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I Wonder What Sort of Tale We’ve Fallen Into?”

A Theology of Narrative in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings

· fantasy,theology

[Note: a version of this essay was presented at the 2016 convention of the Rocky Mountain MLA in Salt Lake City, UT as part of the panel "Teaching Tolkien in Tension between the Academy and Peter Jackson Films."]


Few authors in the annals of modern fantasy have been as conscious of their own literary craft as J.R.R. Tolkien. This is not to say that Tolkien was self­-conscious, that his tales of Middle-earth were composed deliberately in accordance with some stringent literary theory and, thus, exhibitive of all the artificiality and stiltedness that inevitably accompanies such pedantry. Tolkien certainly develops a literary philosophy (one might even say a theology) in his famous essay “On Fairy Stories,” one which guided his own authorial process and an understanding of which is essential to an informed reading of his work. But he was first and foremost a storyteller, and as such well aware of the pitfalls of trying to make a story conform to some framework external to the story itself (e.g., allegory). Tolkien’s story-consciousness is not adherence to this literary school or that theory of aesthetics, but rather a remarkable awareness of his own creative art as creative art (what he would call sub-creation) and of the function of Story in human life and culture.

A full treatment of Tolkien’s literary philosophy would require volumes – Tree and Leaf, to start with, with reams of commentary. However, Tolkien’s beliefs about story and narrative pervade all his written work, such that even seemingly passing comments can be instructive. Take, for instance, Tolkien’s statements about The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) in the “Foreword to the Second Edition”: “This tale grew in the telling, until it became a history of the Great War of the Ring.”[1] He speaks of LOTR being “drawn irresistibly towards the older world” of The Silmarillion and of “glimpses that had arisen unbidden of things higher or deeper or darker than its surface: Durin, Moria, Gandalf, the Necromancer, the Ring.”[2] Grew in the telling, drawn irresistibly, arisen unbidden – it is as if, in Tolkien’s world, the tale possesses a power independent of the (human) author and his/her intent.

This idea that the stories we tell are “drawn irresistibly” toward the great stories of the past, and that there is tremendous power in these stories—indeed, that there is tremendous power in Story itself—is a central theme of LOTR, a tale whose characters are constantly singing songs and sharing stories of the past. It is also not surprising, given Tolkien’s own devout Catholicism – a faith tradition that, whatever its other defining features, grounds itself in a narrative, in the Gospel of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And nowhere does the theme of narrative appear more clearly within the narrative of LOTR itself than in a famous scene toward end of The Two Towers (TT). On the edge of the Land of Mordor, the hobbits Frodo and Sam reflect on their Quest to destroy the One Ring in the context of the whole history of Middle-earth. In doing so, they come to view their journey not simply as a series of events through which they are living in the present, but as part of a much longer, greater story in which they are only playing a small part. At one point Sam asks, “I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?”[3] – and within this single, simple question lies embedded an entire theology.

My purpose in this essay is to tease this theology out, to make explicit that which here remains implicit, to make Sam’s question our question. Looking to Tolkien’s own “On Fairy Stories” and to Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz’s notions of dangerous memory and dangerous-liberating stories, I argue that Sam and Frodo’s framing of their own experience as story, as continuous with ancient stories of struggle and victory and sacrifice, is what gives them the courage to carry on in the face of overwhelming odds – that is, it enables them to become the heroes of their own plot. In doing so, I hope to point toward the ways in which the Quest of the Ring-Bearer becomes a dangerous-liberating story itself, one with the capacity to break through controlling narratives of domination and despair and give hope and comfort to the potential heroes of future stories.

1. “I feel as if I was inside a song”[4]

Since we are concerned primarily with Story, let us begin, as did Tolkien himself, not with general principles, but with a particular moment in a particular story: the aforementioned scene with Sam and Frodo at Cirith Ungol. To remind the reader of the narrative context: Sam and Frodo have just passed Minas Morgul, the haunted City of the Ringwraiths. There, they witness the Witch-King of Angmar riding forth at the head of a great army, on his way to lead the Dark Lord Sauron’s forces in their assault on Minas Tirith. As Frodo catches sight of him, he is struck by the memory of Weathertop, where the Witch-King stabbed him with a Morgul-blade: “The old wound throbbed with pain and a great chill spread towards Frodo’s heart.”[5] The Lord of the Nazgûl halts; he has sensed the presence of the Ring. Once again, unbidden, Frodo’s hand moves to put it on, compelled by some overpowering external force: “It took his hand, and as Frodo watched with his mind, not willing but in suspense (as if he looked on some old story far away), it moved the hand inch by inch towards the chain upon his neck.”[6] (Note the reference to “some old story” here – we shall return to it.) The outcome of this confrontation is very different than that at Weathertop, however: for just then

his own will stirred; slowly it forced the hand back and set it to find another thing, a thing lying hidden near his breast. Cold and hard it seemed as his grip closed on it: the phial of Galadriel, so long treasured, and almost forgotten till that hour. As he touched it, for a while all thought of the Ring was banished from his mind. He sighed and bent his head.

Frodo has no chance to recuperate from this draining encounter, however; for as soon as the Morgul-host has passed them by, Gollum urges them on, up the Stairs of Cirith Ungol. It is only after a grueling climb high into the passes of the Ephel Dúath that Gollum finally allows them to rest in the shelter of a cliff.

So it is that, poised on the very edge of Sauron’s realm, overtaken by exhaustion both physical and spiritual, Sam and Frodo have the following conversation:

“I don’t like anything here at all,” said Frodo, “step or stone, breath or bone. Earth, air and water all seem accursed. But so our path is laid.”

“Yes, that’s so,” said Sam. “And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. […] We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same — like old Mr Bilbo. But those aren't always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?”

“I wonder,” said Frodo. “But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.”

“No, sir, of course not. Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that’s a long tale, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it – and the Silmaril went on and came to Eärendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got – you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?”

“No, they never end as tales,” said Frodo. “But the people in them come and go when their part’s ended. Our part will end later – or sooner.”[7]

So: what is going on here? Why don’t the weary hobbits use this precious respite to sleep, to recover from the horror of Minas Morgul and prepare themselves for the horror that waits just across the next ridge? Why does Tolkien feel it necessary to insert this lengthy discourse at just this point in the narrative?

Let us return briefly to the Frodo’s first meeting with the Witch-King. As Aragorn the hobbits lay encamped under the dell at Weathertop, Sam asks the Ranger to tell them a tale, “a tale about the Elves before the fading time. I would dearly like to hear more about the Elves; the dark seems to press round so close.”[8] Aragorn obliges with the Tale of Beren and Lúthien Tinúviel. “It is a fair tale,” he says, “though it is sad, as are all the tales of Middle-earth, and yet it may lift up your hearts.”[9] Recollecting the past helps to draw their minds away from the hopelessness of the moment to the memory of light and beauty. This motif is repeated at the House of Elrond, as the hobbits recover from their journey to Rivendell by listening to “Errantry,” Bilbo’s song about Eärendil, in the Hall of Fire, and on the borders of Lothlórien when Legolas sings a Song of Nimrodel shortly after Gandalf’s fall in Moria. Having his character recollect the history of Middle-earth does not merely serve Tolkien’s world-building purposes; it serves within the narrative as a means of countering darkness and despair. The hobbits turn to a story about the past, indeed to the very same story that Aragorn told under the dell at Weathertop, as a way to regroup from their latest encounter with the Lord of the Nazgûl. In order to see how a story might do this, however, let us turn to the more general notion of Story itself as Tolkien develops it in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.”

2. On Dangerous Fairy-Stories

A brief note on terminology: when I speak of a “fairy-story,” I am using Tolkien’s definition: an imaginative tale that does not take place in our Primary World, but rather in a Secondary World of the author’s creation. This Secondary World need not command primary belief – the reader need not view it as literally, historically true. But it should command secondary belief – it should allow the reader to “enter into” the world, to accept it as internally self-consistent.[10] This should not, however, limit our consideration of the important narrative and theological characteristics of fairy-stories as applicable to only those stories that fit Tolkien’s definition. Indeed, I would argue, given Tolkien’s characterization of some of humanity’s most important stories as “fairy-stories” (or at least fairy-story-like stories – more on that later), one can generalize them into a Tolkienian theology of story.

Tolkien suggests that fairy-story offers its reader three important gifts: recovery, escape, and consolation. The first of these gifts, recovery, is the “regaining of a clear view… ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’ – as things apart from ourselves.”[11] The recovery offered by a fairy-story enables a shift, one might even say a sharpening, of perspective, so that when we leave the Secondary World of the story, we have a renewed appreciation for our Primary World: “By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory.”[12] One might easily add Tolkien’s own creations to his list: for instance, in the language of the Ents, we hear for the first time the words the forest has always been speaking. In the light of recovery, we see the world in all its color and glory.

By the second gift of the fairy-story, escape, Tolkien does not mean running away from the hard realities of the present into flights of imaginative fancy. (Indeed, if recovery works in the way that Tolkien suggests it does, then fairy-stories should make us more aware of the world as it is, not less.) Those who suggest otherwise, Tolkien writes, “are confusing… the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.”[13] For Tolkien, a fierce critic of the Industrial Revolution and the consequent mechanization and technologization of human life, fairy-story can offer a temporary reprieve from “the rawness and ugliness of modern […] life.”[14] But this special function of fairy-stories in modern times is but one form of escape: “There are other things more grim and terrible to fly from than the noise, stench, ruthlessness, and extravagance of the internal-combustion engine. There are hunger, thirst, poverty, pain, sorrow, injustice, death.”[15] The prisoner does not escape into fantasy; her little cell is every bit as real as the forests beyond the prison walls. But the cell cannot contain the forests. The escape of the fairy-story is not a flight from but rather a transcending of the limitations of the present moment – which might mean our particular personal conditions (a jail cell), our general historical conditions (industrialized modernity), or even the universal human condition (being subject to death).

The third gift of fairy-story, consolation, follows on from this last. By consolation, Tolkien means “the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe [eucatastrophe], the sudden joyous ‘turn’” which is the “highest function” of the fairy-story.[16] Whatever darkness and danger its characters might pass through; whatever suffering and grief they might undergo; however much that is good and beautiful might be lost, the true fairy-story ends in light. Even as we should not mistake escape for flight, we should also not mistake the joy of the happy ending for false optimism:

It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

The eucatastrophe of the true fairy-story is an affirmation of joy in the face of sorrow, an affirmation of hope in the face of despair, an affirmation of possibility in the face of seemingly insurmountable “facts on the ground.” It “goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it”[17] – for as Tolkien observes, “there is no true end to any fairy-tale.”[18]

The three hallmarks of fairy-stories—recovery, escape, and consolation—might just as easily be considered the hallmarks of what German Catholic theologian Johan Baptist Metz calls dangerous-liberating stories. These are stories that access dangerous memories, “in which earlier experiences flare up and unleash new dangerous insights for the present. For brief moments they illuminate, harshly and piercingly, the problematic character of things we made our peace with a long time ago… They break through the canon of the ruling plausibility structures and take on a virtually subversive character.”[19] For Metz as for Tolkien, the technological-rational worldview of the modern era results in a tyrannical determinism that turns human beings—and human communities—into the objects of vast, impersonal sociohistorical forces beyond their control. Dangerous memory, then, is memory that does not simply consign the past to the past, does not simply treat the past as a set of preconditions that determine the future. It reminds us that, for those whose lives and deeds have now become the matter of story and song, the future was every bit as uncertain as the future is for us today. This interrupts systems of domination that try to turn history into a mechanistic, ineluctable process, in which human beings have no agency to change the nature of the world in which they live. The dangerous-liberating story thus recovers for us a view of the future as open and undetermined (which it always is, even if we forget sometimes); it helps us to escape from the logic of the domination-systems that render the present unbearable; and it offers us the consolation of hope. Having taken this detour into philosophy and theology, let us return to Tolkien’s own fairy-story, to the hobbits whom we left in a cleft in the rock at Cirith Ungol, to see how their stories might become dangerous-liberating in character.

3. Becoming Heroes

In light of the foregoing discussion, it is clear that the Tale of Tinúviel functions as a dangerous-liberating story within Tolkien’s narrative. As they remember the tale of Beren and the Silmaril, Sam and Frodo are reminded that though “that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours,”[20] even Beren still managed to escape from Thangorodrim, that ancient fastness of evil. The story went on – the darkness could not conquer forever. Here we see a concrete example of “earlier experiences flar[ing] up and unleash[ing] new dangerous insights for the present.”[21] The Tale of Tinúviel has become a bearer of the dangerous memory of the triumph of good over evil, a narrative that “breaks through the magical spell cast by the ruling consciousness”[22] and inspires hope in those who hear it.

In LOTR, the “ruling consciousness” whose spell must be broken is Sauron, the very embodiment of the systems of domination and dehumanization against which Tolkien and Metz both rail. We have already seen an example of what this “ruling consciousness” looks like: Frodo’s earlier encounter with the Lord of the Nazgûl, Sauron’s most trusted servant. When his hand gropes toward the Ring, Frodo does not even experience it as being guided by his own will, but rather by some external power, leaving him to look on in suspense “as if he looked on some old story far away.”[23] At that moment, the “story” that Frodo is observing is not one in which he plays any active part; it is a static, dead thing, incapable of breaking in upon the present. Frodo has lost his subjectivity; he has become a mere in object in somebody else’s narrative. But Frodo’s experience in the Morgul-Vale is only a taste of what awaits him in Mordor itself. In the depths of the Land of Shadow, Sauron’s power to dominate is so great that it seems to abolish memory itself, so that Frodo, weighed down as he is by the Ring, is unable to recall anything of his previous life: “No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark, Sam.”[24]

In truth, this is Sauron’s greatest weapon: despair, hopelessness, the numbing of our capacity to act or even to have an independent will of our own – in short, the obliteration of subjectivity. In Mordor we witness what Metz describes as “the quiet disappearance of the subject; the death of the individual under the anonymous pressures and structures of a world that is engineered by an unfeeling rationality and that therefore breeds a weariness with identity and a loss of memory.”[25] Therefore, reclaiming our subjectivity requires that we think narratively – that we think of history, not simply as a meaningless sequence of events, but as a story that is leading somewhere, toward a future with hope.[26] In order to become the subjects of our own lives, we must become the subjects—the heroes—of our own stories.

This is where Sam and Frodo’s recollection of the story of Beren and Luthien moves from fairy-story escapism (the good kind) into truly dangerous-liberating territory. For notice that the first narrative that Sam references is not the Tale of Tinúviel, an ancient love story between a mortal man and an immortal woman which would seem to have little bearing on the life of a hobbit; it is the much more recent, proximate tale of Bilbo’s journey to the Lonely Mountain as related in The Hobbit. The relevance of the Quest of Erebor to the Quest of the Ring-bearer is obvious: Sam and Frodo would never find themselves in their current predicament had Bilbo never found the One Ring all those years before. Bilbo’s adventure is the necessary prologue to their own, even as The Hobbit is the necessary prologue to LOTR. But as Sam continues talking, he comes to a startling realization: “And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got – you’ve got some of the light of [the Silmaril] in that star-glass that the Lady [Galadriel] gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?”[27] We’re in the same tale still – this is the key point. Sam’s remembering of the Phial of Galadriel triggers for him the realization that the story of Beren and Lúthien bears no less intimate relation to his own narrative than does Bilbo’s There-and-Back-Again; The Silmarillion is every bit as much necessary prologue as is The Hobbit, as it were.

Once they have made this leap—from viewing a story about the past as something static, a mere anecdote to be retold in dark times, to seeing the past as something vital, a living history that impinges on the present—the hobbits are then able to conceive of their own lives as story. For as Frodo says in response to Sam’s question above: “No, [the great tales] never end as tales… But the people in them come and go when their part’s ended. Our part will end later – or sooner.”[28] When he recounts the trials of Beren in Thangorodrim, Sam is not just telling any old story; he is telling their story, or rather, the story, the one in which he and his master are but characters. This leads Sam to ask, naturally enough, whether their own part in the story will be remembered as they now remember Bilbo and Beren: “I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales. We’re in one, of course; but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards. And people will say: “’Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring!’”[29] Sam and Frodo have gone from being observers of a story to being participants in one.

This is the crucial shift. For if the hobbits are participants in the story of which the tale of Beren and Lúthien is itself but a chapter, then they are participants in a story in which eucatastrophe is possible. When Beren was in Thangorodrim, it must have seemed to him that the power of Morgoth, the Dark Lord of whom Sauron was but a servant, was unassailable. And yet he chose to go on, chose to cling to hope, chose to believe in the possibility of the happy ending. So we see Sam imagining a future in which his and Frodo’s own adventure has come to a happy ending, and is retold around the fire in days to come. Frodo’s response to this vision of the future is extremely telling:

“It's saying a lot too much,” said Frodo, and he laughed, a long clear laugh from his heart. Such a sound had not been heard in those places since Sauron came to Middle-earth. To Sam suddenly it seemed as if all the stones were listening and the tall rocks leaning over them. But Frodo did not heed them; he laughed again. “Why, Sam,” he said, “to hear you somehow makes me as merry as if the story was already written.”[30]

He laughs. When he thinks of himself not as a lonely, weary hobbit faced down by overwhelming odds, but also as the potential hero of future story and song, he discovers that he can laugh even on the borders of the Black Land itself. And what more profound interruption of the memory-killing, soul-crushing logic of Mordor could there be than laughter? It is not merely recalling the dangerous memory of Beren that emboldens Frodo to interrupt Sauron’s systems of domination; it is turning of his own life experience into a story, one that might be sung someday alongside the Tale of Tinúviel in the Hall of Fire in Rivendell.

Notice again, however, that the possibility of eucatastrophe is not the same as the promise of eucatastrophe. Consolation is not easy optimism; the dangerous-liberating story only tells us that the future is undetermined, not that it will be happy. Frodo points at this when he says, “[T]hat’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.”[31] The characters in a story cannot say how the story will turn out; they can only hope, and act from that place of hope. This becomes especially crucial once the conversation ends, and Sam and Frodo no longer have time to reflect on themselves as the heroes of their story, but must simply act like heroes, if they can. Once the hobbits plunge into Mordor itself, it is not even the telling of dangerous-liberating stories, but rather reminders of those stories, reminders of the continuity between those stories and their own, that embolden them to continue becoming the heroes of their own plot.

One important such reminder is the Phial of Galadriel, imbued with the light of Eärendil which is itself the radiance of the Silmaril that Beren retrieved from Thangorodrim. Notice that, in the encounter with the Witch-King, touching the Phial helps Frodo to reassert his own agency. Likewise, the Phial is what enables Sam to draw the explicit connection between the Tale of Tinúviel and his own tale. Shortly thereafter, both Sam and Frodo use the Phial to ward off Shelob. Sam’s use of the Phial is particularly interesting; for as he takes it in his hand, “he heard voices far off but clear: the crying of the Elves as they walked under the stars in the beloved shadows of the Shire, and the music of the Elves as it came through his sleep in the Hall of Fire in the house of Elrond.”[32] As soon as he accesses this memory, “[a]s if his indomitable spirit had set its potency in motion, the glass blazed suddenly like a white torch in his hand. It flamed like a star that leaping from the firmament sears the dark air with intolerable light.”[33] A physical object, the Phial, reconnects him to his own memories of light and hope—of the House of Elrond, of Lothlórien, of the Shire—at the same time as it grafts him into the story of Middle-earth, enabling him to take courage even as he faces down the monstrous Shelob.

This points us toward another way in which dangerous memory can be evoked without having to tell a story in its entirety: prayer. For at the same time as Sam grasps the Phial, he speaks the Elven hymn to Elbereth Gilthoniel, the Queen of the Stars. This hymn functions as an intercessory prayer in LOTR, spoken by characters in the extremity of need – in Cirith Ungol, of course, but also during the attack on Weathertop, when Frodo utters it just before the Witch-King stabs him.[34] Metz argues that prayer is an act of remembrance, an act of narrativization: “[Prayer] demands that the one who prays remain a subject in the face of one’s enemies, in the face of the fear of losing one’s name, one’s identity, one’s very self.”[35] In the same way as a prayer to Mary might offer a devout Catholic like Tolkien an alternative entry-point into the Gospel story, the hymn to Elbereth offers Sam an alternative entry-point into the dangerous-liberating Story of Middle-earth. Perhaps the most profound moment of prayer in LOTR, however, is wordless, although it is still related to starlight. After Sam has freed Frodo from the Tower of Cirith Ungol, and they are making their way toward Mount Doom, Sam catches a glimpse of a star twinkling through the fumes of Mordor by night:

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor 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. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.[36]

This is another moment in which dangerous memory breaks forth upon a seemingly intolerable present and grants those who struggle for love and goodness the strength to carry on, a moment of profound recovery. For the fearless trusting of untroubled sleep is no less a repudiation of the systems of domination and dehumanization than is laughter.

In the end, Sam and Frodo’s narrativization of their own experience pays off – they are able to complete the Quest and destroy the Ring. I will not delve deeply into the climactic scene at Mount Doom here; for it is the heart of LOTR, a moment whose profound and unexpected significance to Tolkien’s narrative mirrors the profound and unexpected significance of the Crucifixion to the Christian narrative. Given the constraints of space, I shall simply observe that the destruction of the Ring is surely one of the most spectacular eucatastrophes in the long and fabled history of fairy-stories, one that neither the reader nor the characters could have foreseen. The tale of Ring-bearer gets a happy ending after all – or at least a “joyous turn,” since there is no end to the Great Tales after all. According to Tolkien’s authorial conceit, the entirety of LOTR is meant to be read as the history of the War of the Ring, as remembered by its participants and compiled by Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, and their descendants in the Red Book of Westmarch. But even within the text itself, we see this narrativization take place on the Field of Cormallen after the Fall of Barad-dûr:

And when the glad shout had swelled up and died away again, to Sam’s final and complete satisfaction and pure joy, a minstrel of Gondor stood forth, and knelt, and begged leave to sing. And behold! he said:

“Lo! lords and knights and men of valour unshamed, kings and princes, and fair people of Gondor, and Riders of Rohan, and ye sons of Elrond, and Dunedain of the North, and Elf and Dwarf, and greathearts of the Shire, and all free folk of the West, now listen to my lay. For I will sing to you of Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom.”

And when Sam heard that he laughed aloud for sheer delight, and he stood up and cried: “O great glory and splendor! And all my wishes have come true!” And then he wept.

When they made the decision to keep walking, to keep persevering, to keep bearing the Ring into the heart of Mordor, Sam and Frodo could not know that their errand would end in success – indeed, there was every probability that it would not. But now they are vindicated; by choosing to remain subjects in spite of the Power that sought to dominate and overwhelm them, by choosing to become the heroes of their own story, they have now become heroes of Middle-earth, immortalized in song the same as Beren and Lúthien. Their own story has become a dangerous-liberating story, a bearer of dangerous memory for future generations.


Of course, this makes it all sound as if Middle-earth were a Primary World with autonomous inhabitants, and not a Secondary World of Tolkien’s invention. The dangerous-liberating story as Metz conceives of it is historical, whereas fairy-story is by nature fantastical – that is to say, the one belongs to Primary, the other to Secondary Reality. In conclusion, however, I would not only argue that the fictive Lay of Frodo of the Nine Fingers has become a dangerous-liberating story for the inhabitants of Tolkien’s Secondary World; I would also argue that LOTR can be a dangerous-liberating story for those of us who inhabit the Primary World as well.

Let us recall Tolkien’s own comments about the eucatastrophe of fairy-story functioning as evangelium—that is to say, as a modality for proclaiming the Good News—for they point us toward the possibility of a dangerous-liberating fairy-story. In Tolkien’s theology of sub-creation, the storyteller can never aspire to the Primary Creator’s power of creation ex nihilo, out of nothing. However, they can use the Creation which already exists to make new things; and if they exercise their Art well, they can reflect the glory of the Primary Creation (and the Primary Creator) in their act of sub-creation. [37] It follows then that the “peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth;” for in the consolation of the happy ending we can detect “a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.”[38] The eucastrophe of the fairy-story recalls, to a lesser or greater measure, the happy ending of the Story, the Primary Story: “It looks forward… to the Great Eucatasrophe.”[39]

For Metz, the memoria passionis et resurrectionis, the memory of the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is the ultimate dangerous memory, and the Gospel therefore the ultimate dangerous-liberating story.[40] Truly to recall Jesus’ death—and to recall that it was followed by resurrection, to recall that not even the most brutal weapons of the Roman Empire could subdue the Love of God made Flesh—is to recall that, in our historical moment, facing even the most brutal weapons of modern domination systems, the future is never preordained. Likewise, for Tolkien, the Gospel is the ultimate fairy-story, one that has actually come true in the Primary World: “God is the Lord, of angels, and of men – and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.”[41] I would contend that even as the dangerous-liberating story can offer the gifts of the fairy-story, the fairy-story can do the subversive work of the dangerous-liberating story. Indeed, at the risk of overreach, I might even suggest that the theology of story found in the LOTR, especially in Frodo and Sam’s conversation on the Steps of Cirith Ungol can point us toward a reading of the Gospel as a dangerous-liberating fairy-story, one which Christians can “crack open” and participate in, even as Sam and Frodo crack open and participate in the story of Beren and the Silmaril.

But such a project lies well outside the scope of this essay. In closing, I simply reiterate Sam’s crucial question: “I wonder what sort of story we’ve fallen into?”[42] This is the question that readers are invited to ask. Have we fallen into a Mordor-story, a story in which we are stripped of our subjectivity, a story of dehumanization and depersonalization? Or have we fallen into a dangerous-liberating story, a eucatastrophic fairy-story – perhaps even a Gospel story? Of The Lord of the Rings, at least, I think there can be little doubt of the answer. Not only have we fallen into one of the finest fairy-stories ever written; we have fallen into a dangerous-liberating story in the fullest, most subversive sense of that term. Fantasy though it may be, it still has the power to “break through the magical spell cast by the ruling consciousness,”[43] the consciousness that would replace possibility with predetermination and hope with despair, and inspire those of us who hear it and retell it to become the protagonists of our own lives.

Works Cited

Metz, Johann Baptist. Faith in History & Society. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2011.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy Stories.” In The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994.


[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), xv.

[2] Ibid., xv.

[3] Ibid., 696.

[4] Ibid, 342.

[5] Ibid., 691.

[6] Ibid., 691.

[7] Ibid., 696-697.

[8] Ibid., 187.

[9] Ibid., 187.

[10] For more on Secondary Worlds and fairy-stories, see J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York: Ballantine Books, 1966), 37ff.

[11] Ibid., 57.

[12] Ibid., 59.

[13] Ibid., 60.

[14] Ibid., 63.

[15] Ibid., 65.

[16] Ibid., 68.

[17] Tolkien, Lord of the Rings,697.

[18] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 68.

[19] Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History & Society (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2011), 105.

[20] Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, 696.

[21] Metz, Faith in History & Society, 105.

[22] Metz, Faith in History & Society, 89.

[23] Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, 691.

[24] Ibid., 916.

[25] Metz, Faith in History & Society, 143.

[26] Ibid., 64.

[27] Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, 696-697.

[28] Ibid., 697.

[29] Ibid., 697.

[30] Ibid., 697.

[31] Ibid., 696.

[32] Ibid., 712.

[33] Ibid., 713.

[34] Ibid., 191.

[35] Metz, Faith in History & Society, 71.

[36] Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, 901.

[37] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 36-38 & 46-48.

[38] Ibid., 71.

[39] Ibid., 72.

[40] Metz, Faith in History & Society, 108.

[41] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 72.

[42] Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, 696.

[43] Metz, Faith in History & Society, 89.

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