J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis tempt us to escape to a self-evidently numinous world rather than to seek out the texture of wonder in this one. What we need is an unsparing literary realism—literature without recourse to fantasy, literature in which talking trees do not come to the rescue.
It’s quiet at Wyoming Catholic College this Friday. Elsewhere, at other colleges, it’s Spring Break, but here it’s “Outdoor Week” when students and their leaders go all over the Mountain West for adventures—kayaking, whitewater rafting, canyoneering, rock-climbing, and more. One group is camping on the ranch where we keep our horses; they spend their days riding their favorite mounts up into the nearby mountains and meeting at night around the campfire for storytelling and prayer. I’m not sure yet how they’re coping with the foot of wet snow that fell overnight. Another group is deep into rehearsals for T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral out at St. Stephen’s Mission under the direction of Mrs. Denise Trull and her son Thomas. It’s all part of the vision of WCC—the real experience crucial to the formation of the whole person.
In the absence of the students and most of the faculty this week, with a little time to muse, I’ve been thinking about an accompanying need for realism in art—and I might as well voice a persistent worry. The great majority of our students come to us steeped in the Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, both of which I admire. But, unlike some of my own children, I have a fairly instant aversion to the genre of fantasy per se, and it is also true that I first encountered Tolkien when his fans were part of a 1960s counterculture that Tolkien himself deplored. Prejudice aside, I still find Tolkien’s manner of writing a bit hard to take, with its archaic word order (“Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest.”), the propensity for sententious statements, the invented languages, the catalogue of names from Old English and Old Norse, the portentous atmosphere—all things that my literary friends who love Tolkien greatly admire. I have less trouble with Lewis stylistically. In fact, my first encounter with passages from Perelandra—especially Ransom’s experience of the floating islands in that water world—have remained with me undiminished for decades.
The effect of Lewis and Tolkien on the imaginations of our students is undeniably good. Both Tolkien and Lewis saw the effects of a secular world full of Nietzsche’s all-too-comfortable “last men,” and they countered modern indifference to God and complacency with imaginary landscapes and actions that required the cardinal virtues—and, more subtly, the theological ones as well—to oppose the great cosmic threats posed by Satanic powers. They dramatized those powers and the opposition to them in ways drawing heavily, not only upon ancient and medieval heroic literature, but also upon orthodox Christian theology, unlike, say, the Harry Potter series. Tutored in the lore of Elves and Dwarves and Orcs, full of the threat of the White Witch and the promise of Aslan, our students crave adventure, as this week’s trips demonstrate, and they carry a potent mythology, especially Tolkien’s, into their education here.
So if the effect is good, what worries me? I suppose I get more like Robert Frost in “To Earthward” the older I get. Frost writes that when he was young, he craved “strong sweets,” whereas “Now no joy but lacks salt, / That is not dashed with pain / And weariness and fault.” The salt I mean is a healthy but unsparing literary realism—literature without recourse to fantasy, literature in which talking trees do not come to the rescue. Tolkien and Lewis both countered what Charles Taylor in A Secular Age calls the “disenchanted cosmos,” a world that has lost its belief in the numinous. But so did Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Bernanos and Greene; so did Flannery O’Connor, Caroline Gordon, and Walker Percy—and also, in their different ways, Gustave Flaubert, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, and other great writers of our tradition, including Dickens and Herman Melville. At a conference in New England last year, Anthony Esolen praised Dickens’ Bleak House as the “second-greatest novel” in his estimation, right behind The Brothers Karamazov. 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 such accuracy, Tolstoy was unsurpassed. In Anna Karenina, he shows the protagonist Levin coming home to his country estate to be greeted by his dog Laska. One of the servants comments that the dog recognizes his low spirits—and it’s a surprise to Levin that even the servant herself can see through him so well. Levin now notices his dog. “Laska kept poking her head under his hand. He stroked her, and she promptly curled up at his feet, laying her head on a hindpaw. And in token of all now being well and satisfactory, she opened her mouth a little, smacked her lips, and settling her sticky lips more comfortably about her old teeth, she sank into blissful repose. Levin watched all her movements attentively.” Such a passage takes the reader directly into a complex of real relations—the long creaturely affection between Levin and Laska, the saddening sense of the passage of time (“her old teeth”), her contentment in the exact moment of her master’s presence, the difference between her “blissful repose” and his own mood. Laska changes Levin’s perspective, not to mention the reader’s, in a way as subtle as grace. With a writer of genius, the real world yields up the texture of its small wonders, and it is in this real world that we find our good and evil, grace and despair.
The worry, then, is that it might be tempting to escape to a self-evidently numinous world rather than to seek out the texture of wonder in this one. Perhaps I’m exaggerating a danger. Perhaps I think too quickly of those conventions where all the attendees dress up in Star Wars or Harry Potter regalia. It is especially necessary to inhabit this real world imaginatively in a season of recollection and self-scrutiny like Lent. It is tempting to fantasize, tempting to think that we are better or worse than we are—or that the world is.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail from the cover of The Chronicles of Narnia boxed set of 1950-1956, courtesy of Wikipedia.