The Huge Blank: Thanking Tolkien for Touching Upon Truth for Activists


Creación de Adán Miguel Ángel

“…the power of Tolkien lies in the way that he succeeds, through myth, in making the unseen hand of providence felt by the reader. In his mythical creations, or sub-creations as he would call them, he shows how the unseen hand of God is felt far more forcefully in myth than it is ever felt in fiction. Paradoxically, fiction works with facts, albeit invented facts, whereas myth works with truth, albeit truth dressed in fancy disguises. Furthermore, since facts are physical and truth is metaphysical, myth, being metaphysical, is spiritual.” — Frank Pearce

“You can almost always bank on there being a blank in people’s minds when it comes to Divine Justice.” — Flannery O’Connor

Most literary folks feel that myths are clever lies with imaginative power, but relatively worthless in the so-called real world, even though “breathed through silver”… to use the words of C.S. Lewis*. Well-respected scholars like Joseph Campbell dealt a death blow to that silly business about myths being “worthless”… very convincingly. But most people across the board believe that all myths — no matter how one tries to finesse focus — are (at rock bottom) some form of mendacity, “lies” not to be taken overly serious, their high entertainment value notwithstanding. Most see myths as seriously limiting when it comes to addressing the mundane challenges facing one and all today.

*Written prior to Tolkien having converted him.

But myths are not lies. Rather, they are quite far from being anything like lies. They are the best way – sometimes the only way – of conveying truths that would otherwise remain inexpressible. We have come from God, J.R. Tolkien argued, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily toward the true harbor, whereas materialistic “progress” leads only to the abyss and the power of evil.

“In expounding this belief in the inherent truth of mythology,” wrote Tolkien’s biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, “Tolkien… laid bare the center of his philosophy as a writer, the creed that is at the heart of The Silmarillion.” It is also the creed at the heart of all his other work too, turth be told. His short novel, Tree and Leaf, is essentially an allegory on the concept of true myth, and his poem, “Mythopoeia,” is an exposition in verse of the same concept.

Building on this philosophy of myth, Tolkien explained to C.S. Lewis at one point early on that the story of Christ was the true myth at the very heart of history, and at the very root of reality. Whereas the pagan myths were manifestations of God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using the images of their “mythopoeia” to reveal fragments of His eternal truth, the true myth of Christ was a manifestation of God expressing Himself through Himself, with Himself, and in Himself. God, in the Incarnation, had revealed Himself as the ultimate poet who was creating reality, the true poem or true myth, in His own image. Thus, in a divinely inspired paradox, myth was revealed as the ultimate realism.

One cannot run through — rush through — the above and properly digest what’s worthwhile that’s embedded there, what words demand special care and consideration in the so-called real world of social change.

But perhaps I can help on this score with a shortcut of sorts for the time being. To at least get the ball rolling. Help my fellow activists who have such difficulty these days — like everyone else — slowing down long and carefully enough to absorb something truly new. [It’s particularly “difficult” when the “new” happens to be something quite old, something that’s been around awhile, but prematurely dismissed with a logical positivist twist in vogue.]

A dear friend sent me an email today explaining that certain slogans from late sixties France were resonating with him. One of them was

“Soyez réalistes, demandez l’impossible.”

Be realistic, demand the impossible. Hard to argue with that if you’ve been around the barricades and a broad range of activism for decades. However, there’s a huge difference between attempting to bring about “the impossible” and demanding the impossible, yes?

From one angle of vision they can mean exactly the same thing. But I believe it’s rare that when activists use the word “demand” that they don’t see themselves as being in confrontational mode with the powers that be, using an approach which can easily be open to violent interaction, quickly turning into a contest between two entities who they see as separate from one another, one much “better” than the other, one with God on its side. One-up.

God — to anthropomorphize for the moment — on His side, yes, laughing at the sophomoric take on conflict, suffering and… just about everything one can imagine. Taking note of the degree to which Pride, the great Catholic sin, dominates virtually all interaction, including that directed by the most well-meaning activists. One-up rules… and ruins.

Tolkien’s timeless classic, The Lord of the Rings, has impacted on millions, but relatively few have caught the Christian underpinnings which “demand” that we travel down the Impossible Road. It’s entertainment — pure and simple — for most, and it’s pretty much taught that way in educational circles, with token intellectual comments honoring the depth of Tolkien’s insights. Academic insights, not viscerally delivered, life-changing commentary.

The Lord of the Rings, which has been voted the greatest book of the 20th century in a succession of polls, was described by its author as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” I’m talking with Western tunnel vision here, granted, but that doesn’t preclude encouraging the reader to think about what Tolkien’s God might find sadly side-splitting about people pitting themselves against others as if Divine Justice would not eventually kick in.

There must be some discussion — ASAP — among activists about whether or not they believe in Divine Justice. Otherwise…. Well, just look at how things are going, have gone. And try not to be distracted by the bright-siding that’s going on at present about advances being made in this and that quarter. For quite significant “advances” were made (Brown v. Board of Education, for example) just prior to Tolkien’s classic being published over the course of a year. And we all know what happened to that “progress” and counterpart advances since that time. [Or do we?]

I fear that people are not getting it, the thrust of what Tolkien had to say about Divine Justice. And they must, and soon, or all their fighting the good fight will come to…. [Pause.] You fill in the blank, okay?

There is a huge “blank” out there at present

Flannery O’Connor Academy is mainly a home schooling setup for teens devoted to the kind of Liberal Arts education which makes the honoring of life effortless. This author and all the students and mentors can be reached at [email protected]. Those wishing to discover more are referred to Tolkien: Man and Myth and Tolkien: A Celebration, in which the relationship between Tolkien’s faith and the myth he created are examined at greater length.

“It has been said that the dominant note of
the traditional Catholic liturgy was intense longing. This is also true of her art, her literature, her whole life. It is a longing for things that cannot be in this world: unearthly truth, unearthly purity, unearthly justice, unearthly beauty. By all these earmarks, Lord of the Rings is indeed a Catholic work, as its author believed: But it is more. It is this age’s great Catholic epic, fit to stand beside the Grail legends, Le Morte d’Arthur and The Canterbury Tales. It is at once a great comfort to the individual Catholic, and a tribute to the enduring power and greatness of the Catholic tradition, that JRRT created this work. In an age which has seen an almost total rejection of the faith on the part of the Civilization she created . . . Lord of the Rings assures us, both by its existence and its message, that the darkness cannot triumph forever.”

— Charles A. Coulombe


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