"Christianity, the True Myth, has reconciled all lesser myths to itself. The lesser myths, in the form of fairy story or romance, were derived from Reality, or are flowing into it. However inadequate in themselves, they still offered a glimpse of the greater Truth from which they spring or into which they flow." [M&M p.105]
Interesting words from Tolkien himself! What exactly does he mean? Let us dive into his understanding of myth and truth...
Considering the many different ideologies, philosophies and beliefs in the world today, and the various aspects and elements of Tolkien's story, it is important to clarify what Tolkien was trying to achieve and why.
Confusion is rife in the modern world; many look for hope where there is none, and believe what will never fulfil them.
Tolkien's story offers glimpses into the Truth but it is important to understand where, how and why. One can be lead off into lie and confusion by not fully researching and understanding where Tolkien was coming from.
You may not agree, but at least read and consider this article.
Divine Truth is objective, not relative or subjective. The Catholic Church [and almost all other Christian Faiths] believes this fact.
Either a fundamental belief is true, or it is not, i.e. either Jesus is the Saviour of the world or he is not. The truth of it does not depend on whether we choose to believe in it or not. This ties in with the Christian philosophy of 'I am, therefore I think' and not the relativistic 'I think, therefore I am.'
The Catholic Church believes it has received the Fullness of Truth that God has chosen to reveal on earth, but also believes that other religions or cultures carry certain elements of this Truth and Light in their beliefs; but they may also have them mixed with falsity and darkness.
With this understanding of Truth, the Christian Faith is considered the most enlightened.
[We are not talking in about persons or people in these Churches who may or may not be holy, but are merely talking at a philosophical and theological level]
And, other religions being partially enlightened may hold fragments or varying degrees of the Truth.
The Fullness of Truth is the revelation of Christ residing at the head of the Church, Christ's Mystical Body, and the Holy Spirit leads the Church on earth to discover it in more depth as the years continue. This Fullness of Truth is a gift from the Holy Spirit that keeps the Deposit of Faith in the Church on track.
To the Catholic Church, other religions are not 'all evil', but are lacking this Fullness of Truth. There are good and beautiful aspects to most religions [except of course Satanic based cults and associated religions] but only the Christian Faith has understood the truth of our origin, existence and salvation according to how the One True God has revealed.
This is the teaching of the Catholic Church. There are obviously many other things we don't know about God and the unseen world, but what God has chosen to reveal about himself is held in the revelation of Jesus which is doctrinized in the repository of faith in the Catholic Church.
Tolkien held this belief in the realm of story telling. In fact, so strong was his conviction of this, that in explaining his stance to C.S. Lewis he brought about a change of heart in his friend which helped in his conversion to Christianity.
Tolkien maintained that the old Myths and Legends of past and even present cultures hold certain elements of Christian Truth. Throughout history, as cultures, religions and beliefs developed and evolved, man has expressed himself through stories, tales and other artistic forms.
Much of this oral tradition [and sometimes visual or written tradition], often passed on from father to son, and family to family, [sometimes derived from actual events] sought for the source of life and gave reason to our existence; and underscored the belief in an after-life or spiritual world. They contained stories of heroic sacrifice and the defeat of evil.
The recurring theme of a dying god being reborn to life was prominent. [M&M p.59]
Though these stories were often of non-Christian origin [they were pre-Christian in fact] and carried elements of darkness, they transported something from within the heart of man that reflected his Creator and his Creator's Truth: something eternal and true.
In today's world these myths are considered as invented or hold the connotation of not being true.
Tolkien believed that the Christian story of salvation was the culmination of these stories and myths, much in the same way Jesus is the fulfilment of the prophecies of the Old Testament and the full revelation of the True Religion. He understood that the saving act of Christ redeems every faculty in man, including his artistic nature; his desire to create, or sub-create as Tolkien referred to it. Sub-create because Tolkien considered God the Primary Creator and man, through a gift of God, became sub-creators through their art, and life and expression; and of course pro-creation.
The Plan of Salvation carried in its fullness, the healing of this artistic desire that was corrupted through original sin. The Bible itself is full of stories, poetry and tales that illustrate mans ability to communicate his relationship with God through art. In fact, a majority of the medium of the transfer of faith, through oral word or written text is an artistic expression guided by the Holy Spirit.
Quoted below are some excerpts from Tolkien's own letters that illustrate his conviction.
"The gospels contain a fairy story - even the sum total of all fairy stories rolled together, the one story we would most wish to be true in all literature. But although we cannot make the story true by wishing, and must not deceive ourselves into thinking that is it true because we wish it, we still cannot rule out the possibility that it did actually happen.
It may be that the very reason we wish it to be true is that we were made to wish it, by the One who made it true. God created us incomplete; because the kind of creature than can only be perfected by its own choices [and so through Quest and trial] is more glorious than the kind that has only to be whatever it was made to be by another."
"Of course I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy story; but I do mean very strongly that they tell a fairy-story: the greatest. Man the story teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story. But since the author of it is the supreme Artist and Author of Reality, this one was also made to Be, to be true on the Primary Plane.
So that in the Primary Miracle [the Resurrection] and the lesser Christian miracles too, though less, you have not only that sudden glimpse of the truth behind the apparent Ananke of our world, but a glimpse that is actually a ray of light through the very chinks of the universe about us." [Letters p.100]
[Ananke = Greek for "constraint"]
"Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference, that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God's myth where the others are men's myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as he found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call 'real things'.
Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a 'description' of God [that no finite mind could take in] but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to [or can] appear to our faculties. The 'doctrines' we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection."[M&M p.60]
Joseph Pearce quotes Tolkien when explaining that;
"Christianity, the True Myth, has reconciled all lesser myths to itself. The lesser myths, in the form of fairy story or romance, were derived from Reality, or are flowing into it. However inadequate in themselves, they still offered a glimpse of the greater Truth from which they spring or into which they flow. Since the Christian joy, the Gloria, has redeemed Man, it has also redeemed the sub-creativity of man: this story is supreme, and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels and of men - and of elves. Legend and History have met and been fused." [M&M p.105]
Tolkien's whole theory came from a lecture he heard while working at Oxford. He then completed an essay on Fairy-Stories and it was temporarily published in a London journal. Verifying and consolidating his discovery at this lecture, was an experience and epiphany of absolute joy he encountered when listening to a story of a miraculous healing of a person in Lourdes, France [a place of apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary]
Tolkien: "I was deeply moved and had that particular emotion we all have - though not often. It is quite unlike any other sensation. And all of a sudden I realized what it was: the very thing I have been trying to write about and explain - in that fairy-tale essay that I so much wish you had read that I think I shall send it to you. For it coined the word 'eucatastrophe': the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears [which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce.] And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth." [Letters p.100]
Further to this Tolkien explained;
"It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to a child or man who hears it, when the 'turn' comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to [or indeed accompanied by] tears as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality."
"The peculiar quality of the 'joy' in successful fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a 'consolation' for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, 'Is it true?' in the 'eucatastrophe' we see a brief vision, a far-off gleam or echo of 'evangelium' in the real world."
"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 these marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable 'eucatastrophe' [the Resurrection].
But this story has entered History and the Primary World; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfilment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the 'eucatastrophe' of Man's history. The Resurrection is the 'eucatastrophe' of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.
It has pre-eminently the 'inner consistency of reality'. There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art. That is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or wrath." [M&M p.104-105]
Tolkien even said;
"I find the fairy story one of the highest forms of literature." [Letters p.220]
Mel Gibson, who is making a film about the Passion of Jesus, has said similar things;
"I'm doing what I've always done: telling stories I think are important in the language I speak best: film. I think most great stories are hero stories. People want to reach out and grab at something higher, and vicariously live through heroism, and lift their spirit that way.
There is no greater hero story than this one — about the greatest love one can have, which is to lay down one's life for someone. The Passion is the biggest adventure story of all time. I think it's the biggest love-story of all time; God becoming man and men killing God — if that's not action, nothing is."
Tolkien desired to write a story that encapsulated much of his understanding of fairy-tales, in fact it is said that while writing parts of the back-history of the Lord of the Rings he was moved to weeping. It is not hard to see aspects of his belief stated above in the Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien described his own feelings towards his writing;
"...certain features of it still move me very powerfully but I am most stirred by the sound of the horses of the Rohirrim at cockcrow and most grieved by Gollum's failure [just] to repent when interrupted by Sam: this seems to me really like the real world in which the instruments of just retribution are seldom themselves just or holy; and the good are often stumbling blocks..." [Letters p.221 ]
"For myself, I was probably most moved by Sam's disquisition on the seamless web of story, and by the scene when Frodo goes to sleep on his breast, and the tragedy of Gollum who at that moment came within a hair of repentance..." [Letters p.110]
The Lord of the Rings, combined with many of his earlier writings from the Silmarillion was his 'opus magnum', his attempt to create a great myth, a poetic myth, but one that carried an eternal truth and gave a glimpse through into the joy of salvation beyond the sorrow of this world.
"...since I have deliberately written a tale which is built on or out of certain 'religious' ideas." [Letters p.283]
There are certain paradoxes found in his writing that are mirrors of many of the Christian paradoxes and spiritual realities: the prime examples of this being that 'one must die to oneself to find life', and, 'diminishment versus aggrandizement'.
Few would argue against the poignancy and beauty of a vast majority of Tolkien's writing. It carries a nobility, majesty and modesty that entices the reader to want to know more. The world he has created gives a sense of a far off time when things were worth caring for, when tales and legends meant something; and where a feeling of passing things and nostalgia for a fading nobility is intensely tangible. One feels the exile of the inhabitants of Middle-earth and yearns for its release and restoration.
In a reply to a letter asking about the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote;
"It is a 'fairy-story', but one written - according to the belief I once expressed in an extended essay 'On Fairy-Stories', that they are the proper audience - for adults. Because I think the fairy-story has its own mode of reflecting truth, different from allegory, or [sustained] satire, or 'realism', and in some ways more powerful. But first of all it must succeed just as a tale, excite, please, and even on occasion move, and within its own imagined world be accorded [literary] belief.
To succeed in that was my primary object. But, of course if one sets out to address 'adults' [mentally adult people anyway], they will not be pleased, excited, or moved unless the whole, or the incidents, seem to be about something worth considering, more e.g. than mere danger and escape; there must be some relevance to the 'human situation' [of all periods]. So something of the teller's own reflections and 'values' will inevitably be worked in. This is not the same as allegory. We all, as individuals, exemplify general principles; but we do not represent them." [Letters p.233]
A similar thread is expressed again as Tolkien writes;
"...since each of us is an allegory, embodying in a particular tale and clothed in the garments of time and space, universal truth and everlasting life." [Letters p.212]
Tolkien's story is set in another world, one of fantasy, where there is no mention of the Triune God [Holy Trinity] or Jesus' Salvation; but if on the outside, the story and invented world seems different to a Christian universe, it's on the inside that the underlying Truths and Parallels reside.
This is, as Tolkien argued, the intrinsic nature and purpose of myth. They carry internal truths; and the embedded truths or values in the Lord of the Rings have been layered in by a devout Catholic who believed in the principles, morals and dogmas of his religion.
Tolkien himself mentioned that the Third Age [of Middle-earth] is not a Christian Age, but continues to say that;
"...the Fall of Man is in the past and off stage; the Redemption of Man is in the future."
We are in a time when the One God, Eru, is known to exist and is revered. As Tolkien states:
"...there is no embodiment of the 'creator' in this story." [Letters p.237]
i.e. there is no character in the story that is an incarnate form of the One God.
Tolkien's view of the function and importance of myth is clear, but many critics have continued to disagree and placed the label of 'escapist' firmly at the feet of the Lord of the Rings as a protest against giving any credence to its quality.
But is it escapist? And what does this mean?
It is important to note Tolkien's own words on this label in his essay.
"I will now conclude by considering Escape and Consolation, which are naturally closely connected. Though fairy-stories are of course by no means the only medium of Escape, they are today one of the most obvious and [to some] outrageous forms of 'escapist' literature; and it is thus reasonable to attach to a consideration of them, some considerations of this term 'escape' in criticism generally.
Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than that of jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has become no less real because he cannot see it. In using Escape in this way critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing... the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter." [M&M p.144-145] [Tolkien, the Monsters and the Critics and Other essays, p.147-148]
Due to the tragedies of his own life, Tolkien understood the ability of the imagination to give us hope and raise us up. If in escaping to the realm of story, one encounters elements of
Truth, the truth that sets you free and gives you a glimpse of the joy and hope of living in God's light then the story is filled by God's grace.
Joseph Pearce [author of Tolkien: Man & Myth] quotes Stephen R. Lawhead in his book on Tolkien;
"...the best of fantasy offers not an escape away from reality, but an escape into a heightened reality - a world at once more vivid and intense and real, where happiness and sorrow exist in double measure, where good and evil war in epic conflict, where joy is made more potent by the possibility of universal tragedy and defeat.
In the very best fantasy, like the Lord of the Rings, we escape into an ideal world where ideal heroes and heroines [who are really only parts of our true selves] behave ideally. The work describes human life as it might be lived, perhaps ought to be lived, against a backdrop, not of all happiness and light, but of crushing difficulty and overwhelming distress." [M&M p.146]
In today's Christian terminology, the story of the Lord of the Rings might be described as carrying an anointing.
And if fact from a traditional Christian point of view, religious art is of great value. An image or painting or sculpture, or more especially, an icon, can be used by God as an instrument of his grace and power, this is called 'sacramental'. Mans artistic ability is extremely important, particularly if it flows from his heart and leads him back to God: it becomes True Art because it reflects and leads to the True Artist and Author of Life.
This life is an exile, and if one dreams of the Home we travel towards, one is not 'escaping' but 'returning'.
St John of the Cross [a Spanish Saint from the 16th century] describes the purification of the imagination that the Lord will work in a person who truly desires to be holy and be a saint. The imagination can be used for good and bad things. Habitual thoughts can uplift and strengthen, or crush and debase the soul.
Imagining a scene of Jesus embracing me and telling me he loves me is using the imagination to elevate my heart towards God and fill me with peace. I am imagining the truth and reality, even though it exists in an unseen world.
Tolkien's story takes us to an imaginary world, but it is a world that reflects the truth and reality of the Christian struggle in this world. His characters do much the same, as many display virtue and sacrifice and others display and warn against vice and sin.
There are of course those who do escape into the story for the wrong reasons, but this is more a reflection of the person who reads it than the literature itself.
Just as art can be used by God, many philosophies that are in opposition to the Law of God and His Love, also often use art to transmit their beliefs and ideologies. In fact, in the hands of confused and proud men, even the Bible can be used to twist and distort the true message of Jesus.
Just look at the numerous fractions and splinters of Christian groups, and others that associate themselves with the Bible and one can see how this divisive reality is very damaging to the spreading of the Gospel of Jesus.
This is why, with any story or mythology, one must be very discerning in seeing or hearing the underlying themes and messages [even if the author claims there are none] within the story. But here we have a story, an artistic expression that is infiltrated by orthodox morals and integrity; a story that has taken small elements of previous story-telling [Greek Legend, Norse tradition and so on] and raised them to a higher order, the order of Love & Truth.
Aside to Tolkien's heightened and spiritual understanding of myth was his expressed desire to provide England with a mythological culture, which he felt it lacked. He mentions his intent in setting himself, "...the task of creating a mythology for England." [Letters p.230]
The Icelandic tradition which Tolkien was very well versed in, had the Kalevala; an oral tradition of myths and legends that shaped the northern lands and psychology of the people of the region. Norse myth was very much an inspiration for Tolkien in trying to provide a mythology for England and his writing "...was an attempt to reorganize the Kalevala." [Letters p.214]
And again he states his opinion;
"I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it has no stories of its own... not of the quality that I sought, and found in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian and Finnish; but nothing English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing." [Letters p.144, Letter 131]
It is interesting to note some of the sources Tolkien took elements from,
Beren from Welsh Legends
Turin from Kalevala
Luthien like Oshtar and Orpheus
Rohirric heroism from the Njall Saga
Numenor like Atlantis
[SFX Magazine Oct 2003]
There are of course other myths that would have shaped Tolkien's writing, like Beowulf and the Edda for example, but this is not the intention of this discussion.
The Silmarillion, Lord of the Rings and Tolkien's other assorted writings deliver a world which has its own creation story; One God, arch-angels, origin of evil, fall and exile of both of the important races; geology, geography, botany and politics.
And from the individual races springs a history of kingdoms, peoples, family trees and complete genealogies. All of this spans tens of thousands of years with the details of the Lord of the Rings encompassing about 20 years near the end of this timeline. It was a life's work and in many ways fulfilled his desire to sub-create properly, i.e. give glory to God through it.
Another of the driving forces behind his writing was his interest in languages. In fact it is clear that his passion for languages and the creation of his own invented languages was part of the origins of his writing. He was fascinated with words, their origin, development and derivation. Tolkien became a philologist [studied languages] and spent much of his time researching them.
Many of the words used in the Lord of the Rings were expressly employed with specific purpose. Classic examples are:
• the name 'Mordor' containing the Latin root 'mor' to denote death.
• the word 'Orc', which probably comes from the Latin 'orcus' meaning hell; or the Italian 'orco', meaning monster.
• and the word 'Shelob', meaning 'She-spider' [lob is an old English word for spider]
and there are many others...
His own invented languages were complete and followed many of the natural rules for languages. The sub-created story was very much something that evolved out of two sub-created languages that Tolkien spilt his energy into [Sindarin and Quenyan - both elvish]. He once said that the story was, "...fundamentally linguistic in inspiration..." [Letters p.219]
He spent much of his teenage years and earlier studies at University passionately making words and runes. The story then flowed out of this passion.
A woman wrote to Tolkien in 1971 and described her feelings on the Lord of the Rings pointing out a 'sanity and sanctity' in the story. Tolkien replied;
"You speak of 'a sanity and sanctity' in the Lord of the Rings 'which is a power in itself'.
I was deeply moved. Nothing of the kind had been said to me before. But by a strange chance, just as I was beginning this letter, I had one from a man, who classified himself as 'an unbeliever, or at best a man of belatedly and dimly dawning religious feeling' but you, he said, 'create a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like a light from an invisible lamp'. I can only answer: 'Of his own sanity no man can securely judge. If sanctity inhabits his work or as a pervading light illumines it, then it does not come from him but through him. And neither of you would perceive it in these terms unless it was with you too." [Letters p.413]
To finish this section, it is worth noting Tolkien's attitude toward his writing in the light of his faith. He saw his gifts as talents from the Good Lord. He knew that he was an instrument with his artistic pursuits; his sub-creation was something that flowed out of the Primary Creators hand.
"The Silmarillion was offered for publication years ago, and turned down. Good can come of such blows. The Lord of the Rings was the result... and I saw that I was meant to do it [as Gandalf would say]." [Letters p.232]
Tolkien once stated;
"Of course, the Lord of the Rings does not belong to me. It has been brought forth and must go its appointed way in the world, though naturally I take a deep interest in its fortunes, as a parent would of a child. I am comforted to know that it has good friends to defend it against the malice of its enemies." [Letters p.413]
Tolkien also understood his responsibility as a writer with Free Will and the great responsibility he wielded from the way it could affect others;
"Great harm can be done, of course, by this potent form of 'myth' - especially wilfully. The right to 'freedom' of the sub-creator is no guarantee among fallen men that it will not be used as wickedly as is Free Will. I am comforted by the fact that some, more pious and learned than I, have found nothing harmful in this Tale or its feigning as a 'myth'..." [Letters p.194-195]
Tolkien used his talents to create and express his loves and passions in life, but he never forgot that he himself was a created being, owing his life to a higher power, and that one day he would ultimately have to give an account for his life, words, actions and thoughts.
His works, finding reference from many sources have always reflected his Creator and his Creator's love.
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