Tolkien & Theology: Believing in Fairy Stories

January 01, 2004

Tolkien & Theology: Believing in Fairy Stories

Let’s be clear from the start: I don’t consider the Lord of the Rings to be a work of theology. Theo=god, logos=word: this novel is not full of words about God. There are other books, and in particular, another Book, that offer words about God.

LOTR was not written to defend a particular view of God. It wasn’t written to examine God’s nature, nor to justify the ways of God to human beings (cf. Milton’s famous explanation of the purpose of Paradise Lost). Nor was it written as an allegory of God’s relations with the world, as was Spenser’s great poem, The Faerie Queene. In fact, it is known that Tolkien detested allegory, as Diane will explain.

LOTR is not about theology, it is about a particular world—the world of Middle-earth, somewhere between heaven and the underworld—and its history, its struggles, its natural features, its legends and fables. One of the astonishing features of Middle-earth is how real it seems. It has an extensive history and a cultural complexity that matches or surpasses that of actual nations. The names are real: Mordor, Galadriel, Smeagol and Deagol, Lothlórien. They seem to derive from actual lineages, real genealogies. And yet, we know that they sprang from the mind of one man: J.R.R. Tolkien.

Tolkien received ‘wounds’ in his childhood, something which Australian poet Les Murray considers a source of creative energy. It is astonishing how many creative people lost a parent while very young. Tolkien’s father died when he was 4, his mother when he was 12 after she had ostracised the family by converting to Roman Catholicism. He also lost all but one of his best childhood friends to the trenches of WWI. As a child, he held grief in one hand and imagination in the other. They are two potent forces, which came together for Tolkien in ancient mythology and language.[1]

Tolkien’s childhood was spent learning ancient languages: he had mastered Greek and Latin by age 12, at which point he began to add Gothic, Welsh, Finnish, Old English. After reading English Language and Literature at Oxford, he was employed by the New English Dictionary where he worked on words beginning with ‘W’. He absorbed mythology and the stories of medieval England, and felt a strong contrast between them and the developments of history in his time. War encroached, taking away friendship, domesticity, comfort and human kindness. Industrialisation irritated Tolkien endlessly, and he contrasted the ‘reality’ of what he read in stories—people in love, the beauty of nature, virtues expressed via adventure, moral struggle—with the ‘unreality’ of factories, mechanics, cars, machines. What seemed most real to others—the hard metals of production—seemed unreal to Tolkien. And what seemed real to him—clouds, joyous creatures, great secret beasts, has come to be known as ‘fantasy’. He wrote: “The notion that motor-cars are more “alive” than, say, centaurs or dragons is curious; that they are more “real” than, say, horses is pathetically absurd” (OFS).

So a great conflict, a wound, a loss, developed in Tolkien, a gap between the reality he saw and the reality he knew. It was this dissonance that lay behind his work on LOTR.

The real world of faerie

In 1947, Tolkien published a very significant and revealing essay, ‘On fairy stories’.[2]  In the essay, he explores the meaning of a way of thinking called ‘faerie’, commonly expressed in fairy tales. Tolkien is at pains to point out that most people have a very narrow and mistaken view of what such a tale is—that it is a simple made-up story containing small unreal creatures. Tolkien’s own definition is more metaphysical: a fairy story Tolkien contains events, words and ideas that are magical or fantastical, but in a serious way such that it seems real. Such a tale is marked especially by the attempt to recover from a loss. They could achieve at least three things: recovery, escape and consolation.

By recovery, Tolkien meant the regaining of a clear perspective (OFS), a return to health, and renewal of what has been tainted. The fairy story, far from a move away from reality, is supposed to be a journey back to reality, to the way things are when the dust is swept away and the window pane polished.

By escape, Tolkien did not mean escapism. He wasn’t referring to fleeing from reality, but escaping its accursedness, escaping from the imprisonments of the world—moral, personal, physical, mortal imprisonments. accursed things worth escaping from include hunger, poverty, pain, sorrow and injustice. And the Great Escape, as Tolkien names it, is from death. These are the very subjects which fairy stories address: the quest for paradise, a place of feasting and no sorrow and pain, a place where right is done and wrong is done away with, a place where death is not the victor.

If elves were to write fairy stories, they would write ‘human stories’, claims Tolkien: “The Human-stories of the elves are doubtless full of the Escape from Deathlessness”. We write stories which help us to escape our prisons.

And by consolation, Tolkien refers to what happens after escape, what happens at the end, when all is counted and assessed and completed. Consolation is drawn from the deep human desire for completion, for finality, for resolution. It is our ‘sense of an ending’.

Tolkien has a sophisticated literary understanding of what is going on here, and it is largely theological in shape, as expressed in this rather complex quote from ‘On Fairy-stories’:

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. (OFS)

Tolkien viewed Drama as essentially tragic—a slice of life in which human beings were under a curse and destined for failure and disaster. Tragedy is the highest and truest form of drama for Tolkien. However, the opposite is true for fairy-stories: the Happy Ending is the highest form of the fairy tale. Tolkien coined a word for this: ‘eucatastrophe’, the good catastrophe. He wrote, “The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function” (OFT).

The introduction of the word ‘evangelium’ reveals Tolkien’s hand at last. It is a now obsolete 16th Century word, harking back to the Greek word of the New Testament for ‘gospel’. ‘Evangelium’ means proclaiming the gospel, declaring the victory of Christ over death, sin and the devil in his crucifixion and resurrection from the dead.

The proclamation of a fairy-story like LOTR—its evangeliumis the great news that evil will not triumph, even if it looks like doing so at certain points. Evil has a use-by date; it will expire; good will outlast it; there will be life beyond the eye of Sauron.[3] This is the Great Consolation, which Tolkien says is the source of joy: ‘joy beyond the walls of the world’. I found that notion very powerful—we might call it the eschatological shape of experience. The fact that the end will be OK causes joy to break out in the present.

True fantasy

These are among the weighty ideas which a fairy-story is powerful enough to carry. Each of these notions of what fairy stories can do matches rather well with some ideas in theology. Recovery might be compared with conversion or enlightenment—seeing clearly as if for the first time; escape has a parallel in salvation/redemption and resurrection—not escapism which would pretend that evil and death are not real, but spiritual escape from those wrongs; and consolation compares with justification, peace with God and the recreation of the world. The Happy Ending, which the Bible declares in the words of the Lamb on the throne in Revelation 21: ‘Behold, I am making all things anew’.

Lord of the Rings is not a work of theology, but it would be untrue to Tolkien’s own view of fairy tales—of which LOTR must be one of the most wonderful—if we were not to think about it theologically. Because, in the strange sense of fairy-stories, LOTR is true. It tells us the truth using the genre of fairy-tale, using fantasy, using the imagination. And it is a strange, strange truth about human knowledge that it often lodges inside our imaginations. Aragorn is no real King; Gandalf is no real saviour; and lovely Sam Gamgee is no real suffering servant. But, amazingly, we can say that each of those descriptions of them is true and teaches us something that is worth knowing in the world outside of the story.

With this framework, let’s think theologically about two doctrines—creation and redemption—in LOTR.


[1]  I owe this idea of the shape of Tolkien’s childhood to Tim Keller, CD about Tolkien.

[2]  "On Fairy-Stories". In Essays presented to Charles Williams. Contributors: Dorothy Sayers, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, A. O. Barfield, Gervase Mathew, W. H. Lewis. London: Oxford University Press, 1947.

[3]  As both Diane and Kirsten point out, in LOTR another evil will replace that brought by Sauron. However, there is still in LOTR a sense of a coming time of peace, a haven that will be reached. The fact that this does not line up neatly with New Testament eschatology further emphasizes Tolkien’s hatred of allegory.

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