Tag Archives: places: imagined

The Ethics of Elfland

What role do fairy tales play in the lives of grown ups?

Last week I had the surprising privilege of seeing Disney’s adaptation of Into the Woods and reading G.K. Chesterton’s chapter The Ethics of Elfland on the same day.

I know, I know that the stage musical is better. Certainly the film of Into the Woods lost out by downplaying the infidelity and not killing off the narrator and not drawing as much attention to our fear of death. But they only had so much time and the story is still so good and it was beautifully filmed. I really enjoyed it.

Mostly I think I enjoyed it because I have been reading G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and I finished reading his chapter The Ethics of Elfland right before I walked into the cinema. I was not expecting to read an extensive exploration of how fairy tales connect with grown up thought that day. It definitely put me in an unusual frame of mind to see Stephen Sondheim’s take on all these fairy tales and how they speak to grown ups today.

There are many interesting themes in Into the Woods but one of the biggest overarching themes is that nothing is black and white. The message takes on so many forms in the story. There is confusion about how to seek justice in the middle of chaos; characters learn to be content with a not-as-happy ending; there is the powerful line in ‘You are not alone’: ‘you decide what’s right, you decide what’s good’. G.K. Chesterton, on the other hand, seems pretty sure that objective morality exists. He has been convinced – by fairy tales no less! – that there is some kind limit or rule imposed on us that we do well to keep, even if we don’t understand why.

This princess lives in a glass castle, that princess on a glass hill; this one sees all things in a mirror; they may all live in glass houses if they will not throw stones. For this thin glitter of glass everywhere is the expression of the fact that the happiness is bright but brittle, like the substance most easily smashed by a housemaid or a cat.

And this fairy-tale sentiment also sank into me and became my sentiment towards the whole world. I felt and feel that life itself is as bright as the diamond, but as brittle as the window-pane ; and when the heavens were compared to the terrible crystal I can remember a shudder. I was afraid that God would drop the cosmos with a smash.

Remember, however, that to be breakable is not the same as to be perishable. Strike a glass, and it will not endure an instant; simply do not strike it and it will endure a thousand years. Such, it seemed, was the joy of man, either in elfland or on earth ; the happiness depended on not doing something which you could at any moment do and which, very often, it was not obvious why you should not do.

Now, the point here is that to me this did not seem unjust. If the miller’s third son said to the fairy, “Explain to me why I must not stand on my head in the fairy palace,” the other might fairly reply, “Well, if it comes to that, explain the fairy palace.” If Cinderella says, “How is it that I must leave the ball at twelve?” her godmother might answer, “How is it that you are going there till twelve?” If I leave a man in my will ten talking elephants and a hundred winged horses, he cannot complain if the conditions partake of the slight eccentricity of the gift. He must not look a winged horse in the mouth.

And it seemed to me that existence was itself so very eccentric a legacy that I could not complain of not understanding the limitations of the vision when I did not understand the vision they limited. The frame was no stranger than the picture. The veto might be as wild as the vision ; it might be as startling as the sun, as elusive as the waters, as fantastic and terrible as the towering trees.


Belonging and not belonging at the university

After many years of promising to give the university chaplains a proper place to work, the university administrators finally fulfilled their word. Our ramshackle fibro cottage was knocked down to make way for landscaped gardens and we moved into a new building. Desks! Air conditioning! A store room! A fire escape!

In the context of working with university staff it’s given me a surprising sense of security and belonging. Even though I still barely work from the chaplaincy offices, just knowing that there is a desk I can work from makes me feel like I belong here. Legitimately. I belong like all the people I am ministering to. I belong like all the people I am trying to share the gospel with.

I’m scared of what this sense of belonging betrays. It kind of feels like my identity as a Howie (a pastor? a missionary? a harvest worker? whatever I am.) is tied to a room with four desks that I have never actually worked from. That seems a little bit ridiculous! How would I cope if I was doing the work of my peers in France, who aren’t even allowed to be on their university campuses? Surely my sense of belonging should be tied to my identity in Christ. I should sit uneasy knowing that we are given a space to work on a campus where the majority of people hate that we are here. I should stand firm knowing that we are more than conquerors in Christ, and that nothing can separate me from his love (Romans 8). Upon reflection I remember that Jesus is a more stable and permanent reality than the chaplains’ offices at Sydney University.

Last week I walked past a woman who runs a cafe on campus on my way into work. She smiled and said hi. And today a security guard that I’ve walked past almost every day for the last year finally replied to my greeting with a friendly nod of the head, a smile and a ‘what’s up?’

This is a different kind of belonging again, the kind where people know who I am. They know I am in their buildings every day. They might not know my name yet, and they might not know what I do yet but I hope I get a chance to tell them over the next 10 months! Place is important, but it’s the relationships that should matter most to me at the moment. This year I think my challenge will be to ground my identity and my work on Jesus first, relationships with staff and students second, and the beautiful campus last.

Anglican Geographer

I love being an Anglican. It’s not because of the bishops, or the Thirty Nine Articles, or the prayer book, or the baptising of children. It’s definitely not because of the odd mish-mash culture of grumpy-loving-complaining-hopeful-closeminded-openhearted-conservative-creative Anglicans here in Sydney. It’s not even because of the Queen (although she herself does make an awesome leader of the church).

It’s because of the maps

Tugging at geography heartstrings

“Spatial theorists working in the fields of social and cultural theory have demonstrated how we occupy multiple landscapes simultaneously: fragmented and multi-layered, existing in different dimensions including those of the senses and the imagination. These are ‘geographies of the possible’ (de Certeau, op. cit.), not rational nor confined to actual places, but suffused with thoughts and feelings: ‘a geography of memory as much felt in the body as seen’ (Tonkiss 2000, p.2).”

Jocey Quinn, Learning Communities and Imagined Social Capital, p86

I’ve said it a million times – literature reviews usually frustrate me so much that I want to tear out my own eyeballs. But sometimes I read things and my heart melts from the beauty of the idea or the language. Sometimes both the idea and the language. That just happened then, while reading this book for an evaluation of a Community Education program we are running out at Mt Druitt. Just the phrase “geography of memory” makes me want to drop everything and sign up to try my hand at being an official human geographer. I want to sit somewhere in the academy, in a nice ivory tower, where I can read beautiful books and spin beautiful phrases and lose myself thinking about imagined spaces. Sigh.

At times like this I need a reality check.

1. Alison – remember how frustrating you find reading about 98% of the time. That is what it would really be like!
2. Remember how relevent this book actually is for helping people in the community! be thankful that you get to do applied research! (Actually, the book is pretty relevent – but only because other researchers have done some more pragmatic work to make it all applicable!)
3. Now, spend some time reflecting on that look that 3rd year PhD students get in their eyes when they just want it all to be over.

Hmm. It’s almost working. It probably will have completely worked after about 5 more minutes of working on literature review.