From G.K. Chesterton to J.R.R. Tolkien: Literary Converts

Chris Chan

Have you ever wondered what inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to write The Lord of the Rings? Or the hidden symbolism in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia? Joseph Pearce’s book Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief is one of the few books that both challenges perceptions about the history of 20th century literature and entertains at the same time.

Traditionally, 20th century literature has been viewed as the creation of modernism, leading into postmodernism. Many of the best and the brightest writers moved away from traditional religion and expressed their feelings in their work.

While such modernist writers are an important part of the literature of the last century, they were matched by an equally talented band of writers with very different sets of beliefs.

The heroes of Literary Converts are men and women who began their lives as skeptics and who developed sincere and deep Christian religious beliefs. Lest whoever reads these words throw down this review in disgust, upset that I have selected a book that people hand out to strangers for free in the hopes that reading their texts will cause the strangers to change their religion, let me stress that this is not that kind of book.

Yes, Literary Converts has a definite religious aspect to it, but Pearce isn’t trying to convert his readers to Christianity. He’s attempting to make a little-known world come alive, where brilliant men and women engaged in a forum of ideas and discussion. The subjects of this book shared their feelings, helped their friends, and sometimes argued fiercely. Their common link was strong religious faith, which all of them expressed throughout their works.

Semi-chronologically, Pearce introduces the major anti-modernist writers of the 20th century. He also shows how their beliefs have cost them dearly in the eyes of many critics.

Even though many of their works are every bit the equal and then some of the bastions of modernist literature, their classics are largely ignored in curriculums and sneered at by critics who are too snobbish to appreciate them.

Recently, J.R.R. Tolkien was voted by several groups to be the greatest writer of the 20th century, to much shock and horror by some who couldn’t appreciate the symbolism and social commentary intertwined in the world of Middle-Earth. Similarly, C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, highly entertaining for young children, are even more engrossing to an adult audience once they realize what Lewis was trying to convey in his fictional world.

Pearce brilliantly probes the mind of T.S. Eliot and traces the development of his poetry in relation to his maturing intellect and religious beliefs. The sadly under-appreciated mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers is also included, as is Evelyn Waugh. Graham Greene, the 20th century author whose works are more frequently adapted for films than any other, is one of the major figures of the book.

How ironic that Greene’s books are considered to be superior to many of the Nobel Prize winners of his era, yet the smear campaign of a bigoted judge cost Greene the Nobel for Literature time after time simply because Greene was a convert to Catholicism.

These and many other writers are brought to life.

One actor is included: the unparalleled Sir Alec Guinness. While the film industry is often seen as highly corrosive to the morals, Guinness’s experiences on film moved him away from agnosticism. (Incidentally, I highly recommend Guinness’s wonderfully entertaining memoirs.)

But my little capsule summaries don’t do justice to their stories. Yes, you might well think that this topic is a dry one, and in less capable hands it might well appear that way, but Pearce makes these writers seem like old friends. The more you read this book, the more you want to read their work. At least, that’s what it was like for me.

Probably the most prominent figure in the book is G.K. Chesterton. Ah, Chesterton. Faithful readers of this column will remember that earlier this year I strongly urged the Lawrence Freshman Studies program to begin including Chesterton in the curriculum.

I stand by that opinion. Not only did Chesterton brilliantly write on an enormous range of topics, but also his measured, common sense style is a superb way to teach students how to advance a thesis in an essay. There’s no reason why Marx should make the cut for three years running while Chesterton remains unappreciated.

But I digress. Chesterton’s career influenced almost all of the other writers in this book who followed him, and he continues to inspire many of today’s creative intelligentsia. Chesterton’s life and influence is at the heart of this book, and I defy anyone to read this book and not finish with some degree of affection for him.

This book should be vital for any enthusiast of 20th century literature. Sadly, while most of the central figures of this book were the cornerstones of intellectual discussion during their lifetimes, reactionary critics have dragged them away from the spotlight.

This needs to stop immediately. I am an admirer of many of the great modernist writers like Woolf and Forster, but if students are to become truly educated, the writings of the heroes of Literary Converts must be considered.

I respectfully urge the Lawrence English, Freshman Studies, History, Philosophy, and Religious Studies departments to read Literary Converts and the writers included within its pages and to begin incorporating them into the Lawrence curriculum.

Especially Chesterton.