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.