“A Sudden and Miraculous Grace”
Eucatastrophe, Christianity, and the Destruction of Evil and the Ring of Power
“There is more about you than meets the eye,” Gandalf remarks to Frodo in Fellowship of the Ring, and John Ronald Reuel Tolkien fits this description as well. The depths of this literary giant of the twentieth century’s talent appears only in layering his scholarly and literary pursuits. His literary criticism continues affecting scholarship: “On Fairy-Stories” defends the importance of mythologies in the modern era, and “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” helped establish Beowulf as a literary benchmark in the development of the English language. Tolkien’s novels, available in print since their first publication, have sold over a hundred and fifty million copies with their film adaptations grossing billions. Because of these works’ influence, Tolkien’s readers find his ideologies familiar, even if they cannot identify them by their scholarly terms. Tolkien, a Roman Catholic, loves mythology and recognizes that myths reveal reflections of Christianity’s truth that redemption and grace exist for the humble. This truth, Tolkien argues, finds representation in the eucatastrophe, an ideology that Tolkien developed academically with C.S. Lewis. In creating his mythology, Tolkien connects his epic to the earth’s history in order to reflect Christianity’s truth. The gospel of Christ defines the world’s truth dictated by Tolkien’s biblical beliefs, and within this framework he defines eucatastrophe, an ideology of redeeming grace he displays prevalently in the destruction of evil culminating at the climax of The Lord of the Rings.
The creation of the world by the Christian God inspired Tolkien to create his prolific artistic works. Christianity explains that God spoke creation into existence and that mankind was created by the hand of God in His image. Tolkien applies this belief to his desire to write creatively believing that to create reflects the Creator. He names this act of creating within the Creator’s world sub-creation. Ralph C. Wood, professor of theology and literature at Baylor, explains that “Tolkien reiterates […] we ourselves are makers because we have been made” (13). Kirstin Johnson clarifies that “Tolkien calls [sub-creating] an act of worship” (29). Believing this, Tolkien writes to honor his Creator to the best of his ability, striving for excellence in all he does with a distinct purpose. Tolkien believes that “[Sub-creation is assisting] in the effoliation and […] enrichment of creation” (“Fairy-Stories” 389). To worship the Creator is to imitate Him. By imitating – sub-creating – humans not only glorify God, but they make creation better.
In his attempt to enrich creation, Tolkien’s scholarly love of language and mythology combines with his love of sub-creation, creating the magnificent works readers still enjoy. Through his study of European mythology, Tolkien developed a belief in mythology’s vital nature for a society and culture because myths reveal inherent truths within creation, specifically those from Christianity. Tolkien despaired over the state of his day’s approach to mythology: that they were stories meant for children only. This ideology prompted his seminal response lecture “On Fairy-Stories” in which Tolkien elucidates the history of mythology and the importance it pertains within society. He explains that mythology has instructed and delighted people of all ages throughout history. With this argument defended, Tolkien prepared to write a modern myth. In explaining this desire to his publisher, Tolkien writes that he “wanted to try and write [a fairy-story] that was not addressed to children at all (as such)” on a much “larger canvas” than the restrictions of our world (“163” 216). The purpose of this mythology, he drafts in another letter to an editor reviewing Tolkien’s epic, being “primarily a study of the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble” (“181” 237).
While Tolkien works on a larger canvas than the physical world, his mythology intrinsically links with the history of this world. Tolkien viewed societies such as the Greeks with their mythological works and realized that England did not have such a mythology from which to glean and reflect. He recognized the influential nature of the Greek oral tradition and the historical power of the word before it was written down. Tolkien witnessed the power of the word reflected in the very act of creation he professes belief in as God spoke creation into being. Ralph C. Wood explains that “Tolkien the Christian holds that our logoi (words) are rooted in the Logos (the Word). Mythologies are supreme examples of the ontological character of speech: words are grounded in the world’s own being” (33). Tolkien argues that words have influence, meaning, and power because they are rooted in the spoken act of earth’s creation.
In Tolkien’s epic, a Creator speaks the world into existence and continues to influence the lives of His creations, as Christianity dictates happens in the world today. The difference exists in that no Christ-figure exists in Tolkien’s created world, simply because Tolkien’s world pre-dates the historical accounts of Christ in earth’s mythological history. His mythology links not only religiously to earth, but the factual rules of the earth also apply. Wood writes that “Tolkien’s mythical world […] is thoroughly historical. No event is ever repeated, and every creature has unique importance. One era is always the moral consequence of another” (43). Tolkien desires readers of his mythology to recognize the modern era as a possible consequence of the actions of Tolkien’s mythological characters. With every creature inside his sub-created world having importance, Tolkien reflects the idea of every human’s uniqueness within God’s creation.
Tolkien realized he needed a term to frame his argument about the truth within mythology; in “On Fairy-Stories” he presents the word eucatastrophe. Tolkien defines this term with the help of his close friend, fellow Inkling, and scholar Clive Staples Lewis. When they first met, Lewis was a staunch atheist, but through many discussions he began leaning towards Christianity. Tolkien aided in this conversion process by convincing Lewis of the reality of the Gospel. Tolkien builds his argument around the Gospels as a factual myth – a presentation of truth in mythological form. Inklings scholar Colin Duriez writes that Tolkien explains how “the Gospels have a satisfying imaginative as well as intellectual appeal, demanding a response from the whole person,” and if Lewis could not accept their reality, he suffered an “imaginative failure” (15).
Tolkien and Lewis define eucatastrophe as “a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence […] of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies […] universal final defeat […] giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy” (“Fairy-Stories” 384). In their mythology, the eucatastrophe exists as a turning point in the life of a character, noble or evil. For those noble, it acts as the redemptive moment for hardships and struggles; for those evil, it damns every thriving scheme.
This definition, when applied to Tolkien’s epic, becomes inadequate without incorporating Tolkien’s Christian beliefs. Tolkien writes in a letter to a publisher that “There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall – all stories are ultimately about the fall – at least not for human minds as we know them and have them” (“131” 147). This alludes to the biblical account that mankind fell from their created perfection and consequently must continue to strive and struggle for redemption, though never attaining it through man’s own power or will. However, the Christian belief of the Gospel of Christ negates this damning result of failure through the process of grace. Tolkien writes in “On Fairy-Stories” that “in the ‘eucatastrophe’ we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater – it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world” (387). The historical link of Tolkien’s mythology and the world becomes not only physical, but metaphysical through this concept of grace, or as Tolkien clarifies, “Legend and History have met and fused” (“Fairy-Stories” 389).
Understanding the Gospel as eucatastrophe becomes drastically important to understanding the significance of grace within the works of Tolkien. Tolkien writes in “On Fairy-Stories,”
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 great 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. (387-388)
Tolkien’s words stress the significance of beautiful art, sub-creation, and – most importantly – redemption. Redemption hallows the imperfect by ending their struggles. Redemption brings joy because it relieves suffering and creates a new mentality of grace. Mythology relates truth to mankind because it should affect the thought-life of readers or listeners. Lewis explains the connection from mythology to grace in his essay “Myth Became Fact” by writing that “as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also fact” and that “by becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle” (66-67). Ralph C. Wood adds that the Incarnation “is the great Christian eucatastrophe because it is sheer defeat overcome by sheer victory” (73). No greater struggle than death exists because it cannot be defeated, but Christ defeated death and in His victory all joy increases. The definition offered by Tolkien in “On Fairy-Stories,” eucatastrophe as “a sudden and miraculous grace,” can only be completed in the light of their Christian background (384).
Tolkien does not describe what this grace actually looks like or when it would appear; rather, he only explains what it is can achieve. The example of Christ allows readers to understand the salvation purpose of grace, but Tolkien’s epic reveals grace not as just a metaphysical salvation moment, but also physical and immediate. Through this dual nature of grace, Tolkien constructs The Lord of the Rings with the expressed intention of showing eucatastrophe at work within a mythology. Tolkien exemplifies this in two ways: the fact that evil destroys itself and in the events leading to the actual destruction of the Ring.
Eucatastrophe has the dual nature of damning the wicked and redeeming the humble, and the nature of the damnation of the wicked always comes in ironic juxtapositions and paradoxes. The creature Gollum, a previous Ringbearer, has been stalking Frodo and Sam, and the hobbits manage to trap him. Sam wants to kill him on the spot, but Frodo recalls a conversation with Gandalf –
What a pity that Bilbo did not stab the vile create, when he had a chance!
Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need.
I do not feel any pity for Gollum. He deserves death.
Deserves death! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give that to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends.
‘Very well,’ [Frodo] answered aloud, lowering his sword. […] ‘For now that I see him, I do pity him.’ (Towers 245-246)
– and lets him live. Tolkien juxtaposes the unlearned Frodo’s opinion that Gollum deserves death with the wiser Gandalf’s response. Gollum has killed many in his long, evil life and yet Frodo does not possess the proper wisdom to judge. In Tolkien’s epic, as in the Christian world, every person possesses equal rights and those granted authority receive it through divine right and wisdom. Frodo has not yet become wise, while Gandalf, the wisest being on the continent, possesses the proper experience and wisdom to judge. Frodo’s Uncle Bilbo took an approach of humility and pity many years prior in his interaction with Gollum because he understood his unlearned position. Because Bilbo did not slay Gollum, the creature embarked from his home and put into motion many of the events in The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf refers to this role and hints at a future reemergence of the character at the beginning of Fellowship, “My heart tells me that [Gollum] has some part to play yet, for good or for ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many” (65).
One aspect of eucatastrophe being sudden and miraculous means that it can come from completely unexpected sources; at this point in the narrative, Frodo receives aid from the one person who despises him and wishes him harm more than anything else in the world. Gollum offers to lead the hobbits on the remainder of their journey in order to devise a way to regain the Ring. Frodo perceives the danger of treachery in Gollum, but because of the position he has found himself in – lost in a barren, rocky wasteland surrounded by marshes and swamps – he tells Gollum, “I will trust you once more. Indeed it seems that I must do so, and that it is my fate to receive help from you, where I least looked for it, and your fate to help me whom you long pursued with evil purpose” (Towers 276). The evil intent of Gollum has now been co-opted to do the exact opposite of his desires while the Creator has graciously provided a guide for Frodo.
Tolkien begins emphasizing the struggle between the dark will of evil against the eucatastrophic will of the Creator from this point. Evil menaces at the height of its machinations, yet grace continues to strengthen Frodo and Sam, guided by Gollum, as they leave the last lovely land and begin their journey over the dark mountain wall of Mordor. The mountain wall accurately represents evil in the mind of Tolkien: vast, dark, daunting, and yet paths to overcome it exist. They pass the city of the Ringwraiths and begin climbing a long stair carved into the mountainside. Gollum’s treacherous plan reveals itself at the landing of the stairs because there lives a great spider out of the ancient years, Shelob the Great. She menaces in the darkness of the mountain tunnel feeding on her own malice, another reflection of Tolkien’s idea of evil. Shelob lurks and observes, catching those unaware in her webs. With every day of darkness, her evil will grows more powerful because it constantly renews itself. Gollum leads the hobbits into the darkness of the tunnel where she lives and disappears silently in hopes that she will kill them, allowing him to later rescue the Ring from Frodo’s carcass. The ancient evil of Shelob’s will affects the ability for Sam and Frodo to progress. However, Frodo determines himself to move and he “forced his own limbs” while helping Sam along and “they struggled on, still hand in hand” (Towers 370). The sheer duty that Frodo feels to complete the quest allows him to overcome this ancient evil and escape from her passage into the high mountain passes of Mordor.
Sauron knows of the existence of the spider and trusts her to guard that passage into his land. Shelob has never suffered anyone of the fair races to pass through her lair before. Sauron has also darkened the mountains from his vision so that the vision of the wise could not pierce the darkness and see his schemes in return. Sauron, a self-reliant and superior being, blinds himself from the oncoming threat of the humble by his machinations to protect himself from the great. Tolkien tells readers that Sauron’s eye continues to search “the shadows that [he] had made for [his] own defense, but which now hindered [him]” (Return 183). His plan hinders his knowledge; evil grows more powerful and yet disrupts itself simultaneously. Shelob and Sauron “lived, delighting in their own devices, and feared no assault, no wrath, nor any end of their wickedness. Never yet had any fly escaped from Shelob’s webs, and greater now was her rage and hunger” (Two 377). The Creator rewards the hobbits’ humility as they continue striving by allowing arrival into Mordor relatively unchecked, lessening the complex complications of their task to a bearable burden.
In The Lord of the Rings, when good disrupts evil’s schemes, it responds with hostility and violence. Shelob swarms out of her lair and attacks Frodo, while Gollum, enraged at the failure of his scheme, tackles Sam from behind. Sam slings Gollum away and runs to the defense of his master, and “[n]o onslaught more fierce was ever seen in the savage world of beasts” (Towers 381). Her malice allowed Shelob to feed on her evil desires to the purpose of growing nigh invincible except to her power. Sam manages to stab one of Shelob’s eye clusters and then raises the elven sword as she attempts to crush him, which pierces her thick hide by the force of her own will: evil destroys itself. The eucatastrophic will of the Creator acts through Sam, who bravely stands against the spider in a hopeless situation, and allows Shelob to wound herself. Sauron trusts in a wicked creature and because of that trust, his folly leads to his own destruction; Frodo and Sam enter Mordor with the sole purpose of destroying the Ring that will destroy Sauron.
The quest to destroy the Ring streamlines into a direct route from the moment the hobbits exit the mountains and enter Mordor. Tolkien builds tension through hopelessness as the two hobbits travel across the wasteland. Frodo feels the burden of the Ring grow heavier while Mount Doom never seems to get closer. The malice of Sauron has been feeding longer than the malice of Shelob; his menacing will dominates his entire land. Frodo tells Sam before sleeping, “I am tired, weary, I haven’t a hope left” (Return 206). The Creator intervenes in Frodo’s hopelessness through the most poignant moment of eucatastrophe in the entire epic, and not by interacting with Frodo. Sam stands watch besides his sleeping master and looks at the sky, where he “saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach” (Return 211). This subtle reminder of the mortality of evil renews Sam’s hope to finish the journey. While the darkness of night is overwhelming, the pinpoint light of one star reveals the power of the true and beautiful nature of hope. This revelation readjusts Sam’s mindset, which enables him to help Frodo finish the journey even though sheer duty drives the hopeless Frodo on.
However, sheer duty, unlike hope, lacks the intangible strength to sustain the desire to move forward against the malice of Sauron’s evil. The final day of their journey to Mount Doom, Frodo lies on the ground unable to move from the weight of the Ring. Sam, still infused with hope from the star, cries to his friend, “Come, Mr. Frodo! I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well” (Return 233). The hope and faith of Sam in being a diligent friend to his master allows the eucatastrophic will of the Creator to facilitate the needs of the quest. Sam physically carries his master up to the road that leads into the Cracks of Doom. During this journey, Gollum attacks them, screaming that Frodo give him the Ring. Tolkien writes in Return of the King that “this was probably the only thing that could have roused the dying embers of Frodo’s heart and will: an attack, an attempt to wrest his treasure from him by force” (236). The Creator knows the very thing needed at that instant for the proper action to occur. Frodo then demonstrates his growth in understanding. When he had left his home, Gandalf had told him that “you are not ready for that long road yet” (Fellowship 73). Lord Elrond had added as he left Rivendell that he did “not yet know the strength of [his] heart” (Fellowship 315). Frodo had journeyed across an entire continent through darkness and despair and had emerged as one of the wise. Wisdom, in Tolkien’s mythology, usually comes with the gift of foresight. Frodo tells Gollum, “Begone, and trouble me no more! If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom” (Return 237). Frodo runs into the Cracks of Doom while Sam wrestles with Gollum, thinking to himself that “it would be just to slay this treacherous, murderous creature” but pity “deep in his heart […] restrained him” (Return 237-238); Gollum escapes because of a hobbit’s pity for a third time and Sam follows Frodo into the volcano.
The next moment in the narrative Tolkien spent many years defending: Frodo claims the Ring over the Cracks of Doom. In a matter of seconds, Gollum reappears and attacks Frodo, bites the Ring off his finger, and falls into the fire (as Frodo foretold), thus destroying the Ring, Sauron, and the bastions of evil in Middle-Earth. The eucatastrophic will of the Creator redeems the hobbits’ pity: they understood their position to judge was and allowed the Creator’s justice to rule. Had Sam slain Gollum, his duty to the quest would have required him to slay Frodo if he was unable to coerce the Ring from him to destroy it. Sam would not have been able to complete this out of love for his master and the Creator caused pity to stir in Sam’s heart as he held a sword to Gollum’s throat so that this would not have to happen. The Creator’s justice for Gollum arrives at the exact moment Frodo’s will fails. Many readers wrote to Tolkien regarding the seeming failure of Frodo at the pinnacle moment of the quest. The destruction of the Ring did not present Frodo as a clear victor, but rather a total failure. People clamored for a hero, but felt that Frodo’s failure did not allow him to be considered one. Tolkien responds in one letter that Frodo “spent every drop of his power of will and body, and that was just sufficient to bring him to the destined point, and no further. Few others, possibly no others of his time, would have got so far. The Other Power then took over: the Writer of the Story,” the Creator (“192” 253). He also stresses that “[Frodo’s] real contract was only to do what he could, to try to find a way, and to go as far on the road as his strength of mind and body allowed” (“246” 327). Tolkien argues that this drive and sheer duty makes Frodo a true hero, even if an incomplete one.
The climax of the narrative mirrors the climax of eucatastrophe: Frodo could do nothing more except fall to the Ring’s evil, and the Creator stepped in and redeemed that failure through Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam’s pity on Gollum whose treachery leads to his doom; evil destroys itself. The lesser evil Gollum not only destroys his evil life, but the greater evil of the Ring and Sauron – eucatastrophe works for the meek and the great, whether noble or evil. Gollum, the most inconsequential evil being, and his evil schemes damns the entirety of evil in Middle-Earth, a juxtaposition of Frodo, as a humble hobbit, inevitably being the savior of the wise and good. Frodo asks Sam with energy and will depleted,
“Do you remember Gandalf’s words: Even Gollum may have something yet to do? But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end. So let us forgive him! For the Quest is achieved, and now all is over. I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam.” (Return 241)
Tolkien displays the humility of Frodo in his offering of forgiveness to Gollum; Frodo understands the grace he has received. However, because of this same grace, it was not the end of all things for Frodo and Sam in Return of the King. Sam replies, displaying his resilient hope that had kept them moving on the quest, “After coming all that way I don’t want to give up yet. It’s not like me” (244); yet, “Frodo and Sam could go no further. Their last strength of mind and body was swiftly ebbing” (245). As death approaches, Gandalf arrives on the wings of eagles and rescues them and the hands of the king, Aragorn of the Fellowship, heal them. While they slept, evil had been cast down and destroyed because of the three hobbits’ pity. Upon their waking, Sam exclaims, “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?” (246)
Sam’s question “What’s happened to the world?” finds answer in that the Creator allowed them to overcome through grace, saving their own lives and their world at the same time. The eucatastrophic climax of The Lord of the Rings mirrors the climactic eucatastrophe of mankind Tolkien defines in “On Fairy-Stories.” Christ, man’s Creator’s answer for having no more strength to continue to strive for perfection, exists as the perfect grace. The person of Christ completely changes the nature of man’s existence in the world. The destruction of the Ring acts much in the same manner for Middle-Earth. The Creator rewards grace to those who strive until they are completely incapable of continuing. Sauron’s evil desire for power damns him when the Creator’s grace allows for the destruction of the Ring. Christ overcomes the destructive power of evil and the damning power of sin by offering salvation through grace.
J.R.R Tolkien’s act of sub-creation became, according to Tom Shippey, the most beloved book of the twentieth century. Not only did Tolkien enrich creation, but he inspires millions around the world to do the same. Readers should ask after finishing his epic, “What do I do now?” Tolkien would answer: “Sub-create!” because sub-creation must take place, for it becomes not only imperative for the imagination of mankind and enrichment of creation, but for the spreading of truth. As a Christian, these truths, for Tolkien, would be those of the Bible. Tolkien wanted his readers to recognize the hope of Christianity. Tolkien writes in “On Fairy-Stories,” “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” (389). Frodo acts as Tolkien’s example of how this Christian appears. When people read Tolkien’s works and aspire to be like Frodo, Tolkien explains to be like Frodo one must strive, struggle, call on Christ, and keep struggling even if grace never intervenes. Ralph C. Wood writes that Tolkien believes in “the importance of patience, the willingness to avoid the shortcut and the easy way, recommending instead the slow and arduous path that leads to every excellence. Anything worth doing well is worth doing slowly” (26). Wood expands Tolkien’s belief by explaining, in Christianity, that “doing most difficult things for the sake of the Good, they become astonishingly effortless. ‘My yoke is easy, and my burden is light’ (Matt. 11:30)” (135). The eucatastrophe made every burden bearable. It did not lessen the hardships or the pain, but it offered something better in the end. Frodo’s life on Middle-Earth and in the Shire never returned to normal, but he received access to the West, where every the Creator cured every hurt. For the Christian, there will be struggles and evil in the world, but the grace of Christ offers redemption and eternity in paradise. The truth presented in Tolkien’s epic mythology cannot be overlooked. Tolkien desires readers to see the necessity of redemption and the vitality of grace to the results of the quest. Much like Frodo and Bilbo, there is more to us than we realize – we have just got to start walking our personal quest.
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Johnson, Kirstin. “Tolkien’s Mythopoesis.” Tree of Tales: Tolkien, Literature, and Theology. Ed. Trevor Hart and Ivan Khovacs. Waco: Baylor UP, 2007. 25-38. Print.
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—. Letter 163 of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Carpenter and Tolkien 211-217.
—. Letter 181 of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Carpenter and Tolkien 232-237.
—. Letter 192 of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Carpenter and Tolkien 1252-253.
—. Letter 246 of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Carpenter and Tolkien 325-333.
—. The Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Ballantine, 1966. Print.
—. The Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King. New York: Ballantine, 1966. Print.
—. The Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers. New York: Ballantine, 1966. Print.
—. “On Fairy-Stories.” Tales from the Perilous Realm. Boston: Houghton, 2008. 315-400. Print.
Wood, Ralph C. The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-Earth. Louisville: Westminster John Knox P, 2003. Print.