In Defense of Literature

Recently I was mildly rebuked by a reader for something I wrote on The Lord of the Rings wherein I reflected on the valuable lessons from this work, as well as the life and letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, and their applications to the current crisis being faced by Catholics.

“Sorry, we don’t have the luxury of wasting time reading fairy tales during these dark days of the Church,” was the reader’s comment. I read the comments under my articles because I enjoy seeing what my readers think, especially when they add something I may have missed, or offer a smart correction. This one, however, got me thinking more deeply about the role of fiction in the lives of Christians.

In the first place, and up to a degree, the reader has a point. Are we reading books simply to “waste time”? If so, I can understand him. One should not waste time on trivial matters. I’ve read of people who refuse to watch television or go to the movies, and I often sympathize with that viewpoint when I check the TV listings. At the same time, this reader’s comment logically extends beyond what he calls “fairy tales” to all fiction, whether in print, on the stage, or on the screen. The point would thus cover Shakespeare and Austen as well as Tolkien. Literature would be a waste of time to this reader and others I’ve known.

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But could there be a salvific aspect to good fiction? Those who read the Bible know that Our Lord provides the answer himself when his disciples ask him why he uses parables to reach some people. “If I talk to them in parables, it is because, though they have eyes, they cannot see, and though they have ears, they cannot hear or understand,” he said. Good stories help us (especially those of us who are a little thick-skulled) understand deeper truths. There have been many novels over the history of literature that do just this; all the best ones do.

A newly released book by the Christian writer Karen Swallow Prior talks about this. In On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books, she ties famous works of literature to the various virtues, one book each for the twelve virtues. For the virtue of courage, for example, she chose The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; for patience, Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Her final virtue, humility, is covered by two short stories by Flannery O’Connor.

“Literature embodies virtue, first, by offering images of virtue in action and, second, by offering the reader vicarious practice in exercising virtue,” Prior writes. For her, reading—especially the classic stories that have survived the test of time—should not be done to waste time, but for the sake of virtue. We need to read for virtue—she argues this well, echoing the numerous essays and books over the years that define what leisure should be.

This debate reminds me of an essay written some time ago by Catholic historian James Hitchcock, explaining why he has no use for G.K. Chesterton or Hilaire Belloc, or even C.S. Lewis. All three seem to him like “boozy apologists” not to be taken too seriously by the serious Christian. “I certainly do not deny that what these authors have to say is often true and good. But art is long, life short, and I long ago decided that I should study other things.” As a historian who has taught at a Jesuit university, Hitchcock should read Remembering Belloc, a collection of essays by one of my favorite Jesuits, Fr. James Schall. He writes that the purpose of Belloc’s existence in this world was “to be sure that what is solid, the ‘permanent things,’ do not pass us by, even when they are not of our time or of our place, embedded as they usually are in the most ephemeral of things…”

This sense of the potential passing of permanent things permeates Tolkien’s epic, and the writer himself perhaps offers the strongest rebuttal to the charge that reading about Middle Earth is a waste of time. In his essay On Fairy-Stories, Tolkien talks about the importance of a happy ending and the special joy felt by those who make it to the end of a crisis, a reflection of the Gospel story. All good literature, in the end, is perhaps about redemption, and the personal redemption of the protagonists is but a symbol of the work of the true Redeemer. Tolkien writes:

It is the mark of a good fairy story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.

The reader I mentioned at the beginning—and others like him—might not feel he needs parables or stories to understand or accept the deeper truths, but many of us do; I for one am grateful for the divine parables we find in Scripture as well as the fairy tales written by more modern-day hands. At times like these, when we are clearly in what my reader rightly calls “the dark days of the Church,” we need to find hope and joy to keep us from despair, and to “lift our heart,” as Tolkien writes. A spiritual reflection on great literature is but one avenue to this hope that sooner rather than later our Church on earth will emerge from this scouring (to borrow a very apt term from Lord of the Rings) it desperately needs.


  • K. E. Colombini

    K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who served as a political speechwriter before a career in corporate communications. A Thomas Aquinas College alumnus, he also studied English literature at Sonoma State University in Northern California. In addition to Crisis, Colombini has been published in First Things, Inside the Vatican, The American Conservative and the Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He and his wife live in suburban St. Louis, and have five children and ten grandchildren.

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