Concerning Tolkien’s faith, as depicted in letter 250…
Hey there fellow travelers! Welcome to The Tolkien Road, a long walk through the works and philosophy of J.R.R. Tolkien. On this episode, we begin a discussion of Tolkien’s letters by considering a 1963 letter he wrote to his son Michael. In this letter, Tolkien seeks to help Michael work through a period where he felt depressed. In doing so, Tolkien opens up about his own faith, and how he keeps his head afloat in the world. By the way, if you haven’t already, please leave The Tolkien Road a rating and feedback on iTunes. We’d love to know what you think of the podcast. Enjoy the show!
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The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. – Tolkien
For me, the last section of Tolkien’s On Fairy-Stories makes the slog that is the first half quite worth it. Tolkien’s exposition of eucatastrophe, “the happy turn” in a story, is unforgettable, an idea that has been expounded in countless places by numerous writers. Eucatastrophe is Tolkienian through-and-through. Not only isit a beautiful idea, but it’s a beautiful word as well.
Things get really wonderful when Tolkien speaks of the Birth of Christ – the Incarnation – as “the eucatastrophe of Man’s history.” Why does he say this? Tolkien was obsessed with the hopelessness and darkness of mankind’s case in the ancient world, something he probably picked up from his deep interest in mythology. In the Incarnation, man is re-directed towards his ultimate destiny as the benevolent viceroy of the cosmos, the blessed bridge between the heaven and earth.
The Incarnation is eucatastrophe because it is a surprise; like the appearance of the Eagles in various eucatastrophic moments of the Third Age, Christ first comes amid a desperate situation. Yes, the Jews hoped for a Messiah, but every indication is that they were looking for a great prophet and a warrior-king, one who would restore the kingdom of Israel to its Davidic pinnacle. Who would have thought that God would choose to draw so near to us as to become like us “in every way except sin,” indeed to renounce all of His rights as God in order to show us the beauty and triumph of the way of humility?
Eucatastrophe in Action
It seems that Tolkien was so intent on this idea that he worked it into The Lord of the Rings, for it is on March 25th, the traditional date of the Annunciation , that the One Ring is destroyed. And this is important: the One Ring is not finally destroyed by any Man, nor indeed by any hobbit, but by the invisible hand of the storyteller at work behind the scenes. Tolkien sets things up so that none of the three figures present  can claim credit for its destruction in the final analysis. No, the creature cannot save himself, not without divine aid, and though the great soul of the lowly hobbit is a sign of the greatness of humility itself, we see here that the hobbit is not even capable of finally putting the greatest of evils to death, of plunging the knife into its very heart.
Thus, we can see how fitting it is that Eagles are frequent instruments of eucatastrophe, for they represent the power and will of Manwë, the greatest of the angelic Valar. Their coming from the clouds is as the descent of a supernatural power.
Ask any Christian you know that has spent time dwelling upon it: the Incarnation is magical as a fairy-tale, and all the more so because we believe it to be as true as the fall of Rome. It is the wondrous event at the heart of everything, and yes, we mean everything. It is a thing wonderful to behold and to ponder. I get all misty-eyed when I think about it, and for good reason, for in it, we glimpse the mysterious ways of God Himself, saving and surprising us despite ourselves, drawing us ever closer to the deepness of a love vast as the cosmos.
1 – Subtract 9 months from December 25th and what do you get? More here.
2 – Frodo, Sam, and Gollum. While Gollum is ultimately responsible on an operative level of destroying the One Ring, he certainly does not will its destruction.
‘[T]he wheels of the world’, are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak… – Tolkien
In considering the impact of his faith on his creative works, it is probably best to begin where most of us start when it comes to Tolkien: with hobbits. Ironically, though hobbits are Tolkien’s most popular subcreation, they are in fact the most insignificant of the rational beings in the Middle-earth universe.
After all, Elves and Men were the prophesied Children of Ilúvatar and Dwarves were fashioned from the imagination of the mighty demigod Aulë. Even the Ents arise from the desire of Yavanna, goddess of growing things. Nowhere does Tolkien explain how hobbits came about, and we’re not really given a hint of what their final destiny will be. They just sort of show up at some point in the middle of the Third Age, and remain an afterthought in the minds of the great powers for centuries until the Ring, by some strange accident, comes to Bilbo.
The Secret Life in Creation
In this, we see manifest a major Tolkienian theme, that the greatest significance was reserved for the seemingly insignificant. In the letter that serves as the preface to The Silmarillion, he says this:
“[T]he great policies of world history, ‘the wheels of the world’, are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak – owing to the secret life in creation, and the part unknowable to all wisdom but One…”
Now if one attempts to read this statement apart from Tolkien’s faith, they are probably going to wind up thinking that he is simply being sentimental here. Obviously, the good professor is just wrong. It IS the powerful, the Lords and Governors, who make the great policies of world history. After all, that’s their job as Lords and Governors, to do the important stuff. Yet Tolkien was not simply telling an underdog story with his Middle-earth works, nor a populist one. So what exactly did he mean?
It all hinges upon “the secret life in creation . . . the part unknowable to all wisdom but One.” This is an enigmatic assertion, but I believe that Tolkien is pointing to a hidden reality that the great and powerful tend to ignore. On one hand, this is the mysterious power of nature itself, what Hopkins called “the dearest freshness deep down things.” Yet Tolkien, like Hopkins, feels led to tie this power of nature in with a supernatural providence, a hidden wisdom.
An Unexpected Design
Thus, hobbits, the most insignificant of all rational beings in Middle-earth, represent an unexpected design in the divine plan. It is Gandalf alone among the powerful who is able to recognize this, but even then he doesn’t really understand how it will play out. Neither Sauron nor Saruman pay any mind to hobbits before the work of providence gets its head start.
In all of this, one can see a strong parallel with the story of Christ, the one upon whom Tolkien was convinced all of history turned. Christ came not as a mighty king but as a helpless infant. Throughout His life, he continued down this path; though He was God, “He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.”
Blessed are the Insignificant
St. Paul frequently came back to this theme in his writings: “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” Why is this? I can’t help but think that God is, at heart, not only the Creator, but also the Creative, the poet and storyteller par excellence. But more on that in the next installment.
I’ll close this entry in the series by saying that while most of us will never achieve any sort of great significance in our lives, especially not the sort that will find us being remembered well a few years past our deaths, I nevertheless take great consolation in the knowledge that, as one of the legions of insignificants, it is perhaps that God instead has His own significance mapped out for my life, a deeper and indeed greater meaning that I might miss if I tried to grasp significance on my own terms. I can live with that; it’s good to be in the company of hobbits and the Son of God.
NEXT TIME: God the Storyteller…
Where do you see this theme manifest in Tolkien’s work? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Most people would probably not associate the words “spiritual giant” with J.R.R. Tolkien, but in my mind, he is exactly that. Over the last few years, I have come to see so much insight and wisdom in Tolkien’s view of the world and of our humanity. Few people have influenced my faith and outlook like Tolkien.
Even before I was Catholic, I had begun to feel a spiritual kinship with J.R.R. Tolkien. There was just something about his ability to look at the world and see a “real magic” in it that captivated me. Since becoming Catholic, Tolkien has enriched my faith like few others. Here are five ways in which he has done so: