Image of the Maker: The Theological Poetics of George Ma - St. Bernard's

Image of the Maker: The Theological Poetics of George MacDonald and JRR Tolkien

May 22, 2024

Siobhan Latar, S.T.D.

The French poet, Paul Claudel, in an essay on Dante, makes a provocative claim: the modern crisis of thought, which views the world as emptied of meaning and reduced to a dead, flat, material “datum,” is a crisis of a “starved imagination.” Every time I read this, George MacDonald comes immediately to mind and I can’t help but think what a kindred spirit he would have found in Claudel. Known as the “grandfather” of the Inklings and the “father of the British fairytale,” MacDonald was an inspiration to well-known figures such as Lewis Carroll, G. K. Chesterton, and of course, C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. MacDonald has yet to receive the credit he deserves for saving the concept of the imagination in an empiricist, industrial age that had dismissed it into the realm of dreams and childish fancies. In an age in which science and religion, reason and faith, empirical thought and the arts were increasingly seen as enemies to one another, or at best, utterly antithetical, MacDonald had the insight to proclaim that story has a capacity to portray truths that cannot be portrayed in any other way. He proceeded to make use of myths and fairytales to demonstrate that such image-rich modes of communication have a way of presenting real aspects of the world and the human condition in a deeper, more penetrating way than any analytical discourse or explanation could.

Tolkien is one of those who whole-heartedly accepted this premise of MacDonald’s and brings this assumption to even more vivid life in his own stories. In his famous “Lang Lecture on Fairy Tales,” Tolkien lays out three categories in which “fantasy” achieves this task of portraying the truth more luminously. Examining these three principles briefly sheds light not only on the purpose and significance of his own work, but on the power of myth and fantasy in its own right.

The first category is Recovery. Fantasy, by leading the reader away from things he knows so well and re-presenting them in novel ways, can make him re-think their true purpose and meaning. It offers a chance to glimpse the real beneath the appearance, “to see through the look of things,” Tolkien tells us: to be able to recognize the meaning of the simple and homely—perhaps for the first time. After encountering Treebeard in The Lord of the Rings, it is impossible to look at a tree the same way again without recognizing the immense layers of complexity and life that make up this thing we pass by on a daily basis. In a good fairy tale, this is true not only of physical things, but of spiritual, that is, non-material realities such as fear, love, joy, courage. The very manner in which things are portrayed in the world of fantasy serves the purpose of drawing out into the visible realm their interior nature and potentiality. Man needs to be in contact with the real, the really real: creation in all its original newness from the hand of the Creator. But we, in our modern world, have grown frightfully skilled at fortressing ourselves from any contact with the real—at surrounding ourselves with so many layers of a man-made reality that we can comfortably go through life avoiding the terror of facing something that does not originate from us—that is beyond our control. This is true everywhere, from genetically modifying our food, to cocooning ourselves behind technology and media, from the need for physical, individual human contact, etc. And yet secretly, our souls are parched for something more. Fairytales, in their ability to recover the real for us, are particularly relevant to a modern world that has mastered the art of isolation from the real.

The second is Escape. In the sense that Tolkien means it, “escape” does not refer to a blindness, a stance of closure or denial. Rather, as Stratford Caldecott aptly describes, fairytales are “[A]n escape into reality. It is the world of the everyday—boring, banal, dull, meaningless—that is the prison from which this kind of fantasy seeks to liberate us, not by distracting us from the real, but by showing us the deeper patterns and meanings that lie concealed within it” (Caldecott, A Hidden Presence, pg. 2). Fantasy, as a creative act of man’s imagination, allows us to escape the boundaries of time and space and to remind us that we are made for the eternal. The fairytale, Tolkien says, is man’s attempt to satisfy his desire for a world that is at once deeper, richer, and more beautiful than his present. It is the recapitulation of his longing for a “paradise lost;” a place that reflects adequately his heart’s memory of the more that he knows to be true somewhere, because he can imagine it. The fairytale, therefore, becomes his medium through which he can hearken to to re-access this memory. We live within a rationalistic, scientific worldview that has rejected both creation (that we have come from Another), and heaven (that we are made for Another). It has at the same time reduced the human person to a merely biological or psychological being determined by the body, by environment, or by desire; we do not have a meaning, a purpose, a destiny beyond the boundaries of this world. In the face of this, the fairytale, in its essentially spiritual, sacramental worldview, which takes seriously the longing in man’s heart for the transcendent purpose he was made for, is more essential to us now than ever.

The third category is Consolation. The consolation of the fairytale is to remind us that we are not alone in the world in the face of darkness and evils that are too much for us. Because they are too much for us. This is perhaps more true of the modern man than ever before. Having experienced two of the most atrocious wars in world history, the recent global pandemic that still has the world reeling, and the increasing violence, nihilism, and hatred of the last few centuries, we are more aware than ever before of our incapacity, of our littleness, of our helplessness against the forces of evil in the world: against ourselves. In the face of this increasing hopelessness, we are desperate to be able to believe, as Tolkien would say, in a “light and high beauty forever beyond the reach” of the shadow. The fairytale recalls man to his place within a larger story and reminds him that the end he is going toward is something glorious; that the darkness and struggles of this life are not the end of the story. This is why for Tolkien, Christ's Incarnation is THE fairytale. The Christian story is the fulfillment of all fairytales because with the coming of Christ, our hope has been realized, eternity has entered time, and we have been given the capacity to transcend again the boundaries of this world. In short, because of Christ, the ultimate meaning and hope at the heart of every fairytale has now come true for us.

Through all of these principles, Tolkien identifies what MacDonald first celebrated about the fairytale genre: its capacity to portray the truth of ourselves and the world as God made it. But the genius of the fairytale for MacDonald also lies in another fact: that its method also imitates God’s own method of creating. God does not hand His children everything on a golden platter, MacDonald insists. He whispers and calls and draws, but ever as Love itself does–desiring the response of the Beloved and thus leaving room for the response of the Beloved. For MacDonald, the true artist can operate in no other way, or he is unfaithful not only to the sacred nature of the other’s freedom, but also to the very nature of creation itself. The fairytale thus also most perfectly imitates the respectful distance that God takes with His own creation by presenting things in images and eliciting the reader’s engagement in order to recognize the truth in them.

Why, then, do fairytales continue to intrigue us? Because they speak to us from a world that still believes in things unseen, still believes in spiritual forces of good and evil, in a world “charged with the grandeur of God;” a world frightfully more complex, and therefore, more exciting, than the mechanical one we’ve created; a world in which even man himself has a depth, a mystery, a reality beyond being merely a scientifically-determined specimen of a material universe. Fantasies and myths are the remnant of this larger, deeper view of the world for which our human imaginations are now starving. Tolkien and MacDonald understood this. They understood that we need to be immersed in the old stories; in the plain and simple struggle between good and evil; in a narrative that confirms for us that Goodness, and Love, and Truth are as real as Evil, and Darkness, and Despair, and that Grace is always more than all our weaknesses and failings. We need, more than ever before, stories that truly confirm for us that we can rely on something beyond ourselves: in the definitive, final victory of Good over Evil. Because only the truth of such a victory lends any purpose, meaning, or hope to the defeats that we experience inevitably in our daily lives.

This summer, whether for the first time, or as an old, weathered traveler returning to the paths of childhood, I invite you to join us as we immerse ourselves in the thought and stories of these figures who believed wholeheartedly in the capacity of beauty to restore us to the truth of ourselves and the world.

Siobhan Latar studied Humanities and Catholic Culture at Franciscan University and received her Masters in Theological Studies and Doctoral Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C. Her dissertation was on the Scottish writer and theologian, George MacDonald, and her license thesis was entitled, "Light from an Invisible Lamp: the Sacramental Vocation of the Artist according to J. R. R. Tolkien." Her work and interests include philosophy, Church history, the intersection of art, literature and theology, and the sanctity of work and the lay vocation.