Of Hobbits and History

The last of the Lord of the Rings films will be out soon. I have loved the books since I was a child and read and re-read them. Do I dare go and see the films?

Tolkien thought deeply about what it is to create an imaginary world. A devout Catholic, he was concerned that as a ‘sub-creator’ he had responsibilities under the First Commandment, that his work should always acknowledge his Creator. He warned in a letter written in 1951 ‘the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation. He will rebel against the laws of the Creator – especially against mortality.’

Tolkien sought in his literature to achieve an effect which in his famous Essay on Fairy Tales he called the eu-catastrophe; that moment of ‘good catastrophe’ in which the reader is brought to see for a fleeting moment the possibility of the final defeat of evil, and is given ‘a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief’. Such a moment is accompanied by ‘a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears.’ It is a glimpse of Good News. Tolkien uses the word: evangelium.

Tolkien thought that one or two passages in the Lord of the Rings achieved this. (For those who know the books, the unfurling of the banner of the King at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields was his main example.)

Always aware of his duty to his Creator, Tolkien understood God to have written his novel in human history. Just as an author as sub-creator writes words on the page to speak to the imagination of the reader, so the Creator writes his word in events to speak to the experience of the soul. ‘The birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of man’s history; the resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation.’ In terms of narrative power the account of Our Lord’s revelation of himself to Mary in the Garden in the twentieth chapter of St John surely fits Tolkien’s definition. His point, however, is not one of poetics, but of history. This is the good catastrophe, the evangelium, and unless we know it to be fact we cannot understand fiction.

Luke Miller is Vicar of St Mary’s, Tottenham.