On the beauty of Eden, with Tolkien

I think most Christians, except the verry simple and uneducated or those protected in other ways, have been rather bustled and hustled now for some generations by the self-styled scientists, and they’ve sort of tucked Genesis into a lumber-room of their mind as not very fashionable furniture, a bit ashamed to have it about the house, don’t you know, when the bright clever young people called: I mean, of course, even the fideles who did not sell it secondhand or burn it as soon as modern taste began to sneer. In consequence they have indeed (myself as much as any), as you say, forgotten the beauty of the matter even ‘as a story’.

Lewis recently wrote a most interesting essay (if published I don’t know) showing of what great value the ‘story-value’ was, as mental nourishment – of the whole Christian story (NT especially). It was a defence of that kind of attitude which we tend to sneer at: the fainthearted that loses faith, but clings at least to the beauty of ‘the story’ as having some permanent value. His point was that they do still in that way get some nourishment and are not cut off wholly from the sap of life: for the beauty of the story while not necessarily a guarantee of its truth is a concomitant of it, and a fidelis is meant to draw nourishment from the beauty as well as the truth. So that the faintheart ‘admirer’ is really still getting something, which even one of the faithful (stupid, insensitive, shamefaced) may be missing. But partly as a development of my own thought on my lines and work (technical and literary), partly in contact with C.S.L., and in various ways not least the firm guiding hand of Alma Mater Ecclesia, I do not now feel either ashamed or dubious on the Eden ‘myth’. It has not, of course, historicity of the same kind as the NT, which are virtually contemporary documents, while Genesis is separated by we do not know how many sad exiled generations from the Fall, but certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile’. If you come to think of it, your (very just) horror at the stupid murder of the hawk, and your obstinate memory of this ‘home’ of yours in an idyllic hour (when often there is an illusion of the stay of time and decay and a sense of gentle peace) – έίθε γενοίμην‘stands the clock at ten to three, and is there honey still for tea’ – are derived from Eden. As far as we can go back the nobler pan of the human mind is filled with the thoughts of sibb, peace and goodwill, and with the thought of its loss.We shall never recover it, for that is not the way of repentance, which works spirally and not in a closed circle; we may recover something like it, but on a higher plane. Just as (to compare a small thing) the convened urban gets more out of the country than the mere yokel, but he cannot become a real landsman, he is both more and in a way less (less truly earthy anyway).

Of course, I suppose that, subject to the permission of God, the whole human race (as each individual) is free not to rise again but to go to perdition and carry out the Fall to its bitter bottom (as each individual can singulariter). And at certain periods, the present is notably one, that seems not only a likely event but imminent. Still I think there will be a ‘millenium’, the prophesied thousand-year rule of the Saints, i.e. those who have for all their imperfections never finally bowed heart and will to the world or the evil spirit (in modern but not universal terms: mechanism, ‘scientific’ materialism, Socialism in either of its factions now at war).

From The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter and with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981/2000.



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