The King

fairy stories

Tolkien connects all of fairy-story to the master-narrative of Christianity: fall and redemption through the impossible eucatastrophe of resurrection. This is the Christo-centric passion of the Logos as we see played out in the death and resurrection of Gandalf, Aragorn’s journey into and return from the land of the dead, Éowyn’s rescue of Théoden from the King of the Wraiths and her healing by Aragorn, the charge of the Rohirrim, and Frodo’s trudge up the Golgotha of Mt. Doom to be saved, finally, by Gollum. Eucatastrophe is the main feature of the inscape of The Lord of the Rings, and it is why Tolkien said its main topic was Death, not as final dissolution or end, but as the beginning of new creation. What Tolkien sees as the essence of fairy-story is what modern sensibilities tend to be most cynical about: the miraculous happy ending.41

In “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien doesn’t just hint at the connection of fairy-story to the gospels, but makes it explicit. The true sub-creator wants to be a real maker, and so draws on reality:

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 . . . and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered history and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. . . . There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, . . . 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.42

In the story of Christ, Tolkien proclaimed to Lewis, we have “true myth,” art verified, and the fusion of Legend and History, and it becomes manifest in the world even in the humble fairytale. The makers of story and myth can present some of this truth, even if not perfectly: “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.”[43]

Sacramental vision

From Craig Bernthal’s Tolkien’s Sacramental Vision:

“Tolkien is scrupulous in his portrayal of nature; he makes the reader feel that the soil of the Shire and the trees of Lothlórien are full of grace. This understanding that the supernatural and natural are bound-up and in harmony with each other grounds the Catholic understanding that the world is sacramental—a fount of grace. O’Connor explains:

The Catholic sacramental view of life is one that sustains and supports at every turn the vision that the storyteller must have if he is going to write fiction of any depth.7

Every mystery that reaches the human mind, except in the final stages of contemplative prayer, does so by way of the senses.8

Open and free observation is founded on our ultimate faith that the universe is meaningful, as the Church teaches.9

The Catholic vision is that the holy is not located outside a material universe that is corrupt, but within a material universe that is mainly good, though fallen, and this means that holiness can enter through the senses and that the world at large has a sacramental quality. Christianity makes spiritual goods out of the most mundane material: bread, water, wine, oil; everything is meaningful. O’Connor says this way of seeing is so habitual a part of the Catholic mind-set, that it works unconsciously:

The tensions of being a Catholic novelist are probably never balanced for the writer until the Church becomes so much a part of his personality that he can forget about her—in the sense that, when he writes, he forgets about himself.10

O’Connor’s main point, that a Catholic novelist sees a world illuminated by the light of Catholic culture and thought—more specifically, by commitment to Christ—is the important one, but, although this illumination may touch everything, it may not establish itself in symbols or action readily identifiable as Christian. A Catholic novel, like Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock or O’Connor’s Wise Blood, may not look Catholic on its face. One deals with a small time thug in Brighton, the other with an atheist evangelist in the Protestant South. Both, however, bring a supernatural reality into the novel by assuming a universe meaningful in Catholic terms. O’Connor has one important addition in her essay, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”: all fiction writers need an anagogical vision, “the kind of vision that is able to see different levels of reality in one image or situation.”11

Anagogical vision goes hand in hand with having a “sacramental view” of life, for the sacramentality of the world is apprehended through such vision. Fr. Andrew Greeley describes a general Catholic imagination, into which O’Connor’s view of Catholic novelists neatly fits:

Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures. But these Catholic paraphernalia are mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility which inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in creation. As Catholics, we find our houses and our world haunted by a sense that the objects, events, and persons of daily life are revelations of grace. . . .

This special Catholic imagination can appropriately be called sacramental. It sees created reality as a “sacrament,” that is, a revelation of the presence of God. The workings of this imagination are most obvious in the Church’s seven sacraments, but the seven are both a result and a reinforcement of a much broader Catholic view of reality.12

The sources in patristic and medieval literature for this sacramental view of Creation are so extensive that they defy any complete listing. The understanding of the created world as in itself sacramental was a pervasive one, biblically based on Romans 1 :20, Wisdom 13:1–9, Psalm 148 and Daniel 3:57–81. Among the people who explicate it are Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius, Ephrem, Basil of Caesarea, Augustine, John Scotus Eriugena, Pseudo-Dionysius, Hildegard of Bingen, Alan of Lille, Hugh of St. Victor, St. Francis, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Saint Gregory of Palmas, and as a group, Celtic monastics and the desert fathers.13 This tradition continues to this day through the works of spiritual writers such as John of the Cross, Thomas Traherne, and, as already cited, Gerard Manley Hopkins;14 I am not the first to see its connection to Tolkien.15