Lewis, Wagner, and Frankenstein: Literary Accident or Reader’s Providence?

Pauline Baynes snowy wood faun lucyI’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I call “Pilgrim’s Providence.” This is when we as travelers embrace the challenges and opportunities that come along our pathway as a kind of opportunity provided for us. It is a perspective that has served me well in my times of travel, leading to not a few new adventures.

Extending the principle, I have been thinking about the “Reader’s Providence.” Is there a link, a happenstance, an unseen connection in our literary moments? As I ask the question I realize that I have been presuming that there is. Quite a number of the blogs on A Pilgrim in Narnia–and not a few of the comments–are about the unusual links I find between authors, books, and readers.

Here is another one of those links.

Frankenstein by mary shelleyRight now it is early evening in the northwest of England. A cold rain is falling, so I have commandeered a table in the common room of the hostel. I have just finished rereading Mary Shelley’s incredible book, Frankenstein (1818) as background reading for a course on Folkloric Transformations at Signum University this fall.* I know that Frankenstein fits well within our pop culture Bible, but the original book is a far more sophisticated piece of work than you might imagine. I am always moved by its complex treatment of the relationship between God and humanity, and its rewriting of Milton’s Paradise Lost. If you have not read it, queue it up.

I listened to the audio this time—a decent job by Ralph Cosham—and just finished the last, mournful chapter as I sat down to work for the evening. I loaded the Lumineers, then checked email and facebook. Almost the next words I read were of C.S. Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism as he is thinking about “bad taste in art” (21). He speaks here of the immature “use of pictures”—enjoying a painting or work of art to be moved by it.

The real objection to that way of enjoying pictures [in this way] is that you never get beyond yourself. The picture, so used, can call out of you only what is already there. You do not cross the frontier into that new region which the pictorial art as such has added to the world. Zum Eckel find’ ich immer nur mich (21-22).

If interpretation of art remains only in the chest of the art lover, it limits the lover’s experience.

Arthur Rackham WAGNER`S RING CYCLE-wotanThen the German phrase. Despite having two semesters of German, I decided I had to look up the phrase. Instead of using Google Translate, I searched my C.S. Lewis files. Lo and behold, I found the phrase translated in the draft a paper by Dordt College musicologist, John MacInnis: “With disgust I find only ever myself.” According to MacInnis, Lewis is paraphrasing Wotan (Odin) in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, The Valkyrie II.2. Wotan is calling out for a free agent to do a task for him that he cannot do for himself. The god laments:

How can I create a free agent whom I have never protected, who by defying me will be most dear to me? How can I make that other, no longer part of me, who of his own accord will do what I alone desire? What a predicament for a god, a grievous disgrace! With disgust I find only myself, every time, in everything I create. The other man for whom I long, that other I can never find: for the free man has to create himself; I can only create subjects to myself (“Libretti Die Walküre“).**

Frankenstein by mary shelley 5MacInnis’ connection provides an important background to the passage in An Experiment in Criticism. What struck me—fresh off having heard the entire book—was how profoundly this one paragraph from an English translation of The Valkyrie describes Frankenstein at its deepest levels. In fact, you could say that in Frankenstein Mary Shelley uses the first two questions to show the kind of conversation Milton never addresses, while the rest of the paragraph captures the “Creator’s Dilemma” in this gothic masterpiece. It is a stunningly beautiful and precise description of Frankenstein buried within a German opera from a generation later.

How do we account for this stunning connection?

I don’t know that Wagner read Frankenstein—it was a critical failure and grew in status only because hacks like me read it. And I don’t think that Lewis really knew the book, any more than the story and the figure of the monster itself. I can’t establish a line of influence.

And I’m not sure that we can make the connection by looking at the mythologies behind the stories. Frankenstein is subtitled, “The Modern Prometheus.” We don’t know, though, whether Dr. Frankenstein or his monster are the Prometheus figures. Frankenstein the creator refuses to break ethics to care for his creation, as Prometheus does, but his work is a hubristic snatching at the fire of the gods. The monster goes through a process of discovery and cursing that is both like the fall of humanity in Genesis 3 and like the Promethean grasping for the fire of the gods. The subtitle could take us either way.

Frankenstein by mary shelley 3Even if we could nail down the subtitle, there is not a lot of overlap between Odin and Prometheus. Both gods undergo a crucifixion—Odin for literary knowledge and Prometheus for technical knowledge. Otherwise, they are not a match one for the other.

In the end, both the Cycle and Frankenstein ask questions of the gods and humanity, by rooting themselves in the great mythologies and religious stories of Europe. Odin and Prometheus, because of their mythologies, make for rich soil in which to plant a Christian or post-Christian European rethinking of what it means to be human.

That’s it, the only link I can find. In the end, then, what we have is a literary accident. I just happened to have stumbled upon an incredibly precise description of a complex book with almost no literary link within 10 minutes of finishing the original.

An accident, maybe. Or, if I am right, it is Reader’s Providence.

If so, there could be adventures ahead!

*You can still sign up. The first lecture is amazing. Click here.

**You can read John MacInnis’ full paper here, where he explores the connects of C.S. Lews and Wagner’s Cycle, which he loved.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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21 Responses to Lewis, Wagner, and Frankenstein: Literary Accident or Reader’s Providence?

  1. wanderwolf says:

    Literature is based on experiences of/in the world, and this world is filled with so many connections that it is inevitable that all literature will connect in, at first glance, inexplicable ways.
    In this case, I think all three authors are thinking about the nature of creation, which is what authors do, by nature.
    I believe in Reader’s Providence! Thanks for this new arrangement to think about!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Why have I never thought of trying a Frankenstein audiobook? Turning (as is my wont) to LibriVox.org, I find 5 versions (!), and a textual issue I did not recall: “The novel was published in 1818. Percy contributed a preface and later made extensive emendations. After his death Mary herself thoroughly revised the text and published it again in 1831” (so, Thomas Copeland, reader of the 1831 text; one other is clearly the 1818 text, read by the ever-enjoyable Cori Samuel; three are an unidentified text – which one would have to do sample collations on…).

    What does Lewis say about Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (written after Frankenstein was published!)? – time to review “Shelley, Dryden, and Mr Eliot”, at least!

    And how ill-read I am on ‘Prometheanism’! I’ve got Kerenyi (which one: 1946 or 1959? – have to dig it up to check!), but haven’t read him/it, yet… I find Eric Voegelin very interesting on Marx and Aeschylus and Prometheanism (and, for that matter, on the Golem literature!) in Science, Politics and Gnosticism, where he attends to ‘Prometheanist’ inversion of Aeschylus, for whom Prometheus is not admirable but madly disordered.

    But, what of Tolkien’s contrast of Greek and Germanic myth in Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics – where would Prometheus come in, here? (And, what of all the variously ‘Promethean’ figures in Tolkien’s mythology and legendarium – Aulë, and Húrin, and Saruman (and what of Melkor and Sauron)?)

    And, what of Wagner’s recasting of Germanic myth? How perversely does his Wotan go to work to produce a human ‘tool’, and how ‘Prometheanist’ is Wagner about the various Wälsings?

    The things I don’t know – and haven’t tried to think about enough…!

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      And, I wonder if the capturing of light in gems is another bit of Tolkien working/playing with ‘Promethean’ imagery?)


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      And, are Spirits in Bondage and Dymer in any sense(s) ‘Promethean’?

      Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Mulling matter over further…

      Wagner’s Wotan is attempting to manipulate people and events to get somebody, one way or another, to become the ‘ human tool’ he wants.

      But Frankenstein is starting, not with ‘raw materials’ (provided by the Creator in Creation), but with the full complexity of the human – and then attempting to ‘reanimate’ (or whatever, exactly) – not (as I remember it) to bring the ‘escaped’ animus back to bodily life in a way analogous to what the bones of Elisha did, or Our Lord did with Lazarus (among others), or Peter with Dorkas – with which we might also compare Considine in Williams’s Shadows of Ecstasy, but… what? Not produce a kind of ‘ zombie’ (here, compare the necromantic magicians in Williams’s ‘ Divites Dimisit’/’The Prayers of the Pope’), but…what? Invoke or instill some ‘Promethean “fire of life”‘?


      • I am writing in haste–I only have a little time left in the U.K. to get my work done. But you have a lot of great stuff here, David. Dymer is Promethean, while Spirits in Bondage is more like an elegy for the death of the idea of God.
        Promethean Fire: the animation of life in the monster is often pictured as electricity–lightening. Is that it? I can’t remember how the life animates in the book.


  3. L.A. Smith says:

    Definitely Providence at work…. 😉

    I was at a writer’s conference this summer and one of the panels was on “Literary Works in Conversation” – examining how some authors have written books in response to other books they have read. Not fan fiction or “modern day re-tellings”. One of the examples was Lev Grossman’s Magician trilogy which he wrote in response to the Narnia books. Have you read those? I think there is definitely times where authors write in response to another’s work as well as times where the same themes just happen to emerge time and again. We’re all exploring the big questions, after all.

    I have read Frankenstein, but it was when I was younger. This is the second time this year that someone I respect blogged about it and extolled it’s excellence. I’m going to have to read it again, I think!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wonderful piece. The bit about finding ourselves in our appreciation of artwork makes me want to reread Experiments in Criticism. It is also inspiring a bit of providence in my own readings, as I tackle issues of self-hood in Augustine.

    Liked by 1 person

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