The Desire for Dragons

Alison Milbank on why Tolkien and Middle-earth exercise such a hold over us.

“It does suggest that within the real world there are portals – thin places, if you like, where we can pass to other worlds and return. And I think that’s what the best fantasy [literature] does. It gives you an understanding of this world as much richer, much deeper than we normally realise.”

When J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings came out on top of the Waterstones Books of the Century poll in 1997, Germaine Greer voiced the frustration of fantasy sceptics everywhere. “It has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the twentieth century,” she wrote. “The bad dream has materialised … The books that come in Tolkien’s train are more or less what you would expect; flight from reality is their dominating characteristic.”

Fantasy: those who love it really love it … and for others, it doesn’t do a thing. In this conversation with theologian and literary scholar Alison Milbank, Life & Faith delves into Ents, elves, enchantment, escapism, the enduring appeal of Middle-earth, and why Tolkien went everywhere by bicycle.

Milbank believes that humans have “a natural desire for the supernatural”. She explains why she loves unicorns, and why she’s not so sure fairies aren’t real. And she makes a case for the importance of imagination in reasoning, in doing science, and even in politics.

“To be human is to want to exceed what you are … For all of us, it doesn’t matter how wonderful your spouse or your lover is, they can never wholly satisfy you. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, it will never wholly satisfy you. That’s just the way we are. And the fact that we can never stay in the object isn’t saying that we shouldn’t get married, or we shouldn’t love people, or even that we shouldn’t enjoy the things of this world. It’s just saying that they can’t give us everything. There’s something in us that just wants more … a kind of homesickness for something we’ve never had.”

Illustration: “Smaug”, fan art by David Demaret, 2012.

Alison Milbank was in Sydney in January 2019 for the ADM School of Theology, Culture & Public Engagement.