Elves, Orcs and Freaks: The Shared Authorial Vision of JRR Tolkien and Flannery O’Connor (Part 1)
It’s not very often you hear the works of JRR Tolkien and Flannery O’Connor mentioned in the same breath—at least not on purpose. Some might find this surprising. O’Connor and Tolkien were, after all, both mid-twentieth century Catholic authors who garnered serious acclaim for very unusual works of fiction. But for most, that would be where all comparison ceased.
And of course, there are plenty of differences between the two that make it perfectly natural not to compare them.
O’Connor lived and wrote in the very distinct literary sphere of the Deep South, operating in an aesthetic many refer to as the Southern Gothic (or, more interesting for this discussion, the Southern Grotesque). Tolkien, on the other hand, was an Englishman, a scholar, enamored of arcane languages (mostly Northern European) ranging from Old Norse, to Old Icelandic, to Old English, to Finnish and Welsh, and numerous others. O’Connor’s characters were people like serial killers camping out in the woods near Florida who liked to talk about Jesus and wore clothes that didn’t fit; grumpy, combative women who ran farms and either pawned their vulnerable daughters off to crooked Bible salesmen or found themselves getting gored by bulls at the end of one story or another. Tolkien’s characters were elves, orcs, hobbits, men of old legend, wizards: the original cast of High Fantasy as we know it.
But there’s a great deal in their respective works—even works as seemingly disparate as the ones I’ve referred to—that betrays a fundamentally similar creative aesthetic. And a fundamentally similar reliance on Christian thought in arriving at that aesthetic. (For the sake of clarity, by “aesthetic,” in this discussion I mean: a set of internal principles and external characteristics that tend to permeate an artist’s work.)
A close examination of not only these authors’ creative efforts but also of their essays and letters uncovers some striking—and profoundly deep—artistic parallels.
Two essays in particular make perfect ground for drawing this comparison. Both essays are, in part, deliberate attempts by these authors to explicate and defend their visions of what makes the best, most deeply moving, and (counter-intuitively) most deeply real kind of fiction.
O’Connor’s essay is titled, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” and Tolkien’s, probably the more widely known of the two, is called, “On Fairy Stories.”
The titles alone indicate that each of these works is about the mechanics of a mode, about the distinctness and the power of a particular kind of fiction. And this unique power comes from—as both essays spend a great deal of time delineating—the “arresting strangeness” (in Tolkien’s terms) of their chosen modes.
In the unworldly and the bizarre, both O’Connor and Tolkien see an opportunity for representing deeper truths about their societies, their fellow man, and their universe than strict “realist” fiction allows. Both acknowledge a profound irony in the end result that such un-reality can furnish a truer picture of creation and its apex (people) than the more dominant and, in their time, more critically acceptable literary mode.
O’Connor begins her explanation of it this way: “I think that every writer when he speaks of his own approach to fiction hopes to show that, in some crucial and deep sense, he is a realist; and for some of us, for whom the ordinary aspects of daily-life prove to be of no great fictional interest, this is very difficult.”
Tolkien, similarly, says, “Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality.”
In a further defense of her peculiar aesthetic, O’Connor claims, much like Tolkien will in his essay: “Today many readers and critics have set up for the novel a kind of orthodoxy. They demand a realism of fact which may, in the end, limit rather than broaden the novel’s scope. They associate the only legitimate material for long fiction . . . with the typical, with fidelity to the way things look and happen in normal life.”
Like O’Connor’s lack of interest in the “typical,” Tolkien expresses incredulity at the preferred subject matter of strict “realist” fiction when he shares this anecdote: “Not long ago—incredible though it may seem—I heard a clerk of Oxenford declare that he ‘welcomed’ the proximity of mass-production robot factories, and the roar of self-obstructive mechanical traffic, because it brought his university into ‘contact with real life’ . . . The expression ‘real life’ in this context seems to fall short of academic standards. The notion that motor-cars are more ‘alive’ than, say, centaurs or dragons is curious; that they are more ‘real’ than, say, horses is pathetically absurd.”
The first thing I wondered, when I read this again recently, was, Dude, what kind of robots were they building in Oxford??? But in all seriousness, Tolkien is pointing to what seems the ludicrous veneration (in both modern life and modern fiction) of simple mechanical advancement. Such a value-system also typifies the stories O’Connor refers to as “novels about men in grey flannel suits.” O’Connor adds that writers of this kind of fiction (valuing the progress of immaterial souls about as much as Tolkien’s ‘clerk’ valued horses) “have lost their ability to see that these gentlemen are even greater freaks than what we are writing about.”
Now I don’t want to come off as comparing apples to oranges here. The Southern Grotesque and Fairy Stories (as defined by Tolkien) are quite different things, in a multitude of ways. But the two forms share a distinct quality: a reaching beyond the typical or everyday ‘reality’ that the dominant literary school limits itself to. This school arrives at its self-imposed limitation through the assumption, in O’Connor words, that all the “mysteries of life will eventually fall before the scientific advances of man.” And these are the same ‘progressive’ sorts whose perspective Tolkien satirizes thusly: “How real, how startlingly alive is a factory chimney compared with an elm-tree: poor obsolete thing, insubstantial dream of an escapist!”
I hope, by this point, something of the similarity in these two writers’ sentiments is coming across. In all honesty, I hardly scratched the surface on that score. I encourage anyone who’s skeptical, or even just curious, about this point to track down these essays and discover firsthand the remarkably close attitudes O’Connor and Tolkien have toward the strict-realist literature of their day, and also toward the truth-revealing power of literary worlds that stretch beyond the visible details of everyday, material life.
There’s much, much more to say. But, for now, let me leave you with this. This shared sentiment about what comprises “reality” is far from the only similarity uniting O’Connor and Tolkien. It’s really just the starting point. A much more fundamental connection actually exists in their common impetus for writing in these hyper-realist modes.
In Part 2 of this discussion, I’ll argue how their shared Christian worldview links them—and their respective aesthetics—even more profoundly than their shared affinity for the hyper-‘real.’