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More Reflections on Time Spent with My Favorite Author J.R.R. Tolkien

More Reflections on Time Spent with My Favorite Author J.R.R. Tolkien

Some time ago I had the opportunity for extended time away and was able to read extensively from the library of my favorite author, J.R.R. Tolkien. I wrote a blog on failure and perfectionism that emerged from a careful reading of Tolkien’s work. Here are further reflections on creative work and joyful hope that were generated as a result of my reading. 

As both a meticulous philologist and a devout Catholic, Tolkien’s stories, characters, and phrases drip with the beauty and power of the language by which they are expressed and the gospel in which they are soaked. I have found Tolkien’s faith to be deeply reflected in his vocation as a storyteller.

 

A Reflection on Creative Work

The entire framework that Tolkien held around creative work was conditioned on an idea he cared about deeply called “subcreation.” Because of his Christian faith, Tolkien maintained that part of the invitation to those who bear God’s image is the invitation to join God’s creative work as “sub-creators.” The value he found in his vocation as a writer of myth and legend was contingent on this very theological reality. In Tolkien’s view, fantasy was one valid form among many arts and sciences for discovering and conveying truth, even the greatest truth of all—the gospel of Jesus.

For a while, his close friend C.S. Lewis saw things differently. Lewis once called myths “lies breathed through silver,” to which Tolkien responded with a poem he wrote called “Mythopoeia.” If you are interested in poetry, I encourage you to find it and spend some time with it. A few lines are worth quoting, as they are poignant reflection on the eternal significance of our creative, Monday work:

 

The heart of man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship one he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact.
man, sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.

Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with elves and goblins, though we dared to build
gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sow the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which were made.

I will not tread your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.
In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day-illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True
Then looking on the Blessed Land ’twill see
that all is as it is, and yet made free:
Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.
Evil it will not see, for evil lies
not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in malicious choice,
and not in sound but in the tuneless voice.
In Paradise they look no more awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie.
Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.

What beautiful poetic language this is to express deep theological realities! Though we have fallen, we are not wholly lost nor wholly changed. The right we were given in Genesis 2 indeed has not decayed: we make still by the law in which we are made. As little makers, imperfect though we are, we still have part in the Maker’s art. 

And one day, we will see all as it is but made free in the new creation. Gardener and garden, child and toy, architect and architecture, musician and music, engineer and engineered—all will endure and be made free, perfect, reflecting the only True God and free from all works of evil. We will continue working creatively on into eternity, making anew as we reign together with the One who is making all things new. 

What a flawless reminder of just how much our work matters to the grand mission of God and just how much it will endure when his kingdom comes in full. As long as our right has not decayed, let us exercise it with the help of the Spirit and the hope of the gospel. We should all be thankful that Tolkien did just that, or we would be missing out on some of the greatest stories ever written.

 

A Reflection on Joyful Hope

On the subject of hope, the word of God and the writings of the Professor both have much to say. It would not be too far off to describe The Lord of the Rings as a story that is ultimately about hope in the face of overwhelming opportunities for despair. 

There is a reason we get this sense as readers and movie-watchers. In his essay, “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien laid out his groundbreaking defense of the importance of modern fantasy stories for the adult imagination. This alone merits a reflection on childlike faith for followers of Jesus, but I want to focus on one particular theme Tolkien explores in “On Fairy Stories.” 

The essay closes with a discussion of what Tolkien calls “the Eucatastrophe,” which he considers to be the greatest element of any fairy tale. Listen to his explanation of this essential storytelling feature:

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

I wonder if, as you heard Tolkien describe this “unexpected happy turn,” any examples from some of your favorite stories came to mind. In every good tale, as in our everyday, ordinary life, there are infinite opportunities to either give into despair or lean into hope. 

In The Lord of the Rings, we might consider the despair we find in the character Denethor. After losing his oldest son and believing his other son dead, he stares in the face of what he believes to be a losing battle against the Enemy. Denethor is thrown into a fey fit of madness and attempts to light both himself and his youngest son—who is still alive—on fire. It is a scene that captures the essence of giving into despair, and at times it is even possible to sympathize with Denethor. We, too, when life seems to be a losing battle, can be tempted to throw our hands in the air and simply give up.

Yet in the face of the same circumstances, one also must consider the consistent character of eucatastrophic hope: Gandalf. Gandalf, who showed up at the edge of the hill at “the battle of Helm’s Deep unlooked for”, when all hope seemed lost. Gandalf, “The great mover of deeds,” whose role more than anything was to stir up hope in others. Gandalf, who would say things like this: “Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.”

And in the end, it was the hope Gandalf stirred up in characters like Aragorn, Theoden, Frodo, Sam, and the army on whom Denethor had given up, that anticipated the great eucatastrophe of The Lord of the Rings—the ability to hold off the efforts of the Enemy just long enough for the ring to be destroyed and the Eagles to arrive.

For Tolkien, this unexpected happy ending, filled with joy and triumph, is only a small taste of what he considered to be the greatest eucatastrophe of all—the gospel of Jesus. Eucatastrophe, because who would have expected that God himself would become a human being, taking on suffering and embracing death “at just the right time,” only to rise again and overthrow the power of death for good? The greatest because, well, it is real. The truest fairy story of all is the one that we most wish would be true. “Legend and History have met and fused.”

What this should instill in us as Christians more than anything is durable, joyful hope. In many ways we do not see all ends, but dare to imagine that we at least know the end of the story. For those joined to Jesus in life and death, triumph awaits. As surely and suddenly as he came to disarm the power of evil, he will surely and suddenly return to eliminate evil once and for all, establishing an unending reign of good. As Samwise mused, everything sad will become untrue. 

This is real, biblical hope. Biblical hope is not wishful thinking to escape unthinkable suffering. Biblical hope embraces suffering because it does not have the final say. Biblical hope looks ahead to a future that is secure. A former pastor once gave me the best definition of biblical hope that I have heard yet: Hope is a confident expectation in a future reality that we lean into to give us energy to live today.

When summer break from school is on the horizon, we can lean into that future to give us energy to face finals week. When we know we get to see our family at the end of the day, we can lean into that future to give us energy to endure a weary workday. When we know the performance is coming up, we can lean into that future to do the hard work of practicing in the present. 

The same is true of biblical hope. Our future is secure when we are with Jesus. As the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8:18, “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” That glory will be revealed—that much is certain—and in the meantime, when every earthly voice would tell us it is better to give into despair, we are energized by a hope beyond this world. The hope of the truest, best, and most beautiful eucatastrophe ever desired. 

With this reality in mind, may we be emboldened by these words from Professor Tolkien himself, who writes of an alloy of creative work and joyful hope that can stand the test of time:

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. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.

Reflections on Time Spent with My Favorite Author J.R.R. Tolkien

Reflections on Time Spent with My Favorite Author J.R.R. Tolkien

An earnest reader for most of my life, I knew that reading would occupy a significant portion of any time spent away from work. During the extended time of rest and slowed-down pace my wife and I planned, my hope was to select a few “literary guides” to be my paper-and-ink companions. 

I wanted to stretch my mind in areas of philosophy and theology—enter Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. I also wanted to return to an author who has shaped my formation as an apprentice of Jesus more than any other—enter the robust library of Dallas Willard. And I wanted to mine the depths of Scripture in an unhurried manner—enter Robert Alter’s translation of the minor prophets. 

Yet before any of those had been selected, I knew who the most comfortable companion would be over the course of the entire journey, like an anchor to my spirit and a buoy to my imagination. Anyone who knows me even moderately well will of course know I am talking about the erudite and clever master of fantasy, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.

I devoured his work anew, returning to the well-worn pages of The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, engaging essays, letters, and short stories like “On Fairy Stories” and “Farmer Giles of Ham,” and also embarking on the formidable and uncharted territory of the twelve-volume History of Middle Earth

Needless to say, I was reminded of what I loved about this faithful Christian, brilliant thinker, masterful worldbuilder, and majestic writer. In particular, a few key reflections emerged at the intersection of Tolkien’s work and the normal Christian life as shaped by the gospel he and I share across time and place. 

Indulge me as I share reflections on how the Spirit of Christ used my favorite author to move my heart, stimulate my intellect, and slowly and subliminally rekindle my hope in God and man. May it also provide insight into the mystery of your own life and faith.

 

A reflection on victorious failure

 

There is a moment in The Fellowship of the Ring that invariably brings tears to my eyes. Boromir, a member of the company accompanying Frodo on his quest to destroy the ring, is a valiant and noble man troubled by the potential that his home city might fall at the hands of Sauron. Through the entire book he wrestles with the thought that the ring might be better used against Sauron than destroyed. 

In a moment of weakness at the climax of the book, he corners Frodo and attempts to take the ring from him. Frodo runs away, and immediately Boromir realizes his mistake. He breaks down weeping at what he has done. And that is when he hears fighting break out—orcs have arrived to assail the company. 

He runs to the aid of the young hobbits Merry and Pippin, determined to make good on his failure. While he slays many orcs in the process, he himself is filled with many arrows and the orcs run away with the hobbits. Aragorn, their leader, arrives at the scene too late, finding Boromir leaning against a tree and drawing his final breath. That is when we read this exchange:

“Farewell, Aragorn! Go to Minas Tirith and save my people! I have failed.”

“No!” said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. “You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace!”

Even as I type these words, tears fill my eyes as they did when I was listening on the drive up to Canada for a time of solitude. During that time alone I realized that I am more afraid than I would care to admit. I wrestled deeply with fears that were unearthed in my soul: fear of death, fear of letting others down, fear of being unloved, unwanted, alone. Fears, in other words, of failure. Of dying in failure. Of not being enough or having what it takes at the end of the day.

Jesus, my dear Shepherd, spoke to those fears with the words of Aragorn. Here is what I wrote in my journal:

Did Boromir fail? Unequivocally! But not irrevocably. And so do I. Did death have the final say? No, for he conquered, and even more do I through the valiance of Christ, whose own death and subsequent resurrection formed the storytellers quoted above who are so near to my heart. “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

Indeed, we are guaranteed both failure and death in this life. But the remarkable reality of life with Jesus is that power can be perfected in weakness, victory can emerge from failure, and life can triumph through death. For on the cross, it appeared to all that death had won and Christ had failed. Yet it is precisely in that moment of failure that victory was secured and precisely in that moment of death that death itself died forever. 

So as you are confronted by the fears that assail your own soul—as you come face-to-face with your own failures or the prospect of death—take heart. Feel Jesus take your hand, kiss your brow, and hear him whisper strength to your spirit: “You have conquered.”

 

A reflection on perfectionism

 

One of Tolkien’s lesser known works might also be my favorite. The short story, “Leaf by Niggle,” tells the story of a painter who has an unavoidable journey to make. Though he encounters many people and things that distract him, vying for the increasingly short time before the journey, Niggle spends every chance he gets in front of the canvas he is painting. The painting is a tree, which might not seem like much except it is his life’s work and greatest passion project. 

The problem is, because he cares so deeply about the painting, he becomes obsessive over every small detail. He wants every leaf to be perfect and unique. He is engrossed in getting every feature exactly how it should be for the painting to be complete. So he works thoroughly and meticulously, never quite satisfied and at the same time fearing that he will not be able to finish the painting before he has to leave for his journey. 

It becomes clearer over the course of the story that however much he wants to blame the interruptions of his neighbors, sicknesses, and unrelated work, the primary reason the painting is never complete is his own all-consuming “niggling” and perfectionism. 

Niggle is clearly a stand-in for Tolkien himself. The “mysterious journey” is a metaphor for death, and the painting of the majestic tree with each detailed leaf is analogous to Tolkien’s own life work. A noted perfectionist, Tolkien would spend countless hours working and reworking even the smallest phrase or moment or feature of the world he built. 

Rarely satisfied, his niggling is part of why his books took so long to produce, and why so much of his writing was published posthumously. It is also why Middle Earth is one of the most robust and consistent worlds ever built, and his writings among the greatest achievements in human history.

As I wrestled with my own fears and hopes and dreams, I discovered just how much my own personality resembles that of my favorite author. I have so many ideas that I am afraid I will never get around to seeing most of them come to fruition in this life. I want things to be so perfectly consistent that I spend hours working and reworking sermons, writings, conversations, and yes, even this blog. 

I don’t want to miss a nuance, an inconsistency, an opportunity to say something better or differently, or more helpfully. And as is so often the case, perfectionism is the breeding ground of procrastination. I’m worried I won’t have what it takes to do something up to my standards, so I put that thing off until some unknown time in the future, distracting myself with something else at hand that doesn’t take as much of my thought or heart. 

And thus so much of what I aspire to seems to whittle away before my eyes, and the aforementioned fears of death take the form of fears that I will die without accomplishing all that I hoped or dreamed.

Niggle ends up taking the journey in the end. He has no choice. His painting is used to patch a roof, and the only thing that remains is the one perfect leaf he spent all his time on. His journey leads him in the end to a place “for a little gentle treatment” that is evidently representative of some sort of heaven. 

What Niggle discovers is that this world is the fully realized vision of his painting, featuring the tree and a magnificent forest surrounding it. He is able to explore mountains and forest areas that were only glimpsed from a distance in his original, imperfect painting, working to make it more beautiful with the newfound time afforded him.

My realization was this: We are free in Christ to labor earnestly for the good of the world, using all the raw material God has placed at our disposal to realize the dreams he has stirred in our heart. We need not procrastinate in fear that it will never be perfect, because nothing will be as it should be until the end of days. And we need not fret that we will never accomplish all we set out to do, because of course we won’t, that much is sure. But just as sure is the reality that something of our work in this life will be reflected in the next, and perhaps we will even be given a glimpse of the majestic vision to which it all pointed in the end.