If you’ve been reading our posts here, you probably know that one of my favorite books is Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. More than any other work of fiction, it has shaped my imagination, my thinking, and my writing. In the book, Tolkien creates a mythological background for the Middle Earth we all know and love from The Lord of the Rings or hate from Peter Jackson’s truly awful adaptation of The Hobbit. This mythology is complete with a creation-story, a tragic fall, titanic struggles between good and evil, and a thread of hope and longing for a renewed world woven throughout. It is, in short, one of the very best kinds of myth: the kind that pricks the heart with desire for what C. S. Lewis called “the true myth”--the creation, fall, redemption, and consummation story of scripture.
To me, one of the most compelling characters in this work of myth is Nienna, one of the goddesses of the prehistoric pantheon. We read of her only in a few brief episodes. Tolkien introduces us to her as the goddess of sorrow and mourning. Before the dawn of the world, all the gods and goddesses sing together the story of Time, and Tolkien tells us that, “as the Music unfolded… her song turned to lamentation long before its end, and the sound of mourning was woven into the themes of the world before it began.” Nonetheless, Nienna is not a sorrower curved in on herself: she mourns for the marring of creation by evil, and “those who hearken to her [song] learn pity, and endurance in hope.” Further along, we read that Nienna brings “strength to the spirit and turns sorrow to wisdom.”
There are two kinds of sorrow with which literature can afflict us. One is healthy, the other not. Augustine wrote of how when he was a young man, he enjoyed going to the public plays in order to weep at the spectacle and tragedy of the shows, and yet he says, “I did not seek the kind of sorrow which could wound me deeply… but I enjoyed fables and fictions, which could only graze the skin.” Sorrow such as this--the old Greek catharsis--directs us to weep at something outside of us, but in so doing, it distracts and deceives. It prevents us from coming to terms with the real sorrow and marring of creation, the jagged edges of which rub together like a broken bone unset in our hearts, not merely outside of us but running right through our middle.
By contrast, a healthy literary sorrow points us not merely to the tragedy over there, away from us, but ultimately to the tragedy in here: the tragedy of our own souls that we naturally curve in on ourselves, that we turn away from God, the fountain of living waters, and hew out for ourselves broken, jagged-edged cisterns that can hold no water. Tolkien’s Nienna does this for us because her mourning encompasses tragedy as such, not merely a particular tragic event. She helps us to sorrow for the out-of-joint nature of the whole creation in its subjection to futility and to long for the restoration and full freedom that comes with redemption.
I see two implications for this kind of sorrow. First, as Tolkien wrote, those who walk through sorrow and mourn in this way are strengthened in spirit and their sorrow is turned into wisdom. As we build habits of mourning in this life, weeping with those who weep and groaning for our full redemption, we grow in wisdom. Discussing the ongoing struggle with sin and evil in our own hearts, Calvin reminds us that the fact that we have not yet been fully delivered from the presence of sin is meant, in God’s kindness, to drive us continually to the cross, and build in us habits of utter dependence on God’s Fatherly care for us. This is true wisdom: to have identified with Christ through suffering, to find in his wounds continual solace and balm for our own hurts, and in these to find consciousness of the reality that we are at every point wholly dependent on him.
Second, as we become the kind of people who are characterized by this right sorrow, by this wisdom, and by the groaning for redemption that comes with it, we become like Tolkien’s Nienna: the sort of people who dispense healing balm from the wounds of Christ, who bind up injuries and lead others through mourning and into wisdom. We become, by God’s grace, fragile vessels through whom the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ shines out the clearer. We then are able to comfort others with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted, as Paul says, splinting as it were the disjointed bones of every heart.