The Drama of Hallowmas | Sally Thomas | First Things

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“As a friend of mine observed recently, there is something medieval about Halloween…”

Source: The Drama of Hallowmas | Sally Thomas | First Things

A very interesting “take” on Halloween, and the larger Hallowmas season (Eve of All Hallows, All Hallows / All Saints Day, and All Souls Day) of which it is a part. Sally Thomas writes, in this “web exclusive” for the excellent journal First Things,

“As a friend of mine observed recently, there is something medieval about Halloween. The masks, the running around in the dark, the flicker of candles in pumpkins, the smell of leaves and cold air — all of it feels ancient, even primal, somehow. Despite the now-inevitable preponderance of media-inspired costumes, Halloween seems, in execution, far closer to a Last Judgment scene above a medieval church door, or to a mystery play, than it does to Wal-Mart.

“To step outside on Halloween dressed as someone—or some thing—other than yourself is to step into a narrative that acknowledges that the membrane between our workaday, material world and the unseen realm of spirits is far thinner and more permeable than many of us like to think. This narrative disturbs a lot of people, as the proliferation of church-sponsored ‘autumn festivals’ and ‘trunk-or-treat’ parties suggests. To some of those who worry about it, Halloween is either a thoroughly secular or a thoroughly pagan observance, to be avoided by serious Christians…

“Halloween’s emphasis on darkness makes many Christians squeamish, but, to my mind, what my friend observed about the medieval feel of Halloween is more on the money. There is a drama to be played out, like a mystery play in three scenes, and it makes sense only if you observe all three days of Hallowmas — not only Halloween but All Saints’ and All Souls’ days as well. In this context, the very secularity and even the roots-level paganism of Halloween become crucial elements in a larger Christian story.”

She adds,

“What their costumes are is less important than the fact that, for a night, my children will be people other than themselves: each of them will be someone who, regardless of real-life fears about the dark, is not afraid to step out into the night. Armored inside their personae, they can laugh at the shadows, as well they should. On the one hand, the powers of darkness are no joke; on the other hand, although Christians have no traffic with these powers, we do not fear them.”

This is an important lesson to learn, and one of the reasons I get a bit impatient at those Christians – usually on the Evangelical / Fundamentalist Protestant side of the Christian spectrum – who get into conniptions over Halloween, and often refuse to celebrate it at all. They are missing the point. They are also surrendering to the demonic far too much power: as Ms Thomas points out, we have no traffic with these powers, but neither need we fear them: Christ has already won the victory over them.

[These are some of the same folks – doubtless good and well-meaning people – who act as if, even if they may not formally believe, that the Devil is God’s “opposite number,” so to speak. In fact, the counterpart to Satan (Lucifer, the fallen “angel of light,” who became the demon of darkness) is St. Michael the Archangel (see Revelation 12:7–10): God is utterly supreme, omnipotent and ineffable, and has no opponent! That the Devil thinks he is anything close to equivalent with God is but a conceit on his part (hubris: overweening pride), and a heretical error to any human who believes it.]

Halloween is (or should be; admittedly, there are some who use it to celebrate darkness to a psychologically and spiritually unhealthy degree, but Christians should know better) about mocking the forces of darkness, not embracing them. It is, in a sense, a victory parade for the battle that was won for us on the Cross of Calvary – a celebration in which some may choose to wear the uniforms of the defeated enemy.

Pyramid of captured German helmets, New York, 1918 (2)
Pyramid of pickelhauben (captured WW I German helmets), Grand Central Terminal, New York, 1919. While I do not necessarily applaud this sort of display, it does speak to the point of emphasizing the defeat of one’s enemy by displaying his “stuff.”

And it is also, of course, a harvest festival, celebrating the turning-point between the season of warmth and light, and that of cold and dark… between, that is to say, the seasons of life and of death, or seeming death. And this, too, is a Christian mystery!

For just as the myths of the “dying gods” recorded by Frasier in The Golden Bough, and others, were reflections of the seeming “death” (actually dormancy) of the natural world in the Winter, only to be “reborn” in the Spring, so that very seasonal cycle is a reminder of what C.S. Lewis called the “true myth” of Christ’s death and resurrection:

“Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself . . . I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant.’

“Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference — that it really happened.”

Thanks be to God! Just don’t forget that All Saints and All Souls are yet to come – the drama is not yet complete:

“On All Saints’ Day, our parish holds a children’s festival, hugely attended, at which children and adults alike dress as their favorite saints… The party is such fun that we could almost dispense with Halloween, whose festivities, as we observe them, are minimal by comparison. But the cumulative iconography of being, first, a secular character confronting darkness, and then a saint in light, is imaginatively powerful and valuable.

“As our Hallowmas ends, the pageantry and excitement of Halloween and All Saints’ Day give way to the comparative quiet of the feast of All Souls. This final solemnity is a day without costumes. Having been denizens of the night and citizens of the household of God, the children step back into themselves to contemplate their own mortality and pray for our beloved dead. In three days they have enacted the story of their own eternal lives: from darkness to the hope of heaven and the joy of the saints who await them in glory. From mystery to mystery, it’s a drama I would not have them miss.”

Amen, and amen!

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Happy 80th Birthday to Middle Earth!

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As if it weren’t enough that both the traditional date of the Autumnal Equinox, and my own birthday, fall upon this date, today is also the 80th anniversary of the publication of J.R.R. Tolkien‘s classic The Hobbit, back on 21 September, 1937!

The above picture is the cover art from the original Allen & Unwin (U.K.) edition; the one below is the cover of the paperback Ballantine (U.S.) edition which was my personal introduction, in 1977, to the world of Middle Earth:

1976Hobbitballantine

My father, who was then hospitalized following a heart attack, had first The Hobbit, and then all three volumes of The Lord of the Rings, brought to him by a friend to read; as he finished one, I proceeded to devour it in turn. They have remained a major influence on me – literarily, linguistically, and philosophically – ever since!

So I salute the great Professor Tolkien and his epic achievement. May he rest forever in the Undying Lands, beyond the Sundering Seas!

The Ten Points of Tolkien’s Politics – The Imaginative Conservative

J.R.R. Tolkien despised politics. It is, however, a natural question for someone to ask about his views here, as we live in a highly politicized age. So, what do we know about the great man’s politics? (essay by Bradley Birzer)

Source: The Ten Points of Tolkien’s Politics – The Imaginative Conservative

Resolutely apolitical in his personal habits, there are nonetheless things that can be said about Tolkien’s political philosophy. Some particular points of interest, with respect to this blog:

“Tolkien referred to himself in his letters as an anarchist of the non-violent variety. Almost certainly, Tolkien’s anarchism is neither [modern anarcho-capitalism nor anarcho-socialism]. Given his writings on the Shire, in particular, Tolkien almost certainly meant this in the sense that he was a Catholic and, therefore, that he believed in subsidiarity – that is the principle that power should reside at the most immediate level possible.

“… in the same letter that Tolkien called himself an anarchist, philosophically understood, he also argued that he would support an unconstitutional monarchy. Puzzling, to be sure. But, again, given Tolkien’s writings regarding Middle-earth, and especially on Aragorn, Tolkien almost certainly meant that a king should be bound by his oath to his people and, especially to Christ. Philosophically, Tolkien would have identified with St. Thomas Aquinas, especially in the great saint’s letter On Kingship. For Aquinas, the only true king was the king who behaved as would Christ, willing to sacrifice himself for love.”

Being somewhat of a philosophical anarcho-monarchist, myself, this makes perfect sense to me! As the great man put it, in “Fellowship of the Ring,” the section on “The Ordering of the Shire”:

“There remained, of course, the ancient tradition concerning the high king at Fornost, or Norbury as they called it, away north of the Shire. But there had been no king for nearly a thousand years, and even the ruins of Kings’ Norbury were covered with grass. Yet the Hobbits still said of wild folk and wicked things (such as trolls) that they had not heard of the king. For they attributed to the king of old all their essential laws; and usually they kept the laws of free will, because they were The Rules (as they said), both ancient and just.”

I especially love this concluding quote, by Tolkien himself:

“I look East, West, North, South, and I do not see Sauron. But I see that Saruman has many descendants. We Hobbits have against them no magic weapons. Yet, my gentle hobbits, I give you this toast: To the Hobbits. May they outlast the Sarumans and see spring again in the trees.”

“Romantic Conservatives: The Inklings in Their Political Context”

Romantic Conservatives: The Inklings in Their Political Context

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A very interesting treatment of the political philosophy of a fascinating group of writers and thinkers — the Inklings, whose number included both J.R.R. Tolkien and his friend and sometimes foil or rival, C.S. Lewis. The pendulum has swung again, of course, and Romanticism has for many today a sort of “airy-fairy,” unrealistic air to it. But as this essay points out,

“To begin with, just what is Romanticism, anyway? There do seem to be as many definitions as there are writers; but it is as accurate a one as any might be to call it Europe’s artistic and philosophical reaction to the arid rationalism of the Enlightenment, the horrors of the French Revolutionary Wars, and the centralising hand of Napoleon Bonaparte.”

It’s important to note that Romanticism is a reaction against, and response to, rationalism — not rationality, that is to say reason, properly understood and exercised. The Romantics, and certainly the Inklings who were among their heirs, understood and valued reason as one of the faculties with which humans have been gifted by a loving Creator. But like everything else, it was to occupy its appropriate sphere, not either more or less.

One of the definitions of a “heresy” is a truth which is carried to such an extreme that it becomes no longer true. By that standard, the rationalist heresy is the idea that unaided reason is the only way one can, or should, understand the world, and everything must be subjected to the test of reason. If you cannot reason (or experiment, as empiricism is part of this) your way to a conclusion, it is suspect at best, or to be rejected absolutely. This is a view common to both Modernist and, to a very significant extent, post-modernist thought as well.

Romantics, and the Inklings, would have argued for Mystery, and the possibility of, not the irrational, but the trans-rational, the supra-rational: that which is beyond all that our minds can grasp. “My ways are not your ways, nor your thoughts, my thoughts,” as the prophet Isaiah expresses the Divine message. Reason can only take us so far; as St. Thomas Aquinas said of his exquisitely researched and argued “Summa Theologica,” following a mystical experience at the Eucharist, “It is all straw.”

The fruits of reason are not to be despised, then, but merely understood within their own context, and neither expected to take us beyond reason’s proper sphere, nor to be meekly accepted when they attempt to do so. The deification of Reason, the assumption that it is the be-all and end-all of existence, was for the Romantics and the Inklings, and is for me, to be rejected: it is like the wings of Icarus, that take us too high, too close to the sun, so that we fall to our doom. It is the very definition of hubris, of arrogant over-reach: the pride that goeth before the fall, the creature seeking to pass judgement on the Creator.

But these are just my own meanderings on one piece of the puzzle. The whole article is fascinating, and only touches on the rationalist heresy as it applies to the Inklings’ political philosophy. Read and enjoy!

QOTD from Treebeard the Ent

“I am not altogether on anybody’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me… there are some things, of course, whose side I am altogether not on; I am against them altogether.”

~ Treebeard the Ent (from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”)