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Mere Christian Perspectives on the Human
© Mythopoeic Society
Donald T. Williams

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J. R. R. TOLKIEN: HUMANITY AND FAERIE

Tolkien's Middle EarthLewis's friend J. R. R. Tolkien fought the abolition of Man not only by writing a very unbovine history of Middle Earth, but also by thinking profoundly about the nature and significance of certain kinds of stories that our strange species keeps coming back to. His essay "On Faerie Stories" is full of insight not only into the stories themselves, but also their makers. He finds them as creative as Chesterton did and participating in a very Lewisian Tao; for they are compelled to make stories full of magic and marvels, stories in which Good confronts Evil and in which "keeping promises (even those with intolerable consequences)" forms "one of the notes of the horns of Elfland, and not a dim note." But Tolkien goes on to be more explicit about where these myth-making qualities in our race come from, answering a friend who had questioned the value of myth for "enlightened" moderns:

    Dear Sir’ I said — Although now long estranged,
    Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
    Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned.
    and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
    Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
    through whom is splintered from a single White
    to many hues, and endlessly combined
    in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
    Though all the crannies of the world we filled
    with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
    Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
    and sowed the seed of dragons—‘twas our right
    (used or misused). That right has not decayed:
    we make still by the law in which we're made’. 

"We make still by the law in which we're made." Man, in other words, is inexplicable by materialist reductionism because of the Imago Dei; we love to tell and hear stories because we are made in the image of the Creator whose creation is in fact the Story we call History and Redemption. Or, in terms more in keeping with Tolkien's defense of Faerie, the human race is incapable of being fully explained or portrayed by either philosophical or literary naturalism. We are also irrepressible inventors and expressers of ourselves because we are made in the image of the Creator. But Tolkien focuses on stories. Every writer, like God, creates a world, determines the laws of its nature, and peoples it with characters whose significant actions give that world its meaning. God's "primary world" is reflected in our "secondary worlds," which, far from being mere escape or wish fulfillment, reflect back into the primary world the marvelous quality — the "enchantment" — that is really there by virtue of its created, its non-reductionist character, but which familiarity and secularist philosophy work to obscure.

One feature of the Faerie Story which is central to Tolkien's literary apologetic is the Happy Ending. It is, he concludes, essential to the form. But it is not just the fact that things turn out well: "It is a sudden and miraculous grace … It does not deny the existence of … sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance."  That is why, when the "turn" comes, there is "a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart … as keen as that given by any form of literary art."  To this moment he gives the technical name eucatastrophe.

Tolkien suggests that this moment of eucatastrophe in a well-constructed story moves us so because it carries a glimpse of deeper realities about who we are — about our own story, as it were. And just as he made explicit what Chesterton had been hinting at when he appealed to role of the imago Dei in our making or beginning, so here he is not reticent about spelling out the theological meaning of the climax of our larger story either:

God redeemed the corrupt making creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces the essence of fairy-stories… among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world. 

The incarnation, sacrifice, and resurrection of Christ not only complete and fulfill Old-Testament prophecy, they complete and fulfill the plots of all the great myths and fairy stories of the human race. All the hints in our literature that we are more than mere collocations of atoms coalesce into a coherent explanation of who and what we are when we see that this eucatastrophe is indeed the Happy Ending we were made for. We make because we were made in the image of the Maker. What we make is sometimes corrupted because we fell from His grace. But the stories we make still speak of our longing for restoration, because we were made in the image of the Maker who is Savior and Redeemer as well. And Christ is what we have always been looking for. He is the ultimate definition of true humanity. So the one vantage point from which our whole strange and unbovine history makes sense is also the one place where Myth and History are one: the spot where, in the light of the rising sun, the shadow of a Cross points to the open door of an Empty Tomb.

 

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