Ray Bradbury, J.R. R. Tolkien, and the Benefits of Nostalgia

In an excellent piece on Ray Bradbury’s nostalgia, Andy Rau tosses off this fascinating but undeveloped parenthetical: “Of the various Christian fantasists of the 20th century, I think only J.R.R. Tolkien matches Bradbury’s sad but determined nostalgia for what we’ve left behind or cannot attain.”

Rau’s analysis of Bradbury is full of wisdom, and I encourage you to click through and read it. But don’t do so expecting him to unpack that connection between Tolkien and Bradbury. For that, dear reader, stick with me.

Though Tolkien was a British, Catholic, Oxford professor and Bradbury was an American, vaguely Buddhist, self-educated writer, there are deep affinities between the two, affinities which should make both writers essential imaginative resources for the sort of people who read a site called Mere Orthodoxy.

The “sad but determined nostalgia” that Rau identifies in both Tolkien and Bradbury is perhaps the most important emotional resonance of their work. Tolkien and Bradbury are masters of a certain longing for the past, a desire for a history which we feel ourselves to be alienated from. This longing is one of the most powerful anxieties created by modernity, especially in those of us who are of a traditionalist or conservative stripe: a persistent sense of being cut off from a more authentic, holistic tradition.

Tolkien's Cover Designs for the First Edition ...

Tolkien’s Cover Designs for the First Edition of The Lord of the Rings (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some of this emotion, of course, is simply a golden-age nostalgia experienced by people in every age, the feeling that our forebears were heroes and we a diminished people. Some of it is appropriate critique of modernity’s excesses. But the middle ground between the false idealization of the first impulse and the discursive critique of the second is made up of raw longing for a different world, an unease with the world as it is.

Tolkien articulated this discomfort with throbbing beauty in the final chapters of The Lord of the Rings; he expressed it more directly when in a letter he described his spiritual position as a soldier fighting “the long defeat.”

Bradbury’s work is concerned with an American version of this longing, one less heroic and more childlike, but beautiful nonetheless: read his de facto epigraph, published in the New Yorker not long before his death, and try not to be moved by his longing-but-joyful memorialization of his childhood. In Dandelion Wine, an autobiographical novel drawing on the same memories of boyhood in Illinois, he describes his work this way: “the boy-hid-in-the-man playing in the fields of the Lord on the green grass of other Augusts in the midst of starting to grow up, grow old, and sense darkness waiting under the trees to seed the blood.”

Like Tolkien, Bradbury feels both the green spaces of his boyhood and their ultimate loss and destruction as present realities. Cynics and progressives may dismiss such a response as golden-age thinking, but anyone who feels affection for their past knows the emotion at some level and can find value in its literary expression.

Those of us with conservative or traditionalist leanings are uniquely poised to appreciate this sort of literary expression, for like Tolkien and Bradbury our beliefs are premised on the essential (if not thoroughgoing) goodness of the past, rather than its essential evil. From this perspective, literature that calls up our desire for that past schools us in the virtue of fidelity to that past, and love for it. Like Tolkien, for Bradbury our love what has gone before disciplines and chastens our hope for the future. He is thus an essential imaginative resource for all of us who would do the same.

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  • http://thefrailestthing.com Mike

    Matthew,

    Thanks for these reflections. This very much resonates with my reading of Tolkien. One might say that Tolkien evokes through his storytelling the longing that Lewis gets at in “The Weight of Glory”:

    “In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence …”

    I’m convinced that we use “nostalgia” indiscriminately to name and silence longings that are, as Lewis later puts it, “the truest index of our real situation.” Nostalgia, properly understood, needs to be rehabilitated.

    • http://www.chriskrycho.com/theology Chris Krycho

      Mike, I concur with you here. I’m not sure nostalgia is quite the right word for Tolkien, though, at least as I read him. Or perhaps it’s simply my understanding of nostalgia: as a sort of sentimentalism, not particularly bad, but not robust enough for the longing Tolkien’s world and Lewis’ words evoke. (This is Lewis’ point in your quote.) Your final comment goes to this, but I think nostalgia is perhaps too broad a word. What we see in Tolkien’s world is distinctly that aching sense of loss, that the things which now are cannot replace that which is gone, however good they may themselves be. Nostalgia covers so much more than this, though it may include it; but Lewis rightly sees that the longing is deeper than nostalgia.

      Tolkien’s vision, and Lewis’ too of course – but I think not Bradbury’s – continues beyond loss to future hope. There remains Lewis’ “far-off country,” Tolkien’s “white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.” There is something better than the past, though Men and Elves cannot see it yet. Our longing isn’t really for Eden or for childhood, but Eden and childhood alike are our closest images of it, and so we treasure their memories in recognition of what was lost, and in longing for that far green country.

      • http://thefrailestthing.com Mike

        Chris, Agreed across the board. Particularly on the future orientation of this longing that Lewis and Tolkien seek to evoke. And, yes, in the end “nostalgia” is not going to be the best way to label this longing. My chief concern is, with Lewis, that we sometimes call it nostalgia just to be done with it, to refuse hope as it were and guard ourselves against disappointment.

        For what its worth, I’ve written a few posts trying to think through some of these matters and clarify the semantics and ontology (for lack of a better word) of nostalgia: http://bit.ly/OrKaWp

        • http://www.twitter.com/matt_j_miller Matthew Miller

          Mike and Chris,

          Thanks for your helpful responses. I don’t want to contest much of what you say, but I do want to say a word in defense of my use of the term “nostalgia”–and, by extension, Bradbury. It’s clear from that series of blog posts (which I intend to read in full ASAP), Mike, that you’ve thought through this subject much more fully than I have, but I never hesitate to be a fool who rushes in, so here we go.

          I’m in full agreement that our longings, properly understood, are deeper than the usual understanding of nostalgia would support. We are seeking a home, and it’s not simply that of our past. But I don’t want to paper over different forms of longing by simply placing it under the rubric of Sehnsucht, or eschatological hope. If we are to have a living tradition in the here and now (rather than continually discarding the tradition), we need to feel the weight of a longing for the past specifically. Bradbury may not have the Inklings’ eschatological hope–though I don’t concede that he’s fully bereft of it–but he’s very good on the desire which feeds a vital tradition. Fahrenheit 451 is nothing if not an affirmation of the love of (specifically) old things as a stay against the destruction of tradition.

          • http://thefrailestthing.com Mike

            Matthew,

            I would not disagree; in fact, I very recently wrote about my own Arcadian temperament borrowing Auden’s Arcadian/Utopian taxonomy. At the expense of sounding pedantic though, I might just add that our longing is best understood not as longing for the past as past, but for particular realities that were materialized in the past.