Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

The Comedy of Enchantment in the Lord of the Rings

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

The Comedy of Enchantment in the Lord of the Rings

Article excerpt

Abstract: In this article, J. R. R. Tolkien's conception of the "enchantment" of fantasy as articulated in his essay "On Fairy-Stories" is initially discussed in relation to the Catholic imagination and its inclination toward inspiring a comedic narrative. In The Lord of the Rings, among others, it is incorporated through the enchanted hierarchical structure of Middle-earth that inspires some of its benign inhabitants, especially the hobbits, to "rightly order their lives" in terms of community and their attitude toward death, and likewise creates a universe "hospitable to the humane." Tolkien's comedic narrative also awakens readers from the complacency that typically accompanies the contemporary spirit of disenchantment and helps readers in seeing their world anew.

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Ralph Wood astutely encapsulates one of the more telling distinctions between the work and thought of J. R. R. Tolkien and his fellow Inkling C. S. Lewis:

For Lewis it is possible for the Gospel to exist without the ethos which it creates. Thus did he discern a potential divide between Christ and culture that Tolkien never observed. Whereas Tolkien sought to build up what might be called a Christian culture, Lewis was an evangelist who sought first and last to make the case for Christianity, whether by straightforward argument ... or by fictional embodiment.... ("Conflict and Convergence" 318)

No doubt intellectual temperament plays a role, but I feel this distinction can also be explained in that to a fairly high degree Tolkien and Lewis are, respectively, exemplars of the analogical and dialectical religious imaginations. According to the theologian David Tracy, the theistic imagination is on the one hand dialectical, picturing God as distant from creation; on the other hand it is analogical, wherein God is also felt to be close to the world and to people (Greeley 5-9). Although the relationship of these two tendencies is dynamic and shifting, the Catholic imagination inclines toward accepting the closeness of God to creation. This, among others, is evidenced by the importance of the sacraments, which stress the availability of grace to God's creatures. The religious sensibility that evolves from this perspective multiplies metaphors demonstrating the proximity of God to humanity and values human community. In contrast, the first tendency, which is more likely for the Protestant sensibility, tends to view community as an obstacle to a more direct relationship with God. Andrew Greeley summarizes the different sensibilities: "Catholics tend to accentuate the immanence of God, Protestants the transcendence of God" (5). Tracy stresses the complimentarity of the two religious sensibilities and that neither is superior to the other, while Greeley, a sociologist, has studied how they become embodied in the art, literature, and attitudes of society, particularly in the United States; he concludes there is a connection between the religious imagination and how people live and the themes that permeate their creativity. Due the tendency of the analogical imagination to see grace virtually everywhere, Greeley often refers to it as the "enchanted" imagination. (1)

It would, of course, be simplistic to say that Lewis with his "divide between Christ and culture" was uniformly the embodiment of the Protestant imagination and Tolkien the Catholic imagination, and I will give evidence of the interpenetration of the analogical and dialectical imagination in Tolkien. Nevertheless, it is a useful point of departure to indicate the predominance of the Catholic imagination in the author of The Lord of the Rings, especially in this major work. (2)

Because the "enchanted" imagination is fairly optimistic in art and literature, it tends toward the comedic mode. For our purposes, as Francesca Aran Murphy puts it, generally in comedy "[t]he hero ascends toward a community of love. He uses prudence and discernment to reach it. …

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