We’ve seen how Tolkien understood God’s sovereignty as a pillar for living in the midst of suffering and evil. Also, he emphasizes the necessity of friendship, fellowship, and food. The lack of these things especially the suspicion of friends allows evil to rot one of our greatest supports for Christian living. Last week, we examined s valuing of strength in weakness and finding your place in the one true story. Our final point today will examine the virtue of sacrifice.
To live like free peoples of Middle-earth, you must be willing to sacrifice yourself for others.
Sacrifice is crucial to Christian living and crucial in living like free peoples of Middle-earth. Without it, we die in our unredeemed state. In Tolkien’s tale of the One Ring, the quest would have failed many times without sacrifice made at key moments. To understand this fully, we must understand eucatastrophe–a term Tolkien coined in a lecture he gave “On Fairy Stories.”
But the ‘consolation’ of fairy-tales has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite — I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’, nor ‘fugitive’. In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.
Tolkien saw the death and resurrection of Jesus as the greatest eucatastrophe in history. These great moments of sacrifice hold within them the seed for the greatest possible “joyous ‘turn.’” So to talk about sacrifice within Middle-earth we must consider also how those events provide “the joy of deliverance.” On the most basic level, Frodo and Sam’s decision to take the Ring to Mount Doom is sacrifice in its purest – especially after they abandon the fellowship and trek into the unknown. As far as their eyes could see, they would not return from Mount Doom. The success of their quest was questionable at best. And even if they did succeed, how would they return from Mount Doom to Hobbiton? Each step they take towards Mordor sacrifices their life. That journey binds Tolkien’s entire story together.
The Ultimate Eucatastrophe
Next (and one of my favorite passages from The Lord of the Rings), Gandalf sacrifices himself in Moria for the fellowship. His words ring in my ear:
You cannot pass . . . . I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.
Without hope of living, Gandalf takes his stand on the bridge and sends the fellowship out of the mines. I may even go so far as to say this is one of my favorite passages from any book. It’s right up there with Aslan’s resurrection. After the fellowship flees Moria, they enter Lothlorien where they rest, recover, and finally move on. Galadriel sees Boromir’s desire for the Ring. She may be able to see his desire so clearly because she herself has thought of wielding the Ring for good (although in her interaction with Frodo she ultimately passes the test by rejecting the Ring). Boromir’s desire intensifies as the fellowship leaves Lothlorien and must choose whether they will follow him to Minas Tirith or accompany Frodo into Mordor. Frodo is torn because he doesn’t want to bind his friends with the hopelessness of journeying into Mordor. Boromir breaks and tries to possess the Ring by force. Frodo flees. Sam finds him and they go off together. But Boromir sacrifices himself to save Merry and Pippin in the end and dies honorably. Even in one of the most conflicted characters, sacrifice is seen as the ultimate virtue.
All of the moments of sacrifice above are in their own right eucatastrophe–good coming from evil. After Gandalf’s struggle against the Balrog, Gandalf returns as the white and displaces Saruman. After Boromir’s betrayal and sacrifice, Frodo and Sam leave for Mordor and the fellowship splits capturing Orthanc (Saruman’s tower) and recruit Rohan to help Minas Tirith. These potential disasters, these sacrifices are ultimately moments of great good looking back.
So if Tolkien understands Jesus’s sacrifice and resurrection as the ultimate eucatastrophe and sacrifice is celebrated throughout Middle-earth, how ought we live? If we are to live like a free peoples of Middle-earth, we must daily sacrifice for our families, neighbors, and God. We must do so not to save ourselves. These sacrifices aren’t made self-righteously. Sacrifice is never a functional savior. Sacrifice is a joyful response to the greatest sacrifice made on our behalf. It’s an overflow from the fountain filled with blood that’s washed us white as snow.
Mathew Sims is the author of A Household Gospel: Fulfilling the Great Commission in Our Homes. He’s married to LeAnn and they have three daughters. He also loves to read, hike in the woods, and cook. Follow him on Twitter: @GraceForSinners.