It may occur quite unconsciously, but every author weaves his truest beliefs into the words he writes to one degree or another. A good writer pours all that they are into their writing. The finished product of a good writer, though, is not merely words on a page but a mirror into the very soul of the author. If this does not occur, the writing rings hollow and false. J. R. R. Tolkien is no exception. In a letter to Robert Murray, Tolkien revealed, “I have exposed my heart to be shot at,” as he expressed concern over what the critics would say of The Lord of the Rings.[1] Tolkien poured his very heart into this novel giving it a unique brilliance and lasting impact. Within each character’s growth and experiences, we find the hidden trail of Tolkien’s deeply held religious and moral convictions. Because of this, Tolkien’s stories stir the imagination without forcing it to walk a specific path. As an educator in modern America, I know first-hand the desperate need to awaken imaginations that have nearly withered away in our modern culture. By unlocking the power of stories, Tolkien awakens the imagination of young readers, restoring a sense of wonder in creation and ultimately guiding them to Joy in the Creator.

The imagination is, as George McDonald notes in A Dish of Orts, “that faculty which gives form to thought … form capable of being uttered in shape or in sound or in any mode upon which the senses can lay hold.”[2] It is our creative faculty from whence our ideas and even our consciences find their shape and direction. One of the first difficulties I noticed as a teacher is that my students seemed to lack the ability to think. At first glance, the problem would seem to be stagnated reasoning skills, but ultimately the problem was deeper. Creativity and conscience were asleep in so many of these young minds.  If imagination gives form to thought, it was no wonder reason had stagnated.

The second issue I found was a lack of Joy.  Joy, which I capitalize because it is not the everyday sort of joy one might associate with mere happiness, permeates to the very soul and comes from some place both outside ourselves and from deep within. Joy can be found in times of happiness and in times of great sorrow, and through it we find ourselves lifted up and moved forward. There were few students in my classroom who had any sense of Joy to pull them through the emotional rampages of the teen years. Teenagers have always been on a roller coaster of emotion, but what I saw before me were young people with no stabilizing force behind that hormonal coaster. Without Joy, the only way to survive the coaster is to attempt to take control of every moment, filling every gap with a momentary pleasant distraction or tuning out the world completely.

My job, of course, is to teach young people how to read and write. Figurative language, inferences, thesis statements, and parts of speech are the primary directives of the public-school English teacher. Passing the state test is the great measure of my students’ success and consequently of my own. It is a disheartening truth when one can so clearly see the deeper issues facing this next generation. Humanity enters the world with fully active imaginations. A child is thrilled by new experiences and the world around them. Adventure comes as naturally as eating and sleeping. Unfortunately, as a child grows, something changes. Bit by bit imagination becomes stifled, even bent. This process occurs much younger than it once did as our postmodern reality impacts young people earlier than it once did. As the years pass, the bent and stifled imagination points our teens and pre-teens in the wrong direction or leaves them stagnant with an imagination almost wholly asleep. Lewis refers to this unnatural state in An Experiment in Criticism, asserting that “to have lost the taste for marvels and adventures is no more a matter for congratulation than losing our teeth, our hair, our palate, and finally, our hopes.”[3] Lewis points out that this gradual loss of imagination, deemed as maturity and realism in our culture, is actually something to be mourned instead of sought after. The loss should be mourned because imagination dormancy blinds man to truth in every corner of creation. He misses the Joy and the hope which surround him.

In Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton points to the simple fact that, “We have all forgotten what we really are.”[4] Ultimately, as the imagination falls asleep, man forgets what and who he is but, sadly, does not know he has forgotten anything. He no longer remembers that he is a wonderfully created being made in the image of the Creator Himself. As he forgets what he is, he also begins to forget the Creator. While students certainly need to know the appropriate place to put a comma, what they really need is to find Joy through the awakening of their imaginations and a remembering of the Creator.

I am convinced our Creator can use educators like myself to reawaken a student’s imagination by sharing and discussing well-crafted works of literature. Through stories, the educator plays an active role in reawakening and remembering those things which have been long forgotten. Left to their own devices, most students will never read the very stories which could prove to be a powerful force of change in their lives. Or if they do read them, they will merely let the words pass briefly through their mind, never letting them pause to take a new shape or rearrange the furniture in their minds. It is at these crucial points that the educator serves as teacher and guide.

Perhaps it is the particular population of students I work with, but my experience has been that teenagers respond with looks of disdain when you suggest tackling a book such as The Lord of the Rings. This disdain (born of an absolute certainty of impending boredom) comes not only from the length or complexity of the novel but also from a lack of imagination. I have my students watch very few movies in my classes because, while there is great value in analyzing and discussing movies, there simply is not time. Consequently, when I offer up the opportunity to watch a movie, any movie, they are generally ecstatic. Last year I decided my students would benefit from watching An Unexpected Journey, the first of the three Hobbit movies. The reaction to the opportunity was less than rewarding. The day we were to begin the movie, students tried diligently to find some reason they did not need to be in class. Groans and outright complaints were heard across the board as I set up the projector and turned out the lights. I seriously questioned my decision to view this film.

Fifty minutes later, I pressed pause as the bell was about to ring and was greeted by a thrilling chorus of, “No Miss, don’t stop it!” These students were hooked on Tolkien’s story, and all I had to do was press play. It was a baby step to be sure but an important one. I saw before me the first glimpses of imaginations waking up after a long sleep.

As I see it, educators have the responsibility to not only introduce students to stories they would never otherwise tackle but also show them how to approach a book or story in an entirely new way. Students fear books and stories. They dread them. You may have readers in any given group of students, but they stick to one type of novel (for my students, typically realistic fiction about people they can relate to). They fear them because they think they will be bored or because they are not yet good readers. They fear them because they are not what they know or what they are comfortable with. They do not want to read, much less explore, the depths of a story because they simply cannot imagine why anything outside of their cold reality would be interesting.

What would happen if we could convince students to step outside themselves and not only pick up these works but place their trust in them? Lewis notes that the reader, “must risk being taken in if [he is] to get anything.”[5] Teachers have the distinct privilege of helping the reader take such a risk, often simply by pointing to stories which are worthy of such trust. Once the story is taken up, a whole new reality of Wonder and Joy begins to appear before them.

A reawakened imagination acts as a guide back to the wonder and astonishment the reader experienced as a young child. It is our nature to be drawn to astonishing tales because, as Chesterton says, “They touch on a nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment.”[6] Unfortunately, for our young people, the need for astonishment comes predominantly in the form of darkness, high-risk situations, ludicrous acts, and ultimately sin, which frequently points their imaginations in the wrong direction.

As man ages, he needs increasingly intense stimuli to astonish him. The everyday wonder of a tree or a sunset, or even his very existence, slips by him unnoticed and is certainly taken for granted. Chesterton describes this well, “A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.”[7] While it may seem nearly impossible to imagine being excited by a door opening, teachers must grasp onto the hope that such an innocent wonder can indeed be found again. A classroom of seniors, enthralled by dragons and hobbits, proves that hope is well founded.

The imagination becomes immune to such everyday things simply because they are everyday. Story, however, has the unique opportunity to show our students, that while this is the way our world is, it is not the only way it could have been.  A narrative can free the reader to picture gold apples instead of green, skies painted brown instead of blue, or men with pointed ears instead of curved. As those pictures take shape, he realizes how different his world could have been. He begins to take notice of the everyday.

Of course, Chesterton himself notes that the prevailing wisdom of materialism supposes, “that if a thing goes on repeating itself, it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork.”[8] Such wisdom would assert that a dead thing, a clockwork world in which monotony and repetition are the norms, is not particularly worthy of notice, much less wonder. Under such ideals, the imagined worlds of a story would hold a different role, that of giving a man a bit of variety in the humdrum of a clockwork existence.

Chesterton argues for a different role for the story, “These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green.”[9] Their role is not to help the reader find an escape to something less mundane but to remind him how very not mundane our world is. While man loses the energy to enjoy the same colors and experiences, Chesterton poignantly reminds us that while man has “sinned and grown old … our Father is younger than we.”[10] Where man is often too weak, “God is strong enough to exult in monotony.”[11] A good story can startle man out of his weakness and lethargy so that he too can exult in the beauty and wonder of creation. Even taking the idea of God as our Creator out of the initial awakening, Chesterton points out the quite agnostic realization which can be found through a good story: “This world is a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite delightful.”[12] For the teacher, such a realization in a young man or woman is an excellent starting place.

The awakened imagination also points the student back towards Joy which has often been forgotten amidst the suffering inherent to humanity and the nihilistic assumptions of our culture. We live in a world where literature is steadily becoming far more nihilistic in nature. Settings and circumstances are more often dark and hopeless, and happy endings are no longer guaranteed. Modern culture praises the narrative which displays the evilest side of humanity and gives few, if any, glimpses at the good. The materialist or the nihilist would say this is as it should be. After all, it is realistic. It shows the world as it truly is, dreary and hopeless, moving forward with mechanical efficiency with no plan or purpose for joy or hope. Those narratives which dare to portray anything else are only giving us trite answers that serve no purpose in preparing us for the world in which we live.

I will agree with such an argument but only up to a point. Suffering, even darkness and evil, are very real and should not be ignored by either the writer or the educator. However, good literature also shows the other side, the far more potent side, of reality. To say that our world is without hope or joy is a purely false statement. The real world is full of moments of joy, love, and ultimately hope if one only is awake to their presence. Unfortunately, the dormant imaginations of humanity have lost much belief that these things exist even though they are constantly seeking them out.

When the work is a piece of fantasy or fairy story, it can awaken the imagination to truth.  In “On Fairy-Stories,” J. R. R. Tolkien explains, “The peculiar quality of joy in successful fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth.”[13] A successful story not only includes moments of hope and joy within the narrative but also instills Joy in the reader because they connect with the truth beneath the narrative. Of course, we know that not all stories succeed in doing this. It is the job of the educator to point the reader toward those works which present this picture of reality, a reality which includes Joy. An astute teacher knows beforehand if a story has the potential to awaken the imagination to Joy and not just turn the reader away with its trite happy ending.

Tolkien introduced a concept which he deemed essential to this purpose and foundational to any fairy-story.[14] He called the concept eucatastrophe, describing it as:

A sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of…sorrow and failure; the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies…universal final defeat, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy.[15]

Eucatastrophe takes all the suffering, the darkness, and the evil and turns them around, using them to create good in the end.  One beautiful literary example of eucatastrophe is that of Frodo in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In the final moments of the hero’s great quest, he ultimately fails. After months of suffering, he does not complete the task because he falls victim to the power of the Ring. To make matters worse, a creature who is far less capable of completing the destruction of the Ring attacks Frodo in the end, and the Ring falls into the hands of a creature far less capable. It is nearly as bad a moment as one could conceive after the many trials of the quest. All the hope which had been hanging on by a mere thread is finally cut away completely. The nihilist would have let the story end here, deeming it realistic and true. The reader would be left disheartened but unfortunately resolved to the reality of such an ending. There is no Joy here.

Of course, Tolkien did no such thing because if there is no Joy, then the truth has been missed altogether. He chose instead to awaken the imagination of the reader to something far more real. In this, the worst of moments, the creature falls into the pit of fire, and the Ring is destroyed. One great swoop of fortunate circumstance defeats the master of evil. Circumstance? No, this is not the right word, the reader’s imagination insists, and he is right. Mere circumstance could not have led to such a perfectly timed ending where the suffering and darkness of a story suddenly turns itself towards the good.

Such a turn could, however, be described as magic. In a story, magic is painstakingly crafted by the author. The whole story becomes the setting for this one magical turn, and the reader’s response depends on this very thing.[16] A teenager will not be greatly moved by a few moments of suffering that suddenly turn out for good, but his imagination will blaze to life when the whole of a story leads up to this one perfect moment.

Does magic such as this have any place in our students’ day to day reality? If, as Tolkien asserted, the Joy of eucatastrophe is primarily a result of a glimpse of the underlying reality or truth, then the reader’s response would shout a resounding, “YES!” Our young people will not respond with Joy to that which does not ring true deep within their souls. In the midst of eucatastrophe, these young readers can come to know that this magic is real, it exists in our world, and perhaps the suffering and pain of the world works together for good. At this moment, as he experiences the Joy of the eucatastrophe, the student might wonder, as Chesterton did, that if there is indeed magic, might there also be a magician?[17]

My hope as a teacher is that, with time, the newly awakened imagination moves on to deeper questions, those which set aside the agnostic and delve fully into belief and faith. The story is a secondary world, created by the created. As educators we can introduce that world to young people. Through discussion and writing, we can encourage them to explore it, ponder it, and let it pause for a moment in their roller coaster world. As the imagination stirs to life, faith can be awakened when the reader comes to realize that this secondary world reflects the truth found in the most essential of all literature, the Bible.

Tolkien’s eucatastrophe is a prime example of the connection between secondary and primary worlds. We can see eucatastrophe throughout the Biblical narrative, but most specifically in the birth of Christ and His resurrection.[18] Christ’s birth serves as the moment when all the suffering of humanity, and their sin which has separated them from God, suddenly is made right in the birth of a promised Savior-God in the flesh. Christ’s resurrection adds a second level of Joy to the story. Christ incarnate suffers not only physically on the cross but takes on the entirety of the world’s sin. Then in a triumphant turn, He is raised from the dead conquering sin and death in one stroke.

As a Christian teacher, my hope is that my students will be able to move from seeing the connection between magic and magician to desiring to know the magician personally through the power of the Biblical narrative. I may only serve as the instigator of the process. My role may be limited, but I think it is vital. If students never have the opportunity to even approach these stories, much less explore them in depth, then the imagination stays asleep. Joy remains hidden.  I did not go into teaching to help students pass a standardized test. I want each and every student to see what Chesterton did: that a world full of such wonder must have a purpose, “and if there is a purpose, there is a person.”[19] And not just a person, but a Creator worthy of following and worthy of trust.

Citation Information

Korine Martinez, “Awakening Joy,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 1. (Spring 2020), 111-128.

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[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), Digital Location 3652.

[2] George MacDonald, A Dish of Orts (Norwood, PA: Norwood Editions, 1977), 3.

[3] C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 72.

[4] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1959), 51.

[5] Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, 94.

[6] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 51.

[7] Ibid., 51.

[8] Ibid., 57.

[9] Ibid., 51.

[10] Ibid. 58.

[11] Ibid. 58.

[12] Ibid. 56.

[13]J. R. R. Tolkien, Tolkien on Fairy-stories, ed. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson (London, UK: Harper Collins Publishers, 2014), 77.

[14] Ibid. 75.

[15] Ibid.

[16]Ibid. 76.

[17] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 59.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 59.