Featured Image: Addison’s Walk, Magdalen College, Oxford, England. Photo Wikimedia Commons/Miles Underwood, 2002
On September 19, 1931 three Oxford dons sat down for dinner. Hugo was a High Church Anglican; Ronald a devout Roman Catholic; Jack a skeptical and lukewarm theist. While all three shared a keen interest in English and Germanic folklore, Jack had difficulty finding literal truth behind Christian myths. They were inspiring, of course, and one could find valuable lessons within them. But they were full of impossible, absurd claims. To treat the Resurrection as a historical event was as foolish as thinking lightning was Thor’s hammer striking from the sky. Ultimately these myths were “lies breathed through silver.”
Ronald’s biographer summarized his response thusly:
No, they are not… just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth. We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.
A few days later Clive Staples “Jack” Lewis wrote to a friend “I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ, in Christianity…. My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a great deal to do with it.”
Lewis, Tolkien and Dyson later founded famed writer’s group The Inklings. Tolkien would share his tales of Middle Earth while Dyson lay on the couch shouting “Oh God, no more Elves!” Lewis’s 1929 acceptance of the existence of a deistic God had left him “the most reluctant and dejected convert in all England.” Inspired by Christ and his fellow Inklings, Lewis chronicled Narnia, traveled to Perelandra, and became one of the 20th century’s greatest Christian apologists. (Though it was always a matter of some disappointment to Tolkien that Lewis followed Dyson into Canterbury rather than Rome).
Lewis’s famous Trilemma argues that, based on the New Testament, Jesus Christ must be either “liar, lunatic or Lord.” In John 14:6 Jesus says ” I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No man cometh to the Father, but by me. In Luke 22:67-71, after being asked by the Sanhedrin “Are you the Christ?” Jesus replies “Hereafter shall the Son of man sit on the right hand of the power of God.” When they ask “Art thou then the Son of God?” he replies, “Ye say that I am.” (Mark 14:62 has Christ replying more bluntly, “I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.”)
We could certainly dismiss these passages as later interpolations. The earliest mention of a Quadriform Gospel — our four Gospels — comes from a 182-88 letter Against Heresies by St. Iraneus of Lyons. Not until 367 would St. Athanasius make our current New Testament canon official. But it is abundantly clear that the Christians who went to their deaths throughout the Roman Empire believed their God died on a cross and rose again. In 1 Peter 1:3 the Apostle and first Pope states “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy hath regenerated us unto a lively hope, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
Did the Apostles, or later writers, lie about Christ’s resurrection? Church tradition holds that only St. John died of old age (albeit in exile on Patmos). The rest were crucified, skinned alive, dragged through the streets behind horses, or otherwise slaughtered. For several centuries the Church was a marginalized, persecuted community. Preachers could have made a much safer and more lucrative living as soothsayers, healers or magicians: the Romans were far less threatened by sorcery than by a cult to a crucified Jewish rebel. If they lied, they were willing to die for their lies.
Was Christ a lunatic? Many psychoses can cause delusions of grandeur, even of godhood. Roman Judea had no shortage of messianic figures. Those messiahs were crushed just as brutally as Jesus, but far more effectively. Jesus convinced his followers that he had not only raised the dead but risen from the dead. His insanity was so virulent that it lived on for centuries and infected empires. Those infected with this disorder were sometimes prone to violence. But they were also prone to feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, living a moral life and building cathedrals. If Jesus was mad, his was a strange madness indeed. Which brings us to the final option: Christ was telling the truth.
This is certainly not an air-tight argument. If you have an air-tight argument you no longer have a matter of Faith. Plenty of people throughout history have dismissed Christ as a conjurer, a scoundrel and worse. Most ardent unbelievers would not even think the Trilemma worth considering. But, as Lewis said in Surprised by Joy,
A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere — “Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,” as Herbert says, “fine nets and stratagems.” God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.
Tolkien’s distaste for technology and industrialization made his work especially pertinent in an age when polluted rivers caught fire and burned like napalmed Vietnamese jungles. It has also led many modern critics to characterize Tolkien as a “Luddite” afflicted with “technophobia.” Michael Moorcock famously called Tolkien’s work “a pernicious confirmation of the values of a morally bankrupt middle class” and in a 1978 piece entitled “Epic Pooh” compared him to A.A. Milne .
We cannot entirely blame Tolkien’s critics. LoTR spawned a whole host of imitators who gave us idyllic landscapes, heroic heroes and evil monsters vanquished by magic swords. Leonard Nimoy sang “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” (which, to be fair, did less disservice to Tolkien than William Shatner’s “Rocket Man” did to Ray Bradbury, Elton John and Bernie Taupin). Tolkien was a myth-maker seeking the true harbour: his imitators, and their readers, were more interested in escaping an unpleasant reality. Yet while some frolicked through verdant imaginary landscapes and others scoffed at reactionary fairy tales, few took a deeper look at Tolkien’s view of the question concerning technology.
In The Silmarillion Middle Earth’s creation is marred when Melkor, greatest of the Valar (Holy Powers), seeks dominion over this new land and its inhabitants. Some Elves he transforms into Orcs through torture and sorcery. Others he seduces through guile. But his victories come at a terrible cost. His hands are burnt black by the light of the Silmarils he steals. His defeat of Fingolfin leaves him limping and suffering from seven gaping wounds. And his transformation into Morgoth the Dark Lord also leaves him incapable of understanding mercy and pity. He cannot imagine the Ainur caring about the Elves who have disobeyed them so many times, and is unprepared for the onslaught which sees him cast through the Door of Night into the void.
Fëanor, greatest of the Elves, gives his people the Elvish script. He crafts the Palantiri, powerful Seeing-Stones. He also captures the light of the Gold Tree and Silver Tree in three large gems, the Silmarils. But Fëanor grows obsessed with his creations, locking them away in an iron vault so no one can steal them. Morgoth’s subsequent destruction of the Two Trees and theft of the Silmarils leads to carnage as the Elves follow Fëanor into a hopeless war against the Dark Lord. The oath taken by Fëanor’s sons to avenge his death and retrieve the Silmarils at all cost result in centuries of bloodshed, kin-slaying and evil deeds.
Mairon (the Admired), a mighty Maia (minor deity) in service to Aulë the Smith, casts his lot with Melkor. Mairon loves order and precision and wants to bring all wayward minds and creatures under his control. Under Morgoth’s tutelage he becomes Sauron (the Abhorred). After Morgoth’s defeat, Sauron takes Mordor and forges Rings for Men, Dwarves and Elves so that he may bring them all under the power of his One Ring. This plan ends with Sauron’s Ring lost in a river. Centuries later a thief named Baggins will take this precious treasure from Gollum — and another of Aulë’s Maiar, Curumo, will be corrupted under his guise as Saruman the White.
Tolkien has a 20th century Englishman’s respect for skilled craftsmen and great thinkers. But he also recognizes the ways in which great knowledge can lead us greatly astray. When those skills are used in service of the light and the truth, they are great gifts. When they are used wrongly, they can send us headlong into evil and leave wounds that never heal. When we behave monstrously, we become monsters. And when order, efficiency and power are prioritized over beauty, truth and righteousness, we make the world Mordor.
St. Augustine’s City of God envisioned an Eternal Kingdom which took its cues from the declining Roman Empire. Narnia and Middle Earth were born in the British Empire’s sunset. Augustine lived in an age where Christianity was growing increasingly popular. Lewis and Tolkien’s era saw Christianity as largely irrelevant. Like Augustine, Lewis and Tolkien were men of their era. Like Augustine, they created works which were grounded in, yet transcended their time. But the old gods were still a threat to nascent Christianity (and vice versa). Fifteen hundred years later Lewis and Tolkien could look back on those old gods and legends and reclaim them like a reforged sword or a resurrected lion.
Lewis and Augustine were committed apologists writing to defend and promote Christianity. Tolkien stated that his primary motivation for writing Lord of the Rings was “the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them.” But Tolkien was also quite capable of proselytizing with his pen. His response to Lewis’s doubts actually arrived as a lengthy poem in heroic couplets entitled “Philomythus to Misomythus.” Humphrey Carter, Tolkien’s biographer, summarized its gist quite well. But the poem itself is well worth a read and the issues it raises well worth consideration.
You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow’);
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star’s a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain…
I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends
if by God’s mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name.
I will not treat your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.