Remembering a prominent ISI alumnus
It’s Time for Conservatives to Stop Being Content with J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis
Conservatives write endless think pieces about “the conservative crack-up” or “what is conservatism,” or they make fine distinctions among various types of conservatives as the culture continues to move around them.
Yet every time a major cultural franchise launches or continues, the commentary is almost always on progressive terms, and conservatives are left playing catch-up, in the role of critic rather than creator, sometimes with the enthusiasm of fanboys, sometimes with prudish disapproval, and sometimes with real insight, but in any event with minimal cultural impact compared to that of creating those franchises in the first place.
Conservatives need to do better. As Claes Ryn has recently written in a related context in The American Conservative: “Putting reason in charge—getting the mind to think right—was assumed to lead to proper willing. Moral character would somehow flow from or be the same as right reason.”
But other conservatives have known that this was not fully correct. Most people need to be moved imaginatively as much as (or even more than) they need to be moved rationally.
For example, you can be convinced from rational deduction that stable families matter, but it helps to see illustrations of stable families in your daily life and connect them with virtues of fidelity and sacrifice.
We Need More Than Just Reason
I wrote on Twitter recently about the frustration of having “spent a lifetime reading conservatives on the importance of myth and story, only to realize our future will not be Tolkien/Lewis, or even Bradbury/Herbert, but Marvel vs DC forever. No amount of conservative commentary will substitute for not having created them.”
What I was trying to articulate was a feeling that conservatives had focused too much on defending conservative principles as simply a matter of reason as opposed to defending them through imagination. And although it is true one cannot draw a simple equation between art and cultural influence, as Jonah Goldberg once wrote, neither should we (as he also wrote), “Leave Hollywood to the Liberals.”
Culture, after all, is only partially rational in the sense of social and political structures being organized as deductions from abstract principles; indeed, this is the opposite of how conservatives understand societies to develop. The kind and direction of that imagination matters.
My Twitter comment got a set of spirited replies. Some said I was all wrong: Tolkien and Lewis would last far longer than the Marvel extended universe.
One reply argued that comic books are simply an example of “entertainments” and would not stand the test of time when compared to Middle-earth or Narnia. Others said that such productions cannot last because they are not “organic” to our culture in the same way, for example, that Beowulf and the Aeneid are; these classic stories are constitutive of how we see ourselves in a way that contemporary stories of superheroes are not.
Still others rejected the premise that there was anything wrong with these forms of media. There are conservative heroes and principles of various kinds in these stories, some argued, so the fact that the older stories were being supplanted should not be considered a problem.
Bradley Birzer, my good friend and a thoughtful scholar of Christian humanism, is a strong defender of the worth of Batman as a classic hero, for example. And there’s always the libertarian “just don’t watch it” argument. But the Marvel and DC kinds of cultural influences cannot be so neatly excised from our perceptions, even if we don’t intentionally seek after them.
Russell Kirk, for example, wrote often about how the imagination influences our thinking and, indeed, our social and political arrangements. And both he and Ryn opposed the sentimental imagination of Rousseau, which transferred concrete obligations and affections to a more generalized “love of mankind.”
Kirk even spoke of a “diabolic” imagination at work in modernity.
Old Traditions, New Conversations
Now, I admit that I prefer the imagination of the Tolkien or Lewis variety. Narnia takes traditional fairy tale themes and weaves them into a new story, and Lewis’s own Christian faith is evident in the works themselves. Tolkien’s epic is even more clearly Christian in formation and structure; in addition, his language creation introduced generations of readers to Old English, Old Norse, and other languages. And some of the set pieces, such as the siege of Gondor, echo historical events, in that case the siege of Vienna by the Ottomans in 1683.
So in a real sense these more recent works are clearly in conversation with the older tradition in a way that allows us to enter into a larger moral universe.
Aragorn is the same kind of person as, say, King Arthur; the temptation of the Ring is like the doctrine of original sin, and so forth.
Indeed, in his recent book Beyond Tenebrae, for example, Birzer argues for a tradition of Christian humanism that includes Tolkien and extends to writers like Flannery O’Connor, Walter Miller, and even to a degree Margaret Atwood. And the examples need not only be contemporary. I often think of a collection of Sicilian folk music I listened to: one selection, recorded in the 1950s, featured a traveling puppeteer reenacting scenes from Orlando Furioso to an audience of largely unlettered paesani. A conservative must be able to articulate why that is more enriching than the same person reenacting, say, the destruction of Alderaan or Wakanda.
But while I would like to think that Narnia and Middle-earth will outlast some of these more ephemeral cultural products, I am not sure that will be the case.
How long things last relates in some sense to how true they are to human experience, but history has a long arc. It’s possible that in the near future you may use Slytherin as an adjective for a certain type of person the way we now say “doubting Thomas.” And we won’t remember the genealogy of either.
We see that already in some online political commentary, where everything is related to the Harry Potter “universe” rather than some older touchstone. And conservatives have long admired Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and what is that book other than an exploration of how even the strongest pillars of a civilization get forgotten, reworked, or lost?
Nor do I think the “organic” argument works. Organic is too freighted with the idea that cultures have “natural” forms, usually coincident with some variously defined people or race. But that is not the whole or even the entirely true story.
Culture is derived from many sources, some as gift or by adoption as much as through internal growth. In the case of Europe, parts of Africa and elsewhere, Christianity is a core component, although it is an import that originated in the Near East.
Beowulf may serve as an example. That poem exists in only a single manuscript copy, and was rediscovered and published in a first edition only in 1815. Before that, evidence of its influence and circulation is almost nonexistent. To say this poem is “organic” is not particularly illuminating about its value or role in our culture.
The Instrument of Culture
But my point—made inarticulately on Twitter, as is often the way of social media—is perhaps better expressed in another way. It was not really a commentary on whether reason or the imagination is a better cultural instrument. Of course, the Western tradition is a mix of both, and serious thinkers have always known that, while it is important to think well, we are more than just machines that think.
The core of my comment may really go not so much to the content or relative success of these particular pop myths but to their profusion. Myths are primarily one way for a culture to shape its identity and to understand itself, its virtues, and its common history. But if everyone has his own set of myths in his own community, then a common culture becomes exceedingly difficult to describe and use as a means of communication across other subcultures.
I think it is still too early to tell the cultural influences of movies and video games, with their self-referential worlds that do not easily permit escape, even if they draw on recognizable myths.
Reading Tolkien has led some to religion, and others to study old languages. Do we know yet the fruits of Star Trek? There are efforts to attain public recognition of “Jedism” as an official religion, and the various Comic-Cons rival any contemporary religious festival.
And even where there is good imaginative literature out there, the progressive domination of the mass-entertainment industry almost ensures that such works will be recast in a leftward light. It is great to have a movie version of The Children of Men, but less so when the movie dispenses with its animating Christian spirit.
So perhaps conservatives need not only put more emphasis on their criticism of what these proliferating self-enclosed worlds mean, but also start making a few of our own.
About the Author
Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman.
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