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Michelle Whitehurst

Prof. Card


Eng. 375-Inklings

Happy Endings and Religious Hope:

The Lord of the Rings as an Epic Fairy Tale

By John J. Davenport


            Tolkien conceived his masterpiece as an epic fairy tale with a kind of religious significance. The author of the article, John J. Davenport, argued that in particular, Tolkien wanted his story to have a special form of ‘happy ending’; one that suggests or echoed the Western religious promise that our struggles to overcome evil are not meaningless, that there will be a final justice and healing to this world.

            Many of the plot lines, characters, and symbols are closely related to the Northern European mythology, such as the Norse Eddas, the Icelandic sagas Kalevala, and the Old English Story Beowulf, on which Tolkien was a leading expert in his time.  Tolkien, in a famous lecture on Beowulf, highlighted the differences between the Christian vision of salvation in an afterlife and the Norse vision of honor won in the heroic struggle to endure against chaos, despite an inevitable death: “northern mythology takes a darker view.  Its characteristic struggle between man and monster must end ultimately, within Time, in man’s defeat.”

            This is a theme that runs throughout Tolkien’s work, with the decaying decline of Middle-earth seen in the withdrawing glory of the Elves, the glory of Gondor is in the past, the entwives are lost, etc..  Theoden, after the triumph of Helm’s Deep says, For however the fortune of war shall go, may it not so end that much that was fair and wonderful shall pass for ever out of Middle-earth?”  “It may,” said Gandalf.  “The evil of Sauron cannot wholly be cured, nor made as if it had not been.  But to such days we are doomed.” (TT, pp. 168-169)

            Davenport goes on to argue that even though Tolkien’s world shares much in common with the Northern mythology, there is an element of Christianity there too.  Davenport points out that in the Silmarillion there is a creation story , where the supreme God, Iluvatar, in a cosmic symphony of divine music creates the world, Ea, and then with “one chord, deeper than the Abyss, higher than the Firmament, piercing as the light of the eye of Iluvatar, the Music ceased.” (S, p. 17)  “Here, more clearly than anywhere else in his works, Tolkien gives his world the promise of an ultimate redemption,” Davenport argues.  I disagree with this assumption.  All Davenport has to presuppose there is an “ultimate redemption” is the fact that there is a creation myth in the Silmarillion.  Many things have a creation myth, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily have a Second Coming or Ultimate Redemption waiting for them in the end.  Tolkien himself says, “The odd fact that there are no churches, temples or religious rites and ceremonies, is simply part of the historical climate depicted… The ‘Third Age’ was not a Christian world.” (L, p. 220)  Davenport disputes this saying that if the only works of literature that count as religious literature are those that examine the nature of God, defend belief in God, or focuses on practices of worship, then the Lord of the Rings is not a religious work.  Instead though, if the essence of religious faith lies in embracing the promise of a salvation possible only by divine miracle—then Tolkien’s work comes closer to his essentially religious attitude than many superficially ‘religious’ works.  The problem again is that Davenport’s only religious idea of salvation lies in the fact that he believes there is an ultimate redemption, and he only believes this because the Silmarillion has a creation myth.

            Tolkien himself reveals his true purpose in an essay titled “On Fairy-stories” where he argues that in their highest form, fairy tales are serious literary art in which nature appears as a ‘Perilous Realm’, or the world of ‘Faerie’.  Genuine fairy-stories of this caliber include Perseus and the Gorgon, or the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Tolkien points out the central focus of magic in such stories is not to perform tricks or spells, but to satisfy “certain primordial human desires”; something truly higher is occasionally glimpsed in mythology.  This magic responds to the innate human desire for what Tolkien called Recovery, Escape, and Consolation.  Tolkien defined Recovery and Escape as renewed appreciation of life and the value of nature, and as an escape from the alienating delusions of an artificial mechanized and increasingly ugly consumerist society.  Consolation was an answer to the question whether our efforts, hardships, and suffering have any point, any final significance.  The kind of happy ending that marks genuine fairy stories is those in which there is a miraculous reprieve in the midst of impending disaster, Tolkien calling this type of consolation a “eucatastrophe,” or joyous salvation within apparent catastrophe.

            Tolkien uses the word eucatastrophe because, he says, we don’t have a word expressing the opposite of tragedy.  Tolkien conceives tragedy to be the true form and highest function of drama, and the eucatastrophe to be the highest function of fairy-tale. 

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly, of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can  produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’ or ‘fugitive’.   In its fairy-tale—or other world—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace, never to be counted on to recur.  It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will), universal final defeat, and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

            The joy that Tolkien describes here requires a surprise, a deliverance that no human effort could have made possible.  Tolkien himself points out that in this sense, “The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories.” The resurrection appears as the eucatastrophe of the Gospel

Story, because of its ultimate reprieve when all appears to be lost. 

            Understanding Tolkien’s conception of fairy tales and their central function sheds much light on The Lord of the Rings.  Tolkien’s primary goal in The Lord of the Rings was to create a fantasy for our time with the same eucatastrophic power that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight had for fifteenth-century Britons, or Christ’s resurrection.  I believe, the moment that Gollum comes unexpectedly and steals the ring from Frodo, then falling into the Cracks of Doom is the crucial moment of grace, the ‘unlooked for reprieve’ and though Tolkien’s story might not have the power of Christ resurrection behind it, the moment Gollum falls come close.  Therefore, while it is not a religious piece of work, I believe The Lord of the Rings is a great epic fairy tale.


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