The story behind Tolkien’s stories
In Tolkien’s essay, On Fairy Stories, the great man explains the profoundly Christian worldview that shapes his writings – the theology of story. Here, Matthew Fox-Lilley gives us a little introduction:
‘An exciting epic of travel and magical adventure’ (Observer) has arrived to grace the silver screen. Cinemas are sheltering millions from the winter world as we escape from austerity and cynicism into a world of wonder: the now warmly familiar Middle Earth. We might say that J. R. R. Tolkien’s fairy story, The Hobbit, has magically broken into a disenchanted world; magical The Hobbit may be – but Tolkien would maintain that the Modern Industrialised West is anything but disenchanted.
Tolkien and his good friend C. S. Lewis would have us ‘…remember [our] fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And [we] have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years’ (Lewis, 2000a, pp.98-99). Tolkien was happy to weave a spell on his readers if through his fairy-stories he could dispel some of the colder untruths of soulless modernity, and help us escape their un-Romantic notions.
‘But,’ he writes in his essay, ‘there are also other and more profound ‘escapisms’ that have always appeared in fairy-tale and legend. There are other things more grim and terrible to fly from than [mere pragmatic materialism]… There are hunger, thirst, poverty, pain, sorrow, injustice, death.’
Fairy-stories appeal to our imaginations; they strike a chord with our hearts; and they whet our insatiable appetites for happy endings and consolation. And such appetites, if insatiable under the sun, are telling. ‘If, as Christian doctrine teaches, all humans are exiles from paradise, then how natural that they should feel pangs of longing, painful in their fallenness yet pleasurable in that they point to genuine realities in which they may someday partake’ (Downing, 2002, p.150) – and fairy-stories echo Eden. They lift our eyes to a hope as yet unseen. In his essay On Fairy-stories Tolkien shows that he was aware of this and was glad that it was so.
He stands in stark contrast, then, with most modern authors. A friend of mine reads scores of children’s books as a judge for the Children’s Book of the Year, and remarks at how many of the books now are “issues” books, representing family conflicts, death and psychological trauma. And it is helpful when film and literature mirrors true truths of the vanity of our fallen world to the heads and hearts of children and adults alike – but to beat down our hearts with the stick of the Fall with nary a taste of the hope set before us is a monotonous theme of despair. It is only stick and no carrots – always winter but never Christmas, because Christmas is a lie.
The spell that binds our culture is that ultimate reality is ultimately vanity alone, that hope is dangerous in here, and so it is better to “grow up” and shine on our hearts and minds the cold “light” of day. Eternity might well be on our hearts, but this is an evolutionary aberration; our hearts may well be restless, but there is no place of true rest; we might feel that we are restless wanderers, East of Eden, but Eden is just as much a myth as Middle Earth.
Tolkien, however, wrote within a Christian worldview and was not satisfied with mirrors alone – he demanded windows, and his fictions opened windows through which we can still see glimpses and foretaste divinely joyous realities! Faced with the longings of the human heart, he believed that ‘all along our hearts spoke true. They were made for what they longed to find’ and that in the gospel story the ‘Maker himself has once and for all vindicated those fleeting glimpses of ‘Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief, which art affords us’ (Caldecott, 2001, writing of Tolkien (and quoting his essay)).
In this essay Tolkien claims that ‘Fairy-stories were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded’. Over time he persuaded Lewis to this same theology of story, that ‘…fairy land arouses a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach…’ (Lewis, 2000b, p.511), and yet that ‘something’ is there for those who seek – for he is not far from any one of us.
Tolkien writes that ‘Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all the things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves mortal men, when we are enchanted’. It is not so concerned with the creatures described but ‘the nature of Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country’ – the magical breeze so needful to dispel the dry and stifling atmosphere of post-“enlightenment” materialism. To read fairy-stories can be to open windows and let in that light which is the life of men.
Later, in writing to his son of his essay, Tolkien described how ‘For it I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears…’ (in Carpenter, 1990, p.100) – ‘the “good catastrophe”, [that] describe[s] the sudden, miraculous “turn” from sorrow to joy that on the brink of tragedy rescues the story from disaster… and makes the Consolation of the Happy Ending possible’ (Flieger and Anderson in Tolkien, 2008, p.14).
He remarks upon this common ‘dark’ moment (think ‘Good Friday’) found again and again in stories, just before the happy ending, and then ‘by a kind of Faërian free association, Consolation leads Tolkien to Joy and Joy leads him to evangelium and the essay’s “Epilogue”, a vision of eucatastrophe that occurs not in the imaginary world but in the real one. …calling the Gospels of the New Testament, the story of Christ, the most successful fairy-story…. The little eucatastrophes of fairy-tales, of “Snow White” and “Cinderella” wherein a dying heroine can be restored to life by a kiss… are foreshadowings of the Great Tale’ (Flieger and Anderson, ibid).
Again and again in film, books and music we see and hear this gospel shape. This storyline is seemingly woven into the fabric of the human heart as knitted together by God, and cannot but express itself through even the most unlikely authors; sometimes we speak better than we know. ‘We have come from God, Tolkien argued, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, whereas materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to the abyss and to the power of evil (Pearce, 1998, p.58).
I leave you with one more quote from his essay – one to make your heart sing! – and I hope that you will go on to read and love this work as I do, and that in turn it will help you enjoy the gospel with that same quality of joy (though to a pre-eminent degree) that fairy stories give us:
‘The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. … But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfilment of Creation. … The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality’. There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits’.
Carpenter, H. (1990) (ed.) ‘The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien’ (Unwin Parperbacks: London).
Caldecott, S Over the Chasm of Fire: Christian Heroism in the Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, in Joseph Pearce (2001) (ed.), ‘Tolkien: A Celebration’ (Ignatius Press, San Francisco).
Downing, D. C. ‘The Most Reluctant Convert’ (IVP: Downers Grove).
Lewis, C. S. (2000a) Weight of Glory in Walmsley, L. (ed.) ‘C. S. Lewis Essay Collection: and other short pieces’ (HarperCollins: London).
Lewis, C. S. (2000b) On Three Ways of Writing for Children in Walmsley, L. (ed.) ‘C. S. Lewis Essay Collection: and other short pieces’ (HarperCollins: London).
Tolkien, J.R.R. ‘Tolkien On Fairy-Stories’ edited by Flieger, V. and Anderson, D.A. (2008) (HarperCollins: London).