Image: Tolkien Library
Recently The Atlantic published an article with the intriguing title “Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories”. Its starting points are thought-provoking but fundamentally shareable: some of the best novels written in the twentieth century were written by British authors (among whom are Tolkien, Lewis and Rowling), while their American counterparts seem not to have attained comparable results.
In my opinion, the scholars interviewed by The Atlantic as to the reasons for this phenomenon failed to provide satisfactory explanations. Time and again the article sets American Christianity against British “paganism”, while maintaining that the permanence of a pagan/Celtic culture in the United Kingdom has saved its literature from Christian moralism.
This is mistaken on at least three counts: first, the effect of a Puritan culture cannot be considered as mirroring Christianity in general; second, the moral value of Tolkien’s, Lewis’ and Rowling’s novels cannot be downplayed; third, the worldview of these three authors (and especially of the first two) is shaped by Christian values, and by a strongly Christological perspective.
The matter becomes more nuanced and complex if we take into account the ways in which the various forms of Christianity have influenced the corresponding cultures. The Christian confessions which were historically crucial for England (Catholic and Anglican) have maintained ritual forms which preserve a sense of enchantment and of the sacred as amazement and wonder. The Puritan mentality, on the other hand, has always explicitly opposed such liturgical forms.
If the finite is capable of the infinite, and if the material can host and be transformed by the transcendent, the Catholic tradition (and partly the Anglican too) have left open their doors for an enchanted vision of the world.
Again, Puritanism professes predestination, which tends to diminish the interaction between human beings and the supernatural world. When personal success is considered to be a sign of predestination, a worldview which ultimately considers the human being as faber fortunae suae (architect of his own fortunes) is encouraged.
On the contrary, and different from many American heroes, Catholic “saints” are frequently humble and common persons; only by encountering the supernatural they receive something that makes them extraordinary. This happens, for example, to many antiheroes such as Tolkien’s Bilbo or Frodo, as well as to the children portrayed by Lewis or Rowling.
Two English-speaking scholars, Alison Milbank (Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians) and Lee Oser (The Return of Christian Humanism), offer in their works a very different viewpoint from that outlined by The Atlantic, and one which is, in my opinion, much more credible.
The true opposition is not between Christianity and paganism, but rather between a culture admitting to a transcendent dimension, and materialism. If the horizon of the human being is just immanent, life is a series of events — either deterministic or casual, but in either case deprived of an intelligible meaning, let alone a Providential plan.
Pagan and Christian culture, but also the world of fairy-tales (as Chesterton, in Orthodoxy, has beautifully demonstrated), have two fundamental beliefs in common: that there is a supernatural dimension, and that events are neither casual nor capriciously indifferent to human history. As Milbank puts it,
“To tell a story, whether one’s own or a traditional tale, is to mediate the world in its intentionality and narrative character. […] For to tell a story is to affirm that there is meaning to life, and that experience is shaped and has an entelechy”.
In order to narrate an effective tale, therefore, it is indispensable to believe that a story, any story, exists; that life has a meaning, and that this meaning can be searched, understood, elaborated and communicated. These stories are all the more fascinating when they are most filled with wonder and enchantment. These are born, in turn, from thinking that reality is not an end in itself, but part of a greater and more beautiful dimension, full of a mystery that human beings can know and discover, but can never explain or possess entirely.
Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician, a musicologist and a theologian writing from Italy. She is particularly interested in the relationships between music and the Christian faith, and has written several books on this subject. Her website is www.chiarabertoglio.com