J. R. R. Tolkien: He gave us back myth and with it, truth


One of my favorite issues to work on when I edited Christian History was issue 78 on J.R.R. Tolkien. Here’s my editor’s note from that one (I’ll also post the “Did You Know” column). I’m putting these posts in the “Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants” category because in writing that book, I’m using Tolkien, C S Lewis, and similar authors as guides into medieval faith.

From the Editor – He Gave Us Back Myth and with it, Truth
Chris Armstrong

By the 1960s, “miracle” had been co-opted to sell mayonnaise, “spirit” came from bottles or pep bands, and “Passion” referred only to the national obsession with sex. Into this materialistic, secularized decade came a wondrous visitor: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

This fantasy trilogy opened the world of myth and mystery to a generation disenchanted with the soulless corporate culture around them. The tale came from a man with a profoundly Christian imagination. Though many readers didn’t (and don’t) notice this fact, Tolkien has awakened at least some to the gospel. As one respondent to our recent Tolkien web poll put it:

“I read the Hobbit and the Trilogy many times as a young teen and into my twenties. I was not born again at that time, and in fact struggled through some awful rebellion and darkness. But the stories developed in me a deep sense of the unseen reality of forces I did not understand, and a commitment to not let evil win out. … Tolkien’s beautiful models of lordship, devotion, sacrifice, commitment, and the quest for truth and honor were new to me, but spoke to something inside me that responded naturally. God is full of Wonder and the Bible is replete with awesome and fantastical happenings. My mind and heart can receive and lovingly accept this ‘magic’ because of carefully crafted fantasy literature from faithful Christian authors like Tolkien.”

Truth in hobbit’s clothing
As I’ve learned more about this fascinating man, I’ve become convinced that he would be excited—but not altogether surprised—by that reader’s response. He, too, felt God was “full of Wonder,” and he treasured the Mysteries of the faith (see p. 23). A lover of trees and mountains, he read God’s handiwork in nature. A proud Englishman, he saw the Creator’s common grace at work in the courage of his countrymen (see p. 38). A crafter of myth, he found in all such stories, as he famously remarked in his lecture “On Fairy Stories,” echoes of that greatest Story of all—the gospel itself. Like the best mythical tales, the gospel tells of a “eucatastrophe”—a seeming disaster with a joyous ending:

“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. 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 preeminently the ‘inner consistency of reality.’ There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical 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.”

I’ve enjoyed getting to know Professor J. R. R. Tolkien, “the man behind the myth.” I hope that you will enjoy doing the same. Maybe you will even, after reading this issue, go back to his stories and find in them new vistas on the True Myth of the gospel. I think this would please the remarkable Oxford don. After all, he believed, as he told his student W. H. Auden, that the characters he created could embody “in the garments of time and place, universal truth and everlasting life.”

Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today International/Christian History magazine.
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