A few years ago I was visiting Oxford and had the privilege of meeting Priscilla Tolkien—J.R.R.Tolkien’s daughter. I commented on her father’s work and said I reckoned he was the best Catholic evangelist of the twentieth century. She asked why I thought that. “Because he kept alive in our cultural imagination a Christian view of reality.”
Some Christians worry that Tolkien’s stories with their elves, wizards and magic will introduce children to the occult. These are the folks who take pot shots at Harry Potter and turn up their noses at Narnia.
Others are less paranoid, but knock Tolkien’s masterpiece by saying, “Nobody ever came to faith and was baptized by reading fantasy novels like Lord of the Rings and there’s no myth or fantasy literature in the Bible so what good is it?”
The fuss does raise an interesting question: Is J.R.R. Tolkien’s work worthy of Christians? Is it Catholic literature? Is Tolkien an evangelist or not?
First we have to understand what we mean by “myth”. The popular understanding of the word “myth” is that it is a fictional tale. It is a fantastic story that never happened. It is make believe. Therefore when we say, “The conspiracy theory that men never went to the moon is a myth.” We mean it is a fantastical story that is untrue.
This popular meaning of “myth” is hard to overcome, but in fact “myth” is a far richer and more complex concept than simply a made up fairy story. Instead myth might be defined as “a story that incarnates eternal truths in such a way that the reader or listener experiences those truths as he experiences the story.” If this is the meaning of “myth” then we can see that fantastical stories like Lord of the Rings or the myths of pagan cultures, or superhero stories, movies and novels may very well work on us as myth. A myth therefore is not simply the story of Zeus the sky god and father of the gods. Instead, any story that incarnates eternal truths may be seen as a myth.
A mythic story may therefore be factual or fictional. We might tell a faith story that achieves mythical status. I write more on this subject here and here. Tolkien’s great tale is therefore a myth of very significant intention. He actually stated that he wanted to create a myth for the English people. He very intentionally did not mention religion or use allegorical figures to communicate his faith.
Instead the Christian truths are incarnated in the story as they are incarnated in human history. No one mentions religion in The Lord of the Rings because they don’t need to. Tolkien’s religion breathes in and through every page of the book if you have eyes to see and ears to hear.
How does Tolkien’s work evangelize? His fantasy myth is effective “pre-evangelism”. Tolkien’s work keeps alive in the popular culture certain Christian themes and a Christian worldview. Devin Brown and the other writers explain how Tolkien, for example, keeps alive the idea of Divine Providence–of there being a greater plan and therefore a greater planner to the ways of men on earth.
He also keeps alive the reality of evil and the struggle of conscience. He keeps alive the battle between pride and humility. Through the story he keeps alive with imagery and plot events the ideas of death and sacrifice, resurrection and reward, the ultimate futility of evil and the eventual triumph of good through the persistence and loyalty of the little ones. If these themes and truths are not kept alive in a culture, then when people meet these ideas in Christianity they will not recognize them and know them to be true.
Myth and fantasy tales also function as what I call experiential inspiration. The viewer or reader goes on a vicarious journey with the hero and as he faces pitfalls and challenges the reader experiences them too. Then when he makes an important moral decision the viewer or reader makes the same decision–even though he does unconsciously.
An example was given on the film writing course I once attended. The teacher described the time he went to see Star Wars when it first came out. He described sitting in a large theater which was packed with 1,000 people. When Luke Skywalker flies his spaceship down the canal of the death star he has to drop a bomb down a ventilation shaft. He is using his auto pilot to do so, but fails on the first two attempts. He has only one bomb left. The villain is behind him trying to shoot him down. Then the voice of his mentor Obi Wan says, “Use the force Luke” In other words—“Go with your spiritual discernment” He struggles with the decision, then finally decides to do so, drops the bomb down the shaft and wins the day.
At that point my teacher said the whole crowd stood up and cheered. They did not cheer because Luke destroyed the death star. They knew he would do that somehow. They cheered because he went with the force. At that moment, the teacher explained, one thousand people said, “Yes. I believe in the battle between good and evil. Yes. I want to be on the side of the good. Yes. I believe in a spiritual dimension. Yes. I want to go with the force and overcome death.”
They did not leave the cinema saying to their date, “You know, at the climax of that film I had a profound existential spiritual experience.”
They said, “Wow, that was a great movie!” This is the way fantasy, films, myth and movies evangelize. They prepare the ground. When they are well done they open the heart to the realities of our faith. Furthermore, our faith is meant to do the same thing. Through our faith stories we are meant to be sharing the reality of living and loving and believing the faith.
Here is an example from my daily life. In my homily last week I shared with my parish my feelings about working with the poor homeless people who come to the door of the parish office. I shared from my heart my negative feelings toward the homeless and yet how I try to help them and have compassion. That night a high school kid texted me asking how much it costs to house a homeless person for a night. “It’s cold and I want to help.”
What made him do that? Not a lecture about the corporal works of mercy or a long homily about Christian duty. It was a faith story. It was a myth if you like—a story that incarnates the truth in such a way that the hearer experiences the truth and it changes first his way of seeing and then his way of being.