Joseph Pearce

Joseph Pearce is Senior Editor at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review and the author of books on Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton and other Christian literary figures.

Writing for Faith & Culture

We welcome the submission of articles of between 600 and 1,500 words on topics related to Catholic faith and culture. Articles should be emailed as Word attachments to Joseph Pearce.

How we Rediscover Reality through Fantasy

How we Rediscover Reality through Fantasy

Any discussion of “reality” and “fantasy” must confront the implicit assumption inherent in the modern materialist weltanschauung that ‘fantasy’ is unreal, and therefore irrelevant and impertinent. This misunderstanding was addressed with erudite eloquence by J.R.R. Tolkien in his definitive essay ‘On Fairy Stories’. For Tolkien, fantasy literature conveyed a healthy trinity of virtues, namely Recovery, Escape and Consolation. ‘Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining … of a clear view’, and was ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’. Fantasy literature accesses a reality beyond the mundane world of facts, allowing the qualitative to penetrate the merely quantitative, and enabling meaning to permeate the factual. It goes beyond seeing things only as they are, or as they seem to be; it sees them as they are meant to be. It does not accept the status quo, merely because it is the ‘real world’, but explores the possibilities of different and better worlds. It transcends the barren limitations of ‘how things are’ to explore the fruitful possibilities of ‘how things should be’. This intrinsic idealism clearly has implications as regards the way that fantasy literature interrelates with reality.

Tolkien’s discussion of ‘Escape and Consolation, which are naturally closely connected’ focused on a defence of ‘escapism’ against ‘the tone of scorn and pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all’. Detecting the ideological animus behind the critical animosity to ‘escape’, Tolkien accused his accusers of seeking to imprison the imagination within the stifling walls of materialistic presumption. ‘Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.’ Tolkien then implies that the materialistic critics are themselves the jailers, treating ‘the Escape of the Prisoner’ as ‘the Flight of the Deserter’: ‘Just so a Party-spokesman might have labeled departure from the misery of the Fuhrer’s or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery.’ The real reason, therefore, behind the prejudice against, and the hostility towards, fantasy literature on the part of many literary critics is purely a prejudice against, and a hostility towards, metaphysics in general, and Christianity in particular.

Having established the real relationship between fantasy and reality, a brief history of the genre of Christian fantasy literature will show how the truths it contains can be seen to be ‘applicable’ to questions of human society. 

The history of Christian fantasy goes back almost to the dawn of Christianity itself. Indeed, if one is to class the Book of Revelations as a work of fantasy, as an expression and exposition of the fantastically True and Real, it goes back to the dawn itself. Within the English tradition, Beowulf rose with the dawn of Anglo-Saxon Christianity and has shed its light across the centuries, its subtle blend of heroic epic narrative and applicable Christian allegory inspiring many later writers of Christian fantasy, not the least of whom was the aforementioned Tolkien who not only translated Beowulf into modern English but also borrowed from it bountifully in the writing of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. As the Anglo-Saxon culture matured so did the Christian fantasy it produced, blossoming into multifarious Arthurian hues, most memorably perhaps in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a work of the late fourteenth century that wove wisdom and magic into a story designed to elucidate the relationship between chivalry and virtue. The authorship of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight remains a mystery but he was a contemporary of the great Geoffrey Chaucer whose Canterbury Tales have forged a place amongst the illustrissimi of world literature – this in spite of the fact that the work was unfinished at the poet’s death. Chaucer succeeds in blending the grotesque and even gargoylesque realism of ‘the ship of fools’ motif with the allegorical employment of fantasy and fable. In the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, for example, he uses the fable of Chauntecleer and Pertelote to re-enact the axial and axiomatic story of the Fall, stressing, by means of allegory, its perennial relevance, not merely theologically but sociologically and politically. 

Although Chaucer was a literary master of the first order it was singularly appropriate that he should have paid homage to ‘the grete poete of Ytaille’, Dante Alighieri, who is unsurpassed in the sphere of literary achievement. Dante’s incomparable tour de force, the Divine Comedy, employs the four fold allegorical exegesis of his mentor, St Thomas Aquinas, to produce a fantasia of moral and political potency, the applicability of which to the ‘real world’ is undiminished in its relevance in spite of the centuries that have elapsed since its composition. Rooted in an unchanging moral order which underpins all just concepts of political philosophy, Dante’s vision retains a clarity and charity that should be at the centre of all studies of a socio-political nature. This being so, it is to be regretted that Dorothy L. Sayers’ deeply perceptive analysis of the political relevance of Dante to the dire needs of the modern world is all too sadly neglected by students of political philosophy. The fact that the world in its worldliness produces political philosophers more at home with the tenets of Machiavelli’s The Prince than with those of Dante’s Comedy says more about the folly of the world than it does about the pertinence of either work.

Returning to England, another major milestone in the evolution of Christian fantasy was St Thomas More’s Utopia, published in 1516. The fact that ‘utopia’, as employed by More, means ‘no place’ or ‘nowhere’ (from the Greek ou, meaning not, and topos, meaning place) as opposed to ‘good place’ (from the Greek eu, meaning good, and topos, meaning place) is a fact all too often forgotten by modern critics who lack the subtlety to see the true intent of More’s satire. Perceiving that More meant eutopia not outopia these critics have concluded quite erroneously that More was more of a humanist than he was a Christian or, even more absurdly, that he was a proto-communist or a proto-ecumenist. For a man who willingly laid down his life for his friends and his faith such conclusions lack all credibility. Although More used the medium of Christian fantasy as a vehicle for voicing criticisms of the cruelty and corruption of the times in which he lived, his purpose in writing the satire went beyond the temporal to the eternal. In the final analysis, More’s outopia can be seen much more as a dystopia than a eutopia, depicting a world of self-evident absurdities based upon erroneous conceptions of reality.

In writing his Utopia More established a whole new genre of fantasy literature, the utopian or dystopian fantasy, in which imaginary worlds are created as a reflection of the real world. From Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four More’s originality has inspired generations of writers to hold a utopian mirror to the world in which they lived. 

The twentieth century was particularly rich in Christian fantasy, much of which reflected the social and political ramifications of life in a self-proclaimed ‘post-Christian’ culture. G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) asserted the optimism of the faithful Christian as the antidote to the pessimism of the faithless cynic, and his Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) was a parable on the subsidiarist principles expounded by Pope Leo XIII in his groundbreaking social encyclical, Rerum Novarum (1891). These principles are also prevalent in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, particularly in his creation of the Shire which is, at one and the same time, a nostalgic idealization of Saxon England (the subsidiarity that had been) and an imaginative depiction of an idealized society living in accordance with Catholic social teaching (the subsidiarity that could and should be). Other facets of Catholic social teaching in The Lord of the Rings include the Christian brotherhood of the Fellowship of the Ring and, in contrast to this virtuous example of human society, the abusive power of Isengard and Mordor, which can be seen on the purely political level as representations of Nazism and Soviet communism. 

Other great works of Christian fantasy were produced in the twentieth century, most notably by Tolkien’s friend and comrade-in-arms, C.S. Lewis, but The Lord of the Rings remains the highest achievement in modern literature just as the Divine Comedy is the highest achievement in mediaeval literature. Significantly both these works fall within the category of Christian fantasy, a genre which not only reflects the truth about the society in which it was written but, at its best, reaches the highest peaks of literary beauty.       


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