J. R. R. Tolkien, Author of the Century, by Tom Shippey, Houghton Mifflin Company 2000.
“The oldest and deepest desire satisfied by fairy tales is to tell tales of the great escape: the escape from Death.”
There is a sublime sadness in the eyes of the hero, Aragorn, within the triumph of resilience that is the story of The Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien suffered loss of his father to rheumatic fever, when he was four, and loss of his mother to diabetes when he was twelve. He was raised by Catholic priests. He was gravely sickened with trench fever in World War I.
“By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.”
He eventually married – a long and good marriage – and became an Oxford professor of old english, the literature before Shakespeare. He taught in the years when Britain lost its confidence, Orwell wrote of the corruption of language, society abandoned religion, and Hitler rose to power.
For Tolkien, the great legends, such as Beowulf, speak eternal truths, the truths known before writing, known before civilization, truths that even the authors themselves do not realize they are telling, truths from God.
For Tolkien, God tells a legend story that He makes to actually happen: the story of Jesus Christ.
Modern times chose to turn away from the old stories and their truths. For them, the past was not wisdom, it was superstition, Mythology doesn’t teach, it is artifact.
And for Tolkien, the price paid was ghastly wars.
The Lord of the Rings is a re-telling, for the modern ears that will hear, the old knowledge. Tolkien re-tells the ancient lore for the modern reader, he re-presents the immemorial truths.
The Lord of the Rings is a story of common people and the power of common loyalty, of the universal temptation of power and the sure corruption by power, of the dangers of disbelief and the meaning in mortality, of the journey of living and courage in the face of despair, of the necessity of resisting evil and of staring annihilation in the face, of looking to one’s own sin and resisting the of sin of others, of facing insurmountable odds and of holding fast, of the power of simple friendship and the king restored to his throne.
“Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect “history” to be anything but a “long defeat” – although it contains glimpses of final victory.”
History is not progressive, it is the perennial story, the recurring struggle with sin and death.
There is deliverance. There is the Evangelium – joy beyond the veil of the world, the truth of the living God.