Desiring Dragons

by Jonathan Geltner

Part I: Glimpse

But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst;
but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water
springing up into everlasting life.
John 4:14

I desired dragons with a profound desire.
J.R.R. Tolkien

February of 1989: Grey skies, grey rocks, grey highways, blowing sleet and rain and snow, and a grey minivan driving through it almost nine hundred miles: over the Berkshires and over the Hudson, winding through the Catskills and Poconos, across the Susquehanna and over and under and in and out of the Alleghenies, down into the hilly lands and hollow lands of the Ohio Valley; blue-grey and black-grey and evergreen-grey, brown and purplish hues and hazy distances, murk-strewn vistas and twilit dales where steeples and smoke­stacks reach up among the surrounding slopes, streams in deep shadow and cold steel spans of rail and road high above them, mountains cut away and boulders tumbled down, pines and hardwoods, gloomy copses of hemlock; and never a straight stretch in all of it but always the mystery of our curving way. 

I was just shy of my seventh birthday when my family moved from Newton, Massachusetts to Cincinnati, Ohio. And the appearance of the country that I watched from the windows of our minivan is not all that remains with me now from that move. After all, I must have seen much of it before, since one set of grandparents lived on the shore of an obscure lake in the far northeastern corner of Pennsylvania, and the other set lived in Pittsburgh. But I have no vivid recollection of any previous journey into and through the dark and green mountainous heart of eastern North America.

That is likely because on the journey in February of 1989 I had something more than the view of the land—indeed, something I’d never had before. To entertain me on the drive, and distract me from the displacement I was undergoing in the middle of the school year, my parents had given me the use of a Walkman and six cassettes housed in a wooden box. I could just sound out the letters on the cover of the box and pronounce the title: The Hobbit. This was a radio drama. Basically a straight reading of Tolkien’s story, but with different voices for the characters and the narrator, and some sound effects and music. Oh, the music… I still know exactly how to sing: 

Far o’er the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold

My mind was filled with images while I first listened to these tapes—not images of my own invention, nor the virtual images our world of screens mantles us with now, but images of the actual world passing outside the windows of our minivan. These images would grow familiar and more perfectly mixed with the story of The Hobbit on the many occasions afterwards, in warm seasons and cold, when I would listen to the tapes again as my family drove—now from Cincinnati—to visit grandparents in Pittsburgh or in the far northeastern corner of Pennsylvania. 

I saw so much vast rock and highland forests while I listened to The Hobbit, and crossed rivers great and small, and caught glimpses of strange horizons that seemed to call to me and promise yet further stories, that I knew exactly what wild Middle Earth looked like. Rivendell was my paternal grandparents’ home in the wooded hills and water-carved ravines just outside Pittsburgh. When I heard about the cave in the mountains where Bilbo and his companions are abducted by goblins, I knew I had seen many such places from the highway or hiking around the environs of Pittsburgh. And my mother’s parents lived on the far side of the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood, in a lonely but starkly beautiful corner of the world, with solitary rounded mountains rising here and there, near the border with New York State by Binghamton. 

It is difficult to describe the feeling of this experience of merging worlds, because there is something open about it, unfulfilled. The feeling is longing, primarily, but of a unique kind. There is no one place where it rests permanently, and yet it is all about a particular sense of place. Actually there is a sort of quantum uncertainty as to whether I’m speaking about one world or two. I incline to speak of two worlds, but what shall I call them? One world is Earth, but for the other world I want a word that means a place distinct yet not different (or should that be different yet not distinct?), something that implies another version of the Earth. I could call it Heaven or the Kingdom of God, but I want to sidestep the transcendent for a moment. And I want to bracket the language of the traditional dominant religion of the West. That language needs to be re-enchanted. Whether true or not, it has grown stale and shopworn and, for many people, alienating. It’s not alienation I’m after but unfamiliarity, which may seem similar but is very different: alienation is repulsion and isolation; unfamil­iarity is perhaps most palpable, in this doubled world, as a beckoning call from afar. So I’ll call the second world Faerie. Three syllables, equally accented: Fah-ay-ree.

The word goes deep down, way back. Faerie is the place or characteristic activity of the fées, and those creatures take their name from Fata, the Roman goddesses or triple-goddess (Parcae, they are also called) of destiny—in a word, Fate. And Fate by any name is one of the most primordial and essential human experiences of life: the experience of being carried along in a great current of Life, along a great Way. When we understand or perceive our fate, we feel that we behold Truth—that which lies behind the world of appearances. We invoke the idea of Fate when we speak of the most intense desires and experiences of our lives: falling in love, the genealogy this may produce (and so the fate of families). It was meant to be, we say, or It had to be. We speak of an individual’s or a people’s fate as shaped by their character or, to put it differently, by that person’s or people’s chief desire. Faerie/Fate and desire are intermingled, and the essential feeling of what I call fantasy—which is whatever medium or text discloses Faerie, or opens it to us—that emotional quintessence is longing and yearning. 

Of utmost importance for at least artistic reasons, is that the literary genre we now call fantasy should enfold within itself the fateful longing that is also its total quality. Consider this passage from the first chapter of The Hobbit (emphasis mine):

As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking stick. He looked out of the window. The stars were out in a dark sky above the trees. He thought of the jewels of the dwarves shining in dark caverns. Suddenly in the wood beyond the water a flame leapt up—probably some­body lighting a wood-fire—and he thought of plundering dragons settling on his quiet Hill and kindling it all to flames. He shuddered; and very quickly he was plain Mr Baggins of Bag-End, Under-Hill, again. 

If you know the story, you know how much foreshadowing is present in this paragraph. It comes through in the things of this earth, in basic human craft and in geography: roving in the open weathers of the world: mountains, winds, forests, rivers—all these we will now explore with Bilbo. But look at this finer artistry: it is by catching sight of the stars in the dark night sky (dark, I presume, because it is a night sky without a moon) that he thinks of jewels. This is the organic link in the mind between nature and artifice. Bilbo’s conscious­ness in this moment is remarkably attuned to his immediate environment and has not by any means escaped into some unconnected fantasy. The same thing happens again: someone lights a fire and this makes him think of the dragon. He is not brought back to where he is; rather, where he is shows him a truthful presentiment of the far-off wonders of the dwarves’ song. 

So this experience of Faerie that I call fantasy, this yearning for the far and wondrous, may actually be an intense realization of where you are. But fantasy does not restrict itself to the sense of expanse reachable in questing. Not only does Faerie enfold its own feeling of longing for the far-off, it also reduplicates itself interiorly. In other words, there is Faerie within Faerie. Bilbo longs to adventure in Faerie, conceived one way, and so he shall. But there is another Faerie where he will not go. (Actually, when he does finally go there, his story will be over, or it will have passed beyond language.) Here is the narrator of The Hobbit exercising his omniscience when Bilbo and the Dwarves have come upon the elves in Mirkwood (emphasis mine):

The feasting people were Wood-elves, of course. These are not wicked folk. If they have a fault it is distrust of strangers. Though there magic was strong, even in those days they were wary. They differed from the High Elves of the West, and were more dangerous and less wise. For most of them (together with their scattered relations in the hills and mountains) were descended from the ancient tribes that never went to Faerie in the West. There the Light-elves and the Deep-elves and the Sea-elves went and lived for ages, and grew fairer and wiser and more learned, and invented their magic and their cunning craft in the making of beautiful and marvelous things, before some came back into the Wide World. In the Wide World the Wood-elves lingered in the twilight of our Sun and Moon but loved best the stars; and they wandered in the great forests that grew tall in lands that are now lost.

This passage, unlike the previous one I quoted, was not in the radio drama I listened to as a boy, despite being a very important moment of world-building: here in miniature is the entire sweep of elvish history, imparting to the story the flavor of deep time (which I’ll expand upon in a moment). I have sometimes wondered whether part of the reason the passage was omitted is that the role of geography and the sense of place in fantasy (indeed, in fiction more broadly) is difficult to grasp, though the genre simply could not exist without it. But simply put, it is this: We require a sense of some yet further world beyond what the story will reveal: in The Hobbit, apart from this reference to Faerie (elsewhere called the Undying Lands or Valinor, etc), there is the wine from the south, or rumors of the Necromancer.

In his seminal essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien writes of the primary world—this world where I am writing and you are reading—and of the secondary world or “subcreation,” as he calls it, which the fantasist makes. For the secondary world to be successful, it must have “the inner con­sistency of reality.” But what is that? How, as a writer, can you make that? For Tolkien, in the context of what he was calling fairy-stories but which we now more commonly call fantasy—that is, fiction set within some kind of Faerie or secondary world, whatever it may be called—reality included what he called “euca­tas­trophe” or the “sudden joy­ous turn” which produces a happy ending. This feature of reality (at any rate within Faerie, the subcreation) is, he adds, a “miraculous grace” and it gives, he says, “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” He concludes the essay by stating that “when the sudden turn comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.”

This language is spatial or lends itself easily to realization in spatial categories. The feeling that Tolkien is talking about is in fantasy realizable as a sense of place. More accurately, it is a sense of the transcendent (that which passes or comes from outside the “frame”) fig­ured as a sense of place, the ever-receding yet ever-beckoning horizon (or the ever-coiling river, the road that “goes ever on and on”), things glimpsed on the periphery or in utmost distance, hinted at in outline or shadow and only partially and mysteriously known. One of the most important ways the fantasist has at her disposal to render this geographical figuration of the transcendent, is to make use of the recursiveness or reduplicating quality of Faerie. It is like the play-within-the-play of drama. 

From the point of view of the primary world, all of the secondary world is Faerie, the realm that we here in actuality so desire and long for (Tolkien’s “profound desire,” which he avows in the essay on fairy stories, for dragons and the rest of the world of which they are a part: Faerie). In order for the secondary world to meet that desire, to have the “inner consistency of reality”—Tolkien speaks of it fostering “secondary belief” if it is successful in this conjur­ing—it must be like our world in containing its own Faerie. It is as if we enter the empire of fantasy through one frontier, and we must sense that in other directions lie other frontiers. The recession is infinite, for this is the world of potentiality. The denizens of Faerie commu­nicate with, or are accessible to, whatever or whoever lies beyond those other frontiers just as they are accessible to and perhaps communicate with us in the primary world. And those others, in turn, must know yet more distant frontiers and those who dwell on the far side of them, and so on.

There is a temporal element to this phenomenon as well, or you could say a historical figu­ra­tion of the transcendent to complement its geographical figuration. The sixth paragraph of The Hobbit begins with this sentence:

By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green, and the hobbits were still numerous and prosperous, and Bilbo Baggins was standing at his door after breakfast smoking an enormous long wooden pipe that reached nearly down to his woolly toes (neatly brushed)—Gandalf came by.

As an aside (I’ll take up the theme fully in the second part of this essay), I call your atten­tion to “curious chance” and remind you of the derivation of Faerie from Fata. But the main point here is the setting of the story “long ago.” Just as the experience or inti­ma­tion of Faerie is a feeling for the horizon and the glimpsed and hinted, the rumored and the far-off (but perhaps approaching), so it may also be a call—a song or legend or prophecy—coming from the deep past. The famous epigraph to Star Wars does both at once: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.… Can you imagine the story without that epigraph? Why do we need both aspects of unfamiliarity? I don’t know, except to say that distance in both space and time, like the experience of Fate, is part of how we experience the transcen­dent: but it is a closable distance (if only asymptotically), and somewhat violently at that, for the transcen­dent, as we saw Tolkien perceived, is something that breaks into our frame from without, the glimpse piercing and the feeling poignant (Tolkien, philologist that he was, surely knew that this word in its root means pricking, stinging, punching).

The enfolding I have written about occurs in the temporal aspect of Faerie as well. Fantasy is long ago—but it is long ago from the point of view of our world, the cosmos that con­tains, as the passage I quoted previously puts it, our Sun and Moon. I have said that from the point of view of the primary world, all of the secondary world is Faerie. But Faerie is at the same time and from this same point view only a version of this primary world. Tolkien himself said of The Lord of the Rings, “the book is about the world that God created—the actual world of this planet.” And so, just like our primary world, Faerie must have its own Faerie; and just as Faerie lies in our deep past, in mythical time, so it must have its own deep past or mythical tme. The sense of Faerie’s own deep time is something that Tolkien accomplished perhaps better than anyone who had come before him. Here is Bilbo having snuck into the Lonely Mountain and first laying eyes upon Smog’s treasure (emphasis mine, purely to draw attention once more to this language of desire as a pierced heart that Tolkien was evidently fond of):

To say that Bilbo’s breath was taken away is no description at all. There are no words left to express his staggerment, since Men changed the language that they learned from elves in the days when all the world was wonderful. Bilbo had heard tell and sing of dragon-hoards before, but the splendor, the lust, the glory of such treasure had never yet come home to him. His heart was filled and pierced with enchantment and with the desire of dwarves; and he gazed motionless, almost forgetting the frightful guardian, at the gold beyond price and count.

I have chosen a difficult passage with which to make my point about the deep time of Faerie mirroring our own, but I’ve done so because this is also an extraordinary passage, and a “rending of the web of story” if ever there was such.  

Tolkien made use of the storyteller narrator, the normative narrator for what we now call fiction until about a hundred years ago. The storyteller always exists in the same world as the audience of the story, and he is able to address that audience directly. (Incidentally, the sto­ryteller’s speaking to the audience accentuates the secondariness or potentiality of Faerie, a healthy reminder that it is special world we only access through a shared social occasion or ceremony, like storytelling or religious rite.) So when the storyteller-narrator tells us that he has no words to describe Bilbo’s reaction to the sight of the treasure because the very lan­guage we speak has decayed, we are still operating with the primary world-sense of Faerie lying somewhere off in the deeps of time—our time. What sort of time Faerie itself possesses we cannot infer from the first two sentences. 

But then the narrator tells us that Bilbo himself was unprepared despite having heard told and sung many words about dragons’ treasure. He was susceptible to the dwarves’ song in the beginning, and now, seeing it, he irrefusably desires the treasure and other precious wrought things that those songs told about (he will not be able to stop himself from purloin­ing the Arkenstone of Thrain, which will become important as a plot-point later, only to then lose all importance in the further unfolding of the plot). But the implication in this passage is that there was once, before the time of the story—that is, deep time from the perspective of Faerie—a language in which those two experiences, hearing about and actually seeing the treasure, would not have been distinct. The feeling in this moment is that even in the time of the tale it was already a late age of the world, when potencies of language had been lost. We might gloss it by saying that for Bilbo and his time, language had lost the capacity to be efficacious sign, to both symbolize and be the thing symbolized. 

For a more straightforward interpolation of the deep time of Faerie, you can read the chapter where Bilbo comes to Rivendell, and Elrond’s origins in what readers would later learn to call the First Age are sketched and hinted at vaguely. But I like the passage just quoted because it seems to be a moment where the narrator is actually frustrated, as well he should be if the very substance of his craft is at stake. If language had already been evacuated of some power in the deep time that is Faerie, where indeed does that leave the stories told in the primary world?

But of course it is mysterious that this mo­­ment in the tale is possible at all. How can we know that there is something beyond our ken? To acknowledge that there is while at the same time avowing its ineffability—to catch a glimpse of some unreachable further Faerie from within a tale of Faerie, or to catch some inkling of deep time from within a tale set already in deep time—is an apopha­tic moment in storytelling, one of the fron­tiers of fiction, you could say. Tolkien pre­ferred the imagery of a gleam of light break­ing into one’s con­scious­ness, and as we saw, he associated it not only with joy but also with grief. Perhaps this dual valence is to be expected, for compounded of both emotions is desire, that which knows what it does not possess (and perhaps possesses what it knows not). Desire is perilous, all religious traditions agree. Some say it is also necessary. At the beginning of the essay on fairy-stories, Tolkien speaks of the perils of Faerie, and I believe he was quite in earnest. There is a kind of madness that always threatens when one uses the instrument of fiction to peer into and magnify the world of potentiality, this other version of reality or the Earth that we call fantasy or Faerie. The danger is that our desire for the sense of distance within that distant land, and our desire for the depths of time hinted at in that deep time, will keep us stuck forever in fantasy.

But at the same time I want to say that Faerie is the right place for desire, and fantasy its proper and ordained mode. This world, the primary world or world of actuality, is finite and we are finite—except in our desire. This means that we are, in a way, too much for the world. If we satisfy our desires and slake our thirst upon what is, the actual, we deplete this world, or we transgress its moral law, which is founded in the finitude of the world. There is no remedy but to sink our desires elsewhere, lay up our treasure in heaven. Here is where some of that religious language may return, with a different cast than the usual, for we may speak of Faerie instead of heaven. In meeting desires in this life we consume the world, but Faerie is like the bush which burned and was not consumed. Christ’s words to the woman at the well, quoted in the epigraph, teach this same necessity: infinite desire for things of the finite world will never give you peace. Desire the transcendent, which is infinite and pierces into this finite world like a lance into the heart, and you may know the peace which passes understanding but perhaps does not pass telling, the peace that not the world but that Faerie may give.

Jonathan Geltner serves as fiction editor at Orison Books and teaches at Adrian College. His translation of Paul Claudel’s Five Great Odes is available from Angelico Press, and his novel Absolute Music is forthcoming from Slant Books, where he also writes regularly on fiction. He is currently at work on a collection of essays (from which this essay has been adapted) on the sense of place and the sacred, and a historical fantasy set in the fifth century B.C.E. Jonathan lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife and two sons. 

(Go to Part 2)

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28 Responses to Desiring Dragons

  1. matushkamarychristine says:

    I found this to be an enchanting and alluring essay. I look forward to the second part. You have touched on the deep and holy of our existence and experience. I found myself looking out into the night several times while reading. Thank you. Now, I must ask: which are your favorite dragons from literature? Mine are the dragons of Earth Sea.


    • Jonathan says:

      Thank you for the kind words. Good question about dragons. Earthsea loomed large in my reading as a boy. Anne McAffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern I also recall vividly, and Melanie Rawn’s dragon trilogies. The idea or image of the dragon became more complex for me when I encountered Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books; and in a similar way, in more recent years, as I’ve taken a greater interest in Chinese language and civilization (to the point of studying tai chi and Classical Chinese), I’ve become fascinated by the idea of the dragon in East Asian traditions. Of course Tolkien discovered dragons, and through them all the rest of Faerie, in Norse literature. There is much to be said about the dragon and the serpent in biblical imagery — said by someone more learned in such things than I. But my favorite dragon from all of literature? I have to say… it is probably the luck dragon Falkor, from The Neverending Story. Now, speaking of luck, I have to prepare the second part of the essay, which is called “Luck”!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. brian says:

    Jonathan is my favorite modern writer when it comes to how to think about the genre of fantasy — its metaphysical and spiritual reach, but also the existential feel of inhabiting a depth dimension that pulls us away from univocal stupor. Locating the entelechy of fantasy both within and beyond (that is the import of the fantasy world having its own porous border) ought to be connected to Nyssa’s understanding of epektasis. It is also signified in the ending of C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle and in The Neverending Story. The discussion of language and peril is something I’ve been meditating a long time. I look forward to the rest of these reflections . . .

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Patrick says:

    I’m partial to Barfield and Wittgenstein (I consider the latter to be the greatest saint of the 20th century), but it seems to me that the extent to which we’ve vacuated our larger consciousness of any kind of real (even oblique) relationship with philology correlates more or less perfectly with the increasing sense of malaise and uneasiness we experience more broadly, and the failure of religious language to affect more specifically. I’m inclined to believe it’s the reason Eastern religious language has become more steadily appealing to the masses over the past century or so: There seems to be some inextricable need to relate to that of which you write in a way which is not at all shopworn. The cataphatic must be given its due, but cannot be given it if it has become bankrupt and indolent.

    I love your writing, Jonathan, and the way it so clearly desires to reacquaint us with our inheritance in the West. For many years now, I’ve followed you wherever I could find you (something about Seven Hills, if I recall; and here, obviously), so I’m quite happy to see your writing available again on the web. And Rachel Carson! Her name always reminds me of Arrakis, Dune. Herbert always seems apropos to the topic as well, though I haven’t spent a great deal of time considering why that might be.


    • Jonathan says:

      I appreciate the interest, Patrick. What you say about Eastern religious language is intriguing. Depending on which Eastern religion we’re talking about, much of my own thinking has gone in that direction in recent years. I wouldn’t say “the masses” have turned eastwards, but the educated middle class/elite certainly has in a rather remarkable way just in the course of my adult life.. If an anthropologist were to attempt to discover the dominant religion of my neighbors here in Ann Arbor by looking at the paraphernalia they display and the practices they follow, he or she would determine it is a kind of Buddhism, one unique to the modern West (particularly the US) often mediated through hatha yoga. There is much compatibility in this new religion with New Age occultism, which after all comes to a great extent out of esoteric Buddhism. People who read Tarot cards, etc. This is for the most part not the Taoist/Zen religion (so to call it) which has also been influential in the West (and which I admit that I get a good deal out of myself, to the point of studying tai chi and Classical Chinese). But there is a good deal of crossover, particularly in the “mindfulness” and meditation that has become so persuasive for many people. I have mixed feelings about all this, but in all of it there are trends which I think are very important to note. One is the desire for peace of mind. We are harried and tormented by hyperactive and overstimulated consumer capitalist life, and people desperately look for solace. Another trend is attention to the body, to being healthy and more fully integrated with one’s environment. Alan Watts — hit or miss guy, but every now and then he got things quite right — has a line somewhere about Christianity only working for him indoors, and the moment he stepped outside he couldn’t feel like a Christian anymore. This when the man was a priest, I believe. I get that. The various new sorts of religious experience people are turning to in order to feel more sane in their lives are appealing, I expect, because Christianity became rather cerebral and disembodied, a kind of abstract bloodless moralism, for so many of its heritage members in the West. Christianity is great with reasoning and principles but has become terrible with experience, embodied life in a world that more and more people want to feel is conscious in some way, perhaps so as to feel more conscious themselves.


  4. Tom says:

    I want to realize the sacramental nature of the material universe – truly, completely, and as surprising as it may be. So help me understand this. Is it being proposed that dragons and fairies exist (i.e., exist in the sense the birds outside my window exist as material realities in the present material order), but they manage to avoid detection? They’re flying around landscapes able to evade observation? Or is it being proposed that dragons and fairies exist in the sense that they occupy space in our spiritual imaginations and that this imagination approximates (as anticipation) the world as God wills it to be – so that, someday the world of our material-concrete experience will become the world of our mythological imaginations?

    Or a third option I’m too dense to imagine?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan says:

      I would say for Tolkien it would be the second option, or something like that. The third option, I guess, would be to say that there is no firm boundary between what you’re here calling “landscapes” and what you’re calling “spiritual imagination.” In other words, consciousness is prior to observation. Language is as well. Perhaps we might call both Logos, but I’m not sure about that.

      As for what I myself believe, I don’t know. I’ve never seen a fairy of any sort (or angels or demons for that matter) and I don’t expect to. But I know people who claim they have. I know people for whom there is not as firm a boundary between the living and the dead as there is for me. I’ve observed small children, including my own, seem to react to presences of which (or whom) I was not aware. I have been before the Real Presence and felt nothing, and I have been before it and felt (or intimated or intuited might be better words)… something. These things cannot be well expressed in language which refers directly to the primary world, so we shape secondary or symbolic worlds in which to articulate them analogically. That was Tolkien’s idea, I think, about our being made in the image of a Maker.

      In speaking of our primary world, we have little more than anecdote to work with. For example, when I was baptized (I was adult), and when I married my wife sacramentally in the Roman Church (as opposed to our civil wedding years before), I felt… something. Was it a physical sensation (apart from the water pouring over my forehead in the baptism or the priest’s hands extended over our heads in the wedding)? I’m not sure. It was related to those physical sensations but it was also an alteration — very subtle — in the way that the whole universe seemed to fall out around us, yet nothing changed. (My wife agrees with me about sensing this during out church wedding: we had never talked about it but she brought it up .when out pastor died and I realized then that she had felt the same thing I had.) I experienced in those instances something that it would probably be better to call a shift in consciousness, as long as that is not understood to denote some sort of explicit thought process.

      It’s worth noting, perhaps, that spirit means breath and breath is bodily. Language — spoken words — is bodily. In the sacraments this is certainly so. The words of the sacrament have to be actually spoken, even if only whispered. We make a distinction, however poorly thought out, between words we only think to ourselves and words we actually say aloud. Talking of “five senses” is pretty useless here. Which “sense” is the breath? A sixth and maybe only quasi-physical sense, consciousness, might work, and we could locate its physical aspect in the breath, in speech and song as well as the pure rhythm of just breathing.

      I am open to correction here, but I believe that for most of the history of the term spirit, it connoted something bodily, a kind of “subtle” body, not something purely conceptual. In the Christian story we can think of Christ risen but not yet ascended. And even when he ascends — it’s spoken of as an ascension, not a vanishing or dissipation (leaving behind all bodily form). Since I brought up the franchise in the essay, you can think also off the cheesy version of this idea in Star Wars, with those ghostly bluish dead Jedis lounging around or occasionally dispensing advice. There’s some suggestion that not everyone can perceive them, but only those who are wise to the Force. I like the Christian imagery better. It’s way messier (the risen Christ’s open wounds, his asking for a meal) — more satisfying, at least from a writerly standpoint.

      This is all very inconclusive, I’m afraid. Like I wrote, there’s a kind of quantum uncertainty as to whether when one speaks about fantasy one is really speaking about a single or a doubled world. And what in the world is a spiritual or subtle body, anyway? I have no idea. In these essays I’m mostly just trying to get clear about my own perceptions and how a certain fantasy actually works, what it seems to offer or do for us.

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    • Jonathan says:

      A further thought, maybe helpful or maybe not, more in the vein of Lit Crit…
      When Tolkien first started working out his secondary world, it was much more closely related to our primary world, and in two ways: Linguistically, and geographically-historically. He invented languages and he needed peoples to speak them, and like real language his inventions needed histories. Language is living, or very like something alive. It grows and changes and mixes with others of its kind… JRRT always avowed that his fantasy was driven by his philology. That never changed.

      But he was also driven by his love of England, the real place that — contra Melville’s Ishmael — you can find down in any number of maps. And a real place has a real history. It’s the geographical and historical impulse behind his fantasy that changed. Behind the assertion’s of JRRT’s that I quoted, to the effect that he was always writing about the real Earth, was his early ambition to somehow link the stories of his Middle Earth with actual Earth history. He wanted to send a fictional Saxon off into the Atlantic and have him get all the myth from Elves living on a kind of Atlantis. Maybe you know all this already. Anyway, the point is that Tolkien had to abandon this way of going about his fantasy. I’m not exactly sure why his writing evolved the way that it did, but I would venture to say that the direction of that evolution was toward the perilous, wondrous and often infuriating realm of Both/And. What he ended up with, what we have — certainly in The Hobbit that I’m writing on here — is a world that both is, and is not, this same Earth where he wrote and we read. What that translates to in literary form is a removal of the connection between Faerie and Earth from the mimesis, what actually happens in the story, to the diegesis, or narration. It is the narrator who tells us that hobbits were once more numerous and prosperous. He can do this because he is the classic storyteller narrator, increasingly rare but traditionally the mainstay of what we now call fiction and a figure who is always presumed to exist — because he speaks as if he exists — in the same world as we do, what Tolkien called the primary world. There is no more interaction, within the fiction, between characters and our primary world. Instead the narrator is our only bridge.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Tom says:

        Thank you Jonathan. I follow ya. I certainly spend a good time imagining the actual world in terms of its ultimately conforming to my (spiritual) imaginings (assuming I’m dreaming Christ’s dream, if that’s a fair way to put it). And there’s a bit of your 3rd alternative at work, in which the border between my concrete world and the world I imagine is open and porous. Proof of the porosity is, well, ‘me’. I’m definitely in this world and I’m definitely imagining and living in and from the strength and hope of what I dream.


      • Grant says:

        Though it’s important to remember that at the time of the Hobbit Tolkien had not yet abandoned the project (or rather altered and adapted) the project of creating a mythic history to England related to a traveller that arrives and finds the exiled elves on Tol Eressea (the first being Eriol, who’s children were Hengest and Horsa, the legendary leaders of the three ships that marked the advent Anglorum, avent of the English, which traditionally were those Vortigern invited as mercenaries to defend Britain who then revolted and raided Britain and invited more from their homeland, eventually central to Arthurian stories) as at this point it was Ælfwine fleeing Danish attack in the 9th to 10th century AD that finds the island is is related the tales of the Eldar Days (and Tolkien never entirely seems to abandon Ælfwine, though he seems to shift from the idea that either him or through Bilbo the transmission of the stories of the Elder Days is passed on).

        At this point (1930s) though he played with the idea of making the Hobbit part of his mythology, Tolkien ultimately decided against it, rather using and reworking elements from his mythology into the Hobbit story, both to give it a sense of history and possibly because he never thought he was likely to ever see the mythology published (after all, nothing like it had been published before, and probably won’t ever be again, and without the LOTR it likely would never have been published at all). Reading the first edition compared to what he was doing at the same time in the mythology makes it clear, (Mirkwood for example is using Doriath as a concept, but isn’t the same, dwarves are quite different at this point in the mythology he was writting, quite fundementally so, to Thorin and his band, it is the intergration in LOTR that marks such a major development with the dwarves themselves).

        It is when he came to write the LOTR, and through the process that we the firewall between the two fall away, and they became intergated and one, to the enrichment of both.


    • alexandrademoffarts says:

      Perhaps dragons really fly in our landscapes, and giants, hypogriffs and other fantastic beasts meet us in forests – but then some obliviators make us forget, and so we muggles cannot remember about them… This is so because of the Secrecy Law wizards promulgated at the end of the Middle ages 🙂 I am joking, bot not entirely. In Harry Potter, this is the solution given, and it is funny at a first degree, but if you apply what Jonathan writes about fantasy to this story, in would be that we ‘muggles’ are separated from a more subtle world we should be able to perceive but we are protected from it (and this world is protected from us).
      I remember also Lewis’ theory in ‘That Hideous Strength’ (it is probably not only his), that all these subtle creatures really exist, in another layer of being, but that it was more and more dangerous (from a spiritual point of view) to be in contact with them, and so they went farer away from our perception. There are more things between Heaven and earth than our philosophy (science) knows and cares about. There are subtle realities we don’t easily perceive, and I also think they are less available because we are less capable to deal with them that people of very ancient times. Perhaps the rationalistic and materialistic type of mentality closed some of the gates that still existed at the time when this mentality came into being.
      I have not met fairies either, but me too I know people who perceive things like this. But they are also, often, more fragile, wounded persons, and I think it is no coincidence. So this is perhaps better for us, in our time, not to perceive them.

      Does the world of ideas really exist in a objective way? I think it does: Christians believe in the Logos, and there is a theological theory (of St Maximus the Confessor) that God put ‘logoï spermatikoï’, grains of the Logos, in each creature. But we cannot discern them with our five material senses (senses which are, in fact, somewhat crippled in fallen human nature). They are nevertheless there and all creatures commune with the Logos by them. These correspond perhaps with the later theory of the uncreated Energies. But we also speak about created energies present in the creation. Perhaps the created energies we speak about in theology are some kind of ‘subtle reality’ we nowadays no longer very easily perceive, but which continues to live through our arts/literature/? We perceive them only through our imagination, aided by people who, being artists, are more perceptive that most of us?
      ‘Is it real or is it only happening in my head? – Of course it is happening in your head, but why on earth should this mean it is not real?’ – in order to end with Harry Potter what I began with him.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Jonathan says:

        The English critic Colin Manlove (died just last year) wrote ably and at great length on fantasy. He was the finest critic of the genre yet to write (including on Potter by the way). I can’t begin to completely summarize his views here, but I will note that he basically proposed that genre fantasy arose as a kind of ersatz religion and one of its most essential functions is or was to portray the individual things of this world in an aura of granted meaning, as symbolic, rather than inert facts or meaningless phenomena. That is very simply the religious or metaphysical worldview. I don’t know that Manlove himself was religious, I think not. But he saw where our heritage religion had gone to hide out. I think he was right about that, if we think of religion in terms of a desire to behold and be in the world in a certain way. That is probably as far as I’m willing or able to take it now myself. I don’t personally find it all that necessary to debate the ontological status of what Tolkien called secondary worlds or subcreations. I’m more interested in getting a handle on the desire which informs the fantasy genre (and other contemporary genres) of prose literature. That desire I know for sure is as real as real gets. Perhaps in the end that’s the same as saying there somehow really are dragons etc.

        Very interesting idea about it being somehow better that most of us not be able to literally perceive faeries in this time. I’ll have to think more about how that idea would work with what I just wrote.

        Liked by 3 people

        • alexandrademoffarts says:

          Yes, I know Colin Manlove! I have read some parts of his writings, especially those about Harry Potter.
          Mircea Eliade had a similar theory (in Mythes, rèves et mystères), he thought modern fiction, such as literature and film, has taken over the function of myth to express and convey archetypes (and to help us ‘living’ them), so it has taken over some part of what religion and myth are about.
          I have recently discovered a book by Theodore Ziolkovsky (Modes of Faith – Secular Surrogates for lost religious belief) which seems to develop this theory but I have not read it yet. (even if ‘surrogate’ seems a very negative word and I don’t like it to bring it in here)
          I don’t know if this thought about us being protected from perceiving faerie (or spiritual beings, either) goes well with what you develop in this essay, it was more a side remark. You don’t propose to force open the closed gate, but only to open the imagination for it (and what it represents), which is a different thing. And it is much more ‘safe’ – and even wholesome – to live it through fiction than to look for ‘subtle layers of being’ in the non-fiction world.
          You see faerie and the desire for faerie which lives in fantasy, if I understand you well, as a kind of image or manifestation for the desire for the Kingdom (with another language, because the old one became a little worn), also because it helps us seeing meaning and mystery in a world that seems otherwise to have lost touch with it. Lewis, anyway, saw it as you do, I think, when he spoke about ‘joy’, ‘longing’ and desire for what is beyond, for example when he described his first reading ‘Phantastes’ by George McDonnalds. For him too, Fantasy can open our eyes for things Beyond.
          I remember when I first began to read something by Tolkien, as an adult, I had a dream about entering in another world and wandering there, but it was still our world, a dream I remember even now, more than 20 years later.


  5. brian says:

    That’s a difficult question to answer, Tom. I can’t answer for Jonathan. This is actually a theme in my longstanding writing project. The metaphysical status of the imagination is disputed. It has often been denigrated as a mere fabricator of illusions or as a deficient form of knowledge. Certainly, there is ambiguity. Coleridge made a distinction between Fancy and Imagination which I take to be analogous to Pavel Florensky’s distinction between dreams of night which are a rehash of whatever our daytime consciousness is working through and the high dream which would often come in early dawn after the soul’s sojourn in the depths. The latter implies that some products of the imagination tap realties that one might ascribe to eschatological flourishing or symbolic dimensions of being. Being is naturally a ‘both and” situation where surplus and addition is a signature of God’s theophanic creation. Of course, all this is obscured by the Fall, by the dimness of our intellect, and the demonic projection of miserific worlds. I found Catherine Pickstock’s meditations on the imagination in Repetition and Identity helpful. She asserts that the objective being of the other contains within itself permutations that the human imagination is capable of picking up on as a basis for artistic making.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Ives Digory says:

      The subject of the imagination fascinates me, and amid a revival of sacramental theology generally, my impressions is that it remains understudied and often ignored. I personally have been engrossed with the notion of an imaginal world, intermediate between the world of forms and that of the senses, as hypothesized by Ibn Arabi. Blake, Ruskin, MacDonald, Yeats, and Sherrard are also inspiring here.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Tom says:

      “…the high dream…” Yes, Brian, that captures it. Thank for your response. As always, so very helpful.

      And why am I not surprised you managed to work Catherine Pickstock into it? :o)

      Liked by 1 person

    • Grant says:

      All craft is an act of participation in the creative act of God, of sub-creation as Tolkien has it, both as an revelation, making, naming (as with Adam in Eden), and priestly consecration, praise and prayer, and sacramental engagement with reality, and being a part of it’s living and dynamic creation, of being and revealing Christ to the Cosmos. Think in terms of the Ainulindalë, each of us is reflecting and developing creatively the themes given us, both personally and in unity with each other, with the spiritual beings, and in unity with creation. Though darkness as covered our clear sight, yet fallen do we still grope towards the expression of the truth and beauty we see and that is in us to express, that which is in and from the Logos, the infinity wellspring of all being. As Tolkien would say, all myth is true, if incomplete and at times gravely distorted, and sometimes so warped that it focuses almost entirely on that which is distorted by the Fall, yet from our central good being, renewed and centred in Christ, still flows the illumiating and creative light, revealing and showing what is true in creation (and what God creates in and through us), symbols are real, and reveal to us much about the true nature of the universe around us and it’s living relational reality (afterall, even hard sciences are founded on this symbolic relationaity, as do our explorations of Earth and the universe past, we’ve just forgotten that they mean, reveal and engage true realities and not fictions).

      So do dragons exist, yes most definitely, part of the spiritual, symbolic and supernatural reality we engage with, in their nature both grand and terrible, and even relating to things at work in our world right now. It is also true that we don’t know them, or elves, or mermaids, or nymphs, sprites, giants and so on, or for that matter dinosaurs and other extinct animals as they will be, their true nature is yet to known. As in Leaf by Niggle, we see only the leaf now, but we will see the whole tree we were trying to reveal, and uncloaked and freed from all distortion (and dragons delivered from the distortions of death, even the good ones, will be something magnificent beyond our current creative imagining.


      • Jonathan says:

        That is the Tolkienian idea, certainly. Christians might call the reality you (and he) describe the eschaton. I would call it (stealing the phrase from the novelist Gerald Murnane) the country on the far side of fiction (or of Faërie). My own expertise and most of my experience ends at the border of that country.

        I talk about the Ainulindalë in the coming second part of the essay. But there I am looking at fantasy in such a way that does not trouble to ask just how real it all is. I find that question fascinating. But I also sometimes suspect it is a bit of a distraction. Tolkien’s move at the end of the essay on fairy stories, suggesting that on the farther shore of death we will see Faërie transfigured as well as Earth is… interesting. Quite a speculation, really. If, though, Faërie and Earth are really the same world, what would it mean? The idea that myth is true… well, myth simply means story or what we now call fiction. In what way is fiction true? Is it true in different ways? Is Clarissa Dalloway more or less real than Bilbo Baggins because she lives in London rather than the Shire? Sometimes I feel like I know what I’m saying when I ask such questions, and sometimes I don’t. Unquestionably many of us much of the time can feel fictions (myths) to be more true than the world we are pretty sure we actually live in. More real, not as real or the same thing in another version. Now that is strange.

        All I am really sure of is that many of us love fantasy/fiction/Faërie, we desire it to be true (Tolkien describes the Christian story as the one that one could most wish were true, if not a believer) or to somehow put ourselves in it, blend ourselves with it, and so I ask myself what does that desire mean or what can we do, what do we do, with that desire?

        At the end of the day, I think Christianity cares most about incarnation (and so also resurrection). Can anything be said to be really real (or most real or ultimately real) that is not incarnated? Or capable somehow of taking on bodily form? I think that’s a Christian question. But then there’s the position of, Our fight is with principalities and powers, etc… Like I said above in response to Tom’s question: classically, the “spiritual” is a lot like what we would now call the bodily, if not matter. Depending on where one takes that line of thought, it can matter whether it’s possible to actually stumble upon a fairy or elf or dragon or what have you. In my own life, particularly since having children who will have to somehow live on this Earth we have wrecked, I have found myself more interested in wondering how we can conceive of the creation we don’t doubt is real possessing — everywhere — some sort of consciousness. That’s the What is real? question that gets me more than the question about whether dragons are real. But the strangest thing of all is that I think imagining Faërie (even if it’s totally unreal, which I’m not saying it is) mysteriously helps reveal to us the sanctity and consciousness of this “primary world.” Why is that? That’s the process I’d most like to understand, but I’m not sure I ever will.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Ives Digory says:

          You raise a lot of interesting and not easily answered questions. Reality is mediated to us via the senses through images, whereas fiction is a kind of imaginal play—a play that may by divine creativity-within-our-creativity expose or even in a limited sense incarnate “true images,” i.e., those that sacramentally reflect primordial/divine reality, to the receptive imagination. George MacDonald (i.e., St George of Aberdeen) certainly believed this is the case. And perhaps precisely because the images of Faërie are incarnations of otherness, awakening desire for what is beyond images, they lend their spiritual transparency to images more familiar to us. This may not be altogether coherent, but it is the way I’ve come to think about it.

          Liked by 2 people

        • Grant says:

          I would say we inhabit a vibrant, living, dynamic and enchanted reality which we only ever meet in and through the supernatural always (we always experience it in and mediated through our consciousness, through that supernatural level in reality, indeed a more foundational level. It is through that, through that sacramental living (in that is just how we live in reality) is always both communicating and revealing the luminous and mystical nature of nature, it’s both otherness and unity with us, of the beings that live within and part of it, it’s unity with heaven and vis versa, it’s nature as the theophany of God to which we are to delight, assist, reveal and commune. And in Christian terms all United and summed up in the Incarnation in which God unites not only humanity but all Creation to Himself in Christ to bring it to complete freedom and completion, into the infinite dance of the Trinity it and us reflect.

          And of course if we are incarnated and are united and centred in the Logos, than so is the Fearie we perceive and even sub-create, even if it is only began and glimpsed fitfully and partially and through a glass darkly now 🙂 .

          Liked by 1 person

  6. rephinia says:

    Stephen R.L. Clark’s essay On Wishing There Were Unicorns would interest people here

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Jonathan says:

    Just want to say that I am grateful for the comments thus far and look forward to any more that may come. I have tried to be thoughtful in my responses — to the extent one can be thoughtful while being climbed on by children — but actually my better response to ideas broached here — to the main one, anyway, which I take to be a question about how real Faërie is or in what way it is real — will come through in the second part, which I’m now glad has taken me this long to refine into something suitable for this venue, because now I can reshape it a little to speak to this question, or explain why and how I get around it in my own thinking.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I replaced the last dragon image. The new image shows Eärendil battling Ancalagon the Black during the War of Wrath.


  9. Michael Robbins says:

    Well, well. Fancy meeting you here, Jon.


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