JRR Tolkien

On Tolkien’s vision of sorrowful joy

Helm’s Deep & the Hornburg.jpg

Ralph Wood has written another excellent piece on J. R. R. Tolkien’s assessment of history, evil, being a company, eucatastrophe, impatience, joy, Beowulf, mercy, patience, pity, providence, sympathy, and ‘sorrowful joy’. Here’s a taster:

For Tolkien, the chief question – and thus the real quest – concerns the proper means for “redeeming the time.” The great temptation is to take short-cuts, to follow the easy way, to arrive quickly. In the antique world of Middle-earth, magic offers the surest escape from slowness and suffering. It is the equivalent of our machines. Both ancient and modern magic provide what Tolkien called immediacy: “speed, reduction of labour, and reduction also to a minimum (or vanishing point) of the gap between the idea or desire and the result or effect.”

The magic of haste is the method chosen by those who are in a hurry, who lack patience, who cannot wait. Sauron wins converts because he provides his followers the necromancy to achieve such instant results by coercing the wills of others, giving them brute strength to accomplish allegedly grand ends by cursory means.

The noble who refuse such haste prove, alas, to be most nobly tempted. Gandalf, the Christ-like wizard who quite literally lays down his life for his friends, knows that he is an unworthy bearer of the Ring – not because he has evil designs that he wants secretly to accomplish, but rather because his desire to do good is so great. Gandalf’s native pity, when combined with the omnipotent strength of the Ring, would transform him into an all-forgiving, justice-denying magus, not a figure befitting the origins of his wizard-name in the Anglo-Saxon word wys (“wise”).

You can read the full essay here.

[Image: ‘Helm’s Deep & the Hornburg’, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. Source.]

The Hobbit(s) and the call to ministry

On Mondays, Wednesdays and the occasional Saturday evening, ministers are a little bit like hobbits. As a result of his encounter with the ‘fierce and jealous love’ of the dwarves, Bilbo Baggins, we are told, ‘got up trembling’:

He had less than half a mind to fetch the lamp, and more than half a mind to pretend to, and go and hide behind the beer barrels in the cellar, and not come out again until all the dwarves had gone away. Suddenly he found that the music and the singing had stopped, and they were all looking at him with eyes shining in the dark.

For some of us, that’s how the call to train for pastoral ministry happens – where love and joy lead to confusion and timidity which in turn lead to the cessation of music and to finding oneself in the spotlight examined carefully by probing ‘eyes shining in the dark’.

When our assumptions are challenged, when our faith is stirred, when things once familiar become the new unknown, when we find ourselves travelling ‘too near the mountains’ in unguarded territory seldom traversed by ecclesial wayfarers, and when all we have in our kit are ‘old maps’ which are of ‘no use’ in this new terrain, it may be that at that point we have begun, like Abraham and Sarah and Mr Baggins, on a quest that will leave us and the future different.

Colourful and noisy and undersized hobbits enter the quest, as Tolkien reminds us in his ‘Notes on W. H. Auden’s review of The Return of the King’, not to preserve ‘this or that polity, such as the half republic half aristocracy of the Shire’, but rather to engage in ‘liberation from … evil tyranny’. Such words serve as a reminder of our calling too, that the people of God are not called to preserve that familiar life that they had known in the Shire but rather to imagine a future in which all of life’s enemies have been overcome, and to direct all their efforts towards that end. Along the way, they not only lose their reputation, but they also carry unanswered questions, all the while knowing that there can be no going back. Nor, as Bilbo was to discover, can there be anything to be gained by going sideways. And it is precisely in both the refusal to abandon questions and the determination to move forward nonetheless that Bilbo and his company of friends discover that prudence is not about worldly cleverness but is rather about uncomplicated minds and wills conformed to a life of virtue, of boundless mercy, and of unbending devotion to the destruction of that which would undo their very being. It is to this end, we hope, that the church’s hobbits will direct their efforts.

And along the way, may they learn from Galdalf and Aragorn and their other companions that

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost,
From the ashes afire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken:
The crownless again shall be king.

J.R.R. Tolkien on the death of Osama Bin Laden

‘It seemed to Frodo then that he heard, quite plainly but far off, voices out of the past:

What a pity Bilbo did not stab the vile creature, when he had a chance!

Pity! It was Pity that stayed his hand, and Mercy: not to strike without need.

I do not feel any pity for Gollum. He deserves death.

Deserves death! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give that to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends.

“Very well,” he answered aloud, lowering his sword. “But still I am afraid. And yet, as you see, I will not touch the creature. For now that I see him, I do pity him.”’

– J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘The Taming of Sméagol’, in The Lord of the Rings (London: HarperCollins, 1995), 601.

Why did Tolkien write The Lord of the Rings?

‘I wrote The Lord of the Rings because I wished “to try my hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them”. As a guide I had only my own feelings for what is appealing or moving; and it has been a great pleasure (and a surprise) to find that so many other people have similar feelings’. – J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘Letter to Miss Elise Honeybourne’, 18 September 1967.

Living in the Celtic twilight

celtic-crossRecent days (and nights) have seen me delving into the fascinating world of research on Celtic Christianity, helped along by a bottle of Laphroaig, the able Ian Bradley, James Mackey, Noel Dermot O’Donoghue, Oliver Davies, John MacLeod, Donald Meek, and the delectably fun Adomnán of Iona. All the while, the assessment offered by J.R.R. Tolkien in his famous lecture on ‘English and Welsh’ (reprinted in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays) has been ringing true in my ears:

“To many, perhaps to most people outside the small company of the great scholars, past and present, ‘Celtic’ of any sort is, nonetheless, a magic bag, into which anything may be put, and out of which almost anything may come. Thus I read recently a review of a book by Sir Gavin de Beer, and, in what appeared to be a citation from the original, I noted the following opinion on the river-name Arar (Livy) and Araros (Polybius): ‘Now Arar derives from the Celtic root meaning running water which occurs also in many English river-names like Avon’. It is a strange world in which Avon and Araros can have the same ‘root’ (a vegetable analogy still much loved by the non-philological when being wise about words). Catching the lunatic infection, one’s mind runs on to the River Arrow, and even to arrowroot, to Ararat, and the descent into Avernus. Anything is possible in the fabulous Celtic twilight, which is not so much a twilight of the gods as of the reason”. (pp. 185–6).

The Catholic Fantastic of Chesterton and Tolkien

Ralph Wood has a good article on Chesterton and Tolkien in today’s First Things in which he praises Alison Milbank’s Chesterton and Tolkien As Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real. Here’s a taste:

Unlike Coleridge and the Romantics, however, Tolkien and Chesterton never grant godlike status to artists and thinkers as having the power to invent their own self-enclosed universe. On the contrary, they share a deep Thomistic regard for the primacy of being: for things as they are perceived by the senses. Like Kant, they confess the difficulty of moving from the phenomenal to the noumenal realm of things-in-themselves. Yet, unlike him, they do not despair over the seemingly impassable gap between the inner and the outer, the mental and the natural; instead, they reveal that the world is not dreadfully dead (as we have believed since Descartes and Newton) but utterly alive and awaiting our free transformation of it. The universe that has been made dissonant also requires reenchantment, therefore, in order for us to participate in an otherness that is not finally cacophony but symphony, a complex interlocking of likenesses and differences that form an immensely complex but finally redemptive Whole. The doubleness of all things is cause for rejoicing, it follows, rather than lamentation.

As readers we are able to experience Treebeard at two levels: On the one hand, he is patently an aesthetic invention, a fictional creature. Both Chesterton and Tolkien constantly draw attention to the created character of their work, reminding us that it belongs to secondary and not primarily reality: it is a constructed thing to be enjoyed as such. Yet having encountered this fantastic tree with human features, readers can no longer look upon real trees as mere objects meant only for our manipulation. On the contrary, we can now envision all trees as analogical actualities, as transcendent symbols that participate in the reality that they signify, as having likenesses to us despite their differences from us, and thus as linking natural things with both human and divine things—and perhaps also with things demonic. It is not a long leap, for instance, from Treebeard to the trees in the Garden of Eden.

Chesterton and Tolkien have not autonomously invented their own imaginative worlds so much as they have reordered the existing world in accordance with their fundamentally Aristotelian/Thomistic perception of it. Their common conviction is that everything has its own entelechy, its own end within itself that pushes it toward completion and fulfillment within a larger, indeed a final telos.

You can read the full article here.

Philip Pullman on CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien

In a recent interview, Philip Pullman not only properly reminds us of the challenges of talking to fundamentalists ‘You can’t communicate with people who know they’ve got all the answers’ but also makes one of the most ridiculous and ignorant statements I’ve read in a long time:

‘I dislike his Narnia books because of the solution he offers to the great questions of human life: is there a God, what is the purpose, all that stuff, which he really does engage with pretty deeply, unlike Tolkien who doesn’t touch it at all. ”The Lord of the Rings” is essentially trivial. Narnia is essentially serious, though I don’t like the answer Lewis comes up with. If I was doing it at all, I was arguing with Narnia. Tolkien is not worth arguing with.’

You can read the full interview here.

For those in, or near enough to, St Andrews, Dr Grant Macaskill (who is not only a really great guy and an engaging speaker, but also a good musician) will be speaking on Christianity and the Philip Pulman novels on Sunday the 16th of December at 6pm, Martyr’s Church in North Street. The title of his talk, ‘Killing God Softly: Does “The Golden Compass” undermine Christianity?’ For more information, contact Matt.


J.R.R. Tolkien first coined the term ‘eucatastrophe’ to refer to the sudden turn of events at the end of a story which result in the protagonist‘s well-being. He formed the word by affixing the Greek prefix eu, meaning good, to catastrophe, the word traditionally used in classically-inspired literary criticism to refer to the “unraveling” or conclusion of a drama’s plot. For Tolkien, the term appears to have had a thematic meaning that went beyond its implied meaning in terms of form. In his definition as outlined in his 1947 essay On Fairy-Stories, eucatastrophe is a fundamental part of his conception of mythopoeia. Though Tolkien’s interest is in myth, it is also connected to the gospels; Tolkien calls the Incarnation the eucatastrophe of “human history” and the Resurrection the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation.’ From here.

If by ‘Incarnation’ we mean the whole action of the Incarnate Son, then I agree. Forsyth speaks of grace as ‘Nature’s destiny.’ For while ‘nature cannot of itself culminate in grace, at least it was not put there without regard to grace. Grace is Nature’s destiny’ Apart from grace, nature becomes abstruse, unreal and inhuman. Apart from nature, the physical stuff of the world too dust-bound to satisfy metaphysical enquiry, grace tends to despair and absurdity. ‘Nature, if not the mother, is the matrix of Grace.’ But that grace is bloodied, despised and rejected, crushed for the iniquities of, and laden with punishment for, those who hide their faces from it. Grace is never an abstract thing. Nor is it cheap.

Grace is a man groaning on a cross, dying on a ‘bitter tree,’ not only for his friends but also for those who would wish him and his Father dead. Grace is a person redeeming in holy love. Grace is God in his eucatastrophic action in the face of Nature’s catastrophe. Grace is God taking seriously the scandalous nature of sin’s offence, and himself going down into the experience of nothingness and dread, into hell, into death, into the furnace of his own wrath, into the radical depths of its wound, in order to save. There can be no higher gift. Moreover, such grace alone satisfies the human (and divine) conscience, which requires not merely an explanation of the Cross, but its revelation. This grace alone, the grace of the initiating Father, carries humanity home and brings peace to the human spirit.

On Middle Earth

My copy of Tolkein’s The Silmarillion includes a copy of Ainulindalë, which he subtitles ‘The Music of the Ainur’ (literally, the ‘singing of the Holy’). This creation myth betrays Tolkien’s indebtedness to Norse/Germanic, Finnish, Greek and Roman myths, and is, I believe, critical to understanding Tolkein’s vision of Middle-Earth. Moreover, it is the most theologically significant creation story that I have ever read. Wikipedia offers a neat overview of the tale. All this is by way of saying that for any who may be interested, I noticed a flyer this week (while I was away in the Lakes District) of an up and coming short course on Tolkein and Middle Earth. More information can be found here. The blurb reads: ‘The fantasy world of Gollum, Gandalf and Frodo has been introduced to and absorbed a new generation, following the hugely successful trilogy of The Lord of the Rings films. On this highly enjoyable new course, you will find out more about the mythological world of Middle Earth, as we explore both the popular and lesser-known fictional works of JRR Tolkien. We shall place Tolkien in the context of the Oxford academic world of the 1940s and 50s, his participation with the Inklings and his friendship with fellow scholar and writer, CS Lewis. Among the themes we shall explore are the role of Christian fantasy, medieval influences and the moral centre of his work, including his portrayal of the machine as the modern form of magic. In addition to The Lord of the Rings, we shall consider the unfinished work The Silmarillion, as well as literary essays on fairy stories and Beowulf. This promises to be a fascinating and popular insight into one of the 20th century’s most influential writers on myth and fantasy.’ For those who can spare the time, it sounds most worthwhile.