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.
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:
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)
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
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:
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)
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:
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)
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.
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
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.
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:
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:
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. . . .’
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).
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
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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,
Betsy Matthews Covenant College
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