Soon I hope to start to read Gilead. This could not be more different than the fantasy reading of my youth, but I mention it because of what I already know of its voice. In this book, there is the world of an aged and dying minister and his account of the things that happened to him. This is important because the work is from a Calvinist perspective. My understanding is that it is also very touching and it can’t hurt to read something that is Calvinist and touching….two words you may never see again in the same sentence. (Calvinists and Protestants in general are not dispassionate, but they choose reserve for their exteriors and the eruptions of their love and violence is the atypical entrance of the mightily joyous or profane that marks plenty of the likes of American literature….think southern gothic.)
Some things happen to him….that is what I just said of Gilead’s Rev. John Ames This points to an important facet in the Protestant understanding of life. Things happen and you roll with it. You respond and those responses can be blood or love, but it is usually because something happens regardless of your intentions. Free will is downplayed and the adventure is that which is thrust upon you rather than what is willingly taken. In another “Protestant” novel, Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, such things are central to the novel’s actions.
Rev. Ames, like the characters in Buck’s work, also dwells on the good earth. He lives in rural Iowa near the Missouri and Nebraska state lines in the place where the river claims the first mortgage on every home, but where magic is rarely acknowledged. He loves the earth, but from my cursory understanding of Marilynne Robinson’s novel, it is not the place for adventure in the fantastic sense of the word.
This is not so in much of Catholic literature. Take The Hobbit for example, a work of the Catholic imagination and evidence as to why this imagination is better at fantasy than a Protestant one. I mention this because I went to see the film adaptation of Tolkien’s work yesterday and wanted to reserve any reading or conversation I did on it as a “Catholic” work until after I saw the movie. In short I wanted to see what was obviously Catholic about it. That is why I mention Pearl Buck and Marilynne Robinson because Robinson and Buck are known to write in a very “Protestant” way, most evidenced in that their novels characters react to events beyond their choosing and where magic is sparse. There must surely be a contrast to the writing of Roman Catholics and there would be no better place to observe this than in the literature of fantasy.
Tolkien is indeed different. So what is obviously Catholic of his work, particularly The Hobbit? (And granted this is from Jackson’s film….my voracious reading of Tolkien is “back there” in my youth.) Foremost to me is that the hero’s quest is a chosen one and nothing is assured….it is adventure in the truest sense of the word. Just as Catholic salvation involves human participation making life itself adventurous so do the undertakings of Bilbo Baggins, who had every right and reason to refuse the quest. Bilbo needs his “ecstatic yes” before anything happens. And of course there is magic. I will not belabor that point as it is often used by Protestants to chastise Catholics as “superstitious” but the point remains. Swords have otherworldly properties in the same sense as icons point to that beyond the world and of course ordinary beings and things contain extraordinary power (the one thing I know of Tolkien is his profound respect of the Eucharist.) All of this stands in stark contrast to the Protestant whose quest for the “faraway country” was completed long ago and now has only his or her “adventures” on this “good earth,” adventures that may or may not be afforded. “Middle Earth” seeks too much of one’s own participation in the adventure to ever be a realm for good Protestant types.
All of this makes me to want to “go back there again” and read Tolkien. Some of that is personal. I practice in a so-called middle tradition. I am always on a bridge of sorts or at least looking for a bridge and the other side is always fascinating. But before I do any such thing, I will read Gilead with its very this good earth theme and its rather unfantastic and unassuming characters and places. Maybe after that I can return to Tolkien.