Poor old Pippin and Merry have been captured by the orcs. Separated from their friends, wounded and strapped to the vile creatures for the long run to Isengard, Pippin suddenly feels sorry for himself. He thinks that he should never have left the Shire. He has set off the sounds in Moria that alerted the orcs and awoke the Balrog, and the poor hobbit thinks he has been nothing but a nuisance and an extra piece of baggage. Now he and Merry have been captured and are only causing the fellowship more bother.
As I read, I felt Pippin’s pain. Who hasn’t thought himself as useless from time to time? Who hasn’t seen his best plans fizzle out, his high ambitions came to naught, his passionate loves fall flat, and his creative endeavors falter? Who hasn’t, at one time or another (or maybe most of the time) thought that his life’s adventure has been at best a waste of time, and at worst a waste of everything?
While I feel Pippin’s pain, I have confidence, because like the omniscient one, I know how Lord of the Rings ends. I can see that Pippin and Merry’s capture was no mistake. Their ordeal brings them to Fangorn to meet Treebeard who brings about the downfall of Isengard. All Middle Earth’s a stage and all the men and hobbits merely players. Pippin too had his part to play. There is a greater mind at work. As Gandalf observers, “Bilbo was meant to find the ring,” and Frodo was meant to inherit it. Boromir was meant to attempt to take the ring, and Gollum was spared for some greater reason that could not be seen. Within J.R.R. Tolkien’s complicated plot line, a more subtle and profound providence strums, and that plot line of providence gives the reader confidence, until at the climax of the story the unexpected twist of the plot turns tragedy into triumph.
In his essay on fairy tales Tolkien writes, “The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’… is a sudden and miraculous grace…. It can give to child or man who hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality…. In such stories when the sudden ‘turn’ comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.”
Tolkien says the turn of victory in the story “reflects a glory backwards” so that the whole story is infused with an otherworldly joy and hope. Furthermore, this joyful turning point opens the reader to an apprehension of truth in the largest sense. Tolkien observes, “The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth… in the ‘eucatastrophe’ we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.”
The insight which is gained at an existential level is that this evangelium is the good news that there is a happy ending because there was a happy beginning. In other words, the story has a plot line, and if there is a plot line there is a planner. As Chesterton put it, “I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller.”
Tolkien goes on to trace this essential plot line of providence into the Gospel narrative itself. “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… and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe…. 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.”
The acceptance of the Gospel story is the acknowledgement that the “happy ending” is not simply a fairy-tale wish. It charts the very geography of providence, and outlines the mind and workings of the Almighty. Tolkien encourages, “The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed.”
This gives the despairing Pippin new confidence and hope, so that the spiritual adventurer can know the peace and deep wisdom of Julian of Norwich’s words, “All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.