“Remember this! Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15).
In a long-ago CC column, I argued that, from a literary standpoint, the Bible might well be considered a fantastic comedy: fantastic because it admits to a reality of things beyond our ordinary five senses, and a comedy because it ultimately ends happily in a city of delight.
In the 1930s, British philologist and author J.R.R. Tolkien wrote his great fantasy The Hobbit and the follow-up trilogy The Fellowship of the Rings. It wasn’t until three decades later, however, that his oeuvre captured the imagination of millions of readers world-wide. In more recent times, this saga has won new admirers through a block-buster series of films.
Space limitations and familiarity preclude my retelling Tolkien’s story, set in the make-believe world of Middle Earth. Briefly, it concerns a journey taken by a fellowship of hobbit friends to the land of Mordor – a land of fear and terror, of powers so overwhelming that seemingly only complete fools would attempt such a journey. The diminutive hobbits go on their journey because they have a mission to destroy the one Ring that the Lord of Mordor needs to consolidate his power for world conquest.
Tolkien’s world is fantastic and yet it is real. Even cynical college students of the anarchic 1960s felt the inner truth of Tolkien’s narrative and made his writings a publishing sensation. Many learned and popular articles and books have attempted to explain Tolkien’s purpose and vision in writing his Middle Earth saga. But all this analytic writing mostly missed the mark, and was quite unnecessary, for Tolkien himself, in a remarkable essay titled On Fairy Stories, provided definitive clues to the power and essential reality of his narrative.
Sudden and miraculous
The key word for Tolkien is joy, a joy that comes when we reach the “turn” of a story; that joy we feel when, in a hopeless and catastrophic situation, consolation and hope arrives. It is not a fugitive or escapist joy, for it does not deny the existence of sorrow and failure. It is rather that joy we experience within the reality of living when, through the “turn” of sudden and miraculous grace, we can deny the final defeat and catch a glimpse of joy – “Joy beyond the walls of the world.”
With those words from Tolkien, it becomes clear, as he himself pointed out, that the Christian narrative contains a fairy-story that embraces the essence of all fairy-stories. The journey it relates has “all the inner consistency of reality.” It begins with the joy of Creation and ends with the joy of the Resurrection. And though it is filled with the terror of sin and suffering, it provides, in Christ, the “turn” in humanity’s history. Christian joy, then, is supreme because it is primarily true. God is the Lord of angels and of humans – and of hobbits. While still filled with sin and terror, the Christian story is Christ’s ultimate victory over death – a story that, with Tolkien, lets us sing and laugh with a Joy beyond time and the walls of the world. Fantastic.