Saturday, October 8, 2011

Of Elves and Angels

Extremely Nerdy Theological Content

Yes, yes, I know. Michaelmas was last Thursday. A blogger is never late nor is he early; he writes precisely when he means to.

Last week as I was preparing for a guest appearance on Higher Things Radio, which you can listen to here, I couldn't help but notice that the more I read and studied angels in the Scripture - St. Michael in particular - the more elves and angels seemed to have in great deal in common (the interview, btw, was a grand time as always; a joy and an honor to be a frequent guest). Now, I'm not referring to those blessed house elves of Harry Potter fame. They  have a rich Christian symbolism all their own. Nor am I talking about little Christmass elves or big humans dressed up as ginormous elves in the mall or on the silver screen (i.e. Will Ferril in the hilarious movie Elf).

Rather, I have in mind Tolkien's elves of Middle-Earth. The Eldar. The Elder Kindred. The children of Iluvatar. The Quendi. Or the Kalequendi - elves of light - as opposed to the Moriquendi - elves that never saw the light. The latter have more alike with the fallen angels mentioned in Scripture as much as Melkor and his minions have a great deal in common with the great dragon, that ancient serpent the devil. But back to good elves and holy angels. It's not a one-to-one correspondence. Tolkien didn't write that way - nor did he intend to write in the same way as Lewis. While both neither can be categorized as narrowly as allegorists, they each have allegory or symbolism of sorts - and very often rich symbolism - of the Christian faith. For Tolkien this was simply part and parcel of the deep myth which he created. Elves have a great deal in common with angels, as you will see from the list below. However, elves are not angels. At best this is a helpful comparison. One which, if applied wisely and thoughtfully given the writing in hand, can point us to the truth of Scripture and Christ's saving work through the many wonders of Tolkien's world, which point to the wonders of the real world. This was the genius of his work as sub-creation, writing which reflected Primary Art. So, it comes as no surprise that there are glimpses, shadows and all out bright stars in Middle-Earth that point us toward the fulfillment, the reality and the true Light of the world. And in the process, even if it is intentional and unintentional (more so for both men the longer they wrote and the more they discussed this in letters, essays, etc.), the stories of Tolkien (and the Inklings) provide a valuable defense of the Christian faith. Call it right-brained apologetics. Or, as John W. Montgomery calls it, apologetics for the tender-hearted. Not the hard-nosed intellectual arguments. Yet it's no less intellectual. And it is infinitely joyous, having the joy of the Gloria in view (see Tolkien On Fairy Stories).

Come to think of it, this gives us a rather fitting summary of angels' work in the Scriptures: to declare and defend. To be heralds, messengers, harbingers of the Lord and servants of Christ. And to defend true Israelites in both the Old and New Testaments, from the exodus to Daniel, from the flight to Egypt to Christ's victory over Satan meted out by Michael and the angelic host. If they're on your side it's a good thing: holy angels are a blessing to God's people, ministers and guardians. They march through the tree tops in defense of Israel and they guard and protect us, even passing over us. But if you're on the other side, angels are rightfully feared, just look at Exodus and throughout the OT. Perhaps most important of all, they point to Christ's coming and announce his infant advent (Luke 1-2, Matthew 1). They surround his presence both in Isaiah's depiction of the throne and John's (Isaiah 6, Revelation). And the list could go on. Here are but a few similarities and wherever possible I have given some examples. Perhaps as time goes on the list will grow both from my reading and yours. Of elves and angels, a list of comparisons. The good elves of Middle-Earth are:

  • Messengers
  • Mysterious
  • Arrive during important/critical events/times
  • Defend against evil
  • Help/minister in time of need. Recall the help Frodo receives on his way to Rivendell, having been pierced by the ring wraith.
  • Their songs - as is true of the angels, see Rev. 5, 7, 19, Luke 2 and Isaiah 6 among others - are joyous. The dwarfs later, but Bilbo especially, come to appreciate their songs in parts of the Hobbit, especially in the House of Elrond. And Frodo and Samwise both find comfort in these songs the closer they get to Mordor and the footsteps of Mt. Doom. Even though Rivendell and Lothlorien were a distant memory, the elven song remains with them all the same. Just as the light of Earendil remained with them when all other lights went out. One can't help but think of Jesus' proclamation: I AM the Light of the world, the light which no darkness can overcome.
  • Bring rest to the weary. Rivendell is such a place for a time until both journeys set out (Hobbit and the Fellowship of the Ring) only to return to its solace. Lothlorien too, but not nearly as much as the former.
  • Wise and powerful, even transcendent in a way. Think of Legolas and his constant guidance, eagle eye and his bow at the ready. Or Elrond and his Solomon like countenance. Not to mention Galadriel and her appearance/disposition.
  •  Immortal. Arwen, Elrond, etc. This is mentioned much throughout LOTR. Something the movies made a few slips of the story line with. But the details are all in Tolkien's appendices as well as in the major works of Middle-Earth, especially the Silmarillion.
  • Revered and looked upon in honor. Tolkien's verbal illustration of the elves throughout encompasses this.
  • Angelic in form and appearance. I especially have in mind Gimli - a gruff, hard-nosed dwarf being softened by the beauty of Galadriel.
  • They inspire both awe and fear - almost a holy reverence about them. And yet for those pleased to be an elf-friend (an Elendil) it is most joyous to be in their presence.
 Everything said here of elves could be said of angels. Because as Tolkien reminds us, the story is part of a larger, greater, more joyous story.

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long
been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in
a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. 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. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency
of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which
so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to
sadness or to wrath.

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any
specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history,
without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had
possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a
quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as
the joy which the “turn” in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth.
(Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this
regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the
same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous.
But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and
of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.

But in God's kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man
is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated
legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work,
with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his
bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with
which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he
may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come
true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give
them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.

- Tolkien, On Fairy Stories.

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