The Republic of Heaven
The Horn Book Magazine
1 November 2001
(Text of a lecture given in 2000)
What happens to the Kingdom of Heaven when the King dies? And what has this to do with children’s literature?
Children’s books, as readers of this journal are well aware, are capable of expressing just about any idea, and illuminating just about any subject. Well, I certainly haven’t read all the children’s books there are; I haven’t even read very many. What’s more, my reading has been unsystematic, butterfly-like, and anything but rigorous. Nevertheless it seems to me that the children’s books I love are saying something important about the most important subject I know, which is the death of God and its consequences.
The idea that God is dead has been familiar, and has felt true, to many of us for a long time now. Those who believe that he’s still alive will of course disagree with some of what I say, though I hope they’ll stay with me till I come to the end. Anyway, I take it that there really is no God anymore; the old assumptions have all withered away. That’s my starting point: that the idea of God with which I was brought up is now perfectly incredible.
But not believing in God is not quite like not believing in the tooth fairy. There are bigger consequences. G. K. Chesterton, a stout defender of orthodoxy in religion, said that when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything. This was a warning against the occult, and astrology, and fashionable religions, especially those from that sinister place, the East. Chesterton was easily excited. He once wrote about seeing “evil shapes” in the pattern of a Turkish carpet – an odd idea that turns up in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia too, where the Witch kills Asian with a knife of “a strange and evil shape.” What is an evil shape, I wonder? Could a triangle be evil, for example? Are some kinds of triangles decent and God-fearing, whereas others are treacherous and inclined to furtive sodomy? And could you tell that from the shape?
Much more grown-up than this penny-dreadful stuff is the famous comment of George Eliot, talking about God, Immortality, and Duty: “How inconceivable was the first, how unbelievable the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third.” I like that earnestness. I admire it a great deal. But it points to one of the most important consequences of the death of God, because something’s lacking: if Duty is peremptory and absolute, so (given our nature) is the necessity for something else, which one might call joy. George Eliot’s universe of duty is a bleak place, and human beings need more than that.
Now it’s not legitimate, I know, to argue from the want of something to the necessity that it must exist. It’s very poor logic. But so much the worse for logic. The heroine of this essay – and why shouldn’t an essay have heroes and heroines? – is the young Jane Eyre, and I’m with her on this: “You think I have no feelings,” she says to her cold-hearted guardian Mrs. Reed, “and that I can do without one bit of love or kindness; but I cannot live so.” She demands love, because of her passionate need of it, and in due course love appears, though not before Jane Eyre the girl has grown and suffered. If we need something, says Jane Eyre the book, we must search for it, or create it. I think that the book is right, and I think we need this thing which I’ve called joy. I might also have called it Heaven.
What I’m referring to is a sense that things are right and good, and we are part of everything that’s right and good. It’s a sense that we’re connected to the universe. This connectedness is where meaning lies; the meaning of our lives is their connection with something other than ourselves. The religion that’s now dead did give us that, in full measure: we were part of a huge cosmic drama, involving a Creation and a Fall and a Redemption, and Heaven and Hell. What we did mattered, because God saw everything, even the fall of a sparrow. And one of the most deadly and oppressive consequences of the death of God is this sense of meaningless or alienation that so many of us have felt in the past century or so.
However, there is one religion whose peculiar and intense flavor seems to speak very directly to precisely this psychological (or spiritual) condition. I’m talking about Gnosticism. The Gnostic religion, like the Christian one, tells us a story that involves ourselves. To sum it up briefly and crudely, the Gnostic myth says that this world, the material universe we live in, was created not by a good God but by an evil Demiurge, who made it as a kind of prison for the sparks of divinity that had fallen, or been stolen, from the inconceivably distant true God who was their real source. These little sparks of god-ness are known as the pneuma, or soul, and each of us has a spark inside us. It’s the duty of the Gnostics, the knowing ones, to try and escape from this world, out of the clutches of the Demiurge and his angelic archons, and find a way back to that original and unknown and far-off God.
Now whatever else this is, it’s a very good story, and what’s more it has an immense explanatory power: it offers to explain why we feel, as so many of us do, exiled in this world, alienated from joy and meaningfulness and the true connection we feel we must have with the universe, as Jane Eyre feels that she must have love and kindness.
In short, Gnosticism fits the temper of the times. It lends itself to all kinds of contemporary variations: feminism, for example, partly because of the important role the Gnostic story assigns to the figure of the Sophia, or Wisdom, the youngest and paradoxically the rashest of the emanations of the divine being. Somehow we’re not surprised to learn that it was all her fault that the material universe came about in the first place.
And Gnosticism appeals powerfully, too, to the sense of being in the know, of having access to a truth not available to most people. And, not least, it appeals because the story it tells is all about a massive conspiracy, and we love massive conspiracies. The X-Files, for example, is pure Gnosticism. “The truth is out there,” says Mulder: not in here, because in here is permeated by evil conspiracies whose influence reaches the very centers of worldly authority, corrupting politics, the law, the military-industrial complex, and every other center of power in the world. The Demiurge is in charge, in here. But out there somewhere is the source of all truth, and we belong with that, not with the corrupt and dishonest and evil empire that rules this world.
So it’s a powerfully dramatic myth, and it has the great advantage of putting us human beings and our predicament right at the heart of it. No wonder it appeals. The trouble is, it’s not true. If we can’t believe the story about the shepherds and the angels and the wise men and the star and the manger and so on, then it’s even harder to believe in Demiurges and archons and emanations and what have you. It certainly explains, and it certainly makes us feel important, but it isn’t true.
And it has the terrible defect of libeling – one might almost say blaspheming against, if the notion had any republican meaning-the physical universe; of saying that this world is just a clumsy copy of a perfect original we can’t see because it’s somewhere else. In the eyes of some Christian writers, of course, this sort of Platonism is a great merit. C. S. Lewis, at the end of the last book in the Narnia series, has his character the wise old Professor explaining: “Our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Asian’s real world.” In fact, the two things are “as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream.” And then he goes on to add under his breath “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!”
Now this is a state of mind which, unless we’re careful, can lead to a thoroughgoing hatred of the physical world. It encourages us to see a toad lurking beneath every flower, and if we can’t see one, it’s because the toads now are extra cunning and have learned to become invisible. The Gnostic would say that the beauty and solace and delight that can be found in the physical world are exactly why we should avoid it: they are the very things with which the Demiurge traps our souls. The Puritanism that so poisoned the human mind later on said just the same sort of thing. I’d say that that position is an unhealthy and distorted one which can only be maintained at the cost of common sense, and of that love and kindness that Jane Eyre demanded, and finally of sanity itself. The Gnostic situation is a dramatic one to be in; it’s intensely exciting; but it’s the sort of paranoid excitement felt by those militia groups who collect guns and hide in the hills and watch out for the black helicopters of the evil New World Order as they prepare for Armageddon. It’s nuts, basically.
So Gnosticism, intoxicating though it is, won’t lead us to the republic of Heaven. We have to realize that our human nature demands meaning and joy just as Jane Eyre demanded love and kindness (“You think we can live without them, but we cannot live so”); to accept that this meaning and joy will involve a passionate love of the physical world, this world, of food and drink and sex and music and laughter, and not a suspicion and hatred of it; to understand that it will both grow out of and add to the achievements of the human mind such as science and art. Finally, we must find a way of believing that we are not subservient creatures dependent on the whim of some celestial monarch, but free citizens of the republic of Heaven.
And I think I can see glimpses of such a republic in books that children read, among other places. I think it’s possible to point out in children’s literature some moments or some qualities that are characteristic of a republican attitude to the great questions of religion, which are the great questions of life.
And these great questions often fix themselves in the tiniest of details: in stockings, for example.
Here is a nonrepublican view of stockings from C. S. Lewis. Near the end of The Last Battle, the final book in the Narnia series, Susan is refused entry to the stable, which represents salvation, because, as Peter says, “My sister … is no longer a friend of Narnia.” “Oh Susan!” says Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.” In other words, normal human development, which includes a growing awareness of your body and its effect on the opposite sex, is something from which Lewis’s narrative, and what he would like us to think is the Kingdom of Heaven, turns with horror.
But I’m interested in those nylons. I think Susan had a point. Here’s a passage from William Mayne’s recent novel Midnight Fair (Hodder, 1997). Paul, a boy of twelve or so, has found his attention increasingly absorbed by Victoria, a strange and solitary girl. He’s just summoned up the courage to write a Christmas card for her. They’ve been in church, and he watches as she leaves with her mother.
The service ended for the rest of the congregation. For Paul it had not begun, and he would have liked an instant replay, but that was not in prayer books old or new.
He stood up. The girl came along the aisle, nearing him. He would follow her out, catch up in the porch, and present the card…. The girl came past. Paul wanted to jump out and give her a hundred cards.
She did not see him. Why should she? She walked with her mother. In a brown skirt, stockings with a small white hole beside one ankle, brown leather shoes with a frilled flap on the instep, a green sweater, and a bronze coat. She was quite plain, but unearthly beautiful; there was nothing else like her, and her uniqueness was the reason for all creation.
Lewis’s nylons were not real stockings; they were Platonic stockings, if you like, and their function was simply to carry a symbolic charge. What they mean is that if you give them too much of your attention, you’re shut out from the Kingdom of Heaven. In the republic, stockings work differently. They’re real stockings; they sometimes have holes in them. That little white hole beside her ankle is one of the things that make Victoria “quite plain, but unearthly beautiful”; and of course Paul can’t give too much attention to her stockings, and her shoes, and her coat, and everything about her. She is real, and he is in love.
As a matter of fact, Lewis’s position as a whole wasn’t at all consistent. Whereas the Narnia books illustrate the very antithesis of the republic of Heaven, his critical writing often shows a more generous and sensible spirit. For example, talking about this very business of growing up in his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” he says “surely arrested development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new things? I now like hock, which I am sure I should not have liked as a child. But I still like lemon-squash. I call this growth or development because I have been enriched: where I formerly had only one pleasure, I now have two.”
There’s nothing there which a republican would quarrel with; but the sensible Lewis who wrote it was thrust aside in Narnia by the paranoid bigot who proclaimed that an interest in lipstick and nylons was not an addition to the pleasures of life, but an absolute disqualification for the joys of Heaven.
The ending of The Last Battle makes this position even clearer. “The term is over: the holidays have begun,” says Asian to the children, having just let them know that “there was a real railway accident…. Your father and mother and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands – dead.”
Using Narnia as our moral compass, we can take it as axiomatic that in the republic of Heaven, people do not regard life in this world as so worthless and contemptible that they leave it with pleasure and relief, and a railway accident is not an end-of-term treat.
Jane Eyre, as so often, got it right and gave the true republican answer when the pious Mr. Brocklehurst asks what she thinks she must do to avoid going to hell: “I must keep in good health, and not die,” she says. This world is where the things are that matter. If the Narnia stories had been composed in that spirit, the children who have passed through all these adventures and presumably learned great truths from them would be free to live and grow up in the world, even at the price of engaging with the lipstick and the nylons, and use what they’d learned for the benefit of others. That would be the republican thing to do. That’s why Lewis doesn’t let his characters do it, and why the Narnia books are such an invaluable guide to what is wrong and cruel and selfish.
No, if the republic of Heaven exists at all, it exists nowhere but on this earth, in the physical universe we know, not in some gaseous realm far away. Nor can it be truly depicted in most fantasy of the Tolkien sort: closed fantasy, as John Goldthwaite calls it in his brilliant and invaluable study, The Natural History of Make-Believe (OUP, 1996). As Goldthwaite points out, such fantasy is both escapist and solipsistic: seeking to flee the complexities and compromises of the real world for somewhere nobler altogether, lit by a light that never was on sea or land, it inevitably finds itself enclosed in a mental space that is smaller, barer, and poorer than reality, because it’s sustained by an imagination that strains against the world instead of working with it, refusing and not accepting. The result is a hollowness, a falsity. Tolkien’s Shire, his idealized modest English landscape full of comfortable hobbits who know their social places, is no more real than the plastic oak paneling and the reproduction horse-brasses in an Olde English theme-pub. It’s a great pity that with the passing of time it’s become less easy to see the difference between the artificiality of the Shire and the truthfulness of the great republican fairy tales such as “Jack and the Beanstalk”: both the real and the fake now look equally quaint to the uninformed eye.
The difference lies in the connection, or lack of it, with the everyday. Am I saying that there is no fantasy in the republic of Heaven? That everything must be sober and drab, with a sort of earnest sociological realism? Not at all. If the republic doesn’t include fantasy, it won’t be worth living in. It won’t be Heaven of any sort. But inclusiveness is the whole point: the fantasy and the realism must connect. “Jack and the Beanstalk” is a republican story because the magic grows out of the most common and everyday thing, a handful of beans, and the beanstalk grows right outside the kitchen window, and at the end of the story, Jack comes home.
Part of the connection which a republican story has to have with our lives – a very important part – is psychological. That’s why Wagner’s Ring is a republican work of art, and Tolkien’s isn’t. Wagner’s gods and heroes are exactly like human beings, on a grand scale: every human virtue and every human temptation is there. Tolkien leaves a good half of them out. No one in Middle-earth has any sexual relations at all; how children arrive must be a complete mystery to them.
So the republic of Heaven is a place where the people behave like us, with the full range of human feelings, even when they don’t look like us, even when they look like beings that have never existed, like Tove Jansson’s Moomins, or Sylvia Waugh’s Mennyms, or Mary Norton’s Borrowers. The people in the republic are people like us even when they’re dead. The republic is thronged with ghosts, and they have full democratic rights. A marvelous creepy little tale, Jan Mark’s “Who’s a Pretty Boy, Then?” exemplifies what I mean: on the patch in the garden where nothing will grow, Dad builds an aviary. But the budgerigars don’t thrive, and mysteriously they begin to speak:
“Oh, I’m so cold,” said one. “I shall always be very cold,” said another, “cold as clay.” “I shall always be here,” said a third. “I shall never go away,” said the white bird. “Pity me.” “Pity me.”
Ghosts that come only to scare us, ghosts that are only special effects, ghosts that might as well be aliens or prehistoric monsters, have nothing to tell us about the republic of Heaven. But ghosts that remind us of our own mortality are citizens like ourselves. In the republic, we honor the dead and maintain a conversation with them, in order to learn more about how to live.
The next essential quality of the republic of Heaven is that what happens there matters, and what the characters do makes a difference. The republic is a place where, as H. G. Wells’s Mr. Polly discovers, “If the world does not please you you can change it.”
A good example is the two books that Erich Kastner wrote in the thirties about Emil Tischbein: Emil and the Detectives and its sequel Emil and the Three Twins. In the first book, young Emil goes from the little country town of Neustadt to visit his relatives in the great city of Berlin. On the train he falls asleep, and a thief steals the money Emil’s widowed mother has given him to take to his grandmother. Not much money, because they are far from rich, but that’s the point: they can’t afford to lose it, and Emil feels terribly responsible.
But once he arrives in the city, he finds that he’s not alone. Some other boys, strangers at first, quickly join forces to track down and denounce the thief, and the story ends happily, with the money restored. The republican point here is that the children find the solution themselves, out of the everyday qualities they share: resourcefulness, quick wits, determination, and, not least, access to a telephone.
In the sequel, Emil is trying to come to terms with the fact that his widowed mother wants to marry again. He likes his potential stepfather, but that isn’t the point, as every stepchild knows. Emil would much rather she didn’t marry, but he hasn’t told her that. He and his grandmother talk through all the consequences of this, and he learns from her that his mother feels just the same as he does – she would really rather remain alone with Emil; but she’s afraid of the future, because Emil will grow up one day, and marry, and leave home; and after all, Herr Jeschke is a good man. Emil says:
“What am I to do, Granny?”
“One of two things, Emil. When you get home you can ask her not to marry. Then you’ll kiss and the thing will be settled.”
“Or you can keep silence, but the silence must last till the end of your days, and you must be cheerful in your silence and not go round with a face like a mourner at a funeral. You alone can decide which course to pursue.”
He chooses the right way, for Emil is a hero of the republic, which is a place where children learn to grow up, and where cheerfulness and courage do make a difference. Putting your own feelings first and insisting on expressing them, no matter what the cost, is not a republican virtue.
Another work I admire for similar reasons is Edward Ardizzone’s Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain. Tim has run away to sea, and has a fine time till a great storm comes up and the ship begins to sink. He and the captain are standing on the bridge.
“Come,” [says the captain,] “stop crying and be a brave boy. We are bound for Davey Jones’s locker and tears won’t help us now.”
So Tim dried his eyes and tried not to be too frightened. He felt he would not mind going anywhere with the captain, even to Davey Jones’s locker.
They stood hand in hand and waited for the end.
Little Tim is a picture book for young children, and sure enough, on the next page arrives the lifeboat; but Tim and the captain don’t know that when they stand hand in hand waiting for the end. You’re never too young to become a citizen of the republic of Heaven.
So part of this meaning that I’ve suggested we need, the sense that we belong and we matter, comes from the moral and social relations that the republic of Heaven must embody. In the republic, we’re connected in a moral way to one another, to other human beings. We have responsibilities to them, and they to us. We’re not isolated units of self-interest in a world where there is no such thing as society; we cannot live so.
But part of the sense of wider meaningfulness that we need comes from seeing that we have a connection with nature and the universe around us, with everything that is not human as well. So the republic of Heaven is also characterized by another quality: it enables us to see this real world, our world, as a place of infinite delight, so intensely beautiful and intoxicating that if we saw it clearly then we would want nothing more, ever. We would know that this earth is our true home, and nowhere else is. In the words of William Blake, one of the founding fathers of the republic of Heaven,
How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?
Lesser writers than Blake have also caught the true tone of this immense world of delight, and made their contribution to the republic. For example, D. J. Watkins-Pitchford, who wrote under the name of “B.B.”: his books about the Little Grey Men may be familiar to some older readers. In his novel Brendon Chase (first published in 1945, and recently republished in Britain by Jane Nissen Books) he does evoke the kind of delight that Blake speaks of. The three brothers Robin, John, and Harold run away to the forest and live wild for most of a year. Here is the fifteen-year-old Robin alone in the forest:
He would sometimes come upon some specially lovely tree, an oak, or a birch, and he would sit down and feast his eyes upon it, just as he would go to the Blind Pool to watch the water and the floating leaves. There was something about the birches which was extremely attractive their white bark was the colour and texture of kid – sometimes there was a beautiful golden flush on the smooth trunks which felt so soft to the touch…. Or perhaps it was another oak which took his fancy, bare and gaunt with each little twig and branch naked to the winds…. He would listen to the low hiss of the winter wind among the intricate network, which sang like wires in every passing gust … He would put his ear to the kindly grey trunk and hear that wild song much magnified, the whole tree would be pulsing, almost as though a heart beat there inside its rough body.
All in Plato, all in Plato? What utter nonsense.
At the furthest extent, this sense of delight in the physical world can blend into a sort of ecstatic identification with it. “You never enjoy the world aright,” said Thomas Traherne, “till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world.”
So far I’ve been talking about various aspects of the republic of Heaven, and not in any particular order; glimpses, little windows opening into it here and there. What we need, if we’re going to take it seriously, is something more coherent and solid. We need a story, a myth that does what the traditional religious stories did: it must explain. It must satisfy our hunger for a why. Why does the world exist? Why are we here?
Of course, there are two kinds of why, and our story must deal with both. There’s the one that asks What brought us here? and the other that asks What are we here for? One looks back, and the other looks forward, perhaps.
And in offering an answer to the first why, a republican myth must accept the overwhelmingly powerful evidence for evolution by natural selection. The neo-Darwinians tell us that the processes of life are blind and automatic; there has been no purpose in our coming here.
Well, I think a republican response to that would be: there is now. We are conscious, and conscious of our own consciousness. We might have arrived at this point by a series of accidents, but from now on we have to take charge of our fate. Now we are here, now we are conscious, we make a difference. Our presence changes everything.
So a myth of the republic of Heaven would explain what our true purpose is. Our purpose is to understand and to help others to understand, to explore, to speculate, to imagine. And that purpose has a moral force.
Which brings in the next task for our republican myth: it must provide a sort of framework for understanding why some things are good and others are bad. It’s no good to say, “X is good and Y is evil because God says they are”; the King is dead, and that argument won’t do for free citizens of the republic. Of course, the myth must deal with human beings as they are, which includes recognizing that there is a depth of human meanness and wickedness which not even the imagination can fully plumb. But it’s no good putting the responsibility for that on a pantomime demon, and calling him Satan; he’s dead, too. If we’re so undermined by despair at the sight of evil that we have to ascribe it to some extra-human force, some dark power from somewhere else, then we have to give up the republic, too, and go back to the Kingdom. There’s no one responsible but us. Goodness and evil have always had a human origin. The myth must account for that.
But as well as the traditional good things and evil things (and there has never been much disagreement about those in all human history: dishonesty is bad and truthfulness is good, selfishness is wrong and generosity is right – we can all agree about those), I think we need to reinforce another element of a republican morality. We must make it clear that trying to restrict understanding and put knowledge in chains is bad, too. We haven’t always understood that; it’s a relatively new development in human history, and it’s thanks to the great republicans, to Galileo and Milton and those like them, that it’s been added to our understanding. We must keep it there, and keep it watered and fed so that it grows ever more strongly: what shuts out knowledge and nourishes stupidity is wrong; what increases understanding and deepens wisdom is right.
The Christian Heaven used to be where we went when we died, if we did what we were told. If the republic of Heaven is here, on this earth, in our lives, then what happens when we die? Is that all? Is that the end of everything for us? That’s hard to accept; for some people it’s the hardest thing of all. Well, our myth must talk about death in terms that are as true as they can be to what we know of the facts, and it must do what the Christian myth did, and provide some sort of hope or consolation. The myth must give us a way of accepting death, when it comes, of seeing what it means and accepting it; not shrinking from it with terror, or pretending that it’ll be like the school holidays. We cannot live so: we cannot die so.
We need a myth, we need a story, because it’s no good persuading people to commit themselves to an idea on the grounds that it’s reasonable. How much effect would the Bible have had for generations and generations if it had just been a collection of laws and genealogies? What seized the mind and captured the heart were the stories it contains.
So if we are to see what a republic of Heaven might look like, we must look for evidence of it, as I’ve been suggesting, in the realm of stories. And one of the few places we can be certain of finding stories, these days, is in books that are read by children.
But I’ll end with a nursery rhyme. If the republic of Heaven were to have an anthem, I can’t think of a better one than this:
Boys and girls come out to play,
The moon doth shine as bright as day;
This is a republic where we live by the imagination. Night can be like day; things can be upside down and back to front and inside out, and still all right.
Leave your supper and leave your sleep,
And join your playfellows in the street –
Not in a private playground with security guards where some of us are let in and others are kept out, not in the park that closes its gates before the moon comes out, but in the street, the common place that belongs to everyone.
Come with a whoop, and come with a call,
Come with a good will or not at all.
Like Emil, we must be cheerful and not go round with a face like a mourner at a funeral. It’s difficult sometimes, but good will is not a luxury: it’s an absolute necessity. It’s a moral imperative.
Up the ladder and down the wall,
A tuppenny loaf will serve us all.
You bring milk, and I’ll bring flour
And we’ll have a pudding in half an hour
We can do it. That’s the way it happens in the republic of Heaven; we provide for ourselves. We’ll have a pudding, and a good nourishing one it’ll be, too; milk and flour are full of goodness. And then we can play together in the bright moonlight till we all fall asleep.