Tolkien’s Theology on Film: Preserved, Changed or Ignored – Part 2 – Sub-Creation and Eucatastrophe

This is the second part of a multi-part post that I plan on putting up over the next few days.  This is an adaptation of one of the papers I wrote in seminary at Biblical Seminary as part of a course on Theology, Film and Culture.  You can read more about my approach to film at Finding Christ in Film.  Join me in this exploration of the epic films based on The Lord of the Rings.  Part 1 can be found here.  The paper continues with a discussion on Tolkien’s view of story-tellers as sub-creators.

Sub-Creation and Eucatastrophe

In order to comment on Tolkien’s theology as presented in his books, I must first explain Tolkien’s view on narrative, specifically “Fairy-Stories”, as it pertains to explaining truth.  Tolkien, in fact, has much to say on the nature of “Fairy-Stories” and their application to life and literature and where they fall in the perceived hierarchy of works of fiction.  But one of the things that he mentions as the mark of a true Fairy-Story is his idea of eucatastrophe.  He defines this as “the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’…it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur” (Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories” 81).  Tolkien describes himself as a sub-creator who is creating a secondary world in reflection of the primary world.  He describes the sub-creator as having the hope “that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality or flowing into it.” (Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories” 83)  Ultimately, Tolkien indicates that the eucatastrophe points to the existence of a gospel that is a reflection of the true Gospel in the real world.

To this end, with Tolkien’s indication of the purpose of fairy stories or fantastical fiction, we can understand that he would himself endeavor to be such a sub-creator in his epic work.  As to his status of a sub-creator, the volumes of notes and unfinished back-story that makes up the works known as The History of Middle Earth themselves speak to Tolkien’s status as a secondary creator.  But as pertains to the actual The Lord of the Rings, we need to approach with caution Tolkien’s Christian themes.  We cannot look to the books and see allegory because that allegory does not exist.  He himself states in the foreword published in the first book, “As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, [The Lord of the Rings] has in the intention of the author none.  It is neither allegorical nor topical.”  (Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring 10)  He goes on to indicate that, if such were the case and the books were based on real world events, the entire plot of the book would need to be altered.  He continues,

But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.  I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers.  I think that many confuse “applicability” with “allegory”; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author. (Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring 10)

So we cannot look to the books and seek specifically themes and such as deliberate indications of truth.  Instead, however, as we read the words, we will find ourselves finding the themes and applying them to our own selves as we recognize the reflection of the secondary creation on our own primary reality.

All this has been explained to indicate that, while Tolkien’s life experiences, ideologies, and glimpsed truths played a part in his creation of Middle-Earth, the actual discovery of these truths and the experience of “eucatastrophe” at this discovery is an individualized experience.  The hope of the sub-creator is that the truths that they have embedded in their world are in fact real truths that are expected to be present, simply from the nature of being a creation within the primary.  So, as I read the books that make up The Lord of the Rings, I perceive certain truths and reflections of the gospel in this sub-creation that can also be found in the primary.  For some, they may not be as obvious for others.  This said we can forgive the film industry for any misrepresentation of Tolkien’s gospel for one simple reason: they may not have experienced the same truth in the primary creation as I have and therefore may present their interpretation differently.

What other examples of “sub-creation” have you experienced? What are “eucatastrophes” that you have encountered in your life? In what way have they pointed to the ultimate story of the Christian “eucatastrophe”?


Cited works

Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. “”On Fairy-Stories”.” Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. Essays Presented to Charles Williams. Ed. C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. Oxford University Press, 1947. 38-89.

—. The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Ballantine Books, 1965.

3 thoughts on “Tolkien’s Theology on Film: Preserved, Changed or Ignored – Part 2 – Sub-Creation and Eucatastrophe

  1. Pingback: Tolkien’s Theology on Film: Preserved, Changed or Ignored – Part 3 – Providence « Abnormal Anabaptist

  2. Pingback: Tolkien’s Theology on Film: Preserved, Changed or Ignored – Part 4 – Redemption: Overcoming Evil with Good « Abnormal Anabaptist

  3. Pingback: Tolkien’s Theology on Film: Preserved, Changed or Ignored – Part 5 – Conclusion: An Enduring Truth « Abnormal Anabaptist

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