In a Mirror Dimly


The friendship of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis is widely known throughout the world today.  Both influenced modern fantasy in profound ways.  Both of their respective writings were charged with Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  As writers and storytellers we can learn much from Tolkien, Lewis, and other fine storytellers throughout history.

But why have the works of Tolkien and Lewis—particularly The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia—withstood the test of time?  I believe it was precisely because their stories are charged with a hidden meaning, glowing with an inner light.  Again, they shone with Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

On March 8th, 1939 Tolkien gave a lecture on fairy tales at the University of St. Andrews (the speech was later published as an essay entitled ‘On Fairy Stories’).  Joseph Pearce, a literary critic and scholar, writes about this essay in his book Tolkien Man and Myth: A Literary Life:

In this essay Tolkien elaborated his view of the function of fairy stories, expressing the theory which The Lord of the Rings attempted to put into practice.  Fairy stories offered ‘consolation’ through the ‘imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires’ but, more importantly, the fairy story offered ‘the Consolation of the Happy Ending’.  Whereas Tragedy was ‘the true form of Drama, its highest function’, the opposite was 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.’  This good catastrophe, this ‘sudden joyous “turn”’ representing a ‘miraculous grace, never to be counted on to recur’, did not deny the existence of ‘dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure’.  On the contrary, ‘the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance’.  Rather, it denied the ‘ 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’…

(Pearce, 103-104)

Pearce goes on to quote Tolkien’s words more directly:

It is the mark of good a fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to a 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.

(Pearce, 104)

Tolkien believed, it seems, that good fairy tales—I would add, all good fiction—offers us a “glimpse” of God and His love in the world, He who is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty itself.  Tolkien describes this quality as Joy—a Joy often “accompanied by tears”.  When a good book or movie truly touches our hearts, we are moved emotionally.  Something of beauty from without has resonated and touched our hearts within.  Pearce quotes Tolkien elaborating on joy:

The peculiar quality of ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth.  It is not only a ‘consolation’ for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, ‘Is it true?’ … in the ‘eucatastrophe’ we see a brief vision … a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium [of the Good News] in the real world…

(Pearce, 104)

Tolkien’s description of “Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief…” also echoes Lewis’s understanding of joy.  To illustrate Lewis’s view, let us imagine a scene from the 2021 film “The Most Reluctant Convert: The Untold Story of C.S. Lewis”.  In the film, the character of Lewis recounts:

I first met it as a memory that would arise suddenly without warning from a depth of not years, but centuries.  The memory was from childhood when my brother brought the lid of a biscuit tin garnished with twigs and flowers to make a toy garden.  It was the first beauty I had ever known.  A sensation of desire.  But before I knew what I desired, the desire was gone, withdrawn, the world turned common again.  Since then, my constant endeavor was to get it again, in reading every book, going on every walk, listening to every piece of music.  Occasionally the sky would turn.  Far more often, I frightened it away by my greed to have it.  I call this desire joy—which must be distinguished very sharply from happiness or pleasure except that anyone who has ever experienced joy will want it again.  Apart from that, it might be called a particular kind of grief.  But then, it’s the kind we want.  It is the scent of a flower we have not found; the echo of a tune we have not heard; news from a country we have not yet visited.  Oh, I doubt that anyone who has ever tasted joy would exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.  But joy is never in our power… and pleasure is (my emphasis).

While pleasure is not intrinsically a bad thing, an all-consuming desire and pursuit of pleasure can enslave us when sought selfishly.  Indeed, pleasure can be sought and, as is pointed out, is often easy to do so.  But Lewis calls us to choose something even higher: joy.

The experience, the feeling of joy is not entirely in our power, but in God’s.  It is, if you will, a fruit of the Spirit.  And, while we cannot always choose when we experience joy, we can at least choose to be joyful in the highs and lows of life—to be docile to the Spirit which brings joy.  This joy comes from the knowledge that there is One who “…[makes] all things new” and makes everything work together for the good (See: Revelation 21:5 & Romans 8:28 RSVCE).

Lewis speaks of a certain joy we sometimes experience in life—in smelling a scent from childhood, in the laughter of good company, in watching the sunrise, in reading a book.  It is a powerful quality of Tolkien’s Rings books and Lewis’s Narnia books that Christ’s presence is not always perceivable at first, though he has been there all the time, on every page.  So it is in life:  though we do not always perceive God’s presence, he is always here—always has been and always will be.  “I have been here all the time…” Aslan tells Lucy in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader after she speaks the spell to make invisible things visible (498).  The great writers of literature—Lewis and Tolkien among them—help us to see God even here in this life, be it only dimly, a passing joy, an inkling of the eternal beatitude of Heaven.  “For now we see as in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood” (1 Cor. 13:12, RSVCE).


Works Cited

Lewis, C.S. The Chronicles of Narnia (With illustrations by Pauline Baynes). New York, NY.  HarperEntertainment, 2005.

Pearce, Joseph. Tolkien: Man and Myth: A Literary Life. Second edition, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2019.

“The Most Reluctant Convert: The Untold Story of CS Lewis.”  Norman Stone, The Fellowship for Performing Arts, 2021.  cslewismovie.com.

The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition.  Dom Bernard Orchard, O.S.B and Reverend R.C. Fuller, D.D.D., L.S.S., Oxford University Press, 2004. <https://www.biblegateway.com/&gt;


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