Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Very Tolkien Advent

You've probably all seen silly posts such as the following on Facebook (wikipedia's great cousin of scholarly information): "You never can trust quotes on the internet" - Abraham Lincoln. Or something along those lines. Usually when a quotation comes along that seems to bare resemblance to a genuine quote of the author it piques the interest. The following quotation is one of those:

We all long for Eden, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole still soaked with the sense of exile. - J.R.R. Tolkien.

I found this on a post from Pastor Gregory Alms on his blog, incarnatus est I am quite thankful he posted this quotation. I had read it before on the in a few places on the internet and had also wondered about its authenticity (incidentally, he found it on Twitter). Naturally, my Tookish curiosity took over until I found the source of this quote, fabricate or factual. Thankfully, it turned out to be the latter. In fact, this is only part of a quotation included in a letter from J.R.R. Tolkien to his son, Christopher in 1945. It is found in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien, published by Houghton Mifflin, 2000, p. 110. It was sitting on my shelf all along. Here is a bit more of the extended quotation from the same letter.

...I do not now feel either ashamed or dubious on the Eden myth. It has not, of course historicity of the same kind as the NT, which are virtually contemporary documents, while Genesis is separated by we do not know how many sad exiled generations from the Fall, but certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its very best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of 'exile.' If you come to think of it, your (very just) horror at the stupid murder of the hawk, and your obstinate memory of this 'home' of yours in an idyllic hour...are derived from Eden.

Not only is this quotation a perfect summary of the Christian way of hope and expectation during Advent - we are constantly yearning, we and all creation, groaning for the return of the King and an escape from exile, the new heavens and the new earth - but it also is written in the way of a major theme of nearly every fairy story, or at least the good ones, Tolkien would argue. This is the point he makes in his essay, On Fairy Stories, when writing of 'escape.'

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not
disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which
“Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism
give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently
as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it
fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced
by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if,
finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he
thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?

...And lastly there is the oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: the Escape from Death.
Fairy-stories provide many examples and modes of this—which might be called the genuine
escapist, or (I would say) fugitive spirit. But so do other stories (notably those of scientific
inspiration), and so do other studies. Fairy-stories are made by men not by fairies. The
Human-stories of the elves are doubtless full of the Escape from Deathlessness. But our
stories cannot be expected always to rise above our common level. They often do. Few
lessons are taught more clearly in them than the burden of that kind of immortality, or
rather endless serial living, to which the “fugitive” would fly. For the fairy-story is specially
apt to teach such things, of old and still today. Death is the theme that most inspired George
On Fairy Stories, Tolkien.

This is why, as Tolkien concludes Fairy Stories, we await consolation - the kind that is only hinted at and foreshadowed in good fairy stories. We 'fugitive spirits' (he calls us) await eternal escape from the valley of shadow of death and everlasting consolation. This is the promise of Advent. Christ has come - as Isaiah 61 declares to us - to release the captive, bind the broken hearted, declare good news to the poor and to comfort all who mourn. In Advent, the Church is reminded that for we who are captive, Christ dons the fetters of the Law and is imprisoned in death's dungeon for three days, only to burst the bars of death. In Advent, the Church is given hope, for we who were broken hearted have received a new heart, made ready by the Holy Spirit who comes forth with the blood and water pouring from Christ's side into the font and chalice. In Advent, the Church is given true and everlasting consolation for we have heard the good news: Unto us is born in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord...Immanuel, God with us. God for us. God who is one of us. His name is Jesus and he saves his people from their sins. In Advent, we who mourn are comforted by this coming King. He came to save. He comes to heal by water, word, body and blood. And he will come again to bring the hope of a new Eden prophesied.

What hope! An Eden prophesied 
Where tame live with the wild;
The lamb and lion side by side, 
Led by a little child!
A shoot will sprout from Jesse's stem,
A branch from David's line,
A Prince of Peace in Bethlehem:
The fruit of God's design.
As banner of God's love unfurled,
Christ came to suffer loss,
That by His death a dying world
Would rally to the cross.
Come, Jesus, come, Messiah Lord,
Lost Paradise restore;
Lead past the angel's flaming sword -
Come, open heaven's door.  LSB 342

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