J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis in Light of Hans Urs Von Balthasar (1)

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For we are God's fellow workers ... (1 Corinthians 3:9) (2)

FOR those familiar with J.R.R. Tolkien's distaste for drama as a means of depicting fantasy (Tolkien, "On Fairy-Stories" 140-2), and Hans Urs von Balthasar's theological dramatic theory, the title of this essay might appear to be rather ironic. Once the reader realizes that this paper focuses on the theology of fantasy literature in C.S. Lewis and in Tolkien, the title's juxtaposition of authors might appear even stranger; for Tolkien disdained Lewis's Narnia series because of Lewis's penchant for analogy (Sayer 14; Murray 43; Kilby, Christian, 136 note. 5), and von Balthasar never articulated a theology of fantasy. Notwithstanding these considerations, there is a common thread between Lewis's theology of fantasy, and that of Tolkien, as viewed through the lens of von Balthasar. In both Lewis and Tolkien, we find particular examples of artistic creation and appreciation, in the specific medium of fantasy literature, as pointers to the Divine.

Lewis understood well the human heart and its relationship to God. Like the other authors, he saw life as a drama of human and divine freedom. Tolkien suggested that fantasy helps us in at least three ways: recovery, escape, and consolation. Von Balthasar pursued beauty as a joyful experience which draws us out of ourselves and connects us with the Other. All three of the writers here see beauty as a bridge to the Divine, and art as a means of cooperating with God in the act of creation. As being the more general viewpoint, von Balthasar can thus be used as a framework for viewing these particular expressions, because his focus remains wide as he searches for the universal principles of beauty. Von Balthasar thus offers wider boundaries for reading and applying Tolkien's and Lewis's more narrow theologies of fantasy. Though the authors are treated in reverse chronological order, it is because, having the widest topic of investigation, that is beauty, von Balthasar serves as the open channel for the more concentrated theologies of fantasy expressed by Lewis and Tolkien. Lewis is treated next since he is influenced in large part by the work of Tolkien, who is the most explicit and developed in his theology of fantasy and serves well as the pinnacle theologian of fairy stories. Together the writings of these three men enable us to see the artistic beauty of creation and thus draw nearer to the infinite.

Taking his cues from the theater, von Balthasar views salvation history as a form of divine drama (Theo-Drama 16-18, 21). Thus, for von Balthasar, human interaction has an intrinsic sequential quality, albeit a dramatic sequence. However, it is in his theological aesthetics that we begin to find even more similarities with Tolkien and Lewis. In this aesthetic context, von Balthasar has demonstrated how the perception of God's glory has inspired the Christian search for beauty (Navone 55). Von Balthasar's exposure to the nouvelle theologie, especially from his mentor Henri de Lubac, greatly influenced the views expressed in his theology of drama and aesthetics. (3)

Von Balthasar expressed the opinion that life as a human drama should reflect the intimate dance of the divine and human. What de Lubac's ideas did for von Balthasar was allow him to situate his theological method within a more mystical tradition. Criticisms were leveled against the Neo-Scholastic understanding of faith, grace, and nature, correcting the misinterpretations of Aquinas's many interpreters. Von Balthasar, on account of de Lubac and the nouvelle theologie's understanding of faith, nature and grace, began to view the history of Christian theology as one attempt to convey God's glory through theories of beauty. Thus, for von Balthasar, a Christian's experience of beauty is by necessity a faith experience (Navone 63).

Accordingly, a key to Christian faith experience is the notion that faith is a "created participation in God's own self-witness" (Doran 65, note 10). …