“…we can regard Christian fantasy-writing as the outcome of an imagination that works in sacramental terms, seeing the material world as participant in, and mediator of, the divine…”

– Heather Ward

In his landmark essay On Fairy Stories, J.R.R. Tolkien argued that there are three benefits of fantasy literature: Escape, Recovery, and Consolation. By Escape, Tolkien meant not the escape of the deserter from the front lines, but rather that of the prisoner from his cell. To explain Consolation, Tolkien coined the term eucatastrophe, the sudden breaking in of grace, the happy ending. The importance of these two ideas, and in particular that of eucatastrophe, has sometimes overshadowed Recovery:

Recovery… is a re-gaining… of a clear view… I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves… Fantasy is made out of the Primary World, but a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the art of making can give. By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory… It was in fairy stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.

J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

The notion of Recovery which Tolkien describes has been identified by other authors as the “Sacramental Imagination” — the Christian idea, based in the Church’s ancient theology of Icon and Sacrament, that the material world was and is created to be a vehicle of God’s uncreated grace. The 19th and 20th centuries produced numerous Christian authors whose experience of sacramental traditions directly shaped their imagination, allowing them to use fantasy and storytelling as “good craftsmen” to love the created world and set it free from the growing materialism of our time.

In partnership with Eighth Day Press, the Society of St. Dionysius the Areopagite is pleased to solicit submissions for Finding the Golden Key: Essays Towards a Recovery of the Sacramental Imagination, a new collection of essays on beauty, fantasy, and the sacramental imagination. Topics for consideration may include, but are not limited to:

  • George MacDonald has been called the “grandfather of the Inklings.” In his short stories and novels, he makes overt use of sacramental imagery and symbolism. What is the debt that Christian fantasy writers owe to MacDonald? How do his stories re-enchant our experience of the world?
  • In what way do the particular sacramental theologies of the various “Inklings,” and of the religious communities to which they belong, influence their approach to storytelling and subcreation? Are some sacramental theologies more prone towards certain kinds of storytelling than others. If so, why?
  • According to Reformed author, critic, and theologian Peter Leithart, as modern Christianity has continued to distance itself from its sacramental roots, Christian storytelling has a shallow vehicle for preaching rather than a means of re-enchanting our experience of reality. How do we reconnect with those roots? How do we deepen and enrich our imaginations? How do great Christian fantasy authors like MacDonald and Tolkien show us the way?
  • St. John Damascene grounds the whole Christian theology of the image — and by extension, all the liturgical arts — in the deep reality of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. How do St. John and other Church fathers help us understand the role of created — and subcreated — things in our salvation? Is there a Patristic basis for a theology of subcreation?
  • The collapse of the shared materialistic frame has resulted in what has been described as a “meaning crisis.” What answers does the sacramental imagination offer to this crisis? How does a Christian approach to the “enchantment” of the world help us respond to ecological issues of our time, and to questions of beauty in the natural world? How are we to go about reclaiming and developing the sacramental imagination in our reading of Scripture, our liturgy, our vocation, in the way that we live — and even in the way that we die?

UPDATE: As of December 31, 2021, submissions are closed. Keep up with the current state of the project here on our blog.