Fact or fantasy? Which world do we live in? Brunswick Uniting Church minister Ian Ferguson applies some theology to two popular epic tales.
ByRev Ian Ferguson
Spoiler Alert! What follow spoils the endings of Game of Thrones (season one), Lord of the Rings (volume one), and the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (Testament New).
I remember the moment of horror vividly: the executioner raised his sword and my heart cried: “This can’t be going to happen! There must be a twist.” But the twist was, there was no twist.
The sword flashed down and Ned Stark, the hero of Game of Thrones season one, was dead. Like Jesus Christ, a good and innocent man dies an unjust and humiliating death at the hands of corrupt authorities. But unlike Jesus Christ, nothing good comes from Ned’s death, only war. In the fantasy world of Westeros death comes unexpectedly, brutally, without justice or discrimination, you win or you die. And at Easter time I am moved to ask, do we live in that world?
J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings, created a word to describe the way he thought a good fantasy story should end. He called it ‘eucatastrophe’ [eu is the Greek word meaning good and catastrophe is the Greek word meaning catastrophe].
Tolkien wrote: “I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears … because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back.”
One of Tolkien’s most ‘catastrophic’ characters, Boromir, High Warden of the White Tower in Minas Tirith, is in many ways the same person as Game of Thrones’ Ned Stark. Yes, they are portrayed by the same screen actor, Sean Bean, but on paper they are also very similar: good, honourable, noble and brave men, who betray their honour leading to their deaths.
At the end of the first volume of The Lord of the Rings, Boromir is taken over by the dark power of the Ring, trying to seize it from Frodo by force.
When Frodo escapes, Boromir is consumed by belated remorse and is fatally wounded while rescuing the other hobbits. We read:Aragorn knelt beside him. Boromir opened his eyes and strove to speak. At last slow words came. “I tried to take the ring from Frodo,” he said. “I am sorry. I have paid… Farewell, Aragorn! Go to Minas Tirith and save my people! I have failed.” “No!” said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. “You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace! Minas Tirith shall not fall!” … Boromir did not speak again. Eucatastrophe.
I can imagine Sean Bean reading the original Game of Thrones books, which are the source material for the TV show, and saying: “What! I die at the end of the first volume again!”
Yes, Sean, but in a very different way. Ned Stark’s death is brutal and meaningless, leading only to despair. Tolkien called this ‘dyscatastrophe’. Boromir, by contrast, is redeemed in his dying – I get a bit teary just thinking about it. But it is pure fantasy, isn’t it?
The author of Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin, was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, and his vision of the world was shaped by the deaths of his friends in that conflict. Dyscatastrophe indeed. Martin writes a Good Friday story as if saying: “That’s all there is folks. You are noble fools like Ned Stark if you hope for meaning, justice or redemption in life, placing your faith in goodness and love – you will only have it dashed again and again.”
Tolkien on the other hand writes this about the faith that informs his story: “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of [human] history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of … the Incarnation.”
Yes, I hear you, J.R.R., I share your faith, but the evidence of our world leads people to say we are believing in an escapist fantasy.
So who is right, Martin or Tolkien? Do we live in Westeros or Middle Earth? Does our world end on Good Friday or is it made new on Easter Sunday? Is our story dyscatastrophe or eucatastrophe? And has God really entered it in Christ to turn it from one to the other? What does your faith tell you?