Tolkien and Eucatastrophe: Towards Our True Port of Call

“Myth has always involved ways of telling stories that had special significance.  Myths change history into significant history.”  This is the power of literature: from birth to death, from damnation to salvation, our lives are full with meaningful stories.  “Philosophy and literature, therefore, belong together. They can work like the two lenses of a pair of binoculars. Philosophy argues abstractly. Literature argues too – it persuades, it changes the reader – but concretely. Philosophy says truth, literature shows truth.”  Moreover, since theology is a synthesis of faith (based on revelation) and philosophical truth, then theology would also be a synthesis of philosophy and literature in which truth is expounded both abstractly through dogma and concretely through the telling of stories; in writing fairy-tales, people like J. R. R. Tolkien “steer [us…] towards the true harbour.”

Tolkien’s theology steers us clear of two sweeping statements: (i) Rousseauian optimism: the refutation of evil’s reality and might (This can be seen in the beginning of his famous book Emile, where he describes the process of education away from the constraints of society and its ills allo

wing the person to grow in innocence and thus away from evil) and (ii) the Manichean error that evil has the same kind of reality, and substance, as goodness.  Indeed, Tolkien sees evil as unreal, the absence of good.  “Tolkien wisely describes evil, therefore, as the Shadow: […] sin is always a twisting and distortion and perversion of the Good.”  Thus Melkor cannot create anything on his own, but instead, takes good creations, like the Elves, and twists them into orcs, parodies of the creatures that they once were.  Yet, though Tolkien takes evil very seriously, “it is his moral optimism, his faith and hope in divine grace and the triumph of good over evil,” which glimmers out the pages of his books.

In this light, Tolkien sees God as creator and provider of the universe, which he created. Thus, although in his works there is the omnipresence of fate, death and doom, Tolkien also modifies the pagan conception of fate to imply its providential direction. For instance, Frodo, as Bilbo before him, in seeing his fate as utterly destined for doom is found wishing, many times, that these events had not happened to him.  Yet, Christian thinking gleams through, shedding light on the providential quality of the same events:

Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker.  I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker.  In which case you also were meant to have it.  And that may be an encouraging thought.

The consequence of the fact that God takes care of His creation is the idea of eucatastrophe: “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.” In truth, one can go on to say that at the heart of the Christian mystery, there is a mystery that lies at the core of fairy-stories:

They strike deeper truth than other literary forms precisely because of their happy endings – not in spite of them.  True fantasies end happily, thus providing consolation for life’s tragedy and sorrow.  But their endings are not escapist.  Their felicitous outcome is always produced by a dreadful disaster, by a drastic and unexpected turn of events, which issues in surprising deliverance.

The three eucatastrophes which form the plot of the Christian story are: (i) The incarnation – the eucatastrophe of the saga of humanity: Christ, who in assuming human nature, is confronted with, but not conquered by, the Exile of the Holy family into Egypt and the massacre of the innocent children.  (ii) Christ’s Easter event is the eucatastrophe of Jesus’ own life, as his death brings about his triumph: the Resurrection and the salvation of the world.  (iii) The Second Coming of Christ as the Grand Eucatastrophe for the entire world.

For any Christian, the suffering and the death of Christ underlines the extreme realism of His incarnation.  He recapitulates in Himself the entire human reality, who in becoming visible from invisible, from impassible to passable, from God immortal to mortal man.  “The true motivation of the death of Christ is the same motive of his incarnation: the charity of God which is manifested in history as mercy and forgiveness.  It is the Christmas, which is intrinsically orientated towards Easter.” Redemption, then, is the most profound truth; so profound that St. Paul tells us that, “if Christ has not be raised your faith is pointless… if our hope in Christ has been for this life only, we are of all people the most pitiable.”  It is the redemption of Christ which makes the lasting corrective – the un-marring – of creation possible; a corrective which gives us the opportunity to leave the Grey Havens towards our true port of call: the true, actual, real and more complete Undying Lands – Heaven!

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