J.R.R. Tolkien insisted that fairy stories hold up a mirror to man. They show us who we are. They also show us who we are called to be. In this sense, The Lord of the Rings conforms to reality much more clearly and starkly than any works of literary relativism.
I am a great admirer of Glenn Arbery, for the simple reason that there is much about him which is worthy of admiration. Apart from the fact that he is a regular contributor to The Imaginative Conservative, which is itself a feather in anyone’s cap, he is President of Wyoming Catholic College, one of the finest liberal arts institutions in the country, and the author of several excellent books, not least of which is Bearings and Distances, a gruesomely dark and brilliant novel, which I reviewed not only once but twice. It is, therefore, in the spirit of friendship that I offer this gentle riposte to his recent essay, “Tolkien, Lewis, and the Need for Literary Realism.”
Dr. Arbery calls for “a healthy but unsparing literary realism—literature without recourse to fantasy.” He offers as examples of literary realism the works of Dickens, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Bernanos, Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Caroline Gordon, Walker Percy, Gustave Flaubert, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, and Herman Melville. He references a conference in New England last year, which he and I attended, at which Anthony Esolen praised Dickens’ Bleak House as the “second-greatest novel” in his estimation, right behind The Brothers Karamazov. He is concerned that the students at Wyoming Catholic College, who are enamoured of the works of Tolkien and Lewis, might neglect these great novels. “I do not want our students to neglect the high imaginative perception it takes to render the ‘lived world’ (as the novelist Milan Kundera calls it) with a mimetic accuracy that intensifies the sense of reality instead of displacing it into an alternative cosmos. To my mind, this accuracy brings vividly before the mind the being of the real world and the particular act of existence.”
At this point, as a means of showing that Dr. Arbery is doing Tolkien and Lewis an injustice, I’d like to pause a moment to remind ourselves of the meaning of “realism.” It is the philosophy that insists that universals and transcendentals, such as goodness, truth and beauty, have real existence and are not merely names. This philosophical realism, as taught by Aristotle and Aquinas, stands in opposition to the nominalism which sees these things as human constructs, as merely man-made labels. Realism is at the very heart of Christian philosophy whereas nominalism has morphed into the radical relativism which is the dominant philosophy of the secularist culture in which we find ourselves. Since this is so, we must insist that literary realism should be defined as the reflection in literature of philosophical realism. If the work of literature takes place in a realistic cosmos, one which is governed by the truths of realism, it can be said to be a work of literary realism; if it takes place in a nominalist cosmos, one which is governed by the assumptions of nominalism, it can be said to be a work of literary relativism. The former reflects the real world in its essentials, in its being; the latter reflects an “alternative cosmos” in which the rules of relativism apply. Seen in this light, we can see that the “alternative cosmos” presented by literary relativism is the real work of fantasy, whereas any work that subjects itself to the truths of realism reflects the real world in which we live, irrespective of whether it introduces mythical creatures into the narrative.
“Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense,” wrote Chesterton. “It is not earth that judges heaven, but heaven that judges earth; so… it was not earth that criticized elfland, but elfland that criticized the earth.” It is in this sense that Tolkien insisted that fairy stories hold up a mirror to man. They show us who we are. They also show us who we are called to be. They show us not only the bad person that we are but the better person we are meant to be. They show us, to paraphrase Chesterton, that the Battle of Armageddon is more real than the presidential election, which is to say that the battle between good and evil is more real than the lies and half-truths of politicians. In this sense, The Lord of the Rings conforms to reality much more clearly and starkly than any works of literary relativism. Virtue is a solid and absolute reality in Middle-earth, whereas sin is the shadow cast by virtue’s absence. Such an understanding of the reality of good and evil is a faithful reflection of Augustinian philosophy as embraced by Christian orthodoxy. Furthermore, Middle-earth is a monotheistic cosmos, in which the omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient God presides providentially over history.
Does such a realistic understanding of sin and virtue, or of God’s benevolent presence, preside over some of the works that Dr. Arbery offers as examples of “realism.” Do the novels of Thomas Hardy reflect this realistic view of the cosmos? Does James Joyce’s prideful apostasy show us reality or merely a proud and prejudiced view of it? As for Graham Greene, he stated that he saw human nature as “not black and white” but “black and grey,” thereby implicitly denying the purity of the divine image in man, and he referred to his need to write as “a neurosis… an irresistible urge to pinch the abscess which grows periodically in order to squeeze out all the pus.” Such a neurotic Muse can hardly fail to convey something of its own pathology in the very fabric of the work it creates. Does this mean that we should not read the works of Graham Greene, or James Joyce, or Thomas Hardy? Does it mean that we do not see aspects of reality reflected in their works? Of course not. But it does mean that we need to read their works with a pinch of salt because their own philosophical salt has lost its savour.
If it is true, as Tolkien stated, that “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” it is equally true that The Lord of the Rings is, ipso facto, a work of literary realism, which is more than can be said of the overt quasi-relativism reigning in the works of some of the authors whom Dr. Arbery holds up for praise.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail from the 1950 hardcover edition of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, published by George Bles, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.