Tolkien, Fairy-stories, and Utopia, part 1

The Big Question on the back page of the September issue of The Atlantic asks, “What fictional city (or other locale) would you most like to inhabit?” The first answer is from Howard Shore, composer of the film scores for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit: Rivendell. I think that would be my pick too, though I’d want to make long visits to Lothlorien, and the Shire, and Rohan, and Dale….

Tolkien’s imagined places and communities are one of the most appealing aspects of his fiction, all the more so when gifted artists help us further imagine them. They are one of the clearest examples of what he means, in his essay “On Fairy-stories,” by the making of a Secondary World, the most comprehensive product of the heightened “sub-creation” for which he uses the term Fantasy.

Rivendell2Secondary Worlds, especially when they are idealized, set works of fantasy at the greatest distance from reality and from more “realistic” literature. At the same time, though, this world-making only intensifies what all literature does. A detour through the philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s understanding of utopia, its relation to ideology, and his notion of distanciation will shed light on the importance of Tolkienian fantasy and how his essay makes a fundamental contribution to literary theory.

For Ricoeur, utopia—a word coined by Thomas More from Greek roots meaning both “no place” and “good place”—opens a perspective from which ideology can be seen for what it is and critiqued. Ideology is, most basically, all of the meanings and stories by which members of a community, society, or culture make sense of things together. In a more particular sense, ideology justifies a social order, especially its relations of power. This has a negative side (the original, Marxist sense) when ideology distorts reality in order to legitimate violence. Utopia, by thinking otherwise about how a society might work—especially with regard to power—makes it possible to think about ideology and choose differently.

A pure utopia, like More’s original one, simply invents a place that operates according to a new ideology, with a different kind of political order, economy, family structure, and so on. Secondary Worlds in fantasy literature do a lot of this, though it is less noted, even by Tolkien himself, than the ways they change the laws of nature, adding magic and talking animals and other marvels. What’s most marvelous about hobbits, though, is not their furry feet and ability to walk silently (despite eating six meals a day) but the way they live together. The Shire is not a complete utopia, but it is shaped by an ideology and other conditions that nurture healthy community and inhibit negative kinds of desire and the resulting rivalry. (See Anna’s piece on positive desire in the Shire.)

By making the Shire his home base and hobbits the main characters of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien begins to construct something like a utopian perspective from which readers can begin to see their own reality differently. The hobbits’ adventures then put them among peoples and places that either intensify familiar ideologies in order to hold them up for recognition and satire, or imagine unfamiliar wonders (though still based on things we can recognize) that open up ways of relating to the world and each other. Tom Bombadil and Goldberry distill the harmony with the natural world and mutual delight in its abundance that is also basic to hobbit culture. At the other end of the spectrum, Sauron and Mordor distill the essence of envy and desire for domination and the ideology of slavery and resentful servitude they lead to. In between are the cultures of men: Rohan with its heroism and desire for glory, come under the shadow of Saruman’s fixation on power and fear of futility; Gondor with noble dedication to the defense of civilization but temptation to idolize its own strength and hate rivals. In all of these, Tolkien represents strands in the real ideological heritage of Europe: the ancient dream of empire, the heroic culture he admired in texts like Beowulf, the utilitarian ideology of industrialism, the ideals of Rome, modern totalitarianism.

Of course this is just the beginning of a lot of analysis that could be done, and has been. What matters more than identifying particular real-world connections, though, is the effect they have within Tolkien’s larger aims. Tolkien is not writing allegory, as he made very clear. He preferred what he called applicability. Elements of his world are applicable in that they make newly visible the ideological air we breathe. This is part of what all literature does, and something fantasy can heighten. At the beginning of the modern literary tradition in English, in fact, William Langland’s Piers Plowman combines allegorical representations of contemporary ideology and visionary, proto-utopian scenes, all with what seems to have been revelatory effect.

Shedding light on the Primary World through a combination of ideology and utopia is just a first step, however, toward the further purposes of fantasy that Tolkien treats under the headings Escape, Recovery, and Consolation—my next topic.

About Writing in the Dust

Earlier this summer I finished what I hope is the final major round of revisions to a (very) long-running book project currently titled Riddles, Rhetoric, and Theology: Piers Plowman and the Medieval Poetics of Enigma. It’s a little on the obscure side—in more ways than one, in fact, since it is about the literary and theological uses of obscurity.

During the second half of the summer, I’ve been working with two brilliant research students, Anna Goodling and Rebecca Fox, on projects inspired by the work of J. R. R. Tolkien and René Girard, whom we take to be two of the greatest literary thinkers, and arguably the two most important Christian literary thinkers, of the past century. It’s been a rich time, generating more lines of thinking than we will be able to explore in fully researched detail.

Rebecca and Anna, experienced and eloquent bloggers, have been using this form (here and here) alongside developing their work in more traditional ways. I’d like to follow their lead and open a space to play with some ideas related to these projects. I hope blogging will be conducive to the kind of play that Dante finds to be the business, both serious and joyful, of heaven. Literature has, for me, been a major means of entry into what I imagine such play to be. I also hope blogging will lead to partnership in ways that regular academic publication doesn’t.

In order to begin to think about the purposes of literary play, I want to begin with a scene that is far from playful, but perhaps for that reason shows the greatest power of literature—though I may be stretching things a bit far. There is only one reference in the Gospels to Jesus writing, and we do not know what he wrote, only what effect his writing had. Yet this story indicates something about what writing can do—especially the kind that most presses the potential of literacy, what we have come to call literature.

A crowd about to stone a woman caught in adultery asks Jesus what he has to say. As they continue questioning him, he writes with his finger in the dust. Only then does he say the famous words, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7, NRSV). Then he writes on the ground again. Meanwhile “they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders” (verse 9). Jesus is left alone with the woman, whom he releases from condemnation and directs to go and not sin again.

Writing in the Dust (2015) by Roger Wagner. Auckland Castle
Writing in the Dust (2015) by Roger Wagner. Auckland Castle

The result is forgiveness instead of persecution, individual reflection rather than unanimous violence, and a healing dialogue instead of an argument that the mob with stones would win—a conversion of relationship, selfhood, and community. I would like to ask how this scene might offer direction for thinking about what literature does.

I am thinking of René Girard’s interpretation of the scene (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, 54-61; When These Things Begin, 121-6). Jesus writes in order not to look at the crowd because, if he did, they would see in his eyes only a reflection of their own violence, which would be enough to provoke the first stone. It does not matter what Jesus writes; he writes simply because he has bent down. Writing in the dust, as Rowan Williams puts it in his short book of that title, “allows a moment, a longish moment, in which people are given time to see themselves differently” (78). Writing is a stall tactic, and Girard pretty much says that it’s not worth bothering much about the particular significance of writing while stalling. But writing gives a certain character to Christ’s silence and evokes a certain kind of attention. The Gospels themselves ultimately enter the space of this silence and give shape to the attention it solicits. For a sense of how this shape might apply to literature more broadly, I would turn to the Gospels’ fondness for parables.

The word “parable” comes from parts meaning “thrown beside.” Used as a term for a figure of speech or a literary genre, the word seems to have been taken as a metaphor for comparison. Other early uses of the term, however—a piece of food thrown to animals or something thrown to a crowd—suggest to Girard another sense: Jesus throws parables to crowds in order to redirect their violent energy (The Scapegoat, 192-3). Elsewhere, he points out that the parables often portray a God of transcendent violence, but so that such a portrayal can be thought about, not simply believed, and can be seen to contradict Christ’s other teaching (When These Things Begin, 116). Some parables, I would say, also point beyond the usual projections of human violence onto God and ask us to imagine a God who is, like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, always surprising us with love beyond expectation or comprehension.

Gospel parables are the cardinal example of what I call the poetics of enigma (another Greek rhetorical term, used by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:12). Enigma was a word for riddles in Greek, and enigmatic texts pose interpretive challenges, but their challenge does not end with a single answer. Indeed, it never ends, but ever moves towards truth that is infinite and cannot be possessed or mastered. Jesus’ writing in the dust is the purest form of enigma because it summons the members of the crown to reinterpret themselves through knowing him. The poetics of enigma forms community around shared interpretive play rather than unanimous violence. (It’s a lot like, or maybe an aspect of, centered-set faith.)

Enigmatic texts such as the parables are condensed examples of literature’s capacity to move an audience away from one way of thought, feeling, and belonging and toward another. I find Girard’s mimetic theory to especially insightful about what literary reading can call us away from and J. R. R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-stories” to be similarly helpful in thinking about what it can call us to. These two will be the poles around which the next few posts will orbit.