“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” – John 12:24
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death...Death is swallowed up in victory.” – 1 Corinthians 15:26, 54
"The greater the sin, the greater the mercy, the deeper the death and the brighter the rebirth.” - C. S. Lewis
"This story...has the very taste of primary truth." - J. R. R. Tolkien

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Eucatastrophe: Christianity in The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Narnia

J.R.R. Tolkien coined the term "eucatastrophe" meaning a good "catastrophe," or an enormous event where there is a sudden and epic change from very bad to the absolute triumph of good. The great evil is defeated by the greater good. This idea comes across in the writings of Tolkien, Lewis, and J.K. Rowling, and is at the center of Christianity...

In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam struggle hopelessly into Mordor to destroy the ring, and Aragorn leads the Host of the West in a desperate attack on Mordor to draw the Enemy's gaze away from his own land. It is the only chance of victory, but it is essentially a kamikaze mission - there is just a "fool's hope." But somehow, out of despair comes hope and ultimate victory - the ring is destroyed and the Enemy defeated. In a similar way, Gandalf earlier fell from the Bridge of Khazad-dum to what appeared to be his end, but in a remarkable battle with the balrog he is victorious and is brought back from death (the book says he passed through darkness and was "sent back" to complete his task), returning in triumph and greater power as Gandalf the White.

In The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan sacrifices his life for Edmund and is humiliated and killed. The Narnians, led by Peter, go into battle without him. In the movie version, the sense of hopelessness comes across since they know of Aslan's death before the battle. But Aslan returns from death, joins the battle and defeats the White Witch. Absolute defeat is turned to absolute victory.

In Harry Potter, Harry intends to sacrifice himself for his friends and goes to his death. He faces death and passes through death, receiving Voldemort’s killing curse. In a mysterious, “eucatastrophic” turn of events, though, Harry returns from death and Voldemort’s apparent victory is turned to defeat. Good is greater than evil, love triumphs.

Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling are all Christians, and their stories and worlds reflect the Great Story in this real creation, God's history of redemption, and at the center of this story is the resurrection of Jesus Christ - the ultimate, real eucatastrophe. Jesus was arrested, beaten, scourged, crucified, and killed. He had brought a message of love and selflessness, yet also of power and the fulfillment of hope for a Messiah and the ushering in of the Kingdom of God. Now he was dead, and this hope was gone. But then, somehow Christ was resurrected, returning from the dead and triumphing ultimately over death. Tolkien writes "The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation — This story begins and ends in joy."

How, though, in each story did this happen - how did absolute good triumph absolutely over absolute evil? In each story it is very similar, and it again reflects the real story.

In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf describes how the Enemy would never expect his enemies to attempt to destroy the ring. Rather he would expect them to seize it for themselves in a self-centered desire for power, as he himself would. This is why Aragorn's attempt to draw his gaze to the mighty captains of the West was so successful. Sauron knew the ring had been found, and his greatest fear was that a new dark lord would arise in power to replace him. He could not comprehend a non-selfish course of action.

In Narnia, the Witch knew there was a deep magic, a law that said that the blood of a traitor belonged to the Witch. Her knowledge was limited though, for she was no more than a created being; there was a deeper magic from before the dawn of time, a magic authored by the great Emperor. Aslan says "wh en a willing victim who has committed no treachery is killed in a traitor's stead, the Stone Table would crack and even death itself would turn backwards." The deeper magic was a law of sacrifice and victory over death, a deeper truth.

In Harry Potter, Voldemort, being shrouded in the darkness of evil, cannot comprehend the ways of good – the deeper magic of love and sacrifice is beyond his grasp, and his foolish ignorance betrays him. Voldemort’s life is mysteriously linked to and dependent on Harry because Voldemort took Harry’s blood into his own body in order to accomplish his dark resurrection. In so doing he unknowingly kept alive in himself the life-giving power of sacrificial love (see chapter 35 of Deathly Hallows, “King’s Cross”) – the power of Harry’s mother’s love, which had protected him, and now the power of Harry’s love for his friends, which shields them from harm as Harry lays down his life for them. Put simply, Voldemort had no hope for himself apart from his dependence on Harry, on what is good and true and right, and in killing Harry he ensures his own doom. Harry returns from death and defeats his enemy. Good is greater than evil, and what seemed to be defeat was mysteriously turned to victory. Love triumphs.

None of these evil characters saw it coming, because they couldn't understand the ways of love, they couldn't understand good. Good came first and was always greater than evil, which is just a parasite (as Lewis describes in Mere Christianity). It is the same in the Great Story. Satan must have thought his victory was at hand at the cross, but he could not understand God's ways, the way of love - love is selflessness, being for others and not self, and this is just what Jesus did at the cross. He gave himself. Satan could not understand it, but he was a created being, and his knowledge and perception of truth was severely limited because of his rejection of God. But Jesus knew what he was doing, telling his disciples that he would die and then return (Matthew 20:17-19).

Each one of these stories is a reflection of the story of Jesus Christ. This was what the authors intended (even Rowling, I think). Although there are obvious differences between most of these protagonists and Jesus (only Aslan was really a metaphor for Jesus), they are nonetheless strikingly similar in other important ways. Many stories reach a climax where it looks like the bad guys will win, but there is a happy ending, and these too reflect the innate human knowledge that good is victorious over evil. But epic tales like those of Middle-earth, Narnia, and Harry Potter stand out because the battle between good and evil is real, absolute, and on an enormous scale, and the triumph over death is sudden and complete. The good is truly good and beautiful and centered on love, and the evil is truly evil and horrible and centered on selfishness and desire for power. These stories, more than others, reflect the deep human knowledge of God's story and his eucatastrophic victory over evil in the primary world; we create worlds and stories of our own, imitating our Creator, just as we ourselves are created in the very image of God.

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