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  • Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real
  • Mike Foster
Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real, by Alison Milbank. London and New York: T&T Clark, 2009. xvi, 184 pp. £19.99 / $39.95 (trade paperback) ISBN 9780567390417.

A convincing argument may be made that the early twenty-first century is a new golden age of Tolkien criticism. Along with recent and noteworthy works by long-established masters of Tolkien scholarship, outstanding book-length studies by "new" writers like John Garth, John D. Rateliff, and Diana Pavlac Glyer have swelled the Middle-earth scholar's bookshelves with more absolutely essential tomes.

To the forefront of that honor roll, add Alison Milbank's magnificent Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, first published in hardcover in late 2007 (ISBN 9780567040947) and now released in trade paperback. [End Page 260] Prodigious and polymathic in its allusions to fiction, folklore, theology, philosophy, economics, papal encyclicals, and literary criticism, it is rooted deeply in insightful comprehension of the works of both authors. It weaves Elvish ropes linking the two together in ways few—if any—other critical works have done.

Of course, writing an opus like this one is fraught with perils for those who would link Faërie to the Cathedral. "Therein lies the problem with books of this sort," wrote this reviewer of Stratford Caldecott's The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision behind "The Lord of the Rings" (2005). "The reader perforce has two subjects to weigh and balance: literary scholarship and theological interpretation" (294).

This long and narrow bridge over the abyss Dr. Milbank has crossed sure-footedly. A lecturer at the University of Nottingham, she has described herself in an online interview as "a literary scholar of the Victorian period and the Gothic novel, with interests in all manner of non-realist fiction: fantasy, horror, and mystery. I am also an Anglican priest."

As one who has written and spoken on the spiritual links between the Shire and the Flying Inn, taught university classes linking the two writers (as she has), and discussed Chesterton's influence on Tolkien with (among others) Priscilla Tolkien and George Sayer, this reviewer was impressed from the first page of the preface, which sets forth the order of the book, to the conclusion wherein Milbank looks back lucidly on her topic in a fine finale linking Father Christmas, Santa Claus, and Tom Bombadil.

By only the second page, Milbank conjoins Tolkien's greatest tale to Welshman David Jones's wartime epic, In Parenthesis (1937), which "juxtaposes ordinary soldier talk of a range of periods with mythic tales in order to give heroism and significance to the common people" (ix). The power and the glory of this study is foretold, and, like all foretellings in Tolkien and Chesterton, the prophecy is fulfilled.

One virtue of this work is the author's mastery of existing criticism of Chesterton and, especially, Tolkien. She stands tall and sees far because she stands on the giants' shoulders. Likewise, her understanding of Dante provides a connection between her subjects and his Divine Comedy. Her small "c" catholic incorporation of sources as variegated as the Pre-Raphaelites, Agatha Christie, E. M. Forster, David Hume, Thomas Aquinas, Eric Gill, Jacques Maritain, Alfred Noyes, Peter Pan, Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum, and J. K. Rowling—all these in the introduction alone—is stunning and superb.

A few immediate quibbles: while the text, typography, editing, and layout are impeccable, the book is bound too tightly. Words in the inner margins roll into the gutter; the spine resists overmuch, and thus annoyingly many words are lost in the crack. Also, for coherent reading, two bookmarks are required: one for text, one for endnotes, located at the [End Page 261] end of each chapter. Footnotes would have been more felicitous.

The first of Milbank's five chapters, "Making Strange: The Fantastic," is the Introit. Immanuel Kant, Joan Aiken, Phillip Pullman, and Gertrude Stein lead her to this declaration: "We believe in ents, dwarves, etc., because we experience them through hobbit eyes; we believe in the hobbits . . . because they are our focalizers" (41). Throughout, she generously lards her study...


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