Tolkien, Williams, and Opposite Views of the City

Those of you who are familiar with the writing of J. R. R. Tolkien are probably aware that he was no big fan of urbanization and industrialization.  To him, the unspoiled countryside and simple life enjoyed in places like The Shire and many other parts of Middle Earth was the optimal mode of human existence.  There was a deep distrust of technology and industrialization, and almost a yearning for the rural, arcadian vision of England in times long past.  Cities were, at best, a necessary evil, such as Minas Tirith.  Minas Tirith served a vital purpose in defending Gondor and the rest of the free peoples from the onslaughts of Mordor, but you never got the impression of Minas Tirith as a place where you would want to spend any extended amount of time.  Certainly none of the companions of the Ring, not even the restored king Aragorn, spent a very long amount of narrative time there.  At worst, urbanization was the embodiment of the diabolical, for example Minas Morgul.  Witness Saruman’s takeover and development of Isengard into a headquarters for his war against Rohan in conjunction with Mordor’s assault against Gondor.

I feel Tolkien, a little bit at least.  There are numerous benefits to living in an industrialized, urbanized world, which I am not about to give up anytime soon.  But the unintended consequences of technology have made us at least a little less than fully human while disconnecting us from creation and from each other.  For many of us, our direct experience of creation is limited to the time we spend walking from house to car, car to office, office to car, car to store, store to car, car to house, etc.  And even this interaction with nature takes place in urban or suburban environments where the influence of man upon nature is very heavily felt.  This can’t be a good thing.  I wrote about this in somewhat greater length in response to a quote from Thomas Merton which expresses similar sentiments.

Just lately I have been exposed to Charles Williams.  Williams was a contemporary of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis while they were at Oxford.  He was never very close to Tolkien and Tolkien lamented the influence he had on Lewis.  (That Hideous Strength, the only novel of Lewis’s to be set in an urban environment, was strongly influenced by Williams.)

Williams’ view of the city is diametrically opposed to Tolkien’s.  Most of Williams’ novels are set in the city.  The countryside appears sometimes, but it is seen as basically an extension of the city–a more aesthetically pleasing and less stressful place, economically dependent upon the city, a place where the privileged few who can afford it go to visit from time to time.

In Williams’ way of looking at things, the city has a special place in God’s economy.  Humanity began in a garden (the Garden of Eden), but is moving toward a city (the New Jerusalem).  Civilization, the fruit of living in cities, is the most desirable state of man; apart from this there is only savagery and barbarism.  The Christian life is intended to be lived in the context of community, and city life forces upon you the realization that you live in community whether you like it or not.  Others have labored to put in place what you see and enjoy as you live in the city; you are simply adding your labors to theirs.  The city is the place where human energies are collected and submitted to the process of exchange–in his way of looking at things the Exchange is not just a Christian doctrine of Christ’s redemptive work applied to sinful man, it is also the means by which we live with others in community, bringing our best work and offering it in return for their best.

You can read more about Charles Williams’ view of the city here:  “On Charles Williams” by Mule Chewing Briars at internetmonk.com.

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One thought on “Tolkien, Williams, and Opposite Views of the City

  1. Pingback: Now Playing at Life in Mordor: Tolkien, Williams, and Opposite Views of the City | Everyone's Entitled to Joe's Opinion

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