(by Daniel R. Jones)
Suppose you were to take out a notebook and a pen and list off the best Christ-following authors you could think of from the 20th Century.
Chances are, the names “J.R.R. Tolkien” and “Flannery O’Connor” would both be listed on Page One.
But despite their larger-than-life status as novelists and forerunners of Christian thought, both authors had a decidedly different take on the creative life. Consider, for example, the following two quotations, which represent almost diametrically opposed truths about writing:
“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!” -J.R.R. Tolkien
“I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.” -Flannery O’Connor
So what gives? How is it that Tolkien advocates for escapism in writing and O’Connor denounces it? Which is correct, artistically speaking? Which is the right mindset, spiritually?
The answer, of course, is nuanced.
Let’s start with the artistry aspect. It helps to look at the distinction in writing styles between Tolkien and O’Connor. It’s hard to imagine two writers so entirely unalike: Tolkien, the Oxford-educated, high-fantasy-obsessed polyglot, was famous for his epic and elaborate tomes. O’Connor, on the other hand, was Southern Gothic through and through, and her most famous works were short stories that explored the grisly reality of human nature.
Is at any wonder that their fiction reflected their views on craft?
Since both writers contrast so drastically, it’s a more useful question to ask whether they succeeded in their particular aims. Luckily, the answer to this question is much easier to answer: it is a resounding yes. Both J.R.R. Tolkien and Flannery O’Connor have received much critical acclaim and popularity. Their works have stood the test of time, and serve as insightful literature that speaks to the human condition. Undoubtedly, both were–and are, successful.
The two took drastically different artistic approaches, but both shared common themes: unexpected grace, (compare Tolkien’s concept of the “eucatastrophe” and the character “Bevel” in “The River,) the duality of humankind (consider Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings and Julian in “Everything That Rises Must Converge,”) redemption of a deeply flawed individual (think of “Boromir” and “Gollum” in The Lord of the Rings and “the Grandmother” and “the Misfit” in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”)
These shared themes that run throughout the corpus of work these two literary heavyweights are not a happy accident. They can be traced back to the same source: they were both profoundly impacted by their love for Christ and their Catholic faith. So while they took two contradictory approaches to the creative life, the similarities that bound them were significant enough and elucidated well enough to make them both correct.
Perhaps a final quotation can best illustrate this point. C.S. Lewis, who famously disliked T.S. Eliot’s poetry, acknowledged that the two served the same God. As such, he said about Eliot: “I agree with him about matters of such moment that all literary questions are, in comparison, trivial.”
May we all take such a mature view.