Light and High Beauty Forever: A Reflection on Tolkien the Artist
Mar 22, 2022
Siobhan Latar, S.T.L.
There is a category of friends, “kindred spirits”, if you will, who share a particular, interior affinity with our own lives. Anne of Green Gables called them “bosom friends”; an old priest-friend of mine calls them “life forces”. For me, they are soul-companions: those who have accompanied me faithfully through the various seasons and winding, thorny paths of life. They do not have to be people we’ve known physically. My great-grandmother from Ireland, whom I never met, is one of them. I felt that I knew her intimately through the stories and the people I love who knew her.
J. R. R. Tolkien is another such soul companion. I grew up with him, in a sense. His presence, his way of looking at the world, and concretely, his stories, were such a part of my own father’s life journey, that they inevitably were shared with me. For me, “winter” evokes the image of my father, lounging comfortably in his big, black leather chair, the soft, yellow glow of the lamp beside him illuminating his little corner, his old, green, flannel shirt, the glasses he’s finally resigned himself to needing…and the worn and battered copy of The Lord of the Rings lying open on his lap. He re-reads it every winter season. It is a ritual for him. As soon as the leaves start to fall and the chill returns to the air, you’ll hear him say, “It’s about that time again. I’ll have to dig the old book out.” When we were too young to read them, he would tell us fractions of the story in his own words. And when we were old enough to understand, he read Tolkien aloud to us.
As a result, I have loved The Lord of the Rings since first reading it, and I have grown to appreciate it more and more through the years recognizing the epic capacity the story has to grow with us, to stretch with us through every new phase of life. I have come to recognize that the affinity I feel for Tolkien’s gaze on the world, the affinity that my father finds in his work that brings him back to the same old worn copy again and again, is more than a personal love of this story. It is a recognition of essential human needs that Tolkien discovered how to capture in his stories, and that he felt fairytales more equipped to communicate than any other genre of writing.
J.R.R. Tolkien was intimately familiar with the history and origin of the genre of fairytales, or fantasy stories. He maintains that the fairytales we are familiar with are remnants of different cultures’ attempts to give a language to the deepest truths they find in themselves and the world; to enshrine in narrative an answer to the questions, “Who are we? Where have we come from? Where are we going?” This means that while we tend to think of fairytales as “make believe”, they are in fact much more deeply rooted in Truth: an attempt to say true things about ourselves and the world. In his famous “Lang Lecture on Fairy Tales,” Tolkien describes in three categories what the “function” of fantasy is. Examining these three briefly sheds light not only on the purpose and significance of his own work, but on the power of myth and fantasy in its own right and why so many of us find “soul-companions” in stories.
The first category is Recovery. Fantasy, by leading the reader away from things he knows so well and re-presenting them in novel ways, can make him re-think their true purpose and meaning. It offers a chance to glimpse the real beneath the appearance, “to see through the look of things,” Tolkien tells us: to be able to recognize the meaning of the simple and homely—perhaps for the first time. After encountering Treebeard in The Lord of the Rings, it is impossible to look at a tree the same way again without recognizing the immense layers of complexity and life that make up this thing we pass by on a daily basis.
In a good fairy tale, this is true not only of physical things, but of spiritual, that is, non-material realities: fear, love, joy, courage. The very manner in which things are portrayed in the world of fantasy serves the purpose of drawing out into the visible realm their interior nature and potentiality. Man needs to be in contact with the real, the really real: creation in all its original newness from the hand of the Creator. But we, in our modern world, have grown frightfully skilled at fortressing ourselves from any contact with the real—at surrounding ourselves with so many layers of a man-made reality that we can comfortably go through life avoiding the terror of facing something that does not originate from us… that is beyond our control. This is true everywhere, from genetically modifying our food, to cocooning ourselves behind technology and media, from the need for physical, individual human contact. And yet secretly, our souls are parched for something more. Fairytales, in their ability to recover the real for us, are particularly relevant to a modern world that has mastered the art of isolation from the real.
The second is Escape. In the sense that Tolkien means it, “escape” does not refer to a blindness, a stance of closure or denial. Rather, as Stratford Caldecott aptly describes, fairytales are “[A]n escape into reality. It is the world of the everyday—boring, banal, dull, meaningless—that is the prison from which this kind of fantasy seeks to liberate us, not by distracting us from the real but by showing us the deeper patterns and meanings that lie concealed within it.” (Caldecott, A Hidden Presence, pg. 2). Fantasy, as a creative act of man’s imagination, allows us to escape the boundaries of time and space, and to remind us that we are made for the eternal. The fairytale, Tolkien says, is man’s attempt to satisfy his desire for a world that is at once deeper, richer, more beautiful than his present. It is the recapitulation of his longing for a “paradise lost”; a place that reflects adequately his heart’s memory of the more that he knows to be true somewhere, because he can imagine it. The fairytale, therefore, becomes his medium through which to hearken to, to re-access this memory.
We live within a rationalistic, scientific worldview, that has rejected both creation (that we have come from Another), and heaven (that we are made for Another). It has at the same time reduced the human person to a merely biological or psychological being determined by the body, by environment, or by desire; we do not have a meaning, a purpose, a destiny beyond the boundaries of this world. In the face of this, the fairytale, in its essentially spiritual, sacramental worldview, which takes seriously the longing in man’s heart for the transcendent purpose he was made for, is more essential to us now than ever.
The third category is Consolation. Tolkien says the third purpose of the fairytale is ultimately to restore man’s hope, to restore his faith in Beauty, Truth, and Goodness; to fortify his soul through reopening his vision to the larger landscape of the eternal drama. The consolation of the fairytale is to remind us that we are not alone in the world in the face of darkness and evils that are too much for us. Because they are too much for us. This is perhaps more true of the modern man than ever before. Having experienced two of the most atrocious wars in world history, the recent global pandemic that still has the world reeling, and the increasing violence, nihilism, and hatred of the last few centuries, we are more aware than ever before of our incapacity, of our littleness, of our helplessness against the forces of evil in the world: against ourselves.
In the face of this increasing hopelessness, we are desperate to be able to believe, as Tolkien would say, in a “light and high beauty forever beyond the reach” of the shadow. The fairytale recalls man to his place within a larger story and reminds him that the end he is going toward is something glorious; that the darkness and struggles of this life are not the end of the story. This is why, for Tolkien, the Incarnation is THE fairytale. The Christian story is the fulfillment of all fairytales because with the coming of Christ, our hope has been realized, eternity has entered time, and we have been given the capacity to transcend again the boundaries of this world. In short, because of Christ, the ultimate meaning and hope at the heart of every fairytale has now come true for us.
Tolkien’s understanding of fairytale has taken on flesh for me in the experience of my father. Stratford Caldecott, in his book about Tolkien, claims that so many people return to his stories for a “refreshment of soul”, a kind of “healing” of spirit that Tolkien himself experienced in the writing of his stories. I have seen the truth of this for my father, who found The Lord of the Rings in high school when his whole life was falling down around his head. It gave him something concrete to hold onto through the turbulence. Was this because it was a fantastical escape, allowing him to be in denial of the real difficulties he faced? No. I see now that it gave him, rather, an anchor, re-asserting him into what is true, good and beautiful, restoring his hope to believe that the darkness enveloping his everyday life was not, in the end, the end of the story. It was a haven of rest, where he could find again the reality that had gotten lost in the chaos of his life. And so he returns, year after year. Because, like all of us, there have been a host of darknesses very real in my father’s life. And every time the darkness begins to feel too big again for an ordinary man, he takes Tolkien by the hand, and lets himself be led back to the fullness, the heart of his story: because the heart of my father’s story, even when it cannot be seen, is something just as glorious as Frodo’s, as Aragorn’s.
Why, then, do fairytales continue to intrigue us? Why does my father return to Middle Earth every year? Why do I feel that I know this man whom I never met because I’ve read his stories? These stories can bring healing because they speak to us from a world that still believed in things unseen, still believed in spiritual forces of good and evil, in a world “charged with the grandeur of God”; a world frightfully more complex, and therefore, more exciting, than the mechanical one we’ve created… a world in which even man himself has a depth, a mystery, a reality beyond being merely a scientifically-determined specimen of a material universe. Fantasies and myths are the remnant of this larger, deeper view of the world for which our human imaginations are now starving. Tolkien understood this. He understood that we need to be steeped, immersed in the old stories; in the plain and simple struggle between good and evil; in a narrative that confirms for us that Goodness, and Love and Truth are as real as Evil, and Darkness and Despair, and that Grace is always more than all our weaknesses and failings. We need, more than ever before, stories that truly confirm for us that we can rely on something beyond ourselves: in the definitive, final victory of Good over Evil. Because only the truth of such a victory lends any purpose, meaning, or hope to the defeats that we experience inevitably in our daily lives.
This summer, whether for the first time, or as an old, weathered traveler returning to the paths of childhood, I invite you to join us as we immerse ourselves in Tolkien’s thought and stories, and re-discover the need for beauty, for story, in order to live more truly and deeply in our everyday realities. Tolkien taught my father, and my father has taught me to look out, like Sam, above the darkness, and recognize that in the end, all shadows are only a passing thing, and there is light and high beauty forever beyond their reach.
1. J.R.R. Tolkien, Verlyn Flieger, ed. On Fairy Stories (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2008).
2. Stratford Caldecott, The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision of the Lord of the Rings, (Oxford: Crossroads Publishing, 2005).
3. Ian Boyd, Stratford Caldecott, eds. A Hidden Presence: The Catholic Imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien, (Oxford: Chesterton Press, 2003).