Sacrificing Our Sacred Cows: Rethinking the Literary Canon in Secondary English

white ceramic man head bust      person holding opened book

In my class, I refer to literature in two categories: Real Lit and Junk Lit. Real Lit means texts that you need to unpack, that have layers, that speak to the human condition. Junk Lit is mostly comprised of those free titles on the Amazon e-books list—you read them fast, but never tell anyone, and they have catchy titles like, Southern Peach Pie and a Dead Guy (yes, that is a real book that I did really read, and it was hilarious!). (Orepitan, 2019)

For decades now the English language arts has been challenging its own standards for what books make their way into the classroom. The canon has been under fire for its lack of inclusive voices (traditionally dead, white males have formed the English canon) as well as its lack of relevance to modern issues or modern reading preferences. (In what other high school subject do you intentionally read so much “outdated” material besides the occasional excerpts of primary sources?)

However, I resonate with Vikki Orepitan’s statement above. If given their way, a lot of kids would probably just settle for “Junk Lit,” right? I personally love many of the classics. And these are classics we’re talking about, known for their timelessness and universality! These have been treasured texts in English classrooms for years. Our contemporary literature can even trace their own ancestry back to these foundational stories. Maybe students won’t like them now, but they’ll appreciate them when they’re older! (We say this like we would upon lecturing our own children, but let’s be honest, is that really the philosophy  we want associated with a passionate, voracious consumption of reading? And are you catching the blatant fallacy of appealing to tradition?)

When I’m being honest, though, it’s not that my own personal reading is mired only in the classics. I do enjoy reading classics during my free time (much to the dismay of students, friends, and even my wife), but that’s not all I read. Like the rest of the world, I too am waiting for Patrick Rothfuss to finish his Kingkiller Chronicles. I’m a fan of Stephen King novels. I try to keep up with Pulitzer prize winning fiction (currently reading the 2020 winner Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead). In fact, after finishing a dense classic, I’m usually intentional about finding more light reading. And if I’m being really honest, I wasn’t absolutely in love with my reading material in high school (my love for classic literature blossomed late in college, echoing the experience of Donald R. Gallo cited below). And if I’m being really, really honest, the last semester of my senior year, I used Sparknotes as a replacement for every one of my reading assignments. (I was overwhelmed by my high school commitments as a high-achieving, college-bound, student, so when I actually ended up scoring the highest I had all year on a test for a book that I had only studied the Sparknotes for, I was addicted.) So why don’t I extend this same grace to my students? Do I really expect them to read classics in class and supplement that reading material with Junk Lit on their own time? That’s a little naive on my part. And what if other scholars and experienced teachers are actually backing the need to rethink the canon?

In his article “How Classics Create an Aliterate Society,” Donald R. Gallo defines aliteracy by stating that “We are a nation that teaches its children how to read in the early grades, then forces them during their teenage years to read literary works that most of them dislike so much that they have no desire whatsoever to continue those experiences into adulthood” (2001, p. 34). This grim indictment is followed up by pointing to a study in Voices of Readers: How We Come to Love Books which concluded that, though teacher objectives point to a desire to increase reader enthusiasm and appreciation of great works, curriculum is set up to accomplish the opposite (Gallo, 2001, p. 35). Furthermore, in Workshopping the Canon, Mary E. Styslinger indicates a 2013 NAEP report (National Assessment of Educational Progress) that notes more than 60 percent of middle and high school students scored below the proficient level in reading achievement (2017, p. 2). However, she goes on to point out that recent research has highlighted that “We have discovered that many of our students possess secret literacy lives, not always evident or valued in schools,” particularly YA literature (p. 2). For Styslinger, this information has helped her develop a workshopping approach to better connect students to reading that matters. Perry and Stallworth take up this challenge as well:

Certainly, some of the works students are asked to read should mirror their own experiences. However, the reading curriculum must also reflect our global society, and to ignore the impact of technology on today’s young adolescents would be a disservice, given that media is endemic in the way our students interact on a daily
basis. As Vacca, Vacca, and Mraz (2011) state: “It is not possible to adequately prepare students for reading and writing in the twenty-first century without integrating new literacies into the everyday life of today’s classrooms” (p. 29). (2013, p. 16)

Additionally, Beach et al. point to several studies and examples in which students are reading in new and innovative ways.

Meanwhile, researchers in the field of literacy (e.g., Jocson, 2013; Vasuevan, 2006/2007) have documented the diversity of adolescents’ literate practices, from slam poetry (Fisher, 2007), to engagement with comics and graphica (Low, 2012; Simon, 2012), young adult novels (Hayn & Kaplan, 2012), or digital storytelling (Hull & Katz, 2006). As young adult author Sherman Alexie (2011) notes, teenagers continue to engage with ideas and texts “because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books–especially the dark, and dangerous ones–will save them.” (Beach et al., 2016)

Thus, research clearly indicates that students are reading; they simply aren’t very interested in reading the material offered in class, and they continue to be in need of growing in their overall reading achievement. In her article at Edutopia, journalist and author Holly Korbey mentions an APA study which indicates an alarming trend in pleasure reading among high school seniors: a decrease from 60% in the late ’70s to 16% in 2016 (2018). She goes on to mention this growing concern among educators:

On social media, teachers are adamant about the risks of an uncritical devotion to the classics. Some teachers have argued that these concerns are especially pertinent for children of color, who are less likely to be represented in traditionally selected texts. Though U.S. classrooms are rapidly diversifying—in just a few years, half of American students will be students of color—the English literature canon, many argue, has remained mostly unchanged and mostly white. (hyperlink in the original)

Korbey goes on to highlight the trend towards student choice in reading as a means to stimulate interest. Thus, to summarize the research in this post, the following should be considered in future ELA curriculum design:

  1. Reading material should incorporate digital and other innovative modes that reflect the type of reading that students are doing in the 21st century.
  2. Reading material should encourage pleasure reading outside of the classroom.
  3. Reading material should reflect student choice to varying degrees.
  4. Reading material should champion underrepresented voices.

In addition to these curriculum suggestions, other methods and strategies will continue to come to the forefront as research continues. (Check out this recent article about the importance of phonics!) However, it should be clear that no strategy, no push for improvement can really take flight without proper motivation from the reader. As an added bonus, teachers can secretly celebrate to know that scholarly research is backing up what they’ve been afraid to voice all along because it sounds so, well, unscientific: We want reading to be FUN! (I bet every English teacher has a litany of books they’d really like to integrate into the curriculum.)

Some educators have referred to the current state of literacy in the United States as a crisis though others have disputed that label. Nevertheless, the conversation and battle over the formation of the English canon continues to rage. Personally, I wonder at the disservice I do my students by not joining the fray, by not examining my curriculum and asking the hard questions about how to best prepare my students for the future and–as is the passion of every ELA teacher–how to create life-long, passionate readers. What is the cost for not sacrificing my sacred cows? Sacrificing my students instead?

 

References

Beach, R., Appleman, D., Fecho, B.,  & Simon, R. (2016). Teaching Literature to Adolescents. Taylor & Francis.

Gallo, D. (2001). How Classics Create an Aliterate Society. The English Journal, 90(3), 33-39. https://doi.org/10.2307/821305

Korby, H. (2019). The Reading Wars: Choice vs. Canon. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/reading-wars-choice-vs-canon

Lenters, K. (2006). Resistance, struggle, and the adolescent reader. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 50(2), 136-146. https://doi.org/10.1598/JAAL.50.2.6

Orepitan, V. (2019). NCTE Reads: Reflections from a New Member. National Council of Teachers of English. https://ncte.org/blog/2019/07/ncte-reads-reflection-new-member/

Perry, T. & Stallworth, B. J. (2013). 21st-Century Students Demand a Balanced, More Inclusive Canon. Voices from the Middle, 21(1), 15-18. https://secure.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/VM/0211-sep2013/VM0211Century.pdf

Styslinger, M. E. (2017). Workshopping the Canon. National Council of Teachers of English.

 

 

 

Why Poetry Is Still Important (Period).

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Photo by Trust “Tru” Katsande on Unsplash

Recently I wrapped up a unit on poetry both for my ninth graders and tenth graders. I’m going to rag on them a bit (they know how much I love them–I often joke that sarcasm is my love language, so if I don’t sass you, we’re probably not too close). The reason is that I want to use their voices to reflect a greater societal value: Education is merely utilitarian. In other words, the “When am I ever going to USE this?” blasting like endless cannons nearly every day of the unit is indicative of a modern understanding of learning and personal development. If it doesn’t give me something resourceful (a greater skill, a greater experience for my resume, something tangible, etc.), it’s not valuable.

I think we pay lip service to the arts through our offering of art-related classes in our schools and communities, but they’re relegated to secondary or tertiary status rather than prominent, inter-disciplinary aspects of life.

I found myself explaining the importance of reading poetry as the ability to interpret difficult texts (meaning that isn’t always immediately clear) which will be useful as they continue their education. Don’t get me wrong, as an English teacher, I believe in the importance of developing the types of skills that will serve them well in college and careers: grammar, composition, communication of ideas, and everyday work-related reading. In fact, I think I once naively assumed teaching English would be me sitting in a circle with a copy of Shakespeare in hand and discussing the deep implications of Macbeth’s gloomy reflection: “Out, out, brief candle!” I now know I was wrong AND I’m okay with that (but I also get to do that from time to time as well which makes me so happy). However, poetry should never be (and arguably CAN never be) relegated to utilitarianism. It just doesn’t work.

Poetry is mystical.

It is hard to define the lifting up and setting down on a higher mountain that poetry blesses a person with or the soft, spring grass on the feet or the embrace like my great-grandma’s old afghan that hugs me with warmth, truth, and memory.

Poetry teaches (sometimes preaches), and poetry caresses. It holds our hands in loss, kicks us out of the house in apathy, and transforms narrow thinking.

Poetry is life wrapped up and handed to us on a page, often messy and corporeal.

I like how a literary resource page of Abilene Christian University eloquently describes literature (and poetry):

Literature is something that reflects society, makes us think about ourselves and our society, allows us to enjoy language and beauty, it can be didactic, and it reflects on the human condition.  It both reflects ideology and changes ideology, just like it follows generic conventions as well as changing them.

But read what some famous poets have to say about poetry:

I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is prose; words in their best order; – poetry; the best words in the best order.

-S.T. Coleridge

or

Poetry is the journal of a sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air.

-Carl Sandburg

or one of my favorites

The poet is the priest of the invisible.

-Wallace Stevens

Unfortunately, “all [we] want to do / is tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it. // They begin beating it with a hose / to find out what it really means.”

Poetry doesn’t make you a more capable person, it makes you a better person.

Poetry makes you more well-rounded, perceiving life both intellectually and viscerally. It puts you in touch with reality. It breeds compassion and understanding.

Poetry is still important.

 


 

What are some of you favorite poems? Add a link to them. Here are a few of my favorites you can start with (or revisit).

“Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” by Dylan Thomas

“The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry

“Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou

“Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou

“The Poet” by Pablo Neruda

“Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes

“Death, be not proud” by Johne Donne

“God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

“Sailing to Byzantium” by William Butler Yeats

“The Story-Teller” by Mark Van Doren

“Invitation” by Shel Silverstein

“Song of the Open Road” by Walt Whitman

“of course I want to be successful but…” by Rupi Kaur

 

 

 

He Knew How to Keep Christmas Well

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…and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed; and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

Almost every year I try to set aside a little bit of time to read Charles Dickens’ famous holiday tale, A Christmas Carol. You can see in the pictures above my favorite copy, an edition of beautifully vibrant water-color illustrations done by P.J. Lynch and put out by Candlewick Press.

This classic story is filled with a powerful lesson; it is more than a warm-fuzzy Hallmark-esque display (though, to be fair, there’s some of that too). A man is forced to reckon with his own cold heart and the consequences thereof.

I need this reminder every year. I can easily become focused inwardly for the holidays, but the birth of Christ was always meant to be a Star for all.

My challenge for me this Christmas and for you is to keep Christmas in your heart all year: turn away from our cold hearts and seek the welfare of our neighbors January through December.

Will it be said of you, “She knew how to keep Christmas well?”

 

Merry Christmas Greeting Photo
Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

“Advent”: A Poem

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Photo by Steve Johnson from Pexels

Advent

We hold on
to our demise–
what things we
hold on to!

Lamp-posts line
cold streets: lightless,
lifeless, leafless poking
about in irrelevance.

Rosy cheeks cross rosy
streets, a subtle blush
sponged upon the winter droll;
everything is fine.

“Say it enough, and it’s
yours if you just believe,”
thumped from a television
set, just another sound.

We hold on
to our demise–
what things we
hold on to!

Many years ago some shepherds were
in a quiet place waiting but they
didn’t know it: angel news
has never been too common.

The ugly earth in naked
unconcern started glowing
with the messengers. Do not
fear didn’t stop the trembling, but

in a pinprick moment
a baby squealed, wrapped in
prophecy and misguided expectations.
Are we held? Despite everything.


I began writing this poem back in the winter of 2014, sitting in a coffee shop on Brookline Avenue in the Boston area. (I’ve tinkered with it here and there and perhaps will tinker with it more.)

I wanted to capture in one poetic space the frailty of our grasp on fleeting things, the emptiness that many experience around the holidays, and the paradox of the real Christmas event in Bethlehem.

This Christmas–in joy or sorrow–I hope we can better reflect on the earth-redefining significance of a seemingly innocuous moment in a small, Middle Eastern village two thousand years ago. I pray that it triumphs over all our silly little trivialities.

My First Published Poem


Really, this is late news, but last fall a poem of mine was selected to fill the pages of Glass Mountain, “a literary journal edited by undergraduate students at the University of Houston” and “dedicated to showcasing the works from undergraduate and emerging artists.” This, of course, is a humble achievement (I wasn’t exactly published in The New Yorker), but I am extremely grateful for the consideration and encouragement that at least something of mine was halfway decent. I continue to write, polish, and submit poetry (I actually just joined a critique group in my area) and hope to share more in the future. I also am working on a novel. Many people know how important reading and writing are to me but very seldom get to see any of the fruit of my constant labor. So here’s something. 


This is perhaps one of the “heavier” poems I have written, but from the perspective of a teacher, I wanted to capture the tension between the ephemeral and eternal. The question, “What redeems the time?” is an allusion to T.S. Eliot’s poetry. 

Macbeth, the anti-David

 

Just the other day, my class was performing skits of various scenes in the life of David before becoming king of Israel (and the king of Israel’s brief Golden Age). As I was sharing a few personal thoughts to the end of one performance, I suddenly realized just how closely it paralleled the story of Macbeth. In 1 Samuel 24 we read that Saul is in pursuit of David. Taking a break to relieve himself, Saul goes into a cave where, unbeknownst to Saul, David is hiding with his own men. David creeps up to Saul probably to kill him (the text never says that was his original intent but can be surmised from the context of the situation), his enemy, and gain the throne of Israel. However, instead of killing Saul, David secretly cuts off a piece of Saul’s robe. Even that act, though, causes David deep remorse for touching “the Lord’s anointed,” and he orders his men not to attack Saul.

So what are the parallels with Shakespeare’s famous Macbeth? First, in Macbeth the titular character begins as a brave warrior and Thane (nobleman) of Glamis. However, he receives two prophecies by a group of three witches. First, he would be Thane of Cawdor; this takes place later that scene. Second, Macbeth would become king of Scotland. However, Macbeth toils over the conundrum of his own role in the fulfillment of the second prophecy. “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, Without my stir” (Act I, Scene 3). Can he trust the prophecy that what had been foretold will come to pass without his direct intervention? Or must Macbeth act on his own behalf? Well, SPOILER ALERT (for those of you who somehow are unfamiliar with the story of Macbeth), Macbeth takes matters into his own hands: He kills the king and, to secure his throne, kills many others besides. Before he knows it, he declares, “I am in blood. Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (Act III, Scene 4).

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David, the antithesis of Macbeth, also receives a prophecy that he will become king, foretold by the prophet Samuel. Not only must David decide if he will wait for the efficacy of the prophecy (and God’s dictation), he must submit himself to the temptation of seizing control when fate seems to have favored him with the opportunity to kill Saul in the cave at En Gedi. David, however, remains true to his own humanity (and God’s law), and passes through the test having only gone so far as to cut a piece of the king’s robe. God, true to his word, later allows Saul to be killed in combat, and David, integrity intact, ascends to Israel’s throne.

****

Do you believe that Macbeth would have eventually become king even without his own violent intervention?

Can you think of other examples of leaders (fictional or real) passing inner tests of integrity before ascending to their position?

6 Reasons to Read Macbeth

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Macbeth is definitely my favorite Shakespeare play…so far (I am more widely read in Shakespeare than the average person, but I am still woefully ignorant of the entire Shakespeare canon). However, spending any time at all among Shakespeare’s works quickly enlightens us as to why the Elizabethan playwright is so profoundly famous and global: his fantastical use of history, myth, and folklore as the backdrop to his stories; his ability to tap into the human predicament with violent images and lovely romances; his wordsmithing and timeless passages. All these and more have made his legacy timeless. We may not all be the lovesick youth of Romeo and Juliet. We may not all be the desperate and revengeful Danish prince, Hamlet. But Shakespeare has tapped into the universal human longings for love and justice, the plots in all of our lives that merely take various forms.

This morning I was reading in Jerram Barrs’ Echoes of Eden, and in his chapter “Shakespeare and a Christian Worldview,” Barrs goes into a more thorough examination of Macbeth. This of course summoned in me all the passionate emotions I have experienced during my multiple readings of the play. So here are five reasons why you should take some time to read Macbeth this fall.

1. The supernatural elements are great for your fall/October/Halloween reading list.

Witches, spells, curses, ghosts, visions of floating daggers, murder. Here is a fantastic backdrop for your spooky seasonal reading. “Double, double toil and trouble; / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble” (4.1.10-11).

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2. The Scottish setting

Scotland is the more rugged, wild neighbor to the north of England. The misty, green landscape is the perfect backdrop to the evil machinations of Macbeth. Though Shakespeare takes great liberties, there is a historical connection to the play’s characters.

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Dunsinane Hill from Wikipedia

3. The universal themes

Fate versus free will. The thirst for power. The meaninglessness of life. Here are themes that have been gripping audiences throughout all eternity. Biological determinism is a contentious idea today. Greedy capitalism drives men and women to do unspeakable things in order to get ahead. And sometimes we feel like the arbitrary puppets of a madman.

…[Life] is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing. (5.5.30-31)

Basically, Macbeth uses vivid images to examine what is actually in humanity’s hearts. Your life might not be surrounded by royal bloodshed, but it does not mean that a battle doesn’t rage just below the surface of what’s seen.

4. The enticing plot

From the very beginning of the play, Shakespeare’s plot moves quickly from royal prophecy to bloodshed to massacre to madness and finally to its gripping conclusion. Don’t be fooled by the fancy language; this is a fast-paced story!

5. The brilliant writing

Books have been written about Shakespeare’s contribution to language. He is responsible for penning new words and phrases that are still in use today. His ability to express the depth of the human experience in profound ways is unparalleled. Yes, it may be difficult for the untrained reader, but keep at it; there’s treasure to be had. Here is the expanded passage of the lines already quoted above, my favorite of the whole play.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (5.5.22-31)

6. The great adaptations

Okay, so perhaps I can’t speak immensely into all the adaptations because truthfully I’ve only seen the Michael Fassbender film. But I really enjoyed the interpretation. I felt that Fassbender played the part well, the cinematography was top notch, and only the original dialogue was used. It was a great treat for the class I was teaching last year. However, I still need to check out other adaptations.

 

Finally, if reading Shakespeare is daunting, I highly recommend the Folger editions of the texts. On the right page is the original text, but on the left page are thorough notes to help with more challenging words and phrases as well fascinating factoids.

So, what’s your favorite Shakespeare play?

8 Books about Faith and Art

The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming by [Nouwen, Henri]

 

For many years (decades, centuries), there has been debate as to what should be the relationship between art and religion. From a Christian perspective, should art have any prominent role in the church? What do we do about art made by those who believe differently than us? This might be visual art, literary art, music, or some other form of creativity. Is there a proper response to these things?

Here are eight books that I have either read in full or I am currently reading (currently reading Beauty Will Save the World and Echoes of Eden) about the relationship between art and faith (from a Christian perspective) which will encourage your engagement with the arts while maintaining a thoughtful attitude. You can check out more resources on my page “Faith and the Arts.” 

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams a biographical sketch of the memorable Christian literary group, the Inklings. More than individual profiles, this work also traces the interchange between these literary greats.

For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts a call for the local church to embrace the importance of the arts and their artists.

Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling Andy Crouch’s thoughtful approach to cultural engagement for Christians–being involved in the creative process rather than merely reactionary.

Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture a collection of post 9/11 essays regarding the intersection of faith, art, and culture by Japanese American Makoto Fujimura.

Liberal Arts for the Christian Life a defense of more traditional academic subjects (the humanities) during a cultural crisis in which STEM subjects are often promoted at the expense of a broader education.

The Return of the Prodigal Son Catholic priest Henri Nouwen’s examination of faith and grace (drawn from personal experience) through the lens of Rembrandt’s famous painting.

Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological AgeGregory Wolfe’s defense of Christian humanism, reflectively discussing the faith elements present in less discussed authors such as Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Conner, Shusaku Endo, Wendell Berry, and more.

Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, and the Arts more accessible than Wolfe’s work (above), it highlights the proper Christian stance towards art and literature and the discusses the specific faith evident in the works of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, William Shakespeare, and Jane Austen.

 

So here is a primer for anyone interested. Are there any other good ones to add to the list?

Poetry Wednesday: Shel Silverstein

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Nearly everyone has been exposed to some of the fun, whimsical poetry of Shel Silverstein: The Light in the Attic, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Falling Up, and The Giving Tree are some of his most notable works. His writing–targeted primarily at children–shows itself to be both entertaining and often quite surprisingly deep. Today I wanted to share his poem “Invitation.” CHEERS! to fellow dreamers and creators. May your tales always find a welcome heart.

If you are a dreamer, come in
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer…
If you’re a pretender, come sit by the fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
Come in!
Come in!

Tolkien, Fairy Stories, and Sub-creation

I was first introduced to Tolkien’s The Hobbit when I was a pre-teen. At that point I was not familiar with The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings trilogy (the movies had not yet premiered). I had the joy and privilege to experience this story with a blank slate, knowing nothing about the book besides the cover image. Image result for the hobbit coversThus I was immediately whisked away into the magic of the Shire, Mirkwood, the Lonely Mountain, and Bilbo’s adventures with his “Unexpected Party” of dwarves. To my great relief upon completing the book, I discovered that The Hobbit was only the prequel (though it was not originally written with the intention of being a prequel) to the much grander and epic The Lord of the Rings, and soon after I dived right on in to that as well.

Few worlds have captured my imagination and inner longings like Middle Earth. Perhaps I could add Narnia (I have probably read that whole series ten times or more), Hogwarts, and the Fairy Land of Phantastes. I am being very serious when I describe my experiences in these worlds as mystical. It was not merely a matter of entering a great story–I entered into a new reality of wonder. It was not merely escapism–I began to see the magic of my world in new ways (what Tolkien would call “Recovery,” discussed below). Great imaginative writers have written detailed apologias defending the power of fairy literature. Stories and worlds such as those I’ve already mentioned have unfortunately been quickly dismissed into genre fiction: fantasy. It is almost never critically viewed as serious literature. But its importance is far greater than just another pop-novel category.

Tolkien’s mythopoeia is best detailed in his famous Andrew Lang Lecture, “On Fairy-Stories,” delivered at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland on March 8, 1939. In it he describes the importance of the Faerie realm equal to and even beyond the narrative itself. Tolkien goes on to explain that writers become “sub-creators,” drawing upon the Christian doctrine of the imago dei. Humans are made in the image of a Creator-God and are endowed with similar (though not equal) abilities to create: “we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

Tolkien went on to dispel the myth that fairy stories are only for children (similar to my statement about the dismissal of the “fantasy” genre):

At least it will be plain that in my opinion fairy-stories should not be specially associated with children. They are associated with them: naturally, because children are human and fairy-stories are a natural human taste (though not necessarily a universal one); accidentally, because fairy-stories are a large part of the literary lumber that in latter-day Europe has been stuffed away in attics; unnaturally, because of erroneous sentiment about children, a sentiment that seems to increase with the decline in children.

Tolkien concluded his lecture by listing three important functions of fairy stories: recovery, escape, and consolation. First, fairy stories help readers recover the magic of their “Primary world,” which is often lost in our overly scientific, overly explained universe. Escape, in Tolkien’s view, is not a bad thing. Instead, he likens escape to the noble desire of the prisoner rather than the ignoble flight of a deserter. Escape in this sense is one who imagines a better world. Thus, in many ways fantasy begins overlapping with the real world to help heal it. Finally, consolation is Tolkien’s and the fairy tale’s highlight. Tolkien names this the “Eucatastrophe”: “the good
catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale)…” I’m reminded of Gandalf’s eucatastrophic appearance at Helm’s Deep when it seemed that all would be lost. Tolkien, however, goes further, and here his Catholic Christianity is very evident. Consolation envisions the fulfillment of the Christian’s longing: paradise, the new heavens and new earth provided only by the eucatastrophic death and resurrection of the Christ.

Thus, I hope it is evident that fantasy, true and good fantasy, is something much deeper than a superficial pop-novel. By creating a secondary world of imagination and magic (if you will), it plays out consistently the deepest human and universal themes of the primary world.