Really there are two kinds of people in the world: those who, like J.R.R. Tolkien as a child, “desire dragons with a profound desire”; and those who shout, with Tolkien’s friend and fellow Inkling Hugo Dyson, “Oh God, not another elf!”
The two sides look at one another with mutual incomprehension and pity. The lovers of dragons, elves, magic, and titanic clashes between good and evil can’t get enough of this stuff; the self-proclaimed realists, pragmatists, cannot see what all the fuss is about. They find it, frankly, a little embarrassing that these imaginary worlds and creatures can exert such a pull over grown men and women.
This divide has been increasingly apparent in our culture ever since the publication of The Lord of the Rings in the 1950s brought fantasy back into the main current of Western literature, in a big way.
Philip Toynbee diagnosed its success at the time as a blip – in 1961, writing for The Observer, he expressed relief that the book’s popularity had passed its peak:
There was a time when the Hobbit fantasies of Professor Tolkien were being taken very seriously indeed by a great many distinguished literary figures. Mr Auden is even reported to have claimed that these books were as good as War and Peace … I had a sense that one side or the other must be mad, for it seemed to me that these books were dull, ill-written, whimsical and childish. And for me this had a reassuring outcome, for most of his more ardent supporters were soon beginning to sell out their shares in Professor Tolkien, and today those books have passed into a merciful oblivion.
When Tolkien came out on top of the Waterstones Books of the Century poll in 1997, Germaine Greer offered a groan and a facepalm on behalf of fantasy sceptics (literary snobs?) everywhere:
… it has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the twentieth century. The bad dream has materialised … The books that come in Tolkien’s train are more or less what you would expect; flight from reality is their dominating characteristic.
Tolkien, as essentially the father of the modern fantasy novel, became very used to responding to the charge of escapism. “I do not accept the tone of scorn and pity with which ‘escape’ is now so often used,” he wrote. “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”
The valence of “escape”, after all, depends very much on what you’re trying to escape from, and to. The evasion of reality deplored by Greer surely does represent a cheap and unfruitful way for writers to ply their craft.
But Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and many of their fellow Inklings – a group of Oxford Christians who met regularly to talk about literature and life, and read aloud drafts of their writings – insisted that a love of other worlds is not something to be ashamed of or suppressed; that fairy tales are not just for children; that profound truth about the world we really do live in can be found in these kinds of stories.
Lewis, the creator of Narnia, famously wrote that, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” All of our desires – even the ostensible desire for dragons – correspond, he suggests, to something that exists.
To many of their critics, the Inklings’ fondness for the fantastic was of a piece with their adherence to the old orthodoxies of Christian faith. Of course they liked dragons and dwarves and such; they genuinely believed in the supernatural, in a whole reality beyond the material. No doubt (runs this logic) their fancy for mythology paved the way for their similarly naive religious faith; no wonder they could so casually and continually blur the lines between fact and fiction.
Yet the categories don’t shake out anything like that neatly. Plenty of Christians I know find themselves unmoved by Harry Potter or Peter Jackson; and Game of Thrones fanatics don’t seem like a particularly religious bunch. In fact, if we look more closely, C.S. Lewis himself offers as fine a counter-example to the equation of faith with fantasy as any.
In his autobiography-of-sorts, Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes the double life he lived before his conversion as an adult to Christianity: “to care for almost nothing but the gods and heroes, the garden of the Hesperides, Launcelot and the Grail, and to believe in nothing but atoms and evolution and military service.”
His staunch atheism was chipped away, not by the desire to believe in something akin to the fantasy worlds he loved, but by a kind of intellectual checkmate he long resisted and only grudgingly, in the end, gave in to: “In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted God was God, and knelt and prayed; perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
And yet, as Lewis became acclimatised to his new-old faith, he came to discover in it the richness and beauty that up until then had existed for him only in the hallowed worlds of myth and fantasy, the intense and elusive longing he called “joy”. He came to see Christianity as a kind of “true myth” – the good-versus-evil story, of which all the others that exercise such a strong hold over our imaginations are echoes and intuitions.
This is why Tolkien objected so strenuously to the label “escapist”. He and Lewis and the other Inklings thought that the world was, in a very real sense, enchanted; not with dragons or leprechauns, but with a deep, divine love and a promise of untold glory. As Philip and Carol Zaleski write in The Fellowship, their recent biography of the Inklings:
A story that ends happily is, some believe, necessarily a sop to wishful thinking, a refusal to grow up. … Tolkien turns this charge on its head, arguing that our deepest wishes, revealed by fairy stories and reawakened whenever we permit ourselves to enter with “literary belief” into a secondary world, are not compensatory fantasies but glimpses of an absolute reality. When Sam Gamgee cries out, “O great glory and splendor! And all my wishes have come true!” we are not in the realm of escapism, but of the Gospel, in all its strangeness and beauty.
ders of Narnia or The Lord of the Rings, this can go either way. American literary scholar Holly Ordway has written about her own discovery of God via Tolkien in her book Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms; in the opposite corner, the journalist Laura Miller has charted her sense of betrayal and disillusionment on having the Christian themes of the Narnia Chronicles “sprung” on her in The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia. Both types of response, perhaps, illustrate Lewis’ dictum that a good atheist can’t be too careful what she reads.
Loving dragons and believing in God are not at all the same thing, but it’s undeniable that for some people, the route to what they came to consider the real transcendent has passed through the land of Faërie.
Natasha Moore is a research fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. publicchristianity.org