Thursday, May 9, 2013

Anglophilia and A Severe Mercy


“So surrender the hunger to say you must know,
Have the courage to say ‘I believe,’
For the power of paradox opens your eyes,
And blinds those who say they can see.”
-Michael Card “God’s Own Fool”

I’m part of a group of American Evangelicals that I think of as The Anglophiles. They often homeschool. For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved British stuff. I grew up on a steady diet of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster, and Joan Hickson as (the only) Miss Marple. Mr. Darcy was upheld as the ideal of all manhood.

My dad read me The Chronicles of Narnia, followed by The Hobbit, followed by that fiction above all other fiction, The Lord of the Rings. Charles Dickens, Terry Pratchett, and G.K. Chesterton number themselves among my favorite authors (lucky sods). I practice my Oxford English, Irish, Scottish, Cockney, and Geordie accents whenever I read aloud to my younger siblings. Just about the only thing I dislike is British music; I loathe the Beatles. But I eagerly devour British-inspired music.

When I started reading Sheldon “Van” Vanauken’s memoir A Severe Mercy, I was immediately swept into his familiar love. Like me, Van grew up immersed in British Lit., even though his childhood spanned the 1920s, and not the 2000s. He read Sherlock Holmes and Treasure Island – “As a child England had seemed much nearer than New York or the cowboy west.” When he finally went up to Oxford, he said it “was like coming home, coming to a home half-remembered – but home.” (EX-actly, I thought).

Van was one of the early Anglophiles, just like me. He was also an incorrigible romantic, a lover of beauty and goodness and all that is fair. He had the extraordinary luck to step into Oxford while the Inklings still lived. He and his wife, Davy, became good friends with C.S. Lewis, read Charles Williams, Dorothy L. Sayers, and G.K. Chesterton, and were converted to Christianity. They entertained dozens of deep thinkers at their little apartment in downtown Oxford.

Bodleian Library, Oxford
I was surprised that American Anglophiles existed even in the 1940s. What’s the attraction? Unless you’re one of us (we have a secret club, you see, and we drink tea in the afternoon), it’s hard to understand. I tentatively attribute it to a mixture of nostalgia, romance, and stories, but that is not the whole truth. There’s more to it. I have a bit of a roundabout way of explaining it:
One of my dreams is to go to England, to see the misty streets of London, the dark silhouette of Big Ben on the skyline, the idyllic cottages where so many murders occur, and especially “the dreaming spires” of Oxford. Stepping into the Eagle and Child pub, the real Rabbit Room, where the magic happened, would be like living inside one of the stories. England is the land of story, the land where story came from, where all story began. My sense of humor – humour – is that ironic dry wit that comes from England.

There’s only one problem with all this. That England doesn’t really exist. London isn’t gaslit anymore; the murder rate of rural England is probably no greater than ordinary; Oxford’s dreaming spires house skeptical atheists who delight in tearing down the Britain I grew up with – the Britain where Aslan lived.

The hobbits
The Scouring of the Shire
That England doesn’t exist, but the truth is: it might never have. Even in the days of Van and Davy, England had its faults. Van paints a beautiful picture of life at Oxford – describing an intellectual, engaging existence that sounds like heaven compared to backwoods Virginia. Nevertheless, as in any place occupied by fallen human beings, it could not truly be the utopian place described in the stories. Today, the intellectualism has hardened into unimaginative atheism, the “hunger to say you must know” has exiled “the courage to say ‘I believe.’” England is one of the most secular nations on the planet. Ireland, home of the fairies, is now known as the home of Christians who have forgotten how to love.
The little cottages and old-fashioned people of period dramas are no different from the little houses and old-fashioned people of my hometown. There are misty streets and terraced gardens here, but thinking about the street where my dad works, I don’t imagine Sherlock and Doctor Watson striding along its wet bricks, on the hunt for Moriarty. (Though, for you bluegrass fans, I know a guy who knew Doc Watson). I don’t see fairies under the leaves of my mom’s geraniums. Folk speak in American, and not in British. They are eternally here and not…There. They exist, but they are not romantic.

So, this desire to step into the childhood stories – is it just immature escapism? Is it an aimless nostalgia after days that were not so golden as they seemed? Is the romance dead? Are we, as in The Yearling, little boys lost in the wood, searching for the fawn that symbolizes innocence?

But just because they are not, and cannot be, accurate, does this mean such stories and dreams are useless? Are they, as C.S. Lewis while yet unsaved, said, "lies breathed through silver"? I say NO. The traditional fairy-tale ending is the best answer:

The Dreamer awakes
The shadow goes by
The tale I have told you,
That tale is a lie.
But listen to me,
Bright maiden, proud youth
The tale is a lie;
What it tells is the truth.

Obviously, some stories, often the ones described as “realist,” are founded on greater lies than stories taking place in alternate realities. They are often founded on ultimate despair, an ending that as a Christian, I cannot accept. And we live in a consumerist culture forever trying to escape the reality of death. But all stories (and all art) are based, in some way, on the Great Story, the Great Artwork, that we live in.

The tales of a romantic Britain see a side of Britain that she, herself, has probably forgotten. It’s really a pity there aren’t many romantic stories of America, for she too is tinged with the beauty of adventure. The old guys that hang around outside the barber shop are probably as savvy as any wizard, and if you squint your eyes in the street at night, you can see the myriad electric lights as a glowing symphony of elven stars.

The world will never starve for want of wonders, but only for want of wonder.
-G.K. Chesterton
That said, I still want to go to Oxford. But I know enough to believe that maybe, just maybe, the land of stories, the land of romance, doesn’t lie across the Atlantic, but right here. If I take a step back, pretend I’m a Martian maybe, I can see that the romance is not dead – it lives here, in all the earth, not just the dreaming spires of Oxford.

When Van and Davy Vanauken got back to Lynchburg, Virginia - a day's drive from my home - they experienced serious withdrawal. There was no afternoon tea; everything was frightfully hot; the church was asleep; America was harsh and ugly. But, as time passed, Van’s descriptions mellow, and he describes a drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains:

The sun had set but the mountains glowed an incredible blue as though they were actually made of translucent sapphire, and we were feeling very peaceful and unhurried. The blue faded out of the mountains and the darkness came on, though I could still just see the road in the twilight. Then, as we passed a wood, I heard a whistle and stopped and switched off. It was a whip-poor-will whistling his liquid song, another one answering in the distance. We sat there a long time, holding hands, as the stars came out. This was the Virginia we loved.
So long live the Anglophiles and the romantics – we know the truth. The Romance is everywhere.


1 comment:

  1. Well said my friend! I think about that all the time! I naturally see beauty and romance all around anyway, but I often wonder how much of it is "projection"--an idea. But so many things just beautiful in their different ways, although things have been lost. New times will always come, and the past will be idealized. But it is wise to know and remember that the real romance is the creation we live in, and the worlds we create from the good parts of ourselves, although they will always be tinged with shadow. But perhaps that is what sets it apart--like a frame--so that we may notice the beauty more clearly.


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