The Faith of Tolkien

On the advent of the release of the third and final installment of The Hobbit films, and in honor of Advent the greater, I’m amused at the giant story of faith sitting hidden in plain sight in the American culture.  J.R.R. Tolkien was not only a devout Catholic, he was an evangelist.  And his quiet evangelism has shaped a legacy for modern evangelicals in a way that few of us are aware of.  If you, on the other side of this screen, are an evangelical Christian in America or Europe, there’s a pretty good likelihood it’s because of the guy who wrote the Hobbit.  If you hate evangelical Christians in America, you should likewise hate the guy who wrote the Hobbit (troll that you are).

Tolkien describes, in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” the great turn of events that must happen in every Fairy Story for it to legitimately qualify for the genre.  He calls that crisis and redemption a “eucatastrophe.” He writes,

At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.

He then describes how the gospels are a form of Fairy story, though true, and he calls the resurrection of Jesus a eucatastrophe.

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my Tolkersfeeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. 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 pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

Now it’s exactly this kind of thinking that Tolkien shared with his friend C.S. Lewis.  They both worked at Oxford, Tolkien as a professor and Lewis as a tutor.  They gathered together in a pub with friends to drink and read their writings to one another in a group they dubbed The Inklings.  And sometimes they strolled down the Addison walk at Magdalen College together.  On these treks, Tolkien talked to Lewis, then an atheist, about how God wrote himself into his own story in order to bring redemption out of the tragedy of the human condition – the greatest eucatastrophe of all.  Tolkien was influential in bringing Lewis to faith.  Lewis, in turn, encouraged Tolkien to publish his works about hobbits and orcs and dragons.

Most people know what a significant influence Lewis has had on Western European and American society through books like Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and the Chronicles of Narnia.  Lewis was a passionate defender of a propagator of the Christian faith after Tolkien helped him get there.  Most pastors in America have at least dabbled in Lewis, and to this day it is not uncommon to hear him quoted in the Sunday sermon.  His Narnia series alone has sold over 100 million copies, making him one of the most read fiction authors in history.

So the quiet little walks with the evangelical Tolkien created one of the greatest evangelists and Christian authors of the 20th century, one who is still shaping preachers and congregations and readers today.

So as the Hobbit releases this week, Christians should hail this as the great achievement of one of their direct spiritual ancestors.  All the fiery impulse of the good underdog standing up to bullying evil is captured in this Fairy story.  And keeping stories like this alive in our culture will always awaken a moral impulse that makes people wonder at the source of good and evil.  It makes us long for the triumph of good, for the eucatastrophe of our broken world.  Rather than settling for preachy, two-dimensional Christian movies that are painfully overt and poorly written, Christians ought to celebrate works like the Hobbit.  And we ought to call attention to the fact that the literary legacy of one of our most devout is now being fawned over by the movie going public on Saturday night, while his spiritual legacy once-removed is still prodding congregations on Sunday morning.

Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus

Xmasa Christmas essay by C.S. Lewis

And beyond this there lies in the ocean, turned towards the west and north, the island of Niatirb which Hecataeus indeed declares to be the same size and shape as Sicily, but it is larger, though in calling it triangular a man would not miss the mark. It is densely inhabited by men who wear clothes not very different from the other barbarians who occupy the north western parts of Europe though they do not agree with them in language. These islanders, surpassing all the men of whom we know in patience and endurance, use the following customs.

In the middle of winter when fogs and rains most abound they have a great festival which they call Exmas and for fifty days they prepare for it in the fashion I shall describe. First of all, every citizen is obliged to send to each of his friends and relations a square piece of hard paper stamped with a picture, which in their speech is called an Exmas-card. But the pictures represent birds sitting on branches, or trees with a dark green prickly leaf, or else men in such garments as the Niatirbians believe that their ancestors wore two hundred years ago riding in coaches such as their ancestors used, or houses with snow on their roofs. And the Niatirbians are unwilling to say what these pictures have to do with the festival; guarding (as I suppose) some sacred mystery. And because all men must send these cards the marketplace is filled with the crowd of those buying them, so that there is great labour and weariness.

But having bought as many as they suppose to be sufficient, they return to their houses and find there the like cards which others have sent to them. And when they find cards from any to whom they also have sent cards, they throw them away and give thanks to the gods that this labour at least is over for another year. But when they find cards from any to whom they have not sent, then they beat their breasts and wail and utter curses against the sender; and, having sufficiently lamented their misfortune, they put on their boots again and go out into the fog and rain and buy a card for him also. And let this account suffice about Exmas-cards.

They also send gifts to one another, suffering the same things about the gifts as about the cards, or even worse. For every citizen has to guess the value of the gift which every friend will send to him so that he may send one of equal value, whether he can afford it or not. And they buy as gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself. For the sellers, understanding the custom, put forth all kinds of trumpery, and whatever, being useless and ridiculous, they have been unable to sell throughout the year they now sell as an Exmas gift. And though the Niatirbians profess themselves to lack sufficient necessary things, such as metal, leather, wood and paper, yet an incredible quantity of these things is wasted every year, being made into the gifts.

But during these fifty days the oldest, poorest, and most miserable of the citizens put on false beards and red robes and walk about the market-place; being disguised (in my opinion) as Cronos. And the sellers of gifts no less than the purchaser’s become pale and weary, because of the crowds and the fog, so that any man who came into a Niatirbian city at this season would think some great public calamity had fallen on Niatirb. This fifty days of preparation is called in their barbarian speech the Exmas Rush.

But when the day of the festival comes, then most of the citizens, being exhausted with the Rush, lie in bed till noon. But in the evening they eat five times as much supper as on other days and, crowning themselves with crowns of paper, they become intoxicated. And on the day after Exmas they are very grave, being internally disordered by the supper and the drinking and reckoning how much they have spent on gifts and on the wine. For wine is so dear among the Niatirbians that a man must swallow the worth of a talent before he is well intoxicated.

Such, then, are their customs about the Exmas. But the few among the Niatirbians have also a festival, separate and to themselves, called Crissmas, which is on the same day as Exmas. And those who keep Crissmas, doing the opposite to the majority of the Niatirbians, rise early on that day with shining faces and go before sunrise to certain temples where they partake of a sacred feast. And in most of the temples they set out images of a fair woman with a new-born Child on her knees and certain animals and shepherds adoring the Child. (The reason of these images is given in a certain sacred story which I know but do not repeat.)

But I myself conversed with a priest in one of these temples and asked him why they kept Crissmas on the same day as Exmas; for it appeared to me inconvenient. But the priest replied, “It is not lawful, O stranger, for us to change the date of Chrissmas, but would that Zeus would put it into the minds of the Niatirbians to keep Exmas at some other time or not to keep it at all. For Exmas and the Rush distract the minds even of the few from sacred things. And we indeed are glad that men should make merry at Crissmas; but in Exmas there is no merriment left.” And when I asked him why they endured the Rush, he replied, “It is, O Stranger, a racket”; using (as I suppose) the words of some oracle and speaking unintelligibly to me (for a racket is an instrument which the barbarians use in a game called tennis).

But what Hecataeus says, that Exmas and Crissmas are the same, is not credible. For first, the pictures which are stamped on the Exmas-cards have nothing to do with the sacred story which the priests tell about Crissmas. And secondly, the most part of the Niatirbians, not believing the religion of the few, nevertheless send the gifts and cards and participate in the Rush and drink, wearing paper caps. But it is not likely that men, even being barbarians, should suffer so many and great things in honour of a god they do not believe in. And now, enough about Niatirb.

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A Screwtape Letter

My Dear Wormwood,

      It is with great pleasure that I respond to your latest query about vocabulary.  You ask whether or not there isgargoyle1real value in paying close attention to words, and whether or not your patient would just as well come to the same conclusions no matter what words you teach him.

      Clearly, everything hangs on the words.

      I have talked to you of the great use we have made of “Puritan,” destroying the real purity of the concept so that it comes to mean “prude.” You know that we are up all night doing construction on the word “Christian,” hanging on it all sorts of images and attachments that either have nothing to do with the meaning, something equivalent to “nice,” or sliding the impression of the word far away from the majority of the people to whom it actually applies and instead towards the extremists.  Our hope is that they might one day look at any common racist, sexist, hate-monger, and muse to themselves, “He must be a Christian.”

      However, there is one word over which we have presently taken full control, which I want you now to employ at every turn.  The word is “progress” and its derivation “progressive.” See if you can’t lean pretty heavily on it each time some Christian value conflicts with the modern world.  When his mother refers to the sexual mores of their faith, strike the word “progressive” in his head like a gong, and contrast the image of his mother with that of his girlfriend.  You will most likely win that debate without even having it.

      I will reveal to you the secret of why this works so well, on the condition that you do not even whisper it in your sleep, for fear that a few of them catch on and begin to discuss it in one of their dreadfully boring Bible studies.  The word progress originally implied development against a standard.  A piano player progresses by learning to play the notes on the page more accurately.  The baseball player progresses by hitting more often and running faster along the rules of the game.  However, we’ve got your patient already thinking that progress only means doing it differently than it used to be done.  If his grandparents did it a certain way, and he does it differently, it must be because he is more educated and experienced than they, and must therefore have progressed.  With our new twist on the word, the piano player could just as well bang out handfuls of random notes and call it progress because it is different than what came before.  The baseball player could hurl the ball up into the crowd and run in circles yelling, “I’m playing better than ever before!” simply because he’s doing it differently.

      The real danger of the original word “progress” was that the standard of the notes was straight and true for all time.  We can’t very well have him believing in everlasting truth, can we?  The rules of the game did not change, and that’s why the player could progress, playing better along the lines of those rules.  What we are now calling progress is really hiding the word that the humans mean, which is “change.” But we have baptized the word change by teaching them to call it progress.

      So when one of them abandons the faith for modernity, because no new thinkers hold to religion anymore, he calls himself progressive.  However, as we know, at that moment the only ones making real progress are down here.  And his senseless philosophical decision, like banging on the keys of the piano, is music to our ears.

Your affectionate Uncle Screwtape