John Saxbee has suggested that Roland in Moonlight is a case of “Sophie’s World meets Alice through the Looking-Glass, or Don Quixote meets The Wind in the Willows“ (in Church Times, June 25, 2021). David Bentley Hart’s masterpiece certainly does defy genres. Despite its originality, however, Roland in Moonlight is an intimate and eminently readable work. All of Hart’s famous wit and blistering directness are present but with a heavy dose of quiet vulnerability that is entirely disarming. For those who may be put off by David’s vast reading or expansive vocabulary, it is humanizing to learn, from a close personal vantage, of his struggles with depression, his losses in life and of his long (often unwelcomed) nighttime tête-à-tête with his beloved dog Roland. These conversations are equal parts apocalyptic vision, Socratic dialogue and loving banter at that time when the gloaming renders fellowship most poignant. The teasing and the adoration of words pass back and forth between them. At one point, David chides Roland: “your appetite for classical neologisms is worse than mine” (204). A little later, when Roland uses the term “xeric regions,” David remarks that this is “exactly the word.” Roland quips, “At least, exactly the word that you or I would choose to use. In my case, out of precision; in yours, out of pretentiousness.” (352)
This story moves through four parts, named for four homes that mark stages in the family’s journey from an edenic forest, through a hellish modern city and finally back to a modest garden haven. Each chapter is delineated simply with roman numerals so that this larger structure of four parts is not obscured. Roland in Moonlight is an expansive book, but Roland easily holds together its many narratives and sweeping discourses. Hart experiences the death of both his parents over the course of this story as they lived with him and his family in their final years. After sharing a few reflections following the death of his mother, however, David quickly returns to his dog and reminds us that “this is Roland’s book” (314). Remarkably, the story introduces us to Roland’s larger-than-life persona while still enjoying him as most definitely a dog. To name only a very few of his many accomplishments, Roland hires a troupe of Shakespearean players to perform a masque for David late at night in a forest glade behind the house (69), cares for David during a prolonged illness by writing up and submitting David’s application for a fellowship with the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Studies (122), and publishes multiple volumes of his own haiku (287). Despite all this (and much more), Roland’s warm side, ever-present tongue, and keen nose are tangible realities on virtually every page and throughout many sleepless nights.
Although Roland defies an entirely fictional status, this book is a memoir in which all the ordinary trials and joys of life are shared with two fictional characters—one very much alive and the other among the honored dead. David’s great uncle Aloysius Bentley (1895-1987), has a storied life, and even this life is brought to David by his faithful dog. Roland spends much of his time meticulously organizing, editing, and publishing this great uncle’s private papers. Reflecting near the end of the book on what Roland has brought to light regarding Aloysius, David concludes: “Every person’s inner life is a mystery to everyone else, even those who know him or her most intimately—which would be the greatest of tragedies if it were a limitation of our natures that should prove final and immutable, rather than one that we have some cause to hope will one day—on the other side of the veil or through the looking-glass—fall away” (347).
Although Roland’s late-night conversations with David span many topics (from artificial intelligence to Freudian psychology and quantum physics), these two return most regularly to the religious, metaphysical, and contemplative. A prominent theological theme is the loss of enchantment or divine presence in the modern world and the need for us to cultivate careful attention to any ancient source of it. Premodern wisdom from throughout the world (Australia, China, India, Africa and the Americas) shows up repeatedly over the course of their reflections, and they share a deep sadness that the enchanted world of paganism has given way to the desacralized world of modernity. Roland expands on a tradition in the West of giving a home to Greco-Roman paganism and of understanding it as a preparation for Christian faith. We see this, for example, from C. S. Lewis in his essay “Is Theism Important? A Reply” from the Socratic Digest (1952):
When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, “Would that she were.” For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads. If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on.
While Great Uncle Aloysius enters sacred reality through this traditional door of Greco-Roman paganism, David and Roland expand upon this to take in virtually all pre-modern human religious traditions. Some Christians (along with devout believers of various other ancient faiths) may be overwhelmed by the breadth of doctrinal speculations indulged by Roland and David.
At some points, this breadth and depth is augmented by the fact that dogs clearly do not have the same religious needs as humans. In Roland, we learn many details from the great mythic and religious history of dogs, including their own original sin—involving open car windows and bacon—as well as the origin of their generous condescension to abide with and aid humankind in our abject moral and physical poverty. Roland says to David, “As for your sin—your original sin—I can’t speak to it. It was already something established in your natures before your kind and mine first truly met” (190). In part, the religious speculations between David and Roland should be read in the clarifying light of this difference between dog and man.
Even more fundamentally, however, this book’s appeal for the widest possible approach to reenchantment is in response to the deep devastation wrought by modernity. In a world devoid of any gods, we need to treasure every fragment of past glory. Roland describes our modern plight in unflinching terms:
And so, in an age of unbelief, everyone is an unbeliever to some degree. Belief now requires a decision, and a tacit application of will that never for a moment relents. That’s why the fiercest forms of faith in the modern world are actually just inverted forms of faithlessness—forms of desperation masquerading as faith. Arch-traditionalism, I mean, and of course fundamentalism, which are in fact manifestations of a morbidly impoverished power of belief, a faith wasted away by inanition and hardened by desiccation, and of a frantic attempt to hold onto relics or remains that one mistakes for living possibilities. …Well, the regress is infinite. It’s simply the case now that almost everyone of your race today—in the modern world, I mean—even the most devout and convinced of them, is more profoundly an infidel. Real, guileless faith in the divinity that shows itself in the evident forms of creation has become catastrophically attenuated, like the fading scent of a chipmunk on the porch after two days of rain. And that’s a tragic condition to be in, because the divine dimension is real, and is moreover the deepest truth of your own natures. To be estranged from it is to be shattered within yourselves… to become something less than machines… fragments of machines… a heap of springs and sprockets (328).
If Roland’s assessment of our current situation is bleak, his expectations for our future are far worse. He anticipates that our current disconnect from the life and glory revealed by our world might leave us in utter darkness—unable to receive even the extravagant care lavished upon us by dogs:
There was a time, again, when your kind was much better able to see the gods—the angels, deified mortals, spirits, fairies, what have you—than now you are. ...I don’t mean they were Feuerbachian projections, ﬁgments of alienation or anything of that sort, but rather that they came more easily into full sensuous manifestation so long as human beings were in a state of what Barfield called ‘original participation.’ Unlike him, however, I don’t believe that your kind’s estrangement from that original, more vividly theophanic world is simply a temporary stage—a kind of probationary process—on the way to a post-critical ‘final participation.’ It would be nice to imagine that that’s the case, but I fear that the reality will be one of continuing, deepening estrangement, an ever more precipitate descent toward total spiritual eclipse, and toward a ﬁnal, enduring darkness in which the true light of spirit has been all but extinguished. Then you’ll be worse than mere savages. You’ll be a race of nihilists. You may even… you may even forsake your moral tutelage by dogs.
To this dire prophecy, David responds in a faint voice: “Don’t suggest that. It’s a horrible thought. Hell on earth.” (327)
It is in the face of such horrors, that David agrees with Roland about the need to treasure every particle of truth and beauty from all of the ancient contemplative traditions of humankind. Throughout the book, Roland insists that David is secretly a Hindu, and Roland will never allow David to finish any of his sentences in protest against this claim. Eventually, as the two are considering several stories of glorious revelations from various other faiths, Roland declares: “You believe everything. You despise doctrinaire religious certitudes, not—as is common for your kind in this age—out of skepticism or incredulity, but out of a superabundance of belief” (322). David concedes substantially, but not entirely, to Roland:
It’s true, as you say, that I can believe everything at once, though I suspect that it’s a choice I make principally on account of my unwillingness to relinquish any dimension of anything that I find appealing or admirable… or beautiful. Not for my kind, at least. We have to draw some kind of working distinction between the perpetually valid symbol and the historically novel event (326).
David is holding on, just barely, to the uniqueness of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. However, even here, he stands within an early and expansive tradition. Compare David’s “unwillingness to relinquish any dimension of anything that I find appealing or admirable… or beautiful” to Philippians 4:8. In this verse, we read: “As to the rest, brothers, whatever things are true, whatever grand, whatever right, whatever pure, whatever lovely, whatever of good repute—if there be any virtue and be any praise—ponder these things” (Hart’s translation).
Finding goodness and beauty throughout all of creation and within all human cultures is a venerable Christian instinct. Origen followed in the footsteps of Clement before him when Origen encouraged his students to pursue pagan learning:
I am very desirous that you should accept such parts even of Greek philosophy as may serve. …Perhaps something of this kind is hinted at in the command from the mouth of God himself that the children of Israel be told to ask their neighbors and companions for vessels of silver and gold, and for clothing, so that by spoiling the Egyptians they might find materials to make the things, of which they were told, for the divine service. For out of the spoils which the children of Israel took from the Egyptians came the contents of the Holy of Holies, the ark with its cover, and the Cherubim, and the mercy-seat, and the golden pot wherein was treasured up the manna, the angels’ bread. These things were made from the best of the Egyptian gold. (The Philocalia of Origen 13.1-2, translated by G. Lewis, Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1911)
Hart’s suggestion that we be unwilling “to relinquish any dimension of anything that” we “find appealing or admirable… or beautiful” from the entire history of the premodern world is strongly reminiscent of this attitude of Origen toward the riches of pagan learning. In the face of modernity’s inhumanity, however, Hart exceeds Origen by asking lovers of beauty to treasure everything that is precious from any part of our shared human past.
Strengthened by the fact that Roland is not a human and in no need of the same salvation that David would need, their conversations are indiscriminate and do indeed taste all the goodness of human history. There is a surprising return in the final pages of the book, however, to the fundamentals of the Christian faith. We end up pondering the mystery of Mary saying yes to God as she takes a last breath before giving her reply to the angel. She stands before the angel’s “glory and immensity of presence” knowing that “all depends upon this fleeting / Instant, wherein all of eternity / Lies hidden, hanging in suspense upon / One spoken word.” As she gazes upward in this moment, “The weight of silence grows. / Between her and his dreadful glory looms / Time’s fullness: all its empires and its wars, / Its deaths, its countless hopes and countless dooms.” (339)
Alongside this deeply Christian meditation, we have another poem reflecting on the waking of the child Maitreya (348), a promised bodhisattva who currently waits in the Tuṣita Heaven. This heaven is also where Roland once resided, as we learn very early in the story (29).
I want to return, in closing, to the heart of this story: The generosity of spirit of Roland, David’s guide. In his typical mix of profundity and warmth, Roland shares a summary of his philosophy with David as they gaze out at a sunset together early on in the story:
It certainly seems reasonable to say that being is manifestation, that real substance is revelation, that to exist is to be perceptible, conceivable, knowable—and that, moreover, to exist fully is to be manifest to consciousness. …Every act of conscious, unified, intentional mind is necessarily dependent upon infinite mind—which is to say, God. …Experience of the ‘natural’ proves to be ‘super-natural’ knowledge. …We see one and the same world, you and I, because our spirits are looking not at sensations but at reality, and the physical transaction between the world and our optic apparatus is just the occasion for an act of discovery and unveiling that is, in reality, an event of direct spiritual communion (157).
Roland’s generosity and companionship repeatedly awaken David from his weariness and typically morose habits of thought, inviting David instead into a shared presence that is manifested in each moment that unfolds around them. This help and guidance sustains David through to the final scene as they sit on the grass amidst Mama’s garden (to use Roland’s name for David’s wife). In the book’s closing poem—read together within this garden—they share an account of a great sea voyage undertaken by two persons who love each other. Like a shimmering microcosm of the entire book, this poem evokes the myriad and dazzling splendors of this world before coming to the edge of a long sleep at the journey’s end.
Among many other things, this closing poem is certainly an exemplar of what G. K. Chesterton says in “The Ethics of Elfland” (a chapter from Orthodoxy): “The greatest of poems is an inventory. …All things have had this hair-breadth escape: everything has been saved from a wreck. …I felt economical about the stars as if they were sapphires (they are called so in Milton’s Eden): I hoarded the hills. For the universe is a single jewel.” What Roland provides to David is the experience of “the entire hierarchy of reality, from the highest seraph to the least speck of dust” as “the immediate presence and manifestation of God” (Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite by Eric D. Perl). While Roland gives us these truths in winsome words, what this book offers is far more than an idea. Like David with Roland at his side, when we take this book in hand, we are offered an awareness and a shared experience of reality. For all of us languishing in the mercenary and mechanistic fetters of secular modernity, this is a story with the warmth and generosity to stir us and to dispel more than a few of our burdens and blindnesses through the most common of experiences.