Many Dimensions

RJ’s latest entry reminded me that I had not yet reviewed Many Dimensions by Charles Williams. I was depending on him for the fantastic in Christian literature, so I was a bit surprised to find this novel was, aside from being an good example of pre-war (1931) pro-Moslem sentiment, also a work of Islamic literature in a sense I’ll define below.

The premise is as follows: a churlish Englishman buys an ancient relic from a Persian, brings it home to England, and shows it off to his friends, claiming it’s the crown of Suleiman ben Daood. The stone set therein proves to have great powers, among them that of infinite divisibility. Several copies are divided off and passed around or sold, which angers the faithful Persians to no end. One threatens to raise the Arab street, as they say, in defiance of the English infidels who are so abusing the artifact. The British government has its own plans for the stone.

Miracles, disasters and time-travel paradoxes follow the duplicate stones around the English countryside. The proper order of things is restored only when one of the characters makes the ultimate act of submission, which is to say, islam. At least, that was what I got out of it. Many Dimensions is rather a dense, philosophical work not aimed to please the modern reader, though Charles Williams was an Inkling.

It pleases me only in that it gives me an example of Islamic fiction for my list below. Let me define R fiction, where R is a religion, as fiction that has one of the following as a major theme:

  • The realistic lives of modern practitioners of that faith, as such: The Chosen and Daniel Deronda (Jewish fiction)
  • Fictionalized past lives of religious figures: The Last Temptation of Christ (Christian)
  • Fictional recreations of religious figures in another milieu, usually a fantastic one: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Christian) and Orson Scott Card’s Homecoming series (Mormon)
  • Outright allegory: The Pilgrim’s Progress (Christian)
  • Fantastic realism - that is, stories set in the real world in which miraculous or diabolical events occur consonant with the tenets of a particular religion: That Hideous Strength and The Screwtape Letters (Christian), also Many Dimensions (Moslem)
  • Religious tourism - that is, stories set in locales postulated by the religion, or during future events predicted by the religion: The Divine Comedy, The Great Divorce, and the Left Behind series (Christian)

That’s all. That someone is a Christian does not make their fiction Christian in any useful sense of the term. Monotheism, in particular, is not synonymous with Christianity, nor are themes of faith, hope, self-sacrifice, temptation, resurrection, or ethics in general.

I have nothing against Christian literature, but I do not consider The Lord of the Rings a Christian work. It is not realistic, it contains no religious figures, and it is not an allegory. Tolkien despised allegory. He said that Middle Earth was “a monotheistic world of natural theology.” There is nothing within The Lord of the Rings that makes it Christian rather than, say, Baha’i.

Perhaps a better argument could be made for the Silmarillion as Christian fiction, but nowhere in Tolkien do I see the ideas that I would consider essentially Christian - original sin, justification by faith, the death of Christ for the forgiveness of sins, the damnation of (apparently) good people for not believing in Christ, transubstantiation, the Trinity, etc. If a person were offended by such things, Tolkien would not offend him but C.S. Lewis would.

I find the notion of islam alien, and I found Many Dimensions strange to that extent. Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, reminds me of the Norse epics that inspired Tolkien and of the (pagan) heroic tradition in general - of battles and honor and courage and fate and magic and true bloodlines. Tolkien may have softened it where it is harsh in, say, William Morris, but he did not change it into anything recognizably Christian.

Forth Eorlingas!

6 Responses to “Many Dimensions”

  1. R.J. Anderson Says:

    The reason I consider Tolkien’s work to [be] “Christian writing” is because a) the author was a professing Christian and the moral views that influenced his writing were drawn from Christian belief rather than from some other religious or secular source; and b) because of the opening part of The Silmarillion which is basically a retelling of the Biblical creation account, fall of Satan (the latter of which is a Christian, rather than Jewish, doctrine), etc.

    I can’t quite agree with the definition of “Christian fiction” as “fiction containing elements that would offend anyone not a [Christian]”, myself. Plus, some of the elements you named — especially transubstantiation — are doctrines peculiar to certain sects within Christendom rather than being essential elements of Christian belief.

    For my part, if a person is an avowed Christian and writes fiction which reflects and presents the ideals of Christianity, regardless of whether some of those ideals are expressed in other religions, I would call them a Christian writer. Tolkien’s focus on mercy and grace — particularly the kindness Frodo shows to Gollum — seems to me highly characteristic of Christ’s teaching. And Gandalf’s self-sacrifice in Moria and his subsequent return are, while not an allegory of Christ’s death and resurrection, certainly strongly evocative of it.

    Of course, all this boils down to the simple fact that you and I disagree on what constitutes “Christian writing”, and that there really isn’t any absolute definition available to settle the matter. But I do think that for better or worse, LotR would have been a very different novel had Tolkien not been a professing Christian.

  2. R.J. Anderson Says:

    Pardon my extreme morning-induced stupidity, which caused me to overlook some severe typos in the previous in spite of having used the “preview” feature. I meant to say “…consider Tolkien’s work to be Christian writing…” and “…fiction containing elements that would offend anyone not a Christian…” Sorry.

  3. Jemima Says:

    My definition of Christian fiction is given in the list. That Tolkien does not offend non-Christians is just evidence, not the definition. Also, I was talking specifically about LotR - you’re right about the Silmarillion’s creation story, though the rest of the work is even more obviously Norse heroics than LotR.

    Tolkien’s work would certainly have been different if he were not a Catholic, or if he were not a linguist, or if he were not British. If all you mean by Christian fiction is fiction written by Christians (analogously to British fiction), then you’re describing the authors, not the works. That’s a fair definition, but not a useful one to me, since all I’m interested in is the text itself. It’s certainly not what people mean when they talk about C.S. Lewis, either.

    To me, the most Christian thing about LotR is, indeed, that Tolkien relies on Catholic concepts of natural theology and natural law to omit all other mention of religion - but then, according to natural law, everyone knows right from wrong, that there is a (monotheistic) god, and that mercy (a value not particularly Christian - see the Hebrew prophets) is a good thing. So it is being a Catholic in particular that allowed Tolkien to write an essentially non-religious work.

    As for grace (unmerited divine assistance given humans for their sanctification), I don’t see it in LotR, since there is no notion of sanctification itself. Less restrictive definitions of grace are, accordingly, less Christian. In short, if Christianity is just a theme you read into the story where a Baha’i would see his Baha’i ideals and a Old Norseman would recognize the heroic quest, then the work is not Christian - the reader is.

  4. R.J. Anderson Says:

    If all you mean by Christian fiction is fiction written by Christians (analogously to British fiction), then you’re describing the authors, not the works. That’s a fair definition, but not a useful one to me…

    No, I agree that “fiction written by Christians” is not a useful definition, especially as I can think of some fiction written by professing Christians which I would not put in the category of “Christian fiction” at all, much less recommend as such. But if the author is an avowed Christian and the moral universe of the work is strongly influenced by and expressive of Biblical principles (whether based on natural theology or not), I would call that “Christian fiction” even if it is not an allegory.

    In the case of LotR, the heroic trappings may be Norse but the moral values and virtues are emphatically not. Frodo and Sam are definitely not heroes in the classical Norse tradition, but they amply express the Biblical principle that “…[God’s] power is made perfect in weakness.” Likewise the grace Frodo shows to Gollum (using grace in the sense of “unmerited favour” — the divine element is not obligatory) is reflective of a Christian view of Charity.

    That is not, of course, to say that Christianity is the only religion that teaches mercy to one’s enemies; but Tolkien’s view of mercy as a moral virtue worth promoting, and the way in which he chose to express it, was certainly informed by the teachings of Christendom rather than by Ba’haiism or any other religion. Likewise the other virtues and vices he emphasizes along the way — taken together they represent a Christian worldview far better than they reflect the worldview of any other religion. And none of the moral underpinnings and emphases of LotR are anti- Christian or foreign to Christian thought, which is highly unusual in non-religious fiction.

    If the idea of “Christian fiction” is confined to “fiction written by Christians to advance exclusively and explicitly Christian ideas which are made unmistakeably clear to the average reader in the course of the narrative”, we end up with a lot of very tedious and badly written didactic stories such as the current Christian publishing industry is notorious for.

    You mentioned C.S. Lewis, but I know of a number of non-Christian readers of Narnia who simply did not “get” the Christian allegory at all, and were startled and distressed when it was explained to them. (These were not stupid people, either — they were simply unfamiliar with Christian doctrine, and unused to thinking in Christian terms while reading fantasy.) And Lewis himself decried the notion that Narnia was an allegory constructed for the didactic purpose — he said that in fact for him “it all began with a picture” in his mind of a faun carrying an umbrella through a snowy wood, and a number of other mental images with no obvious Christian association at all. It wasn’t until he began writing that the Christian and allegorical elements wove themselves in, quite naturally and almost inevitably, in the process of telling the story.

    That, to me, is the purest kind of Christian fiction and indeed the only kind really worth writing or reading — where a work emerges from “the whole cast of the author’s mind” (Lewis again) and not from a conscious and laboured attempt to render Christian Doctrines X, Y and Z in fictional form. Such fiction may not be enough to persuade a non-Christian of the merits of Christianity or even give them any clear idea of what Christianity is about: but it is far more likely to produce serious philosophical reflection and create a yearning for the Numinous — an important step in any person’s spiritual awakening — than any number of flat fictional sermonettes trying to sell name-brand Christianity.

    I think I may have lost the topic somewhere in all of that, but I hope it’s of some use or interest to somebody, anyway.

  5. Jemima Says:

    If the idea of “Christian fiction” is confined to “fiction written by Christians to advance exclusively and explicitly Christian ideas which are made unmistakeably clear to the average reader in the course of the narrative”…

    I didn’t confine it to that. I’m not talking about the average reader who sees or misses themes by chance, nor about a Christian reader, who immediately sees the possible analogies to his own faith, but about a critical reader who’s looking for the Christianity other people see in LotR. People don’t generally deny the allegory behind Aslan once it’s pointed out to them, but I’m still waiting for anything demonstrably Christian to be pointed out to me in LotR.

    That plenty of fiction is anti-Christian is irrelevant - being acceptible to Christians is also not the same thing as being Christian fiction, though I think this point is frequently missed when the author is a Christian himself and writes something numinous. It’s rather difficult for the average reader to tell what in G.K. Chesterton is Christian, what is Catholic, and what is simply…Chesterton - not in the least because he actively tried to argue all good things into the Church along with himself.

    In LotR, Frodo doesn’t show unmerited favor to Gollum, nor does Faramir - they show mercy and pity. If those are the same as grace, then grace is not a Christian virtue in this context, it’s simply a virtue. Moreover, I believe there *are* moral underpinnings to LotR that are foreign to Christian thought, though quite common to Western thought (and therefore, incidentally, to the cast of a Western author’s mind). The most obvious is the moral hierarchy of races and subraces, where virtue follows the bloodline (as with Boromir and Faramir, the latter taking after his Numenorean ancestors and as a result resisting the temptation to which Boromir succumbs), another is the concept of honor (for example, when Faramir cites his own casual word as sufficient reason for not claiming the Ring).

    Even without the non-Christian elements, I don’t consider a “Biblical” morality that is entirely a subset of natural law to be sufficiently Christian to call a novel Christian. Perhaps Western, perhaps monotheistic (though LotR is more ambiguous on that point than Tolkien made it out to be), certainly moral, worthwhile, and admirable, but not Christian.

  6. R.J. Anderson Says:

    Personally I never got the impression that “virtue follows the bloodline” in LotR, but rather that people like Aragorn and Faramir prove their inner nobility by making the right choices. The Numenorean ancestors might have been an inspiration, but not the reason for their good behaviour — or so it seems to me. When I look at The Silmarillion again, it seems to me that everybody is quite capable of screwing up no matter how high and noble they started out, and that the ones with the most illustrious pedigrees are the ones who fall farthest and hardest.

    Which is not to say I think Tolkien was free of class/racial prejudice, but I think he did make a conscious effort to overcome that (in the case of characters like Sam, for instance).

    Honor such as you mentioned (Faramir considering himself bound by his “casual word”) is also not a merely Western concept either. The apostle James, a Jewish believer, told the early Christians to “let your ‘yea’ be ‘yea’ and your ‘nay’ be ‘nay’” — in effect to be so honorable and truthful that a simple “yes” was as binding to them as any sworn oath.

    All of which goes back to say that even if the average reader doesn’t realize the extent to which LotR reflects Tolkien’s Christian influence, and even if there are no convenient allegorical elements like Aslan to prove to the skeptical observer that Christian (rather than merely Western or generally moral or what-have-you) thought is behind the work, given the overall spirit of the book and the known views of the author I don’t think it’s unreasonable to recommend LotR as a work of Christian fiction. I’m not saying everybody has to think that way, I’m not expecting everyone will agree with me (in fact a good many Christians would no doubt disagree), but I don’t think I’m way out in left field on this, either.

    It’s rather difficult for the average reader to tell what in G.K. Chesterton is Christian, what is Catholic, and what is simply…Chesterton - not in the least because he actively tried to argue all good things into the Church along with himself.

    Are we talking about his fiction, or his non-fiction? That tendency is certainly quite evident in the latter — but then it was in Lewis, as well…