Why read The Lord of the Rings? What is the value of fantasy, of the fairy-story? In the pages of such stories we can find hints of their value, but here in this more academic essay do we find the strands of Tolkien’s philosophy laid out (for a more lyrical approach, consider Tolkien’s rich poem Mythopoeia, an exploration of the same written in response to C.S. Lewis). Tolkien comes to the defense of Faerie and Enchantment as few scholars have ever done, with such poignant and memorable lines: “Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.” We are a people who speak without hesitation of the rights of humans, yet the right to Fantasy one will not find often cited in the halls of power and thought, even though it is of the most essential of requirements for human flourishing, for the telos of man.
In a word, it is sub-creation: the production of a secondary world into which the maker and viewer can walk, a world in which man takes the materials and meanings of the world in which he lives and fashions them into wondrous things that manifest their beauty and truth. In the art of sub-creation, man imitates most splendidly the actions of his own Maker: he fulfills the desire of being in the likeness of God. The sub-creator is the myth-maker, and in the creation of these stories strives after the path of the Divine:
“We have come from God and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed, only by myth-making, only by becoming a “sub-creator” and inventing stories, can Man ascribe to the state of perfection that he knew before the fall.”
In the act of sub-creation, in the art of fashioning a world beyond his own, man comes to know his own world and his own self better. By wandering through Faerie, the traveler may be startled and surprised by the things that are, the things that we behold.
What deep truth do we discover in the heart of sub-creation? That which Tolkien beautifully calls “eucatastrophe” – the good catastrophe, the joy of a happy ending. This is the grace beyond hope, the denial of a final ending of sorrow: that which every man and woman longs for in the depths of his and her heart. Eucatastrophe is the redemption of all that is, of the imperfection of the world, of the struggles and long defeats of man. It is out of the nature of eucatastrophe that Tolkien arrives at this most wonderful conclusion, of which I must quote at length:
“The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.”
Eucatastrophe: the sub-creator and his myths, living within the Myth of the great Creator. Man striving to his likeness. A joy beyond hope. The path to human flourishing. This is the purpose and value of fantasy, of the fairy-stories. This is what we find so wonderfully contained within the pages of The Lord of the Rings.