A Catholic-themed opinion blog about various topics, including theology, philosophy, politics and culture, from a Thomistic perspective.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Christmas with Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien is one of the most acclaimed writers of the 20th century. His works have sold millions of copies and been made into award-winning films which introduced many people living decades after Tolkien’s death, myself included, to his wonderful world. Those who are more familiar with his personal life, and particularly with his letters, will also know that not only was he an exceptional artist and brilliant scholar, but he was also a devout and even mystical Catholic. Along with experiencing an epiphanous vision of the Eucharist,[1] he also delivered one of the most beautiful explications of the Eucharist in history:


Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth.[2]


However, the connection between Tolkien and Christmas would not be an automatic connection even for many fans of Tolkien. Besides his Letters from Father Christmas, beautiful and thoughtful letters he wrote to his children, Christmas is not mentioned in any of his other works – or is it? In fact, there is a rather explicit and fascinating reference to the Birth of Our Lord in Tolkien’s famous essay, ‘On Fairy-Stories’. In this essay, which in itself includes some of Tolkien’s deepest theological insights and should also be required reading for all aspiring artists, particularly writers of fantasy fiction, Tolkien explains his original concept of eucatastrophe. Derived from Greek, Tolkien’s construction essentially means what he calls the “sudden joyous ‘turn’”,[3] that climactic moment in stories (most of all in fairy-stories, the “Consolation of the Happy Ending… its highest function”)[4] throughout history when all appears to be lost, when the good seems defeated and evil triumphant, but suddenly an unexpected “turn” occurs when the good achieves victory from a surprising source. As Tolkien explains, the eucatastrophe is deeply satisfying precisely because it points to the ultimate hope of “final victory”[5] – when Jesus’s enemies will be made His footstool (Mt 22:44 DRA), when death will be defeated at last and the world will be brought to justice and eternal joy by the promised salvation of God, the “Joy beyond the walls of the world” - the Evangelium.[6]


The connection with Christmas comes in during Tolkien’s discussion of this concept. Specifically, Tolkien states that “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.”[7] Using Tolkien’s definition for his coined term, this would mean that Christmas, the Birth of Christ, is the “sudden joyous turn” in the story of the human history – with victory coming from the “surprising source” of Christ Himself, the Son of God. Those familiar with the Gospel accounts of the Annunciation and the subsequent events of Jesus’s life during the pregnancy of the Blessed Virgin will see how Tolkien could make this statement. Jesus’s unborn life, like that of many children in our own time, was filled with many difficulties, as well as joys, from the sheer mystery and power of the Annunciation itself, when Mary “kept all these words, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19), to the dilemma of St. Joseph, who thought “to put her away privately” (Mt 1:19) before the angel revealed to him the truth of Mary’s pregnancy, then to the joy of the Visitation when Mary’s cousin Elizabeth and her unborn child, St. John the Baptist, recognized the royalty of Mary and the divinity of Christ even before His birth, and finally in the ultimate climax of the arduous journey to Bethlehem, during which any number of dangers could have been met by the Holy Family, and then discovering that the time of Jesus’s birth was at hand, being forced to deliver Him in a cave used to keep animals and resting Him in a feeding trough. Yet, even through all this, the story which could have ended in tragedy instead revealed the fulfillment of the desires of all humanity for God to draw near to us, to wage war against the evils of the world through His divine and omnipotent love.


Tolkien, however, did not say only that the Nativity of Christ was the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation begun at the Annunciation – though that is true as well. Rather, he said that Christmas is the eucatastrophe of human history as a whole. Tolkien understood, like the Magi at Epiphany, that the coming of Christ meant not only the arrival of the prophesied Hebrew Messiah but the advent of Emmanuel, God With Us. This abridgement of the severance between God and humanity caused by sin was the longing not only of ancient Judaism, but of all world religions and of the deepest desires of the human heart. Enslaved to our passions and trapped within the inevitability of death and the loss of all that we treasure, humanity has known even before it became civilized that God alone can rescue us, that through reunion with Him “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away.” (Rev 21:4)


Even beyond this connection, and leading from it, there is another and perhaps even more profound link between ‘On Fairy-Stories’ and Christmas. In Tolkien’s essay, he also introduces another largely original concept, namely sub-creation. Tolkien explains that all human art, the goal of which is to create something truly new and to do so out of love for the sake of the thing made – and of the things used to make, for “a good craftsman loves his materials”[8] - is an imitation of and participation in the divine creativity of God. As Tolkien explained, “we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”[9] Because humans are made in the image of God, with a rational nature, we have the power to rearrange the materials of God’s Creation out of “delight[] with the work of [our] hands”,[10] just as God created ex nihilo and “saw that it was good” (Gn 1:10), and to do so in both a self-expressive and fundamentally gratuitous way, making purely out of love for the thing made and not for our own benefit. This is Art; however, Tolkien gives to it a new name, “sub-creation”, and by this he means that while our artistry is imitative of God’s creativity, we make only in a derivative way, using materials we did not make ourselves, whereas God’s Creation was wholly original and unprecedented, nor was any personal need or utility involved in God’s act of Creation and so it was even more so a work of pure love.


Using the perspective of subcreation, the connection with Christmas comes in when we see that God is analogous to an artist and Creation to a work of art. From Tolkien’s literary perspective, God can also be seen as the Divine Author of the great Story of Creation. A great difference exists, however, in the power of God to give to His world the capacity for secondary causality, for creatures to be truly autonomous and to act according to their own individualities and natures while still operating within God’s Providence, the overarching plot of the Story. This is even more clearly seen in humans, to whom God gave free will and a rational nature in image of His own nature as pure intellectual spirit (Jn 4:24). Because of this freedom, humans also have the power to reject God in preference for temporal goods and our own wills, and so the Fall took place in the Garden of Eden, when humanity closed itself to the love of God.


The true magnitude of the Fall has yet to be fully explored even through millennia of Judeo-Christian religion, but from the standpoint of sub-creation, we can see that, because humans are characters within the created story of history, what is essentially God’s “sub-created” world (meaning a Creation distinct from and beneath the reality of His own Being, just as our art is inferior to ourselves as artists), it is impossible for us to ever cross the divide between ourselves and God through our own power. After the Fall, when the ladder dropped by God’s grace from Heaven into His world was burned down by our sin, we as characters can no longer reach our Author by ourselves. Because of this, it was necessary for us that God as Author should enter His own story in order to fulfill our deepest longings and to accomplish his providential plan for us: to know our place in the Story, to know that we are made intentionally and lovingly by a personal Author, and to be raised up to union with Him. In Tolkien’s immortal words,


 There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.[11]


In the light of Tolkien’s concepts of eucatastrophe and sub-creation, we can see Christmas from a new angle. Not only was Christmas the answer to all the prophetic hopes of the Hebrew people, as well as the spiritual longings for a Savior to rescue us from death, sin and the prospect of a potentially meaningless existence felt by all human persons, Christmas was and is still the accomplishment of an impossible miracle: the meeting between characters in a story and their own Author. No longer need we fear that the stories of our lives are simply disconnected series of coincidences resulting from a cosmic accident and the random confluence of human actions driven entirely by animalistic impulses. Now we can live in the certain hope that what we have all known to be true throughout history – that we are actors in a divine play, agents whose spirits reach beyond this world and can only be made whole by union with that which is greater than ourselves or anything we experience, the signs that express the One from whom all things come – is proclaimed to all the world.  

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien (eds), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), Letter 89.

[2] Tolkien, Letters, Letter 43.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, "On Fairy-Stories," in The Tolkien Reader (Great Britain: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1964), 86.

[4] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 85.

[5] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 86.

[6] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 86.

[7] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 88-89.

[8] 78.

[9] 75.

[10] 83.

[11] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 89.

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