It’s Christmas Day, a day that brings into high relief the central importance of the Incarnation, i.e. the notion of God becoming man and taking on human flesh, not only in Christian thought but in the history of ideas and Western culture. René Girard, for example–a leading philosopher of the 20th century–sees the Gospels as an unveiling of “things hidden since the foundation of the world” (an arresting phrase used by Jesus in reference to himself in the Gospel of Matthew, an echo of Psalm 78 and also the title of one of Girard’s most groundbreaking works). In literature, one thinks of Milton’s remarkable “Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”, where he describes the birth of Jesus in sonorous lines that match the earth-shattering significance of the event:
“This is the Month, and this the happy morn
Wherein the Son of Heav’ns eternal King,
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring…
That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable,
And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty…
He laid aside; and here with us to be,
Forsook the Courts of everlasting Day,
And chose with us a darksome House of mortal Clay.”
In a contemporary context, today is also a day that brings to mind the haunting, subliminal importance of the Incarnation in the work of JRR Tolkien. This idea is conveyed in depth and with moving persuasiveness by Matthew Dickerson in his recent book, A Hobbit Journey: Discovering the Enchantment of J.R.R. Tolkien, one of the most acutely perceptive of the flood of new books on Tolkien that have been published in response to the movie version of The Hobbit.
Dickerson points out that, much like Beowulf and even more so, The Lord of the Rings is suffused with a Christian understanding of truth and reality, of the values that make us genuinely human, even though it is set in a pre-Christian age and civilization. The work is shot through, in fact, with intimations of the eternal and a deeply evocative nostalgia, a nostalgia so profoundly suggestive of awe and beauty that it is in its essence a vital aspect of Tolkien’s worldview and, I would argue, one of the mainstays of his timeless appeal. We need to remember here that, in English, “nostalgia” is derived from a combination of two ancient Greek words meaning “homecoming” and “pain or ache.” Nostalgia is in other words a pain or ache associated with homecoming, and we all know that Christmas, the day of Christ’s Incarnation, strikes deep and resonant notes of nostalgia.
Which is no small reason why here and there without doubt Tolkien hints rather pregnantly (if I may be pardoned the pun) that Middle-earth awaits with a kind of metaphysical inevitability the entry of Eru Ilúvatar, the Creator, into history and its constraints of time and space. Dickerson does an admirable job of elaborating this idea, showing how it underpins Tolkien’s work and meshes with his worldview. He points out, for example, that in Morgoth’s Ring, the tenth volume of the History of Middle-earth, writings edited posthumously by Tolkien’s son, Christopher, “the great King Finrod Felagund, lord of the realm of Nargothrond (and the brother of Galadriel), is having a conversation with a wise woman named Andreth. Finrod, who is of the race of elves, and Andreth, of the race of men, are trying to understand the differences between their races and what hope each race has separately or together. Andreth mentions an old belief that one day Ilúvatar himself will enter into his creation: ‘They say that the One will himself enter into Arda, and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end.’ Finrod and Andreth then have a discussion about this ancient belief, during which Finrod comments that it seems right to him for an artist to enter his creation, and that if any artist could and would do it, it would be Ilúvatar. Moreover, Finrod believes that such an incarnation is actually the only hope that elves and men have for the healing of the hurts of Morgoth…. Reading this passage reveals one thing at least: Tolkien viewed the incarnation of God, coming to earth as Messiah, as somehow inevitable in Middle-earth.”
Even in The Lord of the Rings itself, there are passages of sublime beauty that carry the allusive suggestion of undying hope and “eucatastrophe”, the term coined by Tolkien in his classic essay “On Fairy Stories” to describe the message of mankind’s saving:
“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tower high up in the mountains, Sam 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.”
It is interesting to compare this with the following passage from the Gospel According to Matthew:
“And they, having heard the king, went their way; and lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.”
In the end, Tolkien’s masterpiece offers a message of undampened hope. I like to compare it by way of contrast with a short, achingly poignant line from Virgil’s Aeneid, a classic of the literature of pre-Christian Europe. Aeneas has found himself in Carthage, deep in the throes of his ill-fated love affair with Queen Dido. In a temple dedicated to Juno, he surveys the murals that show the battles of the Trojan War and depict the deaths of his friends and countrymen. The scene moves him to tears and prompts in him a deeply melancholy reflection on the human condition. “Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt,” he says. This translates loosely as: “We live in a vale of tears and the burden of our humanity touches us to our inmost depths.” It is one of the most famous and affecting lines in all of Western literature, and in Latin has a stark, desperately concise beauty that lies beyond translation. It is a sentiment to which only the Incarnation offers an answer that satisfies the human heart.