Is Tolkien Useless?

Cole Matson is a Theology finalist at the University of Oxford. He writes about Christianity and theatre at The Unicorn Triumphant.

During his talk during Tuesday’s first conference session, Prof Richard Bauckham critiqued Prof David Brown’s emphasis on fictional characters in the volume Discipleship and Imagination: Christian Tradition and Truth. Bauckham was uncomfortable with the use of fictional characters to explore questions of Christian discipleship. Bauckham instead suggested that biography would be a more fruitful form of literature, because real-life people finding ways of following Christ in this world are more easily emulated than are fictional characters, whose situations may bear no clear similarity to our own lives. Additionally, knowing that actual people have found ways of following Christ increases our hope that a life of discipleship is possible.

In the following Q&A, Bauckham responded to an audience member’s suggestion of the value of J.R.R. Tolkien by saying that he did not think that fantasy literature such as The Lord of the Rings was very useful to discipleship, and that if fiction must be used, realistic fiction, such as the work of Dostoevsky (his example), would be of greater use. In effect, Bauckham proposed a literary hierarchy of value to discipleship in which biography was the most useful, realistic fiction less useful, and fantasy fiction least useful, if useful at all.

I strongly disagree with Prof Bauckham’s evaluation of the usefulness of fantasy literature to Christian discipleship. I believe it can in fact be extremely useful, for the following reasons:

1) Fantasy literature takes us out of our world, enabling us to see moral principles more clearly. Moral questions are not blurred by proximity to our own lives, so we are able to look at situations faced by the characters, such as war, without complicating them with our thoughts about wars in our own world. Afterwards, we are able to take the moral principles we’ve learned and re-apply them to situations in our own world.

2) In addition, fantasy literature gives us more stark examples of heroism and villainy than realistic fiction usually does. Therefore, we are able to see the boundaries and definitions of these behaviours more clearly than in the psychological explorations characteristic of realistic fiction, which often focuses on flawed characters muddling through life. Instead of giving us new examples of people on our same moral level, fantasy often gives us examples of people who are (or turn out to be) very much better than we are, which gives us something to aim towards. The high physical and moral stakes characteristic of fantasy – life and death, cowardice or courage – also remind us that our world is one of high stakes, and immense moral significance.

3) Finally, fantasy takes us into a heightened world, a world of glorious good and terrible evil, of kings and ladies, knights and magicians, unicorns and dragons and elves – a world in which every action has significance, and even one small question can either save or doom Camelot. Every tree is rich in meaning, and when we come back to our world, we see that meaning in our own trees. Fantasy reminds us that ours too is a supernatural world, which is a reminder most particular to fantasy.

I do agree with Prof Bauckham that biography, especially of the saints (whether canonized or not), is also important to Christian discipleship. Fantasy teaches us to love brave knights, good kings, and humble hobbits, and then biography gives us examples of these fantastic heroes brought to life in our own world. We love the humble suffering servant Frodo; Mother Teresa and St Peter Claver – or even our own saintly grandmothers – show us that such a difficult life of hidden service is possible.

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20 Comments

  • Buddy says:

    As someone who has been discipling believers since my college days, one thing occurred to me in reading about the use of literature and grading them according to usefulness in discipleship. Just how is this person defining discipleship? If the speaker defines discipleship narrowly it names since that I must choose materials that communicate truths that I want to point out and connect to a persons life. Discipleship at that point would narrowly be defined as teaching. If discipleship was a bit broader and involved life on life contact, where discussions centered around more than the content I wanted to communicate, I could see using many sources of literature, music, art, to communicate to a disciple, especially if they have taken the initiative to engage the material on their own.

    I reach my children much more effectively if I incarnate, taking time to come to their world and talk about the things they like. In this case, if a person were reading Tolkien or watching a movie, it gives me a point to begin. That being said, the blog points out some great points about fantasy literature. One point, begin able to write and set a story outside of our history allows the author to focus on the things that matter to him without the distraction that say historical fiction would bring.

    All in all Tolkien is worth reading and talking about. There is no reason to leave it aside anymore than we leave other works worth reading. Just as long as we remember to read and meditate on our Bible as well! Thanks for making me think this morning!

    It makes me want to look into “Prof David Brown’s volume Discipleship and Imagination: Christian Tradition and Truth. “

    • ccematson says:

      Buddy,

      I may be wrong, but I think Dr Bauckham was thinking of the teaching aspect of discipleship in this conversation, especially providing examples of good exemplars of actions that followers of Christ should emulate. I think his difficulty with fantasy was that it didn’t provide easily emulated actions. For example, it will be easier for me to emulate volunteering at a low-income hospital than it will be for me to emulate walking thousands of miles under great physical and emotional stress to deposit a ring into a giant smoking slag heap.

      However, I think that’s where imagination comes in. See more in my comments below.

      I concur with your point that when you’re doing discipleship as a one-on-one relationship, you need to be able to relate to the things the person you’re discipling sees as important, such as cultural icons.

  • Sam Adams says:

    Thanks for these reflections. I think that interchange between Brown and Bauckham was interesting and deserves this sort of reflection. On the one hand I am not convinced that fiction is useful for the teaching of moral principles in the way you described since I am not convinced that the application of moral principles is a useful way of understanding moral formation. Fiction can contribute to moral formation but not, I think, in such a simplistic way. That is, of course, a longer, more involved and nuanced discussion. What I think is important to consider is Brown’s response that all biography necessarily involves fictional construction to fill out the important elements of narrative otherwise missing. That being the case it is also important to pay attention to the way in which fictional characters and real people can be said to bear witness. Can fictional characters (e.g. Frodo) be said to witness in the same way, if they witness at all, as do actual disciples (e.g. Mother Teresa)?

    • ccematson says:

      Sam,

      Your point is correct, moral formation through fiction is not quite as simplistic as I portrayed it here with the phrase of ‘applying moral principles.’ I addressed the question in a bit more depth in a paper I recently gave to the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society on the value of fantasy literature. I think we can find moral principles in fiction, but that the true value is living with the characters, sitting inside the story, and coming back to our world having ‘tasted’ virtue and goodness. We might not be able to (or want to) pry out logical principles of morality from our experience, but when we meet virtue and goodness in our world, we’ll recognise the taste. There’s more to it, again, but there’s a start.

      When I think of Lord of the Rings, I think more of Tolkien witnessing than of Frodo. But Tolkien’s witnessing *through* Frodo, or rather, through a story he’s uncovered which has been buried in the fabric of reality. He’s in a way saying ‘this is what life is, this is what suffering humility tastes like’. And Frodo is more than a symbol of suffering humility, but that is one ‘flavour’ that we can taste in him.

      I think another benefit of fictional characters is that we can, and indeed are invited to, judge their actions to a greater extent than we can real people. We’re commanded not to judge our fellow human beings, and we wouldn’t want to, particularly because, as you pointed out, we’re missing part of that person’s narrative. We will never access the depths of their heart, where it is just them and God. However, with fictional characters, the author gives us everything we need to know that is important to their story. We have a fuller view of Frodo than we currently have of Mother Teresa, so we can look all round him and explore where he is good or bad, and why. We can’t know that (yet, if ever) of Mother Teresa. (However, I do believe that in the end, when the curtain is pulled back, we’ll know our fellow human beings like Mother Teresa, and ourselves, more fully and deeply than we can possibly imagine now, and more than we could ever know a fictional character. We’ll know where the fictional characters come from.)

  • Andrew M. says:

    Let us not forget that even biography has a certain fictional slant to it. Raw reality is too complex and things are rarely as clear cut as we wish them to be. A lot of schoolbook history is a mixture of oversimplification and glorification. A biographer can make a hero or a villain out of any real person by choing the right slant and selectively valuing and ignoring facts or maligning evidence that doesn’t fit into his or her chosen interpretation. Fiction is thus a vehicle of projecting a desired certainty into a world of uncertainty. But does that make fiction false? Are we fooling ourselves and clutching onto a straws when we embrace fiction. I say no. For despite the mire and massed contradictions of reality, ideals do exist. There is right and wrong, and only fiction can present them to us and remind us of that. Fantasy fiction is best placed of all forms of literature to do this as it is the form that can the most easily cast aside the shackles of confusion of reality.

    • ccematson says:

      Andrew,

      You’re right, biography can be easily fictionalised (especially political biography, as was pointed out at the conference!). Witness Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, with a saintly Thomas More, versus Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, with a sympathetic portrait of Thomas Cromwell. The hero depends on which work you’re reading. I think this points to the need for empathetic and honest Christian biographers, who can show compassion towards the unsavoury sides of their subjects, but also won’t portray immoral actions as acceptable.

  • Ben says:

    Although I agree that biography can have a fictive aspect to it, I think the best biography avoids that, so I don’t think that’s the most fruitful route for responding to Bauckham’s criticism. The problem with that approach is it narrows the variety of things that narratives can accomplish into a much smaller scope than appropriate.
    Along those lines, I hope Bauckham is considering discipleship narrowly, because it would show him to be extremely imperceptive and foolish were he actually positing that fantasy is attempting to do the same thing that biography is doing, only failing. That would be like criticizing Van Gogh’s Starry Night for failing to represent the human body as well as Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. Even so, the breadth of knowledge and virtue discipleship should impart requires various methods of instruction, and is therefore assisted by a variety of arts.
    Biography is an excellent way to see how those who have gone before have dealt with some of the difficulties that arise in life, but it lacks a complete picture of the human soul because no biographer can know everything about his subject’s inner life. Dostoevsky is a better choice for a convincing and powerful portrayal of the soul. But neither a biographer nor Dostoevsky even attempts some of the things Tolkien does, just as Tolkien does not attempt some of the things they do. The original post has pointed out some of the things fantasy can accomplish, particularly in the first point about seeing moral principles more clearly without the distractions of the “real” world, which is affected by our biases, blindness, irrelevant details, and so forth.
    I would also point out that part of discipleship involves pointing us more firmly toward heaven. As much as I love Dostoevsky, I would argue strenuously against someone who thought Crime and Punishment was showing much about heaven. It’s much more focused on dealing with life on earth. Tolkien himself discusses escape as a legitimate function of fantasy, noting that those in prison should not spend all their time thinking about life inside.
    Regarding Lord of the Rings in particular, I think it can accomplish several things in discipleship, depending on which aspect of the story strikes someone most personally. I have encountered those who identify with Frodo because he is weak, yet still does what he can. There are those who learn from Bilbo and Frodo’s pity of Gollum and its eventual good result. In my own case, it is less the particular characters than the way the plot culminates at the Crack of Doom. Again using Tolkien’s terms, the eucatastrophe–the sudden joyous turn–is deeply satisfying and convinces me that we are designed for such joy to be possible and ultimately fulfilled.

    • ccematson says:

      Ben, I agree wholeheartedly with your comment, especially about the role of eucatastrophe, which Tolkien suggested might even be the defining mark of fantasy.

  • Jack says:

    Now that I’ve read this, I’ll have to admit: I’m not buying anyone’s argument as represented here. Brown seems to be misdirecting or overstating the function of literature, and Bauckham seems to be undervaluing literature. A pox on both their houses. Valuing fiction for the role it may play in discipleship seems to me like valuing a piece of music because it helps lovers make love. There may be nothing wrong, there may even be something right about the results, but the results are tangential to the purposes and functions of the creative work.

    • ccematson says:

      Now before we go poxing houses, I don’t think either Brown or Bauckham is advocating a purely utilitarian view of literature. I think Bauckham was addressing what he saw as a failure of fantasy for this particular use.

      I completely agree, though, that however useful a piece of art may be for a particular function, its value is not limited to its usefulness. The delight of it is value enough. And one cannot receive that delight if one is approaching it merely as a tool. (C.S. Lewis is particular adamant that Lewis must receive a piece of work rather than use it, and that indeed it will be of no use if it is not received as art first.)

      • Jack says:

        Here’s what I might ask Brown, again based upon your summary of his argument: Would his analysis change if reading fiction persuaded people to become disciples of Chairman Mao?

      • ccematson says:

        I wouldn’t make too much of Brown’s argument in this discussion, because I haven’t read it myself, and am only quoting from Bauckham’s summary of his argument, so I can’t say how his analysis of fiction might change depending on the angle of the piece of fiction. However, I imagine that he might concur that fiction can both draw people to or repel them from Christ. (I speak under correction.)

      • Andrew M. says:

        Jack,

        Concerning your qeuestion about Chairman Mao. It is interesting that Marxists have developed their own brand of literary criticism, their own style of literature and their own model for interpreting history which they apply even beyond the classical Marxist domains such as the struggle of the Proletariat. It is also interesting that there is very little fantasy or escapist literature from Marxist authors. Tolkien was even banned in the USSR (I can recommend various works by M. Hooker, especially “Tolkien through Russian Eyes” for an interesting analysis of the illegal translation that was circulated). The concept of a Euchatastrophe would fit in badly with the concept of Class Struggle. It would thus be very interesting to see somebody use this genre in defense of Chairman Mao. I doubt that such a defence would be very convincing.

    • Ben says:

      Jack,
      Although I sympathize with not wanting literature to be valued only for what it can accomplish in discipleship, I also see that discipleship is one legitimate function of literature. In your own comment you mention “purposes” of fiction in the plural. I agree with the plural. I would submit that in addition to the pleasure fiction has in itself, it often has practical functions in addition to this, one of which may be discipleship. An easy example (not fiction, but still literature) is the poetry of George Herbert. He asked for it to be burned unless it would help someone’s spiritual growth; fortunately his friends perceived that it would indeed help people’s growth. But of course his poems are literary masterpieces at the same time. The two functions are not contradictory.

  • Jon Coutts says:

    I do not really want to argue against points 2) and 3), but point 1) assumes that discipleship is about learning moral principles by seeing them in action, and then re-applying them and putting them into action ourselves in our context. I see the point, and I think fantasy can be of some value in helping us pre-think scenarios we might encounter in real life and test out different ways of responding, but at the end of the day isn’t Christian discipleship about obeying Jesus Christ in our place and time? In that case I think it is more helpful to have biographies of Christians than to have fantasy stories, not to learn principles, but to gain sensitivity and attentiveness to the Word and Spirit in our lives by seeing something of how that was done in other real lives before us.

    But to say biography is more valuable for discipleship than fantasy is not to cast them merely in a utilitarian light or to render fantasy useless. I think Bauckham’s point, taken in the modesty with which I think I recall it being presented, stands.

    • ccematson says:

      Jon,

      I agree with you that biography is in the end more important than fantasy literature, or any fiction, to Christian discipleship. As you pointed out, training in moral formation is not the be-all and end-all of discipleship. Discipleship is first and foremost a relationship with Christ. The difference that Prof Bauckham and I appear to have is that I believe that fiction literature – and especially fantasy – can help strengthen that relationship. The authors are in effect helping disciple us by giving us encounters with Christ through fiction, and I believe fantasy is particularly potent for this purpose. However, even when we’ve received benefit from fiction, we must know that heroic and selfless actions are possible for people like us, and therefore possible for ourselves.

      I think this was the point Bauckham was trying to make, that we can’t rely entirely on fiction. However, I disagree with his valuation of fantasy literature in particular as of very little use, if any, because of its superficial dissimilarity to ‘real life.’ I think fantasy has a more essential connection to reality, and shows us what is actually real life at a deeper level than realistic fiction often does (though I don’t deny that realistic fiction can sometimes show us this essence of Deep Reality as well).

      So basically, I agree with him that biography is invaluable. But whereas he did not see fantasy as useful, I see it as extremely useful.

      • Jack says:

        I wonder if this is assessment of biography holds up. Recommendation: watch Shakespeare Behind Bars on dvd. Then let’s talk.

      • ccematson says:

        Jack,

        You know, I wonder if we can differentiate between biography as a literary genre and biography as the stories of people’s lives. I wouldn’t say that biography as a literary genre is necessarily more important than fiction, even though I think that’s what Prof Bauckham was talking about. I don’t read much biography at all, and don’t particularly enjoy it as a genre unless I already have some intense interest in the subject.

        I read biographies of Thomas More when I was in a production of A Man for All Seasons, and got great benefit from them (both personally, and in terms of playing my character, his son-in-law Will Roper). However, I was already intensely interested in Thomas More. I had suggested the play to the theatre company for production in the first place, because the film version with Paul Scofield was one of my favorite films, and because I thought the moral questions timely and More’s situation relatable. Both the film and the play are fictionalized biographies. They move me greatly, so much so that during the production I decided to become a Catholic, and chose Thomas More as my patron saint at my confirmation. But it’s the dramatized versions of More’s life that did this to me, not the biographies. However, More’s story moves me so much *because* he was a real person, and any one of us might be asked to make the same sacrifice in the name of Christ and His Church (Roman or not).

        So I would say we need to know biography in the sense of stories of actual human beings who have done heroic and saintly things, so that we know that these things are possible, and that we can do them if asked. But I don’t think biography as a literary genre needs to be particularly important in a person’s life. It certainly has far less importance in mine than fantasy and drama. I wonder if Prof Bauckham would agree.

        Does this address what you were getting at?

  • Pinon Coffee says:

    It’s good to read the thoughtful discussion above.

    Another point, if I may: a book most affects the people who read it and love it. I’m thinking of this in connection with Jonathan Edwards on religious affections and Augustine on love and knowledge – not to equate fantasy or realism with Scripture, of course.

    I just mean Tolkien has a claim on my heart, and his characters will affect me, because I love his works and am willing to spend time on them. In contrast, and no disrespect, _Crime and Punishment_ was fine, but I never wanted to re-read it. I tried and couldn’t finish _Brothers Karamazov_. Is Dostoevsky a great author? Almost certainly. My failure probably reflects badly on me (and my literature degree), but if I don’t read great “realistic” authors, I’m not going to get a great deal of moral discipleship from them. But Frodo has been my companion for years.

    I suspect other people are the same way, and what they love and want to spend their time on will shape their souls more than what they don’t. Fantasy may not be the loftiest form of literature (debatable), but it can still be useful and good.

    • ccematson says:

      Pinon,

      True. We may speak about types of literature in general, but the most effective type in terms of discipleship for any particular person will be the type that speaks Christ to his heart.

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