Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Narnia, Game of Thrones, and the Stormlight Chronicles: the Reenchantmant of Fantasy (Part I)


(Happy birthday to Lionel Spiegel.)

I drive my son Kalman to and from pre-school most weekdays. In the car, he usually asks to listen to Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. You can clock an average trip as the amount of time it takes to get from the beginning of the book until Mr. Tumnus confesses that he is in the pay of the White Witch as her kidnapper. Kalman knows that the White Witch is bad because she is the government and she makes it always winter. I guess I can live with him not picking up on the "and never Christmas" part.

Lewis opened with one of the finest dedications ever. Writing to Lucy Barfield, the daughter of fellow Inkling, Owen Barfield, Lewis apologized to the teenage girl that she grew up faster than he could write but he hopes that one day she will be old enough to read fairy tales once again. This a good example of one of the key concepts in Lewis' writing, reenchantment; that one can once again fall in love with the things of childhood that one's more cynical self had abandoned as part of "growing up."

Reenchantment should be understood as a response to Max Weber's notion of disenchantment and Friederich Nietzsche's more poetic "God is dead." Disenchantment is the notion that under modernity our very way of thinking is materialistic and does not allow us to truly operate within a supernaturalist framework. For example, early in the Wardrobe, the other children are simply unable to believe that Lucy has traveled to Narnia; to them, it is simply not possible that she could be anything else but either a liar or insane. They are prejudiced against belief even though logically there is nothing to suggest that portals to other universes do not exist.

It is important to understand that contrary to conventional secularist theories of modernity, Weber was not claiming that modernity had intellectually refuted religion and people, particularly the educated, will no longer believe. On the contrary, such a prospect will cause many people to cling more tightly than ever to the outward forms of religion. Thus, it may even appear that religion is doing better than ever under modernity with more people attending church and insisting on hardline fundamentalist interpretations of the faith. That being said, such religiosity only serves to cover for the fact that religion has been fossilized into something that people practice out of tradition but lacks the ability to truly inspire its adherents. In this sense, disenchantment stands as a far graver threat to religion than simple secularism. If people were convinced by argument to abandon religion then it might be possible to engage in apologetics and win them back. On the other hand, if people stopped believing not because of any argument without even realizing that they no longer believed then it is practically impossible to ever bring them back.

In addition to religious disenchantment, Lewis, in his own personal experience, confronted a more tangible disenchantment, World War I. Lewis was part of a generation of young Englishmen, who listened to their teachers and did the "right and honorable thing;" they marched off to the French trenches to be slaughtered in the mud, sacrificed to pay for the political and military miscalculations of their elders.

World War I was the death of heroism. In an earlier generation, a man could be said to be brave to stand tall in the face of enemy fire and resolutely march forward. One might die in the attempt but one could believe that he was sacrificing himself to spur his comrades on to victory. During World War I, that became suicide. Thus, the very ethos of heroism led men to their deaths in utter futility. It should be emphasized that dying was never the issue. Young men have always been marched off to war by their elders and died in great numbers. What was new here was this sense of futility that robbed one even of the ability to honor the dead for their sacrifice. By contrast, World War II could once again offer a cause to die for even as it brought the new disenchantment of the massive aerial bombardment of urban centers. As with disenchantment with religion, what was at stake was less an intellectual attack on heroism but the inability, at a gut level, to take heroism seriously in the first place. Someone who seems heroic must either be a scoundrel trying to deceive others or a fool to have bought into such nonsense. 

As with fellow veteran J. R. R. Tolkien, Lewis' use of fantasy can be seen as an attempt to become reenchanted with heroism. For example, in Narnia, the children are able to abandon the air raids of World War II for a land in which chivalry is still possible. This reenchantment must be understood as something distinct from enchantment. The horrors of the World Wars were real and there can be no going back. That being said, the fantasies of Lewis and Tolkien were attempts to acknowledge the incomprehensible horror of what they experienced yet still allow for heroism. If the blood and the mud were real, the courage shown by the men was equally real.

This project of using fantasy to resurrect heroism must be understood within a larger effort to bring about the reenchantment with religion. Was it not that earlier generation of disenchanted believers with their mixture of Christian ritual now supplemented with a sense of duty to king and country and a confidence in progress all while being hopelessly naive regarding the implications of industrialized warfare that had sent all those young men to die? Perhaps, it was not heroism that was obsolete, but the ideologies of modernity? (See Joseph Loconte's Hobbit, a Wardrobe and a Great War.)

If one could recover heroism, perhaps it could lead back to faith and to a religion that might once again be relevant to a modern world. As Screwtape, the Satan of Lewis' disenchanted world, notes, the very fact that non-believers (much like the teenage Lewis, who was then an atheist) march off to war, to give themselves to a cause larger than themselves places them at risk of becoming open to the "enemy." Part of what is going on here is the ability to believe in things that are beyond the physical senses. Disenchantment works precisely by taking the physical as the gold standard of what is real. Thus, before the debate even begins, the spiritual has already lost to be relegated to being less real. The moment we introduce something that is non-physical yet more real than the world of the senses, the spell of disenchantment is broken and the process of reenchantment can begin. 

Regardless of this wider religious context, a major aspect of Lewis and Tolkien's legacy to fantasy as a genre has been a kind of optimistic faith in heroism in the face of modern cynicism. (In Lord of the Rings, this optimism is only sharpened by the fact that the book is fundamentally a tragedy.) Thus, it could only be expected that if Lewis and Tolkien represented a kind of enchantment with heroic fantasy, it would produce a backlash of disenchanted fantasy. The most important example of this has been George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones series. This series is a repeated exercise in both the physical and ideological murder of heroism. Those like Ned Stark and his son Robb, who risk themselves doing the right thing, do not come out ahead. It is not even that they die achieving some noble goal. On the contrary, they come to ignominious ends marked by utter futility. On the other side, you have the anti-heroism of Jaime Lannister. Jaime commits regicide and incest even as the former probably saved lives and he is faithful to his sister as his one true love. To Martin's credit, Jaime fails to be a simple caricature of chivalry. Rather, (much like the more comic Harry Flashman), readers can still love Jaime for his simple honesty in knowing himself to be a scoundrel. In a world without moral absolutes, hypocrisy is the only sin and honesty in one's sinfulness the only virtue.               

No comments: