In the first post in the series, I shared a rather autobiographical prologue of my early awakenings to beauty in the world and in the Word.
In the second post in the series, I laid some groundwork in the form of a thesis: The classical Christian approach to art, poetics, and wonder must be understood in light of the Incarnation. The great Christian artists have possessed something I have called the "sacramental imagination" that was born out of the basic confidence that the world (created or sub-created) could be a real means of communion with God. In other words, if there is a Christian "language" of beauty, the sacraments are its grammar.
In the previous post, I began an examination of how this "sacramental imagination" works itself out in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. Today's post continues those reflections.
III. THE LONG DEFEAT
No discussion of Incarnational theology in Tolkien’s works would be complete without a discussion of suffering. For the Christian, there is no Incarnation without suffering. When St Athanasius the Great writes his landmark work on Christian theology, probably the most important extra-Biblical Christian text which has ever been written, he calls it On the Incarnation. But what does St Athanasius mean by “Incarnation?” He calls it that which is “a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks,” the same phrase which Paul uses to describe Christ crucified in the first Epistle to the Corinthians.
We usually think of the Incarnation as the act which took place in the womb of Mary (and quite rightly, as I have pointed out in a previous post), but whenever Athanasius talks about it he always means the cross. When he asks “why did God become man?” what he always means is “why did God have to become a man and suffer?” And the only way for us is to follow Christ’s example, to suffer and die to this world, to bear witness with our blood, to participate in the living sacrifice which Christ offered up once and for all to the Father. For the Christian, the distance between earth and heaven is measured by the Cross.
Tolkien knew this very well—in fact, I think he knew it better than a lot of his critics acknowledged. Critics at the time as well as subsequent fantasy authors (people like Michael Moorcock) have criticized The Lord of the Rings for being morally simplistic, a kind of happily-ever-after fantasy in which everything comes out all right in the end. One wonders which copy of The Lord of the Rings they were reading.
If Tolkien develops a theology of sub-creation, we must not think he is blind to the potential abuses of the artistic gifts. One could argue that the whole history of his legendarium is a working-out of what happens when the sub-creative urge is malformed or disordered: when it mutates into the desire to possess and control. Melkor “the strong,” mightiest among the Valar, becomes Morgoth “the dark enemy of the world” ultimately because he wants to create in isolation instead of community, because he wants to control what he makes rather than give it over to the Children of Illuvatar who will inherit it. Later, the seeds of sin in Feanor’s heart—and the whole long and sad history of the Noldor as it plays out in The Silmarillion—are sown when he crafts the Silmarils, and desires to possess rather than to share them.
The impulse to create alone instead of in community is a marring of the image of God: for God does not create alone. The Holy Trinity is persons in communion, not an individual, a lonely genius, producing works for his own pleasure. One might say in Tolkien’s economy, as in Dante’s, all the individualists are in hell (or in this case, Angband).
The ultimate icon of corrupted art is, of course, the One Ring, which is the supreme work of art in The Lord of the Rings, and also the weapon of ultimate control. It’s telling, I think, in an age where the highest good is to “be all you can be,” that rejecting the One Ring always means rejecting your full potential. Gandalf, Frodo, even Sam could all be much more than they are—more effective, more efficient, more dreadful, more lordly, more deadly—if they would just use the Ring.
We see this most vividly in Galadriel’s test. In my opinion, it’s one of the most powerful scenes in literature. Galadriel can take the Ring which Frodo has offered. If she does, she’ll be a Queen—not just of Lothlorien, but of all Middle-earth. But if she rejects it—and this is what we can sometimes forget—she won’t merely stay where she’s at. Right now she’s Galadriel, Lady of Lothlorien, wielder of one of the three Elven rings, the greatest of the elves who yet remain in Middle-earth. She’s the daughter and sister and grandmother of kings and queens, perhaps the greatest and fairest of the Children of Illuvatar in the world since the time of Luthien. And if she lets the One Ring out of Lothlorien, she loses all of that. She has to go away into the West, where she will be “only Galadriel.” When you think about all of the good things she might still do for Middle-earth, the waste seems almost criminal, and I think that is one of the reasons that the elves’ leaving Middle-earth at the end of The Lord of the Rings feels so tragic.
There’s a line that’s easy to miss that I think says everything we need to understand about Tolkien’s attitude towards suffering. It’s in Galadriel’s description of Celeborn and the three ages that they have spent together in Middle-earth. She says that “together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.” Tolkien lived through two World Wars, through the collapse of modernism, to the death of every close friend he had in the trenches of France during WWI. Tolkien lived as a Roman Catholic in an age when Christendom was coming apart at the seams. He was no defeatist, but at the same time he knew that to live in this world—to be Incarnate in it—is to suffer and to die. His whole work is shot through with that tension. What the Christian story has done—the myth become history, the ultimate Eucatastrophe—is given all of our suffering a purpose. Here is what he says in the epilogue of On Fairy Stories:
The Gospels contain a fairystory, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man's history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation… The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.The good news of the Gospel is this: everything that we are as humans made in the Image of God now has a purpose, not just to vaguely “impact the culture for Christ,” but to actually assist in the salvation of the universe. I want to recall once again our working definition of Recovery: An Incarnate Mind, working with the materials of Primary Reality, creates a work of Fantasy, by which Primary reality is restored to is proper place. And I think now we are prepared, or nearly prepared, to see how Tolkien believes this concept has its ultimate fulfillment in Christ.
IV. THE SINGER ENTERS THE TALE
Something which is clear in the very first iteration of the Silmarillion material is the idea that things have gone wrong, and that some sort of intervention is needed if they are ever to be set right again. This idea plays out in the “themes” of Illuvatar, the second music he makes and which the Ainur [the angelic powers and demiurges who sub-create within the themes of Illuvatar/God, though The Flame Imperishable (the Logos) which gives real substance to creation resides only with Illuvatar] do not understand.
The core idea, expressed and developed in a variety of ways throughout Tolkien’s lifetime, is that the Children of Illuvatar (men and elves), and not the Ainur, will be the means by which the hurts of Arda are finally healed. In the earliest versions of the Legendarium, this included a Ragnarok-like battle at the end of time in which Turin Turambar would (with a little help) be the one to strike the final blow against Morgoth, taking vengeance for all the hurts of men and elves. Tolkien eventually scrapped that idea, but the role of the Children of Illuvatar—and particularly that of Mankind—remains in Tolkien’s eschatological vision. As stated in The Silmarillion,
Death is their fate, the gift of Ilúvatar, which as Time wears even the Powers shall envy. But Melkor has cast his shadow upon it, and confounded it with darkness, and brought forth evil out of good, and fear out of hope. Yet of old the Valar declared to the Elves in Valinor that Men shall join in the Second Music of the Ainur; whereas Ilúvatar has not revealed what he purposes for the Elves after the World's end…This is pretty vague, and it hits upon one of the main “problems” for any Christian who digs deep into Tolkien’s Legendarium. You and I and Tolkien know that death, at any rate human death, is an aberration. It is a wound inflicted by sin upon the world. It is only in Christ’s trampling down of death by death that it becomes something more than us. How then can Tolkien say that death is a gift? I think that answer, at least in part, is that Tolkien isn’t really saying that. The elves (who are the authors of the Quenta Silmarillion within Tolkien’s narrative frame) are saying that. One might see how, to the elves, death might come to be viewed as a gift.
When Tolkien’s elves die, they don’t really die. They go to the Halls of Mandos, in the Undying Land, from whence after a time they are given new bodies and reincarnated in the world. The lives of the elves are bound up with the life of Arda (the world), and when it comes to an end—and they know it is going to come to an end—they don’t know what will happen to them. From that point of view, the nature of man to “seek beyond the world,” and to not be bound within its circles after their death, might truly be viewed as a gift.
But if you aren’t entirely satisfied with that answer, you aren’t alone. Almost nobody in Tolkien’s fiction ever is. One of the most remarkable examples of this is in a short story memorably called the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth. Athrabeth means “debate,” and The Athrabeth is a debate between Finrod Felagund, an elven-king (who features prominently in The Silmarillion) and Andreth, a mortal woman who is counted among the Wise of her people. It’s a deeply beautiful, sad, and hopeful story, and it is typical of the sort of metaphysical and theological bent that Tolkien’s writing took towards the end of his life. I can’t summarize it all here, but it begins with Andreth’s bitterness over her love for Finrod’s brother Aegenor, whom she loves, and with whom she cannot be because he is immortal and she is not, and he is soon to die in the Battle of Unnumbered Tears (which he has foreseen).
As far as Andreth is concerned, the Shadow of Morgoth and the fear of death are one and the same. The Wise among men do not believe that men were made to die, she explains, the elves have heard wrong. She believes they were made to be always undying as the elves are, but that something has gone wrong and death has been imposed upon them. It was this Shadow in the East that the Three Houses of Men were fleeing when they first came to Beleriand (the westernmost lands of Middle-earth, where most of the action of The Silmarillion is set). The clear implication is that the Wise have retained a cultural memory of Eden.
[It may bear explaining at this point that Tolkien always envisioned his Legendarium as a sort of pre-historical mythology for Northern Europe, so it’s always meant to be set in the “real world.”]
The debate goes back and forth. Finrod assumes death is a normal part of human existence. Andreth believes it’s an aberration of nature. Elves are intended for Arda (the physical world); now that it is marred, they wear out faster than they should. Humans are intended for life beyond Arda in some kind of eternal state. Untainted “death” (leaving the circles of the world) would be a good end, says Finrod. Death has been imposed upon humans as a punishment, says Andreth, and is therefore not good. Are our bodies part of the problem, wonders Finrod? No says Andreth, the body is intended for its dweller, it is a part of the dweller, and not to be despised. If that’s the case, why do bodies (human or elvish) wear out? Finrod ultimately suggests that perhaps the purpose of humanity, before their fall, was to uplift the whole world beyond its time-bound existence and so fulfill its eschatological purpose. That’s the context for the remarkable exchange that follows:
‘Alas, lord!’ she said. ‘What then is to be done now? For we speak as these things are, or as if they will assuredly be. But Men have been diminished and their power is taken away. We look for no Arda Remade: darkness lies before us, into which we stare in vain. If by our aid your everlasting mansions were to be prepared, they will not be builded now.’In this, Finrod could be anticipating St Athanasius. Andreth is not convinced, though she admits that there are those among men of the “Old Hope” who believe that not “the might of Men, or of any of the peoples of Arda” will be their salvation. But rather,
‘Have ye then no hope?’ said Finrod.
‘What is hope?’ she said. ‘An expectation of good, which though uncertain has some foundation in what is known? Then we have none.’
‘That is one thing that Men call “hope,’ said Finrod. ‘Amdir we call it, “looking up.” But there is another which is founded deeper. Estel we call it, that is “trust”. It is not defeated by the ways of the world, for it does not come from experience, but from our nature and first being. If we are indeed the Eruhin, the Children of the One, then He will not suffer Himself to be deprived of his own, not by any Enemy…”
‘They say,’ answered Andreth: ‘they say that the One will himself enter into Arda, and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end. This they say also, or they feign, is a rumour that has come down through the years uncounted, even from the days of our undoing.’I will leave the end of the story for you to go and read. It is a story of sorrow and healing, and here I have only told a small part. In the Athrabeth, then, Tolkien tries to wrestle with what is, what was, what might have been, and ultimately with what will be again through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Matter is not evil, it was made to be brought up into the divine, not to be obliterated. Through the Incarnation, man is restored to his place as the priest of creation, offering up in thanksgiving what God has made. In the Divine economy of Tolkien’s Legendarium, even the elves are waiting on Christ.
‘…the saying of Hope passes my understanding. How could Eru enter into the thing that He has made, and than which He is beyond measure greater? Can the singer enter into his tale or the designer into his picture?’
Let’s return to our working definition of Recovery one last time: An Incarnate Mind, working with the materials of Primary Reality, creates a work of Fantasy, by which Primary reality is restored to is proper place. Tolkien saw our role in creation as exactly this, but in order to accomplish it, the Mind of God had to become Incarnate, working with the materials of material reality, and make myth become fact, so that all creation could be restored to its proper place in the Divine Order.
This, I would argue, is the theology which underwrites all of Tolkien’s mythopoeia. It is the premise for all of his own subcreative acts, and it is the idea he is constantly working out through the Valar, the Elves, and the men of his mythology. It is the basis of the Hope for which he struggled through the senseless destruction of the West and the collapse of modernism in the first half of the twentieth century, and it is the basis of the Hope which gave meaning to the languages and poems, the hobbits and elves, the wars and woes of Middle-earth.
The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.Tolkien worked. He suffered. He died. But he thought he could see that all of these things had a purpose which was not just “useful.” It was salvific.