Greene, Tolkien, and the mysterious relations of realism and fantasy
Wendorf, Thomas A
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.
Both journeyers also become swallowed in landscapes marked by heat, filth, desolation, and danger (Frodo through the marshes and vast, decimated territory of Mordor, the whisky priest in the harsh land of Tabasco and amid human squalor – a trash heap where he encounters his daughter, the jail where he finds communion with fellow sinners, among the great crosses and in the bitter rain as he approaches the state border). Both are pursued, Frodo by every power allied with Sauron, the whisky priest by the lieutenant and soldiers. Both with some reluctance show mercy to figures who betray them (Frodo to Smeagol/Gollum and the whisky priest to the yellow-fanged mestizo), and this mercy proves crucial in both stories to the success of the journeyers (Smeagol/Gollum completes the destruction of the ring when Frodo wavers; the whisky priest makes his extraordinary decision to give up his life only after receiving the Yankee fugitive’s scrawled note from the mestizo). Finally, both of their journeys involve a renunciation of power – Frodo gives up the Ring, and the whisky priest gives up his life. Within the narratives both become a part of stories foretold and told later (Frodo’s role is prophesied, and his providential success becomes the stuff of Middle-Earth history and song; the whisky priest’s life ironically becomes the story of a Catholic martyr/saint).
These parallels of their journeys, of course, exist amid great conceptual and aesthetic differences. Greene’s priest is a figure living very much in what Tolkien calls the “Primary” or actual world, and this is the most crucial difference between the two works; it marks the aesthetic divide between realism of content and fantasy. Even if Greene creates what some critics have, in various ways, called “Greeneland,” even if he unavoidably projects his own psychology onto his scene, he is still representing early twentieth-century Mexico. Greene’s represented world is also explicitly and historically shaped by Christianity. His whisky priest is, as R.W.B. Lewis puts it, a rogue whose particular sins as a priest (habitual drinking, begetting a child) emerge in all their mundane humanity amid other sins equally human but more theological (pride, despair). As such, he is unlike the Halfling Frodo whose moral character is more exclusively figured in terms of how he deals with the Ring and his role as ring-bearer. The whisky priest journeys mostly alone while Frodo almost always has a companion. The sacraments of the Catholic Church have an explicit place in Greene’s novel, as does worship and a more general sense that God works through nature; Tolkien’s creatures in The Lord of the Rings, while the most noble among them allude to the presence of a benevolent and omnipotent Providence and sometimes show prayer-like reverence, are not religious in any modern sense of the word and do not engage in explicit worship.
Clearly there is no magic in Greene’s novel, nothing fantastic in the sense of overt supernatural action, though the sacraments are certainly fantastic to those who don’t believe in them; the lieutenant certainly sees them as bogus. The evil the priest encounters is always ordinary human evil – use of power to dominate others, egotism, lust, gluttony, nihilism, merciless accusation, pride, greed, sensuality – and Greene represents all of these with his characteristic ambiguity. The nihilistic lieutenant is motivated by a desire to help the poor and sometimes shows mercy to match that of the whisky priest; the pious woman in prison judges the sexual intercourse of the inmates, while the whisky priest recognizes a possible goodness in it and the worse sin in her pious judgments. On the other hand, Tolkien’s most evil creatures in The Lord of the Rings — Sauron, the Orcs, the Nazgul – seem more purely and irredeemably so, though Elrond, implying the goodness of creation and the larger mythic history out of which the trilogy grows, emphasizes that “nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so” (261).
Graham Greene, in fact, could imagine pure evil in the world, although his fiction has always proved more ambiguous and complex here than his extra-fictional commentary might suggest. By his own account, he first experienced literature’s power to reveal the nature of reality and particularly the mystery of evil in a historical romance, Marjorie Bowen’s The Viper of Milan (1906). Greene famously claims, “[Bowen] had given me my pattern – religion might later explain it to me in other terms, but the pattern was already there – perfect evil walking the world where perfect good can never walk again, and only the pendulum ensures that after all in the end justice is done” (“The Lost Childhood,” Essays 17). Greene found Bowen’s historical romance true to life because it mirrored his already acute sense of the human capacity for evil.
In Greene’s earliest sense of realism, mystery and the fantastic were already important. Biographer Norman Sherry has well noted Greene’s early attraction to fantasy not only in his reading but also in his writing (Volume I 113). In 1922 Greene wrote a story for the school newspaper The Berkhamstedian tellingly titled “The Tyranny of Realism,” an allegorical story that suggests a reconciliation between “Fantasie” and “Realism.” In it a boy, bound before the throne of King Realism, sees a sad maiden named “Fantasie” at the King’s feet. After bewailing the King for taking away his “unknown country of dark caves and hidden ways, and sun-splashed woods” and for keeping the boy’s love, “Fantasie,” a slave, the King, with a “little, whimsical smile” instructs the boy to try his bonds. The bonds disappear, the King takes him to the throne, and the walls around them disappear, exposing “great, dark rolling plains, and the star-encrusted sky.” In the final moment of the story, the boy sinks to his knees before the King, whose face is “the face of a God,” and the boy sees that King Realism looks not at him but at Fantasie, who has taken her place on a throne beside the king. Realism and Fantasie kiss “in a long passion of joy” (2-3). Sherry perceptively suggests that “the allegory is probably a pointer to Graham’s hope that because he felt he must in the future write in a more realistic vein it did not mean (as clearly he had feared) that his fantastic imaginings could not also flourish” (Volume I 114). Greene’s boyhood story reflects not only a reluctance to sacrifice fantasy to realism but also a desire to unite them.
Greene continued to dabble with fantasy during his long literary career. Characters recalling haunting childhood memories often provided the realistic frame for such forays. In the short story “The Hint of an Explanation” (1948), a provocative childhood encounter with a pitiful, evil-bent, anti-Catholic baker changes the life of the story’s central figure. In “Under the Garden” (1963), a childhood “fantasy” narrative, a “memory” of a visit to two strange people living underground becomes a compelling, if ambiguous, reflection of truth and mystery for the terminally ill main character Wilditch. Even in his last novel The Captain and the Enemy (1988), Greene teases us with an ambiguously allegorical father figure dubbed “the Devil,” suggesting that Greene’s interest in the fantastic never died, even if he would only present these dimensions under the garb of irony and in a realistic frame, leaving the nature and imperatives of mystery ambiguous.
Graham Greene, of course, is not primarily a fantasy writer, but he did have a religious vision that found literary expression after his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1926, particularly in the string of novels explicitly dealing with Catholic themes of sin and salvation, good and evil – Brighton Rock (1938), The Power and the Glory (1940), The Heart of the Matter (1948), and The End of the Affair (1951). Because Greene’s realism here includes that wider reality embraced by Catholic belief, involving both the natural and the supernatural, the seen and the unseen, it already exceeds the limits of naturalism or radical realism. Given its theological dimension, Greene’s explicitly religious fiction might seem fantastic, might even seem to fit C.S. Lewis’s broad definition of literary fantasy: “any narrative that deals with impossibles and preternaturals” (Experiment 50).
But Greene’s commitment to referential narrative placed even his explicitly religious fiction in a more realistic mode with its own challenges. Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor recognized well the difficulty that Christian writers like Greene and herself faced in writing for an increasingly secular audience:
The problem of the novelist who wishes to write about a man’s encounter with … God is how he shall make the experience — which is both natural and supernatural – understandable, and credible, to his reader. In any age this would be a problem, but in our own, it is a well-nigh insurmountable one. (Mystery and Manners 161)
In his realism of content, Greene rises to the challenge that O’Connor describes. Though always heterodox and doubtful in a way that O’Connor was not (Greene’s fiction and life, even by his own account, attest to this), Greene still reveals in his explicitly Catholic fiction a similar gritty sacramentality, a stubborn sense that nature and human nature are the privileged sites in which and through which any kind of divine grace works. Indeed, he was rarely heavy-handed in his narration, rarely overleapt the human and the natural to get to the divine dimension.2 His works often suggest, amid great suffering and absurdities, eternal possibilities and consequences for human action, a dramatic effect he praised in Henry James and found lacking in Virginia Woolf and Somerset Maugham. But as it was with Henry James, Greene’s treatment of the spiritual dimension is subtle and grounded in the physical and psychological dimensions of character and place. Few would mistake Greene for a fantasy writer even in C.S. Lewis’s terms – indeed the “preternatural” is rarely laid bare in his fiction and virtually all that he represents is wonderfully and terribly possible in the actual world.
WHILE Greene was writing The Power and the Glory in 1939, Tolkien was beginning painstaking work on his own masterpiece, one set not in twentieth-century Brighton, Mexico, Sierra Leone, or war-ravaged London, but in Middle-Earth. While Greene’s aesthetic emphasis involved realism of content, Tolkien’s was decidedly different from the start.3 In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” originally written for a 1938 lecture, Tolkien describes many of his own aesthetic aspirations. Like his Oxford colleague and friend C.S. Lewis, Tolkien defended fantasy against dismissal by prevailing champions of realism of content. Fantasy, he first explains, is etymologically and semantically connected with the “fantastic.” Both involve “images of things that are not only `not actually present,’ but which are indeed not to be found in our primary world at all, or are generally believed not to be found there” (67). He then describes fantasy as a “form of Art” that represents a “Secondary World,” as opposed to our “actual” or “Primary World,” a form of Art remarkable for its “arresting strangeness” and inherent challenges for the writer (67-68). Fantasy and realism were not mutually exclusive modes of writing for Tolkien. They were, by necessity, mutually related: fantasy demands an “inner consistency of reality” and that inner consistency “is more difficult to produce, the more unlike are the images and the rearrangements of primary material to the actual arrangements of the Primary World” (68). In other words, the secondary worlds of fantasy demand their own realism of presentation. Tolkien argues, for example, that it is particularly difficult to create a credible Secondary World in which a “green sun” is not only imaginable but also believable. So if fantasy and the fantastic involve “freedom from the domination of observed `fact'” (67), artistically they demand their own internal realism to achieve what Tolkien calls “Secondary Belief” in both the designer and the spectator, the writer and the reader, what Tolkien rightly identifies as a function of all Art.
Yet even in distinguishing the images of Primary and Secondary worlds, Tolkien hints at their aesthetic and analogical relationship. Fantasy, he implies, is inescapably linked to the Primary world, for it is an “art which plays strange tricks with the world and all that is in it” (“On Fairy-Stories” 71). While this art in some sense re-imagines “the world and all that is in it” so that its images are strangely unlike the world, the likeness, the other half of analogy, nonetheless remains. Privileging both the freedom and challenges of fantasy, Tolkien also parenthetically suggests that fantasy is not detached from the Primary world at all: “That the images [of fantasy and the fantastic] are of things not in the primary world (if that indeed is possible) is a virtue not a vice” (67). Every image of fantasy, he implies, has an imaginative footing in the Primary World, a claim consistent with Tolkien’s belief that long-enduring words can lead us back, in their etymology, to concepts that once existed but have since vanished (Shippey xiv). So Tolkien reveals that, while fantasy and realism of content are clearly distinguished by the worlds they treat (Secondary versus Primary), good fantasy answers its own demands for realism, and the Primary world is ever related by analogy and the referentiality of language itself.
The literary bias toward realism of content that Lewis recognized in the 1960s arguably endures in the early twenty-first century. As it was then, the bias is an academic rather than a popular one. In fact, both Joseph Pearce and Tom Shippey have outlined well the recent public polls that place The Lord of the Rings as the greatest book of the twentieth century.4 Professional critics and university professors have responded quite differently, finding troubling implications in such popular adulation of a work of fantasy (Shippey xxi). Critic Germaine Greer’s recent commentary on such popular polls sums up their dismay: “The books that come in Tolkien’s train are more or less what you would expect; flight from reality is their dominating characteristic” (qtd. in Shippey xxii). In the 1930s Tolkien already knew well the scornful charge that fairy-stories, fantasy, science fiction, and their creators are – because they depart from realism of content – escapist by nature. Convinced that “Escape” was, in fact, sometimes the more practical or even heroic action in both art and literature, Tolkien suggests in “On Fairy-Stories” that critical denunciations of literary escapism are often fundamentally flawed, if not also disingenuous:
Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using Escape in this way, the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. (“On Fairy-Stories” 76)
Aesthetically, realism of content proved a prison for Tolkien, and he found his way of escape in fantasy, much as Greene found his in global wanderlust and the realistic works that grew out of it. To distinguish among kinds of escape (from what, into what?) might be a good antidote against unquestioned literary biases. As it is, realism of content remains a litmus test for literary worth in much of the academy, certainly when it comes to literature written since the end of the nineteenth century. The attendant denigration of fantasy is regrettable, for the more interesting literary picture involves both fantasy and realism and their mutual relations, relations Greene and Tolkien recognized in their common respect for myth.
In a 1963 interview with Frank Kermode, Greene himself situates The Power and the Glory in the realms of myth:
My own wish always is to produce a central figure who represents some idea of reasonable simplicity, a mythical figure, if you like. And the simplicity often gets damaged by plot making… I would like to ascend into myth, but find my boots so often muddy with plot. My own feeling is that the nearest I came to hitting the mythical element was in The Power and the Glory, where I feel the plot was sufficiently simple for the main purpose of this story to remain clear throughout. (qtd. in Cassis 157)
Greene’s whisky priest achieves a mythic dimension in a journey shadowed by impending capture and death. He reveals his ultimate integrity and achieves a kind of redemptive efficacy for others only when he rejects escape to the comfortable complacency that priestly life outside of Tabasco would mean, only when he accepts self-sacrifice for the sake of a criminal and his own vocation.
Frodo Baggins must likewise leave the deceptive security of the Shire, just as, when he has accepted the burden of being ring-bearer, he must eventually leave Rivendell and Lothlorien and, finally, the reclaimed Shire as well. He, too, journeys under the shadow of death and moves toward a doom that is paradoxically his and his world’s only hope. As Jane Chance has noted well, Frodo goes not to obtain knowledge or gifts but “to divest himself (and the world) of this power” of the Ring (32).
On their journeys, both Frodo and the whisky priest discover who they are and what they live for, and the dramatic effect of both journeys suggests the kind of disclosure that David Tracy associates with religious classics – “that how we ought to live is grounded in reality itself’ (164). In particular, mercy and self-sacrifice resonate with the very nature of Providence (“the power of the whole” and the ground of reality) implied in both works, suggesting, as many critics have already noted, the Christian dimensions of both works.
In disclaiming both topical and allegorical dimensions to his trilogy in the “Foreword to the Second Edition” of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien places his aesthetic priority on freedom for the reader, versus what he saw as the author’s “purposeful domination” through allegory (xvii). His aesthetic is consonant with the dramatic effect of The Lord of the Rings, in which domination of others through the use of power emerges as the epitome of evil (the same could be said of Greene, for whom treachery was also a definitive aspect of evil). In speaking of myth in a 1951 letter to publisher Milton Waldman, Tolkien emphasizes a similar need for care in writing modern myths: “Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world” (Letters 144). Describing The Lord of the Rings as “coming down from myth and legend to the earth” (Letters 160), Tolkien also recognized it as an essentially religious story. As his now famous 1953 letter to Robert Murray, S.J. attests:
The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously so in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion,’ to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism. However that is very clumsily put, and sounds more self-important than I feel. (Letters 172)
While Greene’s novel explicitly treats Christian mysteries, any particularly Christian elements of myth are only implied in The Lord of the Rings, for Tolkien’s represented world is indeed pre-Christian, though its genesis obviously is not.
Frodo’s journey certainly reveals the presence of a governing, if inscrutable, loving Providence and the privileging of mercy indicative of the Christian myth. Gandalf helps to shape Frodo’s later behavior toward Gollum by his early admonition:
I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or for ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not the least. (58)
Pity and mercy are bound up with “fate” and Providence in the wisdom of Gandalf, and so, too, is the notion of Gollum’s possible if unlikely “cure.” Gandalf implies that Elrond’s later words are true, that nothing begins as evil, so that Gandalf’s advice “not to strike without need” is consistent with his view of the Power that governs the world. Likewise, Greene’s whisky priest, recognizing the mestizo as “Judas,” must also admit that at the centre of his own faith there always stood the convincing mystery – that we were made in God’s image. God was parent, but He was also the policeman, the criminal, the priest, the maniac, the judge … and God’s image shook now up and down on the mule’s back, with the yellow teeth sticking out over the lower lip. (101)
The mestizo, too, he believes against belief, was made in the image and likeness of God, and even when he is actually being betrayed, the priest pities the betrayer for the sin he commits: “It was really shocking bad luck for the poor devil that he was to be burdened with a sin of such magnitude … Poor man, the priest thought, he isn’t really bad enough . . . ” (184). Mercy and pity are consonant with the Christian imperatives that the whisky priest accepts and that Greene’s overall narrative suggests as true.
Not only imagining but acting on mysteriously motivated mercy, the whisky priest, against his own self-recognition as the worst of sinners, follows the pattern of Christ. Placing the whisky priest in the picaresque tradition as “the rogue…on his undignified flights from and toward the forces of destruction,” R.W.B. Lewis was one of the earliest to recognize the nature of Greene’s success at capturing the “paradoxes of sainthood” (249). The whisky priest’s mythical association with Christ – a servant of the poor, betrayed by a Judas figure into the hands of authorities and executed as a criminal, whose death suggests halting elements of redemption and resurrection – might have betrayed the artistic integrity of the novel for the sake of the pattern, a danger that Tolkien connected with allegory. But, as R.W.B. Lewis suggests, while the pattern here is mythic in its movement, perhaps bordering on allegory, “it is nevertheless artistically redeemed by a full awareness of the grotesque disproportion between the model and its re-enactment” (258). While for Tolkien the mythic dimension of The Lord of the Rings, a modern fantasy, demanded for its integrity a distancing from any explicit religious elements, for Greene the mythic dimension of The Power and the Glory, a work of modern Christian realism,5 demanded a different kind of distance – a represented distance between the myth and what is, between Christ and followers of Christ; in effect, realism of content.
Indeed, in the early scene in the novel in which the pious woman reads modern stories of saints’ lives to her children, she bristles at the thought that the “whisky priest,” whom the family briefly harbored, could ever be a holy martyr like those in the stories. She worries to her husband:
” . . . the boy – he asks such questions – about that whisky priest. I wish we had never had him in the house.”
“They would have caught him if we hadn’t, and then he would have been one of your martyrs. They would write a book about him and you would read it to the children.”
“That man – never.”
“Well, after all,” her husband said, “he carries on. I don’t believe all that they write in these books. We are all human.” (28)
The husband proves more accurate in his reading of characters and stories insofar as the whisky priest does become a martyr, and, to their son, a more believable one. To the husband, the sanitized stories his wife reads are unrealistic; to the boy they are boring and inaccessible. The whisky priest simply does not fit the pattern, and here lies both his credibility as a character and his paradoxical efficacy as a mythical figure.
Frodo, on the other hand, has no Christian pattern to follow or against which to be measured. When he agonizes to Gandalf, “I am not made for perilous quests. I wish I had never seen the Ring! Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?” Gandalf can only reply, “Such questions cannot be answered …. You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have” (60). Frodo is an unlikely figure for such a “perilous quest,” but he must mark out a new path. He is called, and called evidently by the same power Gandalf alludes to in connection with Bilbo’s discovery of the Ring: “Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought” (55). Bilbo’s journey led him to adventures and treasures, including the Ring; Frodo’s journey takes on a completely different focus. Frodo speaks the truth when he accepts the quest to destroy the Ring: “I will take the Ring … though I do not know the way” (264).
As Gandalf anticipates, the Enemy can imagine only his own selfserving pattern: “the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of reckoning” (262). In concurring, Elrond notes the inscrutability of the road ahead and suggests that the ring-bearer cannot rely on the usual creaturely powers in the face of such peril:
“The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere” (262).
Elrond’s observation about the “small” anticipates the Christian paradox of strength in weakness that both Frodo and the whisky priest prove true. But, rejecting the notion that Frodo is a “type” of Christ, Tom Shippey rightly notes that Frodo has “no supernatural dimension at all” and promises no soul-salvation (209). The evocative power of Frodo’s journey, Shippey admits, offers, as does the trilogy as a whole, “hints of the Christian message,” but the overall narrative “refuses just to repeat” that message (210). In refusing to impose the Christian pattern (or any mythic pattern) and in dramatically revealing the gap between creaturely efforts and Providential power, Tolkien suggests an aesthetic and moral impulse surprisingly similar to Greene’s, considering their crucial differences. For both writers, the integrity of realism and myth demanded such distance and difference.
INDEED, the debate over what constitutes reality drives the dramatic action of Greene’s novel. The whisky priest’s belief in the power of the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, remains unwavering, despite his sense of his own moral failure: “Now that he no longer despaired it didn’t mean, of course, that he wasn’t damned – it was simply that after a time the mystery became too great, a damned man putting God into the mouths of men: an odd sort of servant, that, for the devil” (60). And when he does seem to despair even over the Eucharist, it is despair over the capacity of the beleaguered faith to endure among the people. Witnessing the anger and hopelessness of Maria, the mother of his daughter Brigitta, “[he] was aware of faith dying out between the bed and the door – the Mass would soon mean no more to anyone than a black cat crossing the path. He was risking all their lives for the sake of spilt salt or a crossed finger” (80). What he imagines here is the kind of spiritual desolation that the lieutenant wishes to achieve, one that accurately reflects the quagmire of human suffering in Mexico. The lieutenant’s view is purely political and physical:
It infuriated him to think that there were still people in the state who believed in a loving and merciful God. There are mystics who are said to have experienced God directly. He was a mystic, too, and what he had experienced was vacancy – a complete certainty in the existence of a dying, cooling world, of human beings who had evolved from animals for no purpose at all. He knew. (24-25)
Convinced that the Church is perpetuating fantastic lies about human existence and driven by a hatred of priestly power and hypocrisy originating in his childhood, the lieutenant demonstrates a religious intensity in his nihilism as he considers the poor village children:6[I]t was for these he was fighting. He would eliminate from their childhood everything which had made him miserable, all that was poor, superstitious, and corrupt. They deserved nothing less than the truth – a vacant universe and a cooling world, the right to be happy in any way they chose. He was quite prepared to make a massacre for their sakes – first the Church and then the foreigner and then the politician – even his own chief would one day have to go. He wanted to begin the world again with them, in a desert. (58)
The visions of the lieutenant and the whisky priest differ essentially in their view of what reality is. The lieutenant’s vision is atheistic, nihilistic, and, in its insistence on “a cooling world” and on “human beings who had evolved from animals for no purpose at all,” naturalistic.’ To the lieutenant, Christianity is a destructive fantasy propped up by a self– interested priesthood.
The whisky priest, on the other hand, still believes in spiritual imperatives and eternal consequences. In an essay written during the late 1930s, Greene criticizes Somerset Maugham for his shallow characters, attributing their failure to Maugham’s agnosticism. Aligning his aesthetics and religious belief, Greene asserts: “Rob human beings of their heavenly and their infernal importance, and you rob your characters of their individuality” (154). Greene’s own realism, particularly before 1952, explicitly reflects this larger spiritual scope that includes but extends beyond what Virginia Woolf referred to as “the dark places of psychology” (152), and what Greene insisted were the real details — physical, social, political – of place. And so, in the famous prison scene that marks the center of The Power and the Glory, the whisky priest’s consciousness and words reflect his conviction that the world, epitomized in his mind by the prison itself, “overcrowded with lust and crime and unhappy love,” is nonetheless loved by God:
He was moved by an irrational affection for the inhabitants of this prison. A phrase came to him: “God so loved the world. . . ” He said, “My children, you must never think the holy martyrs are like me. You have a name for me. Oh, I’ve heard you use it before now. I am a whisky priest” (127).
Stripped bare of all pretension, he “had a sense of companionship which he had never experienced in the old days when pious people came kissing his black cotton glove” (128). Characteristically, Greene’s representation of faith is credible because it comes to us through his character’s troubled perceptions, uncertainties, and longings.
The conversation between the whisky priest and the lieutenant near the end of the novel is perhaps the most telling illustration of what is at stake in Greene’s realism and how that realism opens into mystery. When the lieutenant argues that religious people rationalize about suffering and suggests that the suffering in the world negates any claim he might make that “God is love,” the whisky priest answers, “Oh … that’s another thing altogether – God is love. I don’t say the heart doesn’t feel a taste of it, but what a taste. The smallest glass of love mixed with a pint pot of ditchwater. We wouldn’t recognize that love. It might even look like hate” (200). If he emphasizes elsewhere the immanence of God among the suffering people, the whisky priest here stresses the difference between human love and God’s love – the lieutenant, he suggests, errs in believing that God’s love shows clearly in the people around him. The priest goes on, “It would be enough to scare us – God’s love. It set fire to a bush in the desert, didn’t it, and smashed open graves and set the dead walking in the dark. Oh, a man like me would run a mile to get away if he felt that love around” (200). The priest’s rendering of salvation history suggests the poignant description of mythology that C.S. Lewis’s hero Ransom apprehends at the end of the novel Perelandra: “gleams of celestial strength and beauty falling on a jungle of filth and imbecility” (201). The priest underscores the otherness of that love which he believes paradoxically entered the mire of human experience in the person of Christ, becoming radically immanent.
It is a love that demands human decision, and so the whisky priest earnestly explains to the lieutenant,
I’m not as dishonest as you think I am. Why do you think I tell people out of the pulpit that they’re in danger of damnation if death catches them unawares? I’m not telling them fairy stories I don’t believe myself. I don’t know how awful the human heart looks to Him. But I do know this – that if there’s ever been a single man in this state damned, then I’ll be damned too … I wouldn’t want it to be any different. I just want justice, that’s all. (200)
Suggesting that some fairy stories indeed call for belief and reveal, as Tolkien argues, truth, the whisky priest imagines himself as the lowest of sinners and demands his own damnation as an act of justice should anyone else in the ravaged state be damned. He has already prayed a similar prayer for his daughter on the rubbish heap: “O God, give me any kind of death – without contrition, in a state of sin – only save this child” (82). While his offering of his soul as a sacrifice for others resembles that of Greene’s later and pitiful character of Scobie in The Heart of the Matter, it also echoes the mystery of Christ’s suffering and death. The whisky priest follows the pattern of Christ in his self-sacrifice for others, even as his moral transgressions and ruthless self-awareness keep him from ever imagining himself a holy martyr, let alone a modern figure of Christ.
Though A.A. DeVitis has argued that the whisky priest finally emerges less as a Catholic hero and more as a champion of the individual, “an important figure in contemporary mythology” (Bloom 84) in a novel that is “a consistent allegory on the theme of Everyman” (DeVitis 77), the culmination of the narrative points toward the Christian myth as the more fundamental context for interpretation, a context that ultimately includes “Everyman.” DeVitis, contending that Greene’s whisky priest, as an Everyman, helps the novel transcend “its narrowly Roman Catholic” identification, responds to the notion that Roman Catholic belief narrows experience for both reader and writer. But considered both aesthetically and ontologically, Greene’s effected vision implies just the opposite. Flannery O’Connor makes the point well: “the chief difference between the novelist who is an orthodox Christian and the novelist who is merely a naturalist is that the Christian novelist lives in a larger universe. He believes that the natural world contains the supernatural. And this doesn’t mean that his obligation to portray the natural is less; it means it is greater” (M&M 175). Greene’s realism, reflected in the whisky priest and counter to the realism of the lieutenant, has the wider scope, for it suggests the influence of the unseen on the seen and reveals the potent mercy of Christ, in word, in sacrament, in acts of mercy and self-sacrifice, amid the wreckage of human weakness and egotism, as a haunting, living imperative and hope. All this, however, emerges through character, consciousness and nature; Greene’s realism, naturally colored by his own conviction that human nature “is not black and white but black and grey” (CE 17), is not heavy-handed in its effected revelation. The Power and the Glory reveals grace working through nature, so that every hint of the supernatural has a natural explanation.
Tom Shippey, claiming that metaphorical or analogical power is equally the province of fantastic and realistic fiction, argues well that even realists (and Greene could certainly be counted among them) express patterns in their stories, including the “kind of Providential interlacing” found in The Lord of the Rings. But such realists do not see this authorial patterning as untrue, although one could dismissively say, as some critics say of fantasy, that it is “just made-up” (327-328). Though Flannery O’Connor, like Greene, has apparently left no recorded comments about contemporary J.R.R. Tolkien, she, too, understood the crucial relations of fantasy to realism and the truth that could be found in both:
Fiction is an art that calls for the strictest attention to the real — whether the writer is writing a naturalistic story or a fantasy. I mean that we always begin with what is or with what has an eminent possibility of truth in it. Even when one writes a fantasy, reality is the proper basis of it. A thing is fantastic because it is so real, so real that it is fantastic. Graham Greene has said that he can’t write, “I stood over a bottomless pit,” because that couldn’t be true, or “Running down the stairs I jumped into a taxi,” because that couldn’t be true either. (M&M 97)
Echoing Tolkien’s own emphasis in “On Fairy Stories,” O’Connor adds, “I would even go as far as to say that the person writing a fantasy has to be even more strictly attentive to the concrete detail than someone writing in a naturalistic vein – because the greater the story’s strain on credulity, the more convincing the properties in it have to be” (M&M 97).
O’Connor is really the perfect mediator between Tolkien and Greene because, Catholic like them, she wrote what she called romances in the tradition of Hawthorne (Habit 407) – she set her stories securely in the Primary World of the Southern United States, but she freely includes distortions, fantastic scenarios, and irony, effecting what she describes as “the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil” (M&M 118). Her work stands, then, in terms of its primary tonality (which, as Northrop Frye suggests, usually involves multiple modes), between Tolkien’s fantasy in The Lord of the Rings and Greene’s realism in The Power and the Glory. The aesthetic challenge common to all three was to make the fantastic believable in their fiction, and the fantastic included a religious vision of reality in an increasingly secular age.
When the whisky priest, with his own death imminent, tells the lieutenant, “I’m not telling them fairy stories I don’t believe myself,” he defends himself against the charge of hypocrisy. He also recognizes the fantastic nature of his Christian faith: without diminution, he defends the Gospel as a “fairy story,” but one in which he believes, and one for which he is willing to die. Greene unwittingly echoes Tolkien’s claim in “On Fairy-Stories” that “[t]he Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy stories” (32). At the culmination of their excruciating journey to the Crack of Doom, Frodo and Sam experience what Tolkien calls in “On Fairy-Stories” a eucata-strophe, which is the essence of the “Consolation of the Happy Ending” of fairy stories:
In its fairy-tale – or otherworld – setting it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. (81)
The central moment of eucatastrophe in Frodo’s journey with Sam in The Lord of the Rings occurs when Gollum takes the Ring, finger and all, away from Frodo, and accomplishes what Frodo finally could not do:
“Precious, precious, precious!” Gollum cried. “My Precious! O my Precious!” And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell. Out of the depths came his last wail Precious, and he was gone. (925)
Sam’s reaction is completely appropriate in terms of a eucatastrophic moment: “`Master!’ cried Sam, and fell upon his knees. In all that ruin of the world for the moment he felt only joy, great joy. The burden was gone. His master had been saved; he was himself again, he was free” (926). Frodo recognizes the significance of the moment as well:[D]o you remember Gandalf’s words: Even Gollum may have something yet to do? But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end. So let us forgive him! For the Quest is achieved, and now all is over. I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam. (926)
From the beginning, the task of destroying the Ring has seemed both essential and nearly hopeless; its final destruction and the undoing of Sauron is the central eucatastrophe of the story, although it is not the only one. Sam registers this reality when he awakes following their rescue by the Eagles: “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?” (930)
It is in Tolkien’s notion of eucatastrophe that Greene’s novel and Tolkien’s fantasy are finally and most profoundly bound. While the victory over Sauron with the destruction of the Ring is momentous and definitive in The Lord of the Rings, much damage has still been done and much sacrifice lies ahead for those in Middle-Earth. The Shire must be reclaimed. Saruman must be vanquished. The elves, fading in their glory in Middle-Earth, depart West to their Deathless world across the Sea. Frodo is never the same and finally departs with Bilbo and the elves for healing in the mysterious West. He tells the grieving Sam,
“I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them. But you are my heir: all that I had and might have had I leave to you.” (1006)
The Consolation of the Happy Ending is not, for Tolkien, a matter of cheap grace. His trilogy ends with hope, but it is a hope bound up with sacrifice, sorrow, and uncertainties.
MUCH the same can be said of the ending of The Power and the Glory. Once the whisky priest chooses to go with the mestizo, his Judas– figure, he is resolved to give up his life. He goes for the sake of the dying American criminal whose last moments seem to the priest to represent a mutual failure: “At the best, it was only one criminal trying to aid the escape of another – whichever way you looked, there wasn’t much merit in either of them” (190). And from the perspective of the whisky priest on the morning of his execution, he is again a complete failure:
He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all. It seemed to him, at that moment, that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage. He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted – to be a saint. (210)
His last moments starkly contrast those of the pious and recollected martyr Juan in the story that the devout mother reads to her children. And unlike Frodo and Sam, the whisky priest finds no rescue from death. The power which Frodo finally relinquishes lies in the Ring; the priest, of course, gives up his life. The view of the execution from Mr. Tench’s perspective rings with defeat: “he saw the officer stuffing his gun back into his holster, and the little man was a routine heap beside the wall — something unimportant which had to be cleared away” (216).
If there is anything like a eucatastrophe in Greene’s novel, it comes subtly and in connection with the “fairy story” that the whisky priest earlier defended. We learn in the closing chapter that the whisky priest has, in fact, been somehow efficacious, both in his life and in his death. Coral Fellows, the young unbelieving girl who sheltered him earlier, has died, but the father, wondering if the condemned priest was the same priest they had hidden, hints that Coral was changed by her encounter: “But the odd thing is – the way she went on afterwards – as if he’d told her things” (214). The pious woman, speaking to her children, now defends the whisky priest and re-imagines him as “one of the martyrs of the Church” and perhaps “one of the saints” (219). The lieutenant is left feeling empty – “the dynamic love which used to move his trigger-finger felt flat and dead. Of course, he told himself, it will come back. It was like love of a woman and went in cycles: he had satisfied himself that morning, that was all. This was satiety” (220). But onto his emptiness is heaped the rejection of the pious woman’s son, who had once admired the lieutenant. Greeting the boy from the street below the boy’s window, the lieutenant anticipates a kind recognition, but instead, “the boy crinkled up his face and spat through the window bars, accurately, so that a little blob of spittle lay on the revolver-butt” (220). Finally, the young boy, moved by the story of the whisky priest’s death, greets with eagerness and awe another priest who suddenly appears at his door that night seeking refuge. His mother had earlier said of the martyred whisky priest, “Of course, before we know he is a saint, there will have to be miracles” (219), and in the scope of Greene’s novel, this short litany of transformations indeed constitute the miraculous.8
This turn of events hardly resembles, in its subtler dramatic intensity, the eucatastrophe in Tolkien’s trilogy, but this brings us back once more to the mysterious relations of realism and fantasy. In his epilogue to “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien claims:
The peculiar quality of the “joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question “Is it true?” The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly): “If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.” That is enough for the artist (or the artist part of the artist). But in the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater – it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world. (83)
Writing this well before the completion of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien imagines for good fairy-stories the kind of power that David Tracy ascribes to religious classics, and particularly, to Christian classics. Provocatively linking his aesthetics to his faith, and fantasy to history, Tolkien asserts:
The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. (83-84)9
The Power and the Glory is not a fairy-tale in the way that The Lord of the Rings is, but the two works converge in their different evocations of myth and mystery, particularly the mystery of Christ. The whisky priest’s life and death and the ripple of transforming effects that emerge from them are invested with mystery and power because they explicitly evoke and participate in the eucatastrophe of Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection. While the integrity of Tolkien’s mythic dimension, like Greene’s, demanded distance between his belief and his representations, he nonetheless recognized that his belief ennobled and gave meaning to his art. Referring to the Gospel of Christ and emphasizing the charmed analogical relations of art and life, of God and human being, Tolkien might have spoken for the albeit more skeptical Graham Greene, too, when he wrote in his poignant Epilogue to “On Fairy-Stories,”
Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending” ….All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know. (84)
Christian hope, with its companion respect for mystery, informs and finally unites the aesthetics of both Tolkien and Greene, for their respective works of fantasy and realism both reach haltingly toward such an ultimate future.
1) Tracy, of course, speaks here of the reader disposed to religious interpretation, but he does not limit the experience of a religious classic’s mystery to the “religious self”: “even if the religious character of the classical religious expressions is denied, the event character of true disclosure and concealment implied in its classical status will yet endure…as any secular person can and ordinarily does experience, with or without the aid of Henry Adams, in experiencing the event of Chartres” (172).
2) One notable exception, one which Greene regretted and subsequently revised, is in The End of the Affair, where miraculous healings occur in connection with Sarah Miles. Greene notes in Ways of Escape, “every so-called miracle, like the curing of Parkis’s boy, ought to have had a completely natural explanation” (116).
3) Tom Shippey has painstakingly explored Tolkien’s governing interest in linguistics and philology and the ways in which this shaped and drove his major works of fantasy. See
both The Road to Middle Earth (1982) and his most recent J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (2000).
4) The controversy initially began with the 1996 poll jointly commissioned by British booksellers Waterstone’s and the BBC program, Book Choice, to determine the five books readers considered the “greatest of the century.” The Lord of the Rings was a consistent first place in almost every store branch in Britain (some 105 of them). Later polls confirmed this popular opinion. See Shippey, xx-xxi, for a concise summary and Pearce, 1-10.
5) Its theological dimension considered, Greene’s work, particularly between 1938 and 1952, also registers the reality of a world informed by modern psychology, devastated by modern warfare, and confronted by modern literature that revealed and sometimes reveled in lost or abandoned faith in traditional religious beliefs. His realism of content in The Power and the Glory immediately distinguishes itself from other “realisms” by an effected belief in things seen and unseen, natural and supernatural.
6) See Greene’s prologue to The Lawless Roads for a brief historical overview of Mexico during the religious persecutions of the 1920s and 1930s, as well as Judith Adamson’s chapter “Greene’s Mexico” in Graham Greene: The Dangerous Edge (1990). In Volume I of his biography of Greene, Norman Sherry gives a characteristically thorough historical overview and a particularly helpful description of the historical prototype for Greene’s lieutenant, Garrido Canabal (see especially 705-78).
7) Cates Baldridge has recently suggested that in The Power and the Glory the lieutenant and the whisky priest are each half right about the world, that the universe is “not vacant, for the merciful God of the whisky priest exists; but the world is cooling, and so is the God who created it” (70). Granted Greene’s rich ambiguities, the redemptive transformations in the end, it seems to me, qualify such a notion that the lieutenant’s vision is finally as truthful in the novel as the whisky priest’s.
8) Greene’s subtle transformations here belie Flannery O’Connor’s comment about Greene (perhaps referring to The End of the Affair), “What he does, I think, is try to make religion respectable to the modern unbeliever by making it seedy. He succeeds so well in making it seedy that then he has to save it by the miracle” (Habit of Being 201).
9) In God in the Dock, C.S. Lewis similarly claims that in Christianity “myth became fact” (63-67).
Adamson, Judith. Graham Greene: The Dangerous Edge: Where Art and Politics Meet. New York: St. Martin’s, 1990.
Baldridge, Cates. Graham Greene’s Fictions: The Virtues of Extremity. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2000.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Graham Greene: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
Crisis, A.E Graham Greene: Man of Paradox. Chicago: Loyola UP, 1994.
Chance, Jane. The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power. Revised Edition. UP of Kentucky, 2001.
DeVitis, A.A. Graham Greene. Revised Edition. Boston: Wayne, 1986.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. 1957. Reprint. Princeton: Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971. Greene, Graham. Collected Essays. New York: Penguin, 1970.
-The Lawless Roads. 3′ Edition. New York: Penguin, 1982.
-The Power and the Glory. New York: Penguin, 1991.
-Ways of Escape. Canada: Lester and Orpen Dennys, 1980.
Lewis, C.S. An Experiment in Criticism. Canto Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.
-God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Ed. Walter Hooper. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1970.
-Perelandra. New York: Scribner, 1996.
Lewis, R.W.B. The Picaresque Saint: Representative Figures in Contemporary Fiction. Keystone Edition. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1961.
O’Connor, Flannery. The Habit of Being. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Noonday, 1988.
-Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Eds. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Noonday, 1961.
Pearce, Joseph. Tolkien: Man and Myth. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998.
Shippey, T.A. J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
Sherry, Norman. The Life of Graham Greene. Volume 1, 1904-1939. New York: Penguin, 1990.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
-The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
-“On Fairy-Stories.” Essays Presented to Charles Williams. Reprint Edition. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries, 1972.
Tracy, David. The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism. New York: Crossroad, 1981.
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