an ocean full of paper boats
“I may as well admit that I have been more influenced (as a person) by my childhood readings of Tolkien and Lewis than I have been by any philosophers I read in college and grad school. The events and characters in Narnia and Middle Earth shaped my ideals, my dreams, my goals. Kant just annoyed me.” N.D. Wilson
Like Wilson, I find myself far more influenced by the writings of Tolkien and other fantasists and fiction writers – C.S. Lewis, Lloyd Alexander, Madeleine L’Engle, etc. – than by the work of philosophers, theologians, and political theorists. I read The Lord of the Rings when I was nine (the first time) and it was a pivotal, life-changing event. I had already plowed through Lewis by first grade, and the Prydain novels by second or third. Other fantasies and legends filled my young mind, shaped my vision of the world and other worlds. Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence; numerous Arthurian legends and re-tellings; L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels; and countless other tales of magic and mystery and heroism. Even Willow has its place in my heart – long before he had ambitions for public office, Val Kilmer was simply Mad Martigan to me.
And yes, I devoured these and other works of fiction when I could have been reading Kant or Plato or Hayek. Even as I grew older. While Mark Twain could keep me up into the little hours, Karl Marx would send me straight to sleep. I read George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice (incomplete but amazing) series when I could have been reading Augustine. (More on Martin later…) I read Susanna Clarke’s extraordinary Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell when I could have been reading Keynes or Friedman. I’m reading the third installment of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked trilogy – A Lion Among Men – now, when I should be soaking myself in political science….
This is not to say that I haven’t read any of these great thinkers. I’ve done my time with Plato and Kierkegaard. I’ve read much of Lewis’s apologetics. I dip into Merton or Chesterton now and again. I’m also reading an excellent history of the papacy alongside my fiction. And I read a lot of blogs and essays – a state of affairs that has, indeed, cut somewhat into my overall reading of books.
When I was a child I hated all things modern. I wanted a world of knights and dragons. I loathed cars – to me they became the symbol of everything unmagical about the world. This still informs my views today, I admit it. I still miss that other world that I so often became lost in – it used to be bigger and more colorful, more alive. It used to be real.
“The world is big. The world is wonderful. But it is also terrifying. It is an ocean full of paper boats,” writes Wilson. “And imaginations need food.” I have a head for this sort of thing – politics, theory, theology. I enjoy it immensely. But in the end my heart is buried in the clouds.
Which makes me think of a poem, of course, my other true love….
“I have fallen in love with American names,
The sharp names that never get fat,
The snakeskin titles of mining claims,
The plumed war-bonnet of Medicine Hat,
Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat …
You may bury my body in Sussex grass,
You many bury my tongue at Champmedy.
I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass.
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.”
— Stephen Vincent Benet, American Names, 1927