Friday, April 18, 2014

A Far-off Gleam of Evangelium

Near the end of class we talked about the idea of a Christian style of writing in which the sublime and the humble are mixed, and identified Tolkien’s style as such. The argument goes something like this: In antique, pre-Christian thought there was a very clear separation between the sermo gravis or sublimis, the sublime and elevated style, and the sermo remissus or humilis, the low or humble style, and the two could never be used together. In Christianity, however these two styles are merged, first of all in Christ’s Incarnation and Passion, which, as Auerbach says, “realize and combine sublimitas and humilitas in overwhelming sense” (page 151). This merging of styles is also seen in one of the overarching themes of the Bible: the sublime transcends and is relevant to the everyday and to everyday people. In Tolkien’s writing style there is great variety. His works have everything from the working class hobbits’ uneducated English to Elrond’s archaic style. There is prose and poetry, and in each of these varieties there is great variety. The poetry, for example, includes everything from the hobbits’ playful nursery rhymes to the lays and chants of the Elves and the psalm-like song of the Eagles. And there is the idea that simple, humble hobbits can be part of a story with elevated sublime themes. The Lord of the Rings is a story in which simple Shire-folk “arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the great” (II: II). Tolkien’s entire work can be described as a mixture of the sublime and the humble, making Tolkien’s style Christian.

This, although undeniably true, seems to me insufficient to describe Tolkien’s style. He does more than just mix high and low English, or use humble characters or language to tell sublime truths. Throughout his works, he seems to be directly imitating the Bible. There are many things in Tolkien’s writings that resound with readers familiar with the Bible. The mixture of both elevated and low style, the use of prose and verse, and the use of the humble in dealing with the sublime have already been mentioned. We can add to this the variety of languages and original authors that Tolkien says he is translating from, reminiscent of the different books of the Bible, written down at throughout history by different men in various languages, and only later recompiled and translated. Finally, there are the citations of parts of earlier poems and references to earlier stories, which are similar to the how many New Testament authors used verses and stories from the Old Testament. These elements make Tolkien’s work similar in style to the Bible, but of course they also have other uses. The variety of style and language, and the use of poems give Middle-Earth depth, history and more reality. It could be possible that the resemblance be just coincidence. However, sometimes passages from Tolkien’s writing comes so close in style that, if one were to change the names of people and places, the passages could easily be mistaken as parts of the Bible. These instances, I believe, occur more often in The Silmarillion, but there is one perfect example in The Lord of the Rings: the song of the eagles after the defeat of Sauron. This song, which calls on the people of the West to celebrate the defeat of Sauron and the return of their King, is uncomfortably close in style to psalms celebrating the coming of Christ as King. Take, for example, the third stanza:
Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
for your King shall come again,
and he shall dwell among you all the days of your life (VI:V)

If one were to substitute “children of Israel” or “people of the Earth” for “Children of the West”, this could perfectly well be from a Psalm or a prophecy about Christ. These instances, more than anything else, seem proof to me that the similarities between Tolkien’s writings and the Bible are not coincidence. Tolkien is not just writing in a Christian style, but in a biblical style. Which leads to the question: why? What is Tolkien trying to suggest by imitating the Bible in his works?

When I first asked myself this, two possible answers rapidly came to mind, and were even more rapidly discarded. The first though was "Tolkien is writing in the style of the Bible because he thinks his works and the Bible should be read in the same manner”. That is, the song about king Aragorn so closely resembles psalms and prophesies about Jesus because we should treat Jesus and Aragorn in the same way. This, of course, is absurd. Tolkien, a devout Catholic, would neither presume to place his work at the level of Scripture, nor say that the Bible should be read as nothing more than a fairy story (even an extremely well written and deep fairy story). The second possibility was that Tolkien wanted his writing to represent people and stories from the Bible: the song about Aragon is reminiscent of songs about Jesus because Aragon represents Jesus. This is equally absurd. Tolkien makes it abundantly clear that The Lord of the Rings “has no allegorical intentions, general, particular, or topical, moral, religious, or political” (Letter 165).

The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory. It is a fairy story, and in that, I think, can be found the answer to the question. In his essay On Fairy-Stories, Tolkien claims that the mark of a true fairy-story is the joy of the happy ending, and not just any happy ending, but a eucatastrophe, that is, “a sudden and miraculous grace” (page 86) that comes when there is least hope for it. This eucatastrophe is so important for Tolkien because, if done properly, it is “a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world” (page 88); it looks toward what he calls “the Great Eucatastrophe” (page 89), the Christian story. If Tolkien wanted his stories to be an echo of the Christian story, it is not surprising that he might want his writing to echo the writing of the book that tells that story. In this way, Tolkien’s entire work, and not just his happy endings, echoes the story of the Great Eucatastrophe. Looked at in this light, the song sung in honor of Aragorn should remind us of psalms sung in praise of Christ because Aragorn’s story is an imperfect reflection of the story of the Great Eucatastrophe, which never the less lets us glimpse at the joy of the evangelium.

Elaina Wood


  1. Thanks for your post Elaina! I really enjoyed reading it. I would like to explore further your question of “why” Tolkien decided to write in a Christian style. The Great Story is so great that it permeates every aspect of the Christian life. Tolkien allowed it to impact his life and also his writing. Tolkien was able to understand the character of Christ so well that he could capture the sublime and humble in his writing, something that is so difficult to do.

    The joy (eucatastrophic feeling) that accompanies the “psalm-like” song of the Eagles is very much like a reflection of the resurrection of Christ not only in words, but it also invokes a particular feeling. It is the feeling that comes Easter morning and singing the Hymn “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” The absolutely profound message of the Gospel has such an impact on the lives of those truly committed to serving God that it is impossible not to live for Him.

    I think this is part of the reason I love reading Tolkien so much. Even though his writings are not allegorical and not explicitly Christian, he still can capture many very real aspects of the Christian life. :)

    ~ K. Kohm

  2. A fine reflection on the problem of "Christian style." You do a great job of laying out for us what it means to combine the humble and the sublime, and in noting the similarities of prose and verse-- I agree, that psalm sounds most Davidic, or perhaps from Isaiah! I also agree that Tolkien is neither re-writing the Bible nor an heavy handed allegory of it, but that the resonances are far more subtle and compelling. I particularly like your reading of "sudden and miraculous grace" in Tolkien as a reflection of the "Great Eucatastrophe."

    I'm not sure I agree that it is sufficient to say that "If Tolkien wanted his stories to be an echo of the Christian story, it is not surprising that he might want his writing to echo the writing of the book that tells that story." I can think of any number of ways to echo the Christian story without utilizing the combination of humble and sublime, in poetry and prose, in plot and in dialogue, that you describe so wonderfully above (The Life of Brian, Veggie tales, the new Noah movie, Narnia, etc.). Why does it still matter that Tolkien's style is evocative of Scripture?


  3. As I read your post, I realized that the reason why so many people assume that the Lord of the Rings is an allegory is because it is so similar to the Bible not only thematically but also stylistically. I agree that one reason why Tolkien’s writing resembles the Bible so much is because he wanted it to reflect “the Great Eucatastrohpy” found in the Bible. Additionally, he believed that myth should reflect truth, and, if he believed Christianity to be true, then his work would naturally reflect the Bible.
    However, I think that another reason why Tolkien made The Lord of the Rings so similar to the Bible is because he believed that mythology should be a sub-creation of what was originally created by God. As he said in the “Mythopoeia,” “We make still by the law in which we’re made.” It makes sense that because the laws Tolkien was following are the ones set by God, The Lord of the Rings would adhere to the same themes and styles found in the Bible.

    -J Keener

  4. I think that another possible explanation for Tolkien’s use of biblical style is that he was attempting to make a compelling and believable history. The Bible tells a story which many people take to be some form of history, and Tolkien claims to think about his own creations in the same way. As we talked about today in class, he often claims that the Legendarium represents some kind of history which can be mapped onto our own world. By utilizing the style of the Bible, I think that he is trying to connect with the historical nature of the Bible story.
    Also, I think that the mixture of humble and the sublime which is used to define Christian “style” maps well onto Tolkien’s stories because he is creating stories with similar historical weight. Similarly to the Bible, Tolkien creates stories which involve both “common people” (hobbits, James and John the fishermen) and “powerful situations” (the destruction of the ring, the death of the Messiah). By using the already established Christian tactics for combining these opposing ideas, Tolkien is drawing on a style which many readers may consciously or subconsciously link to their own history. He is therefore embedding the Legendarium within the potential history of the readers by linking it stylistically to a text which many consider to be some form of written history.

    A Lasky

  5. That’s a very impressive catch you made, identifying the striking similarity between the stanza from the song of the Eagles with the structure of psalms. I think the similarity actually goes past the structure and the familiar language in “all ye children of the west”, and the evocative similarity to references of Christ. “Dwell among you” and “be glad” are definitely phrases directly taken from Psalms.

    I do wonder, however, if it is supposed to be read in a similar matter as the Bible, or if Tolkien is simply using suggestive language that would be familiar to Christians. As you have mentioned, Tolkien is clearly anti-allegory, especially in the Lord of the Rings. However, this it is interesting that he is so adamantly against allegory when the Bible itself is highly allegorical. Frankly, allegory is a heavily used technique in the Gospel in Jesus’s parables, and this is most certainly something that Tolkien is aware of. This fact causes me to doubt that Tolkien wanted it read in the fashion of the Bible – promoting the same values, evocative of the same emotions, perhaps, but using a very different tool and therefore interpreted by another method altogether.