Tolkien and the possibility of healing

This is a typically rich Adam Roberts post, bubbling over with a range of wonderful ideas, any one of which blazes a trail that it would be delightful to follow and extend. I just want to take up one theme here.

This is the passage I’m especially interested in:

This is part of a much larger project for Tolkien. He saw the world as broken, but his interest was in trying to making it whole again. He believed healing is possible (specifically, he believed healing is possible through Christ, because his Catholic faith was a central part of who he was) and he wrote his fantasy to explore that conviction. This is the core thing that separates his art, and therefore the promiscuous body of commercial fantasy written in imitation of his art, from the High Modernist stream. And it’s this that brings me back to Greek tragedy, and the reason why it so captured my spirit back when I was young: an individual broken, in my various unexceptional if painful ways, as I was and am; living in a society fragmented in a larger and more dangerous manner as we all are. The thought that healing might be possible evidently spoke to me profoundly, as it continues to do.

I would say that healing is not only possible for Tolkien but inevitable — and yet inevitable in a very curious way. That magnificent moment in The Lord of the Rings when Sam, having expected to die on Mount Doom, awakens to find that he is alive and so is Frodo and so is Gandalf and so cries, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” — surely this is the most perfect embodiment in his writings of what Tolkien calls “eucatastrophe”:

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,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale — or otherworld — 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.

I think the key phrase here is “fleeting glimpse” — fleeting, not lasting. The Prologue of LOTR, “Concerning Hobbits,” tells us that hobbit were “more numerous formerly than they are today,” and that they “avoid us with dismay and are becoming hard to find.” Then, in the second chapter, after the description of Bilbo’s disappearance, we’re told that “eventually Mad Baggins, who used to vanish with a bang and a flash and reappear with bags of jewels and gold, became a favourite character of legend and lived on long after all the true events were forgotten.” So right from the beginning Tolkien is emphasizing that he is telling a story about a world long-forgotten and cultures long in decline, that even the people most affected by the titanic events he’s about to relate eventually lost all memory of them.

Then, near the end of the book, Gandalf reminds his colleagues that, should Sauron triumph, his rule will be “so complete that none can foresee the end of it while the world lasts.” Yet, should they manage to defeat him, their triumph cannot possibly be so permanent:

Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.

That all victories over evil are contingent and limited and temporary is a strong theme here — and the forgetfulness of all the races of Middle Earth tends to reinforce those limits, and makes the return of evil more likely even among those who start out with “clean earth to till.” This is why Galadriel says of herself and Celeborn that “together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat” — a phrase that Tolkien adopted for himself, as in this letter: “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”

There will be, then, a “final victory,” but that will be (to return to the quotation from “On Fairy Stories”) “beyond the walls of the world.” Within the walls of the world all victories, all healing, will be temporary and imperfect — eucatastrophic only in the short term. In the longer term the effects of even the most heroic and righteous deeds will seem so narrow and brief that they will scarcely seem worth doing.

Which is why, for Tolkien, the best impetus to heroic and righteous deeds comes from some intuition of a final victory not in history but beyond history. To lack that intuition while clearly seeing the “long defeat” of history clearly is the curse of Denethor — not a person, for all his wisdom, to envy. For Tolkien, the suspicion that there is some perfect righteousness “beyond the walls of the world” is what prompts righteousness and generosity in the here and now. It’s what might make some of us strive to “uproot evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after might have clean earth to till.” It’s what might make someone pity Gollum and be kind to him, an act which, as Tolkien says in another letter, can be seen only as “a piece of folly, or a mystical belief in the ultimate value-in-itself of pity and generosity even if disastrous in the world of time.”

It’s a tricky thing that Tolkien is asking: neither to succumb to despair (like Denethor) nor indulge the presumptuous delusion that one’s victories can be everlasting, but rather to live, simply, in hope.