Matt Dickerson: On Christmas and nature in Narnia and Middle-earth

Walking through a quiet forest and spotting a deer or robin or owl, standing waist deep in a river below a misting waterfall while casting clumsily toward a graceful and beautiful brook trout, or gazing out over a wilderness landscape as I stumble backpack-laden up a mountain ridge, after the initial breath of delight at what I have just seen and heard, I often think back on favorite scenes from the stories set in Narnia and Middle-earth. And I try to think, also, of what writers C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien thought when looking at a tree, a fountain, or a high mountain peak.
The descriptions and portrayals of nature in the writings of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien convey a wonderful sense of holiness, mystery, and awe. Both scholars and fans of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” have observed that Middle-earth is as much of a character in the stories as any hobbit, dwarf, elf, wizard, or human. Something similar could be said of the land of Narnia in “The Chronicles of Narnia.”
Those of you who have read the fantastic stories of these authors probably have your favorite scenes or examples. Maybe it is Treebeard the ent strolling through Fangorn Forest, Beorn the were-bear and his bee-hives, Goldberry the daughter of the River, or even Old Man Willow trying to make a meal of some tender hobbits, or a vindictive blizzard on the slopes of Mount Caradhras in Tolkien’s Middle-earth stories. Perhaps it is the naiads and dryads in Lewis’ Narnia tales, or the enchanted woods where a lamp perpetually burns in a mysterious lamppost. Trees, forests, and even mountains come alive with personality. Ents and birch women walk the woods shepherding or giving voices to trees. River and woods have spirits — and call out for justice when wronged.
As I’ve studied and written about both of these authors, I’ve realized one reason for this. Both Tolkien and Lewis believed in Christmas. They believed in The Incarnation. “Incarnation” is an old word adopted from Latin to describe when a god, or a spiritual being, or even an abstract idea, takes on a real physical bodily form. Capitalized and given a definite article, “The Incarnation” is a very specific and important case of incarnation, in which Christians believe that God who made the whole universe took on the form — the bones and skin, muscles and flesh, eyes and ears, lungs and heart, and even pain sensors — of human kind in the person of a small and helpless First Century Jewish baby remembered among us today by his Anglicized name Jesus. This particular Incarnation — and not Christmas trees, Santa Claus, mistletoe, or reindeers, and especially not Black Friday or Cyber Monday — is, of course, the heart of the Christian story of Christmas.
That incarnation carried great significance for Tolkien and Lewis. It is portrayed explicitly in Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Tolkien portrays it also in a lesser known story, but hints at it many times in his more famous works. They both also considered the implications. For them it meant that all of the earth was holy. Not only was nature created by God as something good and beautiful, to be cared for and delighted in — and not to be exploited — but this natural world then became the very dwelling place of the incarnate God.
If one thinks of a temple or church as a place where God dwells, and therefore as holy, then because of The Incarnation one must view all of nature as God’s dwelling and therefore as holy. This is behind that sense of mystery, holiness, and awe in their descriptions. On the flip side, to exploit nature is thus like robbing a temple. For this reason, fouled rivers, wanton deforestation, and big strip mines are portrayed by both Lewis and Tolkien as the evil work of the enemies of God.
All because of Christmas. For those who believe in the Christian story of Christmas, it changes everything. Or it ought to. In particular, though we might not often think in these terms, it ought to change the eyes with which we look at the world around us. I have been privileged to stand among 2,000-year-old giant redwoods in northern California and felt that sense of holiness. I should also practice looking at the trees outside my back door in Vermont with the same eyes.
Or, as our country considers a whole new level of exploitation of the most fragile landscapes of Alaska’s arctic where herds of wild reindeer still roam, I hope some folk who are making those decisions will think past Santa Claus to the deeper meaning of Christmas, and maybe pause with some similar thoughts. Maybe more people also need to read J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Christmas would be a good time to start. 

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