T-Minus 1 Day! - Art of the Commonplace: Elfdom & the Ethics of Wendell Berry

Feast of the Holy Great Martyr Margaret

wendell_Berry_Square.jpgPart 3 of a 3-part introduction to the 1st Annual Inkling Festival

BOTH TOLKIEN and Lewis refused to cut the umbilical cord to archaic mythology. Their minds remained essentially medieval and thus perpetually oriented toward myth and mystery. The world for them remained a holy and sacramental place that disclosed the glory of God. And they believed the modern world, more than anything else, needed myth to save it from itself. If we were able to speak to them today about cultural renewal, they would point us to myth. More specifically, Tolkien would point us to fairy stories, which for him are a type of myth.

In his famous 1939 lecture “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien introduces and develops what he considers to be the primary concern of his entire literary output: “the relation of Creation to making and sub-creation.” Framed as a question, Tolkien asks: what relation does creative human artistry have to the creativity ascribed to God alone? And he works this idea out mythologically in his Elvish myth of creation in The Silmarillion.


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Tolkien’s myth begins with Ilúvatar, “the One,” as the sole originating source of all things. But in his creation of the Ainur, the Holy Ones, Ilúvatar elects to share his creativity with them in creation:

And it came to pass that Ilúvatar called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed; and the glory of its beginning and the splendor of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent.

Then Ilúvatar said to them: “Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been awakened into song.”

The creativity of the Ainur, then, is subordinate to Ilúvatar. In Tolkien’s words, it is a “sub-creation” that is both responsible and respectful.

In mythic form, Tolkien is thus wrestling with what he describes as “the relation of Creation to making and sub-creation.” In other words, what is the place of art and the artist in the context of a divine creation? Trevor Hart, in his essay on “Tolkien, Creation, and Creativity,” summarizes Tolkien’s position as it was expressed in “On Fairy-Stories”:

Man is most truly an artist when what he makes goes identifiably beyond representations or symbolic interpretations of the world in which he finds himself (important and powerful though these may be) and brings forth new form. This begins at the simple level of “meddling” with the Primary World, taking its familiar configurations of shape and color and sound and reordering them, glimpsing new possibilities that serve to arrest and to delight us. So this is never creatio ex nihilo [creation from nothing]; and yet the artist is reality’s respectful lover rather than her slave.

For Tolkien, then, man is a sub-creator who has a cooperative role in the sanctification of the world. His job is not to control and manipulate it for his own profits. Instead, the world is to be accepted as a gift from God for the betterment of all. This reminds me of an important contemporary American literary voice who I want to insert into the Inkling fellowship.

Wendell Berry, in my estimation, is such an important voice that we’ll be talking about him at our sixth annual Eighth Day Symposium on January 14-16, 2016.

In the title of an essay that has sparked an international conversation on Rod Dreher’s proposal for what he calls “The Benedict Option,” Dreher describes Berry as a “Latter-Day St. Benedict.” Join us in January 2016 and you can learn more about it from Dreher himself.

For now, let me offer several passages from Berry’s essay on “Christianity and the Survival of Creation” that are pertinent to both Tolkien and our next symposium. Tolkien’s organizing principle for his entire literary corpus, defined by him as sub-creation, and his consequent view of the human person as a sub-creator, couldn’t be stated more clearly by Berry:

If we understand that no artist—no maker—can work except by reworking the works of Creation, then we see that by our work, by the way we practice our arts, we reveal what we think of the works of God.

What do we think of creation? How do we practice our arts? Berry is extremely critical of Christian organizations who have remained quiet or paid little attention to the “desirability of the survival of Christianity and the Creation.” And so he begins by affirming Tolkien’s view of creation as an event in which the creature cooperates with Creator:

If we read the Bible, [w]e will discover that the Creation is not in any sense independent of the Creator, the result of a primal creative act long over and done with, but is the continuous, constant participation of all creatures in the being of God. Elihu said to Job that if God “gather unto Himself His spirit and His breath; All flesh shall perish together” (Job 34.15). And Psalm 104 says: “Thou sendest forth Thy Spirit, they are created. . . .” Creation is God’s presence in creatures. The Greek Orthodox theologian, Philip Sherrard, has written that “Creation is nothing less than the manifestation of God’s hidden being.” Thus we and all other creatures live by a sanctity that is inexpressibly intimate. To every creature the gift of life is a portion of the breath and spirit of God.

If we can see creation the way Tolkien and Berry do—as something dependent on the Creator, as the manifestation of God’s being, and as the participation of the creature in the being of God—then our respect for creation and our idea of work will be transformed. Here’s Berry again:

The Bible leaves no doubt at all about the sanctity of the act of world-making, or of the world that was made, or of creaturely or bodily life in this world. We are holy creatures living among other holy creatures in a world that is holy. . . . Good human work honors God’s work. Good work uses no thing without respect, both for what it is in itself and for its origin. It uses neither tool nor material that it does not respect and that it does not love. It honors Nature as a great mystery and power, as an indispensable teacher, and as the inescapable judge of all work of human hands. It does not dissociate life and work, or pleasure and work, or love and work, or usefulness and beauty. To work without pleasure or affection, to make a product that is not both useful and beautiful, is to dishonor God, nature, the thing that is made, and whomever it is made for. This is blasphemy: to make shoddy work of the work of God. And such blasphemy is not possible so long as the entire Creation is understood as holy, and so long as the works of God are understood as embodying and so revealing God’s spirit.

World-making, or as Tolkien would put it, sub-creation is a holy act that takes place in a holy context. Our human work must respect the material it works with because it is holy, a manifestation of God’s being. Our life and work ought to be bound together as something we love and take pleasure in, and its fruit is not only useful, but beautiful; beautiful because it reflects the beautiful being of God.

Under the spell of Tolkien and Berry, we too love the beautiful work of our craftsman friends, of whom many own small businesses. So we’ve invited some of them to share their work with us at our festival seminars. We’ve named those seminars after the title of a collection of Berry’s agrarian essays called The Art of the Commonplace. Norman Wirzba, the editor, explains the title as

the art that willingly enters into life with others and the earth and seeks the flourishing of all. The labor of art, which here stands in contrast with the reductive, instrumental tendencies implicit in the desire to explain and control, seeks to expand our vision, and make it more faithful to the mystery and grace that comprehends and sustains us all.

And this, my friends, is exactly what the community of friends we now know as the Inklings did. It is what Warren has done with Eighth Day Books. And I hope it is what Eighth Day Institute will do with this new Inkling Festival.

May the Inkling Festival allow you to enter a realm of fairy and thus open yourself to a world of truth, goodness, and beauty. May we see and rightly pay attention to the unity of all truths so we may become a society of simple souls whose gaze is directed toward God. May our vision be expanded and made more faithful to the mystery and grace that comprehends and sustains us all. Finally, let us heed the call made by Wendell Berry in his Sabbath poems:

Be thankful and repay

Growth with good work and care.

Work done in gratitude

Kindly, and well, is prayer.


Erin Doom is the founder and director of Eighth Day Institute. He lives in Wichita, KS with his wife Christiane and their four children, Caleb Michael, Hannah Elizabeth, Elijah Blaise, and Esther Ruth.

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