Thirty-two films exist in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with the production company planning to push that number upward of forty over the next few years. Fans delight in discussing the best order to view the stories of Iron Man, Captain Marvel, Ant-Man, and the other Avengers, sagas that are increasingly interwoven as the franchise grows. Viewers young and old revel in the “breadcrumbs” the series’ creators drop into each film to allude to simultaneous storylines.
Might the breadth, the interconnectedness, and the popular success of the Marvel multiverse indicate that contemporary Americans are capable of greater intellectual rigor than we give ourselves credit for? I won’t go so far as to presuppose the average moviegoer’s enthusiasm for the depths of centuries-past British literature. But I do believe that this popular manifestation of intertextuality evidences a real, albeit latent, ability to think more deeply about the media we consume. Interest in engaging with such a vast sphere could signify an unsatisfied hunger for the allusions to literature, visual arts, and even Scripture that have been instrumental to our cultural tradition since it took root.
The Wood Between the Worlds
There is no reason why [the great British novels of the nineteenth century] should be either too simple or too difficult for the eighth grade. For the simple, they offer simple pleasures; for the more precocious, they can be made to yield subtler ones if the teacher is up to it. Let the student . . . come to modern fiction with this experience behind him, and he will be better able to see and to deal with the more complicated demands of the best twentieth-century fiction.
The same could be said of modern adult readers: let them experience the British novels of the twentieth century, and so will they be better prepared to “deal with”—that is, appreciate or create—the great fiction of the twenty-first century.
Enamored as our culture is of special effects and shiny costumes, this same reader is not likely to develop such an appreciation on his own. As the eunuch says to Philip when asked if he understands what he’s reading, “How can I, unless someone instructs me?” (Acts 8:31). Writers today—especially those being trained in creative writing through a Catholic worldview, as my classmates and I are at the University of St. Thomas, Houston—have a responsibility to lean into the tradition our peers unknowingly reject, in part by gently layering allusions, ideas, and quotations from the great books into our own work. This is our largely untapped superpower: to appreciate the works that precede us, the stories on which modern culture was founded, and to embrace intertextuality as a hallmark of our work. To quote Peter Parker’s uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
There and Back Again
The core of my undergraduate honors course of study involved many of the great books of the Western cultural tradition, but I lacked the context to appreciate the dots my professors tried to help me connect. And without context, it’s hard to read the classics, or to read them well. Imagine looking up to see a sky full of stars, but not having the ability to draw lines between them and recognize the constellations they form. What joy there is when someone steps to your side to point a finger in the right direction and complete the picture! Without understanding the environment in which so many of the great books of our tradition were written, a contemporary reader can’t appreciate the values their writers sought to champion or the social impact they had at the time. We see only dots of light, but no more profound image.
For those without a background in the tradition, it’s not always as simple as picking up a book and starting to read, though that is the first step. We might understand that Oscar Wilde combats the idolatry of beauty and the perils of sin in The Picture of Dorian Gray, but we probably won’t understand the powerful scent imagery as a reference to the era of decadence. We can chuckle at the humor of all the anarchists using the code name Joseph Chamberlain to enter their lair in The Man Who Was Thursday, but the joke won’t really resonate until we know that the real Joseph Chamberlain was a conservative imperialist and champion of the British Empire—in a word, the antithesis of the anarchists. Certainly, modern-day writers need to create new literature. But to sustain the tradition to which we are indebted, we also need to develop interest in reading these great works both as they are and alongside secondary sources that illuminate the context in which they were created and the connections between them.
Where to find these sources, outside of a series of lectures at a local college? We might start with a book of criticism like How to Read (and Write) Like a Catholic by Joshua Hren. Or we might turn to our phones; in addition to the plentiful resources at Word on Fire or email subscriptions to Dappled Things, the Twitter feeds of critics like James Matthew Wilson and Jessica Hooten Wilson, and any number of Substack newsletters, podcasts, and YouTube videos put this information at our fingertips, ready for action whenever the call to action should sound.
This formation is akin to the Avengers’ between-missions training at headquarters, except that here, headquarters equates to a library or a local bookstore. Strengthened by connections between texts, author biographies, and spiritual reflections on our own callings, we can begin to see that the art a contemporary reader might condemn as antiquated, out of touch, racist, sexist, or otherwise is not necessarily any of these, but rather was conceived as a response to a movement of the time—and there is a way to appreciate it as such.
In the case of Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien, the time and place called, however quietly, for stories about characters who could see beyond themselves and point toward the glory of a higher being, toward the marriage of faith and reason, and for many readers and writers alike, toward the Church. This revelation begs the question: What kind of literature does our culture call for? How might today’s writers of faith contribute to reviving a culture focused too much on death?
The issue is not that modern readers can’t quote G.K. Chesterton on a whim. The more foundational problem is that this lack of understanding means that present-day writers fail to see their own voices as capable of combating the errors of their age. As creations of the Creator, we have the unique honor of being what Tolkien calls “sub-creators.” In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien explains how there is always something new to create.
The patterns from bud to unfolding, and the colours from spring to autumn were all discovered by men long ago. . . . Spring is, of course, not really less beautiful because we have seen or heard of other like events. . . . Each leaf, of oak and ash and thorn, is a unique embodiment of the pattern, and for some eye this very year may be the embodiment, the first ever seen and recognized, though oaks have put forth leaves for countless generations of men.
The gift of sub-creation is meant to be given back to glorify the Giver of all. Tolkien’s poem “Mythopoeia” illustrates how without hearts and minds cognizant of how and why we were created, without souls oriented toward the Lord of all creation, we will fail to realize the potential of the gift. But those who choose to use their gifts for good, for a purpose beyond themselves, “have seen Death and ultimate defeat, / and yet they would not in despair retreat, / but oft to victory have turned the lyre / and kindled hearts with legendary fire, illuminating Now and dark Hath-been / with light of suns as yet by no man seen.” These blessed few approach the heights for which we were created and will be rewarded.
In whichever way we “long estranged” humans use our gift, we cannot be “wholly lost nor wholly changed.” For all that we’ve messed up as humans, as prodigal as we are, we remain children of God, made in his image and likeness. Despite our sins and failings, “the right has not decayed. / We make still by the law in which we’re made.” To take this notion a step further, we ought to also read by the law in which we’re made.
Christ became incarnate at a certain time in history. So each of us was created just once, in a particular place, to a specific culture. To paraphrase chapter 4 of the book of Esther, we were made for such a time as this. We can reject the call to sub-create, or we can nurture it. Like the eunuch, we can seek out instruction, and once received, act on it. The eunuch asked what was to prevent him being baptized once he and Philip came upon water. For us writers and editors—for anyone with an artistic vocation—what is to prevent us from baptizing our work for the glory of God?
There is a great deal our brothers and sisters are missing out on in our postmodern culture, and many of them don’t know it. Intertextuality can reveal so much more than a twist in a superhero’s origin story. Sure, Iron Man can fly in his suit, but is his flight more thrilling than the intense chase scene Gabriel Syme undergoes before his interior transformation? Yes, Captain Marvel starts on an exciting adventure to discover the secrets of her past, but how much more insightful is the journey on which Lewis’s pilgrim John embarks, regress though it seems to be? Ant-Man satisfies our desire to see the everyman triumph, but then, so does Frodo Baggins.
I’m not likely to publish anything as L.G. Schlegel, but I find myself indebted to G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien, whose writing across genres of fiction and nonfiction I now see as both relevant and surprisingly encouraging. Among these three literary superheroes alone, there is more material, greater depth, more beauty and inspiration than thirty, forty, or a hundred films can hope to contain.