The Legend of Briar Rose

From my own comment on the “About” page of this blog:

The painting I use for the top banner is called “The Briar Wood” and it was painted by the British artist Edward Burne-Jones in the late 1880′s. It’s part of a series of four paintings called “The Legend of Briar Rose.” It depicts the legend commonly known as Sleeping Beauty, when the traveling knight discovers an entire kingdom under a spell. The other three paintings depict the slumbering King and his court; weavers sleeping at their looms; and Sleeping Beauty in her rose bower. Beneath each of the four paintings there is a short poem, and beneath the “Briar Wood” painting I use here, is written

“The fateful slumber floats and flows
About the tangle of the rose.
But lo the fated hand and heart
To rend the slumberous curse apart.”

All four paintings today hang together at a house called Buscot Park, in Oxfordshire, England. From what I’ve been told, they are lovely to behold in person!

There is a solid wikipedia entry on these paintings. The next panel is “The Council Chamber.”

The threat of war the hope of peace
The Kingdoms peril and increase
Sleep on and bide the latter day
When fate shall take his chain away.

After this, comes “The Garden Court.”

The maiden plaisance of the land
Knoweth no stir of voice or hand
No cup the sleeping waters fill
The restless shuttle lieth still.

And finally, “The Rose Bower.”

Here lies the hoarded love the key
To All the treasure that shall be
Come fated heart the gift to take
And smite the sleeping world awake.

***

I find all four paintings exquisite. My favorite to gaze on is actually “The Garden Court.” I like how the pale greenish-grey walls behind the main scene highlight the lovely rose and blue gowns of the women. Rose and blue are the main colors in all these paintings, but they are offset by different surrounding hues in each panel. In the “Briar Wood,” there is much more brown, rust, and dull steel grey. Though I love all four, and get most pleasure from the third, I chose the first one because I identify with the knight and, as a young(ish) man, I like the martial theme.

In a sense it’s egotistical of me to insinuate I am the knight. He is the one awake, while the others sleep. Do I mean to say I see the truth while others have their eyes shuttered? Well, perhaps, but only in comparison to some. And in comparison to others, it is I who sleep and they who walk with eyes wide open.

Rather than call myself the knight, I say then that I wish to identify with the knight. He is an ideal, a model to emulate.

Not incidentally, this is a very European, and indeed a very Christian story. It’s not hard to see (or it shouldn’t be!) how the knight is a Christ-figure. One need not be a Christian to appreciate it, of course. All native Westerners are so thoroughly drenched in Christian culture and blood that we can barely see it, even in today’s dark times. Even today’s degraded Hollywood movies are traceable to the central themes of European Christianity (be they romances or action movies or serious dramas).

I think it is a great mistake to assume all these stories are universal. Or at least that they are universal in the Joseph Campbell, “Hero With a Thousand Faces” way that people tend to think. It is not false to say that we can find some myths that are remarkably similar across widely disparate cultures (like Sky Father figures in Native American religion, among the Abrahamic tribes, in African religions, and in Norse mythology, for example). “Mother Earth” is not a narrow intuition — almost all peoples in all times have thought of the Earth as a Mother in one way or another. Also: the prior race of the mighty (Titans; Atlanteans) replaced by the current ruling race (Olympians; Mediterraneans). Etc.

So, yes, there is universality. But anyone who thinks that heroes have always been like the heroes we know so well today in pop culture and high literature should take another look at Achilles, or Gilgamesh, or Raven (of the Pacific Northwest American tribes that peopled the lands where I now dwell until quite recently).

Thinking liberal humanists explain the seeming-universality of the Christ story this way: it was universal to human nature before Christ, and this universality is in some way a feature of the way humans evolved in tribal hominid societies. I’ve not heard it argued this way specifically, but I can imagine a relatively coherent explanation that has to do with how young men, unmarried and low in status, did extraordinary, unconventional things to gain the love of their fellows. Even though the existing powers-that-be wanted to (or did) punish the outcast for his break with existing powers, society later came to revere him for his extraordinary sacrifice. Perhaps he found a new way to conquer woolly mammoths, or something. The elders decried his disobedience, and he was abandoned on the hunt to die at the hands (er, tusks) of the mammoths. But later his hunting methods were adopted because they were superior. So he is a martyr for the tribe.

[I just made that up. Please go easy on me. I’m just trying to construct a plausible argument… I’m not arguing it’s actually true. This might be absurd when you think about it, but my point is that it’s not prima facie absurd, from a materialist-humanist point of view.]

Thinking Christians would argue that hints of the Christ story in Gilgamesh or in Odysseus — who are really not very Christ-like but who can be said to be interestingly Christ-like in this or that sense — exist because the Word has been present since the dawn of creation, and because the whole world was anticipating Jesus until he came. And the even more Christ-like nature of the heroes we think of as universal today is because those “universal” heroes — the heroes of literature, movies, comic books, etc. — spring from Christian society. That is: we wouldn’t have the illusion that all peoples have a Christ story if we didn’t live in a world in which the actual Christ story has been so massively influential. Christ himself is the reason we have Christ figures in our myths.

I would say the Christians are right, whether or not Christian religion is true. The Jesus story truly is unique among world-historically important myths. So materialist-humanists should be advised. If they argue the Christ story is universal, then they are admitting that Jesus himself is universal. Ancient literature has Sky Fathers, has Mother Earths, has Heroes. But it does not have Jesuses.

Whether or not Christianity is true, it is radical. It is a complete break in the history of human mythology. The Legend of Briar Rose paintings simply would not exist if it weren’t for Christianity, and this is more than trivially so (i.e. it’s not simply so in the sense that if you alter the past, you alter the present).

***

Finally, I would like to say that this is not a “Christian blog.” I find that I have more to say, explicitly, about Christianity than some of the bloggers that I admire the most. [You can find them in the blogroll at right, but I am thinking specifically of Christian writers that rarely address Christianity directly and therefore (presumably) do not scare off non-Christian sympathizers — Lawrence Auster, Laura Wood, and Jim Kalb, for instance. They are writers who are Christians, not “Christian writers,” if you understand the distinction. While presumably their Christian beliefs influence their thoughts and words, they don’t spend endless posts picking apart Bible verses or what-have-you.]

But I also find it absurd how short a shrift I have given Christianity in the past. It is a major, major philosophy. Perhaps the most influential one the world has ever known. And it’s far, far more coherent that most non-Christians want to realize or admit. And it’s — objectively speaking, I truly believe — certainly more coherent than standard, modern left-liberalism. That doesn’t prove it’s true, but it certainly proves it’s worth taking seriously.

I certainly get a lot of joy from Christian-based art, culture, music, literature, etc., etc. I figure it’s only fair to assume that the link between great culture and the religion that inspired it is more than incidental. It seems to me to be willful spite to do otherwise. Some people these days seem happy to sign onto willful spite. But, ugh, what a vile motivation. Count me out. I’d rather be out-of-fashion than ugly-faced and bitter.

***

Finally finally, I apologize for the lack of posts in the last 5 days. My goal is to post something every weekday, and to post something incidental on the weekends when I can, for an average of, say, 6 posts a week. I’ve only had this blog since August, so I’m still learning how to manage my work and private life schedule in relation to blog posting. I have a lot more I want to say and to ask on this blog, and the comments have been outstanding. I intend to keep it going for a good long while still. If you have enjoyed it so far I ask you to keep coming back and, when the inclination strikes you, to comment as well. Salvete!

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13 comments on “The Legend of Briar Rose

  1. zhai2nan2 says:

    I have a couple of objections.

    First of all, the paintings are lovely, but it’s not fair to distract me with art and then segue into a mytho-poetic exegesis of Christianity. Who do you think you are, Joseph Campbell?

    Secondly, who says that there aren’t many Jesuses throughout history? Certainly there are many crucified saviors.

    The scholarship about whether Christ can be fairly compared to other figures still rages.

    http://www.philvaz.com/apologetics/JesusEvidenceCrucifiedSaviors.htm

    Obviously, the 19th century criticism needs to be updated. I’m not going to take Kersey Graves’ work uncritically. But neither am I going to toss it all overboard.

    • outofsleep says:

      I am going to assume that your first “objection” is tongue-in-cheek. 🙂

      That list is pretty selective. I would counter your objection and say the list cherry picks the criteria to make the candidates fit. Also, all those “Sons of God” are known to be sons of gods (except for a very brief episode in the legend of Dionysus). Christ was “Son of God” in the final sense, but he was born underground, lived in poverty, was one of the peasants, etc. He didn’t get to fly around on winged boots like Hermes. The humility of Christ (an entire lifetime of humility, not just one or two episodes) is indispensable, and it forms the basis for the total originality of Christianity.

      Chesterton has a great reply to the kind of work Graves does in “The Everlasting Man.”

      Still, interesting. And my statements and qualifications of course, themselves need qualification. Thanks for sharing.

  2. zhai2nan2 says:

    http://books.google.com.tw/books?id=LJlkwvExekkC&pg=PA292&lpg=PA292&dq=according+to+Plato+the+truly+just+man+must+be+misunderstood+and+persecuted+in+this+world;+indeed,+Plato+goes+so+far+as+to+write:+%27They+will+say+that+o&source=bl&ots=ztMKao4JBo&sig=WohzPS7zC1QpmeiMMIKq4_dMvvk&hl=zh-TW&ei=B6auTsrXBOmKmQWJxoSUDA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CCsQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q&f=false

    Check out p.292

    “…according to Plato the truly just man must be misunderstood and persecuted in this world; indeed, Plato goes so far as to write: ‘They will say that our just man will be scourged, racked, fettered, will have his eyes burned out, and at last, after all manner of suffering will be crucified.’ This passage, written four hundred years before Christ, is always bound to move a Christian deeply.”

    This was written by an obscure theologian named Ratzinger.

    For a more controversial set of claims, check out:
    http://books.google.com.tw/books?id=rey19p_ycHUC&pg=PA261&lpg=PA261&dq=%22prometheus+bound%22+crucified&source=bl&ots=84D3EjdijW&sig=-HRQTrA9VnqxI7Qje2i4kk5kmXg&hl=zh-TW&ei=rKOuTq7TOYfPmAXmxaXRDg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=5&ved=0CEMQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=%22prometheus%20bound%22%20crucified&f=false

  3. Manwe says:

    Great post! The paintings are beautiful to be sure! And I never would have seen them if not for this blog, so thanks 🙂

    “All native Westerners are so thoroughly drenched in Christian culture and blood that we can barely see it, even in today’s dark times.”
    How very true! And how very sad so many of us are blind to it. My love of history (especially European history) brought me to this realization (all prior to my conversion), and how enlightening it was!

    However I disagree with your referring to the Abrahamic God as a ‘sky father’ (though I’m sure you did not mean this in a mean-spirited way). Father yes, ‘sky’, not so much. Heavenly Father would be the better term, and no, Heaven to the hebrews did not merely mean ‘sky’. But maybe you knew all this already, so sorry if I repeated anything! 😀 Or if I misconstrued your point 😦

    “That is: we wouldn’t have the illusion that all peoples have a Christ story if we didn’t live in a world in which the actual Christ story has been so massively influential. Christ himself is the reason we have Christ figures in our myths.”
    Could not have said it better myself! Very perceptive of you!

    And I’m glad to see that you are not someone in the ‘wishful spite’ camp, I wish there were more *ACTUALLY* open-minded people like you around (perhaps I should call them the “Awakened”), and less, shall we say, ‘spiteful sleepers’ 😉

    As to your discussion above, I think you essentially answered it in your main post. And for the record, I disagree with Zhai, the debate that is ‘raging’ on, well its not really ‘raging’ at all. It is essenitally the myth making of the ‘willful spite’ crowd, and they have been doing since the ‘enlightenment’ if I’m not mistaken. Can’t people disagree with Christianity, and yet still accept it as unique? Apparenty not.

    P.S. I was wondering where you went, glad to see your posting again! 🙂

    P.P.S Sorry for all the emoticons 😀 (*sigh* and there I go again!)

    • outofsleep says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Manwe.

      Zhai himself is very fair-minded and an interesting critical thinker (and I don’t mean to say you implied otherwise). But I tend to agree that that particular line of argument is highly motivated to prove itself right, and not really representative of a neutral seeking-after-truth. The goal seems to be to prove something specific about Christianity, and then find the evidence that supports it. Any scientist can tell you that this is poor science indeed.

      As for the sky-father business, of course you are right. Though I imagine old Native Americans and Norsemen would also make similar objections and refinements to that concept. It might not be theologically accurate to associate YHWH with the literal sky, but He has nevertheless been associated with the skyward heavens even since ancient Hebrew times, and certainly since European Christian times. That was all I meant to say.

  4. zhai2nan2 says:

    Personally I have great admiration for quite a few Christians. As for theologians: St. Thomas Aquinas managed to pull infused contemplation out of his big-dumb-ox-like brain, and he deserves credit for that. I mostly give Christian theologians credit for transcending their theology. George Berkeley is often forgotten nowadays, but I think he’s very important.

    Christian mystics are just as good as any other sort of mystic. I’ve only got good things to say about folks like Jakob Boehme and so on.

    I *do* have some unkind criticisms to make about the Council of Nicea, and about the process by which Scriptures came to be considered “canonical.” I plan to blog a bunch about the various concepts of an “Abrahamic God” that have been preached over the years – starting with Numbers 31 and Deuteronomy 20-21.

    I suppose that while I’m writing about the pre-Christian crucified saviors, I’ll also take some time to review Chesterton’s “Everlasting Man.” It looks like the full text is online at:
    http://www.worldinvisible.com/library/chesterton/everlasting/content.htm

  5. Aurini says:

    I would very much like to hear your response to my Broken Roads series of novels, when it’s finally completed; as an Atheist who is very particular about his Theologies, I’d greatly enjoy your critique and interpretation. There is definitely some Jesus, but a fair bit of Hagakure, as well.

    Have you considered doing a “Mere Christianity” series on this site? The less original the better 😉 – I’d very much appreciate your thoughts on what is profound about it.

    Beautiful paintings, by the way. The first is my personal favourite – but I’m a sucker for martial arms. Hagakure again.

  6. ~Chris says:

    I believe the story of Briar Rose was written by the Lost tribes of Israel living in exile as a way to keep their faith alive. There are some interesting parallels with biblical stories that point to this. Check it out… Blessings always ~Chris
    The story of Briar Rose

  7. […] of this post). Nietzsche (that grand ironist). Tolkien (that grand anti-ironist). Lewis, Melville, Burne-Jones, Lawrence, Dogen, Augustine, Sebald, Kerouac. From some perspectives, these men have very little in […]

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