A production of Sola Media
Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

If Tolkien Reviewed Dr. Strange: On Fairy-Stories and Marvel’s Magician

Published Friday, May 27, 2022 By Anthony G. Cirilla

Renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange prides himself on his steady hands and his brilliant mind. A brutal car accident ruins those hands and leaves his mind in a scrambled state of desperation, leading him outside his comfort zone of Western medicine to seek help in Kamar-Taj, a mysterious monastery in Kathmandu. He believes his gambit has failed when the head of the secretive compound shows him a traditional picture of the chakra map, galling his empiricist sensibilities. Strange retorts heatedly, “I do not believe in fairy tales about chakras, or energy, or the power of belief. There is no such thing as spirit. We are made of matter and nothing more. We’re just another tiny, momentary speck within an indifferent universe.”

Those words would have struck Tolkien as reminiscent of a 1931 conversation where his friend Jack dismissed Christianity as a myth, asserting that myths are nothing more than wish fulfillment and “lies breathed through silver.” Tolkien writes Mythopoeia in response to this view, a poem where he characterizes the materialistic perspective’s shortcomings: “a star’s a star, some matter in a ball/compelled to courses mathematical/amid the regimented, cold, Inane,/where destined atoms are each moment slain” (85).[1] But the human impulse to perceive myth in nature is as much a fact to be interpreted as nature itself – we are “digging the foreknown from experience/and panning the vein of spirit out of sense” (86).

Likewise, in the face of Dr. Strange’s nihilism, the Ancient One, in place of a poem, sends Stephen into an astral vision of what Tolkien terms the “deep monition movements that were kin/to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars” (86). She tells his dimension-travelling spirit, “At the root of existence, mind and matter meet” – before now, Strange’s fixation on the empirical reality of the senses caused him to look past what Tolkien would call “the elves that wrought on cunning forges in the mind” (86). The Ancient One calls the chakras and the MRI scans both “maps,” not to be confused with the reality they only represent in part. Just as Jack, better known as C.S. Lewis, became a Christian because he saw in this conversation the truth that myth cannot be separated from mind and so truth cannot be derived without imagination, Dr. Stephen Strange learns that the very order of the senses he knows so well as science glimpse at the fairy-tale mysteries of the spirit.

Dr. Strange is a film where the eponymous hero inhabits the superhero genre while bearing elements more akin to fantasy: Dr. Strange learns to master magic, becomes the Sorcerer Supreme, wields an enchanted talisman (the time stone) and fights a demonic entity (Dormammu). The tenor of the type of heroism is starkly different from that found in Tolkien: instead of humble Hobbits pressing forward under the shadow of an evil they are hopeless to confront head on, Dr. Strange’s bombastic ethos shares more in kind with Iron Man, and his magic makes him feel more like a sorcerous Superman than a wizardly sage like Gandalf. But even the casting of Tilda Swansonas his mentor, who played the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia,  emphasizes Dr. Strange’s fantasy roots. So what do the fantasy elements in this superhero film mean?

Expanding his ideas in Mythopoeia, Tolkien’s 1939 essay, On Fairy-Stories, was partly written to defend the fairy-story and related fantasy literature against the charge of being childish, escapist, and unrelated to real concerns of life (OFS 33-46, 61-67). One might extend his defense of the genre to the superhero narrative: critical praise of superhero films often involves phrases such as “it transcends its genre.” Although much response to Dr. Strange was positive, one critic wondered if the film makers weren’t dropping acid when conceiving of the scenes. Ironically, this critic shares with Dr. Strange his initial disdain for anything reeking of “fairy-tale,” breaking Tolkien’s fundamental rule for accessing what the fantasy genre has to offer: “one thing must not be made fun of, the magic itself. That must in that story be taken seriously, neither laughed at nor explained away” (OFS 10-11). Tolkien does not mean that magic cannot have humorous effect, as when Stephen Strange discovers the willfulness of his magic cape – but the magic must be believed in to produce the right sort of laughter at Strange trying to go one way while the cape tugs him another.

To achieve fantasy’s “secondary belief”, as Tolkien terms it, the narrative must rationally expound upon the “arresting strangeness” of the core image captivating the imagination (OFS 48). The core fantastic image of Dr. Strange is the enchanted hand: the camera introduces us to Stephen Strange’s hands even before we have seen his face. For the terrified patient, a surgeon’s hands undoubtedly work a sort of medical magic, but Strange has forgotten this, and not until he is forced to take a life by actual magic does he remember his calling to use his hands for healing. The Ancient One roughly but rightly points out that this motivation has been contaminated by his pride, and earlier undermines his fixation over the damage to his hands by having another sorcerer effortlessly conjure magic despite missing a hand. Pushed to desperation by the Ancient One when she strands him in Mount Everest’s blistering cold, Stephen believes his hands can work magic only when saving his life depends on it – providing the story urgency to help the audience develop secondary belief in the magic too.

This secondary belief equips the audience with the capacity to perceive the symbolic power of the narrative. In his medical practice, Stephen Strange takes patients only if remedying their condition will boost his reputation, requiring that they both be far more challenging than his colleagues could handle but also within the limits of the neurosurgical science Stephen has mastered. He has lost touch with the good will that motivates entry into the profession of healing, referring to Christine Palmer’s work in the ER as a “butcher shop.” Bereft of a vision of reality’s fairy tale qualities, ego remains Stephen’s only motivation. When the accident crushes his hands, Stephen meets from the other side the brute reality of medical science’s limitations, and so his only tool for enhancing his only explicit value (reputation) leaves him vulnerable to the whims of an indifferent universe.

For Tolkien, fantasy uniquely empowers us to employ the faculty of imagination to its fullest potential, a necessary process because imagination is essential to appreciating the wonder of reality. Stephen Strange seeks magic to recover the use of his damaged hands, but in Tolkien’s theory of the fairy story, a different sort of recovery properly results from encounter with magic: a renewal of awe and surprise at existence itself. Confidently cavalier, Stephen operates on a patient with “Shining Star” by Earth, Wind & Fire playing in the background, but initially Dr. Strange does not believe in “wishing upon a star” – unless he is that star. Prior to his experiences in Kamar-Taj he would reject belief in the Ancient One’s lessons as wish fulfillment, but Tolkien might rejoin, “Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream?” (Mythopoeia 87) Of course, it comes from the mind – which as a neurosurgeon Stephen believes can be reduced to the material stuff of the brain. But his enemy Kaecilius likewise reduced the mind to the material stuff of the brain – when he decapitates the librarian defending Kamar-Taj’s most dangerous spells. Stephen Strange works closely with the place where mind meets matter – perhaps too closely for him to see the magic of that subtle place of interaction. Indeed, incredible advancements of the medical science begin as a wish that might seem like a fairy-tale to an earlier generation of doctors, but with every saved life those wishes have become true.

Another wish Tolkien believes the fairy-story grants is the primordial desire to “survey the depths of space and time” (OFS 13). In addition to the hand, the watch naturally serves as a core symbol in the story: Stephen owns a collection of impressive watches to adorn his attire at major speaking engagements. But when the space of an ER patient’s head becomes too sensitive for any sound to interrupt concentration, Strange has his colleague cover his watch to stop the distraction of its ticking. In other words, Dr. Strange had to stop time for the surgery, a metaphor manifested in a literal sense when he confronts the demonic entity Dormammu with a time loop spell, something the creature for all of his power cannot overcome. Manipulation of time, a dangerous practice even for the most advanced of sorcerers, becomes the signature means by which Strange saves the day as he travels through the rip in the space-time continuum like a cosmic surgeon.

Dr. Strange provides a modern mythopoeic superhero, the story of a man who reaches the height of rational mastery over time and space and, finding this mastery insufficient, is pushed to discover that some truths require further reaches of the imagination to grasp than he had been willing to entertain. “You lack imagination,” he told Mordo when frustrated by his ally’s acceptance of violence, a tense moment but a sign that he has grown from his initial confrontation with the Ancient One considerably. And that marriage of Stephen’s keen reason with his renewed imagination allows him to find a way to overcome Dormammu.

Tolkien believed that all myth imaginatively touches in some way, however small, upon some measure of metaphysical truth. After all, if the imagination is necessary to perceive patterns in the senses for the judgments of reason, it could surely not be dispensable for truths which escape the direct grasp of reason alone. And if those higher metaphysical truths exist, Tolkien believed that they would somewhere enter history, and in fact did in the Gospel: “Legend and History have met and fused” (OFS 73), like the meeting of mind and matter expressed by the Ancient One.

Dr. Strange’s time-trick on Dormammu bears a certain resemblance to the divine trick Christ plays on Satan – where Christ enters into time to overcome sin by putting on that very sin, Strange puts on time to bear it as a tool to battle a diabolical deceiver. The scenes make it clear that neither Dormammu’s nor Strange’s minds are beholden to the time loop – they are able to remember that the moment has been played before. This means that Strange remembers each of his many deaths, and yet commits to his recurring, Groundhog Day-like sacrifice to frustrate a demonic entity never before subjected to the constraints of time like a mortal.

Christ’s sacrifice is of course different, who as the 1928 Book of Common Prayer puts it suffered “death upon the cross for our redemption,” providing “a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, for the sins of the whole world” (80). But in telling His followers to continually partake of the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper “in remembrance” of Him, Christ teaches us about a marvelous act of divine time travel where from the moment of His one temporal sacrifice, Christ redeems us from all sin, original and committed, by His finished work on the cross. Dr. Strange puts on the broken watch that bears an inscription from his erstwhile lover,[2] the aptly named Christine Palmer, which he wears on his hands that still shake from the accident. A mythic corollary to Christ’s scars, Stephen Strange’s acceptance of his brokenness as the means rather than a barrier to his heroism betokens a Christlike humility that shows he no longer desires to hold himself as the idol he once did.

When Stephen tells her that he is not ready to assume the responsibilities of the Sorcerer Supreme, the Ancient One replies, “We don’t get to choose our time. Death is what gives life meaning. To know your days are numbered, your time is short.” Her words bring to mind Gandalf’s to Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring (especially as depicted in the Mines of Moria in the film) when responding to the hobbit’s frightened sentiment: “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” Gandalf replies, “So do I… and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Confronted with eternal evil, Strange converts his mortal weakness into saving strength. While the challenges of discourse in our current moment may make it seem impossible to have the patience to give an answer for the reason of our faith, enjoying the wonder-renewing artifacts of imagination found in films like Dr. Strange can help to reawaken awe at the Gospel and help us to recall humility before our neighbors.

Anthony G. Cirilla is an assistant professor of English at College of the Ozarks in Branson, MO, where he lives with his beloved wife, Camarie. He writes articles about theistic philosophy in medieval literature, modern fantasy, and videogames.

This article was originally published at Modern Reformation on June 25, 2020.

[1] Quotes taken from Mythopoeia and On Fairy Stories appear in J.R.R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf.

[2] It reads “Time will tell how much I love you, Christine.”

  • Anthony G. Cirilla

Want to see more articles like this?
Support MR