Review: Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians
Reviewed by Mike Foster
Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real by Alison Milbank (London, New York: T&T Clark, 2009); 200 pages
A convincing argument may be made that the early twenty-first century is a new golden age of literate and literary Tolkien criticism.
To the forefront of that honor roll, add Alison Milbank’s magnificent Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians.
Prodigious and polymathic in its allusions to fiction, folklore, theology, philosophy, economics, papal encyclicals, and literary criticism, it is rooted deeply in insightful comprehension of the works of both authors. It weaves Elvish ropes linking the two together in ways few — if any — other critical works have done.
Of course, writing an opus like this one is fraught with perils for those who would link Faerie to the Cathedral. “Therein lies the problem with books of this sort,” wrote this reviewer of Stratford Caldecott’s 2005 volume The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind the Lord of the Rings. “The reader perforce has two subjects to weigh and balance: literary scholarship and theological interpretation.”
The long and narrow bridge over the abyss Dr. Milbank has crossed sure-footedly. A lecturer at the University of Nottingham, UK, she describes herself as “a literary scholar of the Victorian period and the Gothic novel, with interests in all manner of non-realist fiction: fantasy, horror, and mystery. I am also an Anglican priest.”
Since this reviewer has written and spoken on the spiritual links between the Shire and the Flying Inn, taught university classes linking the two writers (as she has), and discussed Chesterton’s influence on Tolkien with Priscilla Tolkien and George Sayer, among others, he was impressed from the first page of the preface, which sets forth the order of the book, to the conclusion wherein Dr. Milbank looks back lucidly in a fine finale linking Father Christmas, Santa Claus, and Tom Bombadil.
By only the second page, which conjoins Tolkien’s greatest tale to Welshman David Jones’ “wartime epic, In Parenthesis, juxtaposing ordinary soldier talk of a range of periods with mythic tales in order to give heroism and significance to the common people,” (ix) the power and the glory of this study is foretold, and, like all foretellings in Tolkien and Chesterton, the prophecy is fulfilled.
One virtue of this work is the author’s mastery of existing Chesterton and Tolkien criticism. She stands tall and sees far because she stands on the giants’ shoulders.
Likewise, her understanding of Dante provides a connection between her subjects and his Divine Comedy. Her small “c” catholic incorporation of sources as variegated as the Pre-Raphaelites, Agatha Christie, E.M. Forster, David Hume, Thomas Aquinas, Eric Gill, Jacques Maritain, Alfred Noyes, Peter Pan, Lob, Rerum Novarum, and J. K. Rowling — all these in the introduction alone — is stunning and superb.
One annoying but immediate quibble: while the text, typography, editing, and layout are impeccable, the book is bound too tightly. The last words on the left-hand even-numbered pages roll off in the gutter; the spine resists overmuch, and thus annoyingly many words are lost in the crack.
“Making Strange: The Fantastic,” the first of Prof. Milbank’s five chapters, is the Introit. Immanuel Kant, Joan Aiken, Phillip Pullman, and Gertrude Stein lead her to this declaration: “We believe in ents, dwarves, etc., because we experience them through hobbit eyes; we believe in the hobbits…because they are our focalizers” (42).
Throughout, she generously lards her study with fat quotes from Tolkien and Chesterton. Beware the side effect: readers will go clambering up their shelves for The Ball and the Cross and others too long unread.
The coupling of the risen Gandalf’s reappearance in The Two Towers with Jesus’ two encounters with Mary Magdalene in John 20 and Luke 24 underscores Dr. Milbank’s priestly mastery of scripture.
The second chapter, “The Grotesque,” begins by connecting Rossetti’s and Millais’ religious paintings, and the outcry they evoked from both authors. “Chesterton’s vision of controlling a million monsters finds a parallel in Tolkien’s attitude towards ‘the wilderness of the dragons’ of the Northern pagan past’…”(60-61). Treebeard gets especial attention as Tolkien’s best grotesque creation, and Dr. Milbank takes her subtle knife to the difference between Tolkien’s text and Peter Jackson’s films.
The dwarves embody “this created action of the grotesque…[they] are short, stone-hard, and fierce, reflected also in their greed for gold and antipathy to trees.” (65). Gimli’s daring but unmaterialistic request for a single hair from Galadriel betokens the coming transcendence of the dwarves. As she says:“Arabesque elf and grotesque dwarf [rise above] their origins in…friendship and…growth toward understanding of each other’s aesthetic.”
Shelob, Gollum, and Ungoliant draw their due as grotesques. Though in this journal, Dr. Milbank’s comments on Chesterton are the focus, her alliance of his views to Tolkien’s is well-woven throughout. Her exposition on the artwork of both shines further light on their fictive fellowship. Here, too, the elements of Dante in both are astutely itemized. Tom Bombadil, who will play a major role in her conclusion, is the final puzzle piece placed.
“Paradox and Riddles,” the third chapter, introduces the second quibble: for, coherent reading, two bookmarks are required: one for text, one for endnotes. Footnotes would have been more felicitous.
Linking Chesterton’s infatuation with paradox to Tolkien’s with the latter, Dr. Milbank notes that Bilbo, Bombadil, and Aragorn are all riddles and riddlers.
Indeed, paradox applies to Frodo and Sam as well. “The true happy ending of the novel lies beyond the pages of the book, and yet is anticipated in moments such as Sam and Frodo’s descent from Mount Doom, when Sam, a true Bunyanesque ‘Hopeful’, leads the lost and broken Frodo to safety” (111).
“Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?,” Chesterton’s humble query, begins the fourth chapter, “Fairy Economics: Gift Exchange.” Here this study begins to rise on the wind beneath its wings.
She writes: “For us gift giving belongs to the private realm: we take off the price tag and wrap a commodity in tissue paper to remove it from the world of market-value and exchange; we turn it into a present, and thus restore it to the sacred: we enchant it, as it were” (118). This contrasts with Saruman’s dehumanization of his wage-slave workers in contrast to Beowulf, Belloc, Chesterton, and Tolkien’s economic philosophy of Distributism, hallowed by Pope Leo XIII. Niggle’s eucatastrophe—“It’s a gift!”—joins hands with The Flying Inn’s pub sign: “Beer is freely given under the inn sign from what appears to be a Cana-like never-emptied barrel” (122).
“It is no accident that Niggle’s subject is a tree because trees have been emblematic of the divine gift right back to the Garden of Eden and its Tree of Life” (126-27). The chapter’s last three pages on Galadriel’s gifts to the Fellowship, with the “binding rite” of the Norse and Anglo-Saxon cup which she performs, brilliantly bind that moment to the tale of the Ring.The fifth and final chapter, “Fairy Poetics: Make Believe,” wraps this superlative gift in gold and delivers the author’s summary benediction. A tender commentary on Tolkien’s twenty years of Father Christmas letters—will his children’s letters in reply, a gift indeed, ever be published?—harmonizes with Dickens’ Scrooge, Matthew’s Magi chronicle, and Chesterton’s observations about Father Christmas in The Everlasting Man. Dr. Milbank’s identification of Tom Bombadil, a legend looming large throughout this book, with Father Christmas is the perfect Ite, Missa est.
Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians’ five-page coda of conclusion begins with David Jones “A, a, a, DOMINE DEUS” and ends with this benediction:
“And Tolkien’s ‘other’ world is always in relation to our own, and his fantastic opens a space in which we can imagine and entertain the seemingly impossible in such a way that we can both literally and metaphorically ‘assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.’ For it is only through the re-enchantment of the world by our creative visions that we will find the courage and resources to prevent its rape and destruction” (168-69).
Four years ago, in the review of Stratford Caldecott’s The Power of the Ring mentioned above, this reviewer declared:“Reducing The Lord of the Rings to a Christian allegory similar to C.S. Lewis’ Narnian tales is mistaking a crucial part for the whole. As critics as diverse as Tom Shippey and Joseph Pearce point out, one need not share the author’s faith to cherish his tale. Many other things are at work in it: Tolkien’s love of trees and loathing of technology, his enjoyment of good food, good friends, good cheer, and good beer, his nostalgia for the ‘little England’ of bygone days, his experiences in the trenches of World War One. Caldecott’s book is colored by viewing all these through the stained-glass lens of faith.”
With all respect to that writer, who Dr. Milbank cites with approbation, in Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, Catholicism’s stained-glass becomes clear and bright as the light of Eärendil and the gleam of a pint glass at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. Through her puissant and polished prose, we can see clearly now.
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