Let your light, Light of your face
Shine on Us
That we, may be saved
That we, may have life
To find our way
In the darkest night
Let your light, Shine on us
When we got to the part “To find our way/In the darkest night” I got this vivid image of Frodo Baggins holding up his gift from Galadriel, a Phial filled with the light of the star Earendil, and heading into Shelob’s lair.
In church? During worship? Indeed. And the image was so powerful, so clearly allegorical, so transitional to what God provides spiritually, that I teared up and could hardly continue singing.
J. R. R. Tolkien had given me a gift — an image that came out of nowhere and impacted me with its truth. Except, it didn’t actually come out of nowhere. It came from Tolkien’s sub-creation, the fantasy — the combination of imagination and enchantment — that is not part of the Primary World, as he called this world in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.”
I suspect Tolkien didn’t intend his light of the star Earendil to undergird the theology of God’s grace, but that’s what the image and the song in combination inside me ended up doing, and my experience illustrates Tolkien’s own belief about fantasy:
Fantasy . . . is, I think, not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent.
I’m not aware of Tolkien talking a great deal about what his stories meant. He insisted that they weren’t allegories (at the time, critics were saying they represented the war against Germany) and that they weren’t derivative (they accused him of co-opting the premise of Richard Wagner’s four epic operas comprising the Ring Cycle). He even said at one point that the Lord of the Rings was a very Catholic work, but what exactly did he mean?
One thing I would postulate from what he said about fantasy is that he believed his stories revealed true Truth.
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 the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion.
Fantasy’s drawback, Tolkien believed, was that it was hard to pull off. The necessary element was “the inner consistency of reality.” Anyone could conceive of a green sun, for example, but to do so and to do nothing else with it was gimmicky. A world with strangeness and no inner consistency was underdeveloped. Instead, the writer as sub-creator needed to draw upon the ramifications to the secondary world (the one of fiction) of a green sun.
Tolkien also recognized that fantasy could be misused.
Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice.
I couldn’t help but think of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials as an example of fantasy put to evil use. But Tolkien is right — other kinds of stories are as susceptible to misuse. And yet, if fantasy is powerful when done as sub-creation with internal consistency, readers are not merely transported to the secondary world, they live in that world and experience with the characters their conflict and their overcoming or their faltering and failing.
Of course readers can “live” in a fully realized fictional world containing nothing of fantasy, so sub-creating isn’t unique to the genre. What is unique, however, is the enchantment that transports a reader to that place of Other. As close as I can explain it, I think it touches the spiritual, pulls the veil back and gives a glimpse of glory or of shame. At least that’s been my experience, one that stays with me and surprises me at the most unpredictable moments.