So for the past ten years or so I’ve been teaching a course called Christianity and Fantasy. Though I wrote a biography of C. S. Lewis, the Inklings and their ilk — I like that phrase, “Inklings and their ilk” — aren’t really my scholarly thing; I started teaching the course because the person who had taught it for many years retired and there wasn’t anyone else in the department to pick it up.
I made some changes: the course had always featured only George Macdonald, Chesterton, Lewis, Charles Williams, and Tolkien, but I thought it made sense to spend some time at the end of the course talking about what I call the “re-paganizing of fantasy,” so I added Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and John Crowley’s Little, Big. I only sometimes taught Williams, whose peculiar imagination I find uncongenial. I also tried to find ways to work with the terrific collections we have here at Wheaton in the Marion Wade Center, but that proved difficult to do without getting in the way of scholarly researchers.
Anyway, teaching Christianity and Fantasy was an odd experience — perhaps the oddest of my career. I say “was” because I’ll be leaving Wheaton College at the end of this year for a position at Baylor University and won’t be teaching anything like it there. (Well, as far as I know.) So I find myself reflecting on this curious decade-long experiment in teaching.
Several things made teaching that course different than anything else I have taught. Chief among these was having roomsful of students who had read almost every book assigned for the course before signing up for it — indeed, had read some of them multiple times, starting in relatively early childhood. Often they had first encountered Narnia or Middle-earth as bedtime stories read by their parents. Their experiences with these books, some of them anyway, tend to be distinctively intimate. My students know many of the books well and have strong opinions about them.
Teaching Ulysses is not like this.
Indeed, we literature teachers are more comfortable — we feel like we’re earning our keep — when we introduce our students to works they aren’t familiar with and explain to them things they don’t understand. When they already know the books coming in and grasp them reasonably well, we have to alter our approach in ways that can produce pedagogical discomfort.
Well, it was probably good for me to have to adjust. But it was never very easy. Class discussions were always threatening to veer away from the quest for better understanding and towards cheerleading (for Lewis and Tolkien especially) or expressions of frustration (in the case of Pullman) — neither of which is what we typically think literature classes is about.
Yet in the end, isn’t it encouraging to be reminded of the ways that stories can engage people at deep levels, for good and for ill? That words on a page — or for that matter on a screen — can produce delight and annoyance, tears of sympathy and palpitating hearts, refreshment and perturbation of spirit? If that sort of thing happens rarely in the literature classroom, maybe we’re paying too high a price for what we think of as intellectual seriousness. In later years I may regret not having the opportunity, in the classroom, to be reminded so consistently of that possibility.