Elves, Orcs and Freaks: The Shared Authorial Vision of JRR Tolkien and Flannery O’Connor (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this discussion, I outlined several ways O’Connor’s description of the Southern Grotesque and Tolkien’s description of Fantasy are astoundingly, unexpectedly similar. I also pointed out—through a close look at each of their seminal essays on fiction—how they both consider their bizarre or otherworldly genres more effective at conveying reality than strict “realist” fiction can possibly be. Strict realist fiction, they both argue, limits its vision-aiding powers by only describing things as they “look and happen in normal life,” to use O’Connor’s language.

Here are two examples:

O’Connor, perhaps a tad snarkily, says in her essay that a writer who confines himself to pure, typical “realism” (in the sense of outward detail) “may,” if he’s skillful, “transcend the limits of his narrow vision,” but only by inadvertently capturing for the reader a vista of the “great tragic naturalism” that pervades his society.

When Tolkien turns to a discussion of the preferred literature of his day, compared to his own, otherworldly brand, he uses a comparable formula: “Such [fantastic] tales have a greater sense and grasp of the endlessness of the World of Story than most modern ‘realistic’ stories, already hemmed within the narrow confines of their own small time.”

Now, a brief caveat regarding all this: Admittedly, the use of the bizarre for literary effect is hardly unique to Tolkien and O’Connor. Their works manifest it in unique ways, but it’s the same type of thing self-consciously employed by writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Gabriel García Márquez, Donald Barthelme, and more recently Aimee Bender and Salman Rushdie (and anyone reading this, I’m sure, just thought of five or ten more before they finished that last sentence). Rushdie refers to this branch of imaginative storytelling as “fiction that waves its arms about.” As before, though, I don’t want to confuse genres. The modes in which these authors operate are hugely different in some ways. All of them, however, take advantage of a long-acknowledged literary power in the not-like-everyday-life. The tradition stretches from Gilgamesh and The Iliad to the present. The distinct thing about its use in the hands of Tolkien and O’Connor is the reason behind their impulse for using it.

For each of them, the truer and deeper vision fostered by their chosen mode was borne out of the all-encompassing worldview of Christianity. But how was it that Christianity, specifically, informed their sight so that through it they saw the world in these heightened ways?

In particular, using O’Connor’s expression, it seems to have been the “mystery” inherent in the faith, the grand paradox of it. Christianity is, uniquely, both transcendent and incarnational. It’s this feature of the faith, being at once tied to everything we see and yet also reaching beyond everything we see, that seems to have inspired the unique modes of both these authors.

To Tolkien, operating in the realm of Fantasy was akin to—or even a small participation in—the very act of God’s creation:

“The Evangelium,” God’s breaking into history itself to accomplish the redemption of mankind, God’s making and telling a story that has all the qualities of myth but is also true, this story in which “Legend and History have met and fused,” says Tolkien, “has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them. . . . The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. . . . He may now [in light of the Evangelium, the Gospel], perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.”

To O’Connor, diving as a reader into the realm of the Southern Grotesque, with its sight-sharpening qualities, “will be a descent through the darkness of the familiar into a world where, like the blind man cured in the gospels, he sees men as if they were trees, but walking. This is the beginning of vision.”

In these two statements, O’Connor and Tolkien directly link the far-seeing power of their genres to the power of the Christian worldview to make sense of things mere physical sight can’t comprehend.

Fantasy, says Tolkien—as opposed to fiction operating purely in a world of typically observed fact—has “an advantage: arresting strangeness. But that advantage has been turned against it, and has contributed to its disrepute. Many people dislike being ‘arrested.’ They dislike any meddling with the Primary World, or such small glimpses of it as are familiar to them.”

O’Connor remarks likewise: “I am always having it pointed out to me that life in Georgia is not at all the way I picture it, that escaped criminals do not roam the roads exterminating families, nor Bible salesmen prowl around looking for girls with wooden legs.”

She mentions a letter from a woman in California who apparently didn’t appreciate the effect of her fiction. Much like the readers Tolkien describes, who “dislike being arrested,” O’Connor says of her pen pal: “[She] informed me that when the tired reader comes home at night, he wishes to read something that will lift up his heart. And it seems her heart had not been lifted up by anything of mine.” She goes on, interestingly, to say: “I think that if her heart had been in the right place, it would have been lifted up.”

O’Connor seems to be pointing to a critical misdirection of vision, which often prompts such protests against her particular stripe of “arresting” fiction. Expanding on this, she clarifies how such a disconnect between her intent and that common reaction among readers does indeed seem a matter of vision: “Even though the writer who produces grotesque fiction may not consider his characters any more freakish than ordinary fallen man usually is, his audience is going to.”

Given the way O’Connor sees her characters (and the whole fictional universe of her stories), it seems as if she hopes to induce a kind of heightened perception in readers, revealing the world to be far more bizarre than we habitually see it. Trying to correct our vision for us by showing us ourselves, and then cupping her hands to her mouth and yelling: Hey you, you see this freak in my story? This is you; this is me; this is our world as it is.

Directly related is O’Connor’s claim that “a literature which mirrors society would be no fit guide for it.” She, instead, wants to hold up a mirror that doesn’t simply reflect things back as people already see them, but one that goes “the way of distortion.” It needs to be one, however, that “distorts without destroying.”

In a similar way, Tolkien says of Fantasy that one of its many abilities is to cause readers to see things “suddenly from a new angle.”

In some sense, all fiction, and indeed creative literature as a whole, operates on this same principle: it takes us out of our familiar world or sub-culture or head and drops us into another one, forcing us to make judgments and have reactions as we encounter people and events in a more raw form than we’re able to do when all we see are the details of our own daily lives, and always through the same two eyes.

Having gone to great pains, now, to articulate how emphatically Tolkien and O’Connor both argue about the unique power of their unconventional genres, it’s important to note what this does not mean. It does not mean that “realist” fiction has nothing to offer, or that “realist” fiction has nothing to do with imagination (quite the contrary, actually). There are literally scores of authors working (or who have worked) in a strict-realist vein whose writing is immensely admirable. Raymond Carver, Richard Bausch, Charles Baxter, Lorrie Moore, Jill McCorkle, Ernest Hemingway; the list could go on and on, really. These are writers whose stories penetrate the murky depths of complex, fallen human nature as sharply as anyone. And these writers most definitely say something very true about our world. Moreover, I plan to continue reading and learning from and more deeply admiring writers like these as long as I’m alive to read.

Perhaps the crucial thing to remember is this: even though something very true can be seen by looking through a keyhole at a small piece of whatever is real on the other side of the door, the picture is—in a clear sense—incomplete. Sometimes this keyhole glimpse of reality is absolutely fascinating, and there’s a delicate art to carving out just the right shape of open space for readers to look through from just such an angle. But for trying to capture a larger view of reality, a more complete vista, one that suggests the Story behind all stories, it seems—as O’Connor and Tolkien would argue—that among the different types of fiction, that which stretches beyond, or completely transcends, the way life “normally” looks is the better instrument.