Faerie and the Endeavor of Christian Formation

Question from David F. White:

I am trying to articulate the significance of Hart/Milbank/Chestertons’ appreciation for faerie for the endeavor of Christian formation. Any thoughts?

Three answers come to mind initially:

  1. Most clear and helpful: faerie is a realm of story and imagination uniquely suited to teach us that all creation communicates the glory of God and that all creation can be our teacher in the ways of God. Through the world of faerie, we learn invaluable lessons about wonder, mystery, reverence, courage, and patience as it actually exists within the “real” or “everyday” world. G.K. Chesterton probably says this best, and a starting point would be chapter III in Orthodoxy: “The Ethics of Elfland.”
  2. More complex to communicate (but perhaps profoundly important): the world of faerie grounds us and connects us to the stories of our people and our place. A people is know by its language, its gods, and its land. Modernity has uprooted many of us from place and family heritage. We do not know and care for the same streams and hillsides over generations as so many of our ancestors did for past centuries. We have also lost our relationship to our ancestors and our language. As we moderns seek a way home following the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, I expect that we will see lifestyle changes coinciding with a revival of oral tradition and story-telling in formats that span generations. (Tolkien masters this type of story-telling like no one else, as his deeply informed myth-making takes up and synthesizes the entire corpus and tradition of storytelling within the English language.)
  3. Most speculative and difficult to communicate: faerie can be understood as part of a healthy Christianization or as the outworking of Jesus Christ’s dominion over the powers of creation and of the pagan gods. C.S. Lewis makes a strong case that the realm of faerie cannot be clearly categorized within a classical and Christian synthesis of the created order, and he claims that this is a key aspect of its value (chapter VI in The Discarded Image: “The Longaevi”). However, Lewis does end his discussion of faerie with four possible ways of understanding these creatures. He clearly rejects the idea that faerie should be associated with fallen angels and leaves himself only the options of lower angelic beings or of some third type of created beings who have been made closely associated with various areas and features of our earthly home. Decrying that some later Renaissance thinkers associated Fairies with “fallen angels; in other words, devils” and that “this becomes almost the official view after the accession of James I,” C.S. Lewis concludes: “One might have expected the High Fairies to have been expelled by science; I think they were actually expelled by a darkening of superstition.” Lewis speaks positively about the idea that some pagan gods may have developed more modest and healthy relationships with their local communities over time (as the Christian faith spread and these local powers were freed of potentially demonic domination and could live new and potentially less baleful lives): “Some studies of folklore are almost entirely concerned with the genealogy of beliefs, with the degeneration of gods into Fairies. It is a very legitimate and most interesting inquiry.” Lewis uses the term “degeneration” here to have common ground with those making a formal study of folklore, but he clearly would not see this change from gods to fairies as a negative development from a Christian standpoint.

In summary, I would say that a Christian and a biblical imagination must include a robust engagement with the realm of faerie. It is critical to Christian formation, and it is readily accessible to everyone in the form of great stories that lie at the heart and the root of our culture and heritage. Christians should continue looking to the likes of Tolkien, MacDonald, Chesterton, and Lewis for ongoing guidance and inspiration in this task. However, this is not primarily an intellectual or even an artistic task. This is ultimately connected to our lives and how we choose to live them: our commitment to concrete places and heritage.

Three primary sources in my mind:

  • Chapter III in Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton: “The Ethics of Elfland.”
  • Chapter VI in The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis: “The Longaevi.” (This book is a collection of his lectures introducing the world of Medieval and Renaissance literature.)
  • On Fairy-Stories” by J.R.R. Tolkien for the Andrew Lang lecture at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, in 1939. It received attention in printed form when it was published in Tree and Leaf (1964).

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