At the beginning of this year we celebrated the 125th anniversary of J.R.R. Tolkien’s birthday. Tolkien fans all over the world raised a glass at 9:00pm to toast ‘The Professor!’. The recent film adaptations of his books are among the highest grossing franchises of all time.
So why do the stories and the world he created still capture the imagination of so many millions?
Tolkien himself was a committed and convinced Christian. He didn’t believe in forcing his faith on other people but nor did he seek to hide it away. If nothing else, Tolkien proves once and for all that a strong Christian faith is not a recipe for a grey and dreary life. Quite the opposite!
In his celebrated essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ Tolkien explained that there are certain themes that never fail to fascinate us when depicted in stories; themes which are remarkably common in literature throughout history and all around the world. These include for instance: the ability to step outside time and escape death, being able to communicate with non-human beings, the experience of love without parting and of seeing good finally triumph over evil.
When stories with these elements are told skilfully and carefully they can be almost irresistible. A sure-fire way to create a Hollywood blockbuster! Even badly told stories become interesting when these elements are present.
For Tolkien, there was no accident or mystery about this. He believed there was a reason why these things resonate with us so much. The reason is that they remind us what we were made for.
Human beings were never meant to experience the limitation of time or the tragedy of death. We were created with an inbuilt desire to see good triumph over evil, to survey the depths of time and space, for love without loss and a deep connection with the natural world around us. All of those things were lost when humanity turned its back on God. Lost – but not forgotten. The desire for them haunts us still.
To see these things depicted well in story-form can give us a profound experience of wonder, escape and satisfaction.
More than that, such stories give us a glimpse of the resurrection life that Christ came to bring. Tolkien believed that Jesus offers an invitation to each of us. He offers a life beyond the grave where all our deepest desires are met and satisfied forever; even those desires we can barely articulate or hardly realised we had. One day non-fiction will be even more wonderful than fiction!
For Tolkien the gospel of Jesus was the ultimate story: the story of which all other stories are an echo.
“There is no tale ever told that men would rather find true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.”