I have always disliked romanticism. I was a science major as an undergraduate and learned what it meant to fit hypotheses to the hard data of reality. And a course in existential philosophy pounded home the reality and depth of evil in the world. I can see no place for the romanticism that attempts to ignore evil and spin the nature of the universe out of our deep longings for tranquility.
My years at seminary led me to distrust the juxtaposition of "myth" and the Christian Gospel. Bultmann and crew used myth to de-historicize the New Testament message. Then I discovered that C. S. Lewis had written some laudatory things about the relationship between myth and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because Lewis was an orthodox Christian, I knew he must be talking about something quite different from Bultmann. So I began a course of inquiry that eventually led me to the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien.
A young woman who had not yet become a Christian first recommended The Lord of the Ringstrilogy to me. She was deeply moved by these volumes, but she was not sure why. About the same time, I noticed an article in Saturday Review describing how two occupants of a New York subway literally dived over their fellow travelers when one heard the other say the name "Frodo." There was certainly something special about these books; I vowed to read them!
Before long I was deeply involved in the trilogy (the reader is invariably "drawn into" the story in a unique way, and for a good reason as we shall see). Something deep inside me was being touched, but I didn't know what.
Since then I've discovered that many other readers have the same experience with these volumes. Why does Tolkien have such a deep, cultic effect on his readers?
Myths and Symbols
First, he uses many of the symbols prevalent in Germanic and Celtic writings, symbols which contact western man at a deep level of need. These basic symbols include the hero and the dragon, the wise old man, the good mother, the temptress and the shadow. Carl Jung, the psychologist, spoke of the "archetypes of the collective unconscious," and it is to these that Tolkien is writing. He has used myth to reach us at levels that are seldom contacted, drawing the depth of our basic needs to our consciousness.
These symbols convey two basic and closely related themes. One is the near destruction of a very real and very evil power, a power we in the twentieth century (now twenty-first century) have seen. Many men yearn for a deliverer (a Ring-Bearer, if you will), providentially selected to vicariously purge our world of seemingly inexorable evil, reconcile us to the universe, absolve our guilt and offer us love and the secure feeling that we are "home at last." The second theme is tranquility and communication. This is tied in with the first theme, for it is only possible when we have found a real reconciliation. Each of us longs for a home in the universe, a home something like the Shire; or better! The banquet scenes, the hearthside rest in the midst of overarching battle, carry heavy symbolic weight. We yearn deeply for safety, or (as Bunyan described it) the invitation to “unbuckle our armor.” The hearthside, pipes, and ale draw modern man with great power.
Tolkien's trilogy, by means of myth, touches all of these deep human needs. That is why it "draws the reader in" and has a cultic effect on him.
This brings us to another reason why the trilogy is so powerful. The Lord of the Rings awakens yearnings for the "turn" or "eucatastrophe," yearnings that have lain dormant since childhood. The eucatastrophe is the never-to-be-counted-upon turn of events that leads to the happy ending. If the author of a fairy-story describes the turn well, it takes us by surprise and causes our hearts to beat faster "in a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant with grief."
But this raises an important question. True, Tolkien unveils some of our deepest longings. Within the confines of his story, he shows how those needs and longings are met. Frodo is able to break the evil power of Mordor by destroying the Ring of Power. A relative reconciliation, peace and great joy follow throughout all of Middle Earth. So what? What difference does that make outside of Middle Earth in a world plagued by Mordor-like evil? Can anyone break real evil?
The Christians whisper the astounding news—the power of evil has been broken. Reconciliation with the Creator of the universe is possible. How? Through Jesus Christ's life, death, and resurrection.
Our feelings of cosmic alienation and longing really reflect the structure of the universe. We don't just feel the need for reconciliation with our Creator; we really need it. We are all as disobedient and frail as Frodo, having put on the Ring more times than we care to remember. We all have real wills that are in rebellion, calling the wrath of Mordor down upon ourselves. Unless we have a Gandalf dying for us on the bridge, we perish—not just metaphorically, but actually and eternally! But the God of the universe entered human history in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus gave clear evidence of his identity by means of fulfilled prophecy and miracles. And, after He had offered Himself for sin on the cross, He rose bodily, giving evidence that He was alive by "many infallible proofs." As writers such as Dr. Wilbur Smith and Dr. John Montgomery have demonstrated, the evidence for the resurrection of Christ was objectively given in history and is open to evaluation by skeptics of all ages.
The Bible says that because the perfect God-man died in our stead, we can now be reconciled to God. By means of His resurrection, Christ has broken the power of sin, death, and the devil. The Lord of the Rings is a fictional piece, a “sub-creation” or secondary world that the artist has created. But in Christ, the breaking of evil's power, the reconciliation and joy in Tolkien's fiction have entered history, become fact.
Fairy-Stories and the Gospel
Tolkien himself has written some powerful words about the relationship between the fairy-story and the Gospel:
“The Gospels contain a fairy-story, 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. This story begins and ends in joy. It has preeminently the "inner consistency of reality." There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of the Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.
It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel if any especially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try to conceive anything of a quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the ‘turn’ in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is pre-eminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men-and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.” — J. R. R. Tolkien, "On Fairy-Stories"
Tolkien is correct in his evaluation of the fairy-story ability of the Gospels to draw us in, reach us at the deepest level of human need and point us to the eucatastrophic resurrection of Christ. But, as he also clearly points out, the Gospels are Primary Art and historical truth, So, even though Christians oppose any effort to extricate the gospel from its historical moorings (as in Bultmann, for example), they still perceive the larger fairy-story aspects of the gospel. Apart from historical grounding, the Christian message would be nothing more than an unverifiable myth. The Shire never existed except in the mind of its creator, but the cross and the empty tomb occurred in real history. If you've read Tolkien's trilogy, you might go on into the more explicit land of the Narnia stories by C. S. Lewis, and from there into the Gospel of John (where the historical fulfillment of Narnia is found).
I can personally testify, along with many others, to the transforming effect of a trip through Middle Earth or Narnia. I find myself literally driven to tears by a good fairy-story. And not simply because I am a romantic, quite the contrary! It is because I now see how a good fairy-story points back two thousand years to the time when God actually delivered me from the power of Mordor through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Deliverer.
And not only that! The Prince Who came then is coming again to usher those who belong to Him to his eternal hearthside. And then the holidays will begin.
For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendor of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy... We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so. Someday, God willing, we shall get in. (C. S. Lewis, "The Weight of Glory")
This blog was originally printed in His magazine as an article written by then Pastor Rod Rosenbladt.