Exploring Tolkien

by Dr. Melody Green

Over the last fifteen years, fantasy has become by far the best-selling genre in both books and films.  According to boxofficemojo.com, 17 out of the top 20 worldwide best-grossing movies at the box office are fantasy films that have been released since 2001, while new fantasy books are being published at a faster rate than ever before. While this genre appears to have captured the minds and hearts of a large number of contemporary people, many Christians feel uncomfortable with it, and even, at times, view the genre as a whole with suspicion.  If, however, we are going to be able to interact effectively with the culture in which we find ourselves, we need to be willing to look closer at what the genre does and why it matters to people.

Intriguingly, almost all scholars who write about fantasy, and a large number of authors of fantasy stories, agree that the genre as we know it exists today because of one person: J. R. R. Tolkien. All fantasy literature, it has been said in more than one place, is either written as a response to or a reaction against his stories about elves, dwarves and hobbits adventuring in a land called Middle Earth. Even more intriguingly, until very recently, scholars who write theory about fantasy literature have been expected to begin their work with ideas presented in one essay called “On Fairy-stories,” which was also written by Tolkien.

These two factors alone are enough reason for Christians to take notice of Tolkien’s work, but even more importantly, Tolkien was himself a Christian: in fact, biographies about C. S. Lewis often spend quite a bit of space on the pivotal role that Tolkien played in Lewis’s journey to faith.  It should be, then, no surprise that Tolkien’s fantasy stories are shaped around Christian themes and concepts, while his non-fiction includes a rather well-developed theology of fantasy.

This theology begins in the idea of “subcreation,” a term Tolkien himself coined.  According to Tolkien, “we create because we are created in the image of a creator.”  All of our created stories, then, are subcreations that at some level reflect the glory of our own creator.  This happens in multiple ways: the most obvious is that fantasy stories traditionally follow the same basic plot line of the gospel itself. If he were writing today, Tolkien may well have said that the plotline of fantasy stories, whether they are about hobbits, humans or wizards, is the Christian metanarrative itself.  At the center of this story is the “eucatastrophe.” The eucatastrophe is the moment which must occur in every worthwhile fantasy when, at the very moment when it appears that all that is good has been lost forever and there is no hope left, a sudden and unexpected turn of events catches everyone by surprise. This turn of events gives the reader a glimpse of joy, and leads the characters to the possibility of a happily ever after. In the epilogue to “On Fairy-stories,” Tolkien explains that this reflects the eucatastrophe in human history: the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ himself.

In order to help us think more fully about these issues, this summer Urbana Theological Seminary will be offering a class on the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien. In this class we will not only read The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and a few other texts written by Tolkien, but we will be exploring the implications of his theology of fantasy for the Christian life.  Other things we will do in this class include (but are not limited to) discussing the Christian themes in the stories about Middle Earth, as well as analyzing the films based on these books, focusing on how the films reflect differences between Tolkien’s worldview and that of the culture in which these films were made.   Please join us for this adventure!