This is Part 5 of the series. Click here for Part 1.
I want to close this series in a similar way to Tolkien’s essay that inspired it. Seeking an end to his discussion in On Fairy-Stories, the great world-builder reached back to the one tale that had been with him all his life: the one that, though set aside in youth, was waiting when he returned to it in adulthood.
I am speaking, of course, of the Gospel; of that which he said, “Contain[s] a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories.”
As he considered what it was in the various legends and tales that so moved him, the professor couldn’t help but return to the story that most inspired hope—for both his life in the here and now and in some mysterious way after. He openly professed a desire to see his own works beyond the grave, reframed and perfected in the reflected light of Divinity, even putting such hopes in the mouths of his characters: of elves and men who believed that someday, after all days are done, they would meet in a world renewed and find the best of their deeds completed and elevated.1
For Tolkien, then, “The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the ‘happy ending’.”
He saw in the Evangelium—the “good news”—a template for what truly moves humans to see the world around them differently and speak that change into being. The world is full of magic and mystery, not because fairy-stories say so, but because it was always so—fairy-stories merely shine a light on what we’ve been unable to see unaided.
The Gospel, then, as the fairy-story par excellence, performs the same function, but with one enormous caveat: Tolkien (and millions of others through the millennia) believe this particular tale to be really true here in our primary world:
The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a ‘consolation’ for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, ‘Is it true?’ The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly): ‘If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.’ That is enough for the artist (or the artist part of the artist). But in the ‘eucatastrophe’ we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.
But . . .
But what does one do with a corrupted version of this tale? Can even a true story be made false if its tellers are not trustworthy?
This boy-who-cried-wolf paradox describes most of my inner struggle throughout adulthood. At first, I was willing to surrender the stories in favor of the cold knowledge offered by my Bible college professors: willing to put aside the soft, childish inspiration for hard rational truth.
But as time moved and I became exposed to more and better ideas, I came to realize that what I first believed to be “hard” and “rational” was merely brittle and circular, while the mindset I had rejected as “soft” and “childish” was actually flexible and humble.
Agonizingly slowly, I drew out the poison of this need to know and explain and tried to reignite the long-cold embers of unknowing hope within the childlike piece of my heart buried somewhere beneath all the learning and cynicism.
But it has not yet fully taken flame.
And so I am left in this long season of rediscovery, unsure of what “beliefs” I will end up with. I loved and believed in a story, then lost that love in favor of an inferior kind of “belief” I have come to love it again in a different way, but whether a facsimile of that old belief will return, I do not know and, to the confusion or worry of some, I frankly do not care.
Whether the Gospel is “mere poetry” or the “truth but slant,” I cannot be the judge.
Whether or not the birth of Christ is truly, as Tolkien put it, “The eucatastrophe of Man’s history,” I cannot say. But I can say it once again inspires me to live as though it were true—as though Divinity infused itself into this Creation once and for all, elevating all things to the level of Itself.
I remarked to a friend the other day that my “Easter hope,” that belief in some sort of life existing beyond the grave, is all but gone for me: I just don’t have the wherewithal to hold on to it right now in this season of hopes long-deferred. But nonetheless, my commitment to living an “Easter life”—a life of joyful self-sacrifice and of history’s long-bending arc toward justice—has never been stronger.
It is dark here, and perhaps I will never see the sunrise, but in my better moments I am able to see through the gloom to the shining examples of my friends and family who willingly offer themselves to the hurting and hopeless of the world, receiving its pain, and offering love and acceptance back, and for a moment, I am once again enchanted by this Story.
1. cf. Athrabeth and Leaf by Niggle.↩