A couple of weeks ago I finished reading Alison Milbank’s Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians. It is a book that had been sitting on my bookshelf for several months, possibly twelve, and looking far more daunting than it actually was.
My introduction to Milbank was through a University of Nottingham Department of Theology and Religious Studies video in which she gives a scholarly (but intelligible and interesting) response to the question “Why Study J.R.R. Tolkien?” The video, linked here, is part of a wonderful and ongoing series of “Why Study…” prompts that the department produces. Other topics in the series are “Why Study Evangelicalism?” and “Why Study Didache?” and “Why Study The Gift?” They are, rather surprisingly, quite viewer-friendly. Smart, but not overly elitist.
To put it mildly, these “Why Study…?” questions quite simply provided me some needed encouragement and insight into greater theological questions. Far from being off-putting or even confusing, what they offered was a kind of reassurance: that I wasn’t alone in wondering “Why Study?” or even “Why?” For a thinking, feeling, theologically-minded non-Evangelical American, options for intelligent discussion are relatively thin on the ground (these days).
So, back to Alison Milbank. Much like her talk, in which she dissects, among other things, the metaphysics of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, her book provides a wonderful dichotomy, even a balance, between the literary and the theological. “Literature is a mode of writing that can do theological work”, she says in the interview. And her book also shows this re-connecting of the serious to the playful, the known and the unknown, and challenges the way one ordinarily looks at theology and fiction–namely fiction that falls under the label ‘fantasy’.
Tolkien is just one of many writers who think this way, and Alison Milbank has introduced me to them through her book. The first of them is, of course, the first title author: Chesterton. While we are all ‘somewhat familiar’ with G. K. Chesterton, I am more than a little embarrassed to say that I have not read him, or not read him fully. Chesterton is wonderful, and like anything wonderful that you have only just encountered after 40 years of not encountering, he is welcome. The fact that he inspired Tolkien to no small degree is not surprising either. But it was how seamlessly Milbank wove all of this together that amazed me. I am used to dense, acadmic writing (though I may not like it) and I expected this to be de rigeur. However, it is not. It is lovely, and it challenged and changed me.
But the time after this book has left me restless, and in a dangerous frame of mind, asking: What else is out there? Where do I get more? How can I not see–now that I do see–how much of a gift is life, is Christ? For in one chapter, “Fairy Economics” (fabulous, isn’t it?), Milbank discusses the gift, saying such wonderful things as “Language too is a gift-object in Anglo-Saxon culture, in which words are a form of deed, so that Wormtongue’s perversion of speech prevents all forms of exchange and prevents the king from performing his role as gift-giver.” (128) How marvellous is that? Profound; and I cannot read now without thinking: where is the gift? Where is its perversion?
Once I realized the true purpose of the grotesque, which is essentially to show us our true nature and to “jolt us out of a habitual way of understanding” in order to be re-connected to the divine, I had to leave off literature altogether and simply contemplate the world of the divine. It has been a difficult estrangement, but I am better for it. Much as a fast makes us better for the meal, and somewhat more discerning in our habits, a starvation of literature has made me savor the language I take for granted, literally accept the gift of Milbank’s work and attempt to pass it on.