Enchanting the Elves: Tolkien’s Gospel Inversion of Faërie

(The following is an essay I wrote for Roman Roads’ Digressio Magazine a couple of years ago, and which can be found here.)

In his famous essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien defines fairy stories as being not about fairies so much as they are about the land of Faërie, that is, the “perilous realm” (which may or may not be inhabited by actual fairies) into which men will sometimes wander and where they find danger, adventure, and above all enchantment. In his epilogue to his essay, however, Tolkien turns the tables somewhat to imply that, if the role of Faërie and of fairy stories is to enchant and in that sense “redeem” those who venture into them, there is another sense in which both Faërie and fairy stories are themselves in need of being saved. Thus, he explains how in the Gospel tales of Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection, God has not only turned human history and reality into a fairy story, but just as interestingly, he has also made our fairy stories in particular and our sub-creations in general to be something entirely and eminently real. Apart from such fulfillment, Tolkien leads us to believe, our fairy stories, however beautiful and enchanting they may be in their own right, would ultimately differ little from mere “Dreams,” stories, that is, in which (like fairy stories) “strange powers of the mind may be unlocked,” but which in the end “cheat deliberately the primal desire at the heart of Faërie: the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder.” In the Christian evangelium, accordingly, the realm of Faërie itself gets treated to its own enchanting eucatastrophe, a fact that better enables it to enchant us in our turn.

In this essay, I want to look at three examples of how this theme of the “Gospel inversion” of fairy stories—the way, that is, the Gospel turns the tables and subjects Faërie to its own kind of fairy story—shows up within Tolkien’s own master fairy story, The Lord of the Rings. Specifically, I will show how in what might be distinguished as the three “mini-fairy stories” within The Fellowship of the Ring—Frodo’s encounter with Gildor and his Elves in the Shire, Frodo’s experience at Rivendell, and finally Frodo’s experience at Lothlórien—in each case Tolkien begins by presenting us with a classic case of Faërie enchantment, only to then “invert” the stock formula by using hobbits (in some ways a personification of Gospel weakness and lowliness) to “enchant” their elvish enchanters.

Before seeing how these three episodes meet Tolkien’s qualifications for a true fairy story (and how they then go on to invert them), we need to first delineate what some of these distinctive elements are. In his essay Tolkien describes “the realm of fairy-story” as “wide and deep and high” and a place about which “it is dangerous for [man] to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.” As for the inhabitants of this land, the fairies or “elves,” he describes them as “put[ting] on a pride and beauty that we would fain wear ourselves,” and their magic as that of a “power to play on the desires of [man’s] body and his heart.” Part of our desire for Faërie and for fairies, ironically, stems from their indifference towards us: “elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them. Our fates are sundered, and our paths seldom meet. Even upon the borders of Faërie we encounter them only at some chance crossing of the ways.” As Tolkien characterizes Faërie, in sum, it is a land where the fairies or elves—proud, noble, and beautiful—are entirely at home, and we are the tolerated strangers, guests and beneficiaries of their hospitality, however long it should last.

To turn, then, to The Lord of the Rings, perhaps the most complete and self-contained fairy story in the whole book is chapter three of The Fellowship of the Ring, titled “Three’s Company” (the chapter could almost be read on its own as a stand-alone fairy story). The chapter opens with Frodo needing to take a “journey” but to an as-yet unknown destination. When Gandalf tells him to head towards Rivendell, Frodo’s “heart was moved suddenly with a desire to see the house of Elrond Halfelven, and breathe the air of that deep valley where many of the Fair Folk still dwelt in peace.” Frodo’s home of Bag End, by comparison, is described as “seem[ing] sad and gloomy and dishevelled. Frodo wandered round the familiar rooms, and saw the light of the sunset fade on the walls, and shadows creep out of the corners.” Frodo, in short, is in need of enchantment, and that’s exactly what he gets when the travelers encounter Elves in the Shire forest. When the hobbits are about to be discovered by a Black Rider, an eucatastrophe occurs when the Elves arrive and scare the latter off with their singing. From their song, which is about their own, longed-for but irretrievable past, Frodo is able to identify them as “High Elves” and the “fairest folk,” few of whom still remain in Middle-earth, making their meeting here a “strange chance.” The starlight glimmers on their hair and in their eyes, and though they “bore no lights,” they seemed to radiant their own light like the moon. When the Elves at last notice the hobbits, however, they “laugh,” address Frodo by name and indicate a familiarity with his traveling habits. When Frodo asks if they might travel together, the Elves inform him that they have “no need of other company,” that besides the hobbits don’t even know where the Elves are going, and jest with him that, what is more, “hobbits are so dull.” Nevertheless, Gildor, their leader, tells Frodo that although “it is not our custom,” nevertheless “for this time we will take you on our road, and you shall lodge with us tonight, if you will.” As the hobbits travel with the Elves, Sam wandered “as if in a dream, with an expression on his face half of fear and half of astonished joy.” After arriving at their destination, the village of Woodhall, the Elves at first “seemed to take no further notice of the hobbits,” but then prove quite hospitable, delighting the hobbits with food and festivity. When Frodo refers to their surroundings as “our Shire,” Gildor instructs him that “it is not your own Shire,” for “[o]thers dwelt here before hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more.” The following day, the hobbits awake to find themselves deserted by the Elves, yet fed and fortified to continue their journey to Rivendell.

As the above summary is meant to illustrate, the chapter “Three is Company” represents a rather precise illustration of many of the features of the ideal fairy story that Tolkien discusses in his essay and which I highlighted earlier. But now comes the Gospel twist, which is that while the chapter gives us an excellent, even stock example of “men” stumbling into and being enchanted within the realm of Faërie, Tolkien also turns the tables to some extent to have the high and mighty Elves also receive a form of “enchantment” by the simple and lowly hobbits. Although the first example of Elvish laughter is at the hobbits’ expense, the second time the Elves laugh is now at their own expense, when Frodo addresses them formally but politely in their own language: “‘Be careful, friends!’ cried Gildor laughing. ‘Speak no secrets! Here is a scholar in the Ancient Tongue. Bilbo was a good master. Hail, Elf-friend!’ he said, bowing to Frodo. ‘Come now with your friends and join our company!’” Later, Frodo makes Gildor laugh once more when Frodo playfully and proverbially “defamiliarizes” for Gildor the Elves’ own habit of giving overly-qualified counsel: “‘And it is also said,’ answered Frodo: ‘Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.’ ‘Is it indeed?’ laughed Gildor.” And toward the end of their conversation, when Gildor repeats the commonplace that “Elves have their own labours and their own sorrows, and they are little concerned with the ways of hobbits, or of any other creatures. Our paths cross theirs seldom, by chance of purpose,” he indicates that his puzzling encounter with Frodo has nevertheless altered his perspective at least as much if not more than he has altered Frodo’s: “In this meeting there may be more than chance; but the purpose is not clear to me, and I fear to say too much.” As Gildor dimly senses but does not yet fully realize, it is the small and seemingly helpless and hapless Frodo and his fellow hobbits that, in their quest to destroy the Ring, will turn out to be the eucatastrophic deliverance of the very realm of Faërie itself. In his last words to Frodo, finally, Gildor gives expression to the reverse enchantment that has taken place when he returns Frodo’s earlier benediction: “I name you Elf-friend; and may the stars shine upon the end of your road! Seldom have we had such delight in strangers, and it is fair to hear words of the Ancient Speech from the lips of other wanderers in the world.” They’ve gone from being “dull hobbits” who don’t know where the Elves are even heading to those who actually “delight” the Elves and treat them to a fresh “recovery” of the beauty of their own tongue.

Space forbids us from making a comparable study of The Fellowship of the Ring’s two other fairy-stories-in-miniature, yet a brief word needs to be said about them here. At Rivendell, in the chapter “Many Meetings,” Frodo is once more treated to a fairy story enchantment by the Elves, yet in the following chapter, “The Council of Elrond,” it is the hobbit, Tolkien’s personification of the Pauline principle of God using seemingly “foolish” and “weak” things to confound the “strength of “wisdom” of men, who emerges as the key to unlocking all. Here it is Elrond who expresses the principle of Gospel inversion when, in a reversal of Thucydides’s famous dictum of pagan wisdom that “the strong do what they can while the weak suffer what they must,” he declares instead in much more Christian fashion that the quest of the Ring “may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.” And in Lothlórien, finally, while the Fellowship receives rest and enchantment in the halls of the fairy-queen herself, the Lady Galadriel, these roles also find themselves reversed when it is Galadriel who becomes the beneficiary of the “courtesy” of the hobbit Frodo (and later, even by the dwarf Gimli).

In conclusion, what each of these cases represents, as has been suggested, is a display of Tolkien’s own mastery of the fairy tale genre as he analyses it in his essay, namely as stories of a sublime land of not merely physical but also emotional and even aesthetic peril, a place where man is a guest and may find his own love for the natural world rekindled by a people at once mysterious, proud, noble, and beautiful. At the same time, and has also been said, in each of these episodes we witness another dimension to Tolkien, a uniquely Christian dimension, in which he makes his own fairy stories undergo their own kind of eucatastrophe, by giving the high and noble Elves themselves an opportunity for enchantment, only now by the mundane and familiar hobbits. In doing so, I submit, Tolkien captures something of his own, peculiar and paradoxical view, expressed in the epilogue to his essay, that in the Gospel fairy stories themselves are re-enchanted through the simultaneous nobility and humility of that consummate Elf-hobbit, the God-man Jesus Christ.


“For trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow'”

An exposition of “Mythopoeia,” part 2

for trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow.’ Here we have an example of what labeling consists of. There’s no real mystery, just an identification of something someone already knew. There’s been no process of defamiliarization, of “making strange,” followed by “Recovery.” In epistemological terms, you might call this a mere “correspondence” theory of truth. Things are already a certain way, and our statements come along and merely affirm that instead of entering into dialogue with things and changing them as a result.

you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace /one of the many minor globes of Space. Here we see a scientific diminishment of earth, in contrast with the mythopoeic representation Tolkien will give later when he refers to the earth as “mother.” Earth, in other words, is what myth tells us what it is, whereas here, in the scientific conception, earth is merely one globe amongst many, and not a particularly remarkable one at that.

“You look at trees and label them just so”

An exposition of “Mythopoeia,” part 1

In an elective I taught recently on Anselm and Tolkien, the class spent a couple of sessions expositing together the meaning of Tolkien’s poem “Mythopoeia.” This series is the fruit of that exercise.

You look at trees and label them just so. Later in the poem Tolkien uses the word name, setting up a contrast between labeling and naming. Labeling is what the modern scientist does; naming is what Adam and subcreators do. So what is the differenence? Labeling is comparatively passive, a mere reflection of what is already there, slaping a label on it without contributing anything to it. There is no “value added.” In modal theistic terms, we might say that labelling is “possibilistic”: it takes for granted the existing reality and seeks merely to represent it as it is; the possibility of what it may be labeled is predetermined. Naming, by conrast, is “actualistic”: what its name is cannot be determined apart from the act of naming itself.

Recovery at Crickhollow

In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien identifies the second of the four primary functions of the fairy story genre as that of “Recovery.” He writes:

we need recovery. We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses— and wolves. This recovery fairy-stories help us to make. In that sense only a taste for them may make us, or keep us, childish.

Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiares are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them.

Immediately following this, Tolkien gives the example of Chestertonian Fantasy in particular, or “Mooreeffoc.” Mooreeffoc itself, he says, is a “fantastic word,” for it is one that

could be seen written up in every town in this land. It is Coffee-room, viewed from the inside through a glass door, as it was seen by Dickens on a dark London day; and it was used by Chesterton to denote the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle.

One of the ways, accordingly that this act of Recovery is principally achieved is through what Tolkien identifies as the first function of fairy stories, namely “Fantasy,” or “that quality of strangeness and wonder” by which the reader is able to be surprised and even startled by old things cast in new and unfamiliar lights.

To come now to Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, in the scene of his arrival at his home in Crickhollow for the first time, Frodo is treated to his own moment of “Recovery” when he is allowed to see his possessions in an entirely new environment.

‘Well, what do you think of it?’ asked Merry coming up the passage. ‘We have done our best in a short time to make it look like home. After all Fatty and I only got here with the last cart-load yesterday.’

Frodo looked round. It did look like home. Many of his own favourite things – or Bilbo’s things (they reminded him sharply of him in their new selling) – were arranged as nearly as possible as they had been at Bag End. It was a pleasant, comfortable, welcoming place; and he found himself wishing that he was really coming here to settle down in quiet retirement. It seemed unfair to have put his friends to all this trouble; and he wondered again how he was going to break the news to them that he must leave them so soon, indeed at once. Yet that would have to be done that very night, before they all went to bed.

‘It’s delightful!’ he said with an effort. ‘I hardly feel that I have moved at all.’


The Pacifist of Wootton Major

From J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story, Smith of Wootton Major:

“he soon became wise and understood that the marvels of Faery cannot be approached without danger, and that many of the Evils cannot be challenged without weapons of power too great for any mortal to wield. He remained a learner and explorer, not a warrior; and though in time he could have forged weapons that in his own world would have had power enough to become the matter of great tales and be worth a king’s ransom, he knew that in Faery they would have been of small account. So among all the things that he made it is not remembered that he ever forged a sword or a spear or an arrow-head.”

Judge not lest ye be judged: Tolkien on fairy-stories

In the opening paragraph of his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien characterizes his exercise in literary criticism of this genre as itself a kind of fairy story:

“I propose to speak about fairy-stories, though I am aware that this is a rash adventure. Faërie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold. And overbold I may be accounted, for though I have been a lover of fairy-stories since I learned to read, and have at times thought about them, I have not studied them professionally. I have been hardly more than a wandering explorer (or trespasser) in the land, full of wonder but not of information.”

Studying fairy stories properly, in other words, is itself a kind of Faërian adventure, and like such adventures, it is one that does not come without its own set of warnings: it is possible to get such stories wrong, to ask the wrong sorts of questions, or even to ask the right sorts of questions in a wrong sort of way. As in fairy stories themselves, so in the study of fairy stories, making mistakes can be dangerous, even to the point of being deadly. In the second paragraph, he continues:

“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 traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.”

For Tolkien, clearly, even the study of fairy stories is a serious business, as he effectively denies one the ability to approach them in a dry, objective, or disinterested light. More than a mere object of literary study, fairy stories are for Tolkien a fundamental reflection of what it means to be human, and if this is so, then they are also a fundamental reflection of all that humans do, including what they do in their capacity as literary critics, even of fairy stories. The literary evaluation of fairy stories, accordingly, is an evaluation of that genre which, to Tolkien’s mind, is ultimately about the evaluation (and enchantment!) of ourselves. For this reason, he issues his readers a caution that they take care, for when it comes to the kingdom of Faërie, like the kingdom of Heaven, “with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”

Ilúvatar the Fairy: the Ainur’s Vision as Faërian Drama

I have commented before on how the progression of the Ainulindale, moving from Music to Vision to Eä, “the World that Is,” allegorizes Tolkien’s claim in the epilogue of “On Fairy-Stories” that in the real-world, historical eucatastrophes of the Christian Gospel we see “the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.” What I hadn’t noticed before, however, was just how fully the Ainulindale illustrates a related point Tolkien makes in his essay, namely the signficance of what he calls “Faërian Drama,” or the art that the fairies themselves exercise within the fairy-stories told by men:

Now “Faërian Drama”—those plays which according to abundant records the elves have often presented to men—can produce Fantasy with a realism and immediacy beyond the compass of any human mechanism. As a result their usual effect (upon a man) is to go beyond Secondary Belief. If you are present at a Faërian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary World. The experience may be very similar to Dreaming and has (it would seem) sometimes (by men) been confounded with it. But in Faërian drama you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp. To experience directly a Secondary World: the potion is too strong, and you give to it Primary Belief, however marvellous the events. You are deluded— whether that is the intention of the elves (always or at any time) is another question. They at any rate are not themselves deluded. This is for them a form of Art, and distinct from Wizardry or Magic, properly so called….

To the elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires, and when it is successful of all forms of human art most nearly approaches. At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realized sub-creative art… Of this desire the elves, in their better (but still perilous) part, are largely made; and it is from them that we may learn what is the central desire and aspiration of human Fantasy—even if the elves are, all the more in so far as they are, only a product of Fantasy itself…. In this world it [the creative desire] is for men unsatisfiable, and so imperishable. Uncorrupted, it does not seek delusion nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight, not slaves.

Re-reading the Ainulindale, it occurs to me that this is precisely what the Vision of the Ainur is: Iluvatar’s own “Faërian Drama.” Ilúvatar leads the Ainur into the Void and, like a elvish bard about to begin his tale, tells them to “Behold your Music!” But instead of telling them a tale, “he showed to them a vision, giving to them sight where before was only hearing…” And the Ainur are enchanted by what they see, for “as they looked and wondered this World began to unfold its history, and it seemed to them that it lived and grew.” And as Faërian Drama does for its human audience, Ilúvatar tells the Ainur that in the vision they will see and learn everything to which their own music had (unbeknownst to them at the time) aspired: “each of you shall find contained herein, amid the design that I set before you, all those things which it may seem that he himself devised or added.” When the Vision is at last taken away, the Ainur are brought out of their enchanted condition back to their state of “primary belief,” for “in that moment they perceived a new thing, Darkness, which they had not known before except in thought. But they had become enamoured of the beauty of the vision and engrossed in the unfolding of the World which came there to being, and their minds were filled with it…” The result of this disenchantment is a certain discontentedness, an awakened desire to see the objects of this divine drama made real: “Then there was unrest among the Ainur; but Ilúvatar called to them, and said: ‘I know the desire of your minds that what ye have seen should verily be, not only in your thought, but even as ye yourselves are, and yet other.”

In summary, then: (1) Faërian Drama is the art that we–within our own art of fairy-stories–represent the fairies as exercising and to which we aspire ourselves; (2) the Silmarillion is one man’s artistic representation of the fairies’ own art of self-history, at the origins of which is (3) the resplendent Music of the Ainur, the “Ainurian Drama” to which the elves’ own art doubtlessly aspired; (4) however, within this story, finally, we witness the Ainur themselves being treated to the ars divina of Ilúvatar’s Vision, in which the Ainur behold the consummate beauty of being for which their own Music had unwittingly hoped. I said in yesterday’s post that the Ainur are the “elves’ elves.” Here Ilúvatar emerges as the “elves’ elves’ Elf”–the Fairy of Faërie.

Making Things To Be What They are: Aristotle, Stoicism, and Tolkien

What do Aristotle’s theory of sense-perception, Stoic semiotics, and Tolkien’s views on fairy-stories all have in common? They each in their own way recognize the integral contribution that human beings make–whether in their acts of sense-perception, sign-making, or story-telling–in causing things to be what they are.

Our story begins with Aristotle, who explains the act of sense-perception this way:

The activity of the sensible object and that of the percipient sense is one and the same activity, and yet the distinction between their being remains. Take as illustration actual sound and actual hearing: a man may have hearing and yet not be hearing, and that which has a sound is not always sounding. But when that which can hear is actively hearing and which can sound is sounding, then the actual hearing and the actual sound are merged in one (these one might call respectively hearkening and sounding). (De anima 3.8)

According to Aristotle, for there to be an actual sound, you must have not only something “making” a sound, but you must also have an agent capable of “hearing” the sound. Without an perceiver to hear it, a sound is not a sound but merely a “potential” sound (so no, if a tree falls in the woods and there is no one to hear it, it does not make a sound–only a potential sound).

There is a related idea in the Stoic theory of signs. Umberto Eco, in his Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, writes how, for the Stoics,

in order to grasp, from a series of sensory data, the form ‘smoke’, I must already be directed by the belief that smoke is relevant to the making of further inferences. Otherwise, the smoke provided for me by the sensation remains a potential perception which I have not yet ma[d]e pertinent as smoke, but as mist, miasma, or as any exhalation which is not caused by combustion. Only if I already know the general rule which makes for ‘if smoke, then fire’ am I able to render the sensory datum meaningful, by seeing it as that smoke which can reveal fire. (33)

According to the Stoics, in other words, the physical phenomenon of smoke, by itself, is not yet a sign of fire. For smoke to signify fire, there must be a rational agent present who first visually senses the physical event of smoke, and who then interprets (though the process may be instantaneous) and so implicitly classifies what he sees as an instance of a more general type, namely of that which, when present, implies also the presence of fire. By this means, the mere visual sensation of the physical phenomenon of smoke becomes finally a legitimate perception of “smoke,” i.e., “that which signifies fire.” The important thing to note here is that it is the perceiver who makes the sign to be a sign, to be significant. As Eco puts it, it is the perceiver who “makes pertinent” the physical phenomenon as smoke rather than a mere “mist,” and the one who “render[s] the sensory datum meaningful.” 

In stressing the contribution that the rational agent makes to the sign-character of things, however, the Stoics were no proto-Kantians or anticipating postmodernism. For the Stoics, according to Eco, in the absence of a person both capable of and actually interpreting an event as significant, the event itself is not a sign, but only a “potential” sign. Under this circumstance, it is not as though there would be no perceptual or signifying reality whatsoever, but rather that we would have a “potential perception,” and hence what we might call a “potential signification.” Absent an actual act of rational inference, there is still, in the physical event of smoke, all the objective ingredients for an act of signification to take place. All that is missing is the human mind, the essential catalyst necessary to ignite those objective elements, moving them from their state of being potentially significant to being actually significant.

It is a similar view, finally, that Tolkien entertains of the power of fairy-stories. As he writes in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,”

Fantasy is made out of the Primary World, but a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the art of making can give. By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory. (Tolkien Reader 78)

As Tolkien makes clear, sub-creation is just that–sub-creation, that is, an activity that human beings do under and in response to God’s prior act of creation. What is more, this existing reality created by God is no metaphysical wax nose, bendable at will, but has a determinate nature and order. As the above quote clearly implies, structures like iron, horses, trees, flowers, and fruit have a reality that is in one sense “independent” of what we make of them. However, much of the significance of these otherwise “independent” structures lies in their inchoate capacity to manifest themselves to us, not only in sense-perception and speech, as Aristotle and the Stoics recognized, but even more eminently for Tolkien, in our story-telling. There is a sense in which horses don’t achieve their actuality as horses for us until after at least some horses have had the chance to be a Pegasus. Nor does iron really become iron until after at least some iron has had a chance to be elevated and made into the substance of a mythical, heroic sword. Take away the human, story element, and things become mere elements. Or as Tolkien puts it in another passage, “When the fairy-tale ceased, there would be just thunder, which no human ear had yet heard” (51).

Why Only Theology Can Save “The Silmarillion”

Reading The Silmarillion, as Tolkien enthusiasts have long realized, is a very different, difficult, and for many, even disappointing experience compared to reading The Lord of the Rings. In a letter addressing the difference between the two works, Tolkien writes:

Part of the attraction of The L.R. is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed. (L 333)

The problem with The Silmarillion, in other words, is that it tells the untold stories and visits the unvisited islands of The Lord of the Rings, thereby foreshortening the sense of depth of the latter work and so (at least potentially) “destroy[ing] the magic.” In The Silmarillion, to put the matter differently, what is left remote and in that sense transcendent in The Lord of the Rings is rendered immanently present–one might almost say “familiar” and “appropriated,” to use a couple of important terms from Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories.” This effect must be inevitable, Tolkien goes on to admit, “unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed,” unless, that is, there is some even deeper or more distant reality that can play The Silmarillion to The Silmarillion’The Lord of the Rings, as it were.

Although Tolkien doesn’t go into this in his letter, I submit that, for the perceptive reader, The Silmarillion does in fact offer or reveal such “new unattainable vistas,” namely in the form of the expressly theological vision with which the work opens and then almost immediately (though never wholly) leaves behind. Far from suggesting a form of Enlightenment deism, according to which a divine watchmaker is supposed to have established the world and the left it to run itself of its own accord, as I have argued elsewhere, what Tolkien does in his opening creation-myth, the Ainulindalë, is preface his legendarium with the necessary theological prolegomena for properly interpreting the subsequent, less theologically explicit portions of his Middle-earth mythology. As Tolkien makes clear in a number of places, every instance of eucatastrophe–a device he identifies as a sine qua non of the fairy-story genre–in his own writings is an instance of special divine intervention and deliverance whereby the Creator reveals himself as “that one ever-present Person who is never absent and never named” (Letters no. 192). Of course, there are many other qualities in The Silmarillion which make it a great piece of literature in its own right, yet in Tolkien’s own mind there simply was no substitute for that elusive and allusive “impression of depth,” as he put it, whereby something greater–an unreduced and ultimately irreducible surplus of meaning and mystery–might be “glimpsed in the background.”

It is for reasons such as these that The Silmarillion‘s editor, Tolkien’s son Christopher, later regretted his decision not to include his father’s original framing device telling how the early medieval adventurer Eriol discovered fairy-land (the isle of modern day England) and learned the tales contained in The Silmarillion. Had he done so, The Silmarillion would have provided its own means of at once mediating itself to its modern audience while creating the desired sense of an unbridgeable historical distance between the reader and this “book of lost tales.” While I, too, share this regret with Christopher, it should not go unnoticed the way in which the published Silmarillion, beginning (like the Book of Genesis) as it does with the story of God’s loving act of creation and providential ordering of the world, does provide its own form of framing device. It is the divine realities and verities revealed in the opening mythology of the Silmarillion that ultimately provides the work with its own set of “new unattainable vistas” and what, as a consequence, helps “save” its “magic.”

(For a related post, see “Hobbits: Non-Mediating Mediators.”)

Bilbo, Tolkien’s own eucatastrophe

In letter no. 15, on the virtual eve of the publication of The Hobbit, Tolkien laments to his publisher hi financial circumstances, and expresses his “hope [that Mr Baggins will eventually come to my rescue—in a moderate way (I do not expect pots of troll-gold).” Ironic, in that Mr. Baggins would come through in spades (Tolkien died a wealthy man). The little hobbit would turn out to be not only the unexpected eucatastrophe of Tolkien’s already existing Middle-earth legendarium: financially (to say nothing of all the other ways) he would turn out to be a very real eucatastrophe in Tolkien’s personal life.

“Lord of the Rings” as Narya, the Ring of Fire

Building on yesterday’s post, here are some more passages linking Tolkien’s youthful sense of responsibility that he and the TCBS were to help “rekindle an old light” of faith and “testify for God and Truth” in the world, and his literary representation of this same theme within his fiction. On the very final page of the Silmarillion, in the chapter “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age,” Cirdan the Shipwright gives to Gandalf Narya, the Ring of Fire, telling him:

“Take now this Ring,” he said; “for thy labours and thy cares will be heavy, but in all it will support thee and defend thee from weariness. For this is the Ring of Fire, and herewith, maybe, thou shalt rekindle hearts to the valour of old in a world that grows chill.”

Tolkien reiterates the association between Cirdan’s ring and Gandalf’s “kindling” mission in a letter in which he even implicates Gandalf’s fireworks in the symbolism, describing them as “part of the representation of Gandalf, bearer of the Ring of Fire, the Kindler” (Letters no. 301). The point I made in yesterday’s post was that the similar language used early by Tolkien to describe his literary ambitions, and later to describe Gandalf’s own policies in Middle-earth, reveal Tolkien to have been something of his own model and inspiration for what he means by being a “servant of the Secret Fire.” I’ve also commented before (“Gimli’s Silmaril, Gimli the Silmaril”) on how the Silmaril jewels themselves, in the way they take in the natural light of creation and refract it in many beautiful “hues,” are meant to symbolize both the sub-creative act and agent. Then there is Tolkien’s statement, in response to W.H. Auden’s review of the The Lord of the Rings, that the latter is “basically… about God, and His sole right to divine honour” (Letters no. 183), as well as his affirmation of one reader’s description of the work as “creat[ing] a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp” (Letters no. 328). Finally, there is Tolkien’s further statement, though meant in a slightly different, though not unrelated sense, to the one I will be giving it presently, that The Lord of the Rings “is not ‘about’ anything but itself” (Letters no. 165). Stringing all of these points together, I think we are led to the interpretation of Cirdan’s ring, offered to Gandalf as a support and encouragement in “rekindl[ing] hearts to the valour of old in a world that grows chill,” as an image of the purpose behind Tolkien’s own literary “labours and cares.” What is Narya, the Ring of Fire? It is The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien, Servant of the Secret Fire

Upon the death of their fellow T.C.B.S. (“Tea Club and Barrovian Society”) member Rob Gilson, Tolkien explains to G.B. Smith his own understanding of the “greatness” to which the group believed they as a whole had been destined by God:

The greatness I meant was that of a great instrument in God’s hands–a mover, a doer, even an achiever of great things, a beginner at the very least of large things. What I meant… was that the TCBS had been granted some spark of fire–certainly as a body if not singly–that was destined to kindle a new light, or, what is the same thing rekindle an old light in the world; that the TCBS was destined to testify for God and Truth… (Letters no. 5, p. 9-10)

This image of God “sparking a fire” whereby he achieves “great” ends through otherwise small and humble “instruments” was one that Tolkien would go on to employ within his own literary effort at “rekindling an old light” and “testifying for God and Truth” in the world. As I’ve noted here before, it’s the same imagery that Tolkien uses, for example, in interpreting the story of Beren and Luthien (in many ways the heart of the Silmarillion), to depict the agency of the “Secret Fire” of Iluvatar at work in the world, and finally how he depicts the mission and ministry of Gandalf (particularly as it pertains to hobbits), the self-identified “servant of the Secret Fire” (also deserving of mention here is Elrond’s programmatic statement at the end of the Council of Elrond: “such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere”). The point to be made here is how in each of these, or so it would seem, Tolkien gives us a literary depiction of the significance and responsibility he initially felt lay upon him and his friends as members of the T.C.B.S.. Tolkien himself, in short, was his own, original type of the “servant of the Secret Fire.”

The Aesthete vs the Ascetic: What St. Augustine Would Have Thought of Tolkien’s Middle-earth

In his classic study The Great Chain of Being, Arthur O. Lovejoy gives a brief summary of Augustine’s aesthetic treatise De pulchritudine simulacrorum, which contains a wonderful criterion for evaluating the sub-creative achievement of Tolkien’s Middle-earth legendarium, but also what would have been Augustine’s deep ambivalence and suspicion towards it as well. Lovejoy writes how for Augustine

“the supreme art of God” is manifested in the variety of the things that it has fashioned out of nothing, while the inferiority of human art is shown in its limited ability to reproduce this diversity, or numerositas, of natural objects, for example of human bodies. Augustine, then, seems on the point of deriving a species of aesthetic theory from the principle of plenitude; the function of art, he suggests, is to imitate or parallel this diversity of the created world as nearly exhaustively as possible; and this, the argument manifestly implies, is truly an imitatio dei, and therefore par excellence a religious exercise. (Lovejoy 85)

Only a couple of years before Lovejoy wrote the above, Tolkien, in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” similarly described how the art of fairy-story lay precisely in the human “sub-creator,” made in God’s image, being able to fashion a “secondary world” that evinced the kind of creaturely diversity, complexity, and “inner consistency” of God’s primary world. Alison Milbank describes well Tolkien’s own success in achieving a kind of literary “principle of plentitude” in his fiction when she writes:

Aquinas, according to Chesterton, teaches ‘the reality of things, the mutability of things, the diversity of things’… [T]his is a philosophy that can be found at every level of Tolkien’s fictional project… The world Tolkien invents is, of course, fictional, but it is famously realistic in its density and completeness of realization… To invent a world at all, as fantasy writers continue to do, is to commit to metaphysics… For the fantasy writer not only mimics the divine act of creation but he or she, by creating a self-consistent, independent world also witnesses to the existence of an Is: to Ens. (Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 17-18)

Yet as remarkable as such an achievement may be, for Augustine, it is in fact not to be attempted. Summarizing the Bishop’s reservations, Lovejoy continues:

But here the saint checks himself and reverts violently to the ascetic and otherworldly side of his doctrine: “Not that those who fashion such works [of art] are to be highly esteemed, nor those who take delight in them; for when the soul is thus intent upon the lesser things—things corporeal which it makes by corporeal means—it is the less fixed upon that supreme Wisdom from which it derives these very powers.” Thus Augustine is involved in the incongruous conclusion that God as creator is not to be imitated, that certain divine powers in which men in a measure participate are not to be employed by them, and that the creation in which alone the divine attribute of “goodness” is manifested is not to be enjoyed. (85-6)

As with other creational goods, the double liability of human sin and human finitude means that, for Augustine, the impetus towards a sub-creative imitatio dei is one that is safer suppressed than cultivated, lest it distract us from our primary duty of the worship and meditation of God.

Anselm on the Divine Fancy

I’ve posted before on the similarities between Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation and Anselm’s theological method of fides quarens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”). Anselmian theology strives to provide “necessary” proofs for the revealed articles of the faith, yet Anselm recognizes that, while necessary, his arguments nevertheless have a provisional character that inevitably falls short of the reality itself, always leaving more to be said. In Tolkienian terms, Anselmian theology provides arguments which are “secondary worlds” which have the “inner consistency of reality” and yet which at most approximate, and yet still elucidate and so “recover” the truth that is the primal reality of Christian belief. In doing theology this way, however, the theologian is truly sub-creative, achieving a remarkable parallel to what God himself does in the act of devising and creating the world. When God creates, he fashions a reality which, on the one hand, mirrors his own Triune “inner consistency of reality,” and yet which at the same time represents a genuinely novel, creative interpretation or improvisation of his own reality. The Anselmian theologian, in other words, is a true sub-creator because God was the first Anselmian theologian.

Corroborating this reading of Anselm is Hans urs von Balthasar’s characterization of the Anselmian corpus as “realiz[ing] in the purest form the concerns of theological aesthetics” (The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Vol. II Studies in Theological Styles: Clerical Styles, 213). In a passage addressing this issue of what we might call God’s own internal aesthetic, Balathasar writes how, for Anaselm, God’s creative

‘ideas’ are deduced not primarily from below, from the contingence and the degrees of worldly qualities, which are ascending degrees of perfection, indeed of reality, and which persuade (persuadet) of the existence of something most perfect and most real in their sphere, but rather from above: from the free self-expression of God, who plans and ‘imagines’ what he wills. (229)

To be precise, and as I’ve note elsewhere, Anselm does not in fact have an Augustinian doctrine of divine ideas, yet otherwise I see Balthasar as making a complementary point. The insistence, from Augustine to Aquinas, that there must exist in the divine, creative cause a real plurality of distinct ideas in order to account for the real plurality amongst God’s created effects, is, in Balthasar’s expression, to deduce the divine ideas “from below.” The irony is that, in its attempt to avoid divine demiurgy–God looking outside of himself for his creative archetypes–Augustine committed his own form of Christian ananke-ism: an inferior reality dictating the conditions on which God’s creative agency exists and operates. While retaining the language of “ideas” (which Anselm eschews), Balthasar nevertheless understands this so-called “second Augustine” (alter Augustinus) faithfully enough: God’s ideas, such as they are, are no mere secular, atheological givens, but are the result of an authentically theological process of divine free creativity, even “imagination.” God does not think his possibilities, in other words, but in Brian Leftow’s apt phrase (God and Necessity), God rather “thinks up” his possibilities. (Though using Balthasar’s spatial imagery, perhaps we should say that God thinks down his possibilities.) Balthasar continues:

And with that the category of expression (exprimere) is given its place, which will become so important for Bonaventure; and the ars divina will be less in facto esse, in the order of the universal, than in fieri, in the free discovery of essences, seen in the power of expression of the divine ‘fancy’ and located in the ‘place’ in God, where the power of generation within the divine itself is engaged in its trinitarian work.

For Balthasar’s Anselm, the process by which God knows creaturely forms is less an act of divine theoria or contemplation than it is an act of divine poiesis or making; a matter not of Augustine’s ideae divinae, but of Augustine’s ars divina. Balthasar’s reference to God’s “free discovery of essences” echoes Aquinas’s remark in De Veritatue (3.2 ad 6) that God “devises” (adinvenit) the divine ideas through his reflection on his own essence. Thus, instead of the historic vacillation between the two poles of divine intellect and will, Balthasar’s reading of Anselm allows us to see the latter as transcending and so escaping the tiresome intellectualism/voluntarism debate through the recognition of an altogether new theological category, that of the divine “fancy” or imagination. Rounding out his statement on Anselm’s significance vis-a-vis Augustine, Balthasar writes:

All this is certainly a continuation of Augustine’s trinitarian thought, but from the outset there is [in Anselm] an emphasis on God’s total freedom and therefore on the spontaneiety of his self-disclosure.

Flame Imperishable as Incarnation

I’ve discussed before how Tolkien’s image of the Flame Imperishable refers to God’s creative power over the world, by which he, first, gives existence ex nihilo to his creatures generally, and second, by which he bestows the power of free will and (sub-)creativity upon his rational creatures in particular. Upon review of his explanation of the Flame Imperishable in his commentary on the Athrabath Finrod ah Andreth (Morgoth’s Ring), however, I think the interconnection between these two effects (created being and free, creative will) is a deeper one than the mere genus-species relationship suggested above. As Tolkien explains, the Flame Imperishable

appears to mean the Creative activity of Eru (in some sense distinct from or within Him), by which things could be given a ‘real’ and independent (though derivative and created) existence. The Flame Imperishable is sent out from Eru, to dwell in the heart of the world, and the world then Is, on the same plane as the Ainur, and they can enter into it. But this is not, of course, the same as the re-entry of Eru to defeat Melkor. It refers rather to the mystery of ‘authorship’, by which the author, while remaining ‘outside’ and independent of his work, also ‘indwells’ in it, on its derivative plane, below that of his own being, as the source and guarantee of its being. (Morgoth’s Ring 345)

As Tolkien makes clear, the act of Creation, in which Eru sends the Flame Imperishable into the heart of the world to cause it to be, is a distinct act from the act of Incarnation by which, as Finrod conjectures in the dialogue of the Athrabeth, Eru himself would personally enter into his creation in order to purge it of Melkor’s corruptions. That having been said, it is equally evident that Tolkien still very much conceives of Eru’s creative presence within his creation (and hence of the sub-creator’s presence within his art) in incarnational terms. Creation itself, according to Tolkien’s theology of the Flame Imperishable, involves the Creator being both “‘outside’ and independent of his work” as well as “‘indwell[ing]’ in it, on its derivative plane, below that of his own being…” In this manner, Tolkien may be seen to re-interpret God’s act of Creation as a type of proto-Incarnation.

A few observations. The first is the way this normalizes and naturalizes the idea of Incarnation: if Creation is a kind of Incarnation, it is little wonder that Finrod is able to infer (partly from what he knows of the Flame Imperishable) the possibility of Eru’s future condescension to enter into Arda. Eru will at some point and time enter into the world to give it new being because, in a very real sense, this is what Eru has always been doing. A second observation is how this logic complements but reverses the line of reasoning Tolkien uses in “On Fairy-Stories” in explaining how, in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has given the fairy-story structure of eucatastrophe the reality of history and creation itself: “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 Incarnation, in other words, is God giving our fairy-stories the gift of created being, of sending the Flame Imperishable, as it were, into the heart of our own sub-creative imaginings (themselves the product of God’s creative inspiration), and causing them to become real. Thirdly, and as I’ve also pointed out before, the latter is of course precisely the same drama we find in the Ainulindale, when Iluvatar takes the “fairy-story” that is the Ainur’s Music and Vision and gives it the same being that they themselves enjoy, making the Ainulindale not only a retelling of the story of the world’s creation, but also an allegory for its re-creation in Christ.

The God Who is Eucatastrophe

In a previous post I made the claim that it is Jenson who gives us the most radical version of a “Metaphysics of Exodus,” in his argument that we have no real knowledge of God apart from his identity for us as the God who, first, rescued Israel from her bondage in Egypt and, later, rescued the (divine) Israelite Jesus from his bondage in death. For Jenson, these events of deliverance are more than mere acts which God has done: as far as we are concerned, they are literally who God is. This means that, prior to his acts of deliverance, while God is keeping us in suspense, there is a sense in which God’s own identity for us is at risk:

within the story told by Israel’s Bible, the Exile, the Lord explicitly puts his self-identity at narrative risk. By the word of the exilic prophets, classically in Isaiah 40-45, JHWH argues his claim that “I am the one” by pointing to his word’s rule of history: he recounts his past promise-keeping, and then makes new promises and challenges all to see how he will keep these as well. Thus the argument binds JHWH’s claim to the contingencies of history: What if the new promises fail? The proposition one would expect to be established if and when they do not fail is that “JHWH is God.” But Isaiah alternates this conclusion with a sheer statement of the Lord’s self-identity: then all will see that “I am JHWH.” (The Triune God 65)

I do think Jenson overstates matters when he says that God’s invitation to his people to see how he will keep his promises begs the question of “What if the new promises fail?” (even if, historically, that question may indeed have been provoked). The possibility of an obedient faith, in other words, doesn’t possibilistically require an equally available but opposing opportunity on our part to doubt or suspect God’s promises. However, Jenson’s point that it is Yahweh himself who first established the criteria by which his own deity is to be judged, only then to go on and meet those criteria, seems valid and helpful enough, and fits well with how I’ve characterized Tolkien’s notion of eucatastrophe elsewhere as a kind of cosmic game of “peek-a-boo” that God plays with his creation. Yet Jenson puts the point even stronger when he applies the principle to the Crucifixion itself:

The crisis of the total biblical narrative is the Crucifixion. As the cry of dereliction laments, the one called “Father” here hands the one called “Son” over to oppositional and deadly creatures. Therewith it becomes problematic that anything specified by listing “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” can be one God and not rather a mutually betraying pantheon. If the phrase can still be the name of the one self-identical personal reality, his identity must be constituted precisely in the integration of this abandonment. The God of crucifixion and resurrection is one with himself in a moment of supreme dramatic self-transcendence or not at all.

I hope to comment in a later post on Jenson’s Hegelian-sounding rhetoric of divine “self-overcoming” in a future post (and why I think, on this point at least, he’s actually more Kantian than Hegelian). For the time being, what I want to draw attention to is how Jenson has effectively turned eucatastrophe from something that God happens to do into almost something that God is. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories” Tolkien argues that in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ the eucatastrophic structure of the ideal fairy-story has been given the reality of historical, created being itself. Jenson’s interpretation of the Gospels and of redemptive history in general would seem to take the argument one step further, raising eucatastrophe up to the level of the divine reality and identity itself. If God (as per Tolkien) gives creation history the literary structure of eucatastrophe, this is because in some sense God already is eucatastrophe himself. From literary reality to created reality to divine reality: it’s eucatastrophe as transcendental property of being. 

Eucatastrophe and the “Metaphysics of Exodus”

Yesterday I used Robert Jenson’s account of God’s self-identity with his historical acts of salvation to distinguish Tolkien’s notion of eucatastrophe from its “cheap” counterpart in the deus ex machina. A second comment concerns how Tolkien’s theory of eucatastrophe, especially as articulated in the epilogue to his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” complements Jenson’s argument about how the biblical narrative of divine action has elevated history to a status simply denied to it by Aristotle. For us creatures, as Jenson puts it, “God himself is identified by contingencies.” But if this is the way God has made us and the world, then it stands to reason that this divine “commitment in a history” must itself be an “ontological perfection” of the divine being. History, in short, is metaphysical, for we principally know the God who is Being in and through his historical, narratival, “eventful actuality.” Etienne Gilson referred to this Augustinian and Thomistic tradition of identifying God with being as a “Metaphysics of Exodus,” yet it must be said that within this tradition the Exodus event had at best an incidental and accidental relationship to the metaphysics itself. What Gilson meant, in other words, was something like “the Metaphysics which one might–but need not–find in the Book of Exodus.” Jenson’s claim, by comparison, is the more radical, implying a literal Metaphysics of Exodus, a philosophy and theology of being, in other words, rooted in and inseparable from the actual Exodus event itself. It is this already metaphysical because Christianized view of history that Tolkien, finally, presupposes in his argument that, in the events of the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the eucatastrophic form of fairy-stories has been given the same created being or reality as the primary world itself:

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (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.

For Tolkien, in conclusion, the Gospel has, by raising their eucatastrophic structure to the level of history, done to fairy-stories what Jenson argues that the Gospel already did to history by representing God’s commitment to it as itself a divine “ontological perfection.” Aristotle himself had allowed that art was more philosophical and scientific than history because art grasps the universal whereas history is of the particular. Bringing the two discussions of Jenson and Tolkien together, we are reminded that history itself is nothing other than the divine art of the universal God who identifies himself with the particular.

Eucatastrophe as Deus ex Fabula

In a passage developing his thesis that the God of the Bible is principally identified not as an abstract ontological principle standing “behind” the narrative events of redemptive history, but precisely by and within those narrative events of redemptive history, Robert Jenson makes several remarks that elucidate both the literary and the metaphysical significance of Tolkien’s concept of eucatastrophe:

Since the biblical God can truly be identified by narrative, his hypostatic being, his self-identity, is constituted in dramatic coherence. The classic definition of this sort of coherence is provided by Aristotle, who noticed that a good story is one in which events occur “unexpectedly but on account of each other” [Poetics 1452a3], so that before each decisive event we cannot predict it, but afterwards see it was just what had to happen. Aristotle himself regarded liability to historical contingency as an ontological deficit and therefore drew no metaphysical profit from his observation. But since God himself is identified by contingencies, Aristotle’s prejudice need not hinder us. Why should commitment in a history not be instead an ontological perfection? We are free to say that even–or, rather, especially–God is one with himself just by the dramatic coherence of his eventful actuality. (The Triune God 64)

The first response is that Jenson’s passage helps point to an important difference between Tolkien’s concept of eucatastrophe on the one hand and its cheap counterpart of the deus ex machina on the other. Whereas the deus ex machina is defined as an event–sometimes of literal divine intervention–which unexpectedly and incredibly saves the plot from an otherwise insoluble problem, eucatastrophe, by contrast, while an “unlooked for” and “sudden turn” in the plot, is one that nevertheless displays a “dramatic coherence” with the story as a whole. Speaking of the eucatastrophe of the Gospels in particular, Tolkien mentions their “perfect, self-contained significance” and how

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.

Thus, while eucatastrophe, similar to the deus ex machina, involves (ultimately) divine intervention, it is nevertheless an event whose possibility and hence meaning is only brought into being in and through the events it is the eucatastrophe of. To use Aristotle’s phrase, a eucatastrophe is the climactic event among a series of events which occur “unexpectedly but on account of each other.” Seen in this light, eucatastrophe is less a matter of deus ex machina–a god acting within an artificial, contrived “machine”–than it is a matter of deus ex fabula, a god who works within the parameters of a narrative that is both ultimately and always of his own telling. For those readers who have been following my reflections on the theology of the possible, the application is this: in deus ex machina we have a metaphor for a theology that is voluntarist and hence possibilist, whereas in eucatastrophe we have a model of a theology that is sub-creative and actualist.

(To be continued….)

Theology as Fantasy

According to Tolkien, one of the primary tasks of fairy-story is that of “Fantasy,” of presenting an alternate, secondary world characterized by an “arresting strangeness” and element of “unreality,” by means of which the sub-creator achieves a second goal of fairy-story, that of “Recovery,” the “regaining of a clear view” of reality, a vision freed from the possessiveness and appropriation of triteness and familiarity. In The Word Made Strange, however, John Milbank argues that this task which Tolkien assigns to fairy-story and sub-creation in our time peculiarly belongs to to theology: “In the past, practice already ‘made strange’, already felt again the authentic shock of the divine word by performing it anew, with variation…. Yet today it can feel as if it is the theologian alone (as in another cultural sphere the artist, or the poet) who must perform this task of redeeming estrangement…” (1). In rendering the world fantastical and so recovering it in its original, created authenticity, however, the theologian does not do anything that God himself does not do, preeminently in the Incarnation: it is “the theologian alone who must perpetuate that original making strange which was the divine assumption of human flesh, not to confirm it as it was, but to show it again as it surprisingly is.” The theologian, like the Tolkienian sub-creator, “makes strange,” for they do so in the image of the God who not only makes things strange, but in doing so makes and recovers himself as strange.

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9)

(Tomorrow’s post: Theology as Eucatastrophe.)

The Counter-Nihilism of Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle”

Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle tells the story of a perfectionistic and curmudgeonly painter named Niggle (a bit of a self-parody on Tolkien’s part) who attempts a life-like (and nearly life-size) portrait of a living tree, but who only really succeeds in completing a single, solitary leaf before his project is prematurely interrupted when he is whisked away on his “long journey” (an allegory of death). Although Niggle’s agonizing and obsessive efforts on behalf of his tree, in retrospect, seem to have been for naught (especially as he has to unlearn, in his new purgatorial state, his former neglect of his neighbor Parish for the sake of his art), Niggle is eventually promoted to a more paradisiacal state (not yet Paradise itself, which is still future for Niggle) where he discovers his “tree,” no longer in mere imagination, but in real, actual existence. The Tree afterwards becomes the center of a bucolic scene, tended by both Niggle and Parish (and titled “Niggle’s Parish”) where future weary travelers can come and convalesce. Thus, while this is by no means the central drama of the work, one movement recorded in Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle is the movement from a man meticulously trying to “describe” a leaf via his art, only to leave behind and eventually have to learn to renounce his obsession, to at last being given back not just his leaf, or his unfinished tree, but to have them elevated to level of primary existence itself. As Niggle humbly articulates his astonishment at such grace, “It’s a gift!”

Conor Cunningham’s Genealogy of Nihilism has an interesting discussion of the nihilistic tendencies of modern philosophical and scientific discourse that (unintentionally, it would seem) provides an acutely apropos commentary on the very different metaphysical (because ultimately theological) perspective of Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle. Cunningham writes:

We ‘moderns’ continually betray the operation of a given within our discourse. It is this given which re-enacts the logic of the fall… Any description that modern discourse proffers will enact such a disappearance [of the thing describes. Let us see why.

An example may help. If we describe a leaf, looking to modern discourse to provide such a description, we will see nothing. We will see nothing but the disappearance of the leaf as, and at, the utterance of every ‘word’. The leaf will always be subordinated to structures and sub-structures. The leaf will never be seen or said. Any apparent sightings will be but nominal-noumenal formalities, that is, epiphenomenal results of concepts or ideas. (Here we witness a line running from Scotus to Descartes and from Descartes to Kant, no doubt with significant differences remaining.) The leaf is carried away through its discursive subordination to the structures and sub-structures of systems of explanatory description. By explanatory description is meant that a particular entity will be explained away by the descriptions its being suffers, for it will be reduced to a list of predicates, properties and so on. The inherently excessive nature of a being will be ignored.

Any difference we find in a being, or in the leaf, will fail to register, except at the virtual level of data…. [T]he nihilistic form of modern discourse will be unable to provide criteria for this selection [of the leaf from its branch, from its tree, and from its existent materiality] and will be unable to provide criteria for this selection and will be unable to provide real difference, individuation, specificity and so on… The leaf, which is there, is not a real leaf, but simply a formal distinction, arbitrarily but successfully constructed, or, more accurately, generated by systems of explanatory description. (These can be formal, conceptual, idealistic, empirical…)  (172-3)

What would the opposite approach look like, Cunningham asks?

It would look like the immanent–a leaf; an appearance that could not be subordinated to knowledge systems, for its visibility would be anchored in the Divine essence as an imitable example of that transcendent plenitude. It would be an imitability located in the Son, as Logos. We could then speak of cells, molecules, and so on. In nihilistic discourse even the cells of a leaf are further reduced, methodologically, ad infinitum (ad nauseum)…. [O]nly through the mediation of immanence by transcendence can the immanent be. (173)

Modern science and philosophy, in other words, are like Niggle’s art: on their own (in their “immanence”), they reduce to nothing, and so lose the very things and world they try to describe. Sacrificed to, so as to be “mediated” by, the divine transcendence, they regain a more radical immanence yet, an immanence that is the “gift” of existence itself.