“For if joyful is the fountain that rises in the sun, its springs are in the wells of sorrow unfathomed at the foundations of the Earth.” —J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion
Light and hope break into the stories of J.R.R. Tolkien from every direction—with the descent of eagles, the arrival of friends, the return of wizards, and the fireside meals of hobbits. However, his stories remain tightly encased within a realm of death and separation. Yes, Aragon leads the armies of elves, dwarves, men (and even a few hobbits) in a desperate bid to distract Sauron himself and to allow Frodo, Sam and Gollum to overthrow him decisively. However, the real point of the older stories—first written years earlier by a pious young language scholar and further developed after his return from the devastation of the First World War—is that Arwen must say farewell forever to her father and then again to her husband who must leave her to receive death alone. Tolkien offers no final escape from death and separation for all of time.
True, we get an even larger story within which our world of death and time fit. As Eru Ilúvatar conceived the Ainur from his thought and taught each of them how to make music before the start of time, their singing weaves Eä into being as an embodied world (the cosmos of stars containing Arda as the planet holding Middle Earth). However, this world is almost immediately corrupted following the discordant song of Melkor who is allowed to enter Eä where he seeks domination over it and most especially over the Children of Ilúvatar (the divided households of Elves and Men) who have Eä as their home.
There are only two small hints given by Tolkien regarding any possible recovery from this containment of Ilúvatar’s children within a world bound by time, death, and eternal separation. First, from outside of time, we are given the account of the third theme in Eru’s music that Melkor found to be sweeter, more beautiful and ultimately unquenchable. What this theme might have contained is hinted at from within the history of Eä by only one obscure tale that went unpublished in Tolkien’s lifetime: “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth.”
This brief story describes a connection between this world of time and death and the timeless realm of Eru Ilúvatar which would allow communion to be restored one day between the Children of Ilúvatar and the Ainur—between the embodied world and that of solid light and song. In this story, Andreth (a wise-woman among humans) shares with Finrod (a wise-man among elves) about a set of ancient and almost entirely lost beliefs among some humans regarding the nature of human embodiment and the indissolubility of body and soul. Tolkien’s myth is so deep that it contains its own metaphysics, so body and soul here are not exactly what we might think of in our own understandings of these words, but to translate fëa as “soul” and hröa as “body” is the best that we can do here. They share of the mysterious bond between these two aspects of the Children of Ilúvatar (men and elves) in terms that suggest the inevitability of incarnation so that God’s image within embodied creation might be restored and all (or much) that is now bound by death might be restored:
What can this mean unless it be that the fëa shall have the power to uplift the hröa, as its eternal spouse and companion, into an endurance everlasting beyond Eä, and beyond Time? Thus would Arda, or part thereof, be healed not only of the taint of Melkor, but released even from the limits that were set for it in the ‘Vision of Eru’ of which the Valar speak.
Therefore, I say that if this can be believed, then mighty indeed under Eru were Men made in their beginning; and dreadful beyond all other calamities was the change in their state.
“Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth” (likely completed in 1959 but not printed until 1993 within Morgoth’s Ring, the tenth volume of Christopher Tolkien’s 12-volume series The History of Middle-earth)
Beyond these two points of ultimate hope beyond the horizon of history, however, Tolkien keeps his stories confined tightly by the horizon of death and separation across all of time. Not only is there no reunion possible within history for elves and men, but humanity ultimately can do no more than accept their own death willingly (with no promise of a reunion between their fëa and hröa that would constitute a communion between the timeless realms of Eru and the storied cosmos of Eä—the union of earth and eternity).
Within this life, we should gaze upon the fountain in the sun but accept that it springs from “the wells of sorrow unfathomed at the foundations of the Earth.” This confinement to the realm of death is a great part of Tolkien’s faithfulness and gift to his readers. In part, it is related to his insistence that one-to-one allegory be strictly avoided within mythology and fairytale, but it goes beyond this to his insistence upon eucatastropy as the only truth available to us now. If Tolkien is right that we have nowhere to turn in this life but to “the wells of sorrow unfathomed at the foundations of the Earth,” how is this in any sense a hope? We can only recall what the Christian scriptures place at the foundations of our cosmos: a slain lamb (Revelation 13:8). This world is founded upon God’s own death.
Here Tolkien is within an old Christian tradition that considered death itself a gift prepared by God from the foundation of the cosmos as “the limits that were set for [Eä] in the ‘Vision of Eru’ of which the Valar speak.” This is a limit that even Finrod (an elven loremaster) is astounded to learn from the woman Andreth might ultimately be overcome. For virtually all the inhabitants of Tolkien’s mythical earth, this bondage to estrangement or death is a limit that was assumed to be a permanent aspect of their creation. Tolkien only hints at the incarnation and resurrection within one unpublished story, but the eucatastropy of the cross is clearly within view throughout his work. A death that must be accepted as a gift is central to Tolkien’s work and may be considered a basic aspect of the third theme in Eru’s music—the theme that finally overcomes Melkor’s discord.
As difficult as this cross is to bear, we must insist with Tolkien that the only way to the resurrection is through the grave. Tolkien took this so seriously, that he would not allow any form of human resurrection to enter into his mythology (other than the smallest hint within one unpublished story). This shows us not only the essential nature of death as a gift that we must receive but also the power of a truly human resurrection. When a human life overcomes death, “what can this mean unless it be that the fëa shall have the power to uplift the hröa, as its eternal spouse and companion, into an endurance everlasting beyond Eä, and beyond Time?” With death overcome, humanity has the capacity to unite all of embodied creation with God’s eternal life.
This is not to say that our world as we know it right now, under the bonds of death, is not also beautiful and communicative of the life, love and glory of God. However, this beauty of the Creator is only fully seen by a heart that has accepted death. Saint Pavel Florensky says:
The goal of the ascetic’s strivings is to perceive all of creation in its original triumphant beauty. The Holy Spirit reveals itself in the ability to see the beauty of creation. Always to see beauty in everything would be “to be resurrected before the universal resurrection,” to have a foretaste of the last Revelation, that of the Comforter.
From “Letter Nine” in The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters by Pavel Florensky (translated by Boris Jakim)
Tolkien insists that the catastrophe is good and fills his stories with the in-breaking of this goodness (typically at its most wonderful when it comes from the most humble of sources, as we see within the goodness of Shire life). However, Tolkien insists with his mythology that our lot in this world is, ultimately, to take up our cross (Matthew 16:24-26) and to pray that, in our own flesh, we might be “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body” (Colossians 1:24, ESV). This is the ascetic’s strivings of which the saints teach which allows us to see the beauty of creation. Like the believing thief who hung beside Christ, may we die willingly with him.
From the “Stanton Lecture 8: The Surprise of the Imagined” by John Milbank (drawing heavily on Stephen Clark):
It is common to the entire Biblical and Classical legacy to recognise that, as Stephen R.L. Clark put it, ‘our thoughts are not entirely made by us’. …It is above all Stephen R. L. Clark who has grasped how the question of religious belief in supernatural entities—in gods, angels, daemons and fairies—is intrinsically bound up with the question of the ontological status of our thoughts and imaginings. He begins the highly nuanced and philosophically crucial reflections of his essay ‘How to Believe in Fairies’ with Yeats’ (and Chesterton’s) assumption that one should take seriously perennial folk-beliefs until one has serious reasons to doubt them. And today, he suggests, scepticism concerning the existence of fairies and the like is now on all-fours with scepticism concerning the existence of a mental reality: ‘if desires and beliefs are not real causes, and neither are fairies, why should we not investigate fairies as convenient fictions? If, on the other hand, they are real causes, maybe what we call “fairies” are so too’. He also cites W.Y. Evans Wentz’s summation of Celtic fairy lore: ‘the only verdict which seems reasonable is that the Fairy-Faith belongs to a doctrine of souls’. Clark then goes on to argue that if desires, feelings and beliefs are indeed real, then the phenomenological evidence is that they often tend ‘to arrive’ in our minds with surprisingly intrusive unpredictability and irregularity, as if we were indeed being ‘possessed’. In addition, he points out that moods are readily found to be contagious—such that, one can add, we daily discover that the ‘second world’ of our imagination is not a solipsistic one, but rather one to some degree shareable (as Wittgenstein suggested) through proferred words and gestures which engender communities of feeling. If then, the mental as the imaginary is real at all, then it makes far more logical and evidential sense to treat is as a real ontological sphere rather than a reality somehow ‘inside’ our isolated subjectivities, or ‘epiphenomenally’ produced by bodies as a coating of spectral icing sugar whose metaphysical status is simply begged.
…He then goes on to adumbrate a subtle and ethically acute analysis of the relationship between human emotions and reports and theories concerning fairies. Very often they appear as pagan gods put in their proper, subordinate place: thus they are creatures of unambivalent and abiding loves and hates, not entirely malicious, but completely given over to caprice and impulse, without any regard for ends, since their destiny is to live forever within time and they do not trouble themselves concerning eternal destiny. As Clark suggests, the temptation of ‘new age thinking’ as inaugurated by Yeats (and which Clark, as a Christian, discusses with a unique patience and degree of sympathy) as he himself half-knew, is for human beings wholly to give themselves over to these real influences, in reaction against a technocratic world in league with a falsely disenchanted (and so denatured) modern Christianity. We would then start to inhabit an amoral world of vivid, random emotions, beauty divorced from the good, and heroic, sacrificial violence, accompanied by startling symbols – since, as we saw Hume taught, feeling and image are always twinned. Clark appropriately cites William Blake’s warning against returned Druidry in Britain: ‘gods are visions of the eternal attributes, or divine names, which when erected into gods become destructive of humanity. …For when separated from man or humanity, who is Jesus the saviour, the vine of eternity, they are thieves and rebels, they are destroyers’. Certainly, human beings need to be open to all ‘influences’, on pain of being the prisoners of a few ‘material’ ones; but this openness is dangerous unless we are supremely receptive to the unifying influence of God and of the Divine Humanity which (as Blake finally realised, with a developed orthodoxy that anticipates sophiology and is not at all gnostic) guards against the influence of a distorted and itself ‘druidically’ idolatrous monotheistic influence which would sacrifice the Creation to the Creator.
In this context Clark notes that, traditionally speaking, the fairy-realm has been associated not just with a carefree innocence and endless festival, but also with disillusionment, aridity and sterility. This concurs with the fact, that as the Irish scholar John Carey has noted, Celtic Christianity tended to locate the sidhe alternatively as unfallen human beings or as chastised pagan gods or yet again as half-fallen angels. In keeping, perhaps, with the first reading, Clark suggests in the conclusion of his essay that there can be ‘third fairies’, perhaps rather like Tolkien’s elves, who combine joy with a tinge of sadness, and so point beyond earthly paradisal timelessness towards the real spiritual Good of eternity which is the active contemplation of infinite love.
…[Clark’s] own insight that fairies are now on one fairy-footing with all other fantasies, including human thoughts as such, would rather suggest that …one not only ‘can’ but must believe in fairies (and so forth) in order to go on believing in the reality of the very thoughts that we think. For if thoughts are ireducibly real as thoughts, transcending all matter, then they must come from outside us and finally from above us. And if imaginings are real as imaginings, irreducible to physical motions, sensations or intentional abstractions, then they must belong in, and derive from a real dream-world like the one twice visited by Alice: the mundus imaginalis of the near-Orient.
Christians claim that we live in a damaged world, although it still reveals to us an undamaged reality beyond and within. Growing up in a Christian home, I lived constantly with the idea that our brokenness is obvious and that all the beauty and wonder of this world speaks to us ceaselessly of a goodness from which we are somehow estranged. Despite this upbringing, it surprised me recently to read that we cannot recognize the fallenness of our world without a revelation given to us from outside our frame of reference. As I’ve grown older, however, I see that I don’t always live as if this world is incomplete. Instead, I act as if this world commands my full allegiance—as if what I can acquire and achieve is all that matters. I treat the world around me as all that I have or as the full picture of reality.
Recently, however, I’ve come to reflect on some Christian claims that place us even more deeply within a tragically reduced creation than I would have previously understood or expressed. I’m considering that even our experience of time has fallen so that the fullness of reality does not fit within our temporal history and even our fall itself is beyond our immediate grasp as a specific point within the timeline of our past. This remoteness of our own fall leaves us with the powerful illusion that we know our own story and the full scope of what exists. In fact, however, we are heavily blinded and “we see through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12). We are easily inclined to live and act as if evil and death are normal and as if there is nothing fundamentally wrong with ourselves and our world. In response, this supratemporal understanding of the fall has challenged me to consider just how separated we are from the fullness of reality—cut off in ways that leave us blinded to who we truly are as God’s children.
Even during this life, God’s presence within a quieted heart allows us to begin seeing the true nature of ourselves and our world. We have God fully revealed to us within human history in the person of Jesus Christ, and he reveals a strange relationship to sin, evil, suffering and death:
If it is from Christ that we to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless and miraculous enmity. Sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are a part of the eternal work or purposes of God, which it is well to remember.
From The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? by David Bentley Hart, chapter 9.
It is not an easy thing to live as if sin, suffering, evil and death are not a part of the eternal realities of our world. Ultimately, this requires going to the cross and communing there with our loving God “who was slain before the foundations of the world” (Revelation 13:8). We find in this communion a courage and joy that is far from a reliance on great emotions or great ideas. It is a beautiful relationship with what is true and good. This all requires learning to live with our fears and sufferings as part of what we carry now but ultimately as falsehoods that will be overcome by the true gifts that our loving God offers to us with His presence.
C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity and several other places about the ache of joy as a sign to us that we are all clearly “made for another world.” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote stories of a Straight Road kept open only for the Elves so that they could continue to sail their ships along the pathway of the once-flat sea and into what is now our sky. The bending of our world into its current reduced shape took place in Tolkien’s stories at the downfall of Númenor. This shrinking of our current world cut us off from Aman and the realm of the Valar (see “Akallabêth: The Downfall of Númenor” in The Silmarillion for one depiction of this by Tolkien). In the “The Ballad of the White Horse,” G.K. Chesterton writes: “For the end of the world was long ago, / And all we dwell to-day / As children of some second birth, / Like a strange people left on earth / After a judgment day.”
These ideas from Chesterton, Tolkien and Lewis (who I have read since childhood) are clearly of a piece with other claims about the fall that I have read more recently as a summary of ancient Christian teaching:
The fall of rational creation and the conquest of the cosmos by death is something that appears to us nowhere within the course of nature or history; it comes from before and beyond both. We cannot search it out within the closed totality of the damaged world because it belongs to another frame of time, another kind of time, one more real than the time of death.
…It may seem a fabulous claim that we exist in the long grim aftermath of a primaeval catastrophe—that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is a phantom of true time, that we live in an umbratile interval between creation in its fullness and the nothingness from which it was called, and that the universe languishes in bondage to the “powers” and “principalities” of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward the kingdom of God—but it is not a claim that Christians are free to surrender.
From “The Devil’s March: Creatio ex Nihilo, the Problem of Evil, and a Few Dostoyevskian Meditations” by David Bentley Hart, published in Theological Territories: A David Bentley Hart Digest.
Many ancient Christian teachers have said that our entire cosmos exists within a weakened and reduced condition of space and time. Our access to reality is obstructed by our current fallen condition. Time, as we now know it, does not contain all that is true about time in its fullness. Human history and our entire physical universe exists within an incomplete form of time and space. Our fall cut us off from access to our true selves, our true history and from the fullness of the realities to which we still belong but from which we are estranged.
Speaking about the history of how all of this happened is not fully possible within our current temporal categories. Ancient myths and great stories point toward this history over and over in images and language that help us to see beyond our current condition. In The Silmarillion, Tolkien describes the Ainur as the first living beings kindled by Eru Ilúvatar with love for the Flame Imperishable and who therefore had the power of creativity. Ilúvatar taught each of them to sing, and they slowly began to make music on their own and in small groups. Hearing and observing each other singing taught the Ainur more and more about the mind of Ilúvatar, increasing their “unity and harmony.” Eventually, their creator gathered all of the Ainur and told them that he would guide them in a song so great and complex that every one of them would participate together. At first the Ainur were so amazed at this idea, that they bowed before Eru Ilúvatar in silence. When they began to sing, their voices filled the depths and heights of sound “beyond hearing” and filled even the Void so that it “was not void.” Their singing then went through multiple themes with it’s first theme increasing their unity, harmony and their knowledge of Ilúvatar. However, discord was eventually introduced by the voice of Melkor who drew other voices with him so that Ilúvatar needed to introduce a theme that would eventually enfold and resolve the discord of Melkor (a theme involving sacrifice and eucatastrophe). As you read further in Tolkien’s stories, his entire mythic history of Middle Earth is depicted as existing within these powerful but temporary discords of Melkor.
As ancient storytellers and Tolkien understood, any attempt to give a brief history of the cosmos must somehow transcend time as we now experience it. To go to the beginning, requires a look into the life of God. However, to consider God’s life, we can only begin with what we know about our lives together. We all know that admiring something good in another person satisfies us deeply. In the Christian teaching of Imago Dei, to admire goodness in someone else is also to see God revealed in them. Seeing two other persons find this kind of satisfaction in each other likewise invites us to admire each of them in return. This kind of fellowship between three or more people is described in clear and simple terms by C.S. Lewis:
In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically Charles joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him ‘to myself’ now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald.
From The Four Loves.
Although not relatable within our terms of finitude and need, Jesus Christ reveals God to us as a timeless community of three persons sharing one perfect nature. Christianity maintains that everything is founded upon the love of these three persons within the life of God. Dante references an ancient classical and Christian tradition with his lines about how it is “love that moves the sun and other stars” (The Divine Comedy, Paradiso, XXXIII.145).
In fact, not only all movement but all existence is a result of God’s love. Everything that exists only exists as a response to this life and love shared between these three persons as they enjoy the same complete goodness in each other but manifest and appreciate this goodness each in their own distinct ways. For its own sake, our cosmos exists in response to this fullness of God’s life and love. He needs no goodness added to his own, but his superabundant goodness calls for our response so that we too might enjoy it.
Before our cosmos began to suffer, however, and even before our place as humans within the cosmos was shaped by God’s superabundance of life and love, many other ranks of free and glorious spirits first came to be in response to God. In this uncorrupted time and space, a community of heavenly life exists continually where mighty living lights move in a dance filled with awe and joy, breathing out their songs around the throne of God. In a passage about the heavenly life at the end of time, C.S. Lewis describes a dynamic that is true from the beginning and that remains unchanged around the throne of God even throughout all the tumult of our human history:
Friendship exhibits a glorious ‘nearness by resemblance’ to heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each of us has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ to one another (Isaiah 6:3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall have.
Again from The Four Loves.
Out of this harmonious life with God, God called forth yet another form of life. Humans were like children wearing garments of light and placed to grow up within a well-watered garden of beautiful plants and animals. Our cosmos was already shaped long before humanity was placed into it, and our cosmos was filled from the start with powerful lights that danced and sang from out of the darkness. These great spirits made up the mighty household of God, and their dances and voices formed the great harmonious movements that exist still as the metaphysical foundation of our cosmos. Remember Dante’s claim (echoing Augustine and many others) that it is “love that moves the sun and other stars.”
Plato taught us this about the stars as well, i.e. that they are moved (as are all things) by unseen realities and that their visible movements (although imperfect like all the rest of the visible world) reveal perfect realities. Alan Scott has an excellent summary of Plato’s teaching on the stars in Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea by (Oxford Early Christian Studies, Clarendon Press, 1994):
True astronomy is not concerned merely with what is seen in heaven but with the understanding of what lies behind what is seen. …To the mind which understood properly, there was true harmony in heaven even if this was not possible for the material bodies of heaven, even as there is exactness in geometry though it is not part of any merely visible diagram. …Just as Plato accepts elements of the latest astronomical research but not the philosophical and religious implications it was sometimes thought to have, so too before his later writings he can accept the popular veneration of the heavens without taking it altogether seriously. In the Republic, Plato does say that the craftsman of heaven, like Daedalus, fashioned the courses of the stars with the greatest beauty possible, and at one point Plato even goes so far as to refer casually to ‘the gods in heaven’, one of which is the sun, and yet he also openly doubts that the visible stars are eternal and immutable.
…The author of [Epinomis] tells us as Plato did that most people regard the stars as lifeless because of their uniform motion, but that this is in fact a clear sign of their intelligence. [As an aside, this claim that uniform motion is a sign of intelligence is brilliantly expanded and defended here by G.K. Chesterton.]
Scripture has many passages where “the hosts of heaven” can just as well be translated with either “stars” or “angels.” What we see as the movements of the stars does ultimately reflect the life of God and his entire creation. However, what we see of everything in this world equally reflects God’s life—from earthly weather patterns to cellular life. But I’ve wandered far away from the storyline again. Back to the arrival of humanity.
Some Christian sages have said that when God made humans amid this great assembly, a few powerful voices in the heavens grew jealous or proud. There is something glorious (imponderable to some degree) about the introduction of humans into creation. Most early Christian teachers took it for granted that God created humanity after the pattern of the second person of the Trinity—the eternal Son of God—as a first step in God’s own incarnation. Our creation was the means for God to participate fully within the life of all his creation. In a way that should be understood as related to our image-bearing and incarnational intent, human life is made to tend, protect and call into harmonious voice all the beauties of the entire cosmos around us. Job says that the stars sang as the earth was made (even before humans were here), and yet humans are placed upon the earth so that we can call upon the stars themselves to sing (as we do in several of the Psalms). There is something mysterious (and easily offensive) about this sequence of events within God’s divine plan.
Some time not too long after God makes humans, we come to a critical and obscure detail within the story. There is a forbidden tree within the garden. This in and of itself is not an issue as it is simply understood by most ancient scholars of the Bible to indicate that humans were made to mature. We were not created fully developed in our moral and relational capacities. This tree of the knowledge of good and evil is not for the young and untested. More messy is the fact that there is a tempter. Some scholars point out that the instructions to “care for the garden” would have been read by ancient people as “guard,” and that our first parents should have prevented the serpent from entering. This may be the case. Alternatively, the snake was part of God’s first household and there was already some discord within that house. In this case, the fallenness of humanity and our world is wrapped up to some degree with a fall of some variety among powerful spirits who were made before us. This point cannot be taken too far, however, because humanity is clearly held responsible for the current condition of our cosmos. We see this in Romans 8:19-23, for example, where we read that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God …for we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”
All Christian theologians agree to a remarkable degree that humanity provides a vital link between God and this new creation (again tied to the incarnational purpose of our creation from the start). David Bentley Hart summarizes it this way: “Human beings—constituting what Maximus the Confessor called the priestly ‘methorios’ (the boundary or frontier) between the physical and the spiritual realms—severed the bond between God’s eternity and cosmic time when they fell” (from “The Devil’s March” again). Both pagan and Christian sages throughout history have spoken of each human person as a microcosm of the whole cosmos. Great women and men of prayer and contemplation have repeatedly insisted that there is a powerful connection between the depths of the human heart and the central throne of God. In some sense, each human heart is the center of all that God has made (creating what we call a “place”), and each human heart also touches every other place because each heart stands directly before God. To see God as well as the places that we occupy, requires that what the ancient Greeks called our “nous” (intuitive apprehension) be given a complete and quiet authority within our heart (which is the only location from which the nous can see God and reality directly). To get back to the point (and to repeat once more), all of this means that humanity displays God to the world in some central way and also receives the gifts of God from all of the world surrounding us. We are each a living sacramental or eucharistic center of seeing, receiving and thanksgiving (making our bodies temples of the Holy Spirit as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:19). When our relationship to God is broken, it is not just (or even primarily) an individual tragedy. Each human’s broken relationship to God is a cosmic tragedy with extremely real and terrible implications. Likewise, for any human to live in restored communion with God means that all of creation and every fellow human may witness and share, to some degree, a substantial return to the true and intended arrangement of things. Holiness is this participation of particular persons and things with this original purpose of communicating God’s presence.
Whatever might be made of these glorious claims surrounding humanity and the serious implications of our fall, we have a divinely inspired story that clearly makes our fall the essential reason for cosmic suffering. It is tempting to identify the exact temporal sequence of these events. However, it seems that angelic rebellion and the human fall took place before our current time and space were fractured and reduced to an incomplete existence that can no longer contain any of the points in heavenly time at which any of these events took place. In other words, the actual account of our own fall does not fit within our current experiences of time and space. If this is true, then our fall is something that transcends our time. It may have happened in some kind of sequence within a kind of heavenly time, but it can’t be located within earthly time. One quality of a higher dimension in math (to use one easy analogy) is that it can “contain” all of a lesser dimension (as a sphere contains many circles). In an analogous way, every one of our personal lives may be contained within the single event of the human fall. We may each be an active participant in the fall of our first parents.
There are clearly other events within human history that transcend our standard understandings of time according to the biblical accounts. Consider the exodus as well as the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We see this kind of supratemporal reality clearly described within this passage about a prayer from the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (“a little book with prayers for the Eucharist, baptism, ordination, and other rites reflecting practice in Rome at the end of the second century”) in Robert Louis Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (32-36):
It is apparent from the wording of the prayers that something more is at work here than recalling ancient history. After reciting the history of salvation leading up to the “night on which he was betrayed,” the prayer continues as follows: “And we sinners make remembrance of his life-giving sufferings, his death, and resurrection on the third day from death and ascension to the right hand of You, his God and Father, and his second glorious and fearful coming.” The key term here is the Greek word anamnesis, usually translated “remembrance,” which in this context means “recall by making present.”
There are parallels between this sense of remembrance and the way the Exodus out of Egypt is remembered in the Jewish Passover. In the Mishnah, the collection of Jewish law from the early third century, it is reported that Rabbi Gamaliel used to say, “…In every generation a man must so regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Egypt, for it is written, ‘And you shall tell your son on that day saying, “It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.”’ Those who celebrate Pesach are not spectators, they are participants. “It is I who came forth out of Egypt,” says Rabbi Gamaliel. Remembrance is more than mental recall, and in the Eucharist the life-giving events of Christ’s death and Resurrection escape the restrictions of time and become what the early church called mysteries, ritual actions by which Christ’s saving work is re-presented under the veil of the consecrated bread and wine. Speaking of the Christian paschal celebration Origen wrote, “The Passover still takes place today” and “Those who sacrifice Christ come out of Egypt, cross the Red Sea, and see Pharaoh engulfed.” What was once accomplished in Palestine is now made present in the action of the liturgy, as the prayers indicate: “We offer to You O Lord, this awesome and unbloody sacrifice, beseeching You to deal with us not according to our sins.” Liturgy is always in the present tense. The past becomes a present presence that opens a new future.
What is being claimed about the human fall is different then what is being claimed about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our fall did not take place in human history, it was in some sense the start of cosmic history as we know it (that is as a broken and reduced experience). God’s great actions in human history (with Jesus Christ fulfilling all of these) are both historic events and transcendent events. They have a particular place in history but also touch every other point in history (as a transcendent event). Our fall, as I’m explaining it also touches every other point in history, but it cannot also be located within human history as we can locate Jesus Christ.
With these explanations in place, the history of our cosmos can be told briefly:
God’s joyous, free and self-sufficient life as three persons brought many great and diverse spirits to a free yet contingent life so that they could share in and enjoy the life of God.
This household of free and sub-creative spirits rejoiced as God’s life continued to invite more life into newly shaped space and time. God made a beautiful cosmos and then brought humanity into it as those showing forth God’s image within this new realm of spirits whose creation would be fulfilled with the incarnation of God’s Son among them.
God warned his new children that great and mysterious powers were still beyond their reach and that their own pursuit of this knowledge would bring terrible damage, destruction and death.
Evidently, however, some in God’s first household did not simply rejoice at the creation of this second household. They invited humans to forgo growth and maturation, to grasp on their own for goals and ends that they were not yet developed enough to see clearly or to understand. As humans followed these promptings, bitterness, mistrust and fear resulted. As God had warned them, they fled from God and faced death.
Many ancient accounts of the expulsion from the garden note that God was protecting humanity from the tree of life, not punishing them. Our first parents would cause more damage to themselves and their world in their fallen condition if they had been given continued access to the tree of life.
We might say that a reduced cosmic history began here, but we would need to recognize that our entire history to which we have any conceivable access is a reduced history. We lost all access to the kind of time and space in which we were initially created, and our entire story as well as the entire story of our current cosmos became a story characterized by death and suffering from beginning to end.
Taking compassion on us in our fallen condition, God clothed our first parents in garments of skin (with many ancient accounts saying that this covered or replaced their original garments which had been made of light), and God commanded members of his first household to attend and help fallen humanity within the sad confines of our now reduced and limited history.
Our fall, however, left a great vacuum in our hearts and therefore in all of the cosmos so that members of God’s first household could abuse us and our world, claiming it as their own dominion. Humanity followed much of this abuse in our own lust for power as well as in fear, and we neglected our life as God’s image bearers and caretakers more and more for the sake of desperate ventures and false worship.
Amid the ravages and terror of this sad history, Jesus Christ nonetheless fulfilled God’s original intention for us and revealed that God could unite his life even to death and to the grave itself, shattering them from within and offering us the life of God (the fruit of the tree of life as his own body) in communion with our own sufferings and deaths.
After this astounding victory and revelation, Jesus Christ returned to God’s throne where he now offers his own body to us as our bread and where he remains who he was revealed to be upon the Cross: the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world and our bread of life.
God has united himself and his life to us once again from his own real and eternal kingdom. In Jesus Christ, our broken and incomplete cosmos has been opened up and brought back into contact with the life of God.
This history is not over, but we now can see, through Jesus Christ, that the entire history of our cosmos has a beginning and an end that is not currently visible to us, and that all things must truly be made new so that we live now as heavenly citizens but also as future inheritors of a new heavens and an a new earth. United with Christ in his death now as we feed upon his incorruptible body, our own deaths will not hold us captive but will give way to Christ’s death and therefore also to his life.
This exercise has shown me, again, that there are good reasons why these truths are related in great stories and powerful images. They ring shallow and false when reduced to truisms and propositions. Nonetheless, I hope that some of these foolish babblings, for anyone desperate enough to have read them, might have pointed you toward something of the life of God in which “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a regaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them” —as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiares are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them.
“On Fairy Stories” by J.R.R. Tolkien published in Tree and Leaf (Boston, 1965), pp. 57-58.
I may be at risk of recording this entire classic by Tolkien within the collections in this blog, but I don’t think that I had this critical passage in my harvesting here.
Clearly a counterproductive multiplication of books:
Hearing these things, despite the true knowledge which Nólemë had and spread abroad, there were many who hearkened with half their hearts to Melko, and restlessness grew amongst them, and Melko poured oil on their smouldering desires. From him they learnt many things it were not good for any but the great Valar to know, for being half-comprehended such deep and hidden things slay happiness; and besides many of the sayings of Melko were cunning lies or were but partly true, and the Noldoli ceased to sing, and their viols fell silent upon the hill of Kôr, for their hearts grew somewhat older as their lore grew deeper and their desires more swollen, and the books of their wisdom were multiplied as the leaves of the forest.
J.R.R. Tolkien (The Book of Lost Tales, Part One: Part One)
I sat up late last night and have read the Geste as far as to where Beren and his gnomish allies defeat the patrol of orcs above the sources of the Narog and disguise themselves in the reaf,” an Anglo-Saxon term for clothing and weapons taken from the dead. “I can quite honestly say that it is ages since I have had an evening of such delight.
CSL to JRRT, December 8, 1929, in The Lays of Beleriand, pp. 150-151.
They are not idle. But they were not made as weapons of war or conquest: that is not their power. Those who made them did not desire strength or domination or hoarded wealth, but understanding, making, and healing, to preserve all things unstained.
From The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Found in the unfinished novel The Notion Club Papers, this is the “The Death of St. Brendan” by J.R.R. Tolkien:
At last out of the deep seas he passed,
and mist rolled on the shore;
under clouded moon the waves were loud,
as the laden ship him bore
to Ireland, back to wood and mire,
to the tower tall and grey,
where the knell of Cluain-ferta’s bell
tolled in green Galway.
Where Shannon down to Lough Derg ran
under a rainclad sky
Saint Brendan came to his journey’s end
to await his hour to die.
‘O! tell me, father, for I loved you well,
if still you have words for me,
of things strange in the remembering
in the long and lonely sea,
of islands by deep spells beguiled
where dwell the Elven-kind:
in seven long years the road to Heaven
or the Living Land did you find?’
‘The things I have seen, the many things,
have long now faded far;
only three come clear now back to me:
a Cloud, a Tree, a Star.
We sailed for a year and a day and hailed
no field nor coast of men;
no boat nor bird saw we ever afloat
for forty days and ten.
We saw no sun at set or dawn,
but a dun cloud lay ahead,
and a drumming there was like thunder coming
and a gleam of fiery red.
Upreared from sea to cloud then sheer
a shoreless mountain stood;
its sides were black from the sullen tide
to the red lining of its hood.
No cloak of cloud, no lowering smoke,
no looming storm of thunder
in the world of men saw I ever unfurled
like the pall that we passed under.
We turned away, and we left astern
the rumbling and the gloom;
then the smoking cloud asunder broke,
and we saw that Tower of Doom:
on its ashen head was a crown of red,
where fires flamed and fell.
Tall as a column in High Heaven’s hall,
its feet were deep as Hell;
grounded in chasms the waters drowned
and buried long ago,
it stands, I ween, in forgotten lands
where the kings of kings lie low.
We sailed then on, till the wind had failed,
and we toiled then with the oar,
and hunger and thirst us sorely wrung,
and we sang our psalms no more.
A land at last with a silver strand
at the end of strength we found;
the waves were singing in pillared caves
and pearls lay on the ground;
and steep the shores went upward leaping
to slopes of green and gold,
and a stream out of the rich land teeming
through a coomb of shadow rolled.
Through gates of stone we rowed in haste,
and passed, and left the sea;
and silence like dew fell in that isle,
and holy it seemed to be.
As a green cup, deep in a brim of green,
that with wine the white sun fills
was the land we found, and we saw there stand
on a laund between the hills
a tree more fair than ever I deemed
might climb in Paradise:
its foot was like a great tower’s root,
it height beyond men’s eyes;
so wide its branches, the least could hide
in shade an acre long,
and they rose as steep as mountain-shows
those boughs so broad and strong;
for white as a winter to my sight
the leaves of that tree were,
they grew more close than swan-wing plumes,
all long and soft and fair.
We deemed then, maybe, as in a dream,
that time had passed away
and our journey ended; for no return
we hoped, but there to stay.
In the silence of that hollow isle,
in the stillness, then we sang –
softly us seemed, but the sound aloft
like a pealing organ rang.
Then trembled the tree from crown to stem;
from the limbs the leaves in air
as white birds fled in wheeling flight,
and left the branches bare.
From the sky came dropping down on high
a music not of bird,
not voice of man, nor angel’s voice;
but maybe there is a third
fair kindred in the world yet lingers
beyond the foundered land.
Yet steep are the seas and the waters deep
beyond the White-tree Strand.’
‘O! stay now, father! There’s more to say.
But two things you have told:
The Tree, the Cloud; but you spoke of three.
The Star in mind do you hold?’
‘The Star? Yes, I saw it, high and far,
at the parting of the ways,
a light on the edge of the Outer Night
like silver set ablaze,
where the round world plunges steeply down,
but on the old road goes,
as an unseen bridge that on arches runs
to coasts than no man knows.’
‘But men say, father, that ere the end
you went where none have been.
I would hear you tell me, father dear,
of the last land you have seen.’
‘In my mind the Star I still can find,
and the parting of the seas,
and the breath as sweet and keen as death
that was borne upon the breeze.
But where they bloom those flowers fair,
in what air or land they grow,
what words beyond the world I heard,
if you would seek to know,
in a boat then, brother, far afloat
you must labour in the sea,
and find for yourself things out of mind:
you will learn no more of me.’
In Ireland, over wood and mire,
in the tower tall and grey,
the knell of Cluain-ferta’s bell
was tolling in green Galway.
Saint Brendan had come to his life’s end
under a rainclad sky,
and journeyed whence no ship returns,
and his bones in Ireland lie.
C.S. Lewis in a letter to Arthur Greeves, 22 June 1930:
Tolkien once remarked to me that the feeling about home must have been quite different in the days when a family had fed on the produce of the same few miles of country for six generations, and that perhaps this was why they saw nymphs in the fountains and dryads in the woods – they were not mistaken for there was in a sense a real (not metaphorical) connection between them and the countryside. What had been earth and air & later corn, and later still bread, really was in them.
We of course who live on a standardised international diet (you may have had Canadian flour, English meat, Scotch oatmeal, African oranges, & Australian wine to day) are really artificial beings and have no connection (save in sentiment) with any place on earth. We are synthetic men, uprooted. The strength of the hills is not ours.
J.R.R. Tolkien (or Christopher?) in his notes on “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth” (see more here).
Finrod, however, sees now that, as things were, no created thing or being in Arda, or in all Eä, was powerful enough to counteract or heal Evil: that is to subdue Melkor (in his present person, reduced though that was) and the Evil that he had dissipated and sent out from himself into the very structure of the world.
Only Eru himself could do this. Therefore, since it was unthinkable that Eru would abandon the world to the ultimate triumph and domination of Melkor (which could mean its ruin and reduction to chaos), Eru Himself must at some time come to oppose Melkor. But Eru could not enter wholly into the world and its history, which is, however great, only a finite Drama. He must as Author always remain ‘outside’ the Drama, even though that Drama depends on His design and His will for its beginning and continuance, in every detail and moment. Finrod therefore thinks that He will, when He comes have to be both ‘outside’ and inside and so he glimpses the possibility of complexity or of distinctions in the nature of Eru which nonetheless leaves Him ‘The One’.
Since Finrod had already guessed that the redemptive function was originally, specially assigned to Men, he probably proceeded to the expectation that ‘the coming of Eru’, if it took place, would be specially and primarily concerned with Men: that is to an imaginative guess or vision that Eru would come incarnated in human form. This, however, does not appear in the Athrabeth.
We are here dealing with Elvish thought at an early period, when the Eldar were still fully ‘physical’ in bodily form. Much later when the process (already glimpsed by Finrod) called ‘waning’ or ‘fading’ had become more effective, their views of the End of Arda, so far as it affected themselves, must have been modified. But there are few records of any contacts of Elvish and Human thought in such latter days. They eventually became housed, if it can be called that, not in actual visible and tangible hröar, but only in the memory of the fëa of its bodily form and its desire for it and therefore not dependent for mere existence upon the material of Arda.* But they appear to have held, and indeed still to hold, that this desire for the hröa shows that their later (and present) condition is not natural to them, and they remain in estel that Eru will heal it. ‘Not natural’, whether it is due wholly, as they earlier thought, to the weakening of the hröa (derived from the debility introduced by Melkor into the substance of Arda upon which it must feed), or partly to the inevitable working of a dominant fëa upon a material hröa through many ages. (In the latter case ‘natural’ can refer only to an ideal state, in which unmarred matter could for ever endure the indwelling of a perfectly adapted fëa. It cannot refer to the actual design of Eru, since the Themes of the Children were introduced after the arising of the discords of Melkor. The ‘waning’ of the Elvish hröar must therefore be part of the History of Arda as envisaged by Eru, and the mode in which the Elves were to make way for the Dominion of Men. The Elves find their supersession by Men a mystery, and a cause of grief; for they say that Men, at least so largely governed as they are by the evil of Melkor, have less and less love for Arda in itself, and are largely. busy in destroying it in the attempt to dominate it. They still believe that Eru’s healing of all the griefs of Arda will come now by or through Men; but the Elves’ part in the healing or redemption will be chiefly in the restoration of the love of Arda, to which their memory of the Past and understanding of what might have been will contribute. Arda they say will be destroyed by wicked Men (or the wickedness in Men); but healed through the goodness in Men. The wickedness, the domineering lovelessness, the Elves will offset. By the holiness of good men—their direct attachment to Eru, before and above all Eru’s works—the Elves may be delivered from the last of their griefs: sadness; the sadness that must come even from the unselfish love of anything less than Eru.
Desire. The Elves insisted that ‘desires’, especially such fundamental desires as are here dealt with, were to be taken as indications of the true natures of the Incarnates, and of the direction in which their unmarred fulfillment must lie. They distinguished between desire of the fëa (perception that something right or necessary is not present, leading to desire or hope for it); wish, or personal wish (the feeling of the lack of something, the force of which primarily concerns oneself, and which may have little or no reference to the general fitness of things); illusion, the refusal to recognize that things are not as they should be, leading to the delusion that they are as one would desire them to be, when they are not so. (The last might now be called ‘wishful thinking’, legitimately; but this term, the Elves would say, is quite illegitimate when applied to the first. The last can be disproved by reference to facts. The first not so. Unless desirability is held to be always delusory, and the sole basis for the hope of amendment. But desires of the fëa may often be shown to be reasonable by arguments quite unconnected with personal wish. The fact that they accord with ‘desire’, or even with personal wish, does not invalidate them. Actually the Elves believed that the ‘lightening of the heart’ or the ‘stirring of joy’ (to which they often refer), which may accompany the hearing of a proposition or an argument, is not an indication of its falsity but of the recognition by the fëa that it is on the path of truth.)