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Concerning Hidden Realities and Human Destiny

The Way Things Really Work: Tolkien on the Resurrection

John Carswell | Friday, September 29, 2017

I remember saying aloud with absolute conviction: 'But of course! Of course that’s how things really do work.'
- The Letters of JRR Tolkien 101

In "On Fairy-stories", Tolkien referred to the Resurrection as the ultimate eucatastrophe (i.e. happy turning-point) of human history. In a 1944 letter to his son Christopher, he discusses a particular mystical experience in which he realized that the Resurrection was "the way things really work."

Pushkin at the top of the Ai-Petri Mountain at sunrise by Ivan Aivazovsky

"Of course that's how things really do work."

In the letter, Tolkien recounts:

I was riding on a bicycle one day, not so long ago, past the Radcliffe Infirmary, when I had one of those sudden clarities which sometimes come in dreams (even anesthetic-produced ones). I remember saying aloud with absolute conviction: 'But of course! Of course that’s how things really do work'. But I could not reproduce any argument that had led to this, though the sensation was the same as having been convinced by reason (if without reasoning)." (Letters 101)

What did Tolkien mean by this staggering insight, and what can we take away from it?

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Expect Resurrection

"Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story..." (Letters 100-101).

In Tolkien’s view, one of the chief consequences of man being an image-bearer of God is that he is a story-teller by nature. In fact, I might even add that man is both a story-teller and a story-receiver. There seems to be a pattern of story woven into our ability to communicate and create, whether on a simple or complex level. Thus, we are wired to expect certain things in art, music, literature, and even in everyday communication. What does this mean? Tolkien seems to imply that we should learn to expect Resurrection in our lives and in our world.

When I am faced with the pain and sorrow of this world, do I give in to despair or do I expect "the dawn from on high" to break upon me and resolve to live accordingly?

A Greater Reality

"In [the Resurrection of Christ], you have not only that sudden glimpse of the truth behind the apparent [constraint] of our world, but a glimpse that is actually a ray of light through the very chinks of the universe about us" (101).

Though we are increasingly faced with tragedy and difficulty in this world, the Resurrection indicates that our story is part of a greater, hidden reality. While our minds tend to focus on the things that are right in front of us at the moment, even on a purely natural level there is reason to expect more. Think about it: Tolkien had this epiphany while riding his bike (outside) past an infirmary (AKA a hospital). I can only imagine what he was experiencing in the world around him that may have led to this seemingly intuitive and infused realization (a glorious sunrise perhaps?). Yet we know that the Resurrection reflects in a supernatural way a pattern of the world around us. The tiny acorn must be “swallowed by the ground” in order to become a great oak tree. The caterpillar must be “entombed” in order to emerge beautiful and capable of flight.

Do I allow myself to get bogged down by the nastiness and brutality of this world, or do I turn my eyes toward Christ in the good, the true, and the beautiful and seek to grow in awareness of the greater Reality guaranteed by the Resurrection?

Tragedy Shall Be Overturned

"Is everything sad going to come untrue? What has happened to the world?" - Sam Gamgee (LOTR 930).

Joy “is a sudden glimpse of the Truth,” in which “your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint has suddenly snapped back” (100). We are surrounded by so much death and destruction, and it is so “in our faces” in the modern world that we can lose touch with this greater reality. Yet Joy - the sensation of supernatural Hope - is our escape from this tyranny. There is a greater reality that lies behind the reality we experience every day, and we occasionally glimpse it as the sensation of joy.

Ask yourself: do I live my life based on how I feel about the state of things right now or do I seek to live in light of the joyful reality to come?

Tolkien was convinced that the Resurrection was the way things really work, and this mystical experience, this sudden infusion of knowledge, seems to have been a small reminder from God of this truth. It reminds me of the beautiful refrain of the Psalmist: “They wept as the went, went with seed for the sowing/But with joy they will come, come bearing the sheaves.” Especially in the modern world, we can be tempted to discount these joys as escapist fantasy, but Tolkien insists time and again that these are in fact calls to greater faith and hope, because they are little reminders of “the way things really work!”

The Letters of JRR Tolkien

If you've never read Tolkien's Letters, I highly recommend them. You can get a copy of them here.

Tolkien's Requiem Concerning Beren and Lúthien by John CarswellWant to learn more about The Silmarillion? My book Tolkien's Requiem explores the stories of Middle-earth's First Age through the prism of Tolkien's most personal tale: Beren and Lúthien. It's designed to work as a "back door" approach for those who struggle to get a start on The Silmarillion. Click here to learn more!

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