What Re-Enchantment Really Means
Out of all the Christmas presents I’ve received over the years, none so far can hold a candle to what showed up under the tree when I was ten: a thick paperback set of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I’d been raised on (and loved) C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, and Tolkien’s intricate cosmos felt just like that, but more. Here was a sprawling world with its own languages and legends and histories, charged with the possibility that every new page might hold a fresh clue to unlocking an ancient mystery.
That was just the beginning. After plowing through the box set, I turned to The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s doorstopper compendium of the mythology underpinning the better-known books, and after that to the endless volumes of draft material—The Book of Lost Tales, The Lays of Beleriand, The Shaping of Middle-earth, and on and on—painstakingly edited by his son. And then it was on to other fantasy: Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan, R.A. Salvatore, and countless others. With each new writer, a whole new expanse of mystery and wonder opened up.
The enchantment phrase didn’t last, though. Eventually, I concluded that real-world girls were more interesting than fictional elf-princesses, and my reading tastes shifted accordingly. By the time my teenage years rolled around, I’d managed to convince myself that Michael Crichton and Clive Cussler and Louis L’Amour were more grown-up stuff. And as the years passed, I largely moved out of reading fantasy altogether—though I still dipped into the genre occasionally just to see how long-running book sagas ended. (Or so I told myself.)
Not everyone I knew made the shift, though. At my small evangelical college, there were plenty of “friends of Narnia” to go around—indeed, I often wondered if they’d read any books other than Lewis and Tolkien. Some adopted full-fledged Renaissance Faire getups, spending their spring afternoons swanning around the retention pond students had christened “Lake Bob,” while others were quite determined to be the next generation of Christian fantasy writers.
All of this, of course, was eye-rolling stuff for those of us who had decided that adulthood meant cynicism, and in particular cynicism about fantasy. After seeing one too many ex-homeschoolers post that “Aslan is on the move!” a friend of mine took to posting a rather grisly Discovery Channel GIF of a lion bringing down a gazelle. Naturally, my friends and I were early fans of Game of Thrones and its deeply misanthropic take on the genre.
If Bard College professor Maria Sachiko Cecire is to be believed, all this cynicism is entirely justified. In Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century, recently excerpted for Aeon magazine, Cecire builds out a far-reaching intellectual genealogy of what she terms the “Oxford School” of fantasy literature—meaning, of course, Lewis and Tolkien and their artistic heirs.
Well before they were household names, Lewis and Tolkien were deeply enmeshed in a series of battles over the literary canon that would be taught to Oxford undergraduates. At the time, some members of the Oxford faculty favored excising older materials to make room for more contemporary literature in the program, as was the practice at Cambridge—a modernizing impulse that, Cecire hypothesizes, helps explain the mélange of anachronistic material present throughout Cambridge graduate T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, and which Lewis himself derisively described as “fashion.”
By contrast, Lewis and Tolkien stressed the retention of classics, particularly the Old and Middle English literature—Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and so forth—from which the great texts of the Middle Ages eventually emerged. These wellsprings of English identity and culture, for Lewis and Tolkien, offered enduring wisdom as bulwarks against the encroachment of an ever-more-unstable modernity.
Placing the accent on Lewis and Tolkien’s Englishness is a deliberate move, and it forms the lodestar of Cecire’s overarching point—which is that Lewis and Tolkien were, to be blunt, flat wrong about the reality of timeless truths. Cecire is concerned, like any good follower of Foucault, primarily with power and the social constructions informing its deployment. If all social features inevitably reduce down to power relations, entirely untethered from any moral order woven into the fabric of creation, even fantasy-world talk of “legitimate authority” or “kings and queens” can only be a fig leaf for defending the power distribution of the status quo. Lewis and Tolkien, in Cecire’s telling, are to be defined less by their theological commitments than by their allegedly reactionary politics—a move that allows her to call into question whether the premodern cosmologies of their stories really reflect a fear of God, or instead merely a fear of losing hegemonic power.
Re-Enchanted argues that Lewis and Tolkien’s works, for all their power to delight generations of children, work as a kind of opiate of the masses—-perpetuating a toxic “racial innocence” in not foregrounding real-world racism as a central narrative concern, and even trafficking in reactionary nationalist agitprop. For Cecire, “Lewis and Tolkien’s backlash against linear notions of progress and modern disenchantment coincided with a powerful Anglophilia that celebrates Britain’s medieval origins in ways that build on colonialist sentiments and tend toward (typically unthinking) white supremacy.” Most notably, in Cecire’s hands The Voyage of the Dawn Treader becomes an extended apologetic for British colonialism, complete with “tax collection and the oversight of regional governors” and “learning how to rule over Indigenous peoples in spite of seemingly nonsensical local practices.”
Notably, the plot motifs Cecire associates with the Oxford School—medieval politics, exploration, discovery, battle, and so forth—are all hallmarks of the modern fantasy genre, such that Cecire’s hermeneutic of suspicion calls into question virtually the entire canon of well-known fantasy literature. And Cecire is explicit about that goal, explaining from the start that a principal purpose of her work is to “challenge individuals to complicate their own pleasure in medievalist children’s fantasy by facing down the genre’s exclusionary aspects.”
What might an appropriate alternative be? Cecire makes only a few remarks on that, admiringly noting that some contemporary fantasy eschews grand narratives of cosmic order in favor of “locat[ing] enchantment in the achievement of inner happiness and love through overcoming the wounds of childhood,” “engaging in the never-ending process of self-making,” and “finding inspiration within themselves and their relationships with others.” The ideal future of fantasy, on this account, is a kind of magical self-care; knights and fair maidens need not apply
All told, Cecire’s indictment is far more lacerating than any ever leveled against the Harry Potter books by evangelical parents. In Re-Enchanted, cynicism about the fantasy genre reaches its apex: Cecire’s book invites us to feel good about ourselves in turning to other texts, in rolling our eyes at those still clinging to their Tolkien and Lewis and dismissing them as not simply juvenile, but politically retrograde.
That invitation, however, is undermined by the fact that many of Cecire’s gotcha examples simply do not ring true. Dawn Treader’s lengthiest treatment of colonial governance culminates not in the subjugation of a local population, but rather in the abolition of the slave trade enacted by an illegitimate governor. And the Oxford School’s silence on race is completely explicable in context: it would make no narrative sense to transpose contemporary racial conflict into a fantastical society not marked by the same past scars. After all, Lewis and Tolkien were writing fantasy—not history with some names changed.
Furthermore, the fact that Lewis and Tolkien were self-consciously critical of modernity is obvious to the point of banality—one need consider only Lewis’s indictment of scientistic humanism in That Hideous Strength, or Tolkien’s broadsides against industrialization in the contentious “Scouring of the Shire” chapter of The Lord of the Rings (an episode left out of Peter Jackson’s film trilogy). If Lewis and Tolkien meant their works to serve as a covert endorsement of existing power structures, they seem to have had an unusually shameless way of going about that goal.
Finally, it bears mention that readers turn to fantasy to contemplate alternatives to the way things are, rather than to read their current situation comfortably affirmed. What springs forth from the pages of The Return of the King or Prince Caspian is not an endorsement of monarchy or authoritarianism as a political model, but rather the glory of eucatastrophe, the reality of things ultimately going right when all hope seems lost. Cecire’s critique, by and large, seems to reflect a fundamental disdain for imaginative storytelling as such and a preference for hard-nosed didacticism—a claim, ironically, often directed at the overtly Christian elements of the Narnia books.
Indeed, when viewed from a different perspective, Re-Enchanted powerfully exemplifies how deeply impoverished the Foucauldian interpretive paradigm really is. Latent within Cecire’s withering critique of the Oxford School’s metaphysical vision is the presumption that Cecire herself enjoys an epistemically privileged vantage point, a place from which she can conclude that Lewis and Tolkien’s books were really and truly about cultural anxiety and the glories of British empire. And yet the moral logic that animates her argument—that the world ought to be principally understood in terms of a struggle against oppressive power—is a time-bound, historically conditioned narrative all its own, one that excludes a priori the possibility of legitimate exercises of power or genuine cosmological order. As John Milbank observed decades ago in Theology and Social Theory, “the normative perspective of modernity allows one to think that there is always a dimension of pure ‘social action,’ pure ‘social power,’ occurring between the individual and the social, and separable from its ritual, symbolic or linguistic embodiment.” Any ensuing attempts to reframe “enchantment”—a fundamentally theological matter—in Foucauldian terms simply amount, as Milbank notes, to “a secular policing of the sublime. Deconstructed in this fashion, the entire subject evaporates into the pure ether of the secular will-to-power.”
What if, in short, Lewis and Tolkien’s vision is in fact truer than Cecire’s? Re-Enchanted offers no reason to conclude otherwise.
This is an argument, though, of the head and not the heart: it’s one thing to feel the analytical force of Milbank’s reasoning, and quite another to internalize it. Here’s a more difficult question: what would it mean to read Tolkien and Lewis and their successors again, but without cynicism? For those of us in whom the poison of endless irony has festered for years, is such a thing even possible?
Perhaps. And perhaps it need not require that we turn back the clock to childhood naïveté, switching off our critical faculties altogether. Like the jaded dwarfs of Lewis’s The Last Battle, wandering helplessly through a sunny field while believing themselves trapped inside a pitch-black stable, the real challenge may simply be to see what’s always already been there from the start.
As a child, I didn’t know why The Lord of the Rings was jammed with so many songs, some of which span multiple pages. As a college student, I made fun of it. But Lisa Coutras’s volume Tolkien’s Theology of Beauty: Majesty, Splendor, and Transcendence in Middle-earth offered a different perspective. Tolkien’s primordial creation myth, the Ainulindalë, depicts the shaping of the world as a great symphony, a play of interlocking melodies and harmonies through which the ordering of the cosmos was accomplished. Within Tolkien’s Middle-earth, song is a truer way of getting in touch with the essential makeup of the world than speech—both an inversion of and an homage to the traditional Christian claim that God’s Word summoned the creation into being. Song is natural to Middle-earth in a way that spoken words are not.
Similarly, I once read the Narnia books as primarily adventure stories with spiritual lessons attached—which is, indeed, what a whole legion of Narnia imitators have turned out to be. But Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis invites the reader to contemplate that, perhaps, each of the books stands for one of the heavenly realms of traditional Ptolemaic cosmology: The Magician’s Nephew is identified with the fecundity and new life of Venus, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is identified with Jupiter as the locus of royalty and power, and so forth.
And so, in the end, I have come to see that I was wrong. For too long, I thought I could dismiss these books as simply the stuff of childhood, volumes to be put away until my own children came of age. But beneath all the straightforward good-versus-evil storytelling, which so many successors have adopted, lies a theological vision of great depth and sophistication—even if it takes time and effort to fully uncover. The touchstones of the Oxford School may have far more to say to an adult than they do to a child.
Cecire is right about one thing: on the other side of cynicism and critique is, indeed, a kind of re-enchantment—but it is not the enchantment that comes with wearing medieval dresses on the shores of Lake Bob or peppering one’s speech with inapt Narnia references. Nor does it have anything to do with self-actualization or the individual generation of individual meaning. Rather, it has everything to do with better apprehending what is given in the first instance. And what could inspire more wonder than that?