The Incarnation is one of the central mysteries of Christianity, and it’s the heart of the matter when it comes to Christmas. It is the teaching that the Son of God, being divine, loved us human beings so much that He became one of us in order to redeem us from sin and death. Tolkien spoke a lot about “incarnation,” especially in reference to his Middle-earth works, where some of the “angelic” figures (the Ainur) would take on human form much like we’d put on clothing (for example: Gandalf). In a few specific cases, however, Tolkien spoke directly of his views on the Incarnation of Christ. These instances show how vitally important the holy mystery of the Incarnation was to Tolkien.
“The Incarnation of God is an infinitely greater thing than anything I would dare to write.”
In a letter to Michael Straight (editor of New Republic magazine), Tolkien spoke of Gandalf as an “incarnate” being who died and came back to life. Knowing that statement would allude to the Gospel itself, he immediately qualified the connection by stating that Christ’s Incarnation “is an infinitely greater thing than anything I would dare to write”. In saying this, Tolkien only says what dozens of great Christian writers have said for centuries: the mystery of the Incarnation contains unimaginable riches, for it has brought heaven into a broken world, and brought Eternal Love close to broken human beings. Coming from one of the greatest imaginations in human history, this is a startling admission. Tolkien bows the knee to the Incarnation not only as a Christian (in its truth), but also as an artist (in its beauty and glory).
“The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history.”
In the Epilogue to his literary essay “On Fairy-stories”, Tolkien gets mystical. He transitions from addressing the nature of fantastical stories to speaking of the factual history of mankind in terms of a story. Tolkien asserts that history’s eucatastrophe (which is fancy Tolkien-speak for “happy turning point”) is the Birth of Christ. In other words, according to Tolkien, the Incarnation has changed the game. Before the coming of Christ, mankind was shrouded in existential darkness. After His coming, a new era has dawned. And that’s all based on what he says next…
“The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation.”
The Incarnation is not only the turning point of human history, but it is a story itself, with its own turning point. The idea that God would become a man in order to show His love for mankind is a powerful one in and of itself. The idea that He would go so far as to suffer a gruesome death for the sake of our redemption is even more profound. And the happy turning point of that story – the Resurrection – is the reason mankind can stand up with steadfast hope in the face of evil and death. Hope – a certain hope – has dawned upon a world shrouded in darkness.
Tolkien’s point in all this is to identify the story of the Incarnation as the central story, the story from which all other stories (especially the stories of our lives) take their vitality and meaning. When we view our lives (and the whole story of mankind) in this light, it can’t help but change how we view everything.
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 take a close look at the background of Gandalf and his wizard brethren, the Istari. 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!
Thus Gandalf faced and suffered death; and came back or was sent back, as he says, with enhanced power. But though one may be in this reminded of the Gospels, it is not really the same thing at all. The Incarnation of God is an infinitely greater thing than anything I would dare to write. Here I am only concerned with Death as part of nature, physical and spiritual, of Man, and with Hope without guarantees.
Especially in his letters, Tolkien could be frustratingly indistinct concerning the line between his religious beliefs and his secondary world.
In preparing for episode 70 of The Tolkien Road (Concerning Gandalf & the Istari), I spent some time with Tolkien’s letters on Gandalf. This passage struck me (and Greta) as a strange one. While it seems clear from this passage that Tolkien draws a line between Gandalf’s (Olórin the Maiar) incarnation and the Christian belief in the Incarnation of God, it’s not entirely clear what he means when he claims to be concerned only with “Death as part of nature” and “Hope without guarantees.”
As I thought about it more though, I realized that this is actually a powerful illustration of how Tolkien worked his religious belief into the very fabric of Middle-earth. After all, Tolkien is elsewhere explicit that he intends (or grew to see) his subcreated Cosmogony as a sort of mythological pre-history of OUR reality (consider, for example, the significance of March 25th). And thus it’s key that we understand “Death as part of nature” and “Hope without guarantees” in the light of Tolkien’s Christianity. For Tolkien, Christian Hope is a sure thing, a guarantee. Christ’s resurrection (as Tolkien explains at the end of On Fairy-stories) is the central eucatastrophe of history, the definitive triumph over death and evil.
Thus, since in Tolkien’s mythology Gandalf lived before the time of Christ, he had only a dim hope in the face of death. He may have hoped, in sacrificing himself, that good would ultimately triumph over evil, but he had no guarantee that it would. To put it in the psalmist’s terms, “Yea, though I walk thru the valley of the shadow of death, I know not if my cause will triumph nor if Thou art with me.” Thus, Gandalf’s hope and death represent the hope and death of the virtuous, pre-Christian pagan.
The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval.
– Tolkien, ‘On Fairy Stories’, lecture delivered in 1939
On the surface, the meaning of the above quotation appears straightforward: humans have always used language to tell stories to one another. But why, in the expression of this idea, do we find the noun ‘mind’ modified by the unexpected adjective ‘incarnate’? My attempt to answer this question generated the following reflections on the foundations of Middle-earth.
First, the adjective itself. The Oxford English Dictionary gives two definitions of incarnate: (1) a god or a spirit in human form, and (2) a quality in physical form. The OED also provides general and particular definitions of the corresponding noun: the lower case incarnation: the living embodiment of a god, spirit, or quality; and the upper case Incarnation: the Christian belief that God the Son was embodied in human flesh as Jesus.
As a devout Catholic, the Incarnation (upper case) was for Tolkien an article of faith, a profound historical fact of the primary world. This provides an initial answer: Tolkien’s reference to the human mind as ‘incarnate’ invokes the idea that humans, as embodied souls, are made in the image of the Incarnate Divinity. As such, Tolkien can be seen pointing to the bold conclusion arrived at by the end of the passage in which our quotation appears, namely, that in making-up fairy stories humans imitate the creative activity of God:
But how powerful… was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faërie is more potent… When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power… in such ‘fantasy’, as it is called, new form is made; Faërie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.
Such imitation, it is important to note, occurs in means as well as ends: language is the instrument of both (divine) creation and (human) sub-creation.
And God said: ‘Let there be light’. And there was light… And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day. (Genesis 3, 5).
Yet the role of language in sub-creation as explained by Tolkien does not exactly mirror the linguistic dimension of God’s creative work as described in Genesis. In creating first light and then time, God employs no adjectives. In emphasizing the adjective as the key to sub-creation, Tolkien’s ‘On Fairy Stories’ reveals what we might call an ‘incarnationalist theory of language’.
The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalisation and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things… but sees that it is green as well as being grass… The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water. (‘OFS’ 41)
For sure, abstracting and remixing adjectival qualities is not an exercise in incarnation. The projecting of a novel quality (say, blue) onto a noun (say, the moon) to form an image (of a blue moon) occurs on a purely mental and linguistic level – a “new form is made”, as Tolkien puts it, not a new thing, let alone the embodiment of spirit in living flesh.
Nevertheless, the making of imaginary form is structurally similar to the Divine act of incarnation. This is because the objects given to us by language possess the same dual nature as the incarnate spirit: a concrete object (noun) possesses abstract qualities (adjectives). The speakers of human language engage in fantasy by putting novel qualities into different linguistic objects. Put another way, the ‘incarnate mind’ is an actual instance in the world of the same dual form – the fusion of concrete and abstract – that is given to us generally in language. Indeed, it is tempting to see the incarnate mind as the anchor in reality of our linguistic practice.
We can now answer our original question. Invoking the ‘incarnate mind’ at the start of his explanation of fantasy, Tolkien points not only to the maker of fantasy but also to its very nature: a linguistic process whereby an embodied soul creates a secondary world by embodying unexpected qualities in imaginary objects.
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A careful reading of the quotations from this single passage in ‘On Fairy Stories’ suggests a further, complementary train of reflection. Our initial sentence identified stories and language as coeval. But Tolkien goes on to speak of the invention of the adjective, suggesting that such modifiers were a later discovery of the human mind. Could it be that this invention was of more than linguistic significance? Did the discovery of the dual nature of linguistic objects also provide illumination into the mysterious nature of reality?
In his famous letter to Milton Waldman (circa 1951), Tolkien wrote:
I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth,’ and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear (Letters, letter 131).
The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation is generally absent from Arda (although it is clearly alluded to as an ‘Old Hope’ of mortal men in Tolkien’s late dialogue, the ‘Athrabeth’). Yet the general idea of the embodiment of spiritual power in material objects is a recurring theme in Tolkien’s mythology.
In the very first pages of The Silmarillion we are told how the world was first made by music, then appeared as a vision, and then came into being with the speaking of a word. Yet this created world only “came alive” when some of the Ainur descend into it: “so that they are its life and it is theirs. And therefore they are named the Valar, the Powers of the World”.
This incarnation of the Valar in the world is not some incidental detail of Tolkien’s creation story. It is the reason why Arda – in contrast to the mechanistic world envisaged by Newtonian science – is alive, enchanting, and purposeful.
Incidentally, I suspect that we here discern the reason why Saruman’s ambitions are bound to fail. Of this treacherous wizard, Treebeard tells Merry and Pippin:
He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels…
In our modern world, machines are purely physical means of generating and utilizing power. But a true Power in Middle-earth draws on a spiritual force that Saruman loses even as he builds in Isengard the superficial appearance of industrial and military power.
Further acts of incarnation – or, at least, the embodiment of the spiritual within a material object – provide the defining moments of Tolkien’s mythology. Fëanor embodies the spiritual light of the Valar in physical form – the Silmarils. And long ages later, Galadriel places the light from one of these Silmarils in a phial that she gives to Frodo, who, together with Sam, carries it all the way to Mordor.
Again, Sauron puts much of his own power into the Ring – a seemingly inanimate object with a will of its own. Here is a useful reminder that not all incarnations in Arda are good. Morgoth was one of the Valar incarnated in the world, which is why more than one power strives to shape the fate of Middle-earth.
There was more than one power at work, Frodo. The Ring was trying to get back to its master… I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker…
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Our reflections upon Tolkien’s reference to the ‘incarnate mind’ in his 1939 lecture on ‘Fairy Stories’ have led us to the following tentative conclusions concerning the foundations of Middle-earth.
The central fact of Tolkien’s worldview was, undoubtedly, the Incarnation: the Christian doctrine that the Word was made flesh. This fact has no direct bearing on either the form or the content of Tolkien’s mythology, which concerns a world that has not received the Gospels.
Indirectly, however, it is of cardinal importance.
Arda is a mythological world that does not know the Incarnation, but which is largely made of the discovered ‘truth’ of incarnation.
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Simon J. Cook is an independent scholar. His essay on Tolkien’s lost English mythology is published by Rounded Globe and may be downloaded from the Rounded Globe website. Links to his other publications may be found on his personal website, Ye Machine.
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.