How Tolkien Ennobled Popular Culture (While Star Wars Degraded It)
Tolkien is a writer of greater theological depth than his Oxford colleague C S Lewis, in my judgment. Lewis is a felicitous writer and a diligent apologist, but mere allegory along the lines of the Narnia series can do no more than restate Christian doctrine; it cannot really expand our experience of it. Tolkien takes us to the dark frontier of a world that is not yet Christian, and therefore is tragic, but has the capacity to become Christian. It is the world of the Dark Ages, in which barbarians first encounter the light. It is not fantasy, but rather a distillation of the spiritual history of the West. Whereas C S Lewis tries to make us comfortable in what we already believe by dressing up the story as a children's masquerade, Tolkien makes us profoundly uncomfortable. Our people, our culture, our language, our toehold upon this shifting and uncertain Earth are no more secure than those of a thousand extinct tribes of the Dark Ages; and a greater hope than that of the work of our hands and the hone of our swords must avail us.
Tolkien set The Children of Hurin in a doomed world menaced by a fallen angel of sorts, the Lucifer-like Morgoth. An alliance of mortal men and immortal Elves attacks Morgoth's stronghold but is crushed and dispersed; only a few hidden Elvish strongholds remain free. Hurin is the lord of a small land and a leader of the failed alliance against Morgoth. He is taken prisoner and his country overrun and occupied, his people reduced to slavery. His young son Turin escapes and is adopted by the Elven-king of the secret city of Gondolin. Rather than remain with the Elves and await the divine intervention of Elvish prophecy that ultimately will destroy Morgoth, Turin grows to impetuous manhood and sets out to seek revenge or death.
Morgoth has cursed Turin's family, and the curse succeeds not by force of magic, but through Turin's own stubbornness and resentment. With the occupation of his homeland and the destruction of his clan, Turin would rather perish in a futile gesture of resistance than master his own hatred. Through his agents, Morgoth entraps Turin in a web of lies that prevent him from reuniting with his family except under sordid circumstances. It is Turin's own flaws, not Morgoth's magic, that make him susceptible to these traps.
In Tolkien's mythology the Valar are gods of whom Morgoth was a renegade. It is through their aid that Morgoth's fortress of Thangorodrim one day will be thrown down. An Elvish lord attempts to convince Turin that thoughtless pursuit of warfare will not succeed: "Petty victories will prove profitless at the last ... for thus Morgoth learns where the boldest of his enemies are to be found, and gathers strength great enough to destroy them ... Only in secrecy lies hope of survival. Until the Valar come."
To this Turin rejoins: "The Valar! They have forsaken you, and they hold Men in scorn. What use to look westward across the endless Sea to a dying sunset in the West? There is but one Vala with whom we have to do, and that is Morgoth; and if in the end we cannot overcome him, at least we can hurt him and hinder him ... Though mortal Men have little life beside the span of the Elves, they would rather spend it in battle than fly or submit." His lack of faith makes him desperate, and his acts of heroic desperation have terrible consequences.