Tolkien and Good and Evil in the Imagination
WITH GOD DAILY devotional app by Skye Jethani 5/19/20
“Six months ago, few of us could have imagined that we would be facing a global pandemic, unemployment would reach levels not seen since the Great Depression, and over 90,000 Americans would be dead. Covid-19 is the definition of a catastrophe—“a sudden and widespread disaster.” When catastrophes occur we are left stunned as our vision of the world is dismantled and our sense of control shattered. What remains are questions: Why did this happen? Will we recover? Where is God?
Sometimes direct answers to these questions elude us and are to be found, instead, indirectly through art and literature. That was my experience while reading the fantasy works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Best known for writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was an Oxford professor, a Roman Catholic, and a close friend of C.S. Lewis who was instrumental in Lewis’ journey from atheism to faith in Christ. Unlike Lewis, however, Tolkien’s novels were not Christian allegories, but that does not mean his imaginary world of wizards and elves did not reveal something true about our world.
For example, Tolkien often employed a storytelling device in his fables he called “eucatastrophe.” A catastrophe is an unexpected evil, but Tolkien added the Greek prefix eu– meaning “good” to express the unexpected appearance of goodness. He defined it as “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings you to tears.” It has this effect on us “because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth” in which we “feel a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back.” Repeatedly in his stories, the eucatastrophe occurs just as all hope appears to be lost. It is the moment the eagles swoop in for the rescue, the riders of Rohan arrive at the battle, or Gandalf the White appears with the breaking of the day.
When reading through Tolkien’s lens, the Bible is full of eucatastrophes. Moses parting the sea. Daniel in the lion’s den. The birth of a child to a barren old couple. Paul and Silas in the Philippian jail. The Bible tells the story of a God who always makes a way where there is no way, and the greatest euchatastrophe is the Gospel itself. The life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus is the story of God suddenly breaking into our world, defeating evil in the most unexpected way, and offering us a glimpse of the truest truth there is.
Some think the value of Tolkien’s books, and the entire fantasy genre, is escape—the transportation of our imaginations away from this world and its problems. The best fairy tales and fantasies, however, function like parables. They don’t merely transport our imaginations they sanctify them, and they don’t help us escape this world but embrace it as it really is. It’s easy to see catastrophes, brokenness, and injustice in the world—especially right now. Tolkien teaches us to see and expect the eucatastrophes, and to live with the assurance that the tears we cry in the end will be tears of joy.” Skye Jethani
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