The following was my thesis paper at Covenant College, completed in December, 2011.
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Once, upon my returning from a time in an intentional community in England, someone opined that where I had been was merely a “fairy land” and that this was now “the real world.” What at the moment was offensive to me, I now find very interesting; I believe those words were inadvertently significant for some larger questions. The phrase “fairy land” was of course meant to be a dismissal of life in that community (which to me was profoundly real, meaningful, and humanizing) as idealistic, unrealistic and even deceptive, decidedly not to be carried over into life outside. And such would be the meaning of a phrase like “fairy land” to many; not the least of whom were the voices of J. R. R. Tolkien’s literary and intellectual climate. Tolkien’s genre was apparently not taken seriously at the time, in much the same manner as life at L’Abri Fellowship in England—my home for seven months—may sometimes not be taken seriously. Both have been seen as escapist, a cowardly avoidance of reality, of the modern world as it is. Now this comparison only goes so far, but it is enlightening for a study of J. R. R. Tolkien and his colleague C. S. Lewis and of their work as a subversively critical response to problems at the heart of modernity.
This comparison has struck me in the synthesis of Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories” and a lecture given at L’Abri by Andrew Fellows entitled “Community as a Subversion of Modernity.” For Tolkien, one function of fantasy/fairy-tale is as a legitimate response to modernity via escape; for Fellows, intentional community may be a uniquely effective “challenge from without,” as supplementary to the already-prevalent “challenges from within” modernity. Tolkien’s sense of escape is successful because of the way fantasy, like intentional community, can subvert modernity without being subverted by it. Fantasy can set up a more foundational break with the modern reality system than can realism and create a coherent world that in certain senses is more true. This in turn leaves the reader “nourished” so as to be able to cope with modernity but also awakened to active and protesting dissatisfaction with it, which ultimately looks forward to something not fully attainable now—the renewal of the earth. These concepts are embodied by Lewis’ That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups, by the function of the secondary world in relation to the modern reality and by the function of the fictional community of Logres within the story.
It almost seems to go without saying that “escapist” is one of the most common charges leveled against the genre of fantasy. The charge is that, unlike realism, fairy-tale is a denial of the real, present-day, modernized, industrialized world. That criticism has been so taken for granted that I found almost no sources that bothered to expound upon it directly. C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien seem to have been particularly sensitive to such an opposition. Tolkien noted, “[Fairy-stories] are today one of the most obvious and (to some) outrageous forms of ‘escapist’ literature” (“On Fairy-Stories” 79). And Lewis was also keenly aware of “the popular charge of escapism” (“On Three Ways of Writing for Children” 29).
“Escape” in the form of literature (not to be confused with escape as in “the chase” within literature) carries connotations of irrelevance, denial, weakness, and untruth, and is associated with wish fulfillment. In short, “escape” is a mark of bad fiction. It is usually associated with the pulp fiction people read to escape into while on vacation. However, to my surprise at the outset of this inquiry, the literary community does not seem to be as hostile toward the fantasy/fairy-tale genre as it was in the time of the Inklings. I quickly found that my original goal, a more general justification of the genre, was outdated. In 1988, Raymond Tallis published In Defence of Realism, which defense seemed to be necessary because whereas realism once was “the scourge of hypocrisy,” the case now is that, “‘telling the truth’ is passé. Indeed, fantasy has become the avant garde again” (191). Anne Swinfen, in the very first sentence of her book, In Defense of Fantasy, also takes for granted that “The modern fantasy novel might hardly seem to need a defence,” though she goes on to articulate a defense due to the still “ambivalent position it occupies in the contemporary literary scene” (1). The huge popularity of fantasy novels today might speak even for itself, if literary worth were democratically decided. That increase in popularity, according to Swinfen, “may be partly due to the influence of J. R. R. Tolkien,” at least inasmuch as “Tolkien made fantasy ‘respectable'” (1).
The literary community is taking the genre more seriously today, but, I found, it is often for reasons other than those for which Tolkien found it valuable. Tolkien (considered the founder of the genre as we know it) did not make any attempt to dislodge the criticism, more rampant in his own day, that his type of fantasy was escapist. On the contrary, he unashamedly affirmed escape and maintained that escape was, as a matter of fact, one of fantasy’s most valuable features (“On Fairy-Stories” 67). Instead of denying the charge, he offered, as a defense of the genre’s integrity, a different interpretation of what escapism is, distinguishing between what he called the “Escape of the Prisoner” and the “Flight of the Deserter” (79). Tolkien asserts that the problem is not with fantasy at all, but with the modernity against which it is measured. He describes modernity as, “producing the [legitimate] desire to escape, not indeed from life, but from our present time and self-made misery” (83).
More recent defenses of fantasy against the charge of escapism tend to hang on the demonstration that fantasy does bear reference to the “real” world, only in different senses, and/or that it is ultimately useful for helping the reader function within the framework of modern reality. “What they [fantasy authors] have not done, in most cases,” says Swinfen, “is to use fantasy as an escape from contemporary reality. Fantasy, it has been argued, is not escapism but a method of approaching and evaluating the real world” (230).
One example of this is in Kate McInally’s analysis of Doug MacLeod’s The Clockwork Forest, wherein she shows that the fantasy genre can be used as a way of introducing multi-culturalism to children: “fantasy allows a negotiation of how to live with others via its own position of ‘otherness’ to real worlds and knowable situations” (43). This is a fairly pragmatic justification and legitimate in its own right. It is part of an attempt to show that fantasy deals with and does not evade contemporary reality, which is implicit in her saying, “Contemporary scholarship in children’s literature has recognized that the genre of realism has no exclusive authority over claims to truth, or jurisdiction over how to conceive reality” (43), i.e., fantasy shares that claim. McInally seems to support fantasy’s legitimacy inasmuch as it can be relevant toward practical issues of real life, that, for instance, “harsh realities including violence, death and war have been mediated [to children] through fantasy” (42). So in this use it is not an escape from the real world except as a sort of mitigation of the harsher parts of reality, at least for children. Such a defense of the genre is legitimate, but it is not the account for escapism offered by writers like Lewis and Tolkien.
The above use for fantasy is akin to allegorical and symbolic uses of fantasy. The argument that fantasy is not escapist but rather bears reference to reality through allegory, metaphor, or symbol is a fairly common one, if I may categorize many complicated analyses under that heading. An example of what I mean can be found in an article appropriately entitled “In Defense of Fantasy,” by Wendy Kaminer. She acknowledges, “some rationalists want us to rid ourselves of fancy so that we focus only on what’s possible and real” (10). But then she goes on to defend fantasies only for their metaphorical value, for the “emotional realities captured by their factual absurdities” (10). The value of fantasy for Kaminer seems to be in accordance with how “accurate” it is at portraying the (modern) world after all, and the fantastical element seems to be there only as a metaphor to accentuate emotional realities within that world (10). For example, Werewolf mutation stands for teenage hormones, etc. And for Kaminer that is legitimate because of the fact that the emotions are real (10). Again, this is a legitimate enough reason for fantasy, even a more traditional one perhaps than Tolkien’s, but, also again, it answers the charge of escapism without confronting the issue as Tolkien did.
As part of Anne Swinfen’s defense of the genre, she describes the way in which the protagonists of two stories, Donald in A Game of Dark and Marianne in Marianne Dreams, engage in fantasy worlds which are parallel to their primary reality. She observes, “The central character deliberately creates a secondary world which provides an escape from the pressure of primary world realities, only to find that in the secondary world the suppressed emotions explode into concrete forms and events,” and, “In the end, Donald chooses the primary world of reality and rejects his secondary world” (66). The fantastical serves only initially as an alternative or an escape from the actual world, but ultimately as an allegorical version of it, which is the real world writ into action. For example, “The worm, with its freezing, deadly, touch, embodies the ‘shame and guilt’ of Donald’s primary world existence” (64), and, “The special pencil cannot be erased; so Marianne finds that the secondary world she creates is, like the world of our past actions, ineradicable” (62, italics mine). The dream-like status of the secondary worlds has somewhat Freudian uses, dealing with life in archetypes and allegories. They have an allegorical relation to the actual world and serve the purpose of reconciling the reader and the characters to the way things are.
These are also worlds that are portrayed as imagined and are not meant to be believable. Tolkien, however, said, “It is at any rate essential to a genuine fairy-story, as distinct from the employment of this form for lesser or debased purposes, that it should be presented as ‘true,'” as opposed to tales like “Carroll’s Alice Stories, with their dream-frame…” which, “are not fairy-stories” (42). In the notes to the essay, Tolkien expounds that “The very root (not only the use) of their ‘marvels’ is satiric, a mockery of unreason; . . . to many, as it was to me, Alice is presented as a fairy-story, and while this misunderstanding lasts, the distaste for the dream-machinery is felt” (Note A, 91). The fantastic in Swinfen’s examples above operates essentially within a dream (or imagination) frame, and Dream-tales do not fit into Tolkien’s definition of fairy-story. They harbor a half-hearted escape only to mock that escape. Escape in the above-mentioned stories is ultimately seen as a negative thing, and Donald must abandon his escape for the “real world” in the end. Fantasy in this use is not a way of challenging the way things are, or of illuminating or renewing reality, but of managing it within the way it is. It is not subversive of but, in a sense, subservient to modern reality.
Still other cases for fantasy as not indeed avoiding the “real world” simply make it out as being very close to realism but with fantastical accidentals. This concept exists in Swinfen’s defense:
“Writers have had to learn the lesson that in the creation of a secondary world it is no less necessary than in the description of the everyday primary world to keep closely to the intrinsic reality of the created world . . . in other words, to maintain the utmost “realism.” Fantasies which fail to do this immediately lose credibility and cease to convince.” (230-231, italics mine)
This statement is, on the one hand, much like Tolkien’s notion of “the inner consistency of reality” (88), but in the context that “Writers have had to learn . . .” there is the implication that fantasy writers need to comply with the modern fact-oriented demands. It may be taken as an implication of this concept that Swinfen is saying fantasy needs to be essentially realism, in many regards, in order to be credible as literature.
Verlyn Flieger makes a good case for how The Lord of the Rings is grounded in reality, which Tolkien condoned in one sense, but she nearly relegates the fantastical elements in the trilogy to the role of attracting the reader, to sparking interest by catering to a (shallow) desire for escape. On the one hand she acknowledges the fantastic element as serving a positive role (interestingly, of escape): “We desire escape, which of course implies strangeness. That is why we read fantasy” (6). Thus far I, and Tolkien, agree; however, she goes on to say, “the fantastic aspects . . . [are] at the periphery of the action. It is largely decoration, and has very little to do with advancing the story” (7). In such a view the fantasticality of the fantasy (and the “escape” it serves) is inessential, at best a pardonable weakness, at worst a manipulative advertising ploy. It is the “realistic” parts that matter in such a use of fantasy.
George Orwell goes even further down this path, saying of C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, “It would have been a better book if the magical element had been left out . . . the miraculous happenings . . . are not integral to it” (250). Again we see an appreciation of a fantastical fiction, but oddly only inasmuch as it is not fantastical. Flieger’s and Orwell’s points could be generalized in relation to our issue as in effect claiming that fantasy need not be escapism from the real world simply because it need not be so far removed from realism, and if it is, it is only so much as to indulge a weakness of the reader’s.
Tolkien and Lewis themselves, however, did not seem to regard the fantasticality of fantasy as merely that which attracts the reader like a lure. They each felt that the fantastical element and its offer of escape were more essential to their work. Lewis stated, “Whatever in a work of art is not used [e.g., the fantastical], is doing harm” (“On Science Fiction” 61). And Tolkien did not see the escape granted by the fantastical as merely a tool for “arresting” the reader, as Flieger implies, for even when Tolkien mentions this arresting nature of fairy tale (which Flieger has quoted) he quickly counters, “But that advantage has been turned against it, and has contributed to its disrepute. Many people dislike being ‘arrested'” (69). So Tolkien would not have used the fantastical as a mere decorative lure because he saw that feature as ultimately a disadvantage to that end.
J. R. R. Tolkien did not at all try to deny or excuse the charge that fantasy is escapist. Indeed he makes very little attempt to reconcile his fantasy’s purpose with contemporary concerns, unlike most of the critics mentioned above. To the contrary, he claimed, “Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories” (79). Interestingly, far from dismissing the fantastic as decorative, or begging pardon for escapism, he boldly argued for its value, saying,
“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… [The critics] are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.” (“On Fairy Stories” 79)
In essence, Tolkien says that the escape offered by fantasy is not escape from a duty to reality but from resignation to a present actuality, if you will, that is neither ultimate nor acceptable. By comparing that from which fantasy escapes to a “prison,” and thus fantasy as relating to the real outside world, Tolkien completely turns the tables. Lewis said, “I never fully understood [the charge of escape] till my friend Professor Tolkien asked me the very simple question, ‘what class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape?’ and gave the obvious answer: jailers” (“On Science Fiction” 67). Lewis goes on to say, “both [Communists and Fascists] would assure us that the proper study of prisoners is prison. . . . those who brood much on the remote past or future, or stare long at the night sky, are less likely than others to be ardent or orthodox partisans” (67).
Carrying this metaphor a little further, the modern world is not like an army fighting for a just cause from which escape would mean desertion; rather it is like a cage for the prisoner-of-war, which cuts him off from the real and proper engagement. One could say that the escape offered by fantasy is thus the like the escape of a POW back to his ranks, not like that of a deserter away from his ranks. The metaphor is a little weak here, for part of the point is that the prisoner escapes to a humanizing environment, “home,” not to a modern war. On the other hand, conflict and violence itself is decidedly not one of the things from which Tolkien’s or Lewis’ fantasy offers escape. But, as they would argue, it is a more humane violence and noble conflict. It is important to notice that such fantasy is not escape in the negative sense in part because it is not denial of the reality of evil; it is not the kind of escape of mere sentimentalism or wishful thinking. It goes without saying that evil is far from absent in Tolkien’s and Lewis’ novels. Rather, “Creative Fantasy is founded on the hard recognition that things are so in the world under the sun” (Tolkien 75, italics mine). So much is this so that one critic calls That Hideous Strength “the most terrifying dystopia in literature” (Kaplan 206).
This use for the genre, this account for escape, amongst the other uses Lewis and Tolkien offer in their respective essays, seems to have received relatively little attention in the overall move toward acceptance of the genre. It is possibly closest, in my findings, to Jack Zipes’ argument that “We do not need fantasy to compensate for dull lives, but, I want to suggest, we need it for spiritual regeneration and to contemplate alternatives to our harsh realities. More than titillation, we need the fantastic for resistance” (79).
Tolkien describes the modern world from which fantasy offers escape in such language as, “electric street lamps of mass-produced pattern, . . . a product of the Robot Age, that combines elaboration and ingenuity of means with ugliness, and (often) inferiority of result,” and, “the roar of self-obstructive mechanical traffic” (80). What he describes is modern industrialism. In defense of the “escape” from such subject matter by the subject matter of fantasy, he quips,
“The notion that motor-cars are more “alive” than, say, centaurs or dragons is curious; that they are more “real” than, say, horses is pathetically absurd. How real, how startlingly alive is a factory chimney compared with an elm tree: poor obsolete thing, insubstantial dream of an escapist!
“For my part, I cannot convince myself that the roof of Bletchley station is more “real” than the clouds.” (81)
So part of the reason modern industrialized reality may be avoided in literature, for Tolkien, is because it is “insignificant and transient,” as opposed to that which is “more permanent and fundamental” (80), and, he adds, because it is “ugly” (82).
Quoting Christopher Dawson’s Progress and Religion, with a sarcastic interjection, Tolkien argues, “‘The rawness and ugliness of modern European life’—that real life whose contact we should welcome—’is the sign of a biological inferiority, of an insufficient or false reaction to environment” (82). It is such a “reality” which is questionable in Tolkien’s eyes, not the fairy-tale. Tolkien and Lewis specifically saw their style of literature as part of a challenge to the way things are in the form of industrialized modernity. Max Weber, who, interestingly, also referred to industrialism and modernity in prison-like language, called it “an iron cage.” Weber explained this “cage” as being the result of “the modern economic order” becoming “bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism.” And as Meredith Veldman proposes in her book Fantasy, the Bomb, and the Greening of Britain, the literature of Tolkien and Lewis was part of a tradition of romantic protest against such problems inherited from the enlightenment. While it is hard to see the Inklings as Romanticists strictly speaking, they were at least so in the fundamental sense of being reactionary to Enlightenment implications.
Tolkien hints at the heart of the problem for them when he uses another quote, this time from Huxley, to describe his era as “an age of ‘improved means to deteriorated ends'” (83). Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, in which “the doctrines behind [That Hideous Strength] could be found” (“A Reply to Professor Haldane” 75), clearly makes the same basic criticism. Reichenbach calls one feature of the problem Lewis argued against “a confusion about ends and means” (20). The problem is with the centrality and use of science, and “Both means and traditional ends will assume their proper place, only when science acknowledges the lordship of absolute values” (25). Lewis makes the case in Abolition that by basing the ends on the means, by “trying to get a conclusion in the imperative mood out of premises in the indicative mood” (43-44) man himself will be abolished for the ends of “science.” This criticism of the modern situation is deeply connected with that from Andrew Fellows: “Everything is so technically driven that there has been a loss of the human. . . . that we only think in pragmatic terms,” he says. “If it can be invented it must be invented, despite the consequences for the human race.”
Lewis, Tolkien, and Fellows would all agree that modernity’s commitment to technology and technique as the solution for every human need has backfired, creating a dehumanizing environment, “a monstrous perversion of reality” (Fellows). I propose that what they respectively advocate in response to this is also very much related, a relationship which sheds light on the implications of Tolkien’s theory as it is manifested in Lewis’ work.
“Modernity is the context for our life and our faith, and we have to be faithful to Christ within the “iron cage.” We have to challenge, as much as we can, from within. . . . However . . . I believe almost all the attention given to modernity by Protestants has been a challenge from within. And I’m calling for a different kind of challenge, and that is a challenge from without.”
The comparison of this idea to that of Tolkien’s theory and Lewis’ work (all coming from Christian perspectives) begins with the fact that Lewis and Tolkien did in fact have such a “without” stance: “The position of the protestor came naturally to Lewis. Throughout his life he looked out onto a world divided into Us and the much more powerful Them,” and “Like Lewis, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien considered himself an outsider and turned to the past for the fundamentals of his protest against the modern age” (Veldman 39, 41). They saw their fantasy also as an outside challenge to modernity: “[Tolkien] adopted Coleridge’s view of literature as a lamp rather than a mirror; that is, literature created ‘Secondary Worlds’ which illumine, rather than simply reflect, reality” (Veldman 46). It is from without, via escape, that the challenge comes.
The need for this supplemental “challenge from without” is due to the exceeding pervasiveness of modernity in every area of life, which undermines many other attempts to challenge it from within. Fellows gives as an example an (hypothetical) evangelistic campaign to “subvert the monster and try and bring God back to Europe,” an attempt to challenge from within. “However,” he continues, “the campaign is quickly turned into a program which is based on a series of techniques to win as many people to the cause as possible.” And so, even with some good results, the methods used demonstrate that “it is however subverted by modernity before it is even begun.” The very means of addressing modernity are based on what is one of the fundamental problems with it. The assumptions have not been deeply enough examined. Hence the need for an approach from without, a break at the root level.
The uses for fantasy whose defense and acceptance I noted earlier—the ones which, unlike Tolkien’s, deny escape—by a slight stretch of application may be seen in Fellows’ structure as having been subverted by modernity and not subversive to it. In this framework, they do not go deep enough, not for Tolkien at least. And in this framework the realist novel, as opposed to fantasy, often does not have the same potency of fantasy. Of course I do not see this as a deprecation of realism in literature at all (although it may have been for Tolkien). Along with Fellows’ claim that “challenge from within” is and should remain the primary role of those challenging modernity (he maintains that not many should go and join intentional communities), realist literature rightly holds its prominent place as an approach from within. Rather, this is a look at one unique advantage of fantasy within the spectrum of literature (the comparison/metaphor approaches its limits and is close to breaking down here, nonetheless it is an interesting and useful one).
One may contend that Tolkien, too, in his literature made some concessions to modernity, that he was, in a sense, inevitably subverted by his time. Anne Swinfen points out that Tolkien’s development of language and a thorough history for Middle-Earth was in response to modern demands for fact and precision. She contrasts this with the lack of detail in Spenser’s Faerie Queen (75). However, several observations counter the claim. That the languages of Middle-Earth were written separately is one. I would also argue that Tolkien is actually about as vague as the pre-modern Spencer. For instance, Edmund Wilson, in his contemporarily subsequent review of The Lord of the Rings complains, “At the end of this long romance, I had still no conception of the wizard Gandalph, who is a cardinal figure, had never been able to visualize him at all” (“Oo, Those Awful Orcs!”). And lastly, even if Tolkien did make concessions (being himself a practitioner of the modern discipline of philology), complete and utter separation from the times was never the goal. The goal is merely a more fundamental break with a fundamental problem.
Tolkienesque “escape” happens in That Hideous Strength as the reader gets drawn in to the (more or less) compelling fictional world, and the escape also happens within the story as Jane gets “drawn in” (114) to the St. Anne’s community. For her though it is not an escape she would have wished for:
“The bright, narrow little life which she had proposed to live was being irremediably broken into. Windows into huge, dark landscapes were opening on every side and she was powerless to shut them. It would drive her mad, she thought, to face it alone. The other alternative was to go back to Miss Ironwood. But that seemed to be only a way of going deeper into all this darkness. This Manor at St. Anne’s—this “kind of company”—was “mixed up in it.” She didn’t want to get drawn in.” (83)
St. Anne’s (like L’Abri) is a community that, far from deserting, goes even deeper into engagement with what is real and true (it is of almost no consequence, but oddly L’Abri U.K. is also in a Manor House). Jane’s escape is not from but to reality. The escape imagery is partly in the windows opening up to the outside, which implies the opposite as being shut-in to what would be less real. The prison and iron cage metaphors are not far from this one in that sense. Jane, initially reluctant, becomes willing enough later on once the horror of her position is realized, and she makes a desire-led escape: she is drawn in (159). This contrasts with Mark’s initial desire to be on the inside of what’s new and happening (modern), which ends up literally becoming a prison for him, from which he only escapes at the very end.
Escape as a drawing in for the reader happens when, “the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator.’ He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world” (Tolkien 60). Comparing this phenomenon arising from coherent laws to a game, Tolkien says, “A real enthusiast for cricket is in the enchanted state: Secondary Belief” (61). So the alternate structure is what captures the reader’s belief, what effects a “drawing in” which is escape from the primary world. This escape is what makes challenging (subverting) the primary world’s situation possible.
Intentional community, for Fellows, (and fantasy for Tolkien and Lewis) can effectively subvert modernity for several reasons. Basically, it is structured around a different center and a different set of commitments than modernity. Fellows notes that the L’Abri community is, “structured in such a way to ensure that our existence is tied to what I’m going to call ‘divine agency,'” in contrast to modernity which involves “human agency at God’s expense.” In L’Abri’s case, that goes as far as not doing any support-raising or utilizing any other techniques of the modern/industrial market economy. Instead it functions on what Fellows calls “the gift economy,” and by “divine agency:” one concrete example being that, rather than for ask for donations, they only pray for provision (and it works).
For That Hideous Strength, these principles function both as the story and within the story. St. Anne’s/Logres’ position in the fictional world is not unlike the book’s position in relation to the real world. The fictional world of the book and the modus operandi of St. Anne’s within the story are centered on a dependence upon divine (or at least supernatural) agency over human agency. That is why MacPhee, the resident skeptic of St. Anne’s, is refused permission to exercise his agency in the recovery of Merlin: “I will not send you,” the Director tells him, “it would be like sending a three-year-old child to fight a tank” (Hideous Strength 225). And it is why it is ultimately a miraculous act which defeats the “N. I. C. E.,” contrary to Orwell’s assertion that the story would have been better without miracles. Reichenbach notes, “As Lewis often makes clear, any reversal of these trends will require supernatural aid” (25). The novel presents a reality that runs on different principles than that of the modern world, and Logres within it functions on different principles than the fictional world which surrounds them.
Further links in the chain of Fellows’ reasoning for intentional community, when paired with more of Tolkien’s theory, will contribute to an understanding of how Lewis’ literature works:
“The greatest challenge to modernity is a certain type of community . . . intentional community. . . . Intentional community is driven by a completely different set of commitments . . . that touch the whole life of that community. . . . [It] will still be connected to the modern world in all sorts of ways. . . . It’s connected but it’s from without. . . . The without is in order to be for.” (Fellows)
Intentional community subverts modernity by setting up a consistent alternative life, grounded in the real world but largely preserved from the pervasive distortions of modernity. And fairy-tale, according to Tolkien, subverts modernity by setting up a consistent alternative world, grounded on the “recognition that things are so in the world” (Tolkien 75). Fantasy “certainly doesn’t destroy or even insult Reason… the keener and clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make” (Tolkien 75). The faithfulness to reason forms both a connection to the real world and the consistency of the fictional one. Tolkien and Lewis sought escape not from reason but from rationalism. The alternative still operates on a set of rules. But unlike those of modernity they are “rules which fit our humanity” (Fellows).
Fantasy, like intentional community, can be successful in subverting modernity because it steps out of it in order to be free from its constraints, creating a coherent world with the “inner consistency of reality” (Tolkien 88), while still being connected to it in order to be able to speak back into it. It is thus not identical with, say, what some may consider the reticence and isolation of monasticism. It is “without in order to be for” (Fellows, italics mine). Fairy-tale for the Inklings doesn’t just step outside, but also “present[s] the reader with an alternate vision of reality” (Veldman 47). It must be outside in order to speak with perspective. Fellows says, “I wonder if you can fully see the costs [of modernity to humanity] unless you step outside for a while.”
It may be contended that the comparison breaks down when it comes to this, for the alternative life of an intentional community is a real act, while the alternative world of a fantasy novel is fictional. But besides the fact that it is fantasy’s vision of reality and not the factual content that is real (it is not pretending to be something other than fiction), there is actually something to be said for the factual aspect as well. What I mean is, Tolkien (and Lewis for that matter) wasn’t entirely unconvinced of the reality of “Faërie.” This is implicit in his saying, “if elves are true, and really exist independently of our tales about them, then this also is certainly true: elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them,” and, “It is often reported of fairies (truly or lyingly, I do not know),” and, “elves who have this power (in verity or fable)” (38, 42, 49, italics mine). And Raymond Tallis, in his anti-fantasy In Defense of Realism, allows, “To defend realism against fantasy does not mean that one has a quarrel with those who sincerely believe in goblins” (193), probably a category which he would apply to Tolkien and Lewis to some degree.
Finally, there is the comparison of literature with community as opposed to ideas. Fellows says of the value of community, “It must be far more than an idea.” It accomplishes more than mere ideas do because it provides a “plausibility structure,” it embodies the idea and shows that it works. Literature cannot claim this in the same way, but it does have a similar benefit over mere ideas. Veldman notes that The Abolition of Man (an essay, being simply a stating of ideas) did not reach many, and, “probably confused the few who bothered to read it. It illustrates the fundamental weaknesses of Lewis’ apologetics and the limitations of this genre as a medium of communication,” but that, “His fantasies proved to be a more successful medium” (62). Veldman attributes this to the accessibility of fantasy literature, but I think part of the success of his fantasy is that art is also in some sense embodied ideas. It does not go as far as a community, but it does go so far as embodying the “chest,” if I may employ Lewis’ metaphor for human sentiment. Interestingly, he uses that metaphor in The Abolition of Man, which claims that modernity leads to “men without chests.” That is, literature reaches the “sentiments” (Abolition) in a way that ideas alone do not. If intentional community may be seen as truth incarnated—put into flesh— then literature can be seen as truth incanted—put into song—or, perhaps with the more fitting form of the word, enchanted. Both are effective challenges to modernity, via stepping outside it, in ways ideas in an essay alone are not.
But what of when the reader leaves the book and steps back into the modern world? What of when the participant of a temporary intentional community steps back into typical life? Firstly, Tolkienesque fairy-tale is meant to leave the reader nourished and “ennoble[d]” (Lewis, “Three Ways” 32). It leaves the reader personal virtues with which to live in the real world. Secondly, those virtues or values are not meant only for personal survival within a dehumanizing world, but are meant to be carried into active challenge of the way things are. Consciously or not, there may be some influence here from the position within Christian theology that anticipates a renewal and not a destruction of the earth. In that framework, whatever earthly good one does will have ultimate and earthly significance. It is out of a theology that respects creation and incarnation. For Tolkien and Lewis this took on some environmental tones, aesthetically if not ecologically. Tolkien, with perhaps little hyperbole in an age of world wars, said, “The Escapist. . . . might rouse men to pull down the street-lamps. Escapism has another and even wickeder face: Reaction” (80). And, as indicated in her book’s title, Veldman links the fantasy literature of Lewis and Tolkien with environmentalist change—”the Greening of Britain”—and even activism against nuclear weapons. Though in order for the subversion to not be subverted, it must also be remembered that it is, “people, not programs, that bring substantial change to the world” (Fellows).
Thirdly, there must also be the recognition that we cannot expect to ultimately change the world, even though some change can happen. Modernity isn’t going anywhere soon. And since part of what is offered as an alternative involves “divine agency” (Fellows), we as humans will already be subverted by modernity’s worship of human agency and technique if we expect full control over the outcome of our efforts. There is a sense, I have found, in which the alternatives offered by fairy-tale and intentional community leave us as insatiable malcontents. I have heard it said that we are wounded by fairy-tale, and that is a wound we ought to keep open for the rest of our lives. We are opened up to the beautiful, and the good, the true, and we must resist the false closure of cynicism. Lewis put it this way (which also dispels any accusation of “wish fulfillment”): “fairy land arouses a longing for he [the reader] knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach” (“Three Ways” 29). The longing is pursuable but not (yet) fully attainable. This longing actually goes hand in hand with the nourishment of fairy-tale, for, “Far from dulling or emptying the actual world, [it] gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted. This is a special kind of longing. . . . the boy reading the fairy-tale desires and is happy in the very fact of desiring” (“Three Ways” 29-30). Notice that the example of what the reader does not come to despise is woods, not factories and the like: he is not made more content with modernity.
Fairy-tale in this use leaves the reader enriched and with a changed perspective on reality. This “alternate vision of reality” (Veldman 47) will enable the reader to challenge and change the “reality” of the modern condition. And the earth will be renewed, but not just yet, and not by us. It is by “divine agency” that any subversion of modernity will ultimately be realized. For Tolkien, “It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy. Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief” (86).
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