Edward Waters         Bard of the Grey Wind

ABOVE ALL SHADOWS
J.R.R. Tolkien and the Christian Hope

 By Edward Waters

I have seen
A curious child, who dwelt upon a tract
Of inland ground, applying to his ear
The convolutions of a smooth-lipped shell;
To which, in silence hushed, his very soul
Listened intensely; and his countenance soon
Brightened with joy; for from within were heard
Murmurings, whereby the monitor expressed
Mysterious union with its native sea.
Even such a shell the universe itself
Is to the ear of Faith; and there are times,
I doubt not, when to you it doth impart
Authentic tidings of invisible things...

                            WILLIAM WORDSWORTH

Know this night is day in dark disguise.
                                   MARK HEARD

            He is unimaginably far from home, both in actual distance and in the ghastly strangeness of his surroundings.  After months of travel, he finds himself trapped behind enemy lines -- frightened, lonely, hungry, and more weary than he ever thought possible.  His guide has betrayed him into disaster and fled.  Mere hours ago he knelt over the body of his best friend, for whose death he held himself responsible, and then had to make the terrifying decision to continue their mission alone, with no real hope of success.  He had barely set out again, however, before learning that his friend was not dead after all, had been found by their adversaries, and was now the captive of brutal interrogators.  Further reproaching himself, he turned back to attempt a rescue, armed with few weapons and expecting to face impossible odds.  Now, amidst total darkness, he sits upon a stairway within an enemy stronghold.  His search has brought him to a dead end, and someone has secured the door through which he passed earlier.  With nowhere to turn and no prospect of escape, he seems 'at the vain end of his long journey and his grief.'  But then, even as despair closes about his heart, something simple and unexpected rises to face it.  Fragments of old, familiar songs stir in his memory and bring with them images of his native land.  Reminded that, as absolute as it may appear, his present trouble is not all that is or ever has been, he finds strength returning and then begins to fashion new words to fit one of the old tunes:

Though here at journey's end I lie
            in darkness buried deep,
beyond all towers strong and high,
            beyond all mountains steep,
above all shadows rides the Sun
            and Stars for ever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done,
            nor bid the Stars farewell.

            In turn, this bit of verse from J.R.R. Tolkien's epic masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, has risen to my own defence when despair threatened to engulf me.  All too often I feel overwhelmed by the demands of daily life, the unforeseen calamities which always seem to fall in clusters, and the crippling fear of what may happen next.  I envy people who, through either natural temperament or earned maturity, are able to weather life in a fallen world philosophically and with relative calm.  Maybe someday I will join them, but I'm not there yet -- not by a long shot.

            Still, there are moments when, like Sam Gamgee in Tolkien's tale, I find myself fortified by unexpected glimpses of a reality beyond that which more obviously surrounds me.  Fragments of old, familiar songs may stir in my memory; or passages from beloved books; or, most importantly, the words of the Scriptures.  Whatever their means, these intervals of grace nearly always arrive quietly and with a simplicity that makes them difficult to explain later.  Some while after his foray into the enemy fortress, Sam, free again but still far from safety, looks toward the horizon, beneath the edge of an unnatural shadow which lately has filled the sky both night and day.  There he spies a solitary star.

The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him.  For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing:  there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. 

Darkness has ever coveted and feigned omnipotence and omnipresence, but these are the unique, unassailable attributes of Another.  It may for a time obscure, but Darkness can never be the Truth.

            Tolkien was a devout Christian and an important influence in the conversion of his friend and colleague C.S. Lewis.  He was also, by all accounts, no stranger to discouragement.  It is almost certainly significant, therefore, that nearly every major character in his story contends at one point or another with a crisis of hope.  Some rally and persevere; others succumb to despair; a few even ally themselves with the Darkness, seduced by the apparent inevitability of its victory.  But, to judge from the recurrence of the theme (both here and in other of his works), Tolkien seems to have found strength most in the conviction that all we can see is not all there is.  Or, as an earlier writer put it:

...Momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
                                                                                                   
II CORINTHIANS 4.17-18

            Tolkien proposed that all story-making, indeed all Art, is haunted by the work of 'Primary Art, that is, of Creation.'  He believed we make because we ourselves are 'made in the image and likeness of a Maker'; and so, despite our fallenness and regardless of our intentions, hints of Truth turn up in the most unexpected places.  On the eucatastrophe, or 'happy ending', characteristic of fairy-tales, he wrote:  'It does not deny the existence ... of sorrow and failure ... ; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat ... , giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.'  Perhaps, he continued, this is 'a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium [good news] in the real world.'  The Christian story culminates in 'the Great Eucatastrophe ... But this story is supreme; and it is true.  Art has been verified.' 

            As followers of Christ we endure the tension -- which Jesus Himself found wearying (e.g., Matthew 17) -- of being in the world but not of the world (John 17.11-16).  Even non-believers sense that life is not as it should be, and perhaps every sin may be understood as the appalling result of misguided and futile human attempts to fill, complete, or correct what is lacking.  All the more then do

...we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.
                                                                                                   
ROMANS 8.23

One of the Holy Spirit's roles is that of our Comforter (John 14.26), for 'the Spirit of promise ... is given as a pledge of our inheritance' (Ephesians 1.13-14), a sort of down payment on the joy and communion we will one day know in full.  This is great comfort indeed.  Yet, ironically, the foretaste of ultimate transformation can intensify our disquiet over the present world's ways (especially when they creep into our own hearts) and deepen the longing for our true home.  Restlessly we look for that Dawn when 'what is mortal may be swallowed up by life' (II Corinthians 5.4) and we will discover at last the wondrous reality that all dreams and yearnings, distorted and inadequate as they were, somehow anticipated -- the Great Eucatastrophe, the happy ending that will be not so much an ending as the real beginning long delayed.

            However, it is important here to clarify that this hope is not only more than, but different in essence from the attitude that nothing in this life matters while we await Eternity.  The heroes of Tolkien's world endure the things they do voluntarily because they believe what is happening around them and how they respond to it matter very much, though often they proceed knowing that they may not be on hand to enjoy the fruit of their labours.  That they look beyond their present lives (both to the well-being of those who will come after and to a rest and future for themselves elsewhere) motivates their deeds and sustains them through their struggles; it does not relieve them of responsibility.  Likewise, if we believe that, despite what the Darkness stubbornly insists, God is still in control, then we must also accept that we remain in this world for a reason.  And if 'we have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him' (II Corinthians 5.9), then what is happening around us and how we respond to it matter very much.

            We are all that many people know of Heaven, apart from wistful stirrings within that they are apt to dismiss as idealism, escapism, or romanticized weakness.  But too commonly what we show them differs little from the world they already see; or, worse, it furthers Hell in Heaven's name.  Like all expatriates, we cannot avoid being considered representative of our native culture.  We are witnesses, like it or not.  Whether we will faithfully reflect or tragically defame is the only point in question.  While we abide here, longing for home, we must strive to translate our homesickness into words and actions reflecting the love, grace, and Truth which characterize that home, so that God 'manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place' (II Corinthians 2.14).  In so doing, we may awaken like homesickness in other souls, and thus enrich both worlds.

            All we can see is not all there is.  God remains sovereign, and Dawn approaches.  The Shadow is indeed only a small and passing thing.  Let our hearts therefore reach above all shadows and hold fast to hope, while we seek to rouse one realm with our dreams of another.  In the dying words of Tolkien's high king to his queen:

     Behold!  we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory ....

 

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Revised from an article which first appeared in Stirrings of the Greywind, Lent 2002 (vol. 8, no. 1).  Copyright © 2002 by Edward Waters.
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Works cited:

Heard, Mark.  'Abba's Lullaby.'  On Turning to Dust.  1975, 1978.

Hooper, Walter, ed.  They Stand Together.  The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves
       (1914-1963).
  1979.

Tolkien, J.R.R.  The Lord of the Rings (Book VI, chapters 1-2; & Appendix A, part I,
       section v).  1954-55.

-----------.  'On Fairy-stories.'  Tree and Leaf.  1964.

Wordsworth, William.  The Excursion (Book Fourth: 'Despondency Corrected').  1814.

 

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