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Out of the Shire: Life Beyond Tolkien

Has authentic romanticism in literature peaked?

If you look at what’s playing on your television, at what’s showing at the local cinema, at what video games your children are playing, or at what is selling in the young adult section of your neighborhood Barnes & Noble, you’ll see something that is at once deeply cultural and deeply countercultural at the exact same moment: Romanticism.

It’s difficult to know exactly where the movement started, though most historians and literary scholars would give the nod to Edmund Burke and his second great work, On the Sublime and the Beautiful. From Burke’s treatise, almost all modern Romantic thought arose. Burke’s presence is, at times, implicit, and, at times, blatant in the works of such critical figures as Wordsworth and Coleridge, but it can be found throughout most of the romantic poetry and art of the early 19th century. It’s not hard even to imagine Burke’s shadow lingering over Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral. In his own writings on Western civilization, Christopher Dawson argued that the rise of Romanticism, whatever its excesses and failings, was as important to Western civilization, as the re-discovery of Hellenic thought in the Renaissance. Whatever its original and essential intent, Romanticism successfully saved Christianity from the utilitarianism and rationalism of the 18th century, Dawson continued. In its recovery of medieval Christianity in the early 19th century, the Anglo-Welsh Roman Catholic scholar asserted, the Romantics actually discovered “a new kind of beauty.”  

From its earliest origins, one can trace Romanticism’s history through the 19th century and into the early 20th century through figures as diverse as Friedrich Nietzsche, G.K. Chesterton, and Willa Cather. Perhaps most importantly for Western culture, however, was its manifestation in the vast mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Not surprisingly, especially given its origins in the thought of Edmund Burke, Romanticism, properly understood, is deeply conservative in its praise of the ancestors, its idealization of the past, and in its admiration of folk customs as a greater wisdom than any one generation or one person can know. Romanticism is also, properly understood, deeply sacramental. Like all good things in this world, it can be perverted in and to varying degrees. It’s love of the past and one’s ancestry can be unthinkingly reactionary, its love of place can become pantheistic, and its love of the folk can become nationalistic and even, at times, downright fascistic.

In the 20th century, as noted above, the greatest expression of a proper romanticism can be found in the works of Tolkien as well as in the works of the other Inklings, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Lord David Cecil. In terms of sales and influence, however, Tolkien has far exceeded that of his closest friends. For almost anyone under the age of 70, Tolkien is a champion of great art and high imagination. For an older generation—in general—he still, unfortunately, represents decadent hippiness, magic mushrooms, and psychedelic tuning out.

Fundamentalists of all ages also fear Tolkien, too, worrying that his discussion of magic and elves and dwarves is somehow a bit too dark and unchristian, perhaps created with noble intent, but the devil’s work, nonetheless. After all, it was the Tolkien craze that spawned (or at least radically increased the popularity) of such games as Dungeons & Dragons and such music as Led Zeppelin IV. Once the province of nerds and nerds only, Dungeons & Dragons has become powerfully mainstream, and as various scholars have argued, one can trace a rather direct line from Tolkien to D&D to modern video games. And, Led Zeppelin’s music is now as much a part of Western civilization as is Beethoven, though often relegated to the wallpaper sounds of Muzak in our elevators of commerce and industry.

Assuming, fair reader of TAC, that you are not worried about losing your soul when listening to “Stairway to Heaven” or that demons lurk when spending an evening with friends pretending to be an elf as you roll the dice in some distant imaginary land, you might very well be curious as to what is good in this huge and Romantic bent in fiction over the past century. Tolkien and Lewis, to be sure. But, what about that great question, “and, after Tolkien?” If you’re asking yourself this—for you or your kids or grandkids—you’re not alone. As someone who has had the grand privilege of spending much of his academic career studying Tolkien, fantasy, and science fiction, I often get asked, “Ok, after Tolkien, now what?”

It should be noted that there is a lot of mediocre literature for sale in Barnes & Noble (and all other fine book retailers). Indeed, there exists far more mediocre than there is the diabolic or the good. For this piece, I’ll avoid the mediocre completely. Be hot or cold, but “lukewarm, get away from me!” As to the diabolic, there are three authors that series lovers of Romantic literature should avoid: Philip Pullman, Michael Moorcock, and Stephen Donaldson, each of whom has intentionally set out to undermine, subvert, and pervert the Christian elements of Tolkienian fantasy. They are, to put it mildly, not only anti-Christian and anti-romantic, but painfully so. They’re, to be sure, quite talented, but they use their talents in ways that undermine the very gifts of truth, beauty, and goodness.

As I list what to read “After Tolkien,” I must make two caveats. First, almost no one has reached the literary quality of Tolkien’s writings, whether in his clever children’s stories, such as The Hobbit, or in his high fantasy, such as in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. And, second, no one has reached the imaginative quality of Tolkien’s writings, either. For better or worse, these two must be givens as we consider “After Tolkien.” And, these two might be givens for the next several centuries.

Of all 20th century fabulists, Ray Bradbury comes closest to equaling Tolkien’s literary and imaginative powers. Unlike his English counterpart, however, Bradbury excelled in the direct, sharp, and well-defined story. There is no meandering in a Bradbury story, no extraordinary quest, no prolonged journey. Bradbury would latch fiercely onto one idea or one image and write a short story around that one thing. “Life is short, misery sure, mortality certain,” Bradbury noted in the early 1970s. “But on the way, in your work, why not carry these two inflated pig bladders labeled Zest and Gusto.” He was a master of these two pig bladders, and even his novels—such as Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451—are really just compilations of short stories. One of Bradbury’s best as well as his most neglected novel is his story of good and evil as represented and manifested in two young boys, Something Wicked This Way Comes. It might very well be the best Christian book written by a non-Christian in the 20th century.

If she had taken twice or even three times as long to write her seven books of the Harry Potter series, Scottish authoress J.K. Rowling might have achieved a form of literary immortality. As they are, the Harry Potter books are extremely clever and relentlessly entertaining, but they will probably not be read a century from now. Some newer, more clever series will have taken its place by then. Still, for what they are—despite the worries of fundamentalist Catholics—the Harry Potter books are both pro-Western civilization and pro-Catholic. Well versed in the Western canon, Rowling peppers her stories with a vast number of specifically Catholic symbolism: the blood of the unicorn bringing everlasting death upon those unworthy to drink of it; the rebirth of the phoenix named, ironically enough, Fawkes (Guy Fawkes was a 17th century Roman Catholic terrorist lampooned by British Protestants); the use of a variety of saints names such as Hedwig, Mungo, and Brutus; the communion of saints in the form of Harry’s family in his first direct battle with Voldemort in a graveyard. And, this is just a short list. Perhaps most tellingly, the wizards became illegal and had to form recusant in 1689, the very same year (in reality) that Catholics had to do the same in Britain.

For those of a certain age, Terry Brooks will always be remembered for writing his Shannara trilogy in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Brooks openly borrowed from Tolkien, and, at the time, as many critics lambasted him for this even as thousands upon thousands of kids bought his books, eagerly hoping to find more adventures of romantic heroes. Since the early 1980s, the Shannara universe has grown brilliantly, and Brooks—rather open about his own Protestant Christianity—has grown equally brilliantly as a writer. As with much of fantasy (and some Protestantism), Brooks too often veers into Manicheanism, but, then again, so did Saint Augustine. His universe is based on a seemingly never-ending war of the Word and the Void. The Word seeks to leaven all life, while the Void seeks nothing but annihilation. Far from the winding sentences and paragraphs of the first few Shannara books, the more recent ones are pithy, honed, and direct. As with Tolkien, Brooks does an excellent job exploring the good of good while not basking in the evil of evil.

Though remembered more for his nonfiction such as The Conservative Mind and Roots of American Order, Russell Kirk produced some of the most powerful fiction of the last century. In terms of his short stories, one might very well imagine the power of a Bradbury with the morality of a Flannery O’Connor. These, too, deal with good and evil, though Kirk is at his best when describing noble sacrifices. His best book, however, is a dark but powerfully Christian fantasy called The Lord of The Hollow Dark. In it, Kirk places all of the major figures from the plays and poems of T.S. Eliot at a Scottish castle dedicated to Satanism and the performance of a black mass. Not surprisingly, the dialogue is intellectually rigorous while the plot remains riveting. It is a rare achievement of high philosophy, fantasy, and theology and deserves a much wider audience than it has thus far received.

Sharing the same literary agent, Stephen King took inspiration from Kirk, strangely enough. While they have different views politically, the two men saw good and evil in much the same way, and each reveres place (Michigan, Scotland, Maine) in a way usually reserved for the most traditionalist of traditionalists. The great difference between the two authors, of course, is that King wallows in the decadence and immorality of evil (though he is equally good at evoking the good and the heroic). Whereas Kirk might allude to a murder, for example, King gives us five to six pages of gruesome description of that murder. Five such pages can readily change the entire tone of a novel. King’s best novel—in terms of literary quality and imaginative power—is Salem’s Lot, the rewrite of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, set in small-town Maine.

While no one has equaled the literary achievements of Tolkien, a healthy romanticism remains alive and well in Western civilization. Long may it counter the dreary and dreadful world of the progressives.

Bradley J. Birzer is the president of the American Ideas Institute, which publishes TAC. He holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.