Sunday, August 19, 2012

Catastrophic Events

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)

In his essay called "On Fairy Stories," Tolkien coined a new word to describe an event at the end of a story that suddenly brings about a good resolution when all hope seems to be lost: eucatastrophe, which literally means "good catastrophe." A eucatastrophe is not the same as deus ex machina – it is an event that, while sometimes implausible or just in the nick of time, nevertheless has been set up earlier in the story and does make sense to the narrative, rather than being something completely new that suddenly appears out of the blue right when help is needed.

Eucatastrophes don't have to be positive events themselves. In fact, by definition it is still a catastrophe, no matter what good comes of it in the end. When we last saw Bilbo, he, Gandalf, Bard and the men of Lake-town, and the Wood-elves were trying to negotiate with Thorin and the dwarves for the portion of the treasure stolen from the men's ancestors. Thorin finally agreed to trade Bilbo's share of the treasure for the Arkenstone, but all sides knew that he had no intention of actually following through on his plan.

Now, the men and elves are besieging the Lonely Mountain fortress and Thorin's cousin Dain has just arrived with reinforcements for the dwarves. Battle between the two sides is now imminent and unavoidable. Into the midst of this tense situation, however, comes word of a more serious threat: Goblins from the Misty Mountains are on their way to avenge the death of the Great Goblin and many others of their compatriots at the hands of Gandalf, Thorin, and company towards the beginning of their journey. Tolkien tells us that "the Goblins were the foes of all, and at their coming all other quarrels were forgotten." Dwarves, men, and elves now band together to face the new threat and vanquish the evil that threatens them all, in the process forgetting what now seem to be petty squabbles.

The coming of the Goblin army is definitely a catastrophe – in the ensuing Battle of Five Armies, many allies' lives are lost (including Thorin's) and the Goblins almost win the day. The end result, however, is that the allies remain friends, compromises are reached, fences are mended, and alliances are strengthened. It is not merely a catastrophe, it is a eucatastrophe because many good things do come out of it.

Everyone experiences catastrophic events in their lives. The key lesson is to remember that God turns catastrophes into eucatastrophes. We may not recognize this until we look back after the fact, but even in the midst of negative circumstances we can still trust God to walk with us and we can have faith that better days are ahead.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Gold Fever

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)

The dwarves have found their treasure and dragon guarding it has been vanquished. While the men of Lake-town are busy dealing with Smaug and his aftermath, the dwarves are already counting and dividing and dreaming about what they will do with their shares of the gold and jewels. Even little Bilbo is not immune from the sickness – when he happens upon the Arkenstone, a magnificent jewel that belonged to dwarf leader Thorin’s ancestors, he takes it and hides it away, never telling anyone he has it even as he watches Thorin search for it day after day. 

Bilbo is not totally beyond help, though, something which is made apparent even as the dwarves prove right what Paul said about the love of money and the roots of evil. A large company of men come from Lake-town to talk with the dwarves and to reclaim the portion of the dragon hoard that had been stolen from their ancestors who used to live near the Lonely Mountain. They feel that it is only right for the dwarves to grant them this, especially considering the fact that Lake-town was destroyed because they helped the dwarves on their quest and that one of their number was responsible for Smaug’s death. The dwarves, unwilling to concede, barricade themselves inside the mountain and refuse to talk with the men or come to any kind of compromise. Seeing that the dwarves are hell-bent on bringing about their own destruction, whether through battle or being besieged, the little hobbit takes his burgled treasure and slips unseen to the camp of the men. He presents the Arkenstone to them as a bargaining chip in their negotiations with stubborn Thorin.

Thorin is incensed at the idea of trading the men’s treasure for the jewel, however – why should he have to pay for what is rightly his? He is even angrier when he discovers that it is the betrayal of Bilbo that has put the stone in the men’s hands. At this point, knowing that he was wrong to take the Arkenstone to begin with, Bilbo takes the high road in the situation and attempts to make amends – he asks that the jewel be considered his 1/14 share of the treasure, which he will then trade for a share of the gold and other treasures. Then, he will give his share to the men, keeping nothing for himself, because as much as he covets the Arkenstone, he values more his own wellbeing and peaceful relations between all parties involved.

Like Bilbo, we don’t always do what is right, and we become overly possessive of things instead of keeping our eyes on God. At some point, however, we can make the choice to continue to be like Bilbo and find ways to compromise and to make peace with others, turning our eyes back to friendship and harmony – the kinds of treasures that won’t rust and can’t be taken from us by thieves, dragons, or dwarves.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Count Your Blessings

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. (Psalm 107:1)

While the dwarves explore the vacant (for now) lair of Smaug the dragon and begin to inventory the treasure therein, the people of Lake-town are having a different experience altogether, bearing the brunt of the dragon's anger towards the invaders of the Lonely Mountain. Smaug is killed, but not without great cost to the townsfolk. Tolkien describes the aftermath thus:

The waxing moon rose higher and higher and the wind grew loud and cold. It twisted the white fog into bending pillars and hurrying clouds and drove it off to the West to scatter in tattered shreds over the marshes before Mirkwood. Then the many boats could be seen dotted dark on the surface of the lake, and down the wind came the voices of the people of Esgaroth lamenting their lost town and goods and ruined houses. But they had really much to be thankful for, had they thought of it, though it could hardly be expected that they should just then: three quarters of the people of the town had at least escaped alive; their woods and fields and pastures and cattle and most of their boats remained undamaged; and the dragon was dead. What that meant they had not yet realized. (Chapter 14)

This passage reminds me of a recent Sunday School lesson on the Israelites, who often seemed less than grateful for their new-found freedom from slavery as they wandered in the desert. Many times they questioned Moses's leadership and complained that he had brought them out of Egypt just to die in the wilderness – it was better when they were slaves because at least then they had plenty of food to eat and water to drink. It didn't seem to matter that God had helped them escape from the Egyptians at the Red Sea, and given them manna and quail to eat, and water from rocks, providing for them every time they needed something.

We're not much different sometimes. Overwhelmingly negative circumstances can distract us from acknowledging the ways that God continues to take care of us and provide the things we need most. May we be ever mindful of God's providence, both when times are good and when times are bad, so that no matter what happens we can recognize and be thankful for what we have.