Christmas Wonder in The Lord of the Rings
Even a cursory look over Tolkien’s life and works reveals that Christmas held a very special place in his heart. “Go now with good hearts! Farewell, and may the blessing of Elves and Men and all Free Folk go with you. May the stars shine on your faces!”—so said Elrond on December 25th (in 3018 of the Third Age) as the Fellowship set out on the quest to destroy the One Ring.
Given how important Christmas was to Tolkien, it’s no surprise that the quest to save the free people’s of Middle-earth began the very day on which Christmas is historically celebrated. According to the Christian tradition, on the very first Christmas Love touched down in the midst of our darkened, broken world
when the Son of God became man (Luke 2:7) in order to deliver his people. And in Tolkien’s Legendarium, love for the free peoples of Middle-earth set off
from Rivendell to rescue them from the power of the Dark Lord.
Christmas was an event of singular importance to Tolkien. In late 1955 or early 1956, Michael Straight, the editor of New Republic at the time, asked Tolkien if the One God (Eru Ilúvatar) in The Silmarillion had become ‘embodied’ (i.e., incarnated) at any point within The Lord of the Rings story. Tolkien replied to Michael Straight in a letter writing, “There is no ’embodiment’ of the Creator anywhere in this story or mythology” (letter 181). Tolkien then went on to say that “Gandalf is a ‘created’ person; though possibly a spirit that existed before in the physical world.” Readers also sometimes wondered if Gandalf were a “type” of Christ since he suffered death and came back with enhanced powers. To this Tolkien replied,
“But though one may be in this reminded of the Gospels, it is not really the same thing at all. The Incarnation of God is an infinitely greater thing than anything I would dare to write” (emphasis Tolkien’s).
Christmas and the Incarnation were of such singular importance to Tolkien that even attempting to write an analogous character into his epic story was something he was far from willing to do. So, the very reason Tolkien refused to “write the Incarnation into The Lord of the Rings” reveals, in my opinion, the uniquely special place Christmas held in his heart.
Although Tolkien dared not write anything even remotely resembling the Incarnation into his epic story, he injected beautiful Christmas wonder into The Lord of Rings by having the newly formed Fellowship depart Rivendell on—you guessed it—December 25th in order to begin its quest to rescue Middle-earth.
“It was a cold grey day near the end of December. The East Wind was streaming through the bare branches of the trees, and seething in the dark pines on the hills. Ragged clouds were hurrying overhead, dark and low. As the cheerless shadows of the early evening began to fall the Company made ready to set out” (The Fellowship of the Ring, 292).
Such is how Tolkien described the bleak day on which the Fellowship embarked upon its quest to deliver Middle-earth from the Dark Lord Sauron. It’s not until Appendix B that Tolkien explicitly states that “the Company of the Ring leaves Rivendell at dusk” on December 25 to begin its quest. In Tolkien’s mind, it seems, if joy was to one day fill Middle-earth as the waters cover the sea, this perilous journey toward wonder-filled joy had to begin on the 25th of December.
The Eucatastrophe that is Christmas
In his “Essay on Fairy Stories,” Tolkien eloquently writes, “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.” Twice in those three brief sentences, Tolkien mentions Christmas; first, with “the Birth of Christ,” and second, with “the story of the Incarnation.” In both cases, Tolkien places his coined word eucatastrophe in each sentence that references Christmas, and by so doing he stresses Christmas’s singular importance within the glorious and yet tragic history of humanity.
All of us know what we mean by the word catastrophe. But we are often unfamiliar of the meaning of eucatastrophe. If we break the word down, the meaning becomes clear:
“strophe” = turn
“cata” = down, against, back
“eu” = good
A eucatastrophe is a sudden, unexpected turn for good when confronted with a catastrophe. Catastrophes produce fear and horror. Eucatastrophes, on the other hand, produce unexpected joy and celebration.
So, when Tolkien writes that “the Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history,” he means that man’s history has been overrun with sickness, death, famine, natural disasters, lawbreakers, and war. And every single person who has lived throughout human history has died.
But suddenly, unexpectedly, a babe was born in a manger—one who would rescue his people from a history devastated by sin and death. That, Tolkien wants us to know, is a eucatastrophe. The birth of Jesus was a sudden, unexpected turn of joy. In Luke 2
, when the angels appeared to the shepherds to announce the birth of Christ, they assured the fearful shepherds with the following words, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy
that will be for all the people” (v. 10; emphasis mine). The shepherds themselves were to understand the birth of Jesus as a eucatastrophic event.
But the story does not end there. This one who was born in a manger that first Christmas morning would one day die the cruelest of deaths. He who had come to rescue his people from a world of death, died. But then the Christian tradition informs us that Christ’s death was not the tragic end of the story. On the third day after Christ’s crucifixion, he was raised from the dead.
According to Tolkien, the resurrection of Jesus was another unexpected turn for joy. That’s why Tolkien wrote, “The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe
of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins [birth of Christ] and ends [resurrection] in joy.”
In Tolkien’s worldview, joy punctuates the story of humanity, and it does so by the one whom Tolkien calls the Christ.
Another Important 25th
December 25th is not the only 25th that J.R.R. Tolkien considered important. Yes, the quest to destroy the Ring began on December 25th, but the quest was accomplished on the 25th of March. “Why,” you ask, “is March 25th important?” Great question! In Appendix B in The Return of the King, Tolkien tells us what happened on March 25th, just three months after the Fellowship’s departure from Rivendell: “The Host camps on the Slag-hills. Frodo and Samwise reach the Sammath Naur. Gollum seizes the Ring and falls in the Cracks of Doom Downfall of Barad-dur and passing of Sauron” (375). March 25th is the day that Sauron was conquered! Tom Shippey, a Tolkien expert, informs us in his book The Road to Middle Earth that in “Anglo-Saxon belief…March 25 is the date of the Crucifixion.”
As a devout Christian and an ultra-careful philologist, Tolkien was very careful to choose the dates he did, especially with the two most important dates in his epic story. The quest to save Middle-earth began on December 25th—which is the date on which we celebrate Christmas—and the rescue of Middle-earth from the dark power of Sauron was fulfilled on March 25th—which on the Church Calendar is historically the day of the crucifixion. And as Tolkien indicated in his essay, “The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy” (click here to read more about Tolkien’s use of March 25
Surprised by Christmas
Should it surprise us, then, that J.R.R. Tolkien enjoyed Christmas so very much and that he worked painstakingly on the Father Christmas letters he wrote and illustrated for his children so that their Christmas-joy may be full? I think not.
In my curiosity, I wondered if the Father Christmas letters Tolkien wrote during those Decembers when “the Grinch of illness” was an unwelcome guest were any less jolly or joy-filled. Here is what I learned. There are only three letters that mention Christmas in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien that were written during the timeframe of Tolkien’s Letters from Father Christmas: letters 6, 9, and 19. According to the dates those letters were written, the Father Christmas letters we are looking for are his 1922, 1936, and 1937 letters. Unfortunately, his 1922 letter was not included. Why was his 1922 Christmas letter not included? We are not told. But here’s my fun guess…In the introduction to Letters from Father Christmas, we read, “In this book it has been possible to give only a few examples of Father Christmas’ shaking handwriting, and of the decorations of the letters and the envelopes” (emphasis mine). My “educated” (and very silly) guess is that due to his illness his handwriting was so shaky that it was illegible, and thus not included. But what about Tolkien’s 1936 and 1937 letters?