06 April 2010

Embodying Christian Truth—On Gandalf's Resurrection

In honour of Bright Week, and since the C.S. Lewis & Inklings Society conference will be going on this weekend here in Oklahoma City (see here for four lectures open to the public, including those of Michael Ward!), I was toying with the idea of posting something on the theme of resurrection in Tolkien’s works. Then I remembered that I’d already written something that touches on this—in my thesis. In context it was meant as an illustration of how literature can be used to ‘embody’ Christian truth (the illustration above is by Peter Xavier Price):

The clearest manifestation of this ‘religious element’ lies in what Tolkien, in his essay ‘On Fairy-stories’, has famously called ‘eucatastrophe’, [1] ‘the sudden joyous “turn”’:

[Eucatastrophe] 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. [2]

Tolkien goes on to say that the Gospels tell the story of ‘the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe’: ‘The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation.’ [3]

The Lord of the Rings contains a number of eucatastrophes, which occur at various magnitudes at different parts of the story. Perhaps the most obvious example of the eucatastrophe as an embodiment of Christian truth, however, occurs in The Two Towers, Book III, Chapter 5, ‘The White Rider’. The Fellowship of the Ring have been split up: two of the nine are dead, two taken captive, and two have gone East with the Ring, into the dark land of Mordor. Of the two who have perished, one is the wise and powerful wizard Gandalf (aka ‘Mithrandir’), who in Tolkien’s mythology is one of the Istari [4]—members of an angelic order who have appeared in ‘the likeness of Men’ and come to Middle-earth ‘to contest the power of [the evil fallen angel] Sauron . . . and to move Elves and Men and all living things of good will to valiant deeds.’ [5]

The three who remain free and without the Ring have gone into the forest of Fangorn, tracking their captive friends there. In the forest, they encounter an old man in a grey cloak, and, suspecting that he is the evil wizard Saruman, speak to him cautiously. When Gimli the dwarf threatens him, we read:

The old man was too quick for him. He sprang to his feet and leaped to the top of a large rock. There he stood, grown suddenly tall, towering above them. His hood and grey rags were flung away. His white garments shone. . . .

They all gazed at him. His hair was white as snow in the sunshine; and gleaming white was his robe; the eyes under his deep brows were bright, piercing as the rays of the sun; power was in his hand. Between wonder, joy, and fear they stood and found no words to say.

At last Aragorn stirred. ‘Gandalf!’ he said. ‘Beyond all hope you return to us in our need! What veil was over my sight? Gandalf!’ Gimli said nothing, but sank to his knees, shading his eyes. . . .

He stepped down from the rock, and picking up his grey cloak wrapped it about him: it seemed as if the sun had been shining, but now was hid in cloud again. . . . ‘Get up, my good Gimli! . . . Be merry! We meet again. At the turn of the tide. The great storm is coming, but the tide has turned.’ [6]

There are several obvious parallels to Christ here, conflated from different passages in Scripture. To take them in the chronological order that we find them in Tolkien: 1) the encounter in the woods where the three do not recognise their resurrected leader is of course strikingly similar to the story of the appearance of Christ to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Lk 24:13-35, where ‘their eyes were holden that they should not know Him’ (Lk 24:16); 2) the description of Gandalf standing on the rock, shining ‘as the rays of the sun’ so that Gimli is forced to his knees, ‘shading his eyes’, cannot help but recall the accounts of the Transfiguration in the Synoptic Gospels (Mt 17:1-9, Mk 9:2-10, and Lk 9:28-36), where three disciples see ‘the kingdom of God come with power’ (Mk 9:1); 3) Gandalf’s appearance is also quite similar to the appearance of Christ to St John the Theologian on Patmos (as recorded in Rev 1:12-18), where we read:

His head and His hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and His eyes were as a flame of fire . . . and His countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength. And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead. And He laid His right Hand upon me, saying unto me, ‘Fear not; I am the first and the last: I am He that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.’ (Rev 1:14, 16-18)

Finally, 4) the entire encounter is dependent upon the great eucatastrophe which has taken place offstage, as it were: the resurrection of Gandalf from the dead. [7] Pressed by the awe-struck company, he tells them of how he fought with a terrible fiery demon called a Balrog, plunging into a deep abyss. ‘We fought far under the living earth, where time is not counted.’ [8] Emerging from a cave, he says ‘I threw down my enemy’ and then ‘darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell. Naked I was sent back—for a brief time, until my task is done.’ [9]

Although the order of these events in Tolkien does not quite match up to the events of Holy Saturday and Pascha, it is clear that the battle with the demon in the abyss ‘far under the living earth’ is a parallel with Christ’s descent into Hades, that the emerging from the cave corresponds to Christ’s coming forth from the tomb, and that Gandalf’s death and resurrection ‘for a brief time’, although separate from the abyss and the cave, are the most obvious (though not necessarily the most important) type of Christ in the entire novel. [10] The light with which Gandalf shines, while framed by that of the Transfiguration and that of the eschaton, is most immediately ‘the unapproachable light of the Resurrection’. [11] Gandalf’s ‘Be merry!’ reminds us that ‘we shall clearly hear Him say: Rejoice!’ [12] His appearance is ‘as the rays of the sun’ to remind us that ‘from the grave the beautiful Sun of Righteousness shone forth again upon us.’ [13]

It is important to note that Gandalf is only a type of Christ, not, like C.S. Lewis’s Aslan, an appearance of Christ Himself, nor an allegory of Christ, like Pan in English pastoral poetry such as Edmund Spenser’s ‘Shepheardes Calendar’ or Andrew Marvell’s ‘Clorinda and Damon’. Ralph Wood astutely observes, ‘Neither are we meant to identify Gandalf as Christ . . . Nor does Gandalf alone possess Christ-like qualities.’ [14] But as I have suggested, Gandalf is part of the whole embodiment of Christian truth in the novel, the truth of the eucatastrophe of our salvation in Christ.

The effect of this embodiment of Christian truth on readers has been very real, and Tolkien himself was quite conscious of and delighted by it. Richard Purtill has pointed out [15] a letter of Tolkien to a Miss Carole Batten-Phelps (Letter 328) where he writes concerning precisely this effect:

You speak of ‘a sanity and sanctity’ in the L.R. ‘which is a power in itself’. I was deeply moved. Nothing of the kind had been said to me before. But by a strange chance, just as I was beginning this letter, I had one from a man, who classified himself as ‘an unbeliever, or at best a man of belatedly and dimly dawning religious feeling . . . but you’, he said, ‘create a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp’. I can only answer: ‘Of his own sanity no man can securely judge. If sanctity inhabits his work or as a pervading light illumines it then it does not come from him but through him. And neither of you would perceive it in these terms unless it was with you also. Otherwise you would see and feel nothing, or (if some other spirit was present) you would be filled with contempt, nausea, hatred. ‘Leaves out of the elf-country, gah!’ ‘Lembas—dust and ashes, we don’t eat that.’ [16]

The occasional presence of this ‘sanity and sanctity’ is one of the most important potential benefits of reading imaginative literature.

[1] For Tolkien, the eucatastrophe is closely bound up with the genre of the fairy-tale (‘Fairy-stories’, The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, ed. Christopher Tolkien [London: HarperCollins, 1997], pp. 85-6). But while I have consulted an article on Greek fairy-tales, the author says nothing about a feature that would correspond with this notion (Angeliki Lalou, ‘Παραμύθι, Ταξίδι στον κόσμο της Φαντασίας’ [Fairy-tale: A Journey to the world of the Imagination], Πεμπτουσία 7, Dec.-Mar. 2002, pp. 62-5). It would be an interesting subject for a study to look for examples of Tolkienian eucatastrophe in Greek fairy-tales.

[2] Tolkien, ‘Fairy-stories’, p. 86.

[3] Tolkien, ‘Fairy-stories’, pp. 88-9. T.A. Shippey has noted that the Fellowship leaves Rivendell on its quest on 25 December, the feast of the Nativity, and the Ring is destroyed on 25 March, the feast of the Annunciation, but also, ‘in old English tradition . . . the date of the Crucifixion . . . . The main action of The Lord of the Rings takes place, then, in the mythic space between Christmas, Christ’s birth, and the crucifixion, Christ’s death’ (J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001], pp. 208-9).

[4] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, ed. Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983), p. 300.

[5] Tolkien, Silmarillion, p. 299.

[6] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, collector’s edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), pp. 97-8.

[7] Though Gandalf has obviously risen prior to the encounter with him in the woods, the story is not told by the narrator at the time that it happens, but by Gandalf himself after he has again covered the brilliant light of his appearance.

[8] Tolkien, LOTR, p. 105.

[9] Tolkien, LOTR, pp. 105-6.

[10] While I am here treating Gandalf’s resurrection as an embodiment of ‘the True’, meaning the truth of the Gospel, Mark Eddy Smith has written an enlightening moral account of this event, reading it as an embodiment of ‘the Good’, in his inspiring, Tolkien’s Ordinary Virtues: Exploring the Spiritual Themes of The Lord of the Rings (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002), pp. 70-3.

[11] Paschal canon, Ode I, first troparion, in A Prayer Book for Orthodox Christians, trans. Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Boston: HTM, 1995), p. 164.

[ 2] Ibid., pp. 164-5.

[ 3] Paschal canon, Ode 4, second troparion, in ibid., p. 167.

[14] Ralph C. Wood, The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-earth (Lousiville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2003), pp. 5, 6.

[15] Richard Purtill, J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, & Religion (SF: Ignatius, 2003), p. 188.

[16] Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, selected & ed. Humphrey Carpenter, asst. Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), p. 413.


JLB said...

Brilliant, sir!

aaronandbrighid said...

Glad you liked it, buddy. I'm hoping this will be a popular post!

nothinghypothetical said...

I cannot disagree more. Your interpretation of this is utterly at odds with Tolkien's own insistence about both Gandalf in particular and about allegories in general. I don't mean to be harsh (you know I'm a fan) but this is a well known point about Tolkien.

I suppose if I was to buy into the line that Gandalf is a type of Christ even though Tolkien didn't intend it (just like the authors of the Old Testament didn't intend to type Christ either, though the Holy Spirit worked through them to prefigure the Incarnation).

aaronandbrighid said...

Excuse me, David, but I am not arguing that Gandalf is an allegory of Christ. In fact, I specifically stated that he wasn't ('It is important to note that Gandalf is only a type of Christ'). But tell me, if the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ are the ultimate, archetypal eucatastrophe, how could Tolkien possibly have written a eucatastrophe into his novel without somehow consciously echoing Christ? You've missed the whole point of his rejection of allegory, as well as the whole device of symbolism and typology in fiction. Even Lewis usually tries to avoid allegory in the sense that Tolkien uses the word.

aaronandbrighid said...

What I'm trying to say, David, is that you can't ignore the clear evidence of the text on the basis of an interpretation of the word 'allegory' that Tolkien himself would not recognise.

Donna Farley said...


Pan also puts in an appearance in The Wind and the Willows.

I wonder if Greek fairy tales are really quite the same genre as Germanic/northern/western European fairy tales, which were no doubt formative for Tolkien's imagination. Have you read Fr. Ronald Murphy's The Owl, the Raven and the Dove, on the Grimm brothers' synthesis of Christian, classic and Germanic mythology?

Anyway-- Christ is Risen! and a joyous Bright Week to you.

Katherine Grace Bond said...

Loved this!

aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you for your kind words, Matushkas Farley and Bond!

I'm a big fan of 'The Piper at the Gates of Dawn' (not the Pink Floyd album!), but I've never read that book on the Grimms. I'll have to remember that--sounds fascinating!

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

We should also keep in mind that Tolkien's "cordial dislike of allegory" is not entirely accurate, as Tom Shippey makes clear in The Road to Middle-Earth. He shows, through Tolkien's own (extra-canonical) writings, that Tolkien's definition and opinion of allegory was quite fluid. It's clear that he did not ascribe to the kind of extended and transparent (even simplistic) type of allegory requiring a consistent one-to-one equation of elements, the signifier and signified. But it's certainly the case that Tolkien was not averse to a kind of allusive allegory, a sideways kind of homage or recollection intended to make a point, whether subtle or broad. He really was a fascinating and complex writer.

aaronandbrighid said...

Thanks, Kevin. I was going to mention that myself if David kept on about the 'allegory' thing (I'm kind of disappointed he's said nothing!). Shippey makes the same point in J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century.

There are some snippets of an interview with Shippey on the documentary about Tolkien for the LOTR films. He seems like a funny guy.

nothinghypothetical said...

My, apparently limited, understanding is a concern for propaganda. And that the LotR stories are for entertainment and are not purposed for the exhibition of symbolism.

This is an interest I have in "intent". C.S. Lewis did try to resist what would have drawn Tolkien's ire, but my understanding is that Tolkien was still not approving of Narnia. If I'm not mistaken, the word propaganda comes to mind again.

This is a completely separate question from whether or not all eucatastrophe's are Christological. Perhaps in a definitional sense they certainly do on some level, the same level I suppose as Christ's own reference to the death of a seed producing life.

Forgive me if I am less than subtle in my distinguishing allegories from types.

when I read your article it smelled of Inkling apostasy, perhaps it was just the cheese sandwich I had for lunch.

aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you for your reply, David. I certainly agree that the Inklings had no part in propaganda, and that their primary purpose was entertainment. But I don't think this means there is no Christian symbolism in their work, even that of Tolkien. I'm not sure whether all eucatastrophes are Christological, except in a vague sense, but Tolkien's certainly are. He himself writes in Letter 142 (Humphrey, p. 172): 'The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. . . . For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.' I do not see how my analysis of Christological symbolism in Gandalf's resurrection (it's a resurrection, for crying out loud!) goes any farther than this. But maybe it was the enormous, juicy bacon cheeseburger I had for lunch! ;-)

nothinghypothetical said...

I have never read that letter. That's helpful. It seems consistent that he would become consciously aware of his own materials. Such an awareness makes it impossible to avoid, better to hone the materials that excise them.

David.R said...

Aaron and David:
I really enjoyed eavesdropping on your point of debate about the use of allegory by both Tolkien and Lewis. I wish you had continued a while longer :-)

another David

Jason Fisher said...

Aaron, I enjoyed this piece very much. I agree with basically everything you had to say, though I think it’s slightly problematic to say that “Gandalf is [...] a type of Christ”. It may seem that I am getting overly bogged down in the semantics, but I would rather say that Gandalf at times exhibits Christ-like traits and behaviors; your wording tempts readers into supposing a more general and pervasive parallel than in fact exists. (And as you say, there are other characters who body forth Christ-like traits as well, e.g., Aragorn.) One should also remember Tolkien’s explicit statement that Gandalf “was an incarnate ‘angel’ — strictly an ἄγγελος” (letter #156). But certainly, as regards his ‘resurrection’, you are absolutely right.

aaronandbrighid said...

Thanks, Jason. Yes, I really only meant that particular acts of Gandalf are types of Christ. My statement that 'Gandalf is only a type of Christ' was meant to be read in view of the statement in the previous paragraph that 'Gandalf’s death and resurrection...are the most obvious (though not necessarily the most important) type of Christ in the entire novel': his 'death & resurrection', that is, not the charactre taken as a whole. Though of course one must consider the fact that Gandalf too is a heavenly being who has taken the humble form of a man and to whom there is 'more than meets the eye'.

aaronandbrighid said...

Lately I've been using the LOTR Reader's Companion to prepare notes for my Omnibus students as they read LOTR, and I came across an interesting quotation from one of Tolkien's letters on the subject under discussion here:

'Thus Gandalf faced and suffered death; and came back or was sent back, as he says, with enhanced power. But though one may be in this reminded of the Gospels, it is not really the same thing at all. The Incarnation of God is an infinitely greater thing than anything I would dare to write.'

Of course, this does not contradict my reading of the episode as a type of Christ. It merely restates what has already been acknowledged: that Gandalf is not in fact Christ Himself.