Reflections on Reepicheep

A few summers ago I had the great pleasure of reading Phantastes. It was my first encounter with MacDonald, and I would echo what Lewis expressed upon having the same pleasure: it was the baptism of my imagination. This first encounter with MacDonald strongly compelled me to read more of his books, but I suspected I had read the best of his books first. But when I read Lilith, I was overjoyed to discover that I had found a book that not only contained the same glorious mythopoeic imagery, but a book that was (unimaginably) even better. One chapter entitled The Little Ones in particular struck me so soundly that I think it left an incurable mark on my soul. It brought so many passages from other favourite books to mind.

For instance, Lewis once wrote to his niece, “I forgot when I began to write this book that books grow more slowly than children. So by the time this book is finished you will be too old to read it. But maybe one day you will grow old enough to read fairy tales again. When you do, then maybe you can take it from the shelf, dust it off, and tell me what you think of it.” Lewis was quite fond of hidden elements in books. Beneath Lewis’s humour in this letter is a hidden allusion to an idea that pervades much of his writing, an idea which he inherited from MacDonald. It is the same idea MacDonald conveys in the immortal chapter in Lilith to which I have alluded. Lewis is expecting his niece to lose her astonishment at the world as she grows up. Children come into the world naturally delighting in simple, beautiful things: bubbles, fish tanks, squirrels, those furry caves they have in department stores (the clothes racks), the funny faces that dad makes, and fairy tales. Chesterton famously refers to this same idea in Orthodoxy when he observes a favouritism among children: “Do it again!” they love to say, “and the grownup does it again until he is nearly dead.” But, says Chesterton, it is actually the child who is more like our heavenly Father, for it is God who says, “Do it again!” to the rising sun every day and, “Do it again!” to each and every dandelion that springs from the ground…for it may be, says Chesterton, that we have grown old, and our heavenly Father is younger than we. God created us to be astonished, which in my view is the same thing as saying that God created us to be children. It is this same thing that Lewis is hitting on in the introduction to Narnia. We forget that we were made to be children. Lewis uses the characters of Susan and Eustace to illustrate this sin: with Susan, the one who refuses to be a child and is damned; and Eustace, whom Aslan redeems for childhood. Assuredly I say to you, says Christ, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.

So what does this have to do with Reepicheep? Well, do you remember at the end of Prince Caspian when Aslan makes a door in the air through which the Telmarines may go if they wish to make a new life back in our world? At first they are terrified to pass through the gate, for they do not know what will happen and they do not trust Aslan. Reepicheep, ever the courageous one, volunteers to go himself, and would have proceeded if Aslan had not forbidden it. Then Aslan says a curious thing. When he forbids Reepicheep, Aslan warns him that if the people in our world met him they would catch him, lock him up, and show him at fairs and carnivals, for people in our world are not accustomed to talking animals. And it is precisely because of sin and rebellion that we would do such a thing. It is the sin of becoming weary of God’s glory: of “growing up.” It is because we have become bored of the countless, everyday splendours of this world that we would pack Reepicheep in a cage and show him at carnivals.

But why should we be amazed that a mouse would talk? Why would we be more amazed at talking mice than we are at talking people? A child learning speech is a marvel about which we should shout for delight, for it is a marvel that only God could have made. Why should a talking mouse be more astounding than the fur of a bear, or the wings of an eagle? And yet we are lazy, dead in our trespasses and sins, bored with the glory that the Lord sets before us each day. The real reason to put a talking mouse into a fairy tale is not to create a novelty at which to gape, but a moving reminder of how extraordinary speech itself is, an astounding wonder we encounter every day. It’s a fresh perspective on a familiar reality. Talking mice in Narnia help us escape boredom. And boredom is blasphemy.

Marvels are everywhere. For the Pharisees to demand a sign from Jesus was not only ridiculous, but wicked. Only a wicked and faithless generation seeks a sign, for we do not have the faith to see the signs and wonders that God reveals at every moment, in every place. We have put God in the dock, pestering Him for signs and wonders and proofs when He presents to us the equivalent of a talking mouse (and beyond) every moment of every day: with every breath, with every heartbeat, every thought, every word, every newborn babe, every bird’s wing.

You have been waiting for me to write in particulars about the chapter in Lilith that I have thus far only hinted at. But I can say nothing that will properly retell the beauty with which Macdonald describes these ideas in that passage of Lilith. You have heard me speak of it, but only a face to face encounter will do. It is a transportation into the very reality of which I write, the reality where we all must choose to either grow up and become too sophisticated to be children, or to diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel. For while Jesus will not go to glory and leave us behind, neither will he suffer any to steal the glory of what is rightfully only his. Every knee shall bow. The only question is: will I bow in shame as a conquered enemy before a victorious foe, or a loving soldier before his triumphant captain?

They did not know very much, but they were very wise and seemed capable of learning almost anything.” -George MacDonald

Strong Music

“Five hundred times have the red leaves fallen in Mirkwood in my home since [the golden hall of Rohan was built], “ said Legolas, “and but a little while does that seem to us.” “But to the Riders of the Mark it seems so long ago,” said Aragorn, “that the raising of this house is but a memory of song, and the years before are lost in the midst of time. Now they call this land their home, their own, and their speech is sundered from their northern kin.” Then he began to chant in a slow tongue unknown to the Elf and Dwarf; yet they listened, for there was a strong music in it. “That, I guess, is the language of the Rohirrim, “ said Legolas, “for it is like to this land itself; rich and rolling in part, and else hard and stern as the mountains. But I cannot guess what it means, save that it is laden with the sadness of Mortal Men.”

Every once in a while a person loves to learn. If you have the joy of knowing such a person, that person will be able to tell you stories of the beloved teacher who inspired them to love learning. Such students can usually trace their love of learning back to a single person whose joy in learning and discovery provoked in that student’s heart that same love.

By God’s abundant goodness I have been blessed with a few such people over the years. One of those people was a professor at Grove City who would ask his students to think about fundamental questions, timeless questions that people have considered for ages. One of my favorites that he would often ask was, “What are people for?” It is the poet, not the scientist, who can answer this question. The scientist studies what people are made of. The poet speaks of what people or made for.

A dominant paradigm in modern thinking and living is the approach that centers in the deconstruction of things, the genuinely valuable scientific approach that pulls things apart to see how they work. This plays out in human lives that are so centered on individual people and parts of people that sometimes we forget to ask what people are for. G.K. Chesterton elaborates on this beautifully in the opening words of his book Heretics when he writes, “We are more and more to discuss details in art, politics, literature. A man’s opinion on tramcars matters; his opinion on Botticelli matters; his opinion on all things does not matter. He may turn over and explore a million objects, but he must not find that strange object, the universe; for if he does he will have a religion, and be lost. Everything matters—except everything.” This is a very good description of this aspect of the modern mindset which we all share. We are everlastingly busy with paying bills, studying for a good grade, preparing for a quiz, answering emails (a harried vision of the eternal tarmac of Hell), getting the car fixed, running to the grocery store…and in the middle of any one of those things, your phone can buzz (like a bug trying to get in your ear) and give you one more thing to deal with. Modern man tends to forget to think about and consider things like, “What are people for? What is the nature of the universe? What is death? What is love? Who is God? How do we find wisdom?” And yet those are arguably the most important things to think about. Those are the things that have eternal significance, things that will make a difference in how you live. It does not matter very much where you go for lunch or whether your inbox is clean. It matters more to think about what is going to happen to you when you die or what it means to love your friends.

Now I would like to suggest that learning is chiefly about wrestling with these questions that are more important than all the others. The glorious and wonderful thing is not only that God tells us a lot about these questions in the Bible but also that you and I are not the only people who have ever wrestled with these questions. Many have asked these questions before that all human beings share as part of being human, people like Plato and Dostoyevsky. And we can learn from them, because they were kind enough to write their thoughts down for us to read.

Consider the quote from Tolkien’s The Two Towers that I offered above. Aragorn chants in the Rohirrim tongue a song, filled with memory and rich with meaning that the riders of the Mark shared as part of their cultural memories, song and poetry that reminded them of who they were, where they had come from, and what living was all about. It is a poem that speaks of their forefather Eorl who rode from the north on his great steed Felaróf, the father of horses. The poem is full of the memory of years past, of horns blowing, of crops and harvest, of music-making before the fire in the evening. Poetry and song are powerful mediums that human beings have used for a long time to imbue into the human soul the memory of things past. We, like the Rohirrim, have many such songs and poems that allow us to speak to each other of who we are, why we are here, and so forth. Think of the Psalmist who sings, “The righteous shall rejoice when he sees the vengeance; He shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked, so that men will say, ‘Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely He is God who judges in the earth.’” Think of how knowing such truth might change the way that you live. Or consider those great opening lines from Homer’s Iliad,

       Achilles’ wrath, to Greece the direful spring

       Of woes unnumber’d, heavenly goddess, sing!

       That wrath which hurl’d to Pluto’s gloomy reign

       The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain;

       Whose limbs unburied on the naked shore,

       Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore.

       Since great Achilles and Atrides strove,

       Such was the sovereign doom, and such the will of Jove!

       Declare, O Muse! in what ill-fated hour

       Sprung the fierce strife, from what offended power

       Latona’s son a dire contagion spread,

       And heap’d the camp with mountains of the dead;

       The king of men his reverent priest defied,

       And for the king’s offence the people died.

It is in these verses that Homer reminds us of the wrath of a great man, and the horrible consequences of that uncontrolled wrath. For it was by the wrath of Achilles that many were sent to their untimely deaths. It was by the offence of the king that Apollo (Latona’s son) sent a plague to ravage the Greek camp. Homer teaches us that divine providence can bring doom upon men (line 8) and that these consequences are intimately tied to our actions. It is not only in Greek epic that plagues come from heaven because of the offense of a king. Just read the twenty-first chapter of the book of I Chronicles. Homer reminds us, as does Holy Scripture, that the things we do have consequences, not only for us but for those around us.

How many of these lessons have we lost? How important do we deem it to learn the lessons preserved in Holy Scripture or in the memories of song and poetry we have on our bookshelves? Such questions cannot be ignored. If one does not learn that the stove it hot by listening to mother, then one will learn by touching it. What do you think the Bible or the Iliad or Augustine’s Confessions might have to say about what happens when a person allows wrath to consume them, like Achilles? Or conversely, what might happen if one would replace wrath with gentleness and patience?

There is more to glean from Tolkien’s words. It is important to note that the Psalms of David have far more often been sung rather than read, as we read them today. Homer’s Iliad was sung or chanted, not spoken. Aragorn chants with strong music, and Legolas and Gimli hearken and understand that the song Aragorn sings is laden with the sorrows of men. This is important to notice, for Tolkien understood the power of music. How many things do you have memorized because you have a tune to go with them in your mind and imbued on your heart? From an early age I went to church where I continually sang with my brothers and sisters many songs that spoke of the truths of God’s Word. Much of the truth and memory that I possess dwells within a tune in my heart. And so it was with the Rohirrim. Indeed, at the Battle of Pelennor Fields in The Return of the King the Rohirrim break out into song as the joy of battle comes upon them. Not only was the memory of things past preserved in the tunes which they would sing together, but the very fabric of the rich rolling hills and stern mountains and the sorrow of their race was preserved in the music itself, which Legolas was able to discern without knowing the language of the Mark. Music itself speaks, and is not merely a placeholder for the written and spoken word. It is not just the words of the song which speak, but the music itself. Tolkien understood this, and wanted us to know.

It is this type of cultural memory that is good to preserve, love, revere, and teach to our children and enjoy with our friends. It is these types of poems and songs which should make up the substance of what we pass on in our classrooms and in front of our firesides at home. It is these questions that our students need to consider, for it is the story-tellers and musicians and poets who speak to us of our history and what it means to be human. It is they who tell us who we are and why we live. What are people for? The poets can tell you. The deconstructionist, scientific approach is valuable because it tells us what the human body is made of and how it works. But it is the poet, the musician, the story-teller who reveals what human beings are for and what the consequences of our actions are. Homer tells us of the terrible consequences of wrath, and the Greeks sang these truths in beautiful poetry that clings to the human soul, for we are meant to carry beauty there, in the innermost parts. Tolkien could never have written The Two Towers if he had not been acquainted with his own cultural memories, the poetry that he had received from the ancient Greeks. And so Tolkien tells us of the sorrows of men in poetry. O, that we could hear the music of the Rohirrim!

       Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?

       Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?

       Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?

       Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?

       They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;

       They days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.

       Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,

       Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?