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The Theology of Chesterton and Tolkien: An Interview with Alison Milbank by Carlos Perona Calvete

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The Theology of Chesterton and Tolkien: An Interview with Alison Milbank

J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton, two great champions of the modern fantasy genre, understood literary creation, and art in general, as somehow expressing God’s creativity in the world. Alison Milbank has written the book Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians exploring the work of these towering figures. In this interview, we delve into how beautiful art, and specifically great works of fiction, can kindle in us a sense for the mystery of beauty, until the whole world resembles a grand work of art. 


Tolkien writes about sub-creation to describe what is legitimate in the creative work. The term already sounds theurgic—doing the work of God at your level. What does Tolkien mean by sub-creation?

It means to make things, and in particular to make art. To write stories, pictures, this kind of thing, which Tolkien feels is, in some real sense, participating in the act of creation. We make by the law according to which we are made. We are the children of a God who creates from nothing, who makes things free, if you like. And therefore we make things at our own level, though I think Tolkien would probably follow George MacDonald, who in his essay on the fantastic imagination says that invention is a kind of finding, so that God gives us the things out of which to create. The clay, the leaves, the words, even the language. And we use those to make things so that we put them in new combinations. But in one sense, all of those combinations are possibilities already present in the mind of God. So we can make a new thing in the world that wasn’t there before. And Tolkien thought we would go on to do that in Heaven. In his poem Mythopoeia, which he wrote to convert C. S. Lewis, he tells Lewis that myth is real. He lays out that Heaven will be a time of creativity as well. 

That reminds me of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s understanding of Heaven as extending through eternity. It’s not static. 

Absolutely, it is very dynamic, just like in Gregory of Nyssa. Which of course is all about more knowledge and more love. More knowledge creates more love, which in turn creates more knowledge, and so you go on and on and on, and in the sense it’s the same. You mentioned Nicholas of Cusa to me (via email), the 15th century theologian and cardinal. He has this idea based on a spoon-maker, in one of these dialogues, that our knowledge comes by doing. We learn through the actual process of making. And I think that’s something that Tolkien believed, although he probably never read Nicholas of Cusa. 

How is it possible to discover by imagining, to discover a pre-existing reality by creating? This would seem to risk projecting one’s own beliefs rather than genuinely discovering something. You mentioned that what we create is a potential that’s already latent, so to speak, in the mind of God. This reminds me of the Church Father St. Dionysus and the idea of receiving and then giving forth.

Yes, everything in Dionysus’ world is always giving and receiving. And in this way, there comes to be more and more of it. So, beauty calls you to become beautiful. We’re always taking in and giving out. The transcendentals (goodness, truth, beauty—although beauty was not thought of as a transcendental until later, but that is because it was considered a part of goodness) are in one sense convertible to each other. And the closer we come to God, the more these transcendentals appear as one. And that’s why I love fairy stories. In a fairy story, the princess is always good and beautiful, and that’s because in God, truth, beauty, and goodness are one and so there is this kind of grace-filled idea in the fairy story. 

Why look to medieval aesthetic and fairy stories in particular? 

Tolkien is interested in the realm of fairy, which is, in one sense, the realm of imagination. It’s very much a realm in which the human encounters a kind of otherness and is taken into an enchanted reality. In some sense, that enchanted reality is reality as it should be. You see this particularly in Tolkien’s treatment of elves, who have an unalienated mode of making. They make out of themselves, and the things that they make take on a certain quality. Their rope is more ropey, it can untie itself. Their bread lasts much longer; their cloaks render you almost invisible. And this is because you are within the realm of fairy. Now, as a realm of otherness, it can also have a dangerous side, even a negative side. In mythology, obviously fairies have different valences according to which culture you come from. Tolkien’s elves are a way of trying to render the fair within a Christian view. Where do the fairies belong? I think, for him, the fairy story is interesting insofar as it takes people into a different realm, but still a world that is in some kind of relation to our own. 

Christianity doesn’t really have neutral spirits. It’s either angelic or demonic, typically. I wonder whether, in Tolkien, the archons, or spirits of nature, are subject to being baptized. 

I suppose what he thought he was doing was a bit more half-way. Tolkien saw the Lord of the Rings as a kind of pagan version of the Old Testament. It’s a bit like the work of Snorri Sturluson, a Christian, who wrote the Prose Edda. We know of Norse myths mainly through Christians. The author of Beowulf, about whom Tolkien wrote, is a Christian writing about a Pagan world.

They don’t completely Christianise myth, but they give it a kind of quality that orients it to the Christian future. So it can be thought of as a type, or something like that. That’s how I tend to read it. So, although he does say things in his letters about, you know, Galadriel, being a bit like the Virgin Mary—well, she is and she isn’t. She’s quite distinct, even though you might see her as a kind of wisdom figure, just as the Virgin is the seat of wisdom, or you might see her humility as looking forward to the Virgin Mary’s humility. She’s also done some quite naughty things in the past, depending on which version of her back story you read. 

So it’s a prefiguring, a praeparatio evangelica, but not a clear analogy of Christianity. I wonder if you could explain what you mean by making strange, which you write about in Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians.

Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians:
The Fantasy of the Real
by Alison Milbank
London: T&T Clark, 2009

In using this expression, I was really referring to a man called Victor Shklovsly who, way back at the beginning of the 20th century, was writing about what he called defamiliarization, particularly in relation to Tolstoy. But any kind of work of fiction has a kind of self-consciousness about it. You’re reading a story. You’re reading a poem. And as you encounter the world in that work, to some degree, it takes you away from reality.

Now, obviously fantasy does that in a very pure way, and when Tolkien’s writing about ‘making strange,’ he gets the idea from Chesterton, for whom it’s the principal method of writing. Chesterton will write in a literary way, or a grotesque way, that makes ordinary things seem bizarre, or eerie.

Father Brown stories worked like this. You’re in a very ordinary world, in a London tea shop, for example, and suddenly something unaccountable happens, and the whole world seems odd. It doesn’t seem to be what you thought it was. Anything is possible. You are taken into a kind of almost fantastic realm. How is it that the body disappears from a block of flats, when three witnesses have been watching and nobody went in or out? Does it mean that bodies can do things that we don’t think they can do? So, he takes you away from a world which seems to operate through familiar laws. That’s the way Chesterton does it, in order to restore reality. 

It doesn’t usually have a supernatural explanation. In Father Brown stories, there will be a natural explanation, but it doesn’t come with the sense of, “Oh, is that all it was?” It comes with a sense that reality is much deeper, more mysterious, than we thought. And it remains robed in mystery at the end. 

In a sense, that’s what any good art should do. It should take you away from your normal understanding of how things work, how words work, even if it makes you aware of a word, of its word-ness. You’re suddenly seeing it differently. Instead of it being a word that you just say to mean something, suddenly you think of what a word is. And that’s another way of making strange, if that makes any sense. 

Could you comment on the economic ideas of Chesterton, which are similar perhaps to Tolkien’s?

Chesterton transitioned very quickly from being a liberal, and eventually became a distributist. And this was really out of his incredible appreciation of the local in all its thickness, and a sense that larger structures should not damage this local adherence. He wrote a novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, to show that just belonging to Notting Hill is not enough. You’ve got to think about Notting Hill in relation to London, to other boroughs, to the world, but still starting from Notting Hill. Patriotism goes wrong when it starts thinking my country is better than another country. Instead of loving Notting Hill because it’s Notting Hill, you love it because you think it’s better than every other place. 

So, Chesterton has this very strong sense of the local and that politics should be happening at the local level. He believes in private ownership in a very Thomistic sense, that these are ways in which we can exercise our freedom and our creativity and our charity. But, if it was really needed, just as Thomas says, you’d jolly well have to give it to the common good if necessary. So, Chesterton did become a distributist, and was accused of saying everybody should have two acres and a cow. Which can be seen as somewhat romantic. But it’s an incredibly English vision, because English people love living in little terraced houses with a bit of garden, and in the time Chesterton was writing, they would have had a pig that they were fattening up. There’s a sense of a kind of self-sufficiency. You’re not at the mercy of market forces. He was also very keen on the idea that money shouldn’t be hoarded. It should be distributed to as many people as possible. So that’s Chesterton. 

Tolkien is obviously very aware of this and you can see this in the shire. Certainly the shire has been written about as a distributist democracy. But, of course, the shire exists in relation to Aragorn, which if you like is something like the Holy Roman Emperor or the UN—except Tolkien is very fond of monarchy, so Aragorn is definitely equivalent to the Holy Roman Empire. But you know, it allows the local to be itself and doesn’t interfere, but protects it and kind of mediates between the local and universal. We need mediating institutions and I think the shire is sort of one of those. So, I think both Chesterton and Tolkien believe in a kind of politics of the common good. You mentioned right at the beginning the idea of Christian socialism. All of Chesterton’s friends, when he was an Anglican (and they went on being friends) were all Christian socialists. But they tend to be guild socialists who were very keen on guilds, trade unions, cooperatives, churches. They took the family as a mediating group. 

I remember in Manalive or The Man who was Called Thursday, Chesterton says that even in Heaven he would have land and a fence, or something like it.

That’s quite interesting, because of course Tolkien wrote a little allegory called Leaf by Niggle about being an artist. In the afterlife, the artist creates his own little garden with Parish, which represents something like the demands of charity. They create this little bounded garden, though they do move beyond it, I have to say. 

The strength and the weakness of this kind of vision is that it’s always very easy to propose that the state do something, but regenerating locality is difficult after it’s been eroded. It’s like planting a tree. You’re not going to see results today or next year. Maybe fiction is one of the means through which you inspire that kind of action. In Tolkien there’s a lot going on, but the love of the local is emphasized by his picking a Hobbit as his hero.

And, in fact, the real hero is possibly Sam, based on the ordinary soldier from World War I, Sam who becomes Frodo’s heir at the end of the novel. But I mean, local politics is really where it’s at. We live in a globalized world where the only way of overcoming the feeling that everything is out of our control is to do things locally and sustainably. To buy things as locally as you can and eat as locally as you can and have relationships with the people near you. This is a way in which these authors speak to a future as well as the past. 

Carlos Perona Calvete is a writer for The European Conservative. He has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior, has worked in the field of European project management, and is currently awaiting publication of a book in which he explores the metaphysics of political representation.