J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis in light of Hans Urs Von Balthasar (1).
FOR those familiar with J.R.R. Tolkien's distaste for drama as a means of depicting fantasy (Tolkien, "On Fairy-Stories" 140-2), and Hans Urs von Balthasar's theological dramatic theory, the title of this essay might appear to be rather ironic. Once the reader realizes that this paper focuses on the theology of fantasy literature in C.S. Lewis and in Tolkien, the title's juxtaposition of authors might appear even stranger; for Tolkien disdained Lewis's Narnia series because of Lewis's penchant for analogy (Sayer 14; Murray 43; Kilby, Christian, 136 note. 5), and von Balthasar never articulated a theology of fantasy. Notwithstanding these considerations, there is a common thread between Lewis's theology of fantasy, and that of Tolkien, as viewed through the lens of von Balthasar. In both Lewis and Tolkien, we find particular examples of artistic creation and appreciation, in the specific medium of fantasy literature, as pointers to the Divine.
Lewis understood well the human heart and its relationship to God. Like the other authors, he saw life as a drama of human and divine freedom. Tolkien suggested that fantasy helps us in at least three ways: recovery, escape, and consolation. Von Balthasar pursued beauty as a joyful experience which draws us out of ourselves and connects us with the Other. All three of the writers here see beauty as a bridge to the Divine, and art as a means of cooperating with God in the act of creation. As being the more general viewpoint, von Balthasar can thus be used as a framework for viewing these particular expressions, because his focus remains wide as he searches for the universal principles of beauty. Von Balthasar thus offers wider boundaries for reading and applying Tolkien's and Lewis's more narrow theologies of fantasy. Though the authors are treated in reverse chronological order, it is because, having the widest topic of investigation, that is beauty, von Balthasar serves as the open channel for the more concentrated theologies of fantasy expressed by Lewis and Tolkien. Lewis is treated next since he is influenced in large part by the work of Tolkien, who is the most explicit and developed in his theology of fantasy and serves well as the pinnacle theologian of fairy stories. Together the writings of these three men enable us to see the artistic beauty of creation and thus draw nearer to the infinite.
Taking his cues from the theater, von Balthasar views salvation history as a form of divine drama (Theo-Drama 16-18, 21). Thus, for von Balthasar, human interaction has an intrinsic sequential quality, albeit a dramatic sequence. However, it is in his theological aesthetics that we begin to find even more similarities with Tolkien and Lewis. In this aesthetic context, von Balthasar has demonstrated how the perception of God's glory has inspired the Christian search for beauty (Navone 55). Von Balthasar's exposure to the nouvelle theologie, especially from his mentor Henri de Lubac, greatly influenced the views expressed in his theology of drama and aesthetics. (3)
Von Balthasar expressed the opinion that life as a human drama should reflect the intimate dance of the divine and human. What de Lubac's ideas did for von Balthasar was allow him to situate his theological method within a more mystical tradition. Criticisms were leveled against the Neo-Scholastic understanding of faith, grace, and nature, correcting the misinterpretations of Aquinas's many interpreters. Von Balthasar, on account of de Lubac and the nouvelle theologie's understanding of faith, nature and grace, began to view the history of Christian theology as one attempt to convey God's glory through theories of beauty. Thus, for von Balthasar, a Christian's experience of beauty is by necessity a faith experience (Navone 63).
Accordingly, a key to Christian faith experience is the notion that faith is a "created participation in God's own self-witness" (Doran 65, note 10). Von Balthasar's idea of participating with God, implicit in St. Paul's quotation from 1 Corinthians 3:9, resonates in Lewis's and Tolkien's theology of fantasy. The artistic imagination plays a unique role in this participation, functioning as a particular means of loving God with one's whole self (Brown 101). There is an intimate connection here with von Balthasar's theological aesthetics. Von Balthasar believes the subjective and the objective intermingle. (4) He notes that, "Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another" (Glory of the Lord, Vol. 1, 18). Writing further, he charges, "We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it" (Glory of the Lord, Vol. 1, 18). However, von Balthasar highlights the important role beauty plays in creation, especially in the role of the imagination.
For von Balthasar claims, following Goethe, "All great art is religious, an act of homage before the glory of what exists" (Glory of the Lord, Vol. 4, 12-13). Of course, these ideas predate Goethe, as is evident in ancient Greek thought in the idea of artists being inspired by the muses (Roberts 56). Within this artistic and creative milieu, a special place is given to literature. Von Balthasar argues that:
the corpus of Western literature demands recognition, in contemporary terms, as a text--something that differs from the translucence of other forms of communication through an opacity that demands not only a reading but a reading into. The characters in Homer or Sophocles recognize the same signs; the mystery that lies beyond them, that which is transcendent, concerns us all. (Roberts 57)
A number of theologians have pointed out that "Theology is primarily a work of the imagination" (Roberts 4). Theology's imaginative quality is quite evident in von Balthasar's writings, as well as in the writings of Tolkien and Lewis. The significant role of the imagination is also a central element in the writings of another literary giant, G.K. Chesterton, who had a profound influence on both Lewis and Tolkien, and is frequently cited by von Balthasar. Chesterton believed that we need to exercise our imagination and to regain a sense of wonderment. For Chesterton, Christian faith embraces the imagination. Imagination's central role provides strong links between these four Christian authors. Chesterton, foreshadowing von Balthasar, Tolkien, and Lewis, wrote that creativity and the imagination are intrinsic to human nature as God intended in such an endowment. Therefore, "We are imaginative and creative creatures ... because we are made in the image of the great Creator of all" (Peters 33). In fact, Chesterton has something like a "theology of imagination" which anticipates Tolkien's and Lewis's theology of fantasy (Peters 134). Where Chesterton resonates most with von Balthasar, as well as with Tolkien and Lewis, is in his idea that art, as the primary expression of human imagination, is of supreme importance. Chesterton's sentiment that imagination has the ability to draw back the curtain revealing the mystery of life reverberates in von Balthasar's writings.
The importance von Balthasar places upon literary art as a means of pointing us towards the Divine is yet another connection between his thought and Tolkien's, as well as Lewis's. While the literary expressions are effective, nevertheless, it is towards art's aesthetic element (such as the beauty found in live theatrical performances or pictorial art such as paintings and statues) that von Balthasar primarily gravitates.
For von Balthasar, aesthetics is not just one department of knowledge but an aspect which saturates all of creation. Aesthetics is not independent of other fields of knowledge, nor should it be considered to constitute a relatively autonomous discipline. Aesthetics is interwoven into human experience and knowledge of all things. When one sees the beauty of a person, a work of art, or a sunset, one is confronted at the same time with the mystery of its otherness. Aesthetics, in von Balthasar's thought, forms a bridge; it draws us outside of ourselves to connect with others, and most importantly to connect with the Other. As Thomas Dubay notes, "Every human person is drawn to beauty" (11). We each have "an aching need for the infinite" (17). (5)
Whether in fantasy literature, art more generally, or in the world-wide drama of humanity, beauty functions in the same manner. This view of beauty is so central because it stirs within us wonder, arising from the recognition of beauty that, for von Balthasar, is at the base of all serious metaphysical pursuits. Therefore, aesthetics is involved in all forms of theological inquiry. Von Balthasar emphasizes the importance of aesthetics when he claims, "one both can and must consider the revelation of the living God, as the Christian understands it, not only from the point of view of its truth and goodness, but also from that of its ineffable beauty" (Glory of the Lord, Vol. 2, 11). So, for von Balthasar, as well as for Dubay, the apex of beauty is God's glory. As Dubay explains, "The glory of the Lord, therefore, is the supereminently luminous beauty of divinity beyond all experience and all descriptions, all categories, a beauty before which all earthly splendors, marvelous as they are, pale into insignificance" (45).
The act of seeing beauty requires humans to employ the inherent capacity to peer into a deeper reality, whether this power is exercised through the reading of fantasy literature or contemplating a painting or comprehending a flower. This metaphysical endeavor requires that we "see" with more than merely our eyes; that we sense with more than solely our natural senses. Dubay provides a useful analogy: "The full experience of a rose requires that we see with our minds the inner energy, the hidden origin, the radical form, and not simply the manifested colors, shapes, and proportions" (65). If experiencing a rose's beauty involves more than merely our natural senses, how much more does experiencing God's glory? The beauty of human art, however, is a focal point in von Balthasar's analogies. Of course, unlike Tolkien and Lewis, von Balthasar will focus not upon fantasy literature, but upon drama. For he argues that:
The drama of human existence, which appears full only upon its completion, begins to be perceived in the theater. Not only is the uniqueness of human existence re-presented, but the divine action becomes stuff for drama. The dramatic movement prevents theological aesthetics from petrifying in the simple act of perception. (Roberts 204)
Notwithstanding this difference in focus among the three authors, an intimate connection remains. For von Balthasar, in "the analogy between natural and supernatural aesthetics ... emerges, an analogy which gives the divine Spirit the freedom of space to place all human forms of expression at the service of his kind of poetics" (Glory of the Lord, Vol. 1, 43-44). The theologies of fantasy found in Tolkien and Lewis draw out and detail what is implicit in von Balthasar's analogy between natural or human art and supernatural or divine art. We co-create, because we are made in the image of God, and have been given the capacity for imagination, and have been allowed by God to participate in his workmanship. Furthermore, according to von Balthasar:
the Spirit ... from the beginning is a Creator and ..., in the end, aims ... at creative form, regardless of how much in the form of man and of the world remains to be burnt away as dross. Such creative form, then, is God's work, and the work of man only in so far as he makes himself available to the divine action without opposition, acceptingly, allowing God to act, concurring in his work. (Glory of the Lord, Vol. 1, 36)
This co-creative work of the imagination in art allows us to see a parallel between von Balthasar's theological aesthetics and Tolkien and Lewis's theology of fantasy.
LEWIS recognizes the creative beauty of myth-making in many of his writings. Known primarily for his Christian apologetics as well as his fantasy literature, Lewis had an implicit theology of fantasy which was shaped by his elder friend and colleague J.R.R. Tolkien's own theology of fantasy. Lewis, like Tolkien and von Balthasar, views human creativity as a cooperating with God. As Clyde Kilby explains, Lewis "regards myth-making as one of man's deepest needs and highest accomplishments, and he has written hardly a single book in which he does not, in one way or another, discuss and illustrate this subject" (80).
For Lewis, true myth inspires awe, and, to borrow Rudolf Otto's phrase, is a numinous experience (Kilby 80-81; Duriez 41). In Surprised By Joy Lewis describes his first reading of "Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods." He writes:
And with that plunge back into my own past there arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I had now lacked for years, that I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country; and the distance of the Twilight of the Gods and the distance of my own past Joy, both unattainable, flowed together into a single, unendurable sense of desire and loss, which suddenly became one with the loss of the whole experience, which, as I now stared round that dusty schoolroom like a man recovering from unconsciousness, had already vanished, had eluded me at the very moment when I could first say It is. (72-73)
Kilby notes that, according to Lewis,
There is a great, sovereign, uncreated, unconditional Reality at the core of things, and myth is on the one hand a kind of picture-making which helps man to understand this Reality and on the other hand the the result of a deep call from that Reality. (81)
Lewis incorporates these ideas in his own writings. It has been noted that, "The novels Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra are among Lewis's own myths to suggest worlds in which the unity of being so sweetly and desperately longed for are in some measure attained" (82).
In this context, and quite in line with Tolkien, Lewis defends fantasy literature against those who would claim that such tales are merely false pictures of reality (Kilby 116). According to Lewis, if we claim something akin to this idea, then we have things backwards. Lewis maintains that, "The fairy tale, like the myth, on the one hand arouses longing for more ideal worlds and on the other gives the real world a new dimension of depth" (Kilby 116). These forms of story point one in the direction of the Divine. As Stratford Caldecott makes clear, "Traditional folk and fairy tales, hero stories and legends can help in preparing someone for what C.S. Lewis refers to as the 'baptism' of the imagination" ("Reflection" 75). With his conversion, Lewis himself had undergone a shift in his views of myth and Christianity. He originally viewed Christianity negatively as mere fairy tale. However, J.R.R. Tolkien explained to him that the gospel was a fairy tale which had in fact entered history (Hooper 185; Pearce, "True Myth" 88; Schall 70; Caldecott, "Reflection" 77; Gunton 138-139; Duriez 42; Knickerbocker 101; Kelly 12-14), and that deepened both Lewis's view of Christianity and of fairy tale. (6) These ideas eventually combined to form Lewis's theology of fantasy, as reflected in his own writings.
Fairy tales played an important role for Lewis within his lived experience. In 1963, the summer before Lewis died, he spent a few days disoriented after recovering from a coma. His friend Maureen Moore Blake had inherited a castle, as well as an estate, in Scotland. The inheritance was a very unexpected event, and one she was eager to share with Lewis, whom she called Jack. Their dialogue was recorded as follows:
"Jack, it is Maureen."
"No," he replied, "it is Lady Dunbar of Hempriggs."
"Oh Jack, how could you remember that?" she asked.
"On the contrary," he said, "how could I forget a fairy tale?" (Lewis, Weight xiii)
Like the gospel stories about Jesus, in Lewis's mind, the story of Maureen Moore Blake's title and castle was a fairy tale come true. Lewis saw such real life fairy tales as stories about other worlds. It was through these "fairy tales, the carriers of myths, that mediated the world of the spirit, [that] Lewis began to experience joy, that bittersweet longing for he knew not what" (Knickerbocker 102). Lewis believes that one of our contemporary problems is that "we have lost an ancient unity between the poetic and the prosaic, the symbolic and the literal" (Duriez 36).
The important aspect of fantasy literature, for Lewis, was the fact that it was "imaginative invention" (Duriez 37). For Lewis, the imagination is involved in grasping reality, rather than merely understanding concepts. Colin Duriez notes that, "Fantasy is a power and product of the imagination, as thought is a power and product of the intellect ... and fiction, for C.S. Lewis, was the making of meaning rather than the literal restating of truths" (37-38). This is, in itself, a reflection of God's initial creativity in the creation of the universe. Lewis views the relationship as follows: "good imagining is as vital as good thinking, and each is impoverished without the other. This is as true in the natural sciences as it is in the arts. We actually win truth by employing metaphors, or models" (Duriez 38).
Lewis believed in an objective dimension to the imagination and fantasy. Like Tolkien, he held that, "Great stories take us outside the prison of our own selves and our presuppositions about reality. Insofar as stories reflect the divine maker in doing this, they help us face the ultimate Other--God himself, distinct as creator from all else, including ourselves." For Lewis, longing is one of fantasy's defining traits (Duriez 40-41). It follows from this that, "The creation of Another World is an attempt to reconcile human beings and the world, to embody the fulfilment [sic] of our imaginative longing. Imaginative worlds, wonderlands, are 'regions of the spirit'" (Duriez 42). As with von Balthasar's views on beauty, "For Lewis, joy was a foretaste of ultimate reality, heaven itself, or, the same thing, our world as it was meant to be, unspoilt by the fall of mankind, and one day to be remade" (Duriez 42). The imaginative longing of Lewis is also parallel to von Balthasar's sehnsucht, both of which point to the greater reality.
A corollary observation to the co-creational work of the imagination is the role of the artist. A key function of myth or fantasy, in Lewis's thought, as for Tolkien, is the idea that we are co-creators with God. Thus, "to an extent, [for] Lewis ... imagination can show genuine insight into God and reality independently of the specific revelation of Scripture" (Duriez 45). Lewis is in line with Tolkien, von Balthasar, and Chesterton, in his views on the imagination, and fantasy literature. This idea of co-creators, or "sub-creators" as Tolkien will call it, is an intriguing idea fitting within the Pauline notion of Christians as "God's fellow workers." (7)
J.R.R. Tolkien was the first of the two to really develop such a theology, much of which he outlined in an essay he delivered in 1939, entitled, "On Fairy-Stories" (109-161). For Tolkien, "pagan myths were, in fact, God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using the images of their 'mythopoeia' to reveal fragments of His eternal truth" (Pearce, Tolkien: Man and Myth 59). (8) Tolkien maintains that fantasy literature satisfies human desires to plumb the depths of time, to commune with other life forms, and to experience wonder Tolkien views fantasy as "a rational activity, in which man refashions by his reason the world which the divine reason has made for him." This is because human reason mirrors divine reason; humans were created in the image of God (Gilley 48). Consequently for Tolkien, fantasy is the religious activity for a teller of tales, yet it is dependent on creation, not blotting out reality but enhancing it. Sheridan Gilley notes that in Tolkien's understanding,
... Fantasy is escapist, but in the wholly desirable sense of offering escape from slavery into freedom, or from a prison, the prison of a false flat view of reality. For Fantasy turns again to quicken like wine or grace, enabling the numbed palate to recapture the wonder of a child to whom all tastes might be other than they are. (Gilley 48; Kelly 11)
For Tolkien the ability to imagine is both medicinal and liberating The mental activity which produces fantasy "springs from a healthy response to a sick world" (Caldecott, "Reflection" 75). Through his writings we see that, "Tolkien, like Lewis, understood that the human imagination is always reaching out beyond the limits of the known and the evident towards the infinity of what is desired" (Caldecott, "Reflection," 86). However, for Tolkien, the zenith of fantasy literature was in its being "sub-creation," a word he coined to signify that while humans might co-create with God, ultimately we are fashioned by God to create under his influence (Duriez 37). This sub-creation plays an important role in Tolkien's theology of fantasy Furthermore, "Tolkien, like Lewis, believed that, through story, the real world becomes a more magical place, full of meaning. We see its pattern and colour in a fresh way" (Duriez 43).
Language plays an integral role in Tolkien's views on fantasy, and has helped shape his own fantasy literature. As Tolkien himself notes, "Language has both strengthened imagination and been freed by it" ("Secret" 219). (9)
Further drawing one outside of oneself, fantasy often involves seeking externally after some internal desire. From the perspective of time, "The Quest activates our nostalgia for paradise lost, our yearning for the restoration or fulfilment [sic] to come" (Caldecott, "Over" 20). But the consolation of fantasy is more than a sentimental longing for the past. Such stories expose the gap between the ways things are presently and the way things should be. Joseph Pearce writes that, "Far from his [Tolkien] 'fantasy' world representing a flight from reality, it is, in the metaphysical sense, a flight into reality" ("Tolkien and Catholic" 108). Providing yet another link to von Bathasar's work in Theo-Drama is the idea that:
the best fantasy offers not an escape away from reality, but an escape to a heightened reality--a world at once more vivid and intense and real, where happiness and sorrow exist in double measure, where good and evil war in epic conflict, where joy is made more potent by the possibility of universal tragedy and defeat. (Lawhead 167)
In addition to heightening reality, fantasy literature has the power to speak to the heart and soul of the reader. Fantasy can lift the spirit, ennoble, challenge and inspire; it helps us to recover our wonder. Fantasy literature is "a celebration of life in all its myriad elements. It is nothing less than a praise hymn to creation, and its melody runs through all fantasy literature. Even the shabbiest fantasy pulp novel contains strains of it" (Lawhead 169).
This ability to co-create or in Tolkien's words, sub-create, in fantasy literature, mirrors God's activity of creation. According to Tolkien, "the artist is a creator working in exactly the same way as God the Creator works; the artist becomes a mini-creator, his world a sub-created world reflecting God's creation" (Lawhead 169). Walter Hooper concludes that:
So from these great romances, the Narnias, the science fiction set in the heavens, Middle-earth, we get more reality into people's heads than you get from the copies of 'real life' that teach us nothing and that we remember nothing about. (Pearce, "Tolkien and Lewis" 196)
As emeritus professor of Medieval and Renaissance English literature Janet Leslie Blumberg writes, "... Art [is] the mediation that embodies love for the beauty of this world and desire for those far-off gleams of a higher world" (79-80). For Tolkien, myth was the only way that certain transcendent truths could be expressed in intelligible form. In his view, "creativity was a mark of God's divine image in Man" (Pearce, "True Myth" 88).
Understanding Tolkien's theology of fantasy, when expressed through von Balthasar's universal principles of aesthetics, may enable theologians to identify imagination as internal to religion. As theologian Nicholas Lash informs us, we participate in God's creative work (37). He also observes that in the Apostles' Creed we have "a tale of a world made through uttered Word and outbreathed Spirit ..." (Lash 55). God created by words, or the Word, and so, we create with words as well. Anthony Kelly has argued that, "a deeper appreciation of the role of imagination in this kind of literature will well serve both theology and biblical hermeneutics" (1). For Kelly, there is a "full symphony of ... manners in which reality resonates in the acoustics of the human mind and heart" (2). Kelly points out that, "For Tolkien ... the story itself is not a distortion of reality but a wonderful way of entering more fully into what was routinely regarded as 'the real world' before being creatively re-imagined in the arts of fantasy" (4). Through the power of fantasy literature, the human mind occupies itself as a sub-creator, a creator dependent on the Creator within the larger scope of Creation.
Pointing to the future, providing hope and revitalizing along the way, fantasy literature, "transcends the primary world through its artistic creativity, [and is] a higher and quite powerful form of art in general" (Kelly 8). In his writing, "... Tolkien suggests a deep theology of art, and, of that particular form of his own artistry, the fairy-story" (Kelly 10). Furthermore, Tolkien proceeds in suggesting that the art of fantasy carries with it the desire for a fuller integration and an eventual reconciliation of all creation. For, "Artistic creativity intends to communicate a deeper participation in what is real, and to express a forgotten or repressed aspect of truth" (Kelly 12). Kelly understands "... Tolkien's presentation of the enchanting art of the fairy-story as 'Christening' the imagination in a certain way." He concludes that faith "must undergo a kind of conversion in the imagination itself." With a subtle allusion to St. Anselm's oft-quoted tides quaerens intellectum, Kelly sums up his idea of faith's "conversion in the imagination" with his statement, "'faith seeking fantasy,' faith seeking the experience of enchantment, escape, recovery and consolation" (15). By exposure to art, such as fantasy, a theological faith can have the windows of perception cleansed. Through such experiences, "Faith will lose nothing of its realism," but will be "more attuned to [the] wonder and strangeness of the universe" (Kelly 16).
Tolkien has much to say about fairy tales. He writes that, "Faerie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold" ("On Fairy-Stories" 109). He explains that, "in such 'fantasy,' as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator" ("On Fairy-Stories" 122). For Tolkien, fantasy evidences that, "The human mind is capable of forming mental images of things not actually present" ("On Fairy-Stories" 138). Tolkien views art as, "the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub-creation" ("On Fairy-Stories" 139). He argues further that, "Fantasy is a rational not an irrational activity" ("On Fairy-Stories" 139, nt. 2).
Tolkien writes throughout his essay that, "Fantasy is a natural human activity" ("On Fairy-Stories" 144). This is because we are made in the image of God. Thus, created to be creative, within the realm of fantasy, we are imitators of God. In response to a letter Tolkien received, wherein was written that fairy tales were merely lies, Tolkien wrote:
... Although now long estranged, Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed. Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned, and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned: Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light through whom is splintered from a single White to many hues, and endlessly combined in living shapes that move from mind to mind. Though all the crannies of the world we Idled with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build Gods and their houses out of dark and light, and sowed the seed of dragons--'twas our right (used or misused). That right has not decayed: we make still by the law in which we're made. ("On Fairy-Stories" 144)
This idea is bound-up in the idea of Imago Dei, "we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker" ("On-Fairy Stories" 145). Fantasy-making, for Tolkien, is a rational activity. Thus, "The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make" ("On Fairy-Stories" 144). This is so precisely because "creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it" ("On Fairy-Stories" 144).
For Tolkien, fantasy helps us in three major ways: recovery, escape, and consolation. Fairy stories can have this ability to recover the wonder of things. Reflecting on his own life experience, Tolkien recounts, "It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine" ("On Fairy-Stories" 147). Recovery restores the power of essence. He explains that, "Recovery ... is a re-gaining--regaining of a clear view" ("On Fairy-Stories" 146). He links fantasy literature with the metaphor of cleaning our windows ("On Fairy-Stories" 146). Fantasy literature aids in recovery because it helps us to see things again, more clearly, "freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity--from possessiveness" ("On Fairy-Stories" 146). Tolkien elaborates by a reference to a common experience explaining that:
Of all faces those of our familiares are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of "appropriation": the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them. ("On Fairy-Stories" 146)
Just as we take for granted the beauty of familiar faces, having seen them repeatedly, we falsely come to assume we have exhausted our knowledge of them. However, when we observe them in an odd reflection, refracted through water or glass, we notice something new. We see that which is familiar in a unique way.
Fantasy literature also allows one to escape. However, for Tolkien, this escapism is not a negative attribute. Tolkien responds to critics:
Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using Escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. Just so a Party-spokesman might have labeled departure from the misery of the Fuhrer's or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery.... Not only do they confound the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter; but they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the "quisling" to the resistance of the patriot. ("On Fairy-Stories" 148)
So the function of escape is not an ignoring of real world problems in favor of witless entertainment; rather escape is both a tool to lessen pain and a vehicle for examining the deepest dimensions of reality to seek after ultimate healing. Escape calls for a reaction, moving one from the "real world" of human construction into the real world of divine creation.
While recovery enables us to see things anew, and escape provides a bridge for us to move from experience of the world into the reality of creation, consolation focuses on the joy of the end. Consolation on a surface level is the glimmer of joy found in the fulfillment of a wish. If my desire is to experience the soaring of an eagle then through fantasy my imagination can be set to flight. Yet a deeper level of consolation enables the heart of humanity to be lifted. Tolkien focuses on what he calls the eucatastrophe, the good catastrophe, the sudden unexpected joyous turn of events ("On Fairy-Stories" 153). For Tolkien, the gospel is the paradigmatic example of a eucatastrophe, to which both Lewis and von Balthasar would be inclined to agree. The gospel becomes the fairy tale which enters history ensuring humanity its happy ending.
While von Balthasar searched for a general theory of beauty as a bridge to the Divine, Lewis and Tolkien developed more particular theologies of fantasy which draw out and expand what is implicit in von Balthasar's analogy between natural or human art and supernatural or divine art. Because humans are made in the image of God, and have been given the capacity for imagination, they have been allowed by God to participate in creation. Von Balthasar, Lewis, and Tolkien viewed art as a means of cooperating with God in his workmanship; the former speaking more broadly, the latter two narrowing in on the art of fantasy literature. All three evoked the numinous joyful experience which draws us out of ourselves and connects us with the Other. All three saw in beauty God's signature. When we examine Tolkien and Lewis's theology of fantasy through von Balthasar's theological aesthetic glasses, we see fantasy literature as a form of art displaying beauty which leads one to God, and helps one to view the familiar anew as unfamiliar, appreciating the uniqueness of creation.
1) This is a revision of a paper presented at the Mideast Conference on Christianity and Literature, October 19, 2002. I am grateful to Biff Rocha for his editorial assistance.
2) Author's own translation from, "[theta][epsilon]o[upsilon] y[alpha]p [epsilon][sigma][micro][epsilon]v [sigma][upsilon]v[epsilon]pyoi" found in Novum Testamentum Graece.
3) The nouvelle theologie was a French theological movement preceding the Second Vatican Council, which responded to the Neo-Scholastic understanding of Aquinas. See Rocha "A New Theology of Grace" for useful information on Neo-Scholastic theology, specifically with regard to the doctrine of justification (42-53), and how the Scholastic method became an obstacle to ecumenism (54-57). While von Balthasar left the Society of Jesus, a lot of his formation came from their training and influence. The importance of drama and beauty for the Jesuits has been dealt with elsewhere, and there is no need to elaborate on the connection here (Barth 69-78); suffice it to say von Balthasar would have been exposed to this spiritually artistic milieu early on.
4) Despite this interconnectedness, he is aware that this relationship is both "manifold" and "ambiguous" (Simon 65). In this context, it is interesting to note that von Balthasar, in his discussion of St. John of the Cross, notes in agreement, that, "For John 'mystical theology' is not primarily a subjective secret learning, but rather, knowledge about the objective mystery of God" (Glory of the Lord, Vol. 3, 114).
5) This is the core of von Balthasar's theological aesthetics, and of course, the paradoxical beauty of Jesus's crucifixion is the paradigmatic example of his theory. Jesus's whole life is the center for von Balthasar's theological aesthetics, not merely the crucifixion. For von Balthasar, "the Incarnation becomes the alphabet for historical human nature so it can serve as the expression of a divine speaker" (Roberts 245). According to this line of reasoning, "the Incarnation took place precisely to make it possible that men should thus accompany and be carded along by him" (Glory of the Lord, Vol. 1, 459).
6) See especially Tolkien's discussion of the gospel as a fairy story which has entered reality ("On Fairy-Stories" 155-157).
7) We see this thought clearly illustrated in the writings of a number of saints as well, most notably St. Patrick, as has been noted elsewhere: "This belief that literary creation was a reflection of God's creative action was common to both biblical and classical writers" (de Paor 16).
8) This partially (but by no means totally) accounts for the immense influence Norse mythology had on Tolkien.
9) "... Tolkien's two Elvish languages and his mythology were integral parts of each other from the beginning ..." (Jeffery 143).
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|Author:||Morrow, Jeffrey L.|
|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2004|
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