The rest of the series.
In this final post I want to focus further on Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-stories,” which I referenced several times in Part 6. We looked at Recovery in the previous post, and I’d like to conclude this series with a look at Sub-creation, Escape, and Eucatastrophe.
Before C.S. Lewis’s conversion to Christianity, he viewed myths as being worthless lies, despite their being “breathed through silver.” To persuade him otherwise, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a poem titled “Mythopoeia,” in which he mentions the defaced image of God in man. Tolkien writes about the original mandate for man to exercise dominion over creation. Man is a “Sub-creator, the refracted light / through whom is splintered from a single White / to many hues … . / We make still by the law in which we’re made.”1 In other words, since we bear God’s image, though imperfectly, we create because God creates. We imitate and glorify the ultimate Creator as we engage in sub-creation. Tolkien puts it more clearly in “On Fairy-stories” when he writes about creating fantasy: “[W]e make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”2 Of course, Lewis eventually came to agree with Tolkien, and they both used mythology to create their own myths.
On the contemporary scene, one Christian who I believe is excelling in the sub-creation of myths is Young Adult author N.D. Wilson, whom I mentioned in Part 1. Wilson’s second book in the Ashtown series (with characters such as Gilgamesh, Arachne, and Ponce de León) was released on September 11, 2012. Christians have lots of practice complaining about fiction they don’t like, but here is a Christian who is lighting a candle in the fiction world, rather than simply cursing that bespectacled Potter boy.
The kind of escape that Tolkien proposed was not an anti-Christian escapism in which boy-men avoid real-life responsibilities by camping out in their parents’ basements and playing World of Warcraft, or the kind in which wives spice up their mundane lives by reading the “mommy porn” of Fifty Shades of Grey. Tolkien’s escape was not an escape from reality, but rather an escape to reality. Related to his concept of recovery, escape is made possible by recognizing our dullness to the wonder of the world. An innocent prisoner should want to escape his drab, lifeless cell. Tolkien writes, “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, … he thinks and talks about other topics than jailors and prison-walls?”3
One way that Tolkien believed that people became imprisoned was through modern advances. Tolkien hated industrialization, a major cause of factories’ overtaking the beautiful countryside. He even refused to ride in a car. Tolkien’s suspicion of machines is made obvious in Saruman’s Isengard, the epitome of industry, where forests are destroyed and horrific creatures are mined out of the earth.4 Of course, it is possible, and even necessary, to view industry and mechanics in a more positive light. Even technology is part of God’s creation, so there must be a sanctified way of using it for God’s glory.
But if we’re honest, we recognize that the desire for escape is strong within us. In Romans 8:19-23, Paul specifically speaks of the deliverance from the curse of sin that all creation longs for. Tolkien calls our yearning to avoid death the “Great Escape”—“the oldest and deepest desire.”5 Tolkien writes that this theme of escaping death inspired George MacDonald, a Christian writer of fairy tales. It is no stretch to say that fairy tales, myths, legends, etc. provide this sense of escape better than most other genres.
But our escape is not a reviling of this world. We escape the horrors of this world, not by fleeing from it, but by setting it right. As C.S. Lewis puts it, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”6 God pronounced His creation to be very good, and a healthy escape is not an escape from the goodness of this world, but from the perversion that has plagued it since the Fall. We can be optimistic about Christ’s kingly rule over the world, and this optimism leads me to my final point.
According to Tolkien, good fairy stories do not ignore the fact that terrible things happen in the world, but these stories are optimistic in that they give a “fleeting glimpse of Joy … beyond the walls of the world.”7 Whereas catastrophe is literally a downward turn, eucatastrophe is an upward turn, and “when the ‘turn’ comes, [it gives readers] a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.”8 Furthermore, through fairy stories “we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.”9
Tolkien even went so far as to describe the Gospels as “a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories … ‘mythical’ in [its] perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels in the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe.”10 But we should not stop with merely appreciating the magical and joyful nature of the gospel. We can create our own stories to reflect the truth about the world and give people a fleeting glimpse of joy. Tolkien writes,
[The good news of the gospel] has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” 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… . [I]n Fantasy he may actually assist in the … enrichment of creation.11
Writing mythology can be the calling of a Christian, and the best fairy tales and myths point us to the “true Myth”—the joyful story of a God-man dying in the place of undeserving sinners to make them inheritors of His Father’s kingdom.
Peter Leithart notes in a book on mythology12 that the wealth of the wicked is stored up for the righteous (Prov. 13:22), a point I made in Part 4 when I said that all truth is God’s truth. Leithart and other Christian scholars have argued the case I’ve presented here much more persuasively than I have, and if you are interested in the books I’ve mentioned throughout these posts, I encourage you to check out the bibliography I’ve assembled.
2 “On Fairy-stories” in The Tolkien Reader (New York: Del Rey, 1986), p. 75.
3 Ibid., p. 79.
4 Tolkien eventually orchestrates the demise of this tower at the hands—or should I say, branches—of the trees themselves.
5 “On Fairy-stories,” p. 85.
6 Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 134.
7 “On Fairy-stories,” p. 86.
9 Ibid., p. 87.
10 Ibid., p. 88.
11 Ibid., p. 89.
12 Heroes in the City of Man: A Christian Guide to Select Ancient Literature