hobbit holeThis week’s article at The Imaginative Conservative is an abridged version of a chapter from my book The Romance of Religion

This is why the hobbit (and Alice’s rabbit) lived down a hole. The hole was the entrance to the underworld. This is why Dante went through a dark wood and found a hole down into the underworld. This is why Neo goes into the alternative world in The Matrix, and why Batman lives in a cave. The heroes were all going into that deep and dark world where the wild things are. They were going into the unknown. This quest down into the unknown world is a sign (in one way or another) of the task of the mythical hero. He must be a person of two worlds: the upper world that is seen and physical and the lower world which is unseen and spiritual. He must go from the conscious with all its clarity to the subconscious with all its obscurity. In that sense the mythical hero is also a mystical hero because he must go on an adventure into the mystical realm. He must be both a physical and a spiritual being.

When the hero goes down into the underworld he is showing everyone who would be a religiously romantic hero that he too must go down into the depths. As Jesus Christ commanded his fishermen friends, “Cast out into the deep.” The ancient Hebrews were not seagoing people. They feared and dreaded the sea. For them it was the realm of the deepest and darkest things. There was the mighty Leviathan, the monster of the deep. Their prophet Jonah was cast into those depths and was swallowed up by the sea monster, only to rise again on the third day, covered with vomit, but triumphant. This is the process of the romantic hero. He must go down to go up. He must face the dark to find the light. He must go into the underworld like Orpheus to rescue his beloved, and the beloved he rescues is life itself.

To translate all of this into more ordinary terms, it means that if we are going to embark on the journey, then we must be willing to face the dark, and the first dark we must face is the darkness within ourselves. This is not a task for cowards, and most of us are cowards. Furthermore, we know we are cowards and we know that we must face the dark. “Dark, dark, dark, they all go into the dark.” So, instead of facing the path through the grimpen where there is no foothold, we stay in the world of light, where we imagine we are safe, and we devise new and devious ways to deal with the dark: we project it on to others.

Instead of facing the darkness within ourselves, we see the darkness everywhere else but in ourselves. Of all the evils within the human heart, this is the deepest and the darkest evil, for when we project our own fears and unknown darkness onto others, then two dreadful things happen at once: we make others evil and ourselves good.

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