What good stories do.

In a great little collection of Eudora Welty’s essays called On Writing, she says the following in a piece called “Must the Novelist Crusade?”

“Time, though it can make happenings and trappings out of date, cannot do much to change the realities apprehended by the imagination. History will change in Mississippi, and the hope is that it will change in a beneficial direction and with a merciful speed, and above all bring insight, understanding. But when William Faulkner’s novels come to be pictures of a society that is no more, they will still be good and still be authentic because of what went into them from the man himself. Mankind still tries the same things and suffers the same falls, climbs up to try again, and novels are as true at one time as at another.”

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Great books: after you’ve scaled the mountain.

Mountain Peak2

A good buddy asked me a couple weeks ago about what he should read next, now that he finished Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. He asked if I knew of anything like that, with that kind of richness. I thought for a little bit, and I gave two or three suggestions of other books that might scratch some of the same itches. But I realized that I couldn’t recommend anything quite as good as The Lord of the Rings. And I definitely couldn’t recommend anything better.

The following here applies beyond Tolkien (or whoever your favorite author or book happens to be). Reading a great book that’s the best in its genre is like having scaled the peak of the tallest mountain in a range. In all of the breathtaking beauty and precipitous slow-going, you’ve known the mountain and you’ve seen the view from the top. Any other hill or mountain peak won’t be quite as imposing and full of serious joy as the experience of that tallest climb.

So what do we do? There’s definitely joy and fun and richness in the other books. But realistically, nothing’s going to give the same experience as that one great book. To risk taking the metaphor too far, heading up that tallest mountain again will definitely not produce the same experience, and that can be a really good thing. There will be familiar places that will ignite the same joy and numinous awe. But on a second attempt, the climb will yield plenty of things you missed the first time. When certain scenes are familiar, you’re freed up to experience other nuances of the place. Your experience on the way up won’t go exactly like it did before, and the view from the summit and the highest places won’t look exactly the same: there will always be more grandeur.

It’s disappointing, but also glorious, that there’s nothing else like the best few books you’ve read. It means you have to keep coming back to them – there’s no substitute. Other books will remind you of that greatest one that was the most full and rich, and gave you the grandest views. So don’t move on exclusively to lesser versions of the giant. There’s a store of joy in the greatest books that’s more inexhaustible. Go back again.

Art and Beauty: Wendell Berry’s Essays

In his collection of essays What Are People For, Wendell Berry writes about the role of despair and sorrow in producing hope and joy. It’s just great.

Reading these essays has gotten better and better the further in I’ve gotten. It’s really some beautiful stuff. I only wish I was reading the physical copy of this collection, and not a kindle version on my iPhone…

Anyway, on suffering, Berry says,

“[S]omething more is involved that is even harder to talk about because it is only slightly understandable, and that is the part that suffering plays in the economy of the spirit. It seems plain that the voice of our despair defines our hope exactly; it seems, indeed, that we cannot know of hope without knowing of despair, just as we know joy precisely to the extent that we know sorrow…

“Is it necessary, as some appear to have supposed, to cultivate despair and sorrow in order to know hope and joy? No, for there will always be enough despair and sorrow. And what might have been the spiritual economy of Eden, when there was no knowledge of despair and sorrow? We don’t need to worry about that.”

Wendell Berry, from an essay entitled “A Poem of Difficult Hope.”

“The Lord of the Rings” – Not Allegory, but Romance

C.S. Lewis said the following, specifically with Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in mind:

“A strict allegory is like a puzzle with a solution: a great romance is like a flower whose smell reminds you of something you can’t quite place. I think the something is ‘the whole quality of life as we actually experience it.’ You can have a realistic story in which all the things & people are exactly like those we meet in real life, but the quality, the feel or texture or smell, of it is not.

In a great romance it is just the opposite. I’ve never met Orcs or Ents or Elves – but the feel of it, the sense of a huge past, of lowering danger, of heroic tasks achieved by the most apparently unheroic people, of distance, vastness, strangeness, homeliness (all blended together) is so exactly what living feels like to me. Particularly the heart-breaking quality in the most beautiful places, like Lothlorien. And it is so like the real history of the world: ‘Then, as now, there was a growing darkness and great deeds were done that were not wholly in vain.'”

C.S. Lewis, from a letter to Lucy Matthews. 11 September 1958

A good, true “romance” in the literary sense is a story that doesn’t relate to, or teach a clear “lesson” about, life as we know it in a strict “this represents that” sense. But in the telling of the story, and the development of the characters, it feels like real life. It stirs your affections, awakening pleasure and sorrow and fear and joy. You see much that is applicable, as Tolkien talked about, to real life as we all live within the great Story (capital “S”) that the Creator is telling. And in being this way, a romance is filled with Truth, of echoes and emotions that remind us of our true country. The “quality and texture” is there, and is realistic. The Lord of the Rings is filled with more truth than I’ve experienced in lots of other books, though it’s not an allegory. We don’t need it to be. And the things a story like that stirs in us are possibly more real and rich as a result.

It’s good to read books that have these qualities, because they wake us up, I think, to truer feelings, which all point to the new heavens and earth that are coming. When things will be the way they were meant to be in the first place. We only glimpse it now, but reading the right kinds of books can shape us into the right sort of people, who desire and feel for the right sort of things.

Peter Kreeft, and the Real Hero of “The Lord of the Rings”

This is really a great lecture. Kreeft’s insights into The Lord of the Rings are right-on, and I especially enjoyed this because I wrote a senior thesis paper on this subject matter in college. If you’ve never heard some of this, it’ll give you a deeper appreciation for what Tolkien was up to in his writing.

Peter Kreeft is the author of The Philosophy of Tolkien, where you’ll get more of these insights, in greater detail and depth.

Reading The Beauty Of “The Pilgrim’s Progress”

Totally unrelated to this post, two ironic things have happened in the last couple of weeks. First, Ligonier announced their release of a new series by Derek Thomas, published on DVD, which looks great. Second, Justin Taylor wrote a post about this series on his blog, quoting Dr. Thomas, who asks whether this generation will be the one in which The Pilgrim’s Progress disappears.

I’m right in the middle of reading through The Pilgrim’s Progress with my British Lit. class, and I’ve been getting kind of a fresh look at the book this time through. I’ve been meditating a lot on what goes on in this story, and the truths Bunyan is portraying in the allegory. So I appreciated Justin Taylor’s post, and the quotes and clips there from Derek Thomas and J.I. Packer, about the book’s value, especially for the church. Maybe this all means that we’re all thinking about this book, and should be writing and talking about it, in-part so the next generation doesn’t lose an appreciation for it. Maybe. In any case, here I go – not necessarily because I’m fearful of the book’s disappearance, but mostly because I’ve grown to really love it.

For fun I thought I’d do a short series of posts about a few of the characters who are really standing out to me this time through the book. If nothing else, it’ll be helpful and devotional for me to think a little deeper about the people inhabiting this story.

But first of all, though, I wanted to write just a couple thoughts about what kind of story The Pilgrim’s Progress is, and how we should read it. These are things I’ve learned as I’ve taught through the book, while also reading through it each time, for five years now.

An allegory is a story written with an intentional symbolism in the characters, places, and plot. There is a relationship, sometimes a one-to-one relationship, between things in the story and things outside of the story. The best allegory takes invisible, intangible, or inward truths and circumstances, and makes them visible. The Pilgrim’s Progress does this in maybe the purest sense.

There are degrees of allegory. One degree would be when it’s written something like The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. C.S. Lewis buried his allegory a little bit below the surface of this story, more deeply in certain places, so that you might have to think hard to get the symbolism. The Father Christmas scene in this book, if you’re familiar with it, is one of those “thinkers” (for me anyway). Then there’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, where the allegory is right there on the surface of the whole thing. You don’t find yourself reading Bunyan’s story and getting lost in the story quite for its own sake, at least not as much as in something like Lewis’s Narnia books. But these two “kinds” of allegory each have their beauty and purpose.

Here’s the beauty of Bunyan’s allegory: it’s as if he took the whole inward journey and battle of faith for a Christian, and flipped it with the real outward, physical world. All of a sudden, initial awareness and guilt over sin, conversion and new life at the cross, and the ups and downs of a persevering faith in Jesus are here what you would see, if those things were all visible. And so the result is real, tangible pictures of things and people breaking in and giving perspective and light and, hopefully, clarity and encouragement as we process the ups and downs of our faith. We go with Christian as he flees the City of Destruction, and loses his burden in faith and repentance at the cross. We meet characters like Evangelist, Pliable, Worldly Wiseman, Interpreter, Hypocrisy, Atheist, Ignorance, and Hopeful. We climb the Hill of Difficulty with Christian, experience the horrors of the Valley of the Shadow of Death, nearly meet our demise in Doubting Castle, and even so we persevere with Christian on the road to the Celestial City. And if we are Christians, born again to new life in Christ, we have, or will, do all these things.

To borrow from J.I. Packer’s quote that Justin Taylor shares in his post,

Certainly, it would be great gain for modern Christians if Bunyan’s masterpiece came back into its own in our day.

Have you yourself, I wonder, read it yet?

Myth and Tolkien

“Conversation with Smaug” by J.R.R. Tolkien

As we know, J.R.R. Tolkien attempted to write a mythology for the English people, rooted in the traditions and atmosphere of England and the British Isles. We know the Greek and Roman mythologies stand apart from other literature as a genre, with a grandeur unique to them. They stand like titans above most other literature. What is it about mythologies that sets them apart, and makes them so grand? And why do human cultures develop them? Why did Tolkien feel we needed one for English folk?

I love Tolkien’s stories, and what he tried to do with an English mythology. And as I’ve been reading my way through The Lord of the Rings for the third time in my life, I’ve been grappling with why this story is so moving, exactly. There are lots of reasons, but here’s a quote I recently stumbled upon, that gets at some of intangible stuff that makes myth so important to literature, and to human experience:

“Myths are neither true nor untrue, but the product and process of man’s yearning. As such, they’re the most primal thing bonding us to other people. Yet the phenomenon is much more than a snake feeding on its own tail. Myths gather momentum because they provide hope.”

Cynthia Buchanan (Quoted in The Searchers, by Glenn Frankel)

This is why, in Tolkien’s stories we don’t find a one-to-one allegorical relationship between the story and real life, or the story and Christianity as many try their darndest to uncover there. But because his stories are crafted in the tradition of myth, there’s much of God, Christianity, and real life and human emotion that actually run much deeper then allegory can provide. Tolkien didn’t care much for allegory himself as we know, and that might be because he had an eye and a feel for a deeper kind of literary magic. The mythology is “neither true nor untrue,” but resonates very, very deeply in the human heart with the stuff of sorrow, hope, joy, and glory, and sends us back into our own world with a very real experience of these things. And the glory of Tolkien’s mythology is that it does what Buchanan mentions above: it provides, and points us toward the one real source of hope.