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Sanctifying Myth

With stealth and no small amount of cowardice, the Greeks creep out of their strange gift, a large wooden horse, under the cover of night and safely within the locked city walls. Rather than face Aeneas and the Trojans as men in battle, the Greeks unlock the gates, letting their murderous comrades in, and proceed to slaughter women and children wantonly. To almost all present, it seems the end of the Trojan civilization. Even Venus, the goddess of Love, and the mother of the great warrior and leader Aeneas, despairs. In answer to her anguish, Jupiter, the king of all gods, assures her, “And, lest new fears disturb thy happy state/Know, I have search’d the mystic rolls of Fate:/Thy son (nor is th’ appointed season far)/In Italy shall wage successful war/Shall tame fierce nations in the bloody field/And sov’reign laws impose, and cities build/Till, after ev’ry foe subdued.” Though destroyed at Troy, the Trojans, fierce but true men, would rebuild elsewhere. The new city, Rome, would become the eternal city. “Of martial tow’rs the founder shall become/The people Romans call, the city Rome,” Jupiter continued. “To them no bounds of empire I assign/Nor term of years to their immortal line.”[1] The Aeneid is, in large part, a story about timeless truths, and the great Stoic mythmaker, Virgil, is telling the ages that truth can not be destroyed. It can be forgotten, ignored, or even perverted, but it could never fully cease to exist. For truth to cease to exist, the world would cease to exist. Instead, almost buried, the truth can be replanted in new soil. And, though the wheat will grow with the tares, the wheat will still grow, waiting to be fed, watered, protected, and, ultimately, harvested.

Almost nineteen centuries after the siege of Troy, Representative John Quincy Adams stood in New York City and praised the first president of the United States, who had earned the reputation of being a new Cato the Younger, a new Aeneas, and a new Cincinnatus.[2] Indeed, at the time of his death in 1799, Washington was the most famous man in the western world. In his 1839 speech, Adams invoked the image of the first president of the United States as the Virgilian hero, but with a vitally important twist.

Would it be an unlicensed trespass of the imagination to conceive that on the night preceding the day of which you now commemorate the fiftieth anniversary—on the night preceding that thirtieth of April, 1789, when from the balcony of your city hall the chancellor of the State of New York administered to George Washington the solemn oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States, and to the best of his ability to preserve, protect, and defend the constitution of the United States—that in the visions of the night the guardian angel of the Father of our Country had appeared before him, in the venerated form of his mother, and, to cheer and encourage him in the performance of the momentous and solemn duties that he was about to assume, had delivered to him a suit of celestial armor—a helmet, consisting of the principles of piety, of justice, of honor, of benevolence, with which from his earliest infancy he had hitherto walked through life, in the presence of all his brethren; a spear, studded with the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence; a sword, the same with which he had led the armies of his country through the war of freedom to the summit of the triumphal arch of independence; a corselet and cuishes of long experience and habitual intercourse in peace and war with the world of mankind, his contemporaries of the human race, in all their stages of civilization; and, last of all, the Constitution of the United States, a shield, embossed by heavenly hands with the future history of his country?[3]

With almost perfect harmony, Adams mythologized Washington by combining the Virgilian, Stoic heroism as embodied by The Aeneid with the admonitions of St. Paul to arm oneself with the weaponry of Christ in the fight against evil.[4] Washington took the best of the western tradition and planted it on the banks of the Potomac, just has Aeneas had planted it on the banks of the Tiber. America, of course, then served as the culmination of the best of the western tradition in Adams’ imagination.

Nineteenth and Twentieth-century Myth: The Particular or the Universal? 

Driven by the romantic impulse as found most recently in the arguments and writings of Edmund Burke, many in the nineteenth century reacted strongly to the dry, calculated liberalism and utilitarianism of the eighteenth century by embracing myth. Many of these myths proved specifically nationalist, providing a glue for the emerging nation states of that century. One can find the most blatant of the nationalist myths in Finland and in Germany. In Finland, for example, hoping to unify his people, Elias Lönnrot compiled the Finnish Kalevala. While Lönnrot’s vision proved benign, the German project did not. In Germany, both Richard Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche attempted to create a uniquely German myth by paganizing the origin and character of the emerging nation state. In his diary, Wagner recorded “I am the most German being, I am the German spirit. . . . But what is this German? It must be something wonderful, mustn’t it, for it is humanly finer than all else? Oh heavens! It should have a soil, this German! I should be able to find my people! What glorious people it ought to become.”[5] Seventeen years earlier, Wagner had embraced a form of universalism, socialism for all of mankind.

I [revolution] will destroy every wrong which has power over men. I will destroy the domination of one over the other, of the dead over the living, of the material over the spiritual, I will shatter the power of the mighty, of the law of property. Man’s master shall be his own will, his own desire his only law, his own strength his only property, for only the free man is holy and there is naught higher than he. Let there be an end to the wrong that gives one man power over millions. . . since all are equal I shall destroy all dominion of one over the other.[6]

Wagner successfully combined these two things—universal socialism and a pure German character (according his lights)—in his four-part grand opera, The Ring. Inspired by an era earlier than the then nineteenth-century divide between Lutheran north and Catholic south, Wagner embraced the pre-Judeo-Christian pagan myth of the Ring of the Niebelung and the Scandinavian Poetic Edda and the Volsunga, portraying the gods to be malicious and manipulative fools who deserved death. Wagner, English philosopher Roger Scruton explains, “proposed man as his own redeemer and art as the transfiguring rite of passage to a higher world.”[7] Certainly, the death of Siegfried, leading to the fiery consumption of Valhalla in Wagner’s re-write, strongly suggests the apotheosis of man.

In his own art, Wagner significantly changed the prophecies as found in the Seeress’s Prophecy of the Poetic Edda. In the original, the trickster god of chaos, Loki, successfully leads a second generation of gods, along with the frost and fire giants, in rebellion against the first generation of gods.

The sun turns black, earth sinks into the sea, the brightest stars vanish from the sky, steam rises up in the conflagration, a high flame plays against heaven itself.[8] There afterwards will be found in the grass the wonderful golden chequers, those which they possessed in ancient times. Without sowing the fields will grow, All ills will be healed, Baldr will come back; Hod and Baldr, the gods of slaughter, will live happily together In the sage’s palaces—do you understand yet, or what more?[9]

But, the golden age is not all that seems, for death shall arise quickly.

Then the powerful, mighty one, he who rules over everything, will come from above, to the judgement-place of the gods. There comes the dark dragon flying, The shining serpent, up from Dark-of-moon Hills; Nidhogg [the dragon] flies over the plain, in his wings He carries corpses; now she must sink down.[10]

The pagan end, ironically, has far more in common with St. John’s visions of the Apocalypse than it does with Wagner’s more utopian nineteenth-century vision.

Though he came to disagree with Wagner on many things, Friedrich Nietzsche, already briefly discussed in chapter two, also sought to reclaim a pagan world. In his Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche describes the need, as he sees it, to destroy the myth of Christianity, but not to destroy myth and religion altogether. Christianity, according to Nietzsche, has only increased the suffering of the world. “Perhaps the most solemn conceptions that have caused the most fighting and suffering, the conceptions of ‘God’ and ‘sin,’” Nietzsche wrote, “will one day seem to us of no more importance than a child’s plaything or a child’s pain seems to an old man.” What has the Church done for the world, Nietzsche asks, but “make a sublime abortion of man?” Weak men—if they be men at all—“with their ‘equality before God,’ have hitherto swayed the destiny of Europe,” Nietzsche feared, “until at last a dwarfed, almost ludicrous species has been produced, a gregarious animal, something obliging, sickly, mediocre.”[11] Man must move beyond his Judeo-Christian self and reclaim a latent paganism. The former has served as nothing but a shackle, while the latter will liberate the true man. Nietzsche himself believed that his ideas had taken him, mystically, into another universe or plane of existence, confirmed later, by a vision of Zarathustra, a pre-Christian Persian priest and prophet, within and next to him.[12] With such an affirmation, Nietzsche believed his writings to be a fifth Gospel, obviating those of Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He, Nietzsche, then, would serve as a “rival and successor to Jesus,” espousing the myth of the Overman, and transcending the limitations of good and evil.[13]

Simultaneously, a number of mythmakers of the nineteenth century sought a universalist myth, transcending the limitations and particulars of the nation state or a particular race or people. In Scotland, Sir Walter Scott Protestantized the Middle Ages, offering a non-Catholic population in the British Isles and in America an acceptable form of heroism and knightship. It especially influenced the upper-crust of the antebellum American South. Often called the “American Sir Walter Scott,” James Fenimore Cooper sought to create a universal Republican myth in his famous Leatherstocking Tales. In all five volumes, the reader encounters the “natural Republican” Natty Bumppo, an orphan, of English stock, raised by a remnant of the Delaware Indians in a Christian missionary village. For all intents and purposes, Natty is the American Frontier. The opening to all of the tales, The Pioneers, especially reveals an idyllic Republic: “Places for the worship of God abound with that frequency which characterizes a moral and reflecting people, and with that variety of exterior and canonical government which flows from unfettered liberty of conscience,” Cooper wrote. “The whole district,” he continued, “is hourly exhibiting how much can be done, in even a rugged country, and with a severe climate, under the dominion of mild laws, and where every man feels a direct interest in the prosperity of the commonwealth of which he knows himself to form a part.”[14] Reflecting the language in the Old Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Cooper described the “good” Indians as “natural republicans,” implying that while they are still in a savage state, they have the potential to become citizens of the American Republic, itself a “republic of republics.” [15] When one takes all five Leatherstocking Tales together, one discovers that Cooper believed the American frontier to be the place where any person—male, female, black, white, Indian—can become a real man or woman.[16]

In the same vein, Englishmen, such as Alfred Lord Tennyson and William Morris, embraced a universal myth of western civilization, often portraying England as its greatest manifestation. While Morris’s myth focused on the medieval West, Tennyson just as often embraced the classical West, often tying it directly to the modern West or Britain. This seems most clear in Tennyson’s brilliant poem, “Ulysses.” The poem follows a king who gives “Unequal laws unto a savage race” but the race knows the king not at all. The king, the poem continues, has enjoyed life and suffered greatly. He has seen many things—places, persons, and kingdoms—and yet remains a gray spirit who pursues knowledge ceaselessly, “beyond the utmost bound of human thought.” In the end, though, all that remains is the struggle.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ We are not now that strength which in the old days Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are; One equal-temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.[17]

The nineteenth-century mythmakers—romantics all—remained divided, sometimes one with another, sometimes one with one’s self. Should myth claim to be particular or universal? Should it embrace the particular at the expense of the universal, or should it proclaim the universal at the expense of the particular? Certainly, the conflict was a strong one, and, more often than not, our memory of nineteenth century myth tends to be that which glorifies the particular and, generally, that means an inordinate love of the barbarian and the nationalist.

In the twentieth century, the romantics turned to a blatant universalism. The clearest early example of this is Chesterton’s “Ballad of the White Horse,” which followed the late ninth-century Anglo-Saxon King Alfred as he struggles to unite his own people, the remaining Britano-Roman nobility, and the mad Irish against the heathen Danish invaders. The story moves from despair to hope to despair and back to hope. The hope comes not from Alfred, but from the Mother of God, who appears as a symbol of Grace to give warning, guidance, and inspiration. But, even with victory, there appears at the end of the Ballad, a prophecy of coming darkness.

“I know that weeds shall grow in it Faster than men can burn; And though they scatter now and go, In some far century, sad and slow, I have a vision, and I know The heathen shall return. “They shall not come with warships, They shall not waste with brands, But books be all their eating, And ink be on their hands. “Not with the humour of hunters Or savage skill in war, But ordering all things with dead words, Strings shall they make of beasts and birds, And wheels of wind and star. “They shall come mild as monkish clerks, With many a scroll and pen; And backward shall ye turn and gaze, Desiring one of Alfred’s days, When pagans still were men.[18]

The intellectuals and ideologues, Chesterton’s Alfred understood, would assault the world in a far more devastating manner than had their barbarian ancestors. Men such as Nietzsche would play with the Word, thus distorting our image of It.

Others followed Chesterton’s lead, each in his own way looking for a universal understanding of the human person via myth. The Welshman, David Jones, explored the meanings of western civilization in his art and poetry by drawing upon the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and Christopher Dawson. In turn, figures such as T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, William Butler Yeats, and Evelyn Waugh greatly admired Jones’s work. His most famous poem, Anathemata, attempted to find a liturgy, or theology of history within western and world civilization, and the poet incorporated history, archeology, and anthropology in his heavily footnoted mythopoeic study.[19] Not surprisingly, it offered an Augustinian vision of history. Equally important, Jones believed that man, at his most fundamental level, is a maker and creator. He, therefore, has within him a vital sacramentality, allowing him to make and understand words and signs. The highest form of art, then, was the Christian mass, and its “nature allowed it to subsume all works of art, even those prior to its institution.”[20]

In his poetry and plays, but especially in The Rock and Murder in the Cathedral, T.S. Eliot toys with our all-too-comfortable notions of time and eternity. And, in the middle of his playing, he arrives at the same point as Chesterton did. Nothing good or right or virtuous is possible without Grace. We, as human persons, find our deepest meanings and purposes fulfilled only when the “fire and rose are one.”[21] That is, through the Incarnation, the Word offers the light that lightens up every man. Without that Grace, nothing but evil is possible. Such Grace allows us to escape the tyranny of the seasonal cycles. “Come, happy December, who shall observe you, who shall preserve you,” the chorus asks in The Rock. Again, only the Grace imparted through the Incarnation allows us to be virtuous, to be moved to do the right thing for the right reasons, to find our place within God’s economy of Grace. “For us, the poor, there is no action/But only to wait and to witness.” [22]

Though no where near the quality of the previous figures mentioned in this chapter, but a mythmaker in her own right and by her sheer overwhelming popularity, British writer J.K. Rowling has also embraced a universal understanding of the human person. While the earlier volumes of the Harry Potter series contain a number of Christian symbols—the blood of the unicorn giving life or death depending on the state of the partaker; a phoenix named Fawkes—the sixth and seventh volumes, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows, hold the most Christian discussion of any of the books. Rowling also draws heavily on Northern, Greek, and Middle-eastern myth and language, and many Christian critiques have complained that Rowling presents a world that is seemingly Gnostic and dualistic: the good and the evil seem equal. But, digging deeper, especially with the character of the greatest wizard, Dumbledore, we find a subtle but profound revision of the simple dualism of good and evil. In volume six, the reader discovers find that love transcends magic. In it, Dumbledore states to Harry: “You are protected, in short, by your ability to love! The only protection that can possibly work against the lure of power like Voldemort’s!. . . . [Voldemort] was in such a hurry to mutilate his own soul, he never paused to understand the incomparable power of a soul that is untarnished and whole.”[23] Voldemort, the Dark Lord, has split his soul into seven parts, to which Dumbledore states: “Splitting it is an act of violation, it is against nature.”[24] “Lord Voldemort has seemed to grow less human with the passing years, and the transformation he has undergone seemed to me to be only explicable if his soul was mutilated beyond the realms of what we might call ‘usual evil.’”[25]

The twentieth century also witnessed the re-emergence of what might be called “anti-myth” or dystopian literature, an art that piercingly debunked humanistic utopianism. Robert Hugh Benson, a controversial convert to Roman Catholicism at the turn of the previous century, wrote what might be regarded as the first modern dystopian book, The Lord of the World.[26] It hypothesizes a seemingly benign Masonic-Communist takeover of the western world. To maintain control, the Mason-Communists introduce a secularized version of the Catholic mass, so that the people can worship the community. “England had found its worship once more—the necessary culmination of unimpeded subjectivity,” Benson wrote, taking the viewpoint of a Mason.

It moved around no disputable points; there was no possibility of divergent political tendencies to mar its success, no over-insistence on citizenship, labor, and the rest, for those who were secretly individualistic and idle. Life was the one fount and center of it all, clad in the gorgeous robes of ancient worship. Of course the thought had been Felsenburgh’s, though a German name had been mentioned. It was Positivism of a kind, Catholicism without Christianity, Humanity worship without its inadequacy. It was not man that worshipped but the Idea of man, deprived of his supernatural principle. Sacrifice, too, was recognized—the instinct of oblation without the demand made by transcendent Holiness upon the blood-guiltiness of man.[27]

Desiring complete control of the world, the Mason-Communists decide to destroy Rome, the last bastion of Roman Catholicism and medieval aristocracy. Airships drop city-cracker bombs, devastating Rome, and a new pope flees into the Syrian desert.

Other horrifying visions of utopian follies soon appeared. In 1931, Aldous Huxley published his famous Brave New World, which presented a sanitary but sexually-promiscuous genetically engineered population with names such as Benito, Shaw, and Marx, and where the population worships by making the “Sign of the T,” reverencing Henry Ford’s production methods. “We have the World State now. And Ford’s Day celebrations, and Community Sings, and Solidarity Services.”[28] With the exception of a small reservation of primitives—syncretic pagan-Roman Catholics—in New Mexico, the world resembles a factory. “Primroses and landscapes, he pointed out, have one grave defect: they are gratuitous. A love of nature keeps no factories busy.”[29]

In 1949, journalist George Orwell published the most famous science-fiction novel ever written, 1984. Unlike the superficially sanitary world of Brave New World, the world of 1984 has an utterly grim feel to it. The three powers of the world constantly war with one another, the secret police attempt to monitor everything, and food shortages are the norm. As one of its most important functions to preserve “order,” the Party incessantly revises the dictionary, weeding out the “unnecessary” words and coining new, more simplistic ones. “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words,” one character states.[30]

Ray Bradbury wrote some of the best dystopian literature and science fiction in the United States. While Fahrenheit 451, the story of firemen who search out and burn books, remains a favorite among most Americans, The Martian Chronicles is, arguably, an even better piece of literature. The story follows the American invasion of Mars over a twenty-seven year period in the early twenty-first century. The Martians are a classical, aesthetic, peaceful, and philosophical people, living in relative harmony with nature, science, and religion. As the Europeans did to the American Indians, the Americans bring with them disease, devastating most of the Martian population. In the main, the Americans only want to exploit what they find on Mars. Caring little for the artistic beauties of the Martian cities or the Martian landscape, they litter, they loot, build superhighways, and string telephone wires across the planet.

We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things. The only reason we didn’t set up hot-dog stands in the midst of the Egyptian temple of Karnak is because it was out of the way and served no large commercial purpose. And Egypt is a small part of Earth But here, this whole thing is ancient and different, and we have to set down somewhere and start fouling it up. We’ll call the canal the Rockefeller Canal and the mountains King George Mountain and the sea the Dupont sea, and there’ll be Roosevelt and Lincoln and Coolidge cities and it won’t ever be right, when there are the proper names for these places.[31]

By the end of the novel, in the year 2026, the exploitation of man by man becomes too great on earth, and the powers of the planet destroy everything in an atomic war. Only a few remain on Mars. One survivor laments:

I was honest and they hated me for it. Life on Earth never settled down to doing anything very good. Science ran too far ahead of too quickly, and the people got lost in a mechanical wilderness, like children making over pretty things, gadgets, helicopters, rockets; emphasizing the wrong items, emphasizing machines instead of how to run the machines. Wars got bigger and bigger and finally killed Earth.[32]

Bradbury’s chief rival for greatness in the United States was Walter Miller. A bomber pilot in World War II and nominal Protestant, Miller flew on the bombing mission that destroyed the first Benedictine monastery, Monte Cassino. Returning home after the war, Miller researched that which he had destroyed and converted to Catholicism at the age of 25 in 1947. He then wrote three short stories which he later revised and published in 1959 in novel form as A Canticle for Leibowitz. Divided into three parts, the story takes place six hundred years, twelve hundred years, and eighteen hundred years after an atomic war and follows the lives of an obscure order of monks whose monastery survives somewhere in the American Southwest, but most likely near present-day Santa Fe. The saint around whom the monks gather, Leibowitz, was a Jewish nuclear engineer in the mid-twentieth century. With no small amount of irony, St. Leibowitz may very well be one of the many manifestations of the wandering Jew, the Jew who denied Christ at the door of his house during Our Lord’s passion and was punished with near-immortality, forced to wander the earth until the Apocalypse. Certainly, the Jew appears many times during the story, usually as a cynical curmudgeon. Part One of A Canticle, “Let There Be Man,” occurs in the middle of a new Dark Age, as humanity has barely recovered from the atomic war. Part Two, “Let There Be Light,” takes place at the outset of a new Industrial Revolution. And, Part Three, “Thy Will Be Done,” is set in a world similar to our own, one abounding with Euthanasia clinics, an intrusive nation-state, and modern consumerism. The world finds itself on the verge of a new atomic war, and the monks decide to leave the planet for another world. Along the way, Miller offers the reader humor, tragedy, a good deal of Catholic theology, and, especially in the final story, some profound mystical moments. While the titles of the three stories are biblical (Let There Be Man—Creation; Let There Be Light—Incarnation; and Thy Will be Done—the Kingdom Come), the structure of the three stories taken together represents a purely Augustinian philosophy of history. The monks exist in the cyclical City of Man, but, at the end, as citizens of the City of God, they depart for the heavens, thus breaking free of the natural cycles of a disordered world.

The last monk, upon entering, paused in the lock. He stood in the open hatchway and took off his sandals. ‘Sic transit mundus,’ he murmured, looking back at the glow. He slapped the soles of his sandals together, beating the dirt out of them.[33]

Myth and Popular Culture

In the twentieth century, though, old myths have taken significant new forms and been presented in new mediums. The two most obvious are the cinema and the graphic novel or comic book. Not surprisingly, these two mediums have proven highly controversial throughout the past century. More often than not, many critics have portrayed them as subversive.

Dawson, for example, believed that the cinema would replace the mass. During the 1940s and 1950s, the right feared that the communists had taken over Hollywood. In large part, as recent scholarship has shown, they had. Movies such as Mission to Moscow, Song of Russia, and North Star were blatantly communist propaganda.[34] The 1960s through 1981 witnessed innumerable pro-leftist, anti-American films, some of them quite good in their artistry: Little Big Man (1970); Soldier Blue (1970); The Way We Were (1973); and Reds (1981). In the 1990s, the right again feared that major movie studios—especially Disney and its subsidiaries such as Touchstone and Miramax as well as New Line–used their market power to promote a pro-gay, anti-marriage agenda. Films such as Priest (1994) and Heavenly Creatures (1994) rightly shook the cultural traditionalists.

And yet, the medium is not the message. Film can be artistically brilliant and moral as well. Rather than Mission over Moscow, one can watch Dr. Shivago (1965) or The Killing Fields (1984) to discover the real truth about communism and its anti-humanist and anti-Christian understandings of the human person. Instead of experiencing the banality of The Way We Were (1973), one can watch M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002), a film dealing beautifully and profoundly with the nature of grace, prophecy, and the unique gifts bestowed by God upon each of us. Brad Bird’s animated films, such as Iron Giant (1999) and The Incredibles (2004), challenge the rightness of bureaucracies and instead tell us to look to community, family, and friendship to discover our unique abilities. David Goyer’s Dark City (1998) explores the true human person as glorious, singular, and creative, but presently trapped within the shackles and machines of bland and exploitative modernity. The same author’s Batman Begins (2005) offers an operatic meditation on Nietzschean and Christian justice.

In the 1940s and 1950s, cultural critics especially targeted comic books as morally suspect if not outright dangerous. The comic book industry boomed with the creation of such superheroes as Superman in the June 1938 issue of Action Comics and, less than a year later, Batman in the May 1939 issue of Detective Comics.[35] An article in Newsweek in late 1943 reported that publishers were producing 25,000,000 copies a month, and earning roughly $30,000,000 a year.[36] The response to the astounding sales proved immediate. In H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury in 1941, James Frank Vlamos, argued that superheroes such as Superman were inherently Wagnerian and fascistic, residing somewhere “in a shady land between the underworld and the pagan heavens.” Comparing the Superman of the comics to the Overman of Nietzsche, Vlamos concluded that when “you’ve met Superman you’ve met the whole breed of machine-men. They leap and bound and crush with the greatest of ease,” he wrote. Further, though the superheroes always defeat the villains, the heroes themselves “live and struggle on a nihilistic level of colossal crimes, supreme scoundrels and supernatural avengers without the faintest respect for conventional rules of conduct or physics.”[37] The Roman Catholic Our Sunday Visitor published a tract in 1943 warning of the dire influence of comic books on children. “It does not take an experienced teacher long to recognize that these ‘comics’ are being written by ‘intellectual hucksters’ who have ideas to sell,” Sister Mary Clare, S.N.D., wrote. Even more damning, comic books promote “often poisonous and fatal ideas which are wide open to social and moral and personal suicide.” Comics books, she continued, undermine parental, church, and national authority.[38]

In a sense, these criticisms are a compliment to each of the mediums, as they demonstrate how powerfully they convey their message. Indeed, these criticisms did little to halt the production and sales of comics. Between 1945 and 1954, often known as the “Golden Age” of comics, publishers sold upwards of 60,000,000 per month.[39] Not until Fredric Wertham began a muckraking crusade against comics that led to his testimony before the Judiciary Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate and his highly-popular and highly-sensationalized book, Seduction of the Innocent, did the stigma of comic books stick. Wonder Woman, the author claimed, “is always a horror type. She is physically very powerful, tortures men, has her own female following, is the cruel, ‘phallic’ woman.” Further, he stated, “while she is a frightening figure for boys, she is an undesirable ideal for girls, being the exact opposite of what girls are supposed to want to be.”[40] And, while the American public should be thankful that Superman only wears an “S” on his chest and not an “SS,” they should especially beware of Bruce Wayne, most certainly a pedophile, with Dick Grayson being his willing lover. “Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and of the psychopathology of sex can fail to realize a subtle atmosphere of homoerotism which pervades the adventures of the mature ‘Batman’ and his young friend ‘Robin.’”[41] Because of Wertham’s book and his appearance before the Senate, the number of monthly titles plummeted from roughly 650 in 1954 to only about 250 in 1956.[42]

And yet, as with movies, the medium is not the message, and each of these media has produced exceptional works that have embraced the western tradition in all of its best aspects, its heroism and its virtues. Rather than condemn these media outright, Catholics should follow the example of the early Church and the Church Fathers: they should sanctify them. Throughout the western tradition, man has craved heroism. We may find it in an Odysseus, an Aeneas, or a Beowulf. We may find it in a St. Perpetua, a St. Ignatius, or a Sir Thomas More. We may find them in an Ivanhoe, a Natty Bumppo, or a Sherlock Holmes. Or, we may find them in a Superman or a Batman. There is a continuity from an Aeneas to a St. Ignatius to a Superman. We long for heroes, and we will have them. Indeed, the entire genre of the superhero most closely resembles the stories of the saints. While more modern comic authors have often shaded the areas of morality, in terms of violence and sex, the great figures of the genre—Superman and Batman, to name two—remain, at essence good. Their goals are for a just and merciful society. The powers of the superheroes—when so endowed—are the powers of the Catholic and Orthodox saints. They can levitate, bi-locate, teleport, and see visions of the past, future, and into other realms. Should we be surprised? The Greeks and Romans had their gods, demi-gods, and heroes. The medievals had God and His saints. Consequently, we moderns, no matter how sophisticated we believe ourselves to be, have our new demi-gods and heroes.

Superman and Batman, mentioned above, offer two just examples. Superman’s story resonates with us. Created by two Jewish boys from Cleveland during the Great Depression, the Superman story greatly resembles the Christ story. In many ways, not only is he a messianic figure, but he is also the embodiment of the American flag and the ultimate American immigrant. References to Krypton, his home world, and the Superman story abound in popular culture and are immediately recognizable by most Americans, of any age. “He is as close as contemporary Western culture has yet come to envisioning a champion who is the epitome of unselfishness,” Superman author Mark Waid reflects.[43] Sent by his father from a dying world, the baby Kal-L (or Kal-El) lands in the west-central Kansas wheat fields, the traditional story runs. The Kents, a kindly and elderly farm couple, adopt the alien boy as their own, naming him Clark. Raised with Midwestern/Kansas and Protestant values and taught the meaning of heroism and the virtues from his adopted mother and father, but possessing amazing skills and powers of mind and body, Clark heads off to Metropolis to work as a journalist for a major newspaper.[44] His wife, Lois, also a reporter, gives the heroic figure the name of Superman. Regardless of the danger, Superman puts his life on the line for his adopted home world, always fighting for the cause of life and justice. “We will no longer impose our power on humanity,” Superman says in the brilliant apocalyptic graphic novel, Kingdom Come. “We will earn your trust using the wisdom one man left as his legacy. I asked him to choose between humans and superhumans. But he alone knew that was a false division and made the only choice that ever truly matters. He chose life.”[45]

Even more than the figure of Superman, Batman embodies the virtue of justice. Jesuit philosopher, Don Quixote, and Sherlock Holmes all wrapped into one, billionaire Bruce Wayne dedicates his life to ending crime on the streets of Gotham City, a Platonic shadowy version of New York City. Wayne fights a never-ending war, and he adopts the persona of a bat to terrify the criminals. “People need dramatic examples to shake them out of their apathy, and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne,” he tells his surrogate father, Alfred. “As a man, I’m flesh and blood, I can be ignored, I can be destroyed, but as a symbol. . . as a symbol, I can be incorruptible, I can be ever lasting.”[46] He walks a dangerous line. Unaided by super powers, Wayne is always at least two steps ahead of his opponents and can outthink those gifted with supernatural gifts. Armed with his wits and innumerable homemade gadgets and trained in almost every form of martial arts, Wayne, like a reverse Dracula, goes into the night, seeking justice for the world. “Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce,” Alfred warns him. “I always feared you would become that which you fight against. You walk the edge of that abyss every night. But, you haven’t fallen in, and I thank Heaven for that.”[47] Like Superman, Batman will gladly sacrifice himself for the greater good of the city, the country, the world, or the individual human person. “I know I am fighting a war I can never completely win,” he admits at the end of one story.

But there are small victories that encourage me to keep trying. If I can win back one child, there may be hope for others. If it starts with one person, and then a neighborhood, then perhaps redemption can spread through an entire city, and finally back to me.[48]

It would be difficult to find images more saintly or heroic in modern mythology, story, or literature. These two superheroes—more recognizable and familiar to most Americans as Natty Bumppo or Huck Finn—embody the classical and Christian virtues. They are great and iconic defenders of the western tradition, and stand in line with Beowulf and Roland as defenders of the West. They also serve to inspire. “You have watched the Titans walk the earth. . . and you kept stride,” a supernatural spirit tells a Protestant minister in Kingdom Come, “Perhaps you are more like them than you realize. You exist . . . to give hope.”[49]

And, while many have criticized comics for containing images as well as words, Catholics and Orthodox, especially, should be willing to look at books that embrace each art form and resemble the traditional, western notions of story telling. Such a criticism would be akin to arguing that pictures or images in Church distract us from the real meaning of Christianity, the Word of Scripture.

Inklings: The Premier Mythmakers of the Twentieth Century

The Inklings, an Oxford discussion group centered around J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, and C.S. Lewis, author of The Space Trilogy, the Chronicles of Narnia, and Till We Have Faces, in the 1930s and 1940s, served as the most important group of mythmakers in the twentieth century. Three concepts defined their collective work: 1) the Bardic or prophetic; 2) the desire for little platoons, friendship, and community; and 3) the heroic and the virtuous, that is, the desire to proceed forth into the world, willing and equipped to slay dragons. The three work together intimately, as the Bardic creates friendships, and friendships inspire heroism.

Christopher Dawson, a fellow parishioner of Tolkien’s at St. Aloysius in Oxford, explained the importance of the Bardic: A prophet or bard “is the bearer of the sacred tradition of [his] particular culture which is embodied in a sacred literature, a sacred philosophy and a sacred code of ritual and ceremony. . . . poetry is in its origins inseparable from prophecy.”[50] In almost every culture, the Bardic or prophetic proclaims religious truth through myth, story, poetry, allegory, and parable. It revitalizes us and renews us; refreshes our souls; awakens us to right reason and first principles; it gives us a vision of the One who created all things. We discover it best through the imagination, itself a gift of Grace.

Like all great myths its primary appeal is to the imagination: its indirect and further appeal to the will and the understanding can therefore be diversely interpreted according as the reader is a Christian, a politician, a psycho-analyst, or what not. Myth is thus like manna; it is to each man a different dish and to each the dish he needs. It does not grow old nor stick at frontiers racial, sexual, or philosophic; and even from the same man at the same moment it can elicit different responses at different levels. But great myth is rare in a reflective age; the temptation to allegorize, to thrust into the story the conscious doctrines of the poet, there to fight it out as best they can with the inherent tendency of the fable is usually too strong.[51]

The Bardic appears throughout Tolkien’s mythology, especially in the character of Gandalf. In The Silmarillion, Gandalf, known as Olorin in the True West, is the least of the Istari sent to Middle-earth to aid Men and Elves in their war against Sauron. As the wisest, he spent many of his days walking among the Elves “unseen, or in a form as one of them, and they did not know whence came the fair visions or the promptings of wisdom that he put into their hearts.” The Silmarillion records that “those who listened to him/ awoke from despair and put away the imaginations of darkness.”[52] In his 1928 book, Poetic Diction, Owen Barfield, a sometime member of the Inklings, had written: “A civilization [ ] must look more and more to art—to the individualized poet—as the very source and fountain-head of all meaning.”[53] Barfield followed Plato’s ideas of “divine madness”—the mind beside itself, arguing that imagination allows one to understand his sense data. Still, men “do not invent those mysterious relations between separate external objects, and between objects and feelings, which it is the function of poetry to reveal.” Instead, Barfield continued, “These relations exist independently, not indeed of Thought, but of any individual thinker.”[54] Further, “Our sophistication, like Odin’s, has cost us an eye; and now it is the language of poets, in so far as they create true metaphors, which must restore this unity conceptually, after it has been lost from perception. . . . And imagination can see them again.”[55]

In his profound paper, “On Fairy-Stories,” delivered at the University of St. Andrews on March 8, 1939, Tolkien argued that entry into myth, fantasy, or fairie allows one to see the beyond the material appearance of a thing and into the true nature of that thing.

It is easy for the student to feel that with all his labour he is collecting only a few leaves, many of them now torn or decayed, from the countless foliage of the Tree of Tales, with which the Forest of Days is carpeted. It seems vain to add to the litter. Who can design a new leaf? The patterns from bud to unfolding, and the colours from spring to autumn were all discovered by men long ago.[56]

But, Tolkien assured his audience in a Virgilian mode, this cannot be entirely true, for truth can only be forgotten, not destroyed. “The seed of the tree can be replanted in almost any soil.”[57] In each thing, the accidents appear unique, but the essence is shared. “Each leaf, of oak and ash and thorn, is a unique embodiment of the pattern, and for some this very year may be the embodiment, the first ever seen and recognized, though oaks have put forth leaves for countless generations of men.”[58] Tolkien could have just as easily been talking about the human person, each unique in appearance, but each bearing the Imago Dei and enlightened by the Logos. All proper myth, then, Tolkien told his academic audience, reflects the True Myth, the story of the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Christ.

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospel contains a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels–peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: ‘mythical’ in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfilment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. The story begins and ends in joy.[59]

To deny the validity of this true story, Tolkien concluded, “leads to sadness or wrath.[60]

Second, the Inklings stood for action in community and through friendship, what Edmund Burke referred to as our “Little Platoon.” “Friendship is the greatest of worldly goods,” Lewis once wrote. “Certainly to me it is the chief happiness of life. If I had to give a piece of advice to a young man about a place to live, I think I shd. say, ‘sacrifice almost everything to live where you can be near your friends.” In 1940, Barfield wrote, one should “build up and maintain a common stock of thought rather than to startle with a series of sparkling individual contributions—like a commonwealth of the spirit, in which there is no copyright.” The Inklings, of course, practiced what they preached, reading to one another, criticizing one another’s work, and encouraging one another for two decades.

Finally, the Inklings believed that the community that develops around a common belief should inspire heroism and noble deeds. G.K. Chesterton may have put it best: Eighteenth-century social contract thinkers such as Rousseau “were wrong, in so far as they suggested that men had ever aimed at order or ethics directly by a conscious exchange of interests. Morality did not begin by one man saying to another, ‘I will not hit you if you do not hit me’; there is no trace of such a transaction,” Chesterton explained. “There is a trace of both men having said, ‘We must not hit each other in the holy place.’ They gained their morality by guarding their religion. They did not cultivate courage. They fought for the shrine, and found they had become courageous.”[61] Armed with imagination and encouraged by male friendship, the Inklings ventured forth into the world and defended what they believed most important as “Old Western Men”—men who defended a West that fought for and protected a proper understanding of the human person, fallen but bearing the Imago Dei. Each person is “an allegory,” Tolkien conceded to his former student, famed poet W.H. Auden, “each embodying in a particular tale and clothed in the garments of time and place, universal truth and everlasting life.”[62] The core Inklings rejected materialism, atomized individualism, and that which mechanizes us, making us less than we are meant to be. Myth allows us escape, not from reality, but into a greater reality: “For it is after all possible for a rational man, after reflection (quite unconnected with fairy-story or romance),” Tolkien stated in 1939, “to arrive at the condemnation, implicit at least in the mere silence of ‘escapist’ literature, of progressive things like factories, or the machine-guns and bombs that appear to be their most natural and inevitable, dare we say ‘inexorable’, products.”[63]

If they lost their battle against modernity, so be it. Jack Bennett, Lewis’s successor at Cambridge, explained: “The stance of a last survivor always attracted him [Lewis]; it is one of the likings he shared with William Morris, and it early drew him to the sagas and the doomed Eddaic gods.”[64] And, lost they may have thought they did. “The spirit of wickedness in high places is now so powerful and so many-headed in its incarnations,” Tolkien wrote in 1969, “that there seems nothing more to do than personally to refuse to worship any of the hydras’ heads.”[65] The world, he thought, seemed little better than a new Tower of Babel, “all noise and confusion.”[66]

One can learn much from Tolkien’s Oxford memorial service, held in November 1973. The priest followed Tolkien’s pre-death instructions: no recognition of Tolkien as anything special, with only two readings from scripture and a homily. The first reading came from the Jewish Book of Wisdom and dealt with the meaning of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.

The second from First John, chapter 3, verses 11-18, what Tolkien considered one of the most meaningful passages in the New Testament; St. John was Tolkien’s patron saint.

We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers. Whoever does not love remains in death . . . . The way we come to know love was that he laid down his life for us; so we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. . . . Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.

Tolkien, along with his fellow Inklings, understood there is no greater truth than this.

Myth and Tradition

Humans crave myths. They help answer our deepest longings and questions. They allow us to abstract ourselves from the immediate and see, instead, the universal. They help us, importantly, to remember that we are human, and, according to many of the ancients, they helps us acknowledge the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. Plato first identified this in his dialogue, Phaedrus. He discussed it terms of “Divine Madness”—the imagination, or “a mind beside itself.” Such imagination, or as the ancients defined it—reason (not rationality)—transcended and yet linked the three parts of the human person: intellect (head), reason (soul) and passion (stomach/heart). For the ancients, imagination and myth were always tied especially to beauty. “Nothing evokes this remembrance more intensely than beauty; this is a specific characteristic of beauty,” Josef Pieper has written. “Its power to lead toward a reality beyond the here and now, beyond immediate perception, it cannot be compared to anything in this world.”[67] Plato was not alone among the Greeks in his reverence for imagination. Heraclitus, around 500BC, first attempted to discover the Urstuff, or the first principle. He decided that it was Fire and Thought, naming it the Logos. In the pre-Christian Stoic understanding, one’s ability to think and perceive reality comes from this reflection of the light of the Logos. The Stoics, following the teachings of Zeno and Cleanthenes, embraced the LOGOS as all reason. The Jewish Book of Wisdom—written about 100 years prior to Christ—almost perfectly blends Judaic theology and Greek Stoicism, as already discussed in chapter two. St. John, of course, adopted this term, in the poetic prologue to his Gospel. As with the ancient Stoics, St. John tells us that the Logos is that “Light that enlightens every man.”[68] Kirk wrote in a Platonic vein as well, especially in his discussions of imagination. In 1978, Kirk wrote “Images are representations of mysteries, necessarily; for mere words are tools that break in the hand, and it has not pleased God that man should be saved by logic, abstract reason, alone.” Images, Kirk continued, “can raise us on high, as did Dante’s high dream; also it can draw us down to the abyss. . . . It is imagery, rather than some narrowly deductive and inductive process, which gives us great poetry and scientific insights. . . . And it is true of great philosophy, before Plato and since him, that the enduring philosopher sees things in images initially.”

Myths have proven vital for the preservation of traditions and the remembering of that which is most important. Properly defined, a myth is simply a story that involves the supernatural.[69] It should prove revealing to us moderns that we use myth as a synonym for a falsehood or lie. “All great systems, ethical or political, attain their ascendancy over the minds of men by virtue of their appeal to the imagination,” Kirk wrote in 1955, “and when they cease to touch the chords of wonder and mystery and hope, their power is lost, and men look elsewhere for some set of principles by which they may be guided.” Myths move men for good or ill. Myth

is not falsehood; on the contrary, the great and ancient myths are profoundly true. The myth of Prometheus will always be a high poetic representation of an ineluctable truth, and so will the myth of Pandora. A myth may grow out of an actual event almost lost in the remote past, but it comes to transcend the particular circumstances of its origin, assuming a significance universal and abiding. Nor is a myth simply a work of fancy: true myth is only represented, never created, by a poet. Prometheus and Pandora were not invented by the solitary imagination of Hesiod. Real myths are the product of the moral experience of a people, groping toward divine love and wisdom—implanted in a people’s consciousness, before the dawn of history, by a power and a means we never have been able to describe in terms of mundane knowledge.[70]

If myth is only political, it becomes mere propaganda and will fade in importance over time. For it to last, it must be applicable to many times and peoples, interpreted in many different ways and at many different levels. Properly understood and manifested, myth obviates propaganda.[71]

Following St. Augustine’s philosophy of history, Dawson and Kirk each believed that true history was mythical and poetic. The City of God, perhaps the greatest work of history ever written, according to Dawson, is “a vast synthesis which embraces the history of the whole human race and its destinies in time and eternity.”[72] Larger than a study of mere fact or a laying out a sequence of names and dates, St. Augustine’s City of God is “metahistory.”

Metahistory is concerned with the nature of history, the meaning of history and the cause and significance of historical change. The historian himself is primarily engaged in the study of the past. He does not ask himself why the past is different from the present or what is the meaning of history as a whole. What he wants to know is what actually happened at a particular time and place and what effect it had on the immediate future.[73]

Further, one should not consider history a “flat expanse of time, measured off in dates,” but rather as a “series of different world,” each with “its own spirit and form and its own riches of poetic imagination.”[74] True history, according to Dawson is poetic. “The mastery of” professional historical methods and “techniques will not produce great history, any more than a mastery of metrical technique will produce great poetry.” The true historian will recognize that “something more is necessary—intuitive understanding, creative imagination, and finally a universal vision transcending the relative limitation of the particular field of historical study.”[75] Kirk concurred. “We have known, in the modern age, no Thucydides, no Polybius, no Livy, no Plutarch,” he wrote. “Obsessed by the Fact, a nineteenth-century idol, most modern historians have forgotten that facts, too, are constructions—and meaningful only in association. It is the event, rather than the isolated fact, which is the proper concern of historians.”[76] In this argumentation, Kirk’s understanding of history agrees Barfield’s, that the poet discovers connections that already exist in reality but which have been forgotten or ignored by sense data.

Additionally, the historian, like the poet, should be divinely inspired, accepting the creativity offered by the love of the Holy Spirit, the source of all creativity and imagination. So armed, the historian should recognize the Creator and glorify the creation.

To seek for truths in history. . . distinctly is not to indulge in dreamy visions of unborn ages, or to predict the inevitability of some political domination. Rather, the truths of history, the real meanings, are to be discovered in what history can teach us about the framework of the Logos, if you will: about the significance of human existence: about the splendor and the misery of our condition. In this inquiry, there must be joined with the historical discipline certain insights of philosophy and psychology. For historical consciousness necessarily is entwined with the mystery of personal consciousness.[77]

Myths, true or false, will shape our understanding of our past and, therefore, of our present, Kirk argued. Unfortunately, he continued, most students have studied not history “but ‘social stew.’ If ignorant of history, that rising generation may wander bewildered in cunning passages, contrived corridors and issues. And at the heart of such a labyrinth, we are told, there has lurked for ages the Minotaur.”[78]

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


1. Virgil, The Aeneid, Book 1, trans. by W.F. Jackson Knight (London: Penguin, 1958).

2. On the connection of Washington to the classical, heroic tradition, see Carl J. Richard’s excellent, The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and The American Enlightenment (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994); Gary L. Gregg and Matt Spaulding, eds. Patriot Sage: George Washington and the American Political Tradition (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 1999); and Gary L. Gregg, ed., Vital Remnants: America’s Founding and the Western Tradition (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 1999).

3. John Quincy Adams, Speech Delivered on April 30, 1839, the Fiftieth Anniversary of the First Presidential Inaugural Address, New York City.

4. St. Paul to the Ephesians, Chapter 5.

5. Richard Wagner, The Diary of Richard Wagner, 73; and Richard Wagner, The Ring of the Nibelung, trans. by Andrew Porter (New York: W.W. Norton, 1976).

6. Quoted in Barry Millington, Wagner (London: J.M. Dent, 1984), 37.

7. Roger Scruton, “Modernism,” in XXX 68.

8. Seeress’s Prophecy, Verse 57, in The Poetic Edda, trans. by Carolyne Larrington (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

9. Seeress’s Prophecy, Verses 61-62.

10. Seeress’s Prophecy, Verses 65-66.

11. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil/The Genealogy of Morals (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1996), 63, 70-71.

12. On Nietzsche’s mysticism, see Henri de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism (San Francisco, Cal.: Ignatius Press, 1995), 469ff.

13. de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism, 477.

14. James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers (1823; Signet: New York, 1980), 13-14.

15. Cooper, The Pioneers, 80.

16. For a fuller discussion of Cooper and Republican myth, see Bradley J. Birzer and John Willson, “Introduction,” to James Fenimore Cooper, The American Democrat and Other Political Writings (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2000).

17. Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses,” 1842.

18. G.K. Chesterton, Ballad of the White Horse, Book 8, Lines 242-266.

19. David Jones, The Anathemata: Fragments of an Attempted Writing (New York: The Viking Press, 1965).

20. Adam Schwartz, The Third Spring: G.K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, Christopher Dawson, and David Jones (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2005), 300, 331ff.

21. T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” final line.

22. T.S. Eliot, “The Rock,” opening chorus.

23. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, 511.

24. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, 498.

25. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, 502.

26. On Benson, see Joseph Pearce, Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief (San Francisco, Cal.: Ignatius Press, 2000).

27. Robert Hugh Benson, Lord of the World (1907; Doylestown, Penn.: Wildside Press, n.d.), 141.

28. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1932; New York: Bantam Books, 1960), 35.

29. Huxley, Brave New World, 14.

30. George Orwell, 1984 (1949; New York: Signet Classics, 1977), 45.

31. Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles (1950; New York: Bantam Books, 1977), 54.

32. Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles, 179-80.

33. Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959; New York: Bantam Books, 1968), 277.

34. For an excellent discussion of these films, see Stephen Whitfield, Culture of the Cold War (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins, 1991), pp. 128ff.

35 Scholar 13 (Winter 1943-1944): 39. Marston, a professor of psychology at Columbia University and the creator of the lie detector, created the character of Diana Prince—Wonder Woman. See Les Daniels, DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World’s Favorite Comic Book Heroes (Boston: Little, Brown, 1995), 58-61.

36. “Escapist Paydirt: Comic Books Influence Friends and Make Plenty of Money Too,” Newsweek (December 27, 1943): 55.

37. James Frank Vlamos, “The Sad Case of the Funnies,” The American Mercury 52 (1941): 412-14.

38. Sister Mary Clare, S.N.D., Comics: A Study of the Effects of Comic Books on Children Less Than Eleven Years Old (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor Press, 1943), 7-9.

39. William W. Savage, Jr., Comic Books and America, 1945-1954 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990): xi.

40. Frederic Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent (New York: Rinehart and Co., 1954), 34.

41. Wertham, Seduction, 189-90.

42. Savage, Comic Books and America, 100.

43. Mark Waid, “The Real Truth about Superman: And the Rest of Us, Too,” in Tom Morris and Matt Morris, eds., Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice, and the Socratic Way (Chicago, Il.: Open Court, 2005), 3.

44. Though never specific about his religion in the stories, some authors seem to place Clark Kent as a Lutheran. In Jeph Loeb’s Superman for All Seasons (New York: DC Comics, 1999), Clark meets with his minister, Pastor Linquist. The Swedish name and the title suggest Lutheranism. Additionally, many authors place Clark’s Kansas town of Smallville near Great Bend, Kansas. The area is traditionally Catholic, Lutheran, and Methodist. In a more recent story, For Tomorrow (DC Comics, 2004-2005), author Brian Azzarello bases the first half of the story around a “confession” Superman offers to a Roman Catholic priest, Father Leone. In his desire to do good, Superman has sinned, and Father Leone seems willing to offer him absolution, though no such event actually occurs.

45. Mark Waid and Alex Ross, Kingdom Come (New York: DC Comics, 1997).

46. David Goyer and Christopher Nolan, Batman Begins (Warner Brothers, 2005)

47. Alan Burnett, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (Warner Brothers, 1993).

48. Paul Dini and Alex Ross, The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes (New York: D.C./Warner Brothers, 2005).

49. Waid and Ross, Kingdom Come. In one humorous moment, the Protestant minister encounters a ghost who continues to call the minister “Padre” even though the minister objects.

50. Dawson, Religion and Culture, 65, 67.

51. CSL, Rehabilitations, 29-30; and Lewis, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said,” New York Times (November 18, 1956), 310.

26 Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 30-31; and Tolkien, Unfinished Tales, 406.

53. Barfield, Poetic Diction, 148.

54. Barfield, Poetic Diction, 72.

55. Barfield, Poetic Diction, 72-73.

56. J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, ed. by Christopher Tolkien (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1983), 145.

57. J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, ed. by Christopher Tolkien (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1983), 145.

58. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 145.

59. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 155-56.

60.Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 156.

61. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908; Colorado Springs: Shaw, 1994), 69-70.

62.Tolkien, Letters, 212.

63. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 150.

64. Jack A.W. Bennett, Light on Lewis, 44.

65. Humphrey Carpenter, ed., The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), 402.

66. Henry Resnick, “An Interview with Tolkien,” Niekas (Late Spring 1966): 42.

67. Josef Pieper, “Divine Madness”: Plato’s Case against Secular Humanism (San Francisco, Calif.: Ignatius, 1995), 44.

68. See also St. Augustine’s sermons on Psalms LVIII and CXIX.

69. The venerable Oxford English Dictionary, for example, defines myth as “A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.”

70. Kirk, “The Dissolution of Liberalism,” Commonweal (January 7, 1955), 374; and Kirk, “The Revival of Fantasy,” Triumph 3 (May 1968), 27-30.

71. Kirk, “Imagination Against Ideology,” National Review (December 31, 1980), 1576.

72. Dawson, “St. Augustine and His Age,” 223.

73. Dawson, Dynamics of World History, 303. For a critique of Dawson’s position, see Hayden V. White, “Religion, Culture, and Western Civilization in Christopher’s Dawson’s Idea of History,” English Miscellany 9 (1958): 247-87.

74. Dawson, Tradition and Inheritance: Reflections on the Formative Years (The Wanderer Press, n.d.), 31.

75. Dawson, Dynamics of World History, 309-10.

76. Kirk, “History and the Moral Imagination,” Sewanee Review 77 (Spring 1964): 351.

77. Kirk, “Regaining Historical Consciousness,” in Redeeming the Time, 102; see also Paul Elmer More, The Skeptical Approach to Religion (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1934), 162-163, for a good understanding of Logos and Being.

78. Kirk, “Regaining Historical Consciousness,” in Redeeming the Time, 114.

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  1. Brad, this is to be read and re-read. Unlike those many readable historians who follow a single thread (Codfish: A History, or The Spice-Trade: From Sumer to Last Thursday), your knowledge is encyclopaedic and your vast 'patch' is The Permanent Things. These two facts put you in a small and rare bunch. We are most fortunate. Many thanks.

    First minor thought, re: "Rather than condemn these media outright, Catholics should follow the example of the early Church and the Church Fathers: they should sanctify them." Buddhists of the Northern (Mahayana) Tradition recall their wizard-saint Padmasambhava wandering from modern-day Swat in Pakistan (circa 800 AD) to the great Buddhist university Nalanda (in now Bihar State, India) and into the High Himalayas to do battle with the ancient monster-gods, fearsome beings dancing on skulls, with far too many arms and fangs for polite company. They remain physically unaltered today, but the wizard-cum-boddhisattva converted them one by one, so now they work to slash and crunch and maim and clobber selfishness and ego. Win-win-win for Buddhism, traditionalist hill-people and perhaps the dim-witted and thuggish old daemons who keep on bashing happily but for a nobler cause.

    Second minor thought: almost by magic, fake myths don’t survive long, methinks. Homer’s pushing 3,000 years and still a sell-out; Firdausi’s Shahnama a thousand; Christianity at 2,000 wins the Oscar for depth and breadth of impact (but it has an influential Author/Producer); Tolkein will last a few centuries I wager. But a century-and-a-half on, Neitzsche is merely sick-making (thanks for reminding me with that choice quote: what a pathetic sod). Were they not so bloodthirsty and evil, all those goose-stepping, neo-pagan, Wotan-worshipping, cod-runic Nazis would be even more laughable than modern Welsh druids and Southern California New Agers. Indeed one wonders who filmed it better, Leni Riefenstahl or Mel Brooks (guess my choice). While Leni was a superb cinematic propagandist, when she tries to peddle Nazi paganism the result is simply pathetic: audiences moved by her political agitprop still probably rolled their eyes at that.

    An answer here may be that any mediocre artist can fake myth with nationalism, special effects and a big orchestra, but if he hasn’t got the ingredients right the public won’t bite for long. We know real myth because it resonates inside, whether Americans watch Kurosawa or Kurosawa watched Westerns. So, back again to The Permanent Things.

  2. Another excellent article. When talking about the Imagination and the likes of Batman and Superman I think you miss a crucial aspect. This passage and quotation is excellent;

    'for the ancients, imagination and myth were always tied especially to beauty. “Nothing evokes this remembrance more intensely than beauty; this is a specific characteristic of beauty,” Josef Pieper has written. “Its power to lead toward a reality beyond the here and now, beyond immediate perception, it cannot be compared to anything in this world.”'

    The Imagination, true Imagination, was meant to grasp aspects of the world above us, the world of Imagination and of Intellect. In essence(and to put it grossly simplistically) it was supposed to be able to grasp the world of Platonic Ideas, or their equivalent; not in some simplistic allegory to add to our deductive reasoning, but as a more profound realisation, or recollection, of these truths. The important point in this context though is that Imagination and Symbolism are then reflections of these realms and they follow their order and hierarchy. They can then be perverted and even subverted.

    I think the constant stories of UFOs and a lot of modern Science fiction have this quality. They take genuine desires and symbols, like the desire to transcend the corporeal and subvert them into tales of far off space travel. They take genuine humans longings for paradise and pervert them into the desire for technocratic abundance. I would question whether most comic books are not engaged in this kind of perverted or subverted mythology and symbolism.

  3. Brilliant! I've been contemplating a return to academia in pursuit of an advanced degree in clinical psychology, and this essay inspires me in that pursuit. Your use of Kirk's comment, "In this inquiry [into the human condition], there must be joined with the historical discipline certain insights of philosophy and psychology." helps clarify why I would want to return to school at my "advanced" age (about to be 49).

    As do the lines Batman utters: “I know I am fighting a war I can never completely win,” he admits at the end of one story.

    "But there are small victories that encourage me to keep trying. If I can win back one child, there may be hope for others. If it starts with one person, and then a neighborhood, then perhaps redemption can spread through an entire city, and finally back to me."

    Thank you.

  4. A far-ranging and thoughtful piece that I’d like to think about a good deal more.

    My overall thinking is that almost all these figures need to be handled very carefully, and with a good deal of respect for the potential ambiguities they embody. Wagner seems to have promoted a kind of revivified paganism, for example, but he died a Catholic. He wrote a vile screed entitled Judaism and Music and yet retained a Jewish conductor for the premiere of Parsifal, deeply rooted in Christian thought and tradition, if somewhat heterodox in its particulars. I actually think there are profound truths buried in the heart of the Ring cycle that Wagner himself may not fully have understood or put there intentionally. That’s the way it is with most artistic products. Perhaps it’s the grace of God at work. Be that as it may — nobody (not even Nietzche, whom I don’t like much either) is a mere one-dimensional blot.

    Your main point concerning the intrinsic dynamism of myth here is not at all impeded by those ambiguities and complexities. I have always been of the belief that story — not the mere mechanics of a given telling of a tale, but the intrinsic inner core of character, cause, effect, and memory — is one of the core mysteries of the universe. In a sense our lives are about the stories they constitute. For me one of the central validations of the gospel is that it is not a mere recitation of principles, however sophisticated and precise, but the unfolding of the narrative of Christ’s sojourn on earth. That in turn has a larger context. At the Easter Vigil in our church we unfold the great salvation history, threading its way from the fall of Adam through Noah and Abraham and Moses down to us.

    To spin only slightly out from Tolkien’s words, we’re all part of that story, too. It can never be replaced by a mere propositional reduction, in part because we could not find a place for ourselves in such a thing, and also because a rational set of propositions requires consistency, while story can encompass contradiction and tension. Imperfect beings that we are, we live in that tension: we have conflicting motives and modes of behavior, things we’re proud of and things we’re ashamed of, and probably some things we’ve never fully encompassed ourselves, to figure out what they were.

    Thanks for some very interesting reading material. I hope to see more.

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