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Friday, March 23, 2018

Living in hope

These days I am rereading J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. I'm in the third book now, The Return of the King. Deeply enjoying it, of course, as I always do. I'm struck this time by the partial knowledge each character has of their place in the grander story, and Tolkien's craft in weaving together different strands of a grand narrative so that the reader knows more than the characters in the story do. Still, when the tragedies and joys happen in the story, though you've seen it coming for some time, you're still swept up in it. This is perhaps the greatness of a great story.

The way Tolkien presents this narrative, things look darker and darker. Evil has the upper hand. Any positive ending to the story hangs by the most fragile of threads, and that sense of anxiety, of near hopelessness, is part of what keeps the reader so engaged. I suppose in some ways this is the way we experience life -- we have grand dreams, even God-given visions, of the good, the true, and the beautiful, and we long for these things. But each of our days is filled with a sense that other powers oppose these positives. We yearn for the vision but everything from evil to entropy stands in the way.

Tolkien talked about the requirement in fantasy stories (what he called "fairy stories") of a eucatastrophe. This is the turn, the joyous, surprising turn in which good overcomes evil. This triumph does not come without cost or without pain, not at all. But beyond expectation, sometimes even beyond hope, the vision is accomplished, sometimes in a surprising way. So in LOTR Frodo does in fact bring the ring to the Cracks of Doom, and through the most surprising series of events the ring is in fact destroyed and Sauron is thrown down. This crux of the action changes the other narratives dramatically -- so that characters you've come to care deeply about as a reader suddenly discover that where they had come to expect defeat, a future full of joy is now open to them. The wounds they've received, the damage that has been done, continues to work itself out. Frodo is not able to settle down and enjoy the Shire when he returns home. But evil has, in fact, been defeated, and even Frodo's deep wounds can be healed and a way lies open toward joy.

Tolkien himself saw Jesus' resurrection as the ultimate eucatastrophe. Here, when all reason suggests that another Jewish prophet has died a brutal, meaningless death at the hands of the occupying Romans, when all political expediency suggests that it's time to get back to the grim business of placating the powers that be so we can continue to function as what T.S. Eliot called "the hollow men," doing what he described in another place as "living and partly living," the women on Sunday morning suddenly discover that Jesus is standing there, speaking to them, not having escaped evil but having defeated it. The way to joy lies open, and that joy includes the healing of deep wounds. Jesus still bears scars. The resurrection is the ultimate fairy story, not in the sense that it is simply fiction -- it's not -- but in the sense that it is history in all its fullness, and far more than history. It is the archetypal narrative that gives depth and meaning and joy to our angst-filled lives. All of life is now shaped, defined by the cross and resurrection. If we have eyes to see, our own narratives can be defined by this greater story, and the doorways for us stand open to the fulfillment of the promises of God in the face of very real opposition, very real pain. Joy is possible.

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