The Wonders of Creation: Learning Stewardship from Narnia and Middle-Earth (The Hansen Lectureship Series), Kristen Page, with contributions from Christina Bieber Lake, Noah J. Toly, and Emily Hunter McGowin. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022.
Summary: Discusses the value of Lewis’s and Tolkien’s fictional landscapes in fostering love and care for the creation of which we are part.
I think it may safely be said that those of us who love the stories of Narnia and Middle-Earth love not only the stories but the places in which they occur. We imagine finding wardrobes leading into a forest with a lamppost or staying with the elves in Lothlorien. We delight in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver and take deep offense at the industrialization of the Shire and the assault on Fangorn Forest.
Kristen Page, a professor of biology and lifelong lover of these stories believes these stories have a power in them to encourage us to care for the creation we live in and not just the imagined ones of Narnia or Middle-Earth. She sets out her case in three chapters, reflecting the three lectures she gave as part of The Hansen Lectureship Series at The Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College. She is joined in this volume by Christina Bieber Lake, Noah J. Toly, and Emily Hunter McGowin who each offer a short response to one of her chapters.
In the first chapter, “Stepping Out of the Wardrobe,” Page shares her twin loves of reading about fictional landscapes and reading actual landscapes, something she teaches her students to do. She proposes that the fictional landscapes of Lewis and Tolkien, particularly forests, reflect the careful observation both men made of actual forests, particularly in the detailed descriptions of fictional places they offer in their books. She sees the connection going both ways. Treebeard’s outrage with what Saruman has done to trees he knew by name can translate to our own outrage at human depredations of our forests and land. She decries the plant blindness of many of our children, the removal of plant vocabulary from children’s dictionaries to make room for tech terms, and believes books like those of Lewis and Tolkien’s are one step in restoring plant literacy and the love of growing things. She also sees the hobbits care for the Shire as a model of sustainable practices.
The second chapter, “A Lament for the Creation,” begins with the scouring of the Shire when the hobbits return. Men from the south have turned it into an industrial wasteland, impoverishing its once flourishing inhabitants. The hobbits give themselves to setting things right. She then turns to our own ravaged ecosystems, oceans, rivers, the atmosphere and considers how stories may awaken us to action. She begins with our over-consumption, where we tax the capacity of the earth to restore itself and the industry created brownfields, often adjacent to the urban poor, whose health is impacted by their proximity. She also brings in her own research on how the destruction of habitats increase the threat of novel viruses and diseases as humans and animal species are brought into closer contact. Cocoa plantation spread in Africa, for example, correlates with the increased incidence of Ebola. She quotes an extended passage in Perelandra in which Ransom refuses to partake of a uniquely delicious fruit more than would sustain him, sensing this would not be right, suggesting that we might develop a similar sense. She proposes that lament, both for the creation and the harms that our excesses have caused our neighbors may lead to change, just as Fangorn’s lament in the company of the hobbits led to the resolve to act.
The third chapter, “Ask the Animals to Teach You,” is about regaining wonder. Whether it is the wonder of talking animals including the lordly Aslan, or the beauty of Lothlorien, reading these works fosters wonder for Page, as do her studies of animals, and of plant life. Tom Bombadil teaches us to take delight in things for themselves without reference to ourselves. Tolkien understood that trees communicate, which scientists are discovering to be the case. Wonder leads us to love the physical creation and give ourselves to care for and tend it.
Page’s presentations are accompanied by a center section of a selection of her exquisite nature photography. The responses by Lake, Toly, and McGowin are brief, adding their own disciplinary insights and personal experiences. I’ve appreciated all the Hansen Lectureship books that I’ve read, but this was a special treat. Most have featured humanities professors, who understandably bring their discipline’s critical skills to bear in their discussion of the Wade authors. This was so delightful as a scientist who is a devoted reader of Lewis and Tolkien, but not a scholar in their works, connected her scientific scholarship to the worlds and landscapes Lewis and Tolkien create and that readers love, and how this may open our eyes to our own world. May we read and love and care for those landscapes as deeply as is fitting of true lovers of Narnia and Middle-Earth!
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.