Christ in Fairyland

From “The Secret Commonwealth” by David Bentley Hart (October 2009):

One need not believe in fairies to grasp that there is no good reason why one ought not to do so. To see the world as inhabited by these vital intelligences, or to believe that behind the outward forms of nature there might be an unperceived realm of (intelligent order, is simply to respond rationally to one of the ways in which the world seems to address us, when we intuit simultaneously its rational frame and the depth of mystery it seems to hide from us. It may be that the apprehension of such an unseen order, when it comes in the form of folklore about fabulous beings, has been overlaid by numerous strata of illusion, but so what? Everything we know about reality comes to us with a certain alloy of illusion, not accidentally, but as an indispensable condition. Even the dreariest Kantian can tell you that our ability to know the world depends upon those transcendental qualities the mind impresses upon it before it can impress them upon the mind, and that all perception requires the supreme fictions of the synthetic a priori. At the most primordial level of consciousness, the discrimination between truth and fantasy—if by truth, one means the strictly empirically verifiable—becomes merely formal.

Moreover, even if one suspects this is not a matter so much of illusion as of delusion, again that is of no consequence. A delusion this amiable is endlessly preferable to boredom, for boredom is the one force that can utterly defeat the will to be, and so the will to care at all what is or is not true. It is only some degree of prior enchantment that allows the eye to see, and to seek to see yet more. And so, deluded or not, a belief in fairies will always be in some sense far more rational than the absolute conviction that such things are sheer nonsense, and that the cosmos consists in nothing but brute material events in haphazard combinations. Or, I suppose, another way of saying this would be that the ability of any of us to view the world with some sort of contemplative rationality rests upon the capacity we possessed as children to see in everything a kind of articulate mystery, and to believe in far more than what ordinary vision discloses to us: a capacity that endows us with that spiritual eros that allows us to know and love the world, and that we are wise to continue to cultivate in ourselves even after age and disillusion have weakened our sight.

Here are two other blog posts in which David Bentley Hart writes about related ideas:

At the bottom of most traditional images of Christ’s baptism (Theophany icons), there are two figures riding fish (or waves or other sea creatures) and turning away or fleeing from Jesus Christ as He enters the water. These two figures represent all the powers of the deep as they were subdued by Jesus Christ when he entered into the Jordan river. Specifically, the two figures are personifications of the Red Sea and the Jordan River. These two bodies of water are connected together by the Biblical story of Israel fleeing from Egypt and being rescued by God as they crossed the Red Sea at the start of their journey and the Jordan River at the end. We see this idea of God subduing these bodies of water within Psalm 114:5, where the singer writes: “What ails you, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back?”

Within some of these ancient images, these two figures are easily lost amid all of the other activity:

Baptism Icon 02

In some images, these figures are blended in with the water as if they are themselves made of water:

Baptism Icon 03 detail

Often, one of the figures is pouring water out of a great jar, representing the headwaters or the source and origin of the seas and rivers:

Baptism Icon 05 detail

Most often, these figures are shown riding fish and other water creatures, with their local authority represented by the rods, yokes, and reins in their hands. In this last icon, we also see the serpents of the deep crushed under the gates of Hades (in the shape of the cross). Many hymns and prayers at Theophany reference the dragons and sea monsters lurking in the waters and crushed by Christ at his baptism.

Baptism Icon 06 detail

These personifications of the Jordan River and the Red Sea are typically understood as simply symbolic. Throughout some of Christian church history, such natural “authorities” have also been understood as demonic. However, within the worldview of those who wrote the Bible and painted these images, these figures were understood as real powers within God’s created order who could serve either God or other powers (such as themselves or the demonic forces). Bible writers refer often to the “gods” as real entities (and not necessarily demonic), and Paul speaks regularly about the various ranks of created “powers” and “authorities” who were made subject to Jesus Christ after his resurrection and ascension to be enthroned in heaven. In Colossians 1:20, Paul says that Christ has reconciled “to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.” Within the Bible, there is clearly an idea of various types of created powers within nature (heaven and earth) that were originally subject to God (and to humans as God’s image bearers). However, after the fall of humanity, these powers were no longer under clear authority. They could sometimes serve demonic or angelic powers, but might also be simply “neutral agents” connected to many of the specific places and forces of God’s created world. Some scholars would understand all such authorities as being among the various ranks of angels (those who fell away from service to God as well as those who continued to serve their Creator). However, some Bible passages suggest that there are more complex ranks and categories of spiritual and ethereal creatures than simply the angels. One hymn in the Royal Hours for Theophany even references the “gin” (from an Antiochian service):

O Life-giving Lord, when Thou didst come to the Jordan in the flesh, in the likeness of man, willing to be baptized to lighten us who have erred, delivering us from all the wiles of the dragon and his gins.

Regardless of what we might make of all this, it also seems clear from scripture that we are not to be fascinated or fearful regarding these realms and powers. They are not our direct responsibility or concern. The Scriptures simply make it clear that we have nothing to fear in Jesus Christ. On the other hand, however, it is also unhealthy to simply dismiss all such created powers as simply superstitious nonsense. David Bentley Hart makes this point wonderfully in the essays linked above. It is good to have a sense of wonder and mystery about the various powers within God’s creation (without fearing them or seeking to control them).

C.S. Lewis makes this case for the ambiguous realm of these mythic creatures:

I have put the Longaevi or longlivers into a separate chap­ter because their place of residence is ambiguous between air and Earth. Whether they are important enough to justify this arrangement is another question. In a sense, if I may risk the oxymoron, their unimportance is their importance. They are marginal, fugitive creatures. They are perhaps the only creatures to whom the Model does not assign, as it were, an oficial status. Herein lies their imaginative value. They soften the classic severity of the huge design. They intrude a welcome hint of wildness and uncertainty into a universe that is in danger of being a little too self-explanatory, too luminous.

As David Bentley Hart claims: “Deluded or not, a belief in fairies will always be in some sense far more rational than the absolute conviction that such things are sheer nonsense, and that the cosmos consists in nothing but brute material events in haphazard combinations.” As Shakespeare famously puts it: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Hamlet 1.5.167-8). Although Hamlet may simply be criticizing Horatio here, within in the First Folio (1623), the text actually reads “our philosophy,” suggesting that Shakespeare was speaking in general terms about the limitations of human thought.

Finally, we may also go one step further than simply a call to humility and childlike wonder. As we submit our lives with humble thanksgiving to Jesus Christ, we may also know that we bless all the powers of nature who continue to wait “with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19). David Bentley Hart suggests that human society may change the nature of the “Hidden Commonwealth” that exists within the hills and streams surrounding us. He does this in the essay link at the top when he contrasts the “more Titanic than Olympian” character of the New World faeries with “the winsome charm of their European counterparts” who were “exposed to centuries of Greco-Roman and Christian civilization.” This idea can easily become bigotry and imperialism under a strange guise, but it also suggests that it matters tremendously to the created world around us how we live our lives and the kinds of communities that we shape.

We have many precedents for this. For centuries in the east and west, Christian monastic communities intentionally sought out the most desolate places in order to take the fight directly to the evil spirits there and to reestablish communion with God in these places (for the monastics themselves as well as for all human society and for all of the created world around them). “Ever since Elijah[,] the desert had been the preordained place for the restoration of all things.” (From Wilderness and Paradise in Christian Thought by George H. Williams, page 46. This resource contains some good discussion of the monastic understanding of their relationships with the powers of the created world.) In the Celtic tradition particularly, monasteries were repeatedly established in the most remote forests and swamps only to become thriving town centers. If Jesus Christ makes the rivers and seas into his servants, that is just one more reason for us to treat every stream and swamp with all due respect.

____________________________________________

Note: a wonderful question from a reader lead to this further effort to collect my thoughts: Faerie and the Endeavor of Christian Formation. Also, I only read chapter VI in The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis (entitled “The Longaevi”) after writing the initial draft of this post, and I quickly inserted the one key quote above from this essential essay by Lewis. Not surprisingly, Lewis left me thinking about much more that will ultimately refine some of what I have tried to formulate in this post. See also this post from Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories.”

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4 Responses to “Christ in Fairyland”

  1. You could also mention the prayer at the blessing of the water of baptism: “Thou didst hallow the streams of Jordan, sending down upon them from heaven thy Holy Spirit, and didst crush the heads of the dragons who lurked there.”

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