Greene, Tolkien, and the Mysterious Relations of Realism and Fantasy
Wendorf, Thomas A., Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature
IF realist Graham Greene could draw criticism that his works were products of his own psychological distortion, a projected "Greeneland" (Ways of Escape 60), it is no wonder that, as Tom Shippey has recently pointed out, J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy The Lord of the Rings has provoked shrill criticism from the literary academy because, as a work of fantasy, it is "intrinsically less truthful than realistic fiction," and so presumably forfeits serious critical consideration (327). Writing in 1961, C.S. Lewis zeroes in on the problem: "The dominant taste at present demands realism of content" (Experiment 60). Lewis helpfully distinguishes between "Realism of Presentation--the art of bringing something close to us, making it palpable and vivid, by sharply observed or sharply imagined detail" (57)--and "realism of content," which demands that fiction be "probable or `true to life'" (59). As Lewis and Shippey rightly imply, there's something mistaken in upholding strict realism of content as the test for literary worth, particularly since such realism is a relatively recent development in literary history. There is also something mistaken in denying fantasy any claims to truthfulness.
Writing such different kinds of fiction, Greene and Tolkien might seem odd literary bedfellows. However--both English, both Roman Catholic, both writing over long careers during the 20th century--Greene and Tolkien, in their fiction and other writing, suggest that realism and fantasy, often contentiously opposed in critical debate, have more complex relations and can effect similar truths. Because Greene's The Power and the Glory and Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings both effect a vision of the world governed by divine imperatives, the divide they might represent between realism and fantasy becomes less precise, insofar as both works embody mythic dimensions, both suggesting the kind of revelatory power that theologian David Tracy ascribes to religious classics:
To enter the conversation of religious classics through real interpretation, therefore, is to enter a disclosure of a world of meaning and truth offering no certainty but promising some realized experience of the whole by the power of the whole. That world affords no technically controlled comprehensibility yet it does release the self to the uncontrollable incomprehensibility of an experience of radical mystery. (177) (1)
The Power and the Glory and The Lord of the Rings, the masterpieces of their respective authors, arguably suggest in their different literary approaches the kind of paradoxical disclosing and concealing "of the whole of reality by the power of the whole" and that essential oneness of morality, mystery, and reality that Tracy attributes to religious classics (163). As Greene and Tolkien together suggest, placing realism and fantasy on opposite ends of a continuum of truthfulness (and by direct implication, on a similar continuum of literary merit) is a move that ignores realism's relations with fantasy and downplays fiction's power to reveal mystery through a mythic dimension.
The surface similarities between Tolkien's trilogy and Greene's novel are striking, and here for a moment we take that view from a distance that Northrop Frye describes as the vantage point from which we can best see the archetypal organization of a work (140). Both the whisky priest and the ring-bearer are reluctant heroes whose journeys lead them where they had not intended to go but where they find they are compelled to go by their sense of calling, the priest because he is a priest, Frodo because he is the ring-bearer. Frodo often moves forward, particularly in the realms of Mount Doom, without hope, and the whisky priest, even when he has accepted martyrdom over escape, has little hope for his own salvation or much conviction that his death will prove honorable in the eyes of God or others. …