Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 15, 2004
Christian plot offers possibilities
Lord of the Kings author says Christ's life begins, ends in joy
By DEBORAH GYAPONG
Canadian Catholic News
In 1973, Dominic Manganiello arrived at Oxford to do graduate studies, one year after J.R.R. Tolkien died.
While living in student residences, he noticed many young undergraduates "having a ball" reading Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (LOTR), but he didn't think much of it at the time.
It wasn't until he was back in Ottawa and a professor told him, "You must read this book." that Manganiello picked it up - and "couldn't put it down."
In fact, his absorption was so complete, his Italian wife who'd just had their first child, was worried about him because he would hide himself away to read the LOTR in his room. After he found an edition in Italian for her, she discovered that she, too couldn't put it down.
A former professor of English at the University of Ottawa and now an adjunct professor at Augustine College, Manganiello has explored Tolkien's essays and letters to gain insight into why a gripping tale like the LOTR is a "distinctly Christian" product.
"Why is it such a good story? Why does it keep you reading?" Manganiello asks. Part of the secret lies, he says, in the influence of G.K. Chesterton in his 1908 essay Orthodoxy.
The Christian difference
Chesterton wrote: "To the Buddhist or the Eastern fatalist, existence is a science or a plan which must end up in a certain way. But to a Christian, existence is a story which may end up in any way.
In a thrilling novel (that purely Christian product), the hero is not eaten by cannibals: But it is essential to the existence of the thrill that he might be eaten by cannibals.
"The hero must (so to speak) be an eatable hero. So Christian morals have always said to the man, not that he would lose his soul, but that he must take care that he didn't. In Christian morals, in short, it is wicked to call a man 'damned', but it is strictly religious and philosophic to call him damnable."
In the LOTR, success or failure of the mission to destroy the ring is "not a foregone conclusion," Manganiello says.
He notes that Frodo and Sam have to decide whether or not to trust the Golem, for example. All the ingredients that Chesterton referred to in Orthodoxy are present and even become themes in conversations between the characters.
Chesterton had a major impact on all the Inklings, the name that a group of Oxford scholars including Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams used to call themselves. These men used to gather in a pub and read their fiction out loud to each other.
Tolkien particularly liked the name Inklings, Manganiello says, because it gave "the impression of people dabbling in ink" and left "an impression there was an inkling of something better."
Manganiello credits Tolkien with almost single-handedly developing the fantasy genre and that Tolkein's 1937 essay On Fairy-Stories shows how he was thinking through his theories of fantasy.
A good fairy story, Manganiello says, could, according to Tolkien, "help you regain a clear vision of things," and "inspire you to go back to the primary world and see in a fresh way all that has become trite for you or blurred by the familiar.
Tolkien, like C.S. Lewis, specialized in Anglo-Saxon and Middle English literature at Oxford. He translated the epic poem Beowulf. Manganiello notes that these epic poems were grounded in fatalism.
"A typical epic ends in tragedy, in a note of sadness, doom, inevitability," Manganiello says.
Death was inevitable, and all the hero could do was exhibit virtue and fight valiantly in the face of death.
He points out that in the LOTR, the drums of Mordor beat doom, doom, doom.
But for Tolkien, he says, a "fairy-story" or fantasy is not quite a tragedy or a comedy "but something in between."
"You have to have the possibility that it won't end in catastrophe," Manganiello says.
Tolkien even coined a new word to describe the sudden joyous ending in a fairy story: eucatastrophe - the prefix "eu" meaning "good."
The joyous turn
In his essay On Fairy-Stories, Tolkien wrote: "The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous 'turn' (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially 'escapist,' nor 'fugitive.' In its fairy-tale-or otherworld-setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur."
Tolkien wrote that the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is "the greatest eucatastrophe.
"But this story has entered history and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of creation," Tolkien wrote.
"The birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of man's history," Tolkien wrote.
"The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy."
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