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The Gospel as a Good Catastrophe: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Literary Apologetics

By Holly Ordway

Here is a seeming paradox : J.R .R . Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings does not mention Christ, the church, the Bible, or even God anywhere in its pages; yet it is deeply and profoundly Christian. The Lord of the Rings is a fantasy, peopled with elves and dwarves, hobbits and wizards, an invented story ; yet it is spiritually and morally true. It is a work of literature; it is also, in its way, a powerfully effective work of apologetics.


This paradox is in reality no paradox at all, but rather an example of imaginative apologetics at work. The imagination is far more than what we might call ‘Fancy’ or idle daydreaming ; it is a mode of knowing , just as the faculty of reason is a mode of knowing. In fact, the imagination is necessary for the reason to function. C.S. Lewis writes that “reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.”1  Only when something has meaning, which is generated by the imagination, can we begin to use our reason to judge whether the meaning is true or false.

It is important  to emphasize that  while imaginative apologetics is distinct  from propositional, or  reason-focused, apologetics, it  is  by no means opposed to it. Rather, the imaginative and the rational are complementary ; each is necessary for the full and proper functioning of the other. Tolkien had a keen and penetrating intellect – he was, after all one of the world’s top scholars in the highly demanding academic field of philology – and he did not set aside his use of reason when he made use of his imagination. As he writes in his seminal essay “On Fairy-stories”:

Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make.2

A story such as The Lord of the Rings does not offer a direct argument, appealing straight to the intellect, but rather an imaginative and experiential approach – but this indirect approach is entirely compatible with more direct approaches as well. Literary apologetics provides an imaginative engagement with truth in fictional form; the reader’s (or viewer’s) encounter with  images, characters, stories, and ideas in  an imaginative mode can indeed whet the appetite to learn more, and prepare the reader to recognize and assimilate truth in rational and propositional forms. Tolkien himself was very much aware both of the Christian message of his work, and the importance of presenting it indirectly : through symbols, imagery, and (as we will see) the very structure of the fantasy story itself.



There is a great deal that could be said on this topic; here we will consider the concepts that Tolkien introduces in his seminal essay “On Fairy-stories,” which is an extended analysis of the workings of fantasy literature. His ideas are applicable to literature and the arts more broadly speaking , and to the discipline of literary apologetics.

“On Fairy-stories” had its origins as a public lecture that Tolkien gave at the University of St Andrews in 1939. The lecture came at a pivotal point in Tolkien’s development as a fantasist. He was well established as a scholar of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English; he had been working for many years on the various stories and poems of the Silmarillion, he had recently published The Hobbit, and he had begun work on The Hobbit sequel that would become The Lord of the Rings. An expanded version of the lecture was published in 1947 in Essays Presented to Charles Williams, edited by C.S. Lewis; a version with further revisions appeared in 1964 in Tolkien’s collection Tree and Leaf.3 Thus, the ideas that Tolkien expressed at St Andrews were further developed over the course of twenty-five years, during which time Tolkien was putting his theories into practice by writing and publishing The Lord of the Rings. “On Fairy-stories” is, as Verlyn Flieger puts it, “the template on which [Tolkien] shaped his idea of sub-creation, and the manifesto in which he declared his particular concept of what fantasy is and how it ought to work.”4

Tolkien begins by arguing that “The definition of a fairy-story – what it is, or what it should be – does not, then, depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy.”5 Nor does fantasy, rightly defined, include travelers’ tales, beast fables, or stories that use a dream framework. In regard to the last exclusion, Tolkien makes an important point. He argues that precisely because it contains “marvels,” a fantasy story “should be presented as ‘true’… it cannot tolerate any frame or machinery suggesting that the whole story in which they occur is a figment or illusion.”6 It is an essential quality of fantasy that it creates an immersive experience for the reader. A story-teller, Tolkien says, is a “sub-creator”, who “makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while are, as it were, inside.”7 However, any clumsiness or inconsistency on the part of the story-teller that makes the reader aware of the artificiality of the secondary world will disrupt the reading experience: “the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside.”8.

To illustrate the difference between ‘secondary belief ’ and mere ‘willing suspension of disbelief,’ consider a group of friends gathered around a big-screen T V to watch the World Cup.9  The true football enthusiast watches the game in a state of full secondary belief ; he urges on the players, shouts at the referee, and is plunged into joy or gloom by the events he sees on the screen. The same degree of involvement is not felt by his neighbor, who simply wishes to be sociable. He must take an interest in the game or else it will be a rather dull evening , even if there are good snacks, and so he cheers for his chosen team willingly enough. However, in so doing he has merely ‘suspended his disbelief ’: which, as Tolkien puts it, “is a substitute for the genuine thing.”10 Insofar as he enjoys himself, he enjoys the camaraderie for which the game is the excuse rather than the game itself, and he is unlikely to watch other games on his own initiative. So, too, with fantasy novels. The full, immersive experience of readers in a work of fantasy literature is much more than ‘suspension of disbelief.’ A reader who is self-consciously aware of the artificiality of the secondary world may play along with the author, as it were, but such an effort would indicate that ‘secondary belief ’ never came fully into effect at all.

To  be sure, the reader’s intention,  interests, and prior experiences have an effect on the formation of secondary belief ; some readers are much more readily drawn into the secondary worlds of fiction, just as some authors are particularly skilled at exciting secondary belief in even reluctant visitors to their literary world. The production of secondary belief is, of course, not limited to fantasy ; it is a feature of other genres as well, including the realistic novel. While we are reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, we feel that Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy are real people in a real world.

What, then, makes fantasy different from other genres? For one thing , fantasy can operate more freely than realistic fiction, since the author is not limited to writing about things that exist or could exist in the Primary World. This creative freedom is a two-edged sword: it helps the fantasist to achieve what Tolkien views as the necessary quality of “strangeness and wonder”,11  but it also makes it more challenging to achieve the equally necessary “inner consistency of reality”12 for the imagined world. Tolkien goes on to say :

Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough… To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft.13

The result of this special skill and labor is the literary art called fantasy, “story-making in its primary and most potent mode.”14

The features of ‘sub-creation’ and ‘secondary belief ’ are significant for apologetics because they point toward fantasy’s relationship with reality. Fantasy, as Tolkien defines it, is not a flight from the Primary World, but a creative engagement with it. By its what-ifs and imaginings of things that are not, never were, and perhaps never could be, fantasy illuminates what is, was, and could be. Here we can see the connection between Tolkien’s theology and his understanding of the creative process. Tolkien’s high view of fantasy is grounded in his understanding of the sub-creative act as a reflection of the divine creative act: “we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”15 Fallen though they are, human beings make creative fantasy because they bear the image of a creative God and thus, for Tolkien, fantasy is fundamentally serious even at its most playful and extravagant.


One of the functions of fantasy, Tolkien says, is Recovery :

Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re- gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves.16

Tolkien identifies two related elements that contribute to our failure to see clearly : familiarity and possessiveness. Using the metaphor of a dirty, smudged window—whose film of grime obscures what we see through it—he says that we need “to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.”17

This analysis is of the utmost importance for apologetics. When we think that we truly know something , we often stop really seeing it. We use words like love, forgiveness, justice, and reconciliation without recognizing , or communicating , their messy, painful, transformative reality. In day-to-day relationships, we may no longer really see our family, friends, and neighbors as themselves, but instead may see them instrumentally, in terms of what they can do for us – or how they get in our way. Indeed, Tolkien notes that our familiares are the “most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces.”18

Furthermore, we live in a culture that is paradoxically both jaded by, and ignorant about Christianity. People think they know who Jesus is, what the church is, what it means to have faith, and they are not interested. We need to help people recover a fresh view of the truth – to see Jesus for the first time, and really see him; to see the reality of sin, and the beauty and brokenness of the world, not to just gloss over it. Jesus said that unless we become like little children, we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Part of being child-like is to see things afresh: to look at God’s creation and see it as his handiwork, to be able to read the words of Holy Scripture and be deeply moved at what we find.
Good stories and poetry can help us to see more clearly when we close the book and re-enter ordinary life. Thus, for the work of apologetics, we need stories that allow people to recognize in their own lives the potential to be made whole: for marriages, families, and friendships to be healthy and shaped as God made them to be; for our ‘daily bread’ to be tasted and savored once again; for the possibility of divine love and forgiveness.
Tolkien’s concept of recovery also applies to the very words we use in apologetics dialogue. The words that we use to talk about the faith often do not mean what we think they mean, to our hearers. A young atheist who has been reading Dawkins and Dennet and Hitchens, and who has perhaps been exposed to the more shallow and sentimentalized expressions of Christian faith, does not understand what we mean by words like God, faith, prayer, resurrection, and so on.
Someone who is convinced that “God” means “old man in the sky” would be quite right to consider it ridiculous; to that person, arguments for the existence of an old man in the sky are self-evidently false, worthy only of mockery. What this atheist needs is to realize that Christians do not simply believe in one sky-father figure out of many options (as opposed to, say, Zeus) but rather that the word “God” that Christians use means “the ground of all being”: God is existence itself, or as He says to Moses, “I AM.” More arguments and dictionary definitions will not help in this situation; if our young atheist is already convinced that he knows what God means, he’s not going to pay much attention to more arguments. What he needs is to see the idea afresh.

Michael Ward sums up the problem very nicely in his essay “The Good Ser ves the Better and Both the Best: CS Lewis on Imagination and Reason in Apologetics,” he writes:

It is no good arguing for ‘God’ or ‘Christ’ or for ‘the atonement’ or even for ‘truth’ until the apologist has shown, at least at some basic level, that these terms have real meaning. Otherwise they will just be counters in an intellectual game, leaving most readers cold. Likewise, apologetic arguments for the authority of the ‘Church’ or ‘the Bible’ or ‘experience’ or ‘reason’ itself, must all be imaginatively realized before they can begin to make traction on the reader’s reason, let alone on the reader’s will.19

Stories can help readers to ‘imaginatively realize’ the meaning of the words we use, and thus go beyond treating them as ‘counters in an intellectual game.’ After reading in The Lord of the Rings about the Ents, Tree-beard and the other shepherds of the trees, one might look at an ordinary tree, a pine or oak, and think: how extraordinary, really, is a tree! A reader who is moved by the self-sacrifice of Frodo and the kingliness of Aragorn is equipped to respond more immediately, more intuitively, to ideas of sacrifice and redemption, and to the image of Christ the King when they hear them in Scripture. Tolkien shows us how a story can help to recover meaning for words and ideas that are vitally important for apologetics.


The second function of fantasy, Tolkien argues, is Escape. Thus, we must now address the charge that the ‘escape’ offered by fantasy is an immature, even anti-social experience. Stories about kingdoms that never existed being threatened by imaginary monsters and rescued through magic would seem to encourage a kind of emotional or social truancy from the serious issues of ‘real life.’ It might be fine for children to read about knights and wizards, but an adult should grow out of it and graduate into reading novels that address life as it really is.

However, this objection does not hold water. To begin with, stories set in the ‘real world’ may offer to the reader a view of the world that is as unrealistic in its own way as any fantasy with elves and magic: a world in which violence solves problems, narcotic-fueled parties are endlessly exciting , wealth and power are readily available, intrigues happen without messy consequences of shattered families and betrayed friends, and women magically make bad men good by the power of their love (or through sex).

‘Escapism’ in its negative sense is far more likely to be produced by what C.S. Lewis calls “superficially realistic” literature, which presents “things that really might happen, that ought to happen, that would have happened if the reader had had a fair chance”.20 Such escapism is far more likely than fantasy to provoke envy, fruitless discontent, and a refusal to deal with the life and relationships a person really has; it can give a gloss of excitement or normality to behavior that in real life is destructive: adultery, drug-taking , abusive relationships. Fantasy can be escapist in the negative sense, to be sure – but it would be a feature of bad fantasy, as it is a feature of bad literature of any genre or bad art in any form.

Taking  pleasure in the ‘escape’ offered by a fantasy novel is not a mark of immaturity or shallowness – far from it. Depending on one’s circumstances, Escape may be sensible or even heroic, just as it might be in ‘real life’. As Tolkien puts it:

Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.21

Furthermore, to escape means to recognize both something negative to be escaped from, and something positive to be escaped into – and so the experience of fantasy is in a constant dialogue with reality both as it is and as it could or should be. The reader who escapes into a good fantasy does not return to ‘real life’ unchanged.

The third function of fantasy that Tolkien discusses is what he calls “consolation,”  and above all  the  “consolation  of the  happy ending.” He coins the word eucatastrophe for this idea, meaning “the good catastrophe”: the unexpected happy ending , which gives us a profound taste of joy. Tolkien argues that the response we have to a happy ending is in fact a pointer toward the truth of the gospel.

The relevance of Tolkien’s eucatastrophic vision for apologetics begins with the fact that it includes, necessarily, the recognition of catastrophe. We live in a broken, fallen world, and we suffer the effects of sin. Any presentation of the gospel that tries to skip over that reality will end up being trite, shallow, and ultimately both unattractive and unconvincing. Jesus is our friend, but he is not “Buddy Jesus.” We have hope, but our faith is not a get-out-of-suffering-free card.

The problem of evil is one of the most commonly cited objections to Christianity. How can it be that a loving God would allow for atrocities, natural disasters, violence and oppression? There are many good responses to this question, including ones rooted in the consequences of God’s gift to us of free will, but too often in apologetics we jump to the intellectual arguments immediately, in a way that seems to discount or dismiss the reality of suffering.

Christian popular fiction has a different problem: too often, it presents the faith in a sentimentalized way, afraid to tackle difficult questions or present a nuanced picture of reality : the equivalent in fiction and film of Thomas Kincade paintings, and about as artistically compelling. In contrast, secular literature, and even more so film and television, tends to the bleak and dystopian, and is morally unmoored. The result is that we see two extremes: a dark relentless focus on the brokenness of the world, or a sentimental, simplistic treatment that denies the brokenness of the world. There’s not much in between.

If we move too quickly to assertions of faith, either intellectual or emotional, then we can fall into the trap of either cold intellectual arrogance or unbelievable, sentimental piety.   We must recognize the reality of darkness and suffering , and the difficulties that surround faith in our culture today, but we cannot stay in that dark place. The second half of the eucatastrophic vision is that it includes the reversal, the possibility of the ‘good catastrophe,’ the turn in the story that leads to Joy, indeed joy beyond the walls of the world.

Here we can see part of Tolkien’s gift. Like his friend Lewis, Tolkien could show a convincing and attractive vision of the Christian  faith, precisely because his faith, and thus his literary vision, included the dark but knew that the light triumphs. Tolkien lost both his parents in childhood; he fought in the trenches of World War I, where most of his close friends were killed; throughout his life, he experienced the strains of ill health and financial worries. Because he knew sorrow, Tolkien could show a convincing Joy : his work rings true.

However, atheists may say, what is the point of a happy ending if it is just made up? Sure, it makes you feel good for a moment, but it does not change the truth. The whole Christian story is just wishful thinking. Right? Not so fast. Tolkien considers the question: why do we have this lifting of the heart at the happy ending ? Could it be because at a fundamental level, it really is true, and we are catching a glimpse of it? That, in fact, is exactly what Tolkien argues. All of human history is a story, he says, and one with a happy ending :

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. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.”… This story is supreme; and it is true.22

Literary apologetics has much to offer us in our apologetics work. It is not the same thing as simply making an argument in the form of a story ; rather, at its best, it shows the truth, and helps us desire it. It is not a substitute for teaching about doctrine, but it helps us see what doctrine means, and why it matters, and how we might live it out.
Tolkien’s great work, The Lord of the Rings, is a pre-eminent example of literary apologetics, as is C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, in a different way.23 Not everyone likes fantasy, however; these works will not resonate with everyone, and in any case, the more, different, varied stories, poems, films, and works of art that share the light of Christ in different ways, the better. So as apologists, we should learn how to use well the great works that we have, like The Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia;
we should also encourage Christian writers and artists, to do more work, for new audiences, sharing the good news in fresh ways. Those who have creative gifts should use them; those who do not can, and indeed should, cultivate good taste and high standards, and encourage their brothers and sisters in Christ to do creative work.

Let me close with Tolkien’s own words of encouragement to artists, at the end of “On Fairy-stories”:

But in God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” 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. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.24

1C.S. Lewis, “Bluspels and Flalanspheres : A Semantic Nig htmare,” In Selected Literary
2J.R .R . Tolkien, “On Fair y-stories,” in Tolkien On Fair y-stories, ed. Verlyn Flieger and Doug las A . Anderson (London : Harper Collins, 2014), 65
3The final version of the essay was published posthumously in 1983, in the collection The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. For more on the history of the text, see “ The History of ‘On Fair y-stories’ in Tolkien On Fair y-stories. Ed. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A . Anderson. London : Harper Collins, 2014.
4Verlyn Flieger, “Introduction,” Tolkien On Fairy-stories. Ed. Verlyn Flieger and Doug las A. Anderson (London: HarperCollins, 2014), 9. Note that this is the definitive edition of the essay, containing all its variants and including a very useful commentary on the text.
5Tolkien, “On Fair y-stories,” 32.
6Ibid., 35.
7 Ibid., 52.
9Tolkien uses the analog y of a cricket match to make this point ; I have taken the liberty of updating his example.
12Ibid., 59.
13Ibid., 61.
15Ibid., 66. See also Tolkien’s poem “Mythopoeia ,” from which he quotes a passage in
“On Fair y-stories.” In the poem he elaborates on the theological significance of creative fantasy. It appears in Tree and Leaf (London: Harper Collins, 1964), 83-90.
16Ibid., 67.
19Michael Ward, “ The Good Serves the Better and Both the Best,” in Imaginative
Apologetics, ed. Andrew Davison (Baker Books, 2012), 72.
20C.S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” In On Stories and Other Essays on
Literature. Ed. Walter Hooper (Orlando, FL : Harcourt, 1982), 38.
21Tolkien, “On Fair y-stories,” 69.
22Ibid., 78.
23See Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia : The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S . Lewis (OUP 2008), for a thorough analysis of the way in which the Narnia Chronicles are ‘all about Christ.
24Tolkien, “On Fair y-stories,” 78-79.

[Editor’s Note: Atheism image from Jan Matejko’s Stańczyk, 1862, found at  Wikipedia Commons.]