The road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began
Now far ahead the road has gone
And I must follow if I can
- J. R. R. Tolkien
WHEN I WAS LITTLE, Christmas seemed such a big thing. It loomed in my child’s mind as the final, familiar headland, around which the Ship of the Year must pass before dropping anchor on New Year’s Eve.
And it wasn’t just the gathering pace of the festival; the choosing and decorating of the tree, the steadily mounting pile of presents, the arrival of grandparents, aunts, uncles and assorted cousins, that quickened my excitement. Underpinning it all there was an awareness of the Christmas Story itself.
We are so familiar with the biblical narrative now, that it is easy to forget its impact upon the imagination of the very young. For me, the wonder of the story of the Nativity has always been encapsulated in the lines of Oh Little Town of Bethlehem:
Oh little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie,
Within thy dark and dreamless sleep
The silent hours go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
That sense of immanence, of something miraculous and terribly important taking place amidst the mundane and the ordinary; of a supernatural presence smashing through the barriers of the workaday world – as it did for those shepherds on the hillside – was incredibly powerful. It was as if a voice was whispering: “Be alert, be awake - there is more to all this than meets the eye!”
To a little boy growing up in the Otago countryside – where at night the stars burn bright and clear - the whole Christmas story glimmered with mystery and magic.
Growing older, I encountered more mystery and magic in another book – J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Superficially, Tolkien’s epic fantasy bears little resemblance to the Christian story, and yet, at their heart, the two narratives have much in common. Like the little town of Bethlehem, Tolkien’s ‘Shire’ also turns out to contain within its bucolic borders “the hopes and fears of all the years”. Like those shepherds on the hillside, Frodo Baggins and his friends are also suddenly confronted with supernatural forces that cannot be gainsaid.
The stories are also alike in their endings. In his magisterial essay On Fairy Stories, Tolkien uses the term eucatastrophe to describe that sudden, last minute lurch from ultimate disaster to ultimate victory, when, as Ruth S. Noel writes in her Mythology of Middle Earth: “imminent evil is unexpectedly averted and great good succeeds”. As Tolkien, himself, wrote of the purpose and effect of eucatastrophe: “It does not deny the existence … of sorrow and failure … it denies universal final defeat … giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
Even in the resolutely materialistic Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels the eucatastrophe is not entirely absent. For what is the Revolution if not the sudden and unexpected triumph of good over evil? And is there not just a glimmer of immanence in Marx’s heroic proletarians, secretly growing in strength and power, even as Capitalism’s Dark Lords reach out to enslave the world?
“Don’t adventures ever have an end?” cries Bilbo, as he realises the true enormity of the burden he has bequeathed to his nephew Frodo. “I suppose not. Someone else always has to carry on the story.”
And, of course, the old Hobbit is right. For the Story, like the road, goes ever on. Be it the story of the Christ Child, or the Ring of Power, or the Revolution, it beckons all of us “beyond the walls of the world” - to Paradise.
A version of this essay was originally published in The Dominion Post of 21st December 2001.