At Home with Unicorns
asserting our Christian literary heritage
The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.
C.S. Lewis (God in the Dock)
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Prince Hamlet (Shakespeare)
More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.
King Arthur to Sir Bedivere (Tennyson)
Once upon a Christmas, many years ago, my sister and I awoke to discover the horns snapped off of every single one of our unicorn sugar cookies. Eviscerated from the mythic, the creatures had been downgraded into mundane horses – with slightly dented forelocks. Despite the remaining coloured icing and sparkling sugar, the magic was gone – not just from the unicorns, but somehow from the bell and star and angel cookies too. And we were righteously indignant.
But more than that, we were scornful. That the offending relative might have such a fear of faerie that she felt the need to purge our cookie tray of this perceived evil was issue enough. But to take offense at a standard medieval and renaissance symbol for Christ indicated a glaring gap in her education of Christian art and literature. (And didn’t she know that the word unicorn even appears in the King James Bible – nine times over, no less?)
Our youthful scorn of such historically amnesic Christianity was more than a little unfair. We were still young enough to be unaware just how limited North American Christianity – Protestant, in particular – generally is in its self-knowledge. (It may not advocate volitional amnesia in individuals, but institutional amnesia is all too rife.) Our pomposity was born of our own ignorance – and, we were yet unaware of all our own cultural blinkers on plenty of other matters of faith and practice.
But in this specific area – Christian literary symbolism – we were certainly the ‘lucky’ ones. Unlike that relative, we’d been raised in such worlds as Narnia, Middle Earth, and Prydain. Worlds infused with Scripture, yet entirely fantastical. Furthermore, we’d also been shaped by writers such as Madeleine L’Engle, Robert Siegel, and Elizabeth Goudge: Christian writers who positively delighted in portraying this world as interwoven with fantastical ones (and who were thus able to show both the fantastical and the ‘realistic’ as imbued with mystery and beauty and truth). We had no idea then just how indebted we were to the fact that these writers had themselves been raised on George MacDonald, a story-lover and crafter whose writing helped to transmit the legacy of cultural fairy tales, ancient myths, historical adventures, and Biblical tales – even stories from church history. (MacDonald was passionately intentional about this interweaving.)
One of the many gifts MacDonald had given to those ‘Inklings-&-co’ authors was to re-model for them, when they were still children, a Christian tradition of firm confidence in truth regardless of its medium. MacDonald’s writing prepared them for their later reading of such as Sidney and Spenser, Shakespeare and Dante, Mallory & Chaucer, the authors of Beowulf & Piers Plowman: writers firmly rooted in a Christian tradition that questioned neither the power of story, the veracity of the Gospel, nor the holy calling of being (in Tolkien’s terminology) sub-creators – storytellers ministering under the auspices of the Primary Author, whose Word had actually become flesh.
Through these Christian authors who deeply loved Story & Goodness and who understood their Christian vocation to be learning and engaging with the stories of goodness in authors before them – and perhaps thus better understanding that Story Incarnate – was retransmitted story & goodness to subsequent generations, in familiar themes, patterns, symbols, tropes…such as the Christological unicorn. These writers all participated in a legacy of loving not only their rich heritage of transmitting truth through story, but also of loving the ineffability of God’s glorious mystery. In their commitment to “him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Eph 3:20), they (and in consequence, many of their readers down through the ages) had no fear of fiction-that-told-truths, nor of fiction and fact working in a truth-telling partnership.
For various reasons, in ‘pre-Narnia & Middle Earth 20th century,’ there was somewhat of a fantastical literature gap. Not that there were no books recalling Christian readers to their centuries-long literary heritage, but they were not a strong cultural presence. Perhaps it is due to this gap that I know so many people the age of my parents who remain rather uncomfortable reading fantasy. I’m not talking about those who banned Narnia because it had unicorns and dragons (though I certainly went to school with some of their off-spring), or even those who banned L’Engle because she dared name Gandhi and Buddha as fighters for Light against the Dark (I still have friends who fall into that category) –I’m talking about those who were just a little too old to have read Narnia or The Hobbit as children, but were quite happy for their own children to read those books – because the books were written by Christians. People who may even have sort of enjoyed the overtly Christian Lewis (and possibly Tolkien), but found it difficult to venture any further…purportedly for matters of ‘taste.’ I cannot but wonder if it is not more accurate to say “for matters of cultural discomfort…”
You see, my mother was not allowed to play cards or go to the cinema on Sundays as a child. (This is relevant!) As an adult, she felt there was absolutely nothing intrinsically wrong with either of those practices – and yet she never felt completely at ease doing them herself. I have met so many peers who read Lewis and Tolkien as children and who still thoroughly enjoy fantasy literature – amongst many other genres – but whose parents ‘just can’t go there.’ And I can’t but wonder if it is not for reasons similar to my mother’s personal dis-ease with movies and cards on the Sabbath. Because the reality is that many of my grandparents’ Christian peers would also have snapped off those unicorn horns, believing anything not factual to be ‘bad.’ And although their children – my parents’ peers– may no longer believe that themselves, may even have begun to learn more about how fantasy and fairy tale and myth have often been considered partners with fact in truth-conveyance through the ages – by the Church, by Christian writers, by general culture – the residual dis-ease remains.
Which makes me wonder how many other ‘cultural’ issues are like-wise affected.
It also makes me wonder why the fantasy-fearers act as if God is so vulnerable that the Divine, the Word, need their protection…as if spiritual Truth was not strong enough to do what it needs to do without the assistance of human censorship…. Certainly they cannot be so blinded as to think that soap operas, that reality TV and sitcoms and comic stand-ups, are somehow intrinsically more wholesome, or safer??
is there not something perplexingly similar between those conservative Christians who condemn fantasy literature and those liberal Christians who claim the resurrection never happened?
In my personal experience with friends in these camps, both seem fearful of the inexplicable, and both often lack much knowledge of (or even scorn) Christian art and literature post New Testament and pre-20th century…
Because of Lewis & Tolkien, L’Engle & Alexander, MacDonald & Goudge, and their ilk, my siblings and I were equipped to see the goodness and beauty in fantastical worlds crafted even by those who did not share our faith: Ursula LeGuin, Susan Cooper, T.H. White, and so many other brilliant writers – writers passionate about truth, about fighting subversive darkness, even if not convinced of the factuality of Gospel Truth. (And thanks to ‘Inklings & their ilk,’ we were well-equipped to think through any dissent we might have with alternate world-views). Decades before the rise of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, to many children after the childhoods of my parents’ generation, the Inklings and their kindreds gave Christian readers permission to love mysterious Story again, to love truth regardless of its vestige. Such writers reintroduced them to their heritage of Christian literature and reminded them of the myriad of opportunities to learn more about God’s creations and how to delight in his mysteries – and in the mysteries of his most bewildering of creations, Humans.
For many in my parents’ generation – and others born later but similarly starved – fantasy remains uncomfortable. But those who grew up in Narnia & Middle Earth & Prydain, can recognize in today’s pervasive cultural yearning for fantasy and myth an indication of a malaise if not incurred, at least well-assisted by the evisceration of Christian culture from its own mythic literature and art. A historically amnesic, and therefore anemic, Christianity.
Myth, religion, give voice to – and inquire into – the mysteries of who we are and why. They suggest that we – and our Divine Source – are somehow more than what we can assess. They hint at things we cannot see or explain, things that are beyond our ken…the unknown colour, the undiscovered dimension, the “more than we can ask or imagine”… By valuing only the factual, we start to lose the tales that have shaped our own Christian identity. In becoming fearful of ‘not factual myth,’ we begin to distrust story altogether. And that’s rather problematic for creations of the Primary Author. Especially those who celebrate Christmas and Easter.
Originally a guest post on blog Everyday Theology (2016)