the country of Germany, the Germanic tradition, or the defeated soldiers and helpless civilians. In 1945, he lamented the destruction of the commonwealth of Europe "which will affect us all." "Yet people gloat to hear of the endless lines, 40 miles long, of miserable refugees, women and children pouring West, dying on the way. There seem no bowels of mercy or compassion, no imagination, left in this dark diabolic hour." While he acknowledged that Germany created the situation, and knew the suffering "necessary and inevitable," he asked, "but why gloat? We were supposed to have reached a stage of civilization in which it might be necessary to execute a criminal, but not to gloat or to hang his wife and child by him while the orc-crowd hooted." And if that was something to be sad about, Tolkien also saw the present catastrophe against the unfolding story of a dying planet. "The War of the Machines seems to be drawing to its final inconclusive chapter — leaving, alas, everyone the poorer, many bereaved or maimed and millions dead, and only one thing triumphant: the Machines. As the servants of the Machines are becoming a privileged class, the Machines are going to be enormously more powerful. What's their next move?" When the next move came about, atomic bombs, he was stunned by lunatic scientists calmly plotting the destruction of the world. "Such explosives in men's hands, while their moral and intellectual status is declining, is about as useful as giving out firearms to all the inmates of a gaol and then saying you hope 'this will ensure peace'."

In hating the enemy, he did not lose perspective, just as he did not lose respect for the virtues of the Germanic tradition and its mythology, which he valued far above the Classic tradition and classical mythology, and counted England and Scandinavia in that tradition. The Germanic virtues of obedience and patriotism and courage, he rated as stronger in Germany than in England. The ancient Germans gave to Europe the "noble northern spirit." "Nowhere, incidentally, was it nobler in England, nor more early sanctified and Christianized." Such words were, one may imagine, best uttered privately in 1941.

The reason that Tolkien was able to maintain such perspective on the enemy was twofold. First, because he lived in myth, not allegory. The same people who wanted to see all stories as allegorical wanted a neat dualism. "Wars are derived from the 'inner war' of allegory in which good is on one side and various modes of badness on the other. In real (exterior life) men are on both sides, which means a motley alliance of orcs, beasts, demons, plain naturally honest men, and angels." The second reason for the perspective was that the myth he lived in was the Christian myth, which sees things such as sin and evil in a radically different way. As Tolkien explained to the New Republic, the final evil deed done to Frodo by Gollum was made possible by Frodo's forbearing to kill Gollum — which pity looks like "ultimate folly" — and in the Divine Economy, it is this loving the enemy that makes Frodo's salvation possible. At the beginning of the tale, Frodo declared that Gollum deserved death. Gandalf relied, "Deserves it? I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that dies deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the wise cannot see all ends."


As readers of Tolkien at the end of 2001, we too cannot see all ends. We are told that we are in the beginnings of another great war against another great enemy. After 1400 years of sporadic assault from Islam, it is not difficult, though it is politically incorrect, to know who that enemy is. If an enemy is a force and a mind, however inchoate, that insists on dominating or even destroying you, then Islam is an enemy, as it has always been. A priest friend from Nigeria, who was brought up in a Muslim-dominated area and has no illusions about the nature of that religion, said to me angrily, "if the enemy is not Islam, what is it?" Like Tolkien with German culture, today's Catholic can appreciate points of agreement between Catholicism and Islam and can admire strengths in Islamic and Arab cultures. We can also take a cue from Tolkien in recognizing that if there are terrible orcs among the Islamists who kill us, we must also be aware that there are orcs, and orc spirits, on our own side. Fighting what is called "terrorism" is, as with the war against the Axis powers, "necessary and inevitable," to use Tolkien's words. Not letting the spirit of that necessary conflict grow into something evil is the perilous part.

At the same time, Western Catholics today are subject to a kind of theological fog machine that began to blow some forty years ago when the Second Vatican Council completed whatever its work was. Tolkien himself — as did Evelyn Waugh — abhorred the changes in the Mass and the prevailing Catholic mind. He knew that his imaginative and spiritual roots were in the Ancient Church, and he was bewildered by the theological wreckers who would, as he put it, pull up a tree to discover its roots. No matter how scandalized, he reaffirmed his Faith in the Church and the Pope because they defended the Blessed Sacrament and kept it in its prime place as the center of our worship. He well understood that the entire "Reformation" was an assault on what the Reformers called "the blasphemous fable of the Mass." Today, as many Catholics know, the assault has continued within the Church under fables and lies generated by orc-ish priests, theologians, and Bishops, so much so that upwards of 30 percent of Catholics today no longer believe in the Real Presence, which Tolkien would have died to protect. In churches that are more like gymnasiums and malls rather than reverential sanctuaries where He abides, the Catholic Faith that Tolkien knew is often reduced to kindergarten games. One is sometimes tempted to ask, what is the point of going to Church if the culture inside is no different from the one outside?

The enemy within, the anti-culture we have allowed to develop, is as important as the enemy of Islam, and though we cannot agree with the Muslims on every point, we can certainly agree with them that Western culture is now so decadent that it can no longer even understand what is wrong with itself. From World War II, in which we flattered ourselves that we were the victors, we brought home the Nazi spoils — abortion, infanticide, elimination of the unfit, euthanasia, assisted suicides, eugenic experimentation, and State determination of personhood, all of which now dominate our hospitals and threaten our homes as much as any buzz bombs or Panzers ever did. Today, moderns in the "media" always utter the word Nazi with horror and loathing, blithely unaware that the evils we said we were fighting have taken up residence in our very hearts, a kind of series of interlocking Rings of Power that we use to deny the realities of sex, love, family, and community.

Tolkien feared that arriving anti-life anti-culture, though he could not imagine how far it would, Saruman like, seize the Western soul. Writing in 1944, he asked, "when it is all over, will ordinary people have any freedom left (or right) or will they have to fight for it, or will they be too tired to resist? The last seems the idea of some of the Big Folk. Who have for the most part viewed this war from the vantage point of large motor-cars. Too many are childless. But I suppose that the one certain result of it all is a further growth in the great standardized amalgamations with their mass-produced notions and emotions." "You and I," he wrote to son Christopher as The Lord of the Rings neared completion, "belong to the ever-defeated never altogether subdued side. I should have hated the Roman Empire in its day (as I do), and remained a patriotic Roman citizen, while preferring a free Gaul and seeing good in Carthaginians."

The literary republic constituted of writers like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, and Evelyn Waugh — as well as the larger Catholic tradition of Augustine and Aquinas, exists now only in scattered individuals and scorned enclaves. Indeed, the teachers and exponents of traditional Catholic culture are even hunted down like terrorists, as happened in the last year with the closing of St. Ignatius Institute by the Jesuit priest who heads the University of San Francisco, whose mission statement sounds more like a UN document than anything Catholic or Christian. What is so enormously sad about this, the kind of sadness that often enters Tolkien's tales, is that true culture is not something that happens or is manufactured. As John Senior used to say, it takes three generations to make a farmer or agri-culture. It takes a whole Dark Ages to make a Catholic culture. What begins in monasteries, deserts, and caves must be lovingly transmitted by people who know it and exemplify it. The kind of sensibility that can make a Lord of the Rings takes centuries of learning, suffering, and living to create. The notion that a multimillion dollar movie — the kind of Faerian Drama Tolkien imagined the Elves as producing for men — can substitute for reading or hearing is of itself suspect. Tolkien speculated that such a drama, like the Wish Fulfillment dreams he condemned in Mythopoeia, would come too close to Enchantment. To the extent that such a performance deludes, it threatens to have the force of a Primary world, becomes too potent, and is easily used as a technique for domination.

Nevertheless, though modern anti-culture has a way of destroying what it celebrates and undermining the very thing it portrays, it just may be that because of the hoopla, The Lord of the Rings may seep into both naïve and jaded imaginations, drawing some people to read and wonder. At the present time, engaged in a terrible war with evil, we may be forgiven if we grasp at any hope of being serious about genuine culture, which is the handing on (traditio) of the love of good words, good deeds, and good beliefs. "Whatever enlarges hope, exalts courage," Dr. Johnson wrote, "after having seen the deaf taught arithmetick, who would be afraid to cultivate the Hebrides?" If we had a map of the Christian world a century after St. Augustine's death, a map of true Catholic culture would look like tiny points of light in a sea of barbarian darkness. Two centuries later, there would be many more points. But even in the period of medieval greatness, the points of light, now more numerous and often much larger, would be threatened all around by the incessant lapping of the violent waves of Islam.

The difficulty is, of course, starting institutions that will be the good ground the seeds fall upon, as in Christ's parable of the Sower. St. Benedict started the monasteries, St. Augustine the schools, with the blessings of the teaching Church. Now the "pastoral church," as it is fond of calling itself, uses its shepherds' crooks to keep the fields fallow. Roving Gandalfs are few and far between; Saruman and his dupes, the defectors, abound. This is all well and good for those who know the difference. If there is cause for lament, it should be for the hundreds of thousands of young people who honestly ask and seek but who have no true teachers among them and, in Milton's words, are "hungry sheep that look up and are not fed." Here and there a few may be tapped for adventure, for one thing we can learn from Tolkien about a time of war is that adventure is something that comes to you. It is there, and suddenly you are in it. Grace works that way. Let us pray that it does and that the unlikely Frodos among us will receive the grace they need to make a culture that will grow. One such Frodo was Karol Wojtyla, who built a Catholic cultural community in backstreets and side paths under the very noses of the Nazis and Communists.

My hope is that Tolkien will be read as what he undoubtedly is, a great Catholic poet of the post-Christian era. If Dante created the Catholic poem of the Middle Ages by explicitly telling the Christian story from top to bottom, Tolkien has created the great Catholic poem of the anti-Catholic age by embodying the catholic imagination in a not-quite-parallel universe of hobbits, elves, dwarves, wizards, orcs, and men. He has, because of his own love of pure story, discovered and revealed a way to speak unmentionable things to a post-Christian culture. In the trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter, Nobel prizewinner Sigrid Undset was able to do this by casting her story in medieval Norway in a great explicit Catholic poem of the last century. In his fiction, Evelyn Waugh was able to render the beauty of Catholicism through hints and gestures, suggesting its nearly concealed presence in a progressively secular world. In The Lord of the Rings, I believe Tolkien does exactly what he said he was doing, communicating a religious, Catholic vision through a Secondary World that radiates something vital for souls on perilous quests in a world of wars and War: the holiness of high calling.

Those who follow that calling today will know from reading and absorbing The Lord of the Rings that adventure is unexpected and may cost not less than everything, that risk is what makes home and family and country secure, that small fellowships based on truth give birth to courage, that the truly dangerous things are the powers we cannot see, that conspiracies against the truth run are deep and live on visions dangerously seductive and completely alien, that the East is always an anti-truth woven of lies and the True West is always to be built, that a Quest demands you know who you are and what you seek, that every point in time intersects with eternity in free choice, that history is a long defeat and glory is elsewhither, that the mass of men will never appreciate or remember the great deeds of those who die for them, that evil always returns in new clothes and is always ready to destroy the old fashioned verities, that vigilant watching is ever needed, that home is something you make with sacrifice and love, that the telling of true tales in dark times is the succor of the brave, and that without Grace there is no salvation.


This TrueWest celebration of Tolkien, written partly in answer to questions from others and greatly as a love of a book that brings healing to weary souls, is a personal essay and is therefore, in that tradition, free of academic machinery. As is evident from section I, I am writing from the vantage point of what C.S. Lewis called "Old Western Man" and what the late Allen Tate referred to as the remnants of true education. In the company of either of those men, I am a bit like Samwise Gamgee left behind at the Grey Havens, most of my masters gone West, a few of my like-minded friends scattered throughout the smoking ruins of Middle Earth.

This meditation on Tolkien is nevertheless in debt to other writings about Tolkien, and these I would heartily recommend to the reader. The essence of the matter is this: there is a wonderful book called The Lord of the Rings which has been left behind on the docks where Frodo and his friends departed. It is a wonderful book which millions have enjoyed but which is not easily accessible to folk who are outside the Western Tradition, Christianity, or Catholicism. "The Lord of the Rings is fundamentally a religious and Catholic work. The religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism," Tolkien wrote, and he doubtless hoped that those who entered its enchanting realms would be wakened to something above them.

Now the movie is upon us, a new wave of Tolkien curiosity and speculation is washing through the media.. Most of what I have seen are journalistic puff pieces for the movie, often filled with errors and misconceptions. A more earnest, but absolutely depressing, piece is Jenny Turner's "Reasons for Liking Tolkien," which appeared in The London Review of Books, 15 November 2001. Turner has done enough homework to spout pseudo-scholarly commentary. She seems to specialize in turning up the right evidence and then missing the point by burying everything good with psychobabble, deconstructionist blather, and New Age spirituality — the kind that likes to sniff the odor of serious things but never takes them seriously. Turner's uncomprehending piece ("this curious murk") is exactly what I feared when I first learned about the imminence of the super movie. She can see LOTR only through a Sauronian fog of popular culture and postmodernist dervishing. Ultimately she sees Tolkien's world as a kind of vacation in virtual reality, another item in the endless, superficial menu of cafeteria culture, to be sampled and dismissed. Anything else she would seem to find intimidating.

I recommend that anyone who wants to follow the threads I have laid down here turn to the following, which will delight and instruct: Joseph Pearce, ed., Tolkien: A Celebration: Collected Writings on a Literary Legacy (1999); Joseph Pearce, Man and Myth: A Literary Life (1998); and most especially, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (1995), edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien. In addition to these, of course, any of the many writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, and the multi-volume work by his son Christopher. Finally, if any serious young people are stirred by Tolkien to wonder if they have received anything approximating a genuine education, I can do not better than recommend you purchase a manual for living in a new Dark Ages: James V. Schall, Another Sort of Learning: Selected Contrary Essays on How to Finally Acquire an Education While Still in College or Anywhere Else . . . ." (Ignatius, 1988). (Yes, he is a Jesuit priest but he won't bite you, and he will induct you into the great questions, without which a human being cannot live in the delight of wonder.)



Ken Craven. "A Catholic Poem in Time of War: The Lord of the Rings." True West.

Reprinted with permission of the author.


R. Kenton Craven earned an A.B. in English at Wheeling College (Wheeling Jesuit University) with minors in Philosophy and Dramatic Writing Arts, an M.A. in English at Marshall University, and a Ph.D. in English with a minor in Philosophy at the University of Kansas. He has taught at Southeast Missouri State University, the University of Wyoming, Muskingum College, Universidad InterAmericana, the University of Louisville, Wartburg College, West Virginia University, Kuwait University, Fairmont State College, and Sultan Qaboos University (Oman). A generalist in western literature, he wrote his dissertation on the literary criticism of the 1930's, with special focus on the Christian theory of art. Dr. Craven has received many scholarships and grants before and after graduate study, including the John Hay Whitney Fellowship for minorities. In addition to twenty-seven years of college teaching, he has been a social worker, mental health therapist, magazine editor, newspaper columnist, and technical writer. In 1994, he was awarded the Mississippi Short Fiction Prize.

Copyright © 2001 R. Kenton Craven