Tolkien’s Theology of Beauty: Majesty, Splendor, and Transcendence in Middle-earth, by Lisa Coutras
Reflections by Dan Cruver and John Pletcher
During summertime 2020, we are spotlighting several of exceptional Tolkien resources that are favorites of the Eucatastrophe team. This month, we are featuring the work of Lisa Coutras. She holds a PhD in theology from King’s College, London, UK, and an MTh in applied theology from the University of Oxford, UK.
Dr. Coutras’ book, Tolkien’s Theology of Beauty, delivers marvelously rich content. Her engagement with Tolkien’s foundations proves so engaging. (Honestly, we found it very challenging to limit ourselves to just a handful of reasons we love Lisa’s work.)
Here are our top four favorite focus areas.
Spotlight #1: Mythic Truth (shared by Dan)
Why is it that the best stories resonate with us so very deeply? When we read or hear them, we find ourselves drawn into them, similar to a gorgeous sunset beckoning our extended gaze. The sunset is outside of us, yes, but we look at it because in it we meet with transcendence. In my experience, that’s what the best stories do. The best stories give us an experience of transcendence.
In chapter 3 of her book, Dr. Coutras explores the value of myth as Tolkien understood it. (And for our purposes, know that my assumption is that what makes great stories great is that they tap into “legends and myths” that tap into underlying realities.) As Coutras notes, Tolkien believed “that an interest in ancient legends reflects fundamental human desires, such as a yearning for the quiet graces of nature, a communion with creation, and deathlessness” (32). She continues, “The great myths, however flawed, draw upon the beauty of this transcendental reality, expressing the deepest longings of the human soul . . . One is not abandoning the truths of reality by immersing oneself in the beauties of a story. Rather, the beauties of a story may reveal truths about reality which have otherwise been lost from view” (32).
From time to time I’ve wondered why my @JRRTolkien Twitter account has over 127,000 followers. Why do people want to follow an account that only posts quotations from The Lord of the Rings? Here is my best attempt to answer that question to date: those quotations transport people to the larger story and sub-stories of Tolkien’s epic narrative, which allows “one to catch a fleeting glimpse of the eternal” (33). The Lord of the Rings is one of those myths that taps into deeper realities of truth and beauty and goodness that our “social media world” would just as soon forget. Tolkien’s epic gives us what our social media world lacks—transcendence.
According to Dr. Coutras, to enjoy reading The Lord of the Rings “is not an escape from reality but a pursuit of a higher and purer reality unstained by human evil” (33). In my experience, social media too often reveals the worst parts of our humanity. But such is the brilliance of Tokien’s epic narrative that a Tolkien quotation contained in a single tweet can awaken us to transcendental realities.
Here’s how Coutras describes this phenomenon:
“Tolkien judges the effectiveness of fairy-stories by their ability to ‘awaken desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably.’ This desire, Tolkien suggests, is a sign of the eternal. To enrapture the imagination in such a way is to aspire to ‘the [E]lvish craft, Enchantment,’ which is for mortals ‘unsatisfiable, and so imperishable.’ The transcendent nature of this desire is that which renders it beyond one’s grasp. A beautiful and well-crafted fairy-story that stirs desire can reach into the deepest wells of human joy” (34).
Spotlight #2: The Wonder of Being (shared by John)
After sharing such foundational backdrop of mythic truth, Coutras places the experience of wonder center stage. She explains that though the Children of Ilúvatar live in the fallen condition of Arda Marred, they still experience the wonder of being. Such capacity is a reality for both Elves and Men because they reflect the image of their Creator. Coutras says, “The transcendental light of being that infuses the material world is radiant within all that exists, the Imperishable Flame of Ilúvatar. Although the physical creation of Arda has been infected by evil, this transcendental light remains a facet of reality” (Coutras, 77).
Dr. Coutras explains that beings can still “intuit the pure light of primeval reality, Arda Unmarred.” The operative feature for the creatures, uniquely for the Elves, is the “light of the eyes,” that ability “to perceive the transcendental light within creation.” Coutras says this evokes a very specific response: wonder.
Throughout her work, Coutras reflects the influence of Balthasar in her own thinking. Balthasar says: “Being as such by itself to the very end ‘causes wonder,’ behaving as something to be wondered at, something striking and worthy of wonder.” So, Balthasar sees wonder as the beginning of thought, as a human looks on the world in amazement. Initially, one is amazed that such a world simply is and then seeking to understand this wondrous world, a person finds understanding quite difficult, perhaps even impossible.
Extremely intriguing is the distinction between Elves and Men in their capacity for wonder. For Elves, they so love the natural world that they remain wonder-filled. Their eyes remain bright. For humans on the other hand, their perception grows perpetually dull, and they remain ever-seeking, filled with unrest like people in exile or foreigners in the world.
In Morgoth’s Ring, the tenth volume of The History of Middle-earth, Tolkien tells the story of a fascinating debate between Finrod (an Elven King) and Andreth (a mortal woman). Coutras references this intriguing, Tolkien-crafted conversation. She notes that when Finrod details the “unrest” of Men, Andreth can resonate with his words. Coutras explains such connection: “Men perceive the light within creation and remember, yet the memory is elusive . . . Finrod concludes that Men are remembering their true home, the world for which they were created: Arda Healed.” Finrod suggests a result for Men’s hearts. They need not fear death, for it “would set their souls free from the bonds of a mortal world, ushering them into their true home.” Andreth argues that such a conclusion formulates a disdain for Man’s physical being, an antithetical concept to the wholeness and coherence of one’s being.
Finrod gives credence to Andreth’s reasoning and then concludes that Men’s mortality must then be like the Men of Númenor, to experience an “assumption” or “ascension” into the new creation, body and soul remaining “in an indestructible union in accordance with their right nature.” Coutras recognizes Finrod’s personal amazement at such a possibility. He declares that “Men must have been great in the Creator’s design; to have fallen so far is horrific indeed.” Hence, humans’ perceptive response to a wonder-filled Middle-earth is born from either a latent memory of Arda as it was supposed to be in a completed, perfected state—in all its wondrous original design—or the early echoes and longings for a new creation, Arda Healed.
Whichever might be wonder’s catalyst, Coutras concludes that in Tolkien’s theology, Men still have capacity to wonder:
“For Tolkien, ‘wonder’ is a response to the light within creation. Although Men have fallen from their right nature and reside in disharmony of body and soul, they nevertheless recognize the new creation within the old . . . the light of their being remains luminous, and they are able to perceive the light of being within creation. A moving encounter with transcendental beauty is a glimpse of holistic reality imprinted upon creation. However, this perception acts as a memory which cannot be fully grasped” (Coutras, 80).
This wonder goes hand in hand and helps produce Estel, real hope that “manifests as trust. This is trust in the intrinsic goodness and sovereignty of Ilúvatar and his purposes.” Finrod explains that Ilúvatar will grant ultimate goodness and joy for those he created. Such hope and trust come more naturally for Elves, whereas Men are plagued by meaninglessness and despair.
Coutras concludes that “Tolkien posits two contrasting responses to the mystery of being: hope defined by trust or else meaninglessness defined by despair.” So, in keeping with the image of the Creator still residing in the Children of Ilúvatar and given their true nature, “Estel is the proper response to wonder: it stirs the heart with the intuition of truth” (Coutras, 77-83).
Spotlight #3: Tolkien’s Trinitarian Framework (shared by Dan)
If you are reading this article, I am 99.99% sure that you know Tolkien was a devout Catholic. Tolkien did not hide his Catholic faith. As a matter of fact, in a 1953 letter, Tolkien wrote, “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision” (Letter 142). To say, then, that Tolkien believed a particular set of doctrines that are held by the Catholic Church should not surprise us at all. In reality, we should expect it! And right there in letter 142, Tolkien tells us that his particular beliefs consciously informed his revision of The Lord of the Rings.
If you noticed the title of this spotlight section, it reads, “Tolkien’s Trinitarian Framework.” Just so you know, I did not come up with that description of Tolkien’s work. Dr. Coutras actually used it as a sub-title of a brief section in her chapter, “The Song of Lúthien” (Chapter 8). The doctrine that the word “trinitarian” represents is what Catholics, Protestants, and the Orthodox Church call the doctrine of the Trinity (I’ll define “Trinity” soon). Even if you don’t believe the same set of doctrines that Tolkien believed—and in particular the doctrine of the Trinity—what Coutras explores in that section is strikingly beautiful. In my opinion, it is so very beautiful that even if you don’t believe in the Trinity, you may very well wish you did!
Allow me to be autobiographical for a paragraph…I am one of those people who actually believes in the doctrine of the Trinity. It happens to be a doctrine that has captured my imagination for more than 20 years now—so much so that I devoted an entire chapter to it in a book I co-authored in 2010 (Reclaiming Adoption: Missional Living Through the Rediscovery of Abba Father). For those of you who are interested, you can read most of that chapter here (it’s chapter 2, by the way). The doctrine of the Trinity actually informs how I view and interpret the world. In other words, it’s not just a doctrine that sits on a page as words. It actually functions as a lens through which I look at life in general and my life in particular. What I love about the section “Tolkien’s Trinitarian Framework” in Coutras’s book is that she very clearly shows how the Trinity served as a lens through which Tolkien crafted his brilliantly crafted world.
At this point, though, you may be wondering what is meant by the term “Trinity.” More books have been written about the Trinity over the last thousand years than any one person could read in a lifetime if that’s all she read in said lifetime. I mention that only to say that it is a doctrine of such depth and breadth that one can’t provide a simple definition without raising all kinds of questions that require complex answers. So, that said, let me provide you with about as basic of a definition as I can supply. The Trinity is the doctrine that says that there is one God, and this God exists as three co-equal, co-eternal Persons. This One God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There you go! That’s the doctrine of the Trinity!
But why is the doctrine of the Trinity important to Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox believers? One reason it’s important is because it gives us language for understanding how it is that God relates to, interacts with, and ultimately rescues his creation. Okay, I think I’ve given you enough of a theology lesson to provide the necessary context to help us understand what Dr. Coutras writes about Tolkien’s trinitarian framework.
In Morgoth’s Ring, that tenth volume in The History of Middle-earth, Tolkien tells that story of a fascinating debate between Finrod (an Elven King) and Andreth (a mortal woman). It provides a wonderful example of how a particular doctrine of Tolkien’s informed the story of the fictional world he created. The very first paragraph of Coutras’s section “Tolkien’s Trinitarian Framework” demonstrates just that:
“In the Debate of Finrod and Andreth, Tolkien directly relates the question of separation between Elf-kind and Mankind to the Trinity and the Incarnation (italics mine). In Finrod and Andreth’s discussion, the problem of death for both Elves and Men is connected to ‘Arda Marred’; in this damaged creation, Elves are physically diminished while Men are subject to mortal decay. The speculations of Finrod and Andreth conclude that Elves and Men were not meant to be eternally separated in their spiritual fates. Rather, Elves are the elder race who belong to Arda in body and soul, while Men in their unfallen state were meant to inherit and complete creation: ‘to heal the Marring of Arda.’ The healing they would bring would prefigure a new world, ‘Arda Remade.’ In this coming world, Elves and Men would coexist in life everlasting. Finrod surmises that through Men, the Elves ‘might be delivered from [ultimate] death.’ While this future coexistence in Arda Remade would not be immediate, it would nevertheless be secured as a future expectation” (111, 112).
As you may recall, Arda is an Elvish word for earth. In Tolkien’s legendarium, with the Fall, the earth became marred. But it was the Creator of Arda who intended to remake or renew Arda so that both Elves and Men could coexist together in perfect harmony forever. “Yes,” you say, “but what does this have to do with the doctrine of the Trinity?” Coutras continues:
“With the Fall of Men, however, the eternal severance between Elves and Men remains. However, Andreth reveals to Finrod that Men have an agelong tradition in which the Creator ‘will himself enter into Arda, and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to end.’ Upon hearing this tradition, Finrod embraces it as the only conceivable outcome, for it accords with his understanding of the Creator as Father: ‘If we are indeed … the Children of the One, then He will not suffer Himself to be deprived of His own.’ Finrod supposes that while Ilúvatar is the Creator ‘outside’ of his creation, he will nevertheless somehow become part of his creation. He will continue to transcend his creation while simultaneously entering into it to fulfill the Healing of Arda. In his own commentary on the ‘Debate,’ Tolkien addresses this aspect of God, suggesting his trinitarian nature: ‘Finrod … thinks that He will, when He comes, have to be both ‘outside’ and inside; and so he glimpses the possibility of complexity or of distinctions in the nature of [Ilúvatar], which nonetheless leaves Him ‘The One.’ Tolkien here suggests that Ilúvatar has ‘distinctions’ within his Being, a ‘complexity’ which would allow for his entrance into time and creation: a gesture to the Trinity. In the context of his mythology, the fallen nature of Men prevents them from fulfilling their original purpose to heal Arda. Since the Creator will not abandon his creation, he must himself fulfill the mission of Men by becoming a Man” (112).
Unfortunately, the Creator himself does not “enter into Arda” to “heal Men and all the Marring” during the days of The Lord of the Rings. But if you are like me, a big part of you wishes that enough time had passed in Arda’s history for Tolkien to include it in that part of the story. As far as I’m concerned, it would have been breathtaking if he had! But I think I know why Tolkien did not include it in The Lord of the Rings. In a 1956 letter, Tolkien wrote, “The Incarnation of God is an infinitely greater thing than anything I would dare to write” (italics Tolkien’s).
Well, there you go: a little primer on the Trinity in Dr. Coutras’s exploration of Tolkien’s trinitarian framework! And per chance you don’t believe in the doctrine of the Trinity, isn’t there a part of you that wishes it were true?
Spotlight #4: The Splendor of Being (shared by John)
In addition to the Professor’s trinitarian framework, the wonder of being, and mythic truth, Coutras’ treatment of the splendor of being proves brilliant and stirring. Discussion turns toward heroic courage as the root character of such splendor. Coutras hearkens to Tolkien’s own necessary courage, along with his friends, during the Great War. Instead of abandoning hope, Tolkien’s writing actually “cemented the value of courage: steadfast resolve in the face of certain death.” Once again, Coutras cites Balthasar’s thought that “heroic courage is an expression of righteousness” (138).
Coutras says: “In Tolkien’s Middle-earth, the heroes have a remarkable sense of purpose, undergirded by a strength of will. Balthasar identifies this unyielding sense of purpose and resolve as the catalyst for the revelation of splendor” (139). Coutras proceeds to unpack such splendor of heroism through Tolkien’s character and story of Éowyn. “Tolkien illustrates a transcendent beauty found within a mortal woman, whose human quality enhances the mystery and splendor of her being.”
Éowyn courageously faces a Nazgûl, the ferocious Witch King, a confrontation that draws forth the splendor of transcendental light and beauty that shines forth. Though initially disguised as a male warrior, during the climax of battle, she declares her true identity: “[N]o living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter” (Tolkien, RotK, 116). Coutras explains that the Witch King demonstrates the horror of unbeing, but with Éowyn’s shining courage, the “horror of unbeing is here broken by the splendor of being . . . revealing a splendor of transcendental beauty.” The accompanying hobbit, Merry, is so inspired by Éowyn’s courage, his own paralysis of fear is broken, and together they defeat the Witch King.
Dr. Coutras concludes: “In Tolkien’s world, heroic courage in the face of evil is an embodiment of the good, for it reveals a transcendental light drawn from the depths of creation . . . One who refracts the ‘transcendence and radiance’ present in the depths of reality will become God’s mirror.” Such courageous splendor combats the horror of evil and pierces the horror of evil’s perversion (Coutras 145).
These four features stand tall under the spotlight as we learn from Dr. Coutras’ work. As you have opportunity, grab your own copy and benefit from this wondrous, brilliant, splendid resource!