Years ago, I wrote a paper that actually won a student award at a Christianity and Literature Conference! I was thrilled–I was in my final semester in college and this paper came out of some of the research I did for my senior thesis. An online journal published the paper a year later; that online journal no longer exists from what I can tell, but I recently found the paper in full on someone else’s blog (thankfully, I was given credit). Megan and I have not given our full names on this blog, so I will resist adding my married name to the paper. However, I am staking my claim to my original paper! Feel free to skim or skip; it’s long and academic. But I do want to stake my official claim to this since apparently people are still citing it. (Who knew!?). I should also point out two facts: (1) this was BEFORE the LoTR movies and recent buzz. (2) This was also before there was much available/easily accessed scholarly content via the web. After all, this paper was published online–ONLINE, mind you–in 1998! (the Dark Ages for the internet!)
“Mara and Galadriel: MacDonald’s and Tolkien’s Vehicles for Spiritual Truth”
(published under name of Betsy Matthews)
-note: the formatting has suffered in this copy/paste job–italics, blocked quotes, and so forth will not appear they way they should
“…we rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” Romans 5:4 (NIV)
George MacDonald and J. R. R. Tolkien are often viewed as two of the foremost creators of myth and fairy tale. MacDonald is hailed as “one of the very few who have really invented fairy tales” (Green 1). Tolkien created his own extraordinary fairy tale, a powerful myth complete with its own world, languages, and distinct history. Both authors emphatically believed that the reader comes to a tale, is absorbed in it, and takes away what his or her imagination perceives. MacDonald and Tolkien maintained strongly that the form of the imaginative tale and literary myth communicates spiritual truth. Neither author wished to preach outright in his tales of fantasy (although MacDonald’s Lost Princess borders on the didactic). MacDonald’s and Tolkien’s forays into the realm of Faerie subtly communicate their spiritual convictions to their readers.
The similarities in these authors’ views of fairy stories led them each to create characters that are strikingly different from traditional fairy tale characters. Rather than depending on the typical portrayal of the older female (often a benign fairy godmother or a witch disguised as a step-mother), MacDonald and Tolkien formed two intriguing new characters: Mara and Galadriel. Through their use of original female characters, MacDonald and Tolkien masterfully construct compelling pictures of the God in whom they believe and the hope for redemption that God’s children have while they live in a fallen world.
MacDonald, in contrast to Tolkien, intended for his tales to communicate the spiritual truth to which he unswervingly adhered, but he had a peculiar idea about the way in which this truth should be transmitted to the reader. In his view, the imagination was a gift from God: the vehicle “’enabl[ing] man to see beyond the immediate to the eternal’” (qtd. in Hein 146). As William Raeper observed, MacDonald used the imagination to “bypass didacticism and inject truth into heart and inner mind” with great simplicity (305). MacDonald carried his theory of the imagination further, believing the imagination to be the place where God dwelt and revealed himself. Thus the imagination was a source of divine truth for author and reader alike. He alleged, then, that he was bringing absolute truth to his readers. According to Hein, “he felt that creating literary myths was the happiest method of imaginatively exploring and communicating his deeply held religious convictions” (155).
In his imaginative works, MacDonald expertly brings into sharp focus our Primary World and a new Secondary World. Hein writes, “MacDonald’s fantasies present us with two worlds, interrelated and intermingling—our immediate present world and the imagined realm of Faerie. Faerie overlays the ‘real’ world of our own experience, and, through a system of symbolic correspondences, achieves a clarifying reciprocity with it” (150). C. S. Lewis was gripped by this quality in MacDonald’s writings as he read through Phantastes. He describes in Surprised by Joy the account of his wonder at reading it, concluding with the well-known assertion that MacDonald “baptized his imagination” (179-181). The power that captivated Lewis’s attention was simply MacDonald’s ability to create a Secondary World so credible that it commanded his reader’s belief.
This idea of creating a credible Secondary World that commands belief, that indeed takes over the imagination and suspends disbelief by drawing the reader completely within its boundaries and laws, is precisely what Tolkien valued so highly in MacDonald’s work. Tolkien prized those authors who included all of the Secondary World they created in their tales; he claimed that the tale should include much more than simply fairies. In his famous essay “On Fairy Stories,” he mandates that fairy tales must be about “Faerie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being” (38). Tolkien delineates Faerie as not only the fairies themselves but “the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky, and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted” (38). Tolkien also adamantly maintained that the tale be presented as real, not merely as an illusion or dream, such as Alice in Wonderland (35, 42). If the fairy tale succeeds in creating a Secondary World that commands the reader’s belief and acts as a substitute for the reader’s imagination, then it becomes a true fairy tale (69). The tale becomes a substitute for the imagination when it absorbs the reader’s need and even ability to create by drawing the reader’s imagination into the new realm. When a fairy tale succeeds as a true fairy tale, it is, according to Tolkien, a “rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, storymaking in its primary and most potent mode” (70).
Tolkien differed from MacDonald in his desire to use his works as a vehicle to share his faith clearly with his readers. If a reader perceived the truth, Tolkien was pleased; however, he did not write myth for the sole purpose of communicating the gospel. Despite his desire to refrain from didacticism, he filled his stories with the same “inherent morality” that is found in MacDonald’s work. According to R. J. Reilly:
It is the element of the numinous that is to be found throughout the work of George MacDonald and in Lewis’s novels [that is also found in Tolkien’s writing]. It is the sense of a cosmic moral law, consciously obeyed or disobeyed by the characters, but existing nowhere as a formulated and codified body of doctrine. (202)
Tolkien did believe, with MacDonald, that the mind of the reader enters the tale and can take truth from it. Fairy stories come to us on a deeper level; they must be perceived by the imagination (Reilly). The imagination guides the reader closer to the Truth because the imagination is that part of the reader that perceives the Truth embedded deep within the tale.
MacDonald and Tolkien both present many true pictures of their faith throughout their tales without ever mentioning God or other religious terms. As Roger Lancelyn Green states:
MacDonald was writing stories, and very exciting some of his stories are; the deeper meanings came there almost by accident, for they were part of himself—but he had the great gift which so few of us have of making life more real and exciting by touching off little sparks in our souls as we read what he has written. In fact, he held a Golden Key, and by its aid he could open shutters and give us wonderful glimpses: not just of Fairyland, though that itself may be the window, but right through to the Shining City to which we are all pilgrims. (2)
Tolkien, likewise, fills his tales with strong Christian themes, although he never directly alludes to the Christian faith. Gunnar Urang, in his essay “Tolkien’s Fantasy: The Phenomenology of Hope,” writes:
The Lord of the Rings, then, although it presents no ‘God,’ no ‘Christ,’ and no ‘Christians,’ embodies much of Tolkien’s ‘real religion’ and is a profoundly Christian work. No ‘God’ is required in this story; it is enough if it suggests the kind of pattern in history which the Christian tradition has ascribed to the providence of God. (107)
Mara and Galadriel, two of these authors’ most compelling characters, are excellent examples of MacDonald’s and Tolkien’s communication of their spiritual beliefs without using religious terminology.
Both MacDonald and Tolkien teach the reader through their fairy tales. Each offers many pictures of the different facets of God’s character and the hope of redemption God’s children have in the midst of trial. MacDonald’s and Tolkien’s subtle incorporation of these truths in myths and fairy tales is unsurpassed. That is perhaps why characters such as Mara and Galadriel hold such magnetism. Certainly, neither is the central character in either story, but each holds an uncanny resemblance to the other and provides a very clear picture of God, a picture made clearer because they are female. Among the many characteristics these women share, they are beautiful, able to instill fear into others,know the suffering the future holds, and are compassionate. Mara and Galadriel are strikingly biblical in ways the traditional fairy tale “God-figures” (often the fairy godmothers) are not. This picture of God is not one merely of God the Father, but is a composite picture of the Trinity.
One of the most remarkable facets of God portrayed through these characters is the clear picture of Jesus as the suffering servant and the suffering to which his followers are called. Hebrews 2:10 says, in reference to Christ, “. . . it was fitting that God . . . should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering” (NIV). These women suffer great sorrow and witness evil, yet remain pure and hopeful, thus pointing to the hope Jesus had on earth and God’s children have during their earthly sufferings as they anticipate their future glorification. Both know that suffering is a necessary step towards the future redemption. Paul writes in 2 Timothy of the believer’s hope in the midst of trial: “That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day” (1:12, NIV). This picture is quite unusual in comparison with the archetypal female fairy tale characters.
Often, in traditional fairy tales, the tale begins with an innocent young girl and a wicked older woman. The young girl has not experienced enough sorrow or evil for her innocence to be called obedience, while the older woman is generally a witch. Occasionally, in the story, the readers watch the young girl meet and triumph over evil as in Cinderella and Snow White. Frequently these girls are helped by a benevolent elderly fairy godmother. MacDonald and Tolkien, however, introduce us to Mara and Galadriel only after these characters have beheld great evil and have passed through suffering. They have remained untainted, but are no longer naïve. Their attitude now is one of realism, marked by obedience to the good (whatever form that takes in the story). Their joy is deep—holding a memory of sorrow and a knowledge of the suffering to come. They are able to exhibit joy in the midst of their gravity because of a hope of the redemption that will vanquish the evil.
MacDonald imparts to Mara the purification of suffering. Her very name means “bitter.” She is referred to as the Lady of Sorrow and the Mother of Sorrow; her house is called the House of Bitterness. Despite the sadness her own name implies, MacDonald hastens to assure his reader that Mara is not unhappy. She has hope in the end of the story; this hope enables her even to further the suffering of those she meets when it is necessary for their eventual redemption.
Tolkien uses Light and Darkness to symbolize the good and evil forces. Not surprisingly, Galadriel is one of the brightest of his characters, and gives light in a phial to Frodo to take with him as protection against the evil he must face. The light from this phial causes the gates and stones to fall for Sam and Frodo in Mordor, symbolizing the power of the light over the darkness. Galadriel is a giver of light as well as a reflection of Light (Ellwood 126). Observing the significance of the brightness of Galadriel’s character, Jane Chance claims that Galadriel is the the spiritual guide for the company in Book 2 (111). Galadriel is thus a picture of the true Light as she both gives light and draws those around her to that light.
Mara and Galadriel are creatures of profound beauty. Mara’s beauty is made even deeper and truer by the sorrow that she has beheld. She keeps her face shrouded in white, allowing only small glimpses at first to those around her. Those who see her for the first time are overwhelmed, both by her apparent long-suffering and by her resilience in the face of that sorrow. Even in Mr. Vane’s description of her, he alludes to the hope that sustains her:
She stood in the middle of the room; her white garments lay like foamy waves at her feet, and among them the swathings of her face: it was lovely as a night of stars. Her great gray eyes looked up to heaven; tears were flowing down her pale cheeks. She . . . looked . . . as if she wept constantly behind the wrappings of her beautiful head. Yet something in the very eyes that wept seemed to say, ‘Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.’ (82)
Later in the tale, Mr. Vane recounts a similar impression of one the Little People’s first glimpse of Mara’s face:
As if his face had been a mirror, I saw in it what he saw. For one moment he stared, his little mouth open; then a divine wonder arose in his countenance, and swiftly changed to intense delight. For a minute he gazed entranced, then she set him down. Yet a moment he stood looking up at her, lost in contemplation—then ran to us with the face of a prophet that knows a bliss he cannot tell. (205)
Galadriel is also beautiful; her beauty is deep, ageless. Her home, Lothlorien, is a “world beyond time” (49). In The Fellowship of the Ring, she is described with her husband Celeborn: “They were clad wholly in white; and the hair of the Lady was of deep gold, and the hair of the Lord Celeborn was of silver long and bright; but no sign of age was upon them, unless it were in the depths of their eyes; for these were keen as lances in the starlight, and yet profound, the wells of deep memory” (459). Galadriel is ancient, from another time than the present. During her lifetime, she has experienced much sorrow and great evil has befallen her people. This sorrow is alluded to in The Silmarillion:
. . . at times Melian and Galadriel would speak together of Valinor and the bliss of old; but beyond the dark hour of the death of the Trees Galadriel would not go, but ever fell silent. And on a time Melian said: ‘There is some woe that lies upon you and your kin. . . .’
‘For that woe is past,’ said Galadriel; ‘and I would take what joy is here left, untroubled by memory. And maybe there is woe enough yet to come, though still hope may seem bright.’ (151).
Galadriel remains hopeful for she knows that good triumphs over evil; yet she has been tempered by suffering. This is a more biblical picture of God incarnate than the typical fairy godmother or young innocent girl of many familiar fairy tales.
Seldom does the “good” older female character in the traditional tale inspire fear. She is generally kind, gentle, and comforting. She might incur dislike and even hatred from her enemies, but her very name does not strike fear into the hearts of those wishing to hide themselves and their deeds from the probing beams of Light and Good. Those in MacDonald’s and Tolkien’s tales who do not know Mara or Galadriel at first are filled with fear at the mention of their names. Those who are evil and run to hide from the Light fear them greatly. Those on the dark side know the power that characters such as Mara and Galadriel wield against the evil side. Even those characters that have nothing to fear or hide often misunderstand Mara or Galadriel.
Once the Little People meet Mara and begin to understand some of her complexity, they love her. Before this introduction occurs, they are terrified of the “Cat Woman.” Even the creatures that rise from beneath the earth at night and fill Mr. Vane with dread do not come near her. Her leopardess is able to protect those she loves from evil. Lilith, even, is awed when in Mara’s presence.
Similarly, Galadriel is able to instill fear. Those who do not understand her are unable to trust her completely. Borimir, after experiencing her probing gaze into his soul, questions her goodness. Borimir recognizes that Galadriel can see his hypocrisy; to slander her name is his best protection. Boromir’s doubt of the goodness of the Lady of Lothlorien sparks hot defense from Aragorn, who understands Galadriel much better than Borimir: “Speak no evil of the Lady Galadriel!. . . There is in her and in this land no evil. . . .” (Fellowship 464). A good description of both Mara and Galadriel would be that given to Aslan in Lewis’s well-known Chronicles of Narnia: Mr. Beaver characterizes Aslan as “good but not safe” when the four children ask him.
Compassion tempers the strength of Mara and Galadriel. They welcome their enemies with forgiveness for past wrongs. When Mara greets Lilith, she is firm, unyielding in her conviction that Lilith must suffer in order to be cleansed. However, throughout Lilith’s suffering, while Mara remains resolute, she also weeps great tears at the sight of Lilith’s trial. She gently cares for Lilith after the testing is through and caresses her as she lays Lilith tenderly down on a bed. She forgives this great enemy of hers, much like Galadriel has extended love and compassion to Gimli the dwarf. The dwarves and elves have had a history of enmity. Galadriel seeks to restore unity to their peoples by speaking the names of the old places in the dwarf tongue of old. Tolkien writes:
She looked upon Gimli, who sat glowering and sad, and she smiled. And the Dwarf, hearing the names given in his own ancient tongue, looked up and met her eyes; and it seemed to him that he looked up suddenly into the heart of an enemy and saw there love and understanding. Wonder came into his face and then he smiled in answer. (Fellowship 461).
Mara’s and Galadriel’s actions towards their enemies are a clear testimony to the redemption that is held out for God’s children. Christ came to die and effect our redemption while we were still sinners, enemies of God. In the same way, Mara and Galadriel did not wait for their “enemies” to make the first step. Instead they each redeem their enemies, restoring them to fellowship with those around them.
Galadriel is capable of being terrible and powerful, should she acquire the precious ring that Frodo carries towards Mordor. Yet, when faced with this temptation, she rises up to her full height, an imposing sight to little Frodo, and declares that all would “love her and despair!” (Fellowship 473). She then refuses the ring, content to sink back to the elf-woman that she is. Jesus, in similar vein, refused Satan’s temptation to rule all the kingdoms of the earth and retained his humble human flesh.
Galadriel is indeed a commanding figure, although her character does not display the prominence that a character such as Gandalf does in Tolkien’s work. Yet, despite this, her influence is felt throughout the epic. Tolkien, not intending to communicate his view of God explicitly through his tale, nevertheless gives us a powerful picture through Galadriel of the God he served and the hope of the redemption that will effect the end of our suffering.
MacDonald creates a masterpiece in the form of Mara: an exquisite picture of the suffering servant with a hope in the final victory over evil. She draws the reader’s attention by a strange magnetism—perhaps her unflinching belief in the eventual victory despite the path she and those around her must take to get there. Mara and Galadriel are each filled with an overwhelming knowledge of the evil and danger that those they love will face (reminiscent of Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane), yet, Mara and Galadriel are also filled with a courageous and confident hope in the final victory to come as they send the company on their way.
MacDonald and Tolkien draw readers into their powerful Secondary Worlds and command belief in the events and laws therein. They each possess a deep and personal belief in the Christian faith and communicate this to their readers without growing didactic. Even in Mara and Galadriel, two of their more “minor” characters, MacDonald and Tolkien display forcible, gripping portrayals of aspects of God’s character and the hope God’s children have of redemption. Mara and Galadriel symbolize the truths of Romans 5:2a-5: “And we rejoice in the hope of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom he has given us.” This hope sustains Mara and Galadriel as they suffer and watch the evil around them; it enables them to grow strong, yet remain gentle and pure.
Chance, Jane. The Lord of the Ring: The Mythology of Power. New York: Twayne, 1992.
Ellwood, Gracia Fay. Good News from Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970.
Green, Roger Lancelyn. “About George MacDonald.” Introduction to The Complete Fairy Tales of George MacDonald. http://rrnet.com/~nakamura/story/macdonald/index.html (24 Oct. 1996).
Hein, Rolland. The Harmony Within: The Spiritual Vision of George MacDonald. Grand Rapids, MI: Christan UP, 1982.
Lewis, C. S. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of my Early Life. San Diego: HarBrace, 1956.
Manlove, Colin N. The Impulse of Fantasy Literature. Ann Arbor, MI: Books on Demand, 1983.
Raeper, William. George MacDonald. Hillsdale, IL: Lion, 1987.
Reilly, R. J. Romantic Religion: A Study of Barfield, Lewis, Williams, and Tolkien. Athens: University of Georia Press, 1972.
Tolkien, J. R. R. “Tree and Leaf.” The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine, 1966.
Urang, Gunnar. “Tolkien’s Fantasy: The Phenomenology of Hope.” Shadows of Imagination: The Fantasies of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams. Ed. Mark R. Hillegas. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1969.
Betsy Matthews Covenant College
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