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

July 6th, 2012 | 3 min read

By Matthew Miller

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.

Matthew Miller

Matthew Miller writes from St. Louis, where he is pursuing his PhD at Saint Louis University.