Posts Tagged ‘Death’

The Rapture or the Ring: Kierkegaard’s Two Views of Death and Eschatology in Film

September 14, 2011

ABSTRACT: (Originally presented at the 2005 meeting of SECSOR.)  In this paper I intend to contrast Kierkegaard’s category of “the earnest thought of death,” which he treats as the fundamental entrance into the religious life, with his depiction of the “esthetic,” or pre-moral view, which Kierkegaard said was the most common life view.  Kierkegaard worked to clarify religious thought and concepts, and I will in turn use the categories he developed for this purpose to examine the evangelical science fiction of the Left Behind movies (among others), and the equally eschatological Lord of the Ring series directed by Peter Jackson. I will discuss why, from the Kierkegaardian perspective, the Left Behind films are extremely problematic, and why the Tolkien films seem closer to Kierkegaard’s definition of “religious” even though they are products of secular cinema.  Finally, I will consider what existential messages are inherent in these films and speculate as to what cultural and political implications this may hold.

The Rapture or the Ring:  Kierkegaard’s Two Views of Death and Eschatology in Film

In this paper I first intend to present Kierkegaard’s category of “the earnest thought of death,” which he treats as the fundamental entrance into the religious life.  I will contrast this with his depiction of the “esthetic,” or premoral view, which Kierkegaard said was the most common life view.  Kierkegaard worked to clarify religious thought and concepts, and I will in turn use the categories he developed for this purpose to examine two very different genres in “religious” film today:  the evangelical science fiction of the Left Behind movies (among others), and the equally eschatological Lord of the Ring series directed by Peter Jackson. I will discuss why, from the Kierkegaardian perspective, the Left Behind films are extremely problematic, and why the Tolkien films seem closer to Kierkegaard’s definition of “religious” even though they are products of secular cinema.  Finally, I will consider what existential messages are inherent in these films and speculate as to what cultural and political implications this may hold.

Kierkegaard’s Two Views of Death

Kierkegaard’s discussions of death were probably leading causes for his reputation as “the gloomy Dane,” and I hesitate to raise that simplistic image again.  However, he felt that the individual’s attitude towards death was crucial to that individual’s own spiritual maturity, so it is impossible to ignore the discussion.  I will begin by comparing two discussions he presents:  first, his upbuilding discourse “At a Graveside” from Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions; and second, his observations under various pseudonyms in “In Vino Veritas” and the first volume of Either/Or.

The Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions, unlike his eighteen previous discourses, are distinguished not by their text or topic but by the fictitious setting of each.  Kierkegaard sets his last discourse in the context of a funeral, not for anyone important but apparently for a rather ordinary citizen.  The one distinguishing characteristic of his fictive deceased is that he “recollected God” all the days of his life, and in particular recollected that one day he would die and stand before God.  There is no discussion of pearly gates or such, but rather a vigorous discussion of the significance of death and mortality.  Kierkegaard claims that it is the earnest thought of death that gives this life meaning, and that moves the individual from the “esthetic” life of egoism and shallowness into the rich depths of the religious.

Kierkegaard says a great deal about what the earnest thought of death is, and what it is not.  It is not being somber, wailing at a funeral, being fearful or gloomy; it is not a mood of any sort.  Primarily it is the thought that I will dieI will die:  not just all flesh or those I love but me.  I will die:  not rest from my labors or find peace or any of the other evasions and euphemisms we commonly rely on.  All that I care for, my every project, hope, dream, desire, and fear will be cut off permanently.  Death is absolutely certain and absolutely uncertain; I know it will happen but cannot know when.  When I truly realize this, much that might have seemed important is shown to be utterly trivial; my career, my fame, my wealth, and more will vanish as if they had never been.  And much that I might have delayed or ignored becomes terribly urgent:  repenting of my sins, apologizing to my neighbor, telling my wife and children that I love them, or finding peace with myself and my life as it is, to name some.  The earnest thought of death relativizes life, but it also renders every moment more precious.  Time is, after all, running out, so one cannot afford to cling to life like a man on a burning roof afraid to leap to safety; and neither can one afford to drift thoughtlessly along as if one had all the time in the world.

Within a day of publishing the slim volume of discourses on imagined occasions, Kierkegaard published the massive Stages on Life’s Way.  Whereas the first is simple, direct, homiletic, and acknowledged, the second is convoluted, poetic and philosophical, and written under a variety of interlocking pseudonyms.  Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms are not mere pen names; they are characters intended to embody the existential views they represent as well as describe them.  The first of the stages, the “esthetic” stage of premoral and prereligious egoism, is presented in “In Vino Veritas,” a collection of speeches given at a banquet.  This chapter, like the discourse at the graveside, is prefaced with a (very different) discussion of the importance of recollection; and like the discourse, the banqueters are summoned by one of them to “the earnest thought of death.” However, for them it leads in an opposite direction.  Where meditation at a graveside led to sobriety, here it is the prelude to drunkenness.  In the discourse, the thought of death leads one to seriously contemplate one’s relationship to eternity; for the banqueters it leads only to greater immersion in frivolity and estrangement from eternity.  And the reason why is fairly obvious:  the earnest thought of death at the graveside is your thought of your death; for the banqueters, it is the thought of the death of everything else.  To them, recollection of death means to be gloomy and cynical, to meditate on how everything dies, and yet somehow to imagine looking on after one’s death as others go through your funeral.  A dead body is amusing, and a dead wife can be the inspiration for her beloved’s poetic genius; the significance of death is that it happens to others to make one’s own life more interesting or creative, to loosen one’s own bonds to the real world of relationships and commitments and moral values so that one may float free in the world of ideas.  The contrast becomes even more striking when one takes the literary hint Kierkegaard builds into the Stages by using pseudonyms from his earlier book, Either/Or.  The first volume of this work is full of meditations on death, despair, and boredom, showing how the esthete fails to take death or life seriously and winds up with a meaningless existence.  To the esthete, life seems interminably boring; to the earnest one (says Kierkegaard) it is not boring precisely because it is terminal.  To the esthete, life is mood and emotion; to the earnest one it is commitment and striving, with joy to be sure but not with the pursuit of pleasure as the ultimate goal.

The esthete considers death third-person, objectively.  While this may evoke a strong mood or emotional reaction, the esthete never really allows death to “get to” him or her.  The religious person, by contrast, considers death personally, subjectively.  Whereas the esthetic and objective way leads to unclarity, lethargy, and beckons one to become lost in mood, the earnest thought of death summons one back to the urgency of life’s task and to the true reality before God which life’s finitudes and illusions otherwise obscure.[i]  The two views of death Kierkegaard offers can together serve the individual as a touchstone for evaluating alleged spiritual insights.  If a poet or orator comes with enthralling words and dazzling insights, and one is taken to see these as signs of true spiritual depth, one can ask:  does this poem, speech or sermon evade the reality of death, or obscure for me my personal mortality?  Does it trivialize what should be paramount, or magnify what death reveals to be meaningless?  Then look elsewhere for spiritual insight, no matter how esthetically beautiful the words may be.  Or, does this sermon, advice, or manner of life take seriously the preciousness of one’s time on Earth, and truly show what really matters and what does not when measured by the decisiveness of death?  Then there is something profound here, even if it is masked in plainness or seeming triviality.

Eschatological Moviemaking and the Earnest Thought of Death

Kierkegaard resorts to eschatological language and scriptures in his discourse on death; but it is significant (and consistent) that he does not interpret these concepts eschatologically.  For Paul, it is the Day of the Lord which comes “as a thief in the night;” for Kierkegaard it is the individual’s death.[ii]  The end of the world is unimportant, or unessential; what matters to you is that you will end, and what matters to me is that I will end.  What happens to third persons, even to billions of third persons, is still not earnestness.  Kierkegaard would probably say that an apostle can use such language, because an apostle is a different sort of existence than an ordinary person, even a “genius.”  But for the rest of us, it is unhealthy and basically esthetic to speculate about the Rapture or the Final Judgment.  Whether Jesus is coming tomorrow, you can’t know; but you do know that God is coming for you, personally, at the day of your death.  That is the fact which should focus your attention.

Eschatology went Hollywood in the 20th century, and the dawn of a new millennium has done nothing to slow this down.  In fact, the general unease that has pervaded American culture since 9/11 seems to have heightened interest in literalist interpretations of the books of Daniel and Revelation.  In the second half of the 20th century there have been documentaries, feature films, and innumerable books purporting to present the script for the Last Days.  The classic in this genre, which I would describe as fundamentalist Christian sci-fi, is A Thief in the Night, released in the 1970’s by Mark IV Films (an evangelical production company).  During the Christmas movie season of 2000, The Omega Code, produced by Trinity Broadcasting and starring Michael York as the Antichrist, debuted among the top 10 moneymakers for the week.[iii]  Shortly after this, the movie version of Left Behind, based on the amazingly popular book of the same name, was released first on video and then in theaters.[iv]  In this movie, Kirk Cameron stars as a hotshot reporter who is caught up in the middle of the Rapture, the rise of the Antichrist, and the fulfillment of the prophecies found in John’s apocalypse.

Each of these films has slightly different interpretations of scriptural predictions, based partly on the particular “literal” interpretation each follows. But when one considers common elements in all three movies and the various books, T.V. sermons, and other popular presentations, general themes emerge.  There is a general distrust of international multilateralism, since the Antichrist will be a world leader who will unite many nations.  There is an emphasis on believing over action; this is not to say that one isn’t expected to live by the evangelical moral code, but it is clear that it is believing the literal truth of Revelation (or rather the interpretation of its obscure symbolism being offered) which saves, not good will towards one’s neighbors or even moral action.  Often (but not always) the United States is depicted as resisting the Antichrist.  But what is most common and, for my purposes, most relevant is that in virtually all of today’s popular versions of the evangelical Christian apocalypse, the believer is not in fact in any danger.  The millions of believers of these predictions, whether they follow the theories of Tim LeHaye or Hal Lindsey, all expect to be raptured out of the physical world.  They will not in fact die, though the world itself will.  Their focus therefore is not, as Kierkegaard would have it, on the “earnest thought” each individual can have when he or she considers his or her own death; instead it is really where Victor Eremita would have it, on the passing away of the world while you, the viewer or reader, look on from a safe distance.  In short, the fundamentalist eschatology reflects an esthetic worldview.

If eschatological films have such potential to lead viewers away from the religious consciousness and towards the esthetic, is it possible to create films which heighten earnestness instead?  Kierkegaard paid a great deal of attention to religious communication, and his observations on print media are relevant to film as well.  The fundamental (no pun intended) mistake of most Christian science fiction, and indeed of most fundamentalist eschatology, is to imply that the good person will avoid trials and tribulations.  Evangelicals generally do know better, but that is the message that is conveyed. In fact, the Apocalypse of John does not claim that Christians will be raptured away to escape the tribulations he describes; rather, his message to readers is to remain faithful to Christ through the tribulations and to trust that God is Lord of history.  Neither do Paul or the Gospels state that after the Rapture there will be a time of persecution for those Christians who weren’t good enough or evangelical enough to escape, but are still too good to go along with the Beast and his minions; rather, it is assumed that Christians will be caught up to Heaven only when Jesus appears to judge the world, at the end of history.  The Biblical witness is, therefore, that speculations on what will happen “after the Rapture” are misleading.  Nothing will happen; the Rapture is the last event in the world’s life, just as death is the last event in the individual’s life. The lesson of apocalyptic is how to live in the last days.  And from a Kierkegaardian perspective, every individual lives in the last days, I in mine and you in yours.

How might we tell such a story?  Kierkegaard offers some hints in his work, Two Ages.  This short piece is a literary review of a romance novel published in Copenhagen in 1845.  By placing the ethical and religious message in an apparently nonreligious medium, the author gains two things.  First, the message is slipped in on the reader, who likely did not expect to find a call to “leap into the arms of God” in a literary review. When the message comes where it wasn’t expected, it can startle, and perhaps seem fresh and new.  Second, when the religious message comes through a novel or a review of one, it comes “without authority,” to use another of Kierkegaard’s favorite terms.  It does not thunder from heaven; it stands next to you and talks face-to-face, as an equal if not a servant.

How could one make an eschatological movie like that?  The film versions of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings are just such movies.  Instead of writing preachy, avowedly Christian and “prophetic” books, Tolkien wrote “without authority.”  Instead of didactic prose which would require only acquiescence from the reader, he wrote complicated tales of fantasy which demand imagination and reflection, and effort.  It is a gospel that can sneak up on you and suck you in without you knowing what is happening, at the risk that you might wander in and out without detecting the good news offered to you there.  By contrast, the eschatological Christian science fiction is presented as literally true, or about to become true, with fictional elements thrown in to make an interesting story.  Instead of fairy tales, they present avowed prophecy, with the implied threat that if you don’t listen to the warning you will suffer as the characters in the story do.  It would seem as if no two genres could be further apart:  how can one usefully compare them?

Comparing such films as The Omega Code and Left Behind to The Lord of the Rings is further complicated by the fact that the production team for the Tolkien trilogy was not particularly religious. So we have the subtle symbolism and metaphor Tolkien employed in the books being further muted in being conveyed through a secular film project.  The task of comparing these films to the evangelical Protestant sci-fi films would seem to be an “apples and oranges” project which could have no real significance.

The first point of contact between these two bodies of film is that both are literally “eschatological.”  The evangelical films clearly deal with the death throes of a fallen world. The Lord of the Rings is likewise framed in eschatological terms of struggle against cosmic evil and chaos, and the impending death of the world. The more usual claim perhaps is that Middle Earth is “changing,” but this change is a real ending:  the immortal and magical elves are leaving, the days of wizards is passing, and soon the world will be left to Men.  Tolkien’s tales may seem to be more creation than eschatology, as the death of Middle Earth allows for the rise of the world of Men; but this combination is not absent from Scripture or fundamentalist films either, as the overthrow of the reign of the Antichrist clears the way for the New Jerusalem.[v]

The door to comparison has been opened; can we push through further?  Can we find anything meaningful or useful behind that door?  I believe Kierkegaard offers a way we can answer both questions, “Yes!”  First and more generally, there is much for even an evangelical to gain by appropriating Kierkegaard’s individualized use of apocalyptic language.  Kierkegaard himself did not really seek to discredit literal readings of Creation or eschatology or Scripture in general.  However, he did feel that the literal truth mattered less than the personal appropriation. Secondly and more specifically, we can analyze these very different eschatologies the way Kierkegaard compared various claimants to the Christian pedigree in his own day:  by examining their earnestness.  The earnest thought of death is intended, partly, to serve the individual as a touchstone for examining his or her own existential state.  It can also serve as an indicator of the earnestness of a religious understanding offered for one’s approval.  One point that comes through strikingly in the Ring trilogy is the seriousness with which the films take death.  True, in the Return of the King Gandalf tells Pippin of the blessed land that awaits them after death, leading the hobbit to affirm, “Well then, that’s not so bad.”  By contrast though, think of the distress Arwyn shows as Frodo lies dying on the border of Rivendell, or Sam shows as he lies apparently dead in Shelob’s lair.  Think of the profound grief of Theoden at the grave of his son.  Death is always seen as a loss, both for the dead one and those that loved him (or her).  Likewise, the death of Middle Earth is not eagerly or joyfully anticipated as a release from bondage or beginning of a new age; it is a fearful and mournful thing, even if it can lead to a happier future when the returned king will rule in peace and justice.  Tolkien treated (and Jackson treats) death as something which is indeed a loss, even if it is on another level a gain.

Of course, part of the reason for this is that it is by no means certain (at least not to the characters) that the death of Middle Earth will lead to anything good.  The quest of the Fellowship is a desperate gamble, “a fool’s hope” as Gandalf puts it.  Much depends, then, on how Middle Earth dies.  If it chooses shrewdness, caution, selfishness, or arrogance, it will lead to the age of the orc; if it dies fighting for what is good and true, defending the weak and giving to the needy and foolishly hoping and striving, it can lead to the age of Men.  That this Middle Earth will die is certain; the films chronicle only the manner and the results.

Finally, there is the films’ orientation towards their viewer.  Kierkegaard himself devoted considerable attention to the matter of the author’s method and intent if the reader was to be “built up.”   Tolkien came to similar views through his consideration of myth and fairy stories.  Both desired that the reader put himself or herself in the tale, identify with it, learn from considering its values and insights, and personally appropriate what seemed good.  This aspect certainly comes through in the film trilogy as well.  The hobbits in particular are Everyman.[vi]  They are ordinary, and they know it.  Tolkien thought of himself as a hobbit, and there is nothing put-offish about the hobbits to keep the viewer from identifying with them.  But whichever character one might see oneself reflected in, they are examples and exemplars.  They do what is right simply because they refuse to give up.  And it is precisely because of their stubborn goodness that they must undertake the quest, and why they suffer.  As Saruman says to Gandalf and might have said to all of them, “You have chosen the way of pain.”  Because they are good, they suffer, they strive, and some even die.  Evangelical eschatological sci-fi films, by contrast, invite the viewer not to identify with the main characters.  It is only the mediocre Christians who are to be “left behind” to suffer tribulations and persecutions.  For the good ones, the true believers, the death of the world is a spectator sport.


There are a number of films which claim to be earnest Christianity, perhaps even prophecy.  These works claim to be literal Scripture depicting possible, probable or almost as good as certain versions of future events.  Some of thee films are produced for internal consumption by the Church while others are sent into the general marketplace to seek an audience among the unconverted as well.  I have argued that many of these near-future Christian science fiction films fail the test of earnestness, tend to lead their viewers away from the earnest thought of death, and hence are esthetic, no mater how sincerely they are offered as true gospel.  I have also argued that the Tolkien film trilogy, despite the fact that the films are not presented as religious, still contain enough true earnestness within the fairy tale medium to act as evangelium (as Tolkien would say) and to build up the viewer (as Kierkegaard would phrase it). The Tolkien movies use the death of Middle Earth to say something about the life of the individual who must choose whether to struggle to bring something better out of life or simply to surrender to the darkness.  By contrast, evangelical science fiction claims that what you do has no importance to the outcome.  All that matters is if you accept or reject the established will of God.  An oft repeated phrase, in these films and in much evangelical preaching today, is that “you cannot oppose the word of God.”  Whatever has been prophesied will occur, and there’s nothing you can or should do to change it.

The heroes of “Left Behind” are not exactly evil; if they were they would not be persecuted by the forces of the Antichrist.  But if they had been truly good, and particularly if they had believed the theology of the filmmakers, they would be safely in Heaven, watching the Tribulation from a safe distance.  The death of the world has no significance for the truly faithful, except as its onset moves them into the express lane to Paradise.  It is only a problem for other people.  This third-person relationship to the eschaton can lead to a similar detachment from the thought of one’s own death.  And this in turn can have profound consequences for political theology and theological politics.  For example, in The Omega Code 2:  Meggido, we see the President of the United States in hand-to-hand combat with the Antichrist.  By resisting first the blandishments and then the threats of the evil leader of the European Union, the President and most of the U.S. military has remained on God’s side.  The President has tried to personally kill the Antichrist, and of course has failed; but soon Jesus will come to throw him into the lake of fire.  Ultimately, all the actions anyone has taken have no greater significance than to help determine his or her own fate; success and failure are swallowed up in the final Paradise which follows the carnage of Armageddon.  In a report on the television newsmagazine 60 Minutes titled “Zion’s Christian Soldiers,” several prominent evangelical leaders are shown repeating the theology of these movies as Christian doctrine, and suggesting (or outright claiming) that it is God’s will and the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy that Israel should expel the Palestinians from the West Bank, that the Israeli Prime Minister who attempted to negotiate with them was assassinated for opposing the will of God, and that a nuclear world war triggered by Middle East tensions is absolutely unavoidable and is to be welcomed as the prelude to the return of Jesus.  Here we see the final payoff for the esthetic eschatology:  nationalism, reckless confrontation, unconcern for the other, and blind confidence in one’s own righteousness and one’s coming reward.

So the comparison I would draw between these film eschatologies is this:  In the Tolkien films the end of the world is frightful, the good bear an unfair portion of the suffering and may even die, the hand of Providence is often hidden and must be trusted on faith (“a fool’s hope”), and the death of an individual is tragic even if it is not the final end.  On the other hand, in Christian evangelical science fiction the end of the world is frightful only for the bad or mediocre people who do not escape it through the Rapture, the truly good do not suffer at all or bear any burden on behalf of the world, and one’s own actions do not matter in the slightest because the hand of Providence has written the whole story down already for those who believe.  Despite the fact that Tolkien deliberately wrote myth which veiled his Christian message, there can be no doubt that the films based on his writings come closer to the existential condition of the original Biblical writers and readers.  The Jews under Antiochus Epiphanes could hardly have believed that the prophecies of Daniel were intended to suggest that the good people were to be spared suffering.  Christians who witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem by the legions of Titus would never have thought the apocalyptic writings in Mark’s gospel didn’t apply to true Christians but only to false believers.  Christians who endured the persecutions of the Roman emperors certainly believed that they were living through the last days described by John of Patmos.  The apocalyptic writings on which evangelical Christian sci-fi is based were all written by and for believing communities which were enduring hardships at that very moment, by and for individuals who faced imminent death for the sake of their faith, who were living in the condition not of the blessed raptured ones but of those “left behind” in the movie.  The existential orientation of the apocalyptic Scriptures is that of the uncertain, powerless, innocent ones in a hostile world struggling to keep the faith with God and one another, even when God seemed far away.  The intent of those writings was to give the audience a message of hope and examples of faithful suffering obedience to imitate.

Despite the secular influences on them, the Lord of the Rings film trilogy comes closer to putting its characters and its viewers into a situation and state of being similar to that experienced by actual Bible-age people than do the so-called “literal” presentations of evangelical sci-fi.  In that state of being, the viewer is better enabled to make the sort of choices the original readers were called to make.  Fundamentalist sci-fi invites its viewers only to choose whether to believe the theology and thus escape all the hardships, or to suffer like the people in the movie.  It is really a disengaged stance which they are invited to adopt; which is also to say and esthetic stance, or as Kierkegaard also named it, an idolatrous stance.

The stories of the Ring and the Rapture come to us from earlier centuries; and yet both have resonated with the 21st Century American consciousness.  The story of the Rapture continues to offer what it always did:  the assurance that God reigns and justice will prevail, that history means something and is leading towards a beautiful consummation, and that in the end we will see that everything makes sense within the whole.  The Ring stories reassure us differently, by showing that we can make sense, and bring sense out of the senselessness we feel surrounding us.  The first I might call a cosmological consolation, the second an ethical consolation.  Both give reassurance that evil and chaos are not the end.[vii]  American culture has struggled for years to hide from the hard necessities of mortality.  The result is a multibillion dollar industrial complex of health care and cosmetics designed to remove sickness, age and death from our sight.  9/11 dealt a serious blow to that illusion.  It is harder to believe oneself immortal and omnipotent after such a devastating event brought about with such relative ease.  As the insecurity of mortality produces anxiety, the ground is prepared for true earnestness to take root.  It is natural and desirable that the popular culture should produce stories which seek to place individual lives and apparent chaos into a wider, ultimately rational and benevolent context.  It is also natural and desirable that the popular culture should produce stories showing how individuals can face and conquer their fear and the chaos of an often hostile world, be good and finally help produce goodness despite it all.

If I had to choose, I would choose the Ring stories over the Rapture films.  I have already discussed my theological and psychological reasons for this preference.  Even stronger are my political concerns.  Rapture theology has been used and is used to demonize “them”  and exalt “us,” rendering self-criticism all but impossible and making the other nothing more than a stock villain in one’s own play.  Rapture theology often inspires not only confidence in God’s final victory, but also a disregard for the present reality and people.  In an age that sees such things as the Tulsa bombing, the Sarin gas attacks in Japan, and the destruction of the World Trade Center, this sort of “religion” (which I, following Calvin and Kierkegaard both, would name “idolatry”) is too dangerous for words.  It is not just a casual concern whether a religious phenomenon is “true” or not; all should be concerned when esthetic, shallow passions masquerade as religion and take on divine prerogatives in order to lay a road of destruction for the individuals to follow.  And it should be a concern for everyone to strive for that true earnestness, and to urge others towards earnestness, which can help each one best deal with these anxious times and best preserve oneself and the whole.

[i] Three Discourses, pp. 83-84

[ii] 1 Thess. 5:2; also 2 Peter 3:10, Rev. 3:3, and others

[iii] The Omega Code:  TBN Films, Inc. 1999.

[iv] Left Behind:  the movie  Cloud Ten Pictures, 2000.

[v] Revelations 21-22

[vi] Verlyn Flieger, Splintered Light:  Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World;  (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI 1983) pp. 134-35

[vii] These are not necessarily mutually exclusive; one can both see one’s fears and burdens as part of a larger story and strive to play out one’s own part in it as best it can be.  Tolkien’s characters certainly see themselves as parts of the greater story, without this leading them away from earnestness.