Myth connects us to those of the past and to those of the future. Through myth, we grasp the continuity of all of God’s Creations, of all of the soldiers in the Army of Christ: those who came before Him to prepare the way, those who fought beside Him during his 33 years on earth, and those who came and come after Him to do His Will against the Enemy, even unto death. “Behind all these things is the fact that beauty and terror are very real things and related to a real spiritual world,” Chesterton wrote in 1925 in the chapter on myth in The Everlasting Man. “To touch them at all, even in doubt or fancy, is to stir the deep things of the soul.” Myth, then, leads us to beauty, which leads us to truth. Truth leads us to the Good of the One, the Creator of time, space, and all things, who sent His only Son to redeem the world.
”Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours,” Samwise says in The Lord of the Rings, as he and Frodo reluctantly follow Gollum to the stairs of Cirith Ungol, entering Mordor. Sam, looking at the light of the Phial from Galadriel, realizes that the quest to destroy the Ring is a continuation of the story of The Silmarillion, a story that took place thousands of years prior to his own War of the Ring. “You’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s still going.”
When a rider from Rohan encounters Aragorn, the future king, for the first time, a similar conversation ensues. After a mention of a Halfling, the rider exclaims: “Halflings! But they are only a little people in old songs and children’s tales out of the North. Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?” Unmoved, Aragorn responds: “A man may do both. For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!” Little difference, Tolkien’s characters state, exists between history and myth, or between the historian and the minstrel. Indeed, the minstrel may understand the complexities of life far more than the historian, trapped in his archives and specialized, cramped world.
In the summer of 1972, a little more than a year before his death, Tolkien requested that his recently deceased wife’s gravestone read: “Edith Mary Tolkien, 1889–1971, Lúthien.” His gravestone would bear the name of “Beren.” One of the central figures of The Silmarillion and much of the History of Middle-earth, Lúthien is a beautiful Elven woman who renounces her earthly immortality to spend a “heavenly” eternity with her true love, and who devotes her intellect and even her physical prowess to helping her beloved. She and her lover, Beren, work as a perfect team, resisting her skeptical and taunting father as well as Morgoth, the mythological equivalent of Lucifer. Tellingly, as his wife’s gravestone suggests, Tolkien viewed his wife in both historical and mythological terms. Indeed, the Edith of her teens and twenties had served as the inspiration for Lúthien. Tolkien mythologized nearly everything in his life. “I shall never write any ordered biography,” Tolkien explained to his son Christopher, for “it is against my nature, which expresses itself about things deepest felt in tales and myths.” For Tolkien, mystery surrounds us. But modernity has deformed our perception of this reality. His mythologizing of the world, Tolkien believed, increased our ability to see the beauty and sacramentality of creation. It also allowed ideas and loves to transcend time and space. In essence, Tolkien’s mind remained complexly medieval and oriented toward myth and mystery.
Tolkien wrestled with the concept, meaning, and execution of myth throughout his adult life, as well as for a significant number of years during his childhood. More than anything else, his love of myth provided a bridge between his academic and fictional work. “I am a philologist and all my work is philological. I avoid hobbies because I am a very serious person and cannot distinguish between private amusement and duty,” Tolkien wrote Harvey Breit of the New York Times Book Review. “I only work for private amusement, since I find my duties privately amusing.” One of Tolkien’s students, Anthony Curtis, noted that Tolkien “spoke without any self-consciousness of a set of events which in his mind seemed to exist with as much reality as the French Revolution or the Second World War.”
Indeed, for Tolkien as a Christian Humanist, myths expressed far greater truths than did historical facts or events. Sanctified myths, inspired by grace, served as an anamnesis, or a way for a people to recall encounters with transcendence that had helped to order their souls and their society. Myth, inherited or created, could also offer a “sudden glimpse of Truth,” that is, a brief view of heaven. At the very least, sanctified myth revealed the life humans were meant to have prior to the Fall.
When Sam asks if “the great tales never end?” Frodo replies no, “but the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended. Our part will end later—or sooner.” Tolkien’s world of myth comes before our world of history, and his tale—because it is linked with our tale, the tale of a fallen world—never truly ends, until the Apocalypse. Indeed, myth and history are not in opposition—but are tied together. The historian Christopher Dawson explained the connection in his own life. “The old road [of myth] which carries us back not merely for centuries but for thousands of years; the road by which every people has traveled and from which the beginnings of every literature have come.” One cannot, it seems, separate men from myths. The man “who has no sympathy with myths,” Chesterton wrote, “has no sympathy with men.” Just as men are born into authority and community; they are also born into myth, and may, if blessed, become a part of it.
Although its origins are unclear, it does seem that Tolkien constructed much of his initial mythology, and committed it to paper, during World War I. Distraught by the mechanized, dehumanized warfare of the trenches, and admittedly a poor, undisciplined officer, Tolkien conceived The Silmarillion in “grimy canteens, at lectures in cold fogs, in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire.” Outlining it provided a sense of relief, and the budding mythology served as a catharsis. “I sense amongst all your pains (some merely physical) the desire to express your feeling about good, evil, fair, foul in some way: to rationalize it, and prevent it just festering,” he wrote Christopher, then serving as an R.A.F. pilot during World War II. “In my case it generated Morgoth” and The Silmarillion. In his famous academic essay, “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien admitted that war “quickened to full life” his love of fairy stories. Christopher Tolkien confirms that extant pieces of The Silmarillion and the larger mythology appear on the back of official army documents dating from the war.
Tolkien wrote in 1964 that the parameters of his mythology had been set by 1926. To him, the writings that followed constituted further understandings, revelations, and manifestations of the mythology as Tolkien began to understand it better, including the tales of Arda and Middle-earth. “They arose in my mind as ‘given’ things, and as they came, separately, so too the links grew,” Tolkien wrote. “An absorbing, though continually interrupted labour (especially, even apart from the necessities of life, since the mind would wing to the other pole and spread itself on the linguistics): yet always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there’, somewhere: not of ‘inventing.’” In his fascinating study of Tolkien, The Road to Middle-earth, T. A. Shippey notes that “invention” originally derives from Latin, meaning “to discover.” Philologists, of which Tolkien was one by profession, often see themselves as true historians, uncovering the deepest meanings of a culture. Still, Tolkien strongly implied in interviews and letters that his “discovery” was as much theological as it was linguistic.
Even if one accepts the premise that Tolkien “received” his mythology as a form of revelation, Tolkien’s own vast knowledge of Germanic, Roman, Greek, and even North American mythology greatly informed it. Tolkien had a profound grasp of the literature of northern European mythology in particular. The Icelandic Poetic Edda, the Finnish Kalevala, various Anglo-Saxon poetry, George MacDonald, and G. K. Chesterton served as the most obvious influences, directly or indirectly, on Tolkien’s legendarium. But there were other influences, some not so immediately obvious. “[H]e used to have the most extraordinary interest in the people here in Kentucky,” Allen Barnett, a Kentuckian and former Oxford classmate of Tolkien’s said. “He could never get enough of my tales of Kentucky folk. He used to make me repeat family names like Barefoot and Boffin and Baggins and good country names like that.” The New York frontier also influenced the Oxford philologist; Shippey notes that Tolkien borrowed much from James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, especially in his descriptions of the Riders of Rohan.
Tolkien kept his mythology private until he met C. S. Lewis in the mid-1920s. Only his family and a research assistant knew anything about it. As we saw in chapter 1, Lewis responded enthusiastically to his colleague’s private world. “I sat up late last night and have read the Geste as far as to where Beren and his gnomish allies defeat the patrol of orcs above the sources of the Narog and disguise themselves,” Lewis wrote to Tolkien in 1929. “I can quite honestly say that it is ages since I have had an evening of such delight.” According to a friend, Lewis “was aghast. This was the sort of writing which he would not have dared to believe could exist.” By 1930, Tolkien had shared much of his mythology—the poems, prose stories, and maps—with Lewis. Once Lewis converted to Christianity, in no small part due to Tolkien’s influence, he specifically admired Tolkien’s mythology for its Christian essence. Much to Tolkien’s chagrin, Lewis even used the Middle-earth mythology as a background for several of his own stories, including the Space Trilogy and even parts of the Chronicles of Narnia. Throughout his life, Lewis played a prominent role in the development of Tolkien’s mythology, always showing enthusiasm for the project and encouraging Tolkien to publish it. Indeed, Lewis never understood Tolkien’s reluctance to see his mythology in print and blamed it on his colleague’s perfectionism. Tolkien admitted as much. “Only from [Lewis] did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby,” Tolkien acknowledged in 1965, two years after his friend’s death. “But for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more I should never have brought The L. of the R. to a conclusion.”
One of the best ways to approach Tolkien’s understanding of myth is to understand Tolkien’s understanding of the Beowulf Poet. Indeed, Tolkien’s examination of Beowulf has become a standard argument in the field of Beowulf criticism, and Anglo-Saxon scholars and critics typically either agree with it or abhor it. For Tolkien, the poem of Beowulf represented one of the great moments in western history, and he had almost committed to memory the entire poem. Shippey claims that Tolkien believed he understood the Beowulf poet intimately, as they were kindred spirits, separated only by time. Whatever the reason may be, numerous scholars give Tolkien great praise for his arguments on the medieval poem. In the introduction to his translation of Beowulf, for example, poet Seamus Heaney argues that Tolkien’s essay is the “one publication that stands out. . . . Tolkien’s brilliant literary treatment changed the way the poem was valued and initiated a new era–and new terms–of appreciation.” Beowulf, Tolkien argued, remains as important for the historian and the theologian as for the English teacher. Two things should immediately prove this, he thought. First, the story contains a dragon. Rarely in literature does one find them. Contrary to our popular memory of legends, no “wilderness of dragons” abounded in medieval literature. Instead, when such a bestial worm does present itself, the critic should take its significance to the story and its symbolism seriously. The appearance of a dragon signifies a number of things–each of them fundamentally evil. A dragon, according to Tolkien, personifies “malice, greed, [and] destruction.” Too often, Tolkien noted, dragons embarrass the modern critic as simply “unfashionable,” and they dismiss any literature containing one as juvenile and unworthy of serious study. Such critics, many being the same who would dismiss Tolkien’s own mythology as the poorly directed efforts and wasted time of an Oxford scholar, dismiss the monsters of the Beowulf story as merely “sad mistake[s].”
Beowulf’s greatest strength, Tolkien believed, lay in the author’s understanding that the theme should be implicit rather than explicit. According to Tolkien, the Beowulf poet wisely avoided a formal allegory and created his setting as “incarnate in the world of history and geography.” Unless highly cautious, Tolkien continued, the author could have easily destroyed the poetry and significance by making the meaning too explicit. Instead, the anonymous author bravely set the mortal hero in the “hostile world” to be destroyed within time, thereby intermixing legend and history. Indeed, mortality in the fallen state of sin represents one of the most important themes of Beowulf.
For Tolkien, the Beowulf poet beautifully intertwined pagan virtues with Christian theology. The anonymous author most likely lived at the time Christianity was slowly spreading throughout England. Most certainly a Christian, the author used the poem to demonstrate that not all pagan things should be dismissed by the new culture. Instead, the Christian should embrace and sanctify the most noble virtues to come out of the northern pagan mind: courage and raw will. “It is the strength of the northern mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the centre, gave them victory but no honour, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage,” Tolkien wrote. “The northern [imagination] has power, as it were, to revive its spirit even in our own times.” Tolkien thought that a vigorous Christianity needed that northern pagan myth spirit to make it stronger. The German-Italian theologian Romano Guardini argued along the same lines.
Deeply significant for the new religious outlook of medieval man was the influx of the Germanic spirit. The religious bent of the Nordic myths, the restlessness of the migrating peoples and the armed marches of the Germanic tribes revealed a new spirit which burst everywhere into history like a spear thrust into the infinite. This mobile and nervous soul worked itself into the Christian affirmation. There it grew mightily. In its fullness it produced that immense medieval drive which aimed at cracking the boundaries of the world.
For the Christian, though, Grace, Mercy, and Love replace raw self-directed will as the motive power of the world.
Tolkien’s belief that the best of the pagan world should be sanctified reflects St. Augustine’s thinking. In his “On Christian Duty,” St. Augustine wrote, “[If philosophers] have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it.” In much of the City of God, St. Augustine uses Cicero and Plato to support his argument that a thriving Christianity was compatible with a stable post-Roman world. For his example in “On Christian Duties,” St. Augustine referred to the Jewish acquisition of Egyptian gold, silver, and garments as the Hebrews departed for the promised land. Augustine justifies Hebrew actions by noting that the Egyptians failed to use God’s gifts properly. Further, “human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life–we must take and turn to a Christian use.”
Clement of Alexandria, living in the late second and early third centuries, presaged Augustine’s argument. Pre-Christian faiths, he argued in Miscellanies, served as a “preparatory teaching for those who [would] later embrace the faith.” Additionally, he speculated that philosophy was given to the Greeks as an introduction to Christianity. For philosophy, Clement concluded, “acted as a schoolmaster to the Greeks, preparing them for Christ, as the laws of the Jews prepared them for Christ.” That is, Plato and Aristotle served to prepare the way for Christianity in a manner similar to the way Abraham and Moses had.
For Tolkien, the anonymous author of Beowulf followed Clement’s and Augustine’s advice, appropriating the best of pagan culture and sanctifying it as Christian, the project of the Christian Humanist—to show the continuity of time and space, sanctified by the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of the Logos. Clement and St. Augustine were both responding to Tertullian’s famous question: “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” In Anglo-Saxon England, a variant of this question was asked, with reference to the “Christianity” of Beowulf: “What has Ingeld to do with Christ?” But truth, Clement, St. Augustine, Tolkien, and Lewis would argue, belongs to God, whether codified in scripture or nature or even within elements of paganism. With the creation of the world, the natural law reveals much, though certainly not as much as direct revelation. And, by being the Author of all society and the plethora of cults/cultures, God placed a part of His Truth in each culture. Therefore, as each non-Christian culture encounters Christianity, it has some piece of the larger truth, allowing it to accept the full Truth of Christ’s Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection. By writing or recording his mythology, Tolkien followed the same practice, the true art of the Christian Humanist, appropriating northern myth and baptizing it. As typical, Lewis put it more succinctly than Tolkien: “Paganism does not merely survive but first really becomes itself in the v[ery] heart of Christianity.”
With the Beowulf poet, Tolkien believed that the sanctification of the pagan was a lifelong project for any Christian. He dealt with it often in his personal life. To illustrate such a sanctification in an everyday situation, Tolkien once found a celandine flower while on a walk in the woods with his good friend, George Sayer. He pointed to it and stated to Sayer, “Did you know that when picking celandine various combinations of Aves and Paternosters have to be said? This was one of the many cases of Christian prayers supplanting pagan ones, for in ancient times there were runes to be spoken before it was picked.” Such sanctifications must occur in every Christian’s life as a part of one’s existence and duty, as one of our missions as citizens of the City of God while pilgrims in the City of Man is to bring all things to Christ.
One only has to think of the example of an intrepid early medieval saint such as Boniface of Crediton. His story claims that while evangelizing the pagan Germanic tribes in north central Europe, he encountered a tribe that worshiped a large oak tree. To demonstrate the power of Christ as the True God, Boniface cut down the oak, much to the dismay of the tribe. Rather than the pagan gods striking down St. Boniface for his crimes against their tree, an evergreen sprang up on the same spot. So that Boniface could continue preaching to the astounded pagans, his followers placed candles on the newly grown evergreen, and, hence, it became the first Christmas Tree. Whether true in fact or not (and it cannot be true in fact, of course, as it cannot be explained or replicated; a miracle, after all, requires “the suspension of the Natural Law”), Christians repeated the story of “sanctifying the pagan site” in a multitude of ways during conversions in Europe and throughout the world. Other examples of sanctification include the holidays of Christmas and Easter being placed on high pagan holidays; St. Paul’s attempt to convert the Athenians with their statue of the “Unknown God”; St. Augustine’s sanctification of Plato and Cicero; St. Aquinas’s sanctification of Aristotle; and even the Catholic monks who built their monastery on top of the highest mound/temple in Cahokia, Illinois, the former site of the priest-king of a vast Indian Empire. Indeed, churches throughout Europe and North American sit on formerly sacred pagan sites. They, in essence, baptize the corrupt ground, just as Augustine and Aquinas baptized pagan ideas. As St. Paul told the Ephesians, they must “redeem the time.”
On another level, though, the baptism or sanctification of the pagan reflects the baptism and sanctification of the self. Like the former pagan sites, the Christian person too goes through a process of being lost, baptized, and sanctified. One is reminded of the disciples on Easter morning. The two women who find His tomb empty experience bewilderment. At their encounter with the risen Christ, they are overwhelmed with surprise and then, upon understanding, joy. The story of Easter morning serves as an allegory for all baptism or sanctification. It is mythical in that it reaches the depths of our being; it tells us truth, and no factual science could ever repeat the death and resurrection of Christ. Or, for that matter, any of the Christian mysteries. But, humans themselves—because of the Incarnation—are part of the Christ story. Tolkien once described each human person as “an allegory, embodying in a particular tale and clothed in the garments of time and place, universal truth and everlasting life.”
Still, as a devout Christian, Tolkien also understood that the divine revelation is always superior to the natural law. As St. Thomas Aquinas argued in chapter three of Summa Contra Gentiles, “For certain things that are true about God wholly surpass the capability of human reason, for instance that God is three and one: while there are certain things to which even natural reason can attain, for instance that God is, that God is one, and others like these, which even the philosophers proved demonstratively of God, being guided by the light of natural reason.” Tolkien’s mythology, though, is pre-Christian, and, therefore, prior to the full revelation of the Trinity. Tolkien noted that the Hobbits, for example, bear similarity to the ancient and virtuous monotheists, understanding “natural theology” implicitly.
With the arrival and acceptance of Christianity, Tolkien asserted, the understanding of the nature of “the good” changes, but the nature of evil remains the same:
For the monsters do not depart, whether the gods go or come. A Christian was (and is) still like his forefathers a mortal hemmed in a hostile world. The monsters remained the enemies of mankind, the infantry of the old war, and became inevitably the enemies of the one God.
The true battle remains, as always throughout time and space, the struggle between “the soul and its adversaries.” As Beowulf discovers, Tolkien wrote, “the wages of heroism [Christian or Pagan] is death.” Such is God’s will for good men. Christ provided the ultimate example of this, as did His followers, the martyrs of pagan Rome.
Three years later, in 1939, Tolkien delivered the seminal “On Fairy-Stories” in Scotland. At the beginning the essay, Tolkien makes a significant caveat, echoing some of what he said about Beowulf and in interviews regarding his own work.
The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveler who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should shut and the keys be lost.
Fairy stories provide humans with a means to escape the drabness, conformity, and mechanization of modernity. Tolkien warned that this is not the same thing as escaping from reality. We still deal with life and death, comfort and discomfort. We merely escape progressivism and the progressive dream, which reduces all of complex reality to a mere shadow of Creation’s true wonders.
In frustration, C.S. Lewis once asked Tolkien “What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape?” Tolkien answered: “jailers.” Tolkien harbored no love for the progressives–those who would replace God’s vision with man’s visions–whom he considered the modern jailers. Working on the side of God’s enemies, albeit as unwitting atheists, the agents of modernity imprison the soul in the name of liberating the body, only to find that the flesh becomes imprisoned along with the spirit.
Most important, then, fairy stories and fantasy allow one to act as a sub-Creator, an artist made and making in the image of the ultimate Creator, God. God, of course, is the Author of all. We, as fallen humans, act in a Christian fashion when we too create, in His Image and for His Glory alone. The artist should “create as lavishly as possible in his turn,” Lewis wrote. “The romancer, who invents a whole world, is worshipping God more effectively than the mere realist.” As opposed to the progressive who attempts to remake man in man’s image, the true and Godly sub-Creator creates to glorify and reveal the truly beautiful within God’s creation. God’s gift of sub-creation poses both a duty and a right. As Tolkien stated in his poem, “Mythopoeia”: “‘twas our right (used or misused). The right has not decayed. We make still by the law in which we’re made.” Or as St. Paul stated in his letter to the Philippians: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Yet, because we are fallen, restless, and susceptible to pride, Tolkien argued, even well-intentioned Godly men can easily pervert the highest calling and gift that He gives us. In such perversions, fallen man turns art into power, the willingness to control others, the selfish desire to control that which is not ours. Adulterated by sin, the prideful man uses his gifts not for Creation and the glory of the Creator, but for possessiveness or for man’s own exultation. The Elves, especially Fëanor, exemplify this in The Silmarillion. Endowed by Ilúvatar with the “Spirit of Fire,” the greatest of all elves Fëanor creates the three Silmarils, unequaled gems capturing the light of the Two Trees, Telperion and Laurelin. When Morgoth destroys the trees, the angelic powers are left without light. Fëanor’s Silmarils, though, may hold the key, as they contain the holy light. Possessive of his sub-creation, even though they contain a light beyond his ability to create, Fëanor refuses to give them to the angelic regents of earth. He then leaves the Blessed Realm, pursuing Morgoth who has now tragically stolen the gems. The feud between Morgoth and Fëanor and his family over things that neither could create nor rightly possess will shape the entire history of Middle-earth.
With such religious implications and significance in its artistry, Tolkien concluded, the best fairy story and sub-creation provides the reader with what Tolkien labeled the eucatastrophe, the unexpected joy. In it, one gains a “fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world.” Such evangelium rarely happens in our fallen world. When it does, one must be content with it, for it will most likely not occur again in one’s lifetime. The ultimate fairy story, or true myth, then, is the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ. “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,” Tolkien wrote. “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact,” C.S. Lewis argued along Tolkienian lines. “The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.” With the Incarnation of Christ, “art has been verified,” Tolkien claimed. “God is the Lord, of angels, and of men–and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused” with the arrival of God in Time, and man has been blessed beyond earthly comprehension.
The Gospel contains 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. . . . To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.
What then, should we do with the gift of Beauty? There is only one answer. We must use it for glorification of God and His Church. Indeed, beauty moves us to do the right thing, as it corresponds to the Christian virtue of hope. St. Paul assures us, that when we trust in Christ, there is always hope, no matter what ravages the world brings. Chesterton, who served as a significant source of inspiration to a much younger Tolkien, once explained myth in a way that only Chesterton was capable of:
But imaginative does not mean imaginary. It does not follow that it is all what the moderns call subjective, when they mean false. Every true artist does feel, consciously or unconsciously, that he is touching transcendental truths; that his images of shadows of things seen through the veil. In other words, the natural mystic does not know that there is something there; something behind the clouds or within the trees; but he believes that the pursuit of beauty is the way to find it; that imagination is a sort of incantation that can call it up.
Ultimately for Chesterton, true beauty is that which venerates or reflects the Creator. And, by our love of Him, we find our virtues. Again Chesterton, from Orthodoxy: “Morality did not begin by one man saying to another, ‘I will not hit you if you do not hit me’; there is no trace of such a transaction. There is a trace of both men having said, ‘We must not hit each other in the holy place.’ They gained their morality by guarding their religion. They did not cultivate courage. They fought for the shrine and found they had become courageous.”
Deep in Mordor, “Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.” Sam saw beauty; the beauty of the white star demonstrated for him the permanence of goodness, and he fought for the truth of the One, the One who created all things and allows us the privilege of being actors in His Story.
Throughout The Lord of the Rings, Sam is given many such visions: visions of eucatastrophe, visions that allow him to embrace and inculcate hope and fortitude. And, that such visions are given to Sam, should not surprise us. He is, after all, the true hero of the story. Sam begins the trilogy appearing to be merely a simpleton. Yet, Graces flow to Sam as he proves to have one virtue in spades: the virtue of loyalty. He is Wiglaf to Beowulf, Sir Gawain to King Arthur, St. John to Jesus, the only one of the twelve to stand with his Lord at the Cross. “He not only felt freer when he bent; he actually felt taller when he bowed,” Chesterton wrote, describing Christian freedom as St. Paul taught in his letter the Galatians. Though Sam would much prefer living the good life as all Hobbits desire—a good beer, a good smoke, a well-tended garden, the company of friends and wife, and fathering a large family—he knows that only if Frodo’s task is accomplished will the Hobbits of the Shire live in peace. Like a good citizen-republican, Sam puts down his plow, picks up his sword, fights the good fight, and returns to hearth, to home, to Rosie, to his garden. Ultimately for Tolkien, as with Chesterton and St. Paul, the truest heroism, then, stems from “obedience and love not of pride or wilfulness.” This remains true in ordinary as well as in extraordinary life. When Sam contemplates life as the Lord of the Ring, he envisions making the world into a vast beautiful garden, but then decides against it: it would be too much to tend!
And, Sam is well rewarded for his virtues of humility and loyalty: with the good life, life as it is meant to be. In fact, God has blessed he and Rosie with a whole parcel of children. And, most likely, a number of children have yet to arrive. “Regular ragtag and bobtail,” Sam says of his children, “old Saruman would have called it.” Evil sees children merely as obstacles. Sam wisely knows they are essential for the good life. Sam also notes that while Frodo received proper acclaim for his deeds, he himself has “had lots of treasures.” When King Aragorn writes Sam a letter, almost twenty years after the destruction of the Ring, he translates Sam’s name in Elvish not properly as “Half-wise,” but instead as “Plain-wise” or “Full-wise,” reflecting Sam’s significant growth during and after the quest to destroy the ring. As Aragorn’s letter reveals, Sam has grown from the silly Hobbit arguing with Ted Sandyman in the pub to a wise and virtuous statesman. Perhaps, most important, his many children treat him with immense love and respect, respecting his authority as father. When Sam speaks, Tolkien wrote, his children respond to him “as hobbit-children of other times had watched the wizard Gandalf.” Indeed, the adult Samwise carries the authority of an incarnate angel.
We should cherish the moments of hope, of beauty, of eucatastrophe, the true joy, of truth, of the One who made all things in His Image. They carry us through the inevitable dark times. No more powerful words can be found than those of Chesterton, in his epic, Ballad of the White Horse, often regarded as the rallying cry for all Christian Humanists, and a significant influence on the young Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.
The Men of the East may search the scrolls, For sure fates and fame,
But the men that drink the blood of God Go Singing to their shame
The wise men know what wicked things are written on the sky,
They trim sad Lamps, they touch sad strings,
Heaving the heavy purple wings,
Where the forgotten seraph kings Still plot how God shall die.
Out of the mouth of the Mother of God like a little word come I;
For I go gather Christian men from sunken paving and ford and fen,
To die in battle, God knows when, By God, but I know why.
And this is the word of Mary, The word of the world’s desire:
“No more of comfort shall ye get,
Save that the sky grows darker yet and the sea rises higher.”
Then silence sank.
The hope that Sam lives by, like the hope of King Alfred in Chesterton’s Ballad, should be the hope of any Christian. He may die, but if he does, it will be for the right reasons. It will be for the purpose of God—Who alone knows why. “This present life here below,” the great twentieth-century Christian Humanist, Russell Kirk, wrote in his autobiography, “is an ephemeral existence, precarious, as in an arena rather than upon a stage: some men are meant to be gladiators or knights-errant, not mere strolling players. Swords drawn, they stand on a darkling plain against all comers and all odds; how well they bear themselves in the mortal struggle will determine in what condition they shall put on incorruption.”
Sam’s hope is the hope that springs forth from the Grace imparted by the Incarnation, the Death, and the Resurrection of Christ. It is the hope that reminds us that the baptized must sanctify the world and “redeem the time” as St. Paul commanded. It is the hope that reminds us that God makes nothing in vain, and that Grace and Grace alone perfects fallen nature. It is the hope that each one of us is born in a certain time, and a certain place, for a certain purpose, or purposes. It is the hope that reminds us that we mean something, that God loves us so much that He blessed us by making us a part of His Story: the story that began when the Blessed Trinity spoke the Universe into Existence, when The Father sent His only Son to live with us for 33 years, fully God and fully man, to teach and then to suffer and die on a piece of Wood, betrayed by even his closest friends. But, St. John remained, and from the cross, Jesus turned to His Mother, and said, “Behold your son.” It is the hope that comes after three days of anxiety, frustration, despair, as the women at the tomb understood that Christ conquered Death, ransoming us from sin for no other reason than Love. Indeed, it is the hope that all things are created and animated by the Love of the Holy Spirit. It, not the Ring—not worldly power—is the greatest force in the Universe. Even Sam, the mythical Hobbit living in a pre-Christian world, the land between heaven and hell, this Middle-earth, understood that. And, so should we.
When asked about the meaning of life, Tolkien did not mince words:
[T]he chief purpose of life, for any one of us, is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. To do as we say in the Gloria in Excelsis . . . . We praise you, we call you holy, we worship you, we proclaim your glory, we thank you for the greatness of your splendour. And in moments of exaltation we may call on all created things to join in our chorus, speaking on their behalf . . . all mountains and hills, all orchards and forests, all things that creep and birds on the wing.
Tolkien the sub-creator fulfilled his purpose. His nature was to redeem the time through a Christ-inspired and God-centered mythology, a work of art and beauty, to challenge modernity and its vast devastation with enchantment, to provide a glimpse of the True Joy, and to speak for all things: Valar, Maiar, incarnate angels, elves, dwarves, ents, hobbits . . . and even for modern man. Indeed, there is always hope.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
[Dear Imaginative Conservative Reader, this is an essay I wrote on Tolkien but never published. It’s deeply influenced by Stratford Caldecott, Winston Elliott, and Phil Nielsen. I’ve decided to publish it now because Paul E. Kerry has just released an excellent edited collection on Christianity in THE LORD OF THE RINGS entitled THE RING AND THE CROSS (Fairleigh-Dickinson University Press, 2011). A piece I wrote for Paul, “The ‘Last Battle’ as Johannine Ragnorak: Tolkien and the Universal,” appears as the concluding piece of THE RING AND THE CROSS. My chapter originated as a talk I gave in between performances of “The Ring” at the Seattle Opera in August 2005, comparing Tolkien’s understanding of northern mythology with Richard Wagner’s. I hope you enjoy it.]
1. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, 108.
2. Tolkien, The Two Towers, 321.
3. Tolkien, The Two Towers, 37.
4. See, especially, Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Lays of Beleriand (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985), 150-367; and J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), 162-87. See, also, Donald Swann, Swann’s Way: A Life in Song (London: Heinemann, 1991), 208.
5. Carpenter, ed., Letters, 420-21.
6. Tolkien, quoted in Harvey Breit, New York Times Book Review (5 June 1955), 8.
7. Anthony Curtis, “Remembering Tolkien and Lewis,” British Book News (June 1977), 429-30.
8. Carpenter, ed., Letters, 100.
9. Tolkien, The Two Towers, 321.
10. Kilby, Tolkien and the Silmarillion, 43.
11. Scott, Christina. A Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1992, 27
12. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, 109.
13. Carpenter, ed., Letters, 78.
14. Carpenter, ed., Letters, 78.
15. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 135.
16. Christopher Tolkien, The Silmarillion: A Brief Account of the Book and Its Making, 3.
17. Carpenter, ed., Letters, 345.
18. For an excellent discussion of the evolutionary changes from the original Book of Lost Tales, Tolkien’s original title for the Middle-earth mythology, and The Silmarillion, see Christina Scull, “The Development of Tolkien’s Legendarium: Some Threads in the Tapestry of Middle-earth,” in Verlyn Flieger and Carl H. Hostetter, eds., Tolkien’s Legendarium: Essays on The History of Middle-earth (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999), 7. See also, Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 7-8; and Cater, “The Filial Duty of Christopher Tolkien,” 92.
19. Quoted in Carpenter, Tolkien: A Biography, 92. See also, John Lawlor, C.S. Lewis: Memories and Reflections (Dallas, Tex.: Spence, 1998), 35.
20. T.A. Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983), 19.
21. Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth, 22-42, 89.
22. See, for example, J. R. R. Tolkien, “Hobbits,” The London Observer, 20 February 1938; Letters, 31-32, 87, 92, 159, 214, 354, 379-87; Paul H. Kocher, A Reader’s Guide to the Silmarillion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980); and George Burke Johnson, “Poetry of J. R. R. Tolkien,” in The Tolkien Papers: Ten Papers Prepared for the Tolkien Festival at Mankato State College, October 28 and 29, 1966 (Mankato, MN: Mankato State College, 1967), 63-75. On various possible influences, a plethora of secondary writings exist. See, for example, T.A. Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983), the whole thing; Joseph Pearce, Tolkien: Man and Myth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), 15; Gary B. Herbert, “Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil and the Platonic Ring of Gyges,” Extrapolation 26 (Summer 1985): 152-59; James Obertino, “Moria and Hades: Underworld Journeys in Tolkien and Virgil,” Comparative Literature Studies 30 (1993): 153-69; Jonathan B. Himes, “What J. R. R. Tolkien Really Did with the Sampo,” Mythlore 22: 69-85; and C.W. Sullivan III, “Name and Lineage Patterns: Aragorn and Beowulf,” Extrapolation (Fall 1984): 239-46.
23. Guy Davenport, “Hobbits in Kentucky,” New York Times, February 23 1979, A27.
24. Tolkien scholars and followers have arguably gone a bit overboard in their attempt to find every possible influence on their subject. While Tolkien drew upon a number of sources for his greater mythology, he made those sources his own, taking what he needed and, most importantly, sanctifying them by Christianizing them (Carpenter, ed., Letters, 212). Guesses as to influences, Tolkien thought, were a waste of time (Resnick, “An Interview with Tolkien,” Niekas late spring 1966, 2). Only he, and later his son Christopher, held “the key” to it all, he told an interviewer in the mid-1960s (Resnick, “Interview with Tolkien,” 38). Not only did Tolkien think that God directed the mythology and its formation, but Tolkien was intimately and intricately wrapped up in its creation. When a reviewer in 1937 labeled the mythology in an early version of The Silmarillion dark and Celtic, Tolkien responded, “They have bright colour, but are like a broken stained glass window reassembled without design.” It would be hard to find a more apt description for the entire legendarium. Tolkien crafted it from his own life, his own readings, and, as he believed, from God’s inspiration (Carpenter, ed., Letters, 26).
25. Carpenter, ed., Letters, 21.
26. Quoted in J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lays of Beleriand, 150-51.
27. “Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: An Interview with Walter Hooper,” in Joseph Pearce, ed., Tolkien: A Celebration (London, ENG: Fount, 1999), 192.
28. Walter Hooper, ed., The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves (New York: Collier, 1979), 341.
29. W.H. Lewis, ed., Letters of C.S. Lewis (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1993), 376.
30. Lewis, ed., Letters of C.S. Lewis, 426.
31. Lawlor, C.S. Lewis, 40.
32. Carpenter, ed., Letters, 362.
33. On Tolkien’s reputation among scholars of Anglo-Saxon, see, for example, Eileen Battersby, “Lord of the Hobbits,” The Irish Times, 23 December 2000; Malcolm Godden, “From the Heroic,” London Times Literary Supplement, July 8, 1983, pg. 736; Matthew Beard, “Oxford dons call for slaying of Beowulf,” London Daily Telegraph, 22 June 1998; Tom Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), xi; and Charles Moseley, “A Creature of Hobbit,” London Observer (8 October 2000).
34. Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth, 26.
35. Shippey, Road to Middle-earth, 37.
36. Seamus Heaney, Beowulf (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), 11.
37. J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics,” in Lewis E. Nicholson, ed., An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963), 59. Michael O’Brien argues forcefully that whenever a dragon appears in western literature, it represents some manifestation of the devil or his allies. Tolkien most likely would not disagree. See, Michael O’Brien, A Landscape with Dragons: The Battle for Your Child’s Mind (San Francisco, Calif.: Ignatius Press, 1998).
38. Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics,” 66.
39. Tolkien, “Monsters and the Critics,” 64.
40. Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics,” 62.
41. Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics,” 67.
42. Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics,” 78.
43. Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics,” 77.
44. Carpenter, ed., Letters, 56.
45. Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World (1956; Wilmington, Dela.: ISI Books, 1998), 9.
46. St. Augustine of Hippo, “On Christian Doctrine.”
47. Clement of Alexandria, “Miscellanies.”
48. Tertullian, Prescriptions against Heretics.
49. Shippey, Road to Middle-earth, 150.
50. C.S. Lewis, Magdalen, to Dom Bede Griffiths, 1 November 1956, WCWC, CSL Letters to Dom Bede Griffiths, Letter Index 36.
51. Sayers, “Recollections,” 5.
52. Humphrey Carpenter, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), 212.
53. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, chapter 3.
54. Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics,” 72.
55. Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics,” 73.
56. Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics,” 77.
57. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984), 109.
58. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 150; and “J.R.R. Tolkien Dead at 81; Wrote ‘Lord of the Rings,’”Time, 17 September 1973, pg. 101.
59. Lewis and Tolkien quoted in Russell Kirk, Enemies of the Permanent Things: Observations of Abnormality in Literature and Politics (Peru, Ill.: Sherwood Sugden, 1988), pg. 124.
60. John Wain, Sprightly Running, 182.
70. Tolkien, “Mythopoeia,” 99.
71. St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (RSV 4:8)
72. Carpenter, ed., Letters, 146.
73. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 153.
74. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 153.
75. C.S. Lewis, “Myth Became Fact,” in God in the Dock, 66.
76. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 153.
77. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 155-56.
78. G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (1925; San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993), 105.
79. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 70.
80. Tolkien, The Return of the King, 199.
 Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, 112.
 Tolkien, “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhtelm’s Son,” 14.
Tolkien, ed., The End of the Third Age, 115.
Tolkien, ed., The End of the Third Age, 125.
Tolkien, ed., The End of the Third Age, 117.
 Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse, 15-6.
 Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse, 24-5.
 Russell Kirk, The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdman’s, 1995), 475-76.
Carpenter, ed., Letters, 400.