Matthew Mehan is a large man with large ideas that sometimes pour forth in a gentle torrent. His central claim, that Western Civilization will not be reclaimed unless and until poetry and rhetoric are revived, has been the focus of his personal and professional life.
Mehan describes his life’s project as “recomforting my children, my students, my culture, and my Church with the truths and habits of nature, shot through with the grace of Christ.” He really talks like this, which I enjoy thoroughly; but—as I was miseducated in government schools and at the University of Missouri—I have a hard time following. I am the densest of his students. I do claim him as my teacher and my friend.
After a bachelor’s degree in politics, a master’s in English, and a Ph.D. with honors in Literature, all from the University of Dallas, Mehan taught for years at the quite remarkable Heights School in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. It is a powerful school that fully forms boys into men. He currently heads academic programs for the Hillsdale College Washington, D.C., program where he teaches the greatest books and biggest thinkers to D.C. movers and shakers and nascent movers and shakers.
St. Thomas More, Mehan’s hero, taught that “comfort” means “with strength.” Mehan explains that “to recomfort the world means not simply to give it pleasure or ease. It means to strengthen and encourage it.” He describes himself as “a sort of comical Gandalf, bringing strength to the age of men.”
By “comical” Mehan refers to his book published for precocious kids a few years ago called Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals, which comes with enchanting illustrations by John Folley. Mehan started these poems under the example of Thomas More who had practiced the various forms of the arts—poetry, history, oratory, satire, dialogue—so that “he could communicate with anyone in the way they need.” Mehan says More practiced these “so that he could be a better friend and servant to all.” And that is how Mehan’s first mythical creature—The Dally, a dog-like creature who runs between the raindrops—was born.
Mehan says the book is a “genre buster.” He calls it a “family book” meant to be read aloud by middle graders for the littler ones. Note that Mehan has a whole platoon at home: five boys, three girls, ranging from 15 to 1. He is doing his part.
Each “chapter” begins with a letter block so that younger readers may use the book to learn their letters. This is followed by a poem about one of these mysterious creatures whose stories teach lessons. Take the letter K—The Kalondahres—a squid-like creature whose features are all jumbled up so you cannot tell his head from his tail. And that is Kalondahres’ problem; he does not know which direction to go.
Topsy-turvy in a flurry
Kalondahres spins around
Never knowing where he’s going
Whether up the hill or down
Without a doubt, there is a meaning to the word “Kalondahres,” which a smart sixth grader can suss out. Not me though.
He tells the story of the Tanglis, creatures with no arms or legs, only round bodies and heads. The female lives in icy mountains where she must dig a hole in the ice with only her mouth to provide a place for her pups to live. The legless, armless male was made for water, yet he climbs the icy peaks to be with her. See the lesson, children?
There is so much here. There is the Blug, the Dally, the Oominoos, gloriously on and on, stories that entertain and teach. There is in here the art of poetry, philosophy, and even Christological allegory. It is all beyond the likes of me, but your children will love it.
At the end, there is a glossary of what appears to be a few hundred words with the meanings taken from Webster’s Revised Unabridged, Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary, and from Mehan’s own “mythical arts.” Here are two of Mr. Mehan’s meanings:
Despair—despair is always a mistake because the despairing mind pretends darkly to know what it can never know, namely all that the future holds.
Turn—from the ancient Greek, the word is protreptic, or the re-orienting—the turning—of one’s mind and soul from the cruel thorns of ignorance and fashion to the fairest fields of truth and goodness.
In recent days, Mehan has published his second book, The Handsome Little Cygnet, the adventures of a baby swan born in the lakes of Central Park. Like the whole world, Central Park is both beautiful and potentially dangerous. (Note: never go walking in The Ramble after dark.) This far more accessible book explains the importance of family and how a young one may be blown off course by the seemingly colorful enchantments of the world. Again, John Folley provides simply beautiful illustrations.
Mehan says his project is important because of the parable of the seeds. Seeds grow best when cast upon good soil. How to get that soil? Mehan says, “The answer is human preparation, human virtue, prepared and tilled ground, ready hearts.”
Mehan says the 20th Century almost entirely forgot the great riches of humanitas that are only now making a comeback. He cites Cicero, Seneca, Chaucer, More, and Shakespeare properly taught. “It means,” he says, “a certain deep-seated moral and philosophic attention to the rest of the canon. It means a deep regard for political life and practical concerns as well, building up normal, regular, civic life with the liberal arts, the arts of liberty. It’s an enormous project, and we are longing for talented allies and recruits to this work.”
Mehan calls this the protoevangelium. “You have to prepare the soil for the seed. That’s what all my teaching is, in the end.”
Matthew Mehan has a lever and a place to stand and if you look closely you may see the world move.