C.S. Lewis believed that every nation possesses what he called a “haunting,” a “Logres,” which baptizes it with a unique inner life. What, or where, is America’s Logres? Who is the mythological hero that could guide the American identity the way Arthur guided Britain and inspired generations of English poets and artists?

During my undergraduate years, I was in search for something that I could call the American myth. I asked my American literature professor, and he pointed me to the mythos surrounding “the immigrant,” “the frontier” and “the American Dream.” I think he was right, in a sense, but it wasn’t quite what I was looking for.

As a kid, I struggled to understand why books like The Chronicles of Narnia, The Wind in the Willows, and Peter Pan were so much more meaningful to me than Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Tom and Huck were certainly enjoyable, and enough of their adventurous spirits rubbed off on me to keep me in plenty of trouble. But still, I felt that something fundamental was missing in the soul of American literature. Was it my penchant for fantasy? Perhaps, but even Superman, my favorite childhood superhero, left something to be desired. The comic books claimed he was an alien, but there was nothing really alien about him. Superman was too much like Clark Kent.

“The Myth of the Immigrant” is probably an accurate way of defining the American identity. America is in reality a nation of immigrants. The meta-narrative of the archetypal immigrant sprung out of this reality and played an important role in securing America’s position as the theatre of the world—Hollywood and Broadway being our largest cultural contributions to the world stage. Walt Whitman would have praised it as the “parade of democracy,” but I might put it a little more sardonically as a carnival of cultural simulacra. A country that is home to everyone is also a country that is home to no one. To be the world of endless opportunities may elevate us on a pedestal, but to be forever elevated on a stage is more tragic than comic. We become strangers in our own home. We become like the raven from Noah’s ark, forever flying freely over the waters, but finding no place to land.

Facing what could be called my own literary crisis, C.S. Lewis became the voice to my unrest. In his novel That Hideous Strength, Lewis poses England’s essential struggle as the battle between Britain, (manifested in the tyrannical technocracy of Bragdon College) and Logres (the name for the kingdom of the legendary King Arthur). Ransom, who is the seventy-ninth Pendragon, and his confidants in the manor at St. Anne’s, are seen as the heirs of Logres, which, in Lewis’ view, is the true lifeblood of England—of which Bragdon and the N.I.C.E. are imposters. It is Logres which has always kept England grounded in her true identity. As Lewis writes, “In every age [Britain] and the little Logres which gathered round them have been the fingers which gave the tiny shove… to prod England out of the drunken sleep or draw her back from the final outrage into which Britain tempted her.”

Lewis believed that every nation possesses what he called a “haunting,” a “Logres,” which baptizes it with a unique inner life. For China, it was the Tao. For the ancient Greeks, Logos. For France, the Culte de la Raison. To put it another way, each nation’s “haunting” plays the role of John the Baptist. It is the herald, the forerunner, the wild voice crying in the wilderness that prepares the way for the Lord. As Ransom says in That Hideous Strength:

If one is thinking simply of goodness in the abstract, one soon reaches the fatal idea of something standardized—some common kind of life to which all nations ought to progress. Of course, there are universal rules to which all goodness must conform. But that’s only the grammar of virtue. It’s not there that the sap is. [God] doesn’t make two blades of grass the same: how much less two saints, two nations, two angels. The whole work of healing [Earth] depends on nursing that little spark, on incarnating that ghost, which is still alive in every real people, and different in each. When Logres really dominates Britain, when the goddess Reason, the divine clearness, is really enthroned in France, when the order of Heaven is really followed in China—why, then it will be spring. But in the meantime, our concern is with Logres.

It is my contention that in regard to our “haunting,” America suffered a premature birth. Her success could be likened to the sower’s seed which fell upon shallow soil, sprang up too quickly, and withered. Unlike Britain, where the seeds of Christianity were originally sown on the haunted, Pagan-Christian soil of Logres and Beowulf, American Christianity was founded explicitly by peoples whose Christian beliefs had taken root in the native soils of other nations before being transplanted to American soil. Puritanism was a Christian tree uprooted and transplanted to American soil. Having originated in Calvin’s Geneva, it was transplanted to Holland before being re-transplanted to Britain and then to America.

I am not arguing, as some have argued, that we would be better off if we returned to our so-called “Pagan” or “primitive” roots. Rather, I see paganism as a necessary precursor to Christianity, and therefore needs to be properly engaged with in order for Christianity to take firm root. Lewis understood the problems of a Christianity poorly transplanted. He called himself “a converted Pagan living among apostate Puritans” [1] and held “a firm conviction that the only possible basis for Christian apologetics is a proper respect for Paganism.”[2] In Lewis’ view and mine, each nation’s haunting mythos has its own unique flavor which can only find its ultimate actualization in Christ, but a world truly united under Christ would not render every nation the same. Rather, it would make each flag fly more boldly. Christianity is the single, uniting drop of red dye, but every solution it mixes with will produce a different color.

My discovery of Logres and the role it played in English literature gave me a lead in my search for the American myth. What, or where, is America’s Logres? Who is the mythological hero that could guide the American identity the way Arthur guided Britain and inspired generations of English poets and artists? We could certainly use such a hero at this crucial time in the matter of America. This is the point where I believe we arrive at our principle incongruity with the motherland. America does not, in any real sense, have a King Arthur. George Washington may be our best candidate, but we must understand the necessary qualifications of the mythological hero. For one thing, he must be mythological. George Washington cannot fill the role of King Arthur because he lacks any kind of historical ambiguity and therefore cannot function as a mythological figure. (I would categorize the story of the cherry tree as more moralistic than mythological.) Nor would a purely fictional character, like the Lone Ranger, be a sufficient substitute for Arthur. Arthur’s defining characteristic is his “solar blend” of fantasy and reality. He probably wasn’t real, but he certainly wasn’t entirely “made up” either. Historical or not, he was the indisputable cornerstone of historical realities, and his mythological dimensions made his impact on British literature even greater than it would be otherwise. It is this friction between two worlds, this unresolved tension, which furnishes the Arthurian myth with inexhaustible meaning. The most disappointing fact about the Lone Ranger is that he is not historical. The most disappointing fact about George Washington is that he is.

One of the major themes of American literature is that of the “new frontier.” This sounds promising. There must be in every nation’s haunting something which resembles a frontier. But again, the American vision of the frontier disappoints. Logres was not a traversable frontier: It could not be crossed by crossing the Mississippi. If our guiding myth is based on a traversable frontier, what becomes of our identity after we cross it? We have crossed the Mississippi, the Rockies, the dessert, reached the Pacific and put men on the moon. We have quite literally left no stone unturned, leaving us with nothing but the cheap speculations of Star Trek—a pseudo-mythology which, compared to Logres, is vapid and stifling. The aliens are disappointingly explainable and lack symbolic value. They are political beings, not supernatural ones. As little more than recycled gun-slinging westerns set in space, Star Trek boldly goes where every man has already been.

A nation’s haunting is not the frontier between the known and the unknown, but between the known and the unknowable, or what Kant called the knowable phenomena and the unknowable numinous. Tolkien appropriately called his mythological landscape “the perilous realm” and that is what a haunting must be: perilous, not merely dangerous, like the main theme of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” which seems to announce to the listener, “Tread lightly, O man, for you stand on the edge of Fairyland.” Remove thy sandals, for the ground you stand on is holy. These and more are the qualities of a haunting. A nation that worships science as a religion has as its haunting something more akin to Huxley’s Brave New World.

A critic may rightly point out that what I am merely looking for is Romanticism. Lewis would perhaps concede the point, but with a caveat: It is only a certain breed of Romanticism. As he wrote in his preface to The Pilgrim’s Regress, it is a particular ingredient, typically found in the Romantic tradition, which is the main attraction: the ingredient of a profound longing that cannot be satisfied. No matter what fortune or misfortune befalls us, the longing remains. Lewis writes, “Another personality can become to us ‘our America, our New-found-land’. A happy marriage can be achieved. But what has any of [this] to do with that unnamable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves?”

Lewis emphasizes here the importance of the impassible frontier. A nation becomes most truly itself when it transcends itself, and we can only reach transcendence when we have identified, in T.S. Eliot’s famous words, “the still point of the turning world.” Transcendence requires imagination, and imagination is precisely what the American mythos lacks. Is your story American if it includes apple pie? Yes, but it would be far more American if it was a bewitched apple pie and turned the man who consumed it into a Louisiana bullfrog. The American Dream is the story of Cinderella, but it is missing the fairy godmother. And without the fairy godmother, it is a hollow, useless story. No wonder the dream is now crumbling before our eyes.

Those who have attempted to take on the calling of a poet in America inevitably wrestle with the absence of an American Logres. T.S. Eliot is perhaps the strongest testimony to this acute deficiency. Eliot was born in St. Louis but ultimately made his career as a poet in England. The Waste Land, which among countless traditions, including Arthurian myth, can be interpreted as Eliot’s own struggle with the instability of the American mythos. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” is his best attempt to instantiate a guiding myth for the West, or, in our case, a Wild West struggling for values that will restore order and meaning.

Understanding the shape of our national emptiness, we are left with two important questions. First, who or what was the root cause of this deficiency? The easy scapegoat is of course the English Puritans, who were famously distrustful of all iconography and hints of pagan spirituality, and disliked Romanticism in general. Granted, the contours of their transplanted culture certainly played a role. But as Puritans have produced their own share of great literature in both Old and New England, as a whole they cannot be fairly accused of lacking imagination. I suspect that Deism, imported from France and Britain in tandem with Puritanism, contributed more to the problem. The founding documents of the American Republic were constructed primarily on the soil of the Enlightenment, employing religious principles only insofar as they reflected a humanistic view of man. The religious language of Puritanism was employed to evoke solemnity and resolve. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” reflects Deist and humanist values. “Endowed by the Creator” is Puritan. The Jefferson Bible probably did more long-term damage to the imaginative health of our nation than the Salem witch trials ever did. To the extent that the Puritans were actually culpable for destroying our capacity for wonder, it was due at least as much to the unhappy marriage between Puritanism and Deism, not necessarily from Puritanism itself.

The second question is this: Is there any hope? Are there any strains in our literary and cultural corpus where we may search and find the seeds of an American Logres? In my own reading, I have found that a true sense of a distinctly American haunting is poignantly felt in the writings of two American writers: Flannery O’Connor and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The former was Catholic; the latter a Puritan. Both deeply felt the spiritual illness in their own societies, and both offered their respective art as pointers to a cure.

Hawthorne’s critique of Puritan society was what fed the production of his stories that are now categorized as “dark romanticism.” However, the fact that he tenaciously refused to abandon the Puritan faith, even when he could not fully embrace it, may indicate that he believed that Puritanism and Romanticism could be reconciled. In his preface to House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne writes:

The point of view in which this tale comes under the Romantic definition lies in the attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us. It is a legend prolonging itself, from an epoch now gray in the distance, down into our own broad daylight, and bringing along with it some of its legendary mist…

The imagery of mist, imminently important to Tolkien as well as Hawthorne, is of much interest to our project of identifying the American haunting. Here we have something which intimates the mysterious and impenetrable.

Hawthorne warns the reader not to expect him to give much detail to the setting of his story, nor a vivid description of “local manners.” The clay of Hawthorne’s world is made for “constructing castles in the air.” Hawthorne concludes:

[The author] would be glad, therefore, if… the book may be read strictly as a Romance, having a great deal more to do with the clouds overhead than with any portion of the actual soil of the County of Essex.

Hawthorne’s insightful meditation on place is later picked up by O’Connor. American literature, perhaps more than any other culture, attaches immense importance to region. It matters a great deal whether your story is set in Louisiana, Georgia, Tennessee, New York, or California. The reader expects the author to pay special attention to whatever unique subcultures may exist there. For Hawthorne, this attention conflicts with the interests of the author of Romance. That isn’t to say that locality should not play a role in our literature. But it most emphatically should be the backdrop, not the focus.

But I think O’Connor said it best when she observed that the South was not Christ-centered, but “Christ-haunted.” Her fiction was nothing less than the fruits of this idea, and consequently she was not surprisingly criticized for her “unrealistic” depictions of Georgia.[3] In her talk on “the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” O’Connor reflects on Hawthorne’s vision and what she calls the “modern romance tradition.” “We have become so flooded with sorry fiction… on the notion that fiction must represent the typical, that in the public mind the deeper kinds of realism are less and less understandable.” O’Connor states that the writer in the modern romance tradition must “lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected” [emphasis mine].

[The writer is] looking for one image that will connect or combine or embody two points; one is a point in the concrete, and the other is a point not visible to the naked eye, but believed in him firmly, just as real to him, really, as the one that everybody sees. It’s not necessary to point out that the look of this fiction is going to be wild, that it is almost of necessity going to be violent and comic, because of the discrepancies that it seeks to combine.

O’Connor’s insights are an excellent articulation of Eliot’s “still point.” With writers like O’Connor and Hawthorne, perhaps we have reasons to believe that there really is a “secret Logres” in the heart of America. And, if so, there is no doubt that, like the character Ransom in That Hideous Strength, this is the Logres that we as American writers and poets must fight to preserve. In the midst of our cancel culture which constantly places American history and meaning under critique and assault, let us be precise about what is at stake and what truly worth cherishing.

As a writer I still cannot say for certain that there is an American Logres or if there is, which train will take us there. Perhaps the train has already left the station. However, I am convinced that we must be continuously on the lookout for it, for to miss this train will be our undoing. Even if we have already missed it, we must do our best to run after it. Perhaps we could say that we have missed it because it has not yet even arrived. Am I speaking in contradictions? All mystery speaks in contradictions. That is what makes it mysterious. In Eliot’s words, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” “The future is a faded song” he said, and “the way forward is the way back.”[4]

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Notes:

[1] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (Broadway, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1955), p. 53.

[2] C.S. Lewis, “Letter to the Rvd Henry Welbon” (Wheaton, IL: Wade Center, 18 Sept. 1936).

[3] Flannery O’Connor, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Modern Fiction,” Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1957), p. 38

[4] T.S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages,” “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets (Boston, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1943), p. 40-41, p. 59.

The featured image is Emigrants Crossing the Plains, or alternatively called The Oregon Trail, (1869) by Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902) and is the public domain. It has been brightened slightly for clarity and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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