JRR Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings, once commented that stories like his, at their best, serve as “a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium [the gospel] in the real world.”
And one famous conversation in his epic tale, one I pull out and read every so often, illuminates his comment. The main characters, Frodo and Sam, sit on the brink of Doom contemplating their story:
“I don’t like anything here at all.” said Frodo, “step or stone, breath or bone. Earth, air and water all seem accursed. But so our path is laid.”
“Yes, that’s so,” said Sam. “And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say.
But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually—their paths were laid that way, as you put it…. I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?”
“I wonder,” said Frodo. “But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.”
“No, sir, of course not. Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that’s a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it—and the Silmaril went on and came to Eärendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got—and you’ve got some of the light of it in the star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?”
“No, they never end as tales,” said Frodo. “But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended.”
“The tales that really matter” never end. And that’s more true of the metanarrative told by the Bible than it is of any other story. That’s why enduring human tales like Tolkien’s can point to the gospel. The people who play their parts in God’s tale, from Adam to Hannah to Paul, have their “paths laid” by a divine storyteller.
And when all their adventures and ours are over, we will begin—in the words of Tolkien’s friend C. S. Lewis, the words that draw Lewis’ own famous Narnia tales to a close—“Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”