Friday, July 01, 2005

A Wonderful Tolkien Poem

It was not until I was 23 that I read The Lord of the Rings, though it made such an impression on me that I now try to read it every year during Lent. (I will explain this in detail next year at the proper time, God willing.)

However: as wonderful as the tales of Tolkien's Middle-Earth is, I would claim that he has another, and far more important work, much less frequently mentioned. It is the essay called "On Fairy Stories" reprinted in A Tolkien Reader. Besides quoting Chesterton and having a distinctly Chestertonian, uh, character? quality? well, we're not analyzing it here and if I did I would want payment, or at least another degree for it... AHEM! Sorry. As I was saying! Besides quoting Chesterton, this story deals with two very important ideas: ideas which are so important that no one had really ever given them names before. So of course Tolkien did. He calls them "subcreation" and "eucatastrophe." Tolkien, along with the magnificent Dorothy L. Sayers in her The Mind of the Maker and GKC in his The Everlasting Man, has done important work in the "science of story writing." And these two words are fundamental to the Christian character of "story" as it now exists in this Anno Domini.

As time permits, I will explore these terms further. But for now, I will begin by reprinting Tolkien's poetic rebuttal to a gentleman who considered fairy-tales to be "breathing a lie through silver"....

"Dear Sir," I said - "Although now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Subcreator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons - 'twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we're made."

The thesis amounts to this: We are made in the image of One Who makes, and therefore also make, according to our place in the universe. (Now it is true that husband and wife do this in the most perfect fashion, but that is one of the secrets everyone knows....) It is in literature - and only relatively recent literature at that - that this fact has begun to be noticed, and appreciated. Perhaps this is why Christmas stories are so popular...


At 02 July, 2005 11:45, Blogger Marc the polar bear said...

As long as you finish reading the book around the 25th of March. :-) A new age that dawns in our earth and Middle Earth!

At 05 July, 2005 16:47, Blogger Peter Terp said...

I think this poem also speaks directly to the plight of the scholar and not just the artist.

It is through the properly channelled sub-creation that we can make the profane serve the sacred. Sub-creation points towards a Creator insofar as it is "believable," that is, insofar as it rings true even if the events are themselves fantastic. The Sub-creator merely changes some rule in reality, and imagines what the world would be like with that new rule.

As in the epilogue in the essay "On Fairy Stories," stories more or less point towards Truth as they cause desire in us for them to be true...and thus Truth of the Gospels, as Tolkien points out, becomes expressly clear through the ultimate wish-fulfillment which they convey.

Thus, we shouldn't be alarmed if elements of Christianity sound a lot like pagan myths. Rather than taking a historicist's approach and using similarities to "debunk" Christianity as derivative, resonances merely indicate the universality of man's desire for Truth.

Myths approach the Truth that is fulfilled and actualized in the Gospel narratives.

At 06 July, 2005 07:38, Blogger Dr. Thursday said...

Thanks, Peter - very insightful. (And being half-scholar, I understand - and appreciate it!)

YOu are right about the pagan elements - rather than being concerned for an explanation, we should expect parallels, and rejoice in them.

This whole thrust culminates in GKC's "theology of the story" in Part 2 Chapter 5 of The Everlasting Man: "if there be indeed a God, his creation could hardly have reached any other culmination than this granting of a real romance to the world."

Someday perhaps someone will produce an authentic unity of GKC, JRRT and these others, whether it is in a doctoral dissertation, a book, a poem, a symphony , or a fantasy... I wish I had the resources to assist in such an effort.


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