The Catholic Fantastic of Chesterton and Tolkien

Ralph Wood has a good article on Chesterton and Tolkien in today’s First Things in which he praises Alison Milbank’s Chesterton and Tolkien As Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real. Here’s a taste:

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.

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.

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.

You can read the full article here.

2 comments

  1. Jason, not sure what you felt about the Blue Like Jazz book craze across the U.S., but after reading your blog, i just have to recommend a book to you and your readers for the new year. It is Brown Like Coffee. Kind of wacky but real challenging. I found it at brownlikecoffee.com . It seemed kind of like a response to BLJ. I would love to get your response to both books.

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