To enter faerie—that is, a sacramental and liturgical understanding of creation—is to open oneself to the gradual discovery of beauty, truth, and excellence. One arrives in faerie only by invitation and, even then, only at one’s peril. The truths to be found within faerie are greater than those that can be obtained through mere human understanding; and one finds within faerie that even the greatest works of man are as nothing compared with the majesty of creation. To enter faerie is, paradoxically, both a humbling and exhilarating experience. This is what the Oxford don and scholar J. R. R. Tolkien firmly believed.
The last story Tolkien published prior to his death, “Smith of Wootton Major,” follows a normal but charitably inclined man who has been graced with the ability to make extraordinarily beautiful things while metal smithing. Smith, as he is known, discovered the gift of grace on his tenth birthday [a star found in his piece of cake]…and through this gift he receives an invitation to faerie. While visiting that world, he discovers that in it he is the least of beings. Its beauty, however, entices him, and he spends entire days “looking only at one tree or one flower.” The depth of each thing astounds him. “Wonders and mysteries,” many of them terrifying in their overwhelming beauty and truth, abound in faerie, Smith discovers, and he dwells on such wonders even when he is no longer in faerie. Nevertheless, some encounters terrify him . . .
And yet, despite the fact that he portrayed the man Smith in prostration before such grand visions, the rest of the story reveals that it was not Tolkien’s intention to denigrate Smith’s importance, but only to emphasize his place—and therefore the place of humanity in general —in the economy of creation. The English Roman Catholic G. K. Chesterton, who served as a significant source of inspiration to Tolkien when he was a young man, once wrote that “[h]e not only felt freer when he bent; he actually felt taller when he bowed.” Likewise, Tolkien shows in “Smith of Wootton Major” that it is an understanding of the transcendent that allows Smith to fully become a man. This was a teaching to which Tolkien ascribed his entire life.
For Tolkien, one of the best ways to understand the gift of grace was through faerie, which offered a glimpse of the way in which sacrament and liturgy infuse the natural law and the natural order. Faerie connects a person to his past and helps order his understanding of the moral universe.
Not only does faerie teach us higher truths; it also bonds us together in communities, of which there are two kinds: the one which is of this time and place, and the one which transcends all time and all places. As Chesterton wrote, “[B]eauty and terror are very real things,” but they are also “related to a real spiritual world; and to touch them at all, even in doubt or fancy, is to stir the deep things of the soul.”
Certainly myth, of which faerie is one kind, holds an estranged place in the modern world, as Tolkien well knew. But, he believed, so much the worse for the modern world. Indeed, myth might just be the thing needed to save the modern world from itself, as Tolkien suggested in his famous poem, “Mythopoeia,” which echoes the Beatitudes:
Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme of things not found within recorded time. It is not they that have forgot the Night, or bid us flee to organized delight, in lotus-isles of economic bliss forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss (and counterfeit at that, machine-produced, bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).
Myth, Tolkien thought, can convey the sort of profound truth that was intransigent to description or analysis in terms of facts and figures, and is therefore a more powerful weapon for cultural renewal than is modern rationalist science and technology. Myth can emphasize the beauty of God’s creation as well as the sacramental nature of life. “Our time, sick nigh unto death of utilitarianism and literalness, cries out for myth and parable,” American novelist and political philosopher Russell Kirk explained. “Great myths are not merely susceptible of rational interpretation: they are truth, transcendent truth.” Tolkien believed that myth can teach men and women how to be fully and truly men and women, not mere cogs in the vast machine of modern technological society . . .
Yet many of our contemporaries—a bizarre combination of those who have embraced secular modernity as well as those who abhor it, the Christian fundamentalists—have rejected the importance of myth….For Tolkien, however, even pagan myths attempted to express God’s greater truths. True myth has the power to revive us, to serve as an anamnesis, or way of bringing to conscious experience ancient experiences with transcendence. But, Tolkien admitted, myth could be dangerous, or “perilous,” as he usually stated it, if it remained pagan. Therefore, Tolkien thought, one must sanctify it, that is, make it Christian and put it in God’s service.
It was Tolkien’s understanding that man’s role in the sanctification of the world is a cooperative and limited one. Given the constraints of his materiality, man ultimately only catches a glimpse of the highest things, and his attempts to emulate them in their truth, beauty, and excellence are but meager. When Smith of Wootton Major discovers to his embarrassment that a doll of a beautiful woman his village has revered is horribly shabby and trite when compared to its transcendent model, the Faery Lady, whom he has just met, she calms his fears: “Do not be grieved for me. . . Nor too much ashamed of your own folk. Better a little doll, maybe, than no memory of Faery at all. For some the only glimpse. For some the awakening.” As an artist, a scholar, and a mythmaker, Tolkien gave us a glimpse of the truth, beauty, and excellence that lies beyond and behind our tangible world.
Editor's Note: The above is excerpted from Bradley J. Birzer's J. R. R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-Earth (ISI Books). Grateful acknowledgment is made to ISI Books for permission to reprint.