01 June 2012

CSLIS Report #6

I'm at Taylor University in Indiana for the 8th Biennial Frances White Ewbank Colloquium on C.S. Lewis and Friends. Here is my report on the third set of papers. 

I. Paul Michaelson: “The Evolution of J.R.R. Tolkien's Thought on Fairy-Stories”
JRRT gave the 1939 Andrew Lang lectures at St. Andrews (!), which became “On Fairy-Stories.” Same time that he was working on LOTR: “as yet unknown territory.” He got stuck and had no idea what to do with it. He made the mistake of writing The Hobbit for children, and imbibed some unfortunate elements of style from condescending children's books. Working through writing these lectures was beneficial for LOTR. Critical juncture in JRRT's development. Also frustrated at being pigeon-holed as a children's writer. Tolkien felt trapped by "juvenilia" and wished there was a literary category “senilia.”
Wrote about “Faërie.”

{Here Michaelson just repeats a lecture I heard on a podcast by Corey Olsen, “The Tolkien Professor.”}

What are fairy-stories for? Renewal and escape.

The Lang lectures were not published right away, due to WWII, which turned out to be a good thing, since it gave him time to revise and expand. Appeared in '47 in Essays Presented to Charles Williams.
  • Eucatastrophe: the resurrection is the greatest eucatastrophe possible in the greatest fairy-story. Major new development in JRRT's approach.
  • Consolation: happy endings. Not just an imaginary satisfaction of ancient desires, but the joy of the Evangelion.
  • Difference between mythology and fairy-story. Myth dwindles down into fairy-story? JRRT thought the truth was the other say around.
  • The “pot of soup,” the Cauldron of Story. Analysis will not discover the secret of the whole by examining individual ingredients.
  • Fairy cannot be defined; it must be experienced.
  • secondary belief
  • subcreation

What are the values and functions of fairy-stories for adults?
  • the value of art
  • fantasy, recovery, escape

Writing, giving, and revising the Lang lecture helped JRRT see that the connection between children and fairy-stories is false. Wrote one on “a large canvas” for adults, with a background mythology.

He gave imaginative literary respectability. Now people are less likely to think fairy-stories are just for kids, or that fantasy is “just escapism.”

II. Constance Rice: “Renewed Interest in Popular Culture of the Fairy Tale”

Interest in the tv shows Grim and Once Upon a Time.

CSL and JRRT had to defend their choice of the fairy-tale genre. Recently, the fairy-tale has risen in popularity in many media. Partly due to Harry Potter, Twilight, the LOTR movies. There are two Snow White movies, an upcoming Jack-in-the-Beanstalk, etc. What would CSL and JRRT say about these postmodern uses of the fairy-tale?

Grim is set in Portland, Oregon. The protagonist is a guardian against the predations of evil supernatural fantasy creatures. Once Upon a Time has fairy-tale characters transported to Storybrook, a town in the modern world. Each week, a different fairy-tale character is the focus. Both are set in the contemporary world (although Once Upon a Time has flashbacks to fairyland).

JRRT on subcreation: need to create “arresting strangeness.” It must not remain “merely fanciful.” Do these two TV series achieve the art of subcreation? (Compare to Harry Potter's and Twilight's use of contemporary and parallel settings). Fairy-tales use everyday objects that can be portals into another world or experience: rabbit hole, garden, golden egg, etc. We read fairy-tales because we hope we might encounter a bit of enchantment in our own world.

The worlds of these two shows become slowly re-enchanted, like Narnia in Prince Caspian. Fairy-tales can bring enchantment to our drab and dreary world. There's the perennial fight between good and evil, but some ambiguous characters. The modern and postmodern worship practicality: the ends justify the means (as does Nikabrick). Trumpkin is an empiricist.

III. Brenton Dickieson: “The Pedagogical Value of the Screwtape Letters for a New Generation”

Assigned The Screwtape Letters to students in a secular university. Still relevant in terms of content and form/genre.

Dorothy Sayers wrote her own “Screwtape letter” in response. Lewis found it “fit for human consumption.”

What about our own functionally illiterate students? The course is “Myths of Hate and Evil.”

Then Brenton went through the numbers of religious/nonreligious students in his courses compared to Prince Edward Island, Canada, and the USA—very like my paper on Eugenides and Smith!

How did Brenton proceed?
  1. lecture series asking “is there more than there is?”
  • mythology and Genesis
  • Satan week” on campus!
  • The problem of evil unit
  • the problem of good (utopic literature)
  • holocaustism and hatred
  • zombies
  1. Screwtape Letters in contexts of biblical story, history, and pop culture
  2. group discussions
  3. critique of the book
  4. write an original “Screwtape letter”! Units/themes of temptation
    - mental illness
    - vocation
    - apathetic arts (social media, etc.)
    - relationships
    - stuff and status
    - teen fall (drinking, partying, etc.)
    - big ideas

Do we have a Lewisian perspective? Some. Some really nice lines. Some capture the essence. Solid liberal arts program communicates something serious.

Is this relevant? Yes: allows students to use the Screwtapian inverse perspective: creative form for cultural critique; offer insight into how to see the world.

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