What Hath Gondor to do with Geneva?
Anyone who knows me at all knows that I am a J. R. R. Tolkien enthusiast. I’m not sure exactly what my ranking is on the Tolkien nerd scale. I haven’t learned to read, write, or speak Quenya (yet), and I don’t dress up as a character and re-enact scenes from the books, but I have read all of Tolkien’s major fictional works (most more than once), all of his collected letters, most of the 12 volumes of Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle-earth, and several dozen secondary works about Tolkien and his stories. Make of that what you will.
I also have the opportunity on occasion to teach a “Great Works of Tolkien” elective at Reformation Bible College where I serve as a professor. In this class, we read The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings in their entirety along with some shorter works and extracts from The History of Middle-earth.
Every once in a while, someone will ask me why a Reformed Christian would be so interested in these fantasy works. Shouldn’t we be focused only on Scripture and the works of the great Bible expositors and theologians? In other words: What hath Gondor to do with Geneva?
Some ask how reading books about hobbits and elves and dragons is going to help us deal with real problems. The car needs repairs. Bills are piling up. Family members are sick. The world is falling down all around us – war, disease, the economy, natural disasters, you name it. With all of these real problems, why should anyone care about the fictional problems of fictional beings in a fictional world?
These are all good questions. For those who are interested in a long answer that addresses some of the foundational issues, I would recommend Tolkien’s brilliant essay “On Fairy Stories” found in the book Tree and Leaf. It was originally an academic lecture, so it is somewhat technical, but for those willing to make the effort, it is filled with insight into the nature and purpose of good fantasy literature (It should be noted that there is such a thing as bad fantasy literature).
I would like to focus here, however, on providing a shorter and less technical answer to the the questions some Reformed Christians have about fantasy literature.
The first thing we have to remember is that there is nothing wrong with story as a form of communicating truth. Some people hear the word “story” and equate it with the word “false." Stories can be false, but they are not necessarily so. Much of the Old Testament, all four Gospels, and the Book of Acts are in the form of a story, the story of redemption. The great story in the Bible is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16). The great story, told in the pages of Scripture, is absolutely true.
But why is so much of Scripture in the form of a story rather than, say, the form of a modern systematic theology text? I think there are several reasons. The most obvious reason is that stories can be understood by all – from a child to an old man, from an illiterate first-century peasant to a highly-trained modern scientist. Unlike some systematic theology texts, a story doesn’t require an understanding of highly technical terminology.
What about fictional stories? What about works of literature? How do we think of these stories in relation to the true story of Scripture?
It is important to realize that fictional stories are powerful means of shaping the way we think about ourselves and the world in which we live. Hollywood has certainly figured this out. Films are simply another way of telling stories. But here is where it is necessary to make a very crucial observation. There are fictional stories that are based on truth, and there are fictional stories based on falsehoods and lies.
Some authors create stories that reflect to one degree or another the truths revealed in the Great true story. Not all fictional stories are like this, however. Many authors create stories that reflect to one degree or another the lies of the serpent. I think Christians can learn things from both kinds of stories, but it is imperative that they know the difference between the two. The storytellers in Hollywood, for example, are almost exclusively telling fictional stories that directly contradict and attack the truths taught in the Great story. Their stories do not begin with the words, “Once Upon a Time.” They begin with the words, “Hath God Said?” Because of the power of stories to shape our thinking, we have to be aware of this.
What about fantasy literature? That which is true of other kinds of literature is true of fantasy literature as well. There are authors of fantasy literature who create stories that reflect the truths of the Great story, and there are authors of fantasy literature who create stories that reflect the lies of the serpent. There is a difference between Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and Pullman’s His Dark Materials. There is a difference between The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. Each is a fantasy work, but each is encouraging us to think in certain ways about our world.
This brings us back to Tolkien. How can reading his fantasy literature be of any use to a Reformed Christian today? His works are worth reading because they so powerfully contradict the modern anti-Christian stories - the anti-Christian narrative. We have been born and raised in a culture that tells us a story from the day we are born to the day we die. It is an anti-supernatural, materialistic, mechanistic, amoral (and often immoral) story that dispenses with God and His providence. It shapes the way we think about everything, including the real problems in our lives and in the world around us. It subtly tempts us to forget God and to despair.
Tolkien uses fantasy to grab us by the ears and say, “Look again!” By reflecting the truths of the Scripture story within a fictional world populated by humans and hobbits, elves and ents, he helps us see those truths again with new eyes. In his essay "On Fairy Stories" he refers to this function of fantasy literature as "Recovery." It's the recovery of the ability to see the world correctly again. Sometimes it takes a talking tree to grab our attention and remind us of what has been there all along.
For example, when we see the world falling down and burning all around us, we tend to look only at the obvious immediate material explanations, and we fall into despair. Tolkien tells us about dragons. He reflects the biblical truth concerning the great battle between God and the serpent, the great dragon, the devil, Satan (Gen. 3:1–14; Rev. 20:2, 10). Tolkien reminds us that at least one dragon is very real, and as he says in The Hobbit, “It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.”
There are many other truths that Tolkien’s works reflect, but I would like to mention two. First, Tolkien’s works, and The Lord of the Rings in particular remind us that even the most seemingly insignificant among us are important. It can be argued, for example, that the hero of the Lord of the Rings is a gardener, a servant of the one who is usually considered the hero of the story. The steadfast loyalty, faithfulness, and perseverance of the hobbit Samwise is absolutely crucial to the success of the mission that will save Middle-earth. In the eyes of the world, Sam and the other hobbits in the fellowship are small, both literally and figuratively. But the role they play is just as important, if not more, than the role played by the great powers and kings in the story.
Tolkien reminds us that all of us, from the smallest to the greatest, are important in the eyes of God. A gardener, a lawn-care worker, is just as likely and able to be the hero of the story as a great and powerful politician or king.
Second, Tolkien reminds us that we all, gardeners and servants included, are part of a great ongoing story. And he reminds us that even if we don’t know where or how our part of the story ends, we are to press on, to remain loyal and faithful, no matter how dire things look. In one of the greatest passages of the Lord of the Rings, Sam and Frodo have a discussion about this very thing. This conversation happens at a point in the story when they are in grave danger.
“Yes, that's so,' said Sam. 'And we shouldn't be here at all, if we'd known more about it before we started. But I suppose it's often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that's not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn't. And if they had, we shouldn't know, because they'd have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same – like old Mr Bilbo. But those aren't always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we've fallen into?'
'I wonder,' said Frodo. 'But I don't know. And that's the way of a real tale. Take any one that you're fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don't know. And you don't want them to.'
'No, sir, of course not. Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that's a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it – and the Silmaril went on and came to Eärendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We've got – you've got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we're in the same tale still! It's going on. Don't the great tales never end?'
'No, they never end as tales,' said Frodo. 'But the people in them come, and go when their part's ended. Our part will end later – or sooner” (The Two Towers, Book Four, chapter 8).
We are very much like Sam and Frodo in that we too have found ourselves in a great story. But unlike Sam and Frodo, we are in the great story planned by God from all eternity, and this story is true.
And here’s another difference. We don’t know what chapter of the story we are in right now, but unlike Sam and Frodo, we do know how this Story ends. This should give us strength and encouragement to remain faithful as we await the return of the King.
So, how does it end?
Revelation 21:1–4 --- Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.
All of the terrible things that we are experiencing now will not last forever. Death, mourning, crying, pain. They will pass away. To paraphrase Samwise, “Everything sad will come untrue!”
But as great as what we read in Revelation 21 is, it’s not the greatest thing. Look at the beginning of chapter 22:
Revelation 22:1–5 --- Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
The greatest thing about the way the story in which we find ourselves ends is that we will see His face. We will be in the personal presence of the one who took upon Himself our iniquities, redeemed us from slavery, and made us co-heirs with Him. Forever.
In other words, as Frodo said, the great tales never really end.
Tolkien and C. S. Lewis were close friends, and Lewis, I believe, illustrated the point about the never-ending story better than anyone. He did so in the beautiful words he used to conclude the last page of the last book in the Chronicles of Narnia. In this scene Aslan is speaking to Lucy and the humans:
“And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before” (Lewis, The Last Battle).
Each chapter in the Greatest tale will better than the one before because we will be forever in the presence of the great King and His Son, Jesus Christ.
Tolkien would call this surprisingly joyful ending a eucatastrophe. In the Great tale in which we find ourselves, there is finally a true and lasting "happily ever after."