Interview with Dr. Alison Milbank author of Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians (22.10.07 by Pieter Collier) - Comments

Alison Milbank read Theology and English Literature at Cambridge and took her PhD at Lancaster. She was John Rylands Research Fellow at Manchester and has taught at the universities of Cambridge, Middlesex and Virginia.

She is currently Lecturer in Literature and Theology at the University of Nottingham.

Her publications include editions of Ann Radcliffe's fiction A Sicilian Romance (Oxford World's Classics)(1998), Daughters of the House: Modes of the Gothic in Victorian Fiction (1992) and Dante and the Victorians (1998).

Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians

Now Alison Milbank has published a new book on Tolkien and Chesterton, a topic that has been touched before by several authors; Tolkien, Lewis and Chesterton are often put on one line. Yet here is a book that goes much deeper and adds a lot of new perspective into the subject. It will for sure proof to become a very valuable source on Tolkien and Chesterton.

Alison Milbank examines the theology of G.K. Chesterton's fantastical poetry looking at the concept of Chesterton's 'theology of gift' as the means by which magic can become 'real' and enable characters to connect with the divine. Milbank sees a flourishing theology of creation and incarnation in both.

Tolkien refers several times to Chesterton’s essays in On Fairy-stories, and Milbank argues that these references show he knew a posthumous compilation of Chesterton’s writings, The Coloured Lands, edited by Maisie Ward in 1938, just before Tolkien’s lecture on which the fairy-story essay was based. This is just one of the interesting topics in this book, for sure it will be very interesting to many readers! Here follows an interview with the author.

Q: Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I am 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 and lecturer in literature and theology at the University of Nottingham. My theological interests are to the fore in my study of the influence of the poet Dante on British culture in the nineteenth century, Dante and the Victorians.

Q: How did you first get interested in Professor Tolkien's works?

It was my children, Arabella and Sebastian, who encouraged me to read Tolkien properly. As a child I liked The Hobbit but thought The Lord of the Rings was just for boys. Now I know that he has powerful heroines too and I really value the way he offers a rite of passage for male maturation. We read the trilogy aloud as a family and I was overwhelmed by its beauty and sadness. Then I was asked to give a series of public lectures on Tolkien and Christianity in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I used to live, and I also began to teach The Lord of the Rings in my Fantasy and Religion Course at the University of Virginia. This course attracted wonderfully enthusiastic and often brilliant students, from whom I learnt a good deal about Tolkien. I still teach a variant of this course at Nottingham.

Q: I'd like to talk about your book, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians. What prompted you to write this book?

What prompted me to write my book, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real, was first, the lack of any real literary analysis of Tolkien, showing how he gains his particular effects. I wanted to argue against those critics who say he writes badly, and show him to be a serious craftsman of language. Secondly, I wanted to show how the way he writes conveys a religious attitude to life, and a sense of the holy and transcendent.

Q: What is the link between Chesterton and Tolkien?

Teaching Tolkien in a course along with the writer G. K. Chesterton’s fantasy novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, made me aware of how similar their view of reality is. Chesterton gives a very courageous positive view of being and life itself as a good thing, and his stories are fantastic but always bring you back to the ordinary seen freshly as wonderful and exciting. Anyone who knows Tolkien’s essay, On Fairy-stories, will recognise the similarity to Tolkien’s second function of fantasy as escape from the world we know to a world of golden and silver trees, so that we may return and see ordinary apple trees as having a depth of being we never before perceived. We recover a clear view of things as we were meant (by God) to see them.

Q: Tolkien references to Chesterton on many occasions, can you tell us about this a little more?

Tolkien refers several times to Chesterton’s essays in On Fairy-stories, and I argue that these references show he knew a posthumous compilation of Chesterton’s writings, The Coloured Lands, edited by Maisie Ward in 1938, just before Tolkien’s lecture on which the fairy-story essay was based. Maisie Ward actually introduces the idea of sub-creation that is so important an aspect of Tolkien’s understanding of his literary project. It’s interesting that Tolkien is anxious to state that his view of the role of fantasy goes beyond that of Chesterton – this shows to me how closely influenced he feels himself to be. So Tolkien says that Chestertonian fantasy shows you the actual world from a new angle but thoroughgoing fantasy is like opening a box that allows out new things and releases them from our ownership of them. This is a really philosophical statement. The Enlightenment philosopher Kant said we have no access to things in themselves, and all we have is our own perception of the world. This leads to an alienated form of knowledge. Tolkien, following Chesterton, is a realist in a philosophical sense, because he thinks that we can be aware of a world beyond our own perceptions. Paradoxically, fiction – creating your own fantasy world – is not a way of owning your own private reality but setting the things in that world free – like Tom Bombadil putting the contents of the barrow-wights’ hoard out on the hillside.

Q: What are the similarities between Tolkien and Chesterton?

Similarities then between Chesterton and Tolkien are numerous but here are a few crucial parallels:

1. Both were Catholics by faith.
2. Both had an intense love of England, and love of the local and specific landscape.
3. They grew up to read William Morris, George MacDonald and the Andrew Lang fairy books.
4. They both enjoyed making worlds, Tolkien through writing and drawing, Chesterton especially through puppet theatres.
5. They sought a politics and ecology that restored non-alienated modes of production.
6. For both men, fiction and make-believe were modes of truth-telling.
7. As I mentioned above, both men were moderate philosophical realists, influenced by Thomas Aquinas.

Q: Can we explore Tolkien through Chesterton?

The way my book works is to take a series of literary ideas – the fantastic, the grotesque and paradox/riddle – and show how Chesterton’s use of them and writing about them helps us to look afresh at Tolkien. For example, in the chapter, ‘Making-Strange’ I talk about Chesterton’s early memory of a man with a golden key crossing a bridge to a castle, which proves to be a recollection not of a real scene but of a cardboard figure in his father’s puppet theatre. The point is that the young Chesterton was not deceived but loved the theatre because of its fictionality. It opened up the whole world as one vast toy theatre put there for his delectation by its maker, God. This helps us to make sense of Tolkien’s vast fictional universe. When we read it we are immersed in its detail and depth of realism but that same detail makes us aware of it as a fictional construction. Tolkien makes Sam meditate on being a character in a story or song when encouraging the wounded Frodo at the Crack of Doom, which is doubly ironic for the reader who knows that Sam and Frodo will be in a song within the story and also characters in the story about their story. Tolkien also gives us the hobbits, who are believably small town English people with their love of gardening, pipes and beer but utterly fictional in their huge and hairy feet. Chesterton describes for me effects that one can find in Tolkien. It is this double effect of realism and craft that gives Tolkien’s world its power and energy. I have a whole chapter on Father Christmas in both writers as the prime example of a figure who is both a collaborative make-believe between parents and children, and yet utterly real at some level.

Q: Why do you think Tolkien's books are so successful?

For me, Tolkien’s books are so successful precisely because they play between the real and the fictive, and because they are religious in giving the reader a hunger for transcendence – for a world beyond this world. Middle-earth points beyond itself to the West, and leaves the reader torn between wanting to stay with Sam at Bag-End here on earth and also wanting to reunite him with Frodo, now in the Blessed Realm. Another tension that makes the story so powerful is its treatment of nostalgia. It is not a nostalgic text but one that shows the elves as preservers of the past, with all the beauty and yet stasis that this represents. Again the reader is caught between the desire to defeat Sauron and the new reign of Aragorn that this will usher in, and the consequent loss of elvish presence on earth that will ensue as the Rings lose their authority and the elves diminish. When we finish reading the novel we see a certain closure in the separation of elves and humans, but we carry on bearing the ache of that separation. As someone who thinks it arrogant to believe that we humans are the only form of conscious existence in the universe, I really value that quality in the novel. I think we are all in exile from our enchanted past, an imagined past when we communed with the creatures as Carroll’s Alice does with the faun, and walked with elves. In fact we need to re-enchant our world if we are to save it from our own ravaging of its resources.

Q: Did you have any resources you used that we should know about?

I wrote this book far from copyright libraries, and the main resources were the writings of the two authors themselves. I commend to all Tolkien lovers, Chesterton’s spiritual autobiography, Orthodoxy, and especially, the chapter, ‘The Ethics of Elfland’. It is available easily on the web. It is a defence of fantasy as more scientific than science – or Victorian positivist conceptions of science - and it really blows one’s mind. I also kept finding Dante creeping in, especially in the chapter on the grotesque. I also used a lot of Jacques Maritain, a populariser of Thomas Aquinas in the early twentieth century, who was translated by Chesterton’s model for the priest detective Father Brown, Monsignor John O’Connor, whose ideas about faith and art I argue were a resource not only for Chesterton but also Tolkien. Another resource for me was Tom Bombadil, who became the key to understanding Tolkien’s vision of reality and who pops up all over the place. I found an ancestor for him in the poet Edward Thomas’s Lob, and I used Georgian and modernist poetry as a background against which to understand Tolkien’s development. And I was generously allowed access to the copy of the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas owned by Tolkien, which is for sale at St Philip’s Bookshop in Oxford. It has marginal notes which I believe might be those of Father Morgan but also pencil marks on sections that might easily be by Tolkien – book marks are made of Anglo-Saxon booklists! They also mark sections on marriage and obedience, which fit with Tolkien’s early marriage against Fr Morgan’s advice. Someone needs to look at these volumes properly.

Q: How do you feel about the result of your book? What is your hope for your readers?

My book has only just been published so I don’t quite know what its result will be. I hope it will help people read Tolkien with renewed understanding and excitement, and read the world as a creation – a fiction if you like. We treat the objects of our own world as dead things, and I hope that as a result of my book we can use Tolkien’s vision of a vibrant, active universe of beings to renew our vision of plants, animals and lampposts alike. I have a whole chapter on gift-exchange, and I hope that readers will learn to see how Tolkien’s novel teaches us to receive the world itself as a gift.

Q: Did you learn something new about Tolkien?

It is difficult to say what new things I have learnt about Tolkien because he is so consistent that to read one short story, such as ‘Leaf by Niggle’ or ‘Smith of Wotton Major’ is to hold a thread that is woven from end to end of his vast oeuvre. So everything new one comes across is always accompanied with a sense of déjà-vu.

Q: Where do you write?

I live in the tiny cathedral town of Southwell in Sherwood Forest, looking out of my study window on vast trees. And I am a curate in the village of Lambley, which adjoins Phoenix Farm, where Tolkien stayed with his aunt when she was a tenant farmer in Nottinghamshire. It is a pretty hobbitish area, with a very tucked-away feel to it, despite the proximity of the A1.

Q: What are you currently working on? Any more Tolkien related books?

I have written several other articles on Tolkien, including one on fetishism for The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy. This summer I was privileged to deliver a talk on Tolkien and ways of knowing to several thousand mainly young Catholics at the Rimini Meeting of Communion and Liberation, which was a great privilege. It was wonderful to hear them all cry out ‘Viva Tolkien!’ My next project is a theological history of the Gothic novel but I also hope to disinter Tolkien’s lecture to the Oxford Dante Society and write an article about Dante and Tolkien.

Q: When you're not working, what are your favourite ways to relax and have fun?

As a full-time academic and also assistant priest, my spare time is spent making rather amateurish models for Junior Church or leading services. But I love cinema, and going to the theatre. And I read old-fashioned detective stories, intending to write one myself one day. I am a walker like Tolkien, and love meandering about picking up conkers, rather than striding for miles like C. S. Lewis.

Q: One final question: what did you think of The Children of Húrin?

The Children of Húrin is really powerful, I think. It did not come out in its recent form when I was writing my book, but I would have found the whole emphasis on doom and the limits of human freedom interesting. And the power of the dragon Glaurung is fascinating and psychologically consistent. The style is a bit like the King James Bible but none the worse for that. Tolkien was capable of a mythic reach in his writing and this story comes across like a true myth.

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