It is often assumed that G. K. Chesterton and J. R .R. Tolkien were reactionary, antimodern writers. In a certain sense they were. Tolkien regarded nearly everything worthy of praise in English culture to have ended in 1066. He scorned the imposition of Norman culture on a vibrant English tradition that had flourished for more than five hundred years, and he looked on the Arthurian legends as an alien French import that offered no fit basis for a national mythology such as he sought to construct in his Silmarillion. Tolkien also thought the Protestant Reformation to be a terrible error, insisting that the cathedrals of England were stolen Catholic property. Neither was he happy that his friend and companion, C. S. Lewis, remained what Tolkien derisively called “an Ulster Protestant.” Tolkien also lamented the Triumph of the Machine, as he described the Industrial Revolution and all its pomps. He refused, moreover, to drive a motorcar once he saw the damage that paved roads and automobiles had done to the English countryside. Tolkien was an unapologetic monarchist as well, believing that hierarchical distinctions are necessary for the flourishing of any polity, whether academic or ecclesial or governmental. He longed, in fact, for the return of Roman Catholicism as the established state religion of England.
As the older man—he died in 1936, just as Tolkien’s popularity would begin to burgeon with the publication of The Hobbit in 1937—Chesterton seems even more of an antediluvian. He was the avowed advocate of all things ancestral, describing tradition as “the democracy of the dead,” granting the franchise to the greatest of all majorities, the deceased. He opposed women’s suffrage, divorce on all grounds, contraception in all forms, and machinery of most kinds. His chief opposition to dueling was not that it left someone dead but that it settled no arguments. His view of the Protestant Reformation was even less charitable than Tolkien’s. Calvinism and Puritanism are among the dirtiest words in Chesterton’s vocabulary. For him, the doctrine of double predestination was a monstrously deterministic and freedom-denying dogma. He also held the Reformation responsible for the rise of modern individualism and capitalism, when in fact Calvin (like Luther) looked backward to Augustine far more than forward to the Renaissance and Enlightenment.
Alison Milbank’s Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real is a remarkable accomplishment, chiefly because it forestalls any easy dismissal of Chesterton and Tolkien as troglodytes. With adept recourse to an impressive (but never name-dropping) array of anthropologists and literary theorists, folklorists and linguists, philosophers and theologians, she shows that these Catholic writers engage modern and even postmodern culture by way of a revolutionary understanding of the imagination. Both writers resorted to fantasy as an escape into reality, as Tolkien liked to say. They were fascinated with fairies because Elfland, as Chesterton called it, enabled them to envision the world as wondrously magical no less than terribly contingent: as “utterly real and enchanted at one and the same time.” Whereas conventional Christian apologists often cast theological stones at the obduracy of atheists and materialists, Tolkien and Chesterton answer them with Dwarves and Ents, with Innocent Smith and Father Brown. Smith fires bullets at his own best friend, robs his own house, and commits polygamy with the cooperation of his own wife—all in order to make himself and others more fully alive. Chesterton’s childlike priest is so unsullied by self-interest, in turn, that he alone can decipher the cynical deceptions of criminals.
Milbank demonstrates that the fictions of Chesterton and Tolkien seek to destabilize the familiar world by making it strange, eerie, uncanny. Rather than being frightened by the terrors of a Darwinian universe, they embrace its abiding otherness by way of fantasy, creating imaginative worlds that are altogether as surreal as the elephantine and hippopotamic products of the natural process itself. “Man is the ape upside down,” declares Chesterton. As the ape who is also an angel, man possesses unique freedom. “This freedom is most obviously present,” Milbank writes, “in the grotesque, which recombines the forms of nature and art to make something new and surprising.” It is also the freedom to acknowledge the world’s terror and alienation no less than its benignity. Tolkien’s dragons and orcs and wargs serve as reminders that there are dark forces at work in the world, powers so sinister that no one can fully withstand them. In frequent recourse to Scripture, Milbank also shows that many biblical texts and stories are themselves discomfiting and estranging, escaping all categories, defeating all definition.
Yet estrangement and alienation are never the final outcome of Chesterton’s and Tolkien’s work. For they share the conviction that we human creatures are most like God in our positive creativity. “We make,” said Tolkien, “by the law in which we’re made.” Virtually every human act—from dressing in the morning to making vast literary epics and philosophical systems—is an act of creation. Unlike Coleridge and the Romantics, however, Tolkien and Chesterton never grant godlike status to artists and thinkers as having the power to invent their own self-enclosed universe. On the contrary, they share a deep Thomistic regard for the primacy of being: for things as they are perceived by the senses. Like Kant, they confess the difficulty of moving from the phenomenal to the noumenal realm of things-in-themselves. Yet, unlike him, they do not despair over the seemingly impassable gap between the inner and the outer, the mental and the natural; instead, they reveal that the world is not dreadfully dead (as we have believed since Descartes and Newton) but utterly alive and awaiting our free transformation of it. The universe that has been made dissonant also requires reenchantment, therefore, in order for us to participate in an otherness that is not finally cacophony but symphony, a complex interlocking of likenesses and differences that form an immensely complex but finally redemptive Whole. The doubleness of all things is cause for rejoicing, it follows, rather than lamentation.
Our problem, Milbank makes clear, is not that we perceive too much but too little. Our perceptions (and thus our creations) are limited because our fallen and finite imaginations cannot grasp the surplus of light that pervades all created being—hence Tolkien’s and Chesterton’s literally fantastic attempts to hint and gesture at agencies so unknowable that they reveal God’s own inaccessibility. “Similitudes drawn from things farthest away from God,” Milbank quotes Dionysus the Pseudo-Areopagite as saying, “form within us a truer estimate that God is above whatsoever we may say or think of Him.” Thus do we encounter Treebeard, the huge dendroidal Ent who has a face that belongs (in Tolkien’s words) “to a large Man-like, almost Troll-like figure, at least fourteen [feet] high, very sturdy, with a tall head, and hardly any neck.” He also has seven toes on his gargantuan feet, and his “sweeping grey beard [is] bushy, almost twiggy at the roots, thin and mossy at the ends.” He seems alien in the extreme. Yet Treebeard not only rescues Merry and Pippin from the orcs, but also engages them with his penetrating eyes. Like trees in many folktales, he also speaks to them as well, albeit with the arboreal sluggishness of a slow-growing, slow-moving creature.
As readers we are able to experience Treebeard at two levels: On the one hand, he is patently an aesthetic invention, a fictional creature. Both Chesterton and Tolkien constantly draw attention to the created character of their work, reminding us that it belongs to secondary and not primarily reality: it is a constructed thing to be enjoyed as such. Yet having encountered this fantastic tree with human features, readers can no longer look upon real trees as mere objects meant only for our manipulation. On the contrary, we can now envision all trees as analogical actualities, as transcendent symbols that participate in the reality that they signify, as having likenesses to us despite their differences from us, and thus as linking natural things with both human and divine things—and perhaps also with things demonic. It is not a long leap, for instance, from Treebeard to the trees in the Garden of Eden.
The Catholic and analogical quality of Tolkien’s and Chesterton’s work is what Milbank most convincingly demonstrates. Unlike much modern art that revels in the macabre and the bizarre—self-referential, solipsistic, nihilistic—the fantastical work of these two Catholics is not such a sorry project. Chesterton and Tolkien have not autonomously invented their own imaginative worlds so much as they have reordered the existing world in accordance with their fundamentally Aristotelian/Thomistic perception of it. Their common conviction is that everything has its own entelechy, its own end within itself that pushes it toward completion and fulfillment within a larger, indeed a final telos. This classic Catholic outlook is clearly voiced by Chesterton in his splendid little book on Thomas Aquinas, wittily entitled The Dumb Ox. Because all “things [tend] to a greater end,” Milbank quotes Chesterton, “they are more real than we think them. If they seem to have a relative unreality (so to speak) it is because they are potential, not actual; they are unfulfilled, like packets of seeds or boxes of fireworks. They have it in them to be more real than they are. And there is an upper world of what the Schoolman called Fruition or Fulfillment, in which all this relative relativity becomes actuality; in which the trees burst into flower or the rockets into flame.”
This Catholic theology of the imagination is perhaps realized most clearly in Tolkien’s story “Leaf by Niggle.” The artist Niggle has spent his entire life seeking to create the perfect tree—just as Tolkien worked from 1917 until his death in 1973 on his twelve-volume but still uncompleted legendarium of Middle-earth. Not only is Niggle a deficient painter; his needy and practical-minded neighbor named Parish also frequently interrupts him. In the end, alas, Niggle’s canvas is used to patch the leaking roof on Parish’s house so that only a single tiny leaf is preserved from the original painting. Yet Niggle discovers, once he has died and entered a purgatorial realm, that the artistic life and the utilitarian world are necessary and complementary to each other. Having finally been purged of his false artistic self-sufficiency, Niggle is able at last to behold his perfect and finished Tree. “If you could say that of a Tree that was alive,” the narrator adds, “its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide. ‘It’s a gift!’ he said.”
This final acclamation lies at the heart of Alison Milbank’s fine book. With clarity and wit and verve, she shows that the gift-quality of Tolkien’s and Chesterton’s art is premised on the gift-character of the universe itself. Their work, as she splendidly verifies, has profound moral implications. For in a gift-giving and gift-receiving world, we are not meant to seek our own advantage at the expense of others. Rather we are meant to create gifts—like those presents into which Galadriel has woven her own character before she gives them to the Company—that serve to free their recipients rather than putting them into our debt. Milbank has gifted us with what may well become our finest study of these Catholic artists in their unique relation not only to each other but also to our imagination-starved churches and culture.
Ralph C. Wood is the Mary Ann Remick Visiting Fellow at the Center for Ethics and Culture, Notre Dame University.