Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Genre and Religion

In class today, we explored Tolkien’s statement of his book’s religious character—namely, his claim that “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision” (Letters 142). In this post, I intend to reflect on religion and Catholicism in The Lord of the Rings slightly differently than we did in our discussion. Instead of investigating the religious characteristics of this particular work of fantasy—which I think we did admirably in our session together—I would like to consider a more general question: how might ‘fantasy’ as a genre be especially suited to a religious work like Tolkien’s? In other words, why is fantasy the right type of fiction for a book with religious features like those of The Lord of the Rings? Would a work of ‘naturalistic’ fiction have been as effective? What other generic concerns might be relevant?
I will begin with a disclaimer of sorts: The Lord of the Rings is a book that resists generic classification. At least one of Tolkien’s interlocutors in the Letters has proceeded too hastily in this regard, and Tolkien corrects him: “My work is not a ‘novel’, but an ‘heroic romance’ a much older and quite different variety of literature” (329). 
Yet, in my view, Tolkien here understates his book’s complexity. Certainly, elements of The Lord of the Rings are rooted in the tradition of the ‘heroic romance’—for example, the character of Aragorn and his quest to win his kingship and marry Arwen. But the book is meaningful in part because it transcends the conventions of the traditional romance. On this point, Verlyn Flieger describes how a conventional medieval story (whether epic, romance, or fairy tale) often “focuses on one figure—the hero of the tale.” She writes, “In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien has written a medieval story and given it both kinds of hero, the extraordinary man to give the epic sweep of great events, and the common man who has the immediate, poignant appeal of someone with whom the reader can identify” (124). For Flieger, the combination of Aragorn and Frodo “reveal[s] new values in the old pattern,” partly because “[t]he sacrifice is all the greater for being made by one so small” (145). 
In this merging of ‘high’ and ‘low,’ we have the first answer to our earlier question—how does The Lord of the Ring’s relationship to its genre deepen its religious significance? The combination of Aragorn and Frodo—itself a kind of generic innovation—reflects the Christian departure from the traditions which, according to Erich Auerbach, “classified subjects in genera, and invested every subject with a specific form of style as the one garment becoming it in virtue of its nature” (Mimesis, 45). Ancient writers assigned ‘low,’ comedic style to the lower classes and ‘high,’ tragic style to the upper classes, but the Gospels describe social outcasts making contact with the divine. Auerbach elaborates: “A scene like Peter’s denial,” for example, “fits into no antique genre. It is too serious for comedy, too contemporary and everyday for tragedy” (45). As a result, the Christian style merges high and low, modeling itself on the simultaneous sublimitas and humilitas of Christ’s Incarnation.
I have written almost 600 words on the topic of genre before addressing ‘fantasy’!(Perhaps this is the right chronology, though, given how much The Lord of the Rings has shaped our conception of fantasy.) How might Faery be the right mirror for faith? Ursula Le Guin writes, “Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction is” (The Language of the Night, 79). In my view, it is also nearer to religion.
This is because fantasy establishes a particular kind of distance from our ordinary experience, and thus surpasses the common sense and man-made reason with which we often make sense of that experience. In her essay on Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Mary McCarthy distinguishes between what she calls “the plane of everyday sanity” and “the plane of poetry and magic” and argues that something may be true on either or both of these levels. It seems to me that if we neglect the latter (“the plane of poetry and magic”)—whether in our works of fiction or in our accounting of our own existences—we underrepresent the real magic which is a part of human life. Faith is not possible in a world of common sense and man-made reason, which is a world denuded of all enchantment. 
Fantasy itself has the power to re-enchant our perception of the world. In “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien describes “Recovery” as the “regaining of a clear view.” He writes, “I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’…though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’” (The Tolkien Reader, 77). 
What might this mean? In my view, Tolkien indicates here the challenge of paying attention to our world in the right way. In his letter to the Romans, Paul laments the frailty of human attention. Paul attests, “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Romans 1:20). Yet we often lose sight of God’s greatness—we are distracted by worldly goods and neglect the higher good which they signify. Paul instructs us to direct our attention to the things of the world so as to glimpse in them the glory of God. To me, fantasy—the genre of fiction which reveals the danger, power, and magic of that which we consider trite and familiar—seems to be one good answer to Paul’s challenge.


  1. I can see where you are coming from. It seems logical to link fantasy and faerie to religion, because both contains elements of mysticism and magic that we don'e see in our everyday lives. But I don't quite buy the argument that naturalistic fiction cannot act as an equally, if not greater vehicle for faith.

    Fantasy gives us a way to appreciate the mystical and the epic in ways which naturalistic fiction cannot. It is unbounded by reality (mostly) and, therefore, can inspire faith and embody religious themes in ways which naturalistic fiction cannot. However, when you quote Romans 1:20,"Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made,” I disagree with your interpretation. It seems to me that Paul is ascribing the evidence for and glory of God in his works. The most mundane creations should be evidence of god's glory, and, also, poignancy and faith should be able to be inspired by hard reality. Fantasy has a role, certainly, but I think it is a bridge too far to suggest that naturalistic fiction cannot embody the same aspects of faith.

    -Nick Carter

  2. Nick,

    Thanks for the comment. I think I have been misunderstood, though -- but I attribute this entirely to a lack of clarity in how I've expressed myself in my quotation and analysis of Paul. I agree completely with your interpretation ("that Paul is ascribing evidence for and glory of God in his works"). But Paul also says (not in the line I've quoted, but in the following verses) that man has attended incorrectly to the things of the world, so as to prize them as things in themselves rather than as evidence of God's glory. (Hence my reading that he "laments the frailty of human attention." But certainly this lament does not arise out of Romans 1:20, which is his description of correct attention.) I see now that, to make this most clear, I probably should have quoted a larger selection from Romans.


  3. I am inclined to agree with both J.R. and Nick: I think that fantasy makes possible something that other genres (styles, modes) do not, but it is not necessarily because fantasy is not "naturalistic" (whatever that means). This is in fact what Auerbach was trying to explore in _Mimesis_: different ways of representing reality, of which fantasy is one, social realistic fiction (the modern norm for the novel) another. Where I would press you, J.R., is in the description of fantasy, particularly whether you see it as necessarily involved in the mixing of high and low styles. This mixing is, for me, one of the things that makes Tolkien's work stand out even among "fantasy" literature. So it is the mixture or the fantasy that gives us greater access to God?


  4. I might agree, but would want to qualify the statement that fantasy is closer to religion in important ways. I do think fantasy permits a mythological elaboration that can more directly resemble the mythologies of religions. But I can think of so many examples of literature that is definitely not fantasy that addresses religious questions too. Among more naturalistic fiction, it seems to me that George Eliot, herself an atheist, tends to raise questions of what it means to live religiously. I can think of numerous other examples close to mysticism and insanity that are less clearly in the naturalistic vein but aren’t really fantasy either: Aeschylus, Dostoyevsky, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner. All this is to say only that religion has been a complex source of experience to which many forms of verbal (and artistic) creation have responded. From the perspective of literary history, one thing that the multiple layers of LOTR (sublimitas/humilitas) might do is to supply an ironic perspective on the conventions of traditional romance. This does not mean that it does not also do what you, following on Auerbach’s classic analysis of Christian language, have suggested. Maybe it’s important also to compare the Silmarillion, which to me is all sublimitas, and yet religion is still in close proximity to it. It seems to me that each work inspires a different kind of pleasure, or appeals to something else in our imagination, or shows how many meanings faith and religion might have.