I was so moved by a recent blog post from one of my favorite authors who still labor under the limitation of continuing to physically breathe, that I needed to share it with you Maccabeans. The frameshift is startling, and what it says about the uniqueness of the Western Christian Worldview is invaluable. Here is part of a summation of a talk he gave at Franciscan University in Steubenville:
This evening I would like you to entertain the proposition that as humans, we need epics, but that in the modern age, we suffer from what we might call Epic Deprivation Syndrome.
I propose epic depravation is a disease not of the mind or body, but of the soul, and it afflicts not one men or faction of men, but whole cultures and generations. Nations can go mad just as men do.
I propose that the primary symptom of Epic Depravation Syndrome is a social pathology something like colorblindness or tone-deafness, where the moral sense of the consensus of society can no longer register correct stock responses in the face of moral qualities: it is neither attracted to great good nor repelled by great evil.
If all generations need epics and this generation suffers from epic depravation, this leads to the additional questions:
First, what is an epic?
Second why do we need them?
Third, what is causing the current epic depravations,
Fourth, what has been done hitherto to alleviate the symptoms, and,
Finally and most importantly, should be done to cure it.
For the hour is late, and the prognostication is grim:
I fear the final result of this syndrome, if the disease is allowed further to grow unchecked, is the destruction of our civilization and the damnation of our souls.
Now, I hope this prognostication is so dire and dreadful that it will provoke your instant skepticism. If your scholarly minds have been properly trained by this wonderful institution, you should be thinking that it is impossible that something so frivolous as the lack of a certain type of poem or story would have such vast and morbid consequences.
Let us begin, as all proper skeptical scholars must, with a definition of terms. What is an epic?
1 EPIC WHAT?
Flying to my dictionary, I find Mr. Webster defines the term this way: An epic is extended narrative tale in elevated or dignified language, in which heroes of great importance perform valorous deeds, vast in scope and of lasting historical significance to the nation or the world.
The elements here are the extended length, the elevated language, the heroic character of the protagonist, the scope of the setting and the historical stakes of the action. No one writes an epic about a whaling expedition out of Nantucket or about a cuckold wandering the streets of turn of the Century Dublin except as a parody, or an ironic anti-epic.
2 EPICS WHY?
Do we need epics, and if so, why?
To answer that, we need to take a step back, and ask a deeper question. Do we need stories? If so, why?
I would like you to imagine that we discover intelligent life on Pluto some time later this year, and find the Plutonians to be remarkably like us, with the one difference that they tell no fictional stories of any kind. They have news reports, and may even have abstracts or summations, thought experiments or hypothetical scenarios, which speak of events in a general way. Perhaps the Martians even have parables as a rhetorical device, or to use as concrete examples, or to make a point. But imagine, even if they are as intelligent as Man, the Pluotnians tells no stories, no poems, no tales.
All they do is talk shop.
This is something like imagining a race that never sleeps and never celebrates, has no festive days and no feasts. While something like this is certainly possible, while and anyone attempting to build a utopia on Earth, from the Massachusetts Puritans to the Chinese Communists, has delighted in eliminating delight from life, we are at somewhat at a loss to say why Men could never live like the hypothetical Plutonians, who tell no stories and have no poems.
Certainly there are adults on earth, very hard working and practical people no doubt, who have no time for stories.
But surely even they played pretend in their youth, and imitated their elders, pretending to tend dolls as mothers are seen tending babies, or pretending to kill Nazis or Japs as their fathers did to preserve the nation, or kill Redskins or Redcoats to found the nation.
Now, if anyone in the audience bristles at the fact that I assume it is normal and right for little American boys to pretend to shoot bankrobbers or to fight Hessians or American Indians or Japs or Nazis, I would like to draw your attention to how rarely you have bristled of late.
Because my boys have never played cops and robbers in their lives, nor cowboys and Indians. Their imaginations are concerned with Power Rangers, Pokemon, and ninja dinosaurs.
It seems to be rare and getting rarer. How many little girls play house or play with dollies also seems to be on the wane, or, at least there is a coordinated and deliberate effort to discourage little girls from playing dolls and encourage little boys.
Now, if you are tempted to bristle at the assumption that little girls like babies and little boys like bloodshed, first, I can assure you that parenthood will open your eyes. But the question of why your eyes are closed on this point, when you are observant and awake on so many other issues, is also a significant question.
Make a note of your bristling when someone assumes normal things are normal, because it is the byproduct of your having been exposed to a school of thought, a philosophy, and a spirit, which is antithetical to stories in general, and epics in particular, and epics of Christendom most of all. More on this point later.
Young children play pretend to learn. (There are other reasons why they play pretend, no doubt, but the learning aspect is the one that concerns us this evening.) Playing pretend is a live action version of the story telling man have shared since the first campfire was lit in the Paleolithic.
Stories create a miniature model of creation each man carries in his heart.
Our Plutonians will no doubt have histories and scientific theories, but without a story-world to tell them what is significant and what is not, their histories will be lifeless and dry recitations of fact without meaning, and their theories be pointless.
The live action stories little girls and little boys play out in their play teaches that babies are cute and must be cared for, the home is precious and must be maintained, that bankrobbers are evil, the savages must be fought if civilization is to prevail, and that British soldiers, or German, or Japanese, must be slain if freedom is to be won.
More to the point, stories in general are vectors by which the values and virtues, judgements and wisdom of generation is passed to the next. The stories we enjoy from other cultures are those that address the universal values common to all men; those of our own culture are those that address our particular values, and pass them along.
It is not simply natural that men would like springtime and sunlightshine on leaves of trees, or the voices of beautiful women singing, or the glories of knight on horseback in full career, or the sanctity of monks in prayer.
There are people to whom the sight of a mommy singing a lullaby to a baby makes them sick, and the idea of portraying cops as heroes for fighting bankrobbers makes them jeer and sneer with satanic disdain. They have learned the wrong stock responses. To them the bread of elfland tastes like dust and ashes.
Those who would be trained in the virtues and wisdom of this, our culture, have additional stock responses to which the culture must be acculturated, if the culture is to be passed on.
Allow me to dwell on this point for a moment, and describe two examples in some detail. As it happens, both examples are from the epic genre, so their details will make a number of questions clear:
2.1 Lord Of The Rings
The first is Lord of the Rings, and if I need to summarize the plot to anyone going to a Catholic University, he needs to read more fairy tales.
The story is the tale of Frodo Baggins, a member of the smallest and weakest of the races of the free peoples of the West, the chubby halflings. He is a country squires in a cheerful little country tucked in some overlooked nook of Middle Earth.
He acquires a dread and dreaded ring of power, the ruling ring, which can smother and dominate the souls of men and rob the world of hope.
This ring, so fair to the eye, was crafted in ages past by the Sauron the Great, into which he hid his life, and he cannot die while the ring endues. This deathless necromancer king has arisen once more in the world, and taken up his old stronghold in southern lands in the Dark Tower, and seeks to conquer the world. His strength is unparalleled: his eye sees afar. He need only the One Ring returned to him in order that he conquer everything under heaven until the end of the world.
The ring inevitably corrupts anyone who uses it, and ineluctably draws after it the ghostly and terrible Black Riders, fell spirits in service to the enemy. The ring can only be destroyed by returning it to the fires wherein it was created, a mountain of fire in the midst of the enemy’s land, where his strength is greatest.
Frodo, aided by varied companions from whom he is soon sundered, and followed by the wretched starveling Gollum, after greatest hardship and suffering and seeming death, carries the ever-growing burden of the ring through the barren ashes of the Dark Land to the brink of the unholy fires: there his strength fails.
By seeming mischance, brought on by what seemed at the time to be a misplaced sense of pity, Frodo is maimed and the ring cast into the pit by a design greater than any of the players could have foreseen: a great evil passes from the world, but the lesser evils must be scoured out by the little hobbits in their little land, and even then the wounds of the world are not cured, not by any balm found in Middle Earth.
The elves depart, and all the glories of the First Age fail, and Frodo goes with them, boarding the last ship leaving from the last harbor of the elves. Sam, his faithful servant, who had followed him faithfully throughout, is sundered from him and returns home to wife and children. Sam’s youngest child is named after a flower that once bloomed in the golden wood, but which will never be seen again.