Posts Tagged ‘J. R. R. Tolkien’

Theological Reflections on J.R.R. Tolkien, pt. 1: The Hobbit

December 27, 2014

Theological Reflections on J.R.R. Tolkien, pt. 1:  The Hobbit

 

Tolkien confessed that, if he had been writing an allegory of the modern world, he would have been compelled to make the hellish consequences of war much worse than they are in The Lord of the Rings: “The Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied.”

—from The Gospel According to Tolkien

 

 

Having completed a short study of Tolkien’s work and thought, I now look back and consider how his theology stacks up to the popular theological currents today. It is true that Tolkien was not a professional theologian was not really even “doing theology;” but then, neither are many of the most influential theologians in the U.S. today. In fact, modern American religious history, from William Miller to Billy Sunday to Bill Bright, has often shown the untrained theologian to be more influential than the “scholar;” and why not? Scholars tend to write for other scholars; at best, they teach somebody (a pastor or teacher or judge or whatever) who eventually goes on to translate the esoteric intellectualizing into some sort of life-philosophy or public policy. What is rare, though, is to find an “amateur” (in the true sense: one who practices an art for the love of it rather than for money) who has the insight Tolkien. As I look forward to the release of the final Hobbit movie, and as I anticipate the convening of a new Congress, I am struck by the contrasting theological themes that play out in Middle Earth and The Political Landscape. In brief, The Lord of the Rings can be fruitfully seen as a critique of Christian Zionism, and The Hobbit as a critique of the Prosperity Gospel; and together, they offer a valuable comparison to the dominant strains of The Religious Right.

Tolkien was not an ascetic. All the biographical discussions I have read affirm that. However, he does not equate money with virtue, or see comfort as automatically indicative of divine favor. Today, many (not all) of the largest churches are non-denominational megachurches preaching some variation of The Prosperity Gospel: if you tithe, and follow the pastor’s directions on social-political issues such as gay marriage, you will become wealthy and happy; if you are not wealthy and happy, you are sinning, and need to give more money, be more socially judgmental and more stridently anti-intellectual. There is a direct cause-effect taught in many of these megachurches; and this theology is spreading beyond the U.S. to Africa. Tolkien’s heroes, by contrast, know better. Bilbo is not a monk; he enjoys his six meals a day, his pipe and beer and comfortable home and nice clothes. And when we meet him, he probably does believe he “deserves” all that he has, since he has always been a good society man and never done anything unusual. But when he leaves his home, his views on wealth moderate. He becomes like Luke’s “Unjust Steward,” who uses his wealth not to make more wealth, but to make friends. He gives away all of the treasure he has rightfully earned from the dragon’s hoard; and when he is pressed to accept some reward, consents only to take as much as he can easily transport home. It is hard to tell whether he is really wealthier after plundering Smaug or not; he gives away all the troll hoard and spends much of the dragon treasure buying back his own belongings from his “heirs” after he has returned home only to find he has been declared dead. What has changed is that he holds his property more loosely; or rather, it holds him more loosely.

Tolkien’s characters show that some wealth is useful and contributes to happiness; but too much is perhaps worse than not enough. The Master of Lake-Town ends up dying alone in the wilderness with the dragon-gold he has stolen from the town. Thorin too ends up dead as a result of his greed. Smaug has literally absorbed much of his treasure, his skin embedded with countless gems; and in the end they lie with his carcass under the lake, considered cursed by those who know of them. The dragon hoard brings death to those who covet it most; but still, it proves to be a blessing to those who hold it lightly and pass it on freely. It is through trade, not theft or conquest, that prosperity returns to Dale.

Tolkien does not demonize wealth. He does not say that those who have comfortable lives are automatically “oppressors” who need to be overthrown. In fact, he points to the goblins’ hatred of the “prosperous” as one of their many unsavory qualities.[1] He shows none of the Marxist-inspired disdain for wealth and authority, which we commonly see in liberation theology; and he shows little of the Neo-platonic asceticism that appears in much Christian mysticism and monasticism. Pleasure is good, in moderation. His heroes often do renounce wealth, sometimes for many years (as did Aragorn when he became a Ranger); but when they do it is as a means to an end, and when that end is achieved they can enjoy the good things in this life again. What he does reject is the idolization of wealth. And here is where so much of today’s theology leaves the path of wisdom, which Tolkien has marked for us. The central, simple message of the Prosperity Gospel is that if you give up some money, God will give you more money. God becomes little more than a banker who pays extravagant interest on whatever you loan him. You are giving up something in this world, in order to gain something in this world. That’s not faith; that’s trading. When wealth is the primary motivation for worshipping God, the primary means by which you worship God (through tithing), and the primary or sole expression of God’s good will and the state of one’s God-relationship, wealth has in fact become God. This deification of wealth is what The Hobbit warns us against. To that extent, I would say the movies are a loss over the book; the book does not have so many side-plots or exciting fight scenes to obscure this point. Thorin’s lust for the Arkenstone echoes the acquisitiveness of this kin and forbearers who dug so deep that they claimed the fabulous heart of the mountain for themselves. Tolkien suggests that this was the event that drew the dragon to them. Too much wealth and too much adoration of their own wealth summoned the incarnation of Greed, which is what Smaug represents. Lust for his hoard destroys some, nearly destroys others, and is only truly a blessing for those who seem to desire it least. The wise and the good show themselves by surrendering their wealth when it is appropriate. In a material sense, Bilbo’s condition is little changed at the end of the book. While the Prosperity Gospel says that the righteous tither will grow more wealthy, Bilbo takes great risk, suffers great deprivation, and gives up most of his legitimate reward to help others, and in the end is right back where he started: in his own hobbit-hole, smoking a pipe and enjoying the company of Gandalf and one of the thirteen dwarves. Whatever he gained from his adventure, if it is measured in prosperity it was a very bad bargain; so much effort for so little gain! The famous Prosperity Gospel preacher Rev. Fredrick Price said in an interview that God wants us to be prosperous, and that if anyone believes in God and is not wealthy then he or she is “missing the mark.”[2] This is a fascinating phrase, since “missing the mark” is the literal translation of the Greek word “harmatia,” which is the word most translators of the Greek original tests of the New Testament translate as “sin.” Price is saying, essentially, that if you are poor then you are a sinner; that is the essence of the Prosperity Gospel. To be without money shows that you are without God, and to be with God is to be with money. It is this easy equation of God and Money that The Hobbit warns us against, not by thundering sermons against greed but by gently telling us a child’s fairy tale, and in the process showing us how one ought, and ought not, to be oriented towards the material goods of this world.

 

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, chapter 4, “Over Hill and Under Hill.”

[2] Interviewed by Dr. Randal Balmer, in Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: a journey into the evangelical subculture of America; pt. 3, “Coming of Age”. Isis Productions, Chicago; 1993

Lecture: The Christian World of The Hobbit

October 29, 2014

The Christian World of The Hobbit

 

            I’m taking the title of this lecture, and much of the material from Devin Brown’s book of the same name.[1] This is a very readable book; if I have any complaint, it that it comes across at times as some sort of inside discussion. The author often uses phrases like, “This will of course be familiar to Christians….” Even a non-Christian scholar might want to understand Tolkien better, and might want to understand the religious messages; asides to the fellow Christians can be off-putting. Also, the author generally can show his points from the textual evidence, so the reliance on Christian intuition or experience is not always necessary.

            These are basically lecture notes. I did not deliver the entire paper, but rather used it as the foundation for my talk. What was presented was more of an oral summary of most of the main points.

 

SUMMARY OF THE HOBBIT

 

  1. In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
  2. Bilbo Baggins, a well-off middle-class hobbit, is enjoying a lovely morning on his own doorstep when the wizard Gandalf walks up. This is extremely unusual and the hobbit greets him happily but a little apprehensively. The Bagginses are well respected in the community for their complete predictability as well as their relative wealth, and Bilbo is nervous when the wizard says he is looking for someone to go on an adventure. The hobbit declines vigorously, but the wizard still puts up a secret sign which leads thirteen dwarves to show up the next day. Gandalf tells the dwarves that he has chosen Bilbo to be their burglar. The dwarves introduce themselves, and tell Bilbo that their leader Thorin is the rightful King Under the Mountain, that their kingdom was destroyed by a dragon, and that they are going to steal their treasure back from the dragon. Bilbo faints.
  3. The next day the dwarves set off without Bilbo. Gandalf arrives and rushes him out the door, without time to even pack properly. The fourteen travel on initially without Gandalf, and after some time on the road are cold and hungry in the rain when they hear voices, which belong to trolls. They send Bilbo to burgle some food, but his inexperience and bungling lead instead to all the dwarves being captured and nearly killed before Gandalf suddenly arrives to rescue them.
  4. They travel to Rivendell, the home of the High Elves, and their leader Elrond, with whom Gandalf wishes to consult. By a seeming coincidence, Elrond discovers that their map has magically hidden notes indicating a secret door into the dwarves’ fortress, and instructions on how to find it. The party is reprovisioned by the elves and departs.
  5. Some days after the party is captured by goblins, except for Gandalf. Gandalf rescues them and while they are fleeing Bilbo is lost in the goblin caves. While there he meets a nasty and miserable person named Gollum, who engages him in a riddling contest which Bilbo manages to win, again by luck as much as cleverness. Gollum determines to kill Bilbo anyway, but Bilbo has (again by “luck”) found Gollum’s magic ring, and by luck finds that the ring makes him invisible. With this he is able to escape, although his escape is complicated by a decision not to kill Gollum but merely to evade him.
  6. Bilbo finds the dwarves and Gandalf outside the caves. They are chased up trees by wolves, and soon goblins arrive as well. They are nearly killed when giant eagles who happen to be passing by (and hate goblins) rescue them. But all that stuff in the movie about the giant white goblin and Thorin fighting and so on never happened.
  7. Soon they leave the eagles and go to the homestead of Beorn, a mysterious person who is sometimes a bear, and who has domestic animals that act as servants. Beorn gives them rustic hospitality, shares his vegetarian food with them and finally sends them on their way with new provisions to replace what they lost to the goblins. The group is certainly hard on ponies!.
  8. They travel through the mysterious and dangerous Mirkwood, when running out of supplies they do what Gandalf warned them not to do: they leave the trail to try to beg food from the Wood Elves they can hear around them. The elves lead them deeper into the woods until they are completely lost. Then the party, except Bilbo, is captured by giant intelligent spiders. Bilbo uses his magic ring to help him trick the spiders, kill a couple and rescue the dwarves.
  9. Then the dwarves are captured by the Wood Elves. Bilbo manages to remain invisible and follows them to the elven fortress. The Wood Elf King imprisons the dwarves but treats them fairly well, but won’t free them without information and Thorin and the others will not tell him about their mission to regain their gold. Finally Bilbo manages to free them by hiding them in barrels and floating them down the river. Again, all that stuff about the elves chasing them never happened, and Legolas is not in the book at all. The barrel riding diversion is a lucky break since they later discover the road ended before arriving anywhere, so they would have died had they not left it.
  10. They arrive at a human settlement built on pilings in the lake by the survivors of Smaug the dragon. The Master of the town is initially disturbed, but hides this. The townsfolk are excited and see the arrival of dwarves as the fulfillment of prophecy that the dragon will soon be dead and the rivers will run with gold!
  11. After several days of trying to find the secret back door into Smaug’s lair, Bilbo discovers it, again by luck. The dwarves send Bilbo alone to burgle something, and he succeeds. The second time the dragon awakens and Bilbo flatters him and distracts him with riddles. The dragon guesses that Bilbo is not alone and that he and his friends came from the Laketown. Bilbo discovers that there is a bare patch on the dragon’s belly where a scale is missing.
  12. The dragon traps the dwarves and Bilbo in the secret tunnel but can’t get to them, so he flies off to destroy the human town. After more than a day the dwarves finally work up the courage to go investigate the dragon’s lair, and find he is gone. They revel in the wealth piled around them, and Bilbo finds the fabulous Arkenstone, the great gem Thorin desires more than anything and which seems to represent the great wealth of the dwarves in this story. Bilbo initially pockets it for himself.
  13. Unknown to them, the dragon is killed by the men of Lake Town, but not before badly damaging the town. It is only by luck that a magical thrush has overheard Bilbo tell the dwarves about the missing scale, and then told a human who happens to know thrush-language, so that human, named Bard, could shoot an arrow that killed the dragon.
  14. The Master of Lake-Town turns the people against the dwarves by blaming the dwarves for the dragon’s rage and saying they should demand a share of the dwarves’ gold. Wood Elves arrive and help with emergency supplies for the town. Their king, who likes gold too, agrees to send his army with the Men to demand some gold.
  15. Thorin refuses to negotiate with an army or to talk to the elves at all, so the two armies besiege the mountain. The thirteen dwarves hole up waiting for reinforcements. Bilbo sneaks off and gives the Arkenstone to the Men so they can offer to trade it for Bilbo’s share of the treasure, hoping in that way to buy peace. This only delays conflict, however. Thorin is enraged and nearly kills Bilbo, but is persuaded to send him away penniless instead. But just as the two sides are about to fight, an army of goblins riding wolves appears. The humans, elves, and the newly arrived dwarf army hastily agree to fight together against the goblins. They are still losing when an army of giant eagles arrives to aid them. The four armies together fight the goblin horde, and the battle is finally turned when Beorn in bear form suddenly arrives and claws his way through the goblin ranks to Thorin, who lies mortally wounded.
  16. Bilbo was knocked out early in the fight, and lain unconscious and invisible during all these events. He is finally found in time to be taken to Thorin, and the two reconcile before Thorin dies of his wounds. The new dwarf king, Thorin’s cousin Durin, honors Thorin’s agreement to pay Bilbo’s share to the Men in exchange for the Arkenstone; but he also insists on giving Bilbo his rightful one-fourteenth share. Bilbo refuses to take any more than one pony’s carrying capacity. He and Gandalf return to the Shire, Bilbo’s homeland. Bilbo finds that he has been declared dead and that his acquisitive friends and neighbors are selling off his estate! He spends much of his loot buying back his own goods, and never gets his silver spoons back from his cousins. He gives most of the rest of it away. But in the end he retires, not quite as respectable but a bit richer, and the friend of dwarf, elf and wandering wizard for the rest of his days.
  17. The story ends with Bilbo being visited by Gandalf and Balin, one of the dwarves. Balin and Bilbo both show their prosperity over the years. The wizard and dwarf tell Bilbo how prosperous the land is now; there is so much trade that the rivers are said to run with gold. Bilbo says it seems the prophecies have come true, and Gandalf tells him that of course they have; just because Bilbo helped doesn’t mean they weren’t prophecies or that there wasn’t some force managing to make them come true. Bilbo says, “Thank Goodness!” and the two enjoy their pipes together.

The Lord of the Rings is not a grim book, but it is serious. The good suffer, the innocent die, and even admirable characters turn out to be flawed. And ultimately, even the hero, Frodo Baggins, fails, and does evil in spite of himself; the world is saved when Gollum does good in spite of himself. The characters and peoples in the story are not allegorical stand-ins, but they are metaphors; some are metaphors of nature (Treebeard, Tom Bombadil) others for modernity and the power of evil (Saruman, Sauron, the One Ring), or humanity threatened by inhumanity (The Shire, Gondor), and still others share the role as Christ figures (Gandalf, Aragorn, any of the Ring Bearers). And ultimately, this is an apocalypse, Tolkien’s Armageddon or Ragnarok; the elves are leaving Middle Earth, magic is fading, and the world itself is on the edge of destruction.

  The Hobbit is set at a time when shadows are gathering, about a generation before the events of The Lord of the Rings. The cover of my copy describes it as “The Enchanting Prelude to “The Lord of the Rings’”. This is a bit misleading, as if it was written as a prequel. In fact, it was the first major fictional work published by Tolkien; The Lord of the Rings was only written because his publishers wanted to follow up on the great success of his first book with “more hobbit stories.” Tolkien expressed some regret for having written The Hobbit as a children’s book, but he didn’t let that choice prevent him either from including some real frights and violence on the one hand, or some serious theology on the other. If you’ve only seen the movies, you only have a hint of how different the two “hobbit stories” really are. The Hobbit has a good many songs, a conversational style with numerous asides to the reader, and overall a much simpler style and structure than does The Lord of the Rings. This simplicity can at times hide the deep theological insights undergirding Tolkien’s story of a reluctant hero.

The fairy story was said to serve four functions: first, Fantasy.

 

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

Before the wizards, elves, monsters, or even an explanation as to what a “hobbit” is, we enter the Secondary World which Tolkien is creating through a description of the physical environment. What is a “hobbit”? Why does it live in a hole? How can a hole be comfortable, when most holes we know are either wet and yucky or dry and barren? In two sentences, we are already outside our normal world, and asking questions about this new one.

Second, Recovery: Tolkien describes a number of rather ordinary things in this extraordinary hole, and as the book goes on we see still more: carpeted and tiled floors, chairs and coat pegs for guests, tea kettle and pocket-handkerchiefs, flowers and green grass and good tilled earth. At the end of the hobbit’s long adventure, returning after a year to his home, the old familiar hills and meadows move him so much that he bursts into spontaneous poetry. The time we spend in Middle Earth is meant to allow us to do the same: to see afresh what we have come to overlook. Sometimes this Recovery is meant just to inspire appreciation; sometimes it invites critique; and sometimes it seems to do both.

Escape: Bilbo Baggins lives in a world familiar in some ways, utterly alien in others, and nostalgic in still others. Before his adventure, he lives a life of middle-class comfort, with tea-time and nice clothes and friends. At the same time, he is a hobbit, half the size of the people we’re used to, dressed as we are except for his bare feet which keep him always in touch with the earth; a hobbit who lives in a world of dwarves and elves and goblins and wizards. And while his life in this extraordinary world seems like an ordinary grocer’s, it is natural in a way few of us can ever experience: no motor cars making the miles disappear in minutes, no electric lights obliterating the alteration of sun and moon, no bulldozers leveling hills and trees to make room for thousands and millions to pack into ever more crowded cities. The time we spend in Middle Earth is time we spend away from the limits of our modern lives, in touch with a world more heroic and full of possibilities, and in touch with nature and truer values than those that normally preoccupy us.

For Bilbo, too, the adventure is an Escape. At the start of the story he is living a limited, controlled, respectable life. He cannot imagine being without his pocket-handkerchiefs. He is so timid that he screams and faints just hearing the dwarves and Gandalf talk about adventures. Gandalf drags him out of his literal “comfort zone,” and Bilbo learns he can do without quite a few of his possessions; and he finds he possesses things he never knew he had: such as courage, cleverness, loyalty, and self-sacrifice.

Lastly, Consolation: The great gift of the fairy-story is the Happy Ending, the Eucatastrophe. Bilbo experiences this again and again, and we experience it through him. The great turning point in his life is when he is alone and lost in the goblins’ cave, and finds a magic ring. In this story, we are not told anything about it being a world-destroying curse, and this clearly was not the original intention. In fact, the only power of the ring is to grant invisibility, something that hobbits are said to have something of a knack for anyway. It’s a common fairy-tale device, and in the first version of The Hobbit it is won fair and square in the riddling contest with no hard feelings afterwards. That is, the emphasis is on Bilbo’s self-reliance and cleverness, as well as his providential good luck. This unexpected gift in his moment of despair is one of the greatest Eucatastrophes Bilbo personally experiences. Other “lucky breaks” come to him unexpectedly and sometimes even without his knowledge. Tolkien is saying, more or less, that sometimes we make our luck and sometimes it makes us, but it exists. And as Gandalf informs Bilbo, what seems like luck is something more: he says,

 

“Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

 

What seems to be a story with a series of lucky breaks, the sort of thing critics generally hate, is really a story of Providence in action, perfectly in control and perfectly hidden. Critics disparagingly call this the deus ex machina, the god in the machine; but that is Tolkien’s point: it is God in the machine! Bilbo’s response to Gandalf is instructive: “Thank goodness!” What a Consolation to discover both that there are bigger forces in the world and bigger concerns than oneself, and still to find that one is included!

Now, for the monsters: like Beowulf, Bilbo has his dragon. Unlike Beowulf, Bilbo has only a very small part in slaying it. Beowulf does not live “happily ever after” once the dragon is slain; it represents the sunset of the hero, an end which comes to us all. Smaug represents Greed Incarnate. He comes to destroy the dwarves when they are at the height of their prosperity, when they have uncovered the mysterious Arkenstone, the heart of the mountain, and made it their own. His greed even infects the treasure; the Master of Lake-Town is said to be infected with the sickness of dragon-treasure, which causes him to steal much of the money intended to rebuild his town and flee into the wilderness, there to die alone. Smaug is so obsessed with his treasure that he notices when even a single goblet disappears from his immense pile; but his only use for all this wealth is to sleep on it. In the end it is his blind fury at having been robbed that leads to his death.

Even before hearing tales of dragons, Bilbo’s life revolved around his possessions.[2] He really is a nebbish, a perfectly bourgeoisie character even if he is only three feet tall and has hairy feet. He prizes his comforts. His life is more predictable than the ticking of a clock. His neighbors respect this, and he values their opinions. He’s not ungenerous; he knows his duty to his guests and will go without a second seed-cake if he must, although it distresses him. But his generosity is circumscribed by his comfortable, predictable life. By the end of his adventure, while he loses the respect of most of his neighbors, his generosity is boundless. He welcomes the invited and the uninvited, the hobbit, elf, wizard or dwarf to his home. He gives away all rights to the dragon treasure to try to buy peace between the dwarves, men and elves; and when pressed to accept it, he consents only to take the small portion he can transport on one pony. He gives away the troll horde as well. He still appreciates his comforts, but his comforts no longer bind him.

Thorin, by contrast, is a tragic figure. His obsession with wealth nearly leads him to murder Bilbo, and to go to war with the Wood-Elves and Men with whom his people once had allied. Bilbo’s example finally redeems him, leading him to realize on his death bed that the world would be a merrier place if more people prized a hobbit’s simple comforts over piles of gold. But he has virtues as well: courage for one, self-sacrifice when required, perseverance, a willingness to work hard and do without. The Master of Lake-Town, on the other hand, is a pretty shrewd politician: calculating, persuasive, with a keen eye to present circumstances and how they affect his standing with the people. All in all, the Master is a pretty modern guy all right; which is precisely why he is just the sort who so quickly falls victim to the sickness of dragon treasure. Unlike Thorin, he dies unrepentant, unredeemed, unloved and alone.

The goblins are even more types of the dark side of modernity. Tolkien describes them thus:

 

Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted. They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones…. It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them, and also not working with their own hands more than they could help; but in those days and those wild parts they had not advanced (as it is called) so far. They did not hate dwarves especially, no more than they hated everybody and everything, and particularly the orderly and the prosperous;…

 

Goblins are darkness and evil as much as Elrond’s elves are light and joy. They don’t even need the temptation of dragon gold to be greedy and malicious; sadism and laziness are inherent traits, as is envy of the orderly and prosperous. In the end, though, even they serve a good purpose: the threat of the goblins is the one thing that finally leads the men, elves and dwarves to lay aside their squabbling over gold and make a common cause, reforging the old alliances destroyed by Smaug and his treasure.

I don’t have much to say about the spiders. I do know that Tolkien was bitten by a spider as a child in South Africa, that he said it didn’t affect him but his biographers seem to doubt that. He included a giant spider, named Ungoliant, in The Simarillion as one of the manifestations of cosmic evil aiding Melkor in his attempts to destroy the world. And later, Tolkien’ placed Shelob, the giant spider who is said to have been descended from Ungoliant, as a monstrous force more or less independent of Sauron and as ancient and malevolent though not as ambitious. Shelob seems to represent pure appetite, delighting in killing and eating and unconcerned what she ate; the spiders in The Hobbit seem much the same, if more chatty. They aren’t interested in dragon gold or in tea kettles; they delight only in capturing, tormenting and finally killing and devouring others. Bilbo’s only act of violence is killing some of the spiders to rescue the dwarves; and this violence is seen as a good thing, both necessary to save the others and as a real turning point in Bilbo’s growth from nebbish to mensch.[3]

Enough of the monsters: what about the Good Guys? In The Hobbit, Tolkien presents the dwarves as basically reliable if not always good or generous, and basically brave if pressed albeit quarrelsome, condescending and ungrateful at times. When Bilbo is about to sneak into Smaug’s lair for the first time, he asks “Now who is coming with me? He did not expect a chorus of volunteers, so he was not disappointed.” Two look a mite uncomfortable at refusing, and Balin actually agrees to go partway; Bombur is asleep; but the other nine have no qualms about staying back and sending Bilbo alone. Tolkien writes:

 

            The most that can be said for the dwarves is this: they intended to pay Bilbo handsomely for his services; they had brought him to do a nasty job for them, and they did not mind the poor little fellow doing it if he would; but they would all have done their best to get him out of trouble, if he got into it, as they did in the case of the trolls at the beginning of their adventures before they had any particular reasons for being grateful to him. There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots, some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don’t expect too much.

 

The dwarves may be unusual and mysterious to Bilbo, but in Middle Earth they are just one people among several. Gandalf, on the other hand, is as wonderous to Bilbo as hobbits are to us. He is the fairies’ Faerie, the Perilous Realm’s Perilous intrusion. And he is one of those elements of so-called “luck” (or Providence) that comes along when most needed. He is not omnipotent; in fact, his magic seems fairly minimal. But he is a manifestation of Magic and a world beyond the understanding even of dwarves and hobbits.

His only equal seems to be Elrond. Elves are wise and magical, Elrond in particular; and his people give the Thorin expedition advice and material assistance that even Gandalf alone could not. But they also share the common traits of fairies: mysterious, sometimes mischievous and selfish (particularly the Wood Elves), often whimsical and seemingly mocking.

Beorn seems to be a metaphor for Nature. He is sometimes a savage bear, and sometimes a rough but basically good man. He has to be approached carefully and respectfully. He is not pure wilderness, but barely cultivated; his stead is far more primitive than The Shire but includes domestic animals and sturdy accommodations. And in the end it is Beorn who saves the day, scattering goblins to rescue Thorin when he falls, so that he can die surrounded by friends.

Beorn is too wild and strange to be a role-model; Elrond and Gandalf are too mysterious, magical and Other; and the dwarves by contrast are simply too unheroic to be described as the heroes of the story. Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit, is the hero and role model, although to the end he seems an unlikely candidate for either job. How can we know that the hobbit is the hero of the story? Because Tolkien sees himself as one. In a letter to a friend he wrote:

 

“I am in fact a Hobbit in all but size. I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humor (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much.”

 

 

If Bilbo Baggins is basically Tolkien reimaging himself, or perhaps idealizing himself, then what is different? In his book he lists these particular characteristics that differentiate hobbits from “Big People:”

  1. Size, obviously. A hobbit is half the size of a normal human.
  2. They are stealthy; they can hide from us pretty much whenever they want.
  3. They have no beards, which particularly distinguishes them from dwarves.
  4. They eat a lot.
  5. They have naturally leathery soles on their feet and thick hair on their feet matching the curly hair on their heads, so they don’t need shoes.
  6. And as Thorin observes, they prize good food, good drink and good company more than all the gold in the world, making them a naturally peaceful people (though the Sacksville-Bagginses do steal Bilbo’s silver spoons).

They aren’t perfect by any means; but again, most of their faults are those we would expect from any people living in a small rural community. Their homeland, The Shire, is based on Sarehole Mill, the English village Tolkien’s mother moved the boys to after the death of their father in South Africa. The main difference between hobbits and us that while we include both city people and country folk, hobbits have only country folk; there are no hobbit cities, though there are communities and even towns where hobbits and Big People live together. Left to themselves, hobbits are more down-to-earth than we are. This is literally seen in their bare feet and in their small size. And their size, and their shyness, reflects the idea that they represent humility. They don’t seek to dominate anyone else, and would consider it absurd to try. They are intelligent but don’t seek to become great scholars. They don’t worship their heroes, but generally consider them a little odd even if they remember fondly the good they did.

At times, Bilbo is a bit player in his own story. He is drafted by Gandalf to go on an adventure, and initially terrified as he eavesdrops on Thorin and Gandalf planning the heist. His first attempt at burglary is a miserable failure. In fact, up until the escape from the goblins, he is literally a burden, needing to be carried by the dwarves when fleeing. After being dropped and lost, he begins to grow. First, his escape from Gollum is accomplished through a combination of luck, intelligence and virtue. Finding the ring just happens to him; winning the riddling contest is partly luck and partly cleverness; and sparing Gollum shows his good nature. Rescuing the dwarves from the spiders also involves both cleverness and courage as well as the gift of that magic ring. Freeing the dwarves from the Wood Elves is accomplished without any force on Bilbo’s part, and eventually he even pays the elves back for the food he stole. He also returns the keys to their jailor to help keep him out of trouble, a very kind gesture. And finally, there is his encounter with Smaug. This again is solved through a mix of hobbit cleverness and something more than luck; but the real key is Bilbo’s moral struggle. Tolkien describes Bilbo going down the tunnel to Smaug’s lair for the first time. None of the dwarves dared to accompany him; even Balin, who liked him best, would only go partway. So he creeps along as quietly as he can through the black tunnel, until he hears “some vast animal snoring in its sleep down there in the red glow in front of him.”

 

            It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.

 

This is Bilbo’s apogee as a hero, and it is completely internal. The “real battle” is mustering the courage or responsibility or whatever to keep going despite the danger and fear. And because he finds the strength of virtue to do the right thing, the story is able to have a happy ending. Frankly, I think this is one place where Jackson’s movie weakens the whole effect. The thirteen dwarves do little in the story except make things worse for everyone, until the goblins attack. Everything that happens, particularly the death of the dragon, happens because of what Bilbo brings himself to do. And increasingly, Bilbo becomes more a witness to events than a real actor. His efforts to mediate peace delay the fighting between dwarves and elves, but had the goblins not arrived they still would have fought. The final great act of Bilbo is a failure; he gives the Arkenstone and with it his claim to any part of the dragon’s treasure away, and then returns to the dwarves to face whatever might come of it. But Bilbo’s failed peace effort does allow one final accomplishment: the redemption of Thorin. In life, Thorin had been increasingly caught up in his desire for treasure, and particularly the dragon’s treasure embodied in the fabulous Arkenstone. Bilbo is able, after some struggle, to give it away. Because he returns to Thorin, Thorin is able to repent of his greed and fury at Bilbo and to receive forgiveness, so the two are able to part as friends before his death. Durin, Thorin’s heir and the next King Under the Mountain, agrees to honor the deal Thorin had made to ransom the Arkenstone, allowing the Humans to rebuild Dale and the Wood Elves to share in the new prosperity.

Tolkien’s attitude towards wealth is instructive. Described by a biographer as an “unabstentious Catholic,” Tolkien enjoyed his material comforts; but at the same time, his tastes were simple. His hobbits enjoy good food and even tend towards plumpness; they enjoy their comfortable homes and nice furniture and all the other pleasures of life. But they do not gather wealth excessively. The dragon’s gold brings Bilbo out of his comfortable life, on an adventure that proves to be, as Gandalf predicted, good for him. He grew as a person by learning to do without; but he never became an ascetic. And his great heart does not result in great wealth; the blessings of God do not express themselves in riches but in richness of life. He has enough and to spare, which he generously shares with others. He loses some of the respect of his neighbors, while gaining the friendship of strangers.

For Bilbo, the adventure brings out his moral richness. He becomes, or finds that he is generous, even to his own loss, if the cause is right. He is loyal and responsible. He has courage. And he is merciful and empathetic, particularly as he looks at the miserable Gollum. Pursuing this adventure brought these virtues out. Before his travels, Bilbo’s “Took side” was suppressed. His courage shows in his agreeing to join the group, but he also is initially terrified. His generosity is limited to a willingness to do without a third seed-cake if his guests are hungry. And we see little sign of a capacity for empathy or pity; his comfortable life simply provides no occasion for it.

In others, the dragon’s gold brings out not hidden virtues, but hidden vices. The Master of Lake-Town is the prime example: a shrewd businessman and politician, he is the very sort most inclined to fall to the sickness carried by dragon-gold. Thorin, too, is overwhelmed with greed. Both are killed through their lust for the gold, though Thorin’s soul is redeemed at the end. The Wood-Elf King likewise prizes gold too much, which makes him an enemy of the dwarves; but it seems to bind him less since he still helps the men of Lake-Town before setting out to chase the dwarves. Overall, we could say that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” The desire for money, or dragon’s gold, is the motivating force behind the story and the chief threat undermining community. When money is spent or given away to promote community and fellowship, it leads to happiness; when it is an end and not a mere means, it leads to solitude, suspicion, hostility and misery. The reward of a good life and a good heart is not wealth, but freedom from the domination of wealth. The providential forces that guide Bilbo’s seeming luck bring about a prophecy where the rivers run with gold, not by generating riches but by generating trade and cooperation.

[1] Devin Brown, The Christian World of The Hobbit (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012).

[2] The Christian World of the Hobbit, pp. 86-114

[3] Perhaps presumptuous for a goy like myself, but the words fit better than any I could think of.

The Lord of the Rings and Apocalyptic Writing

October 21, 2014

This is a rough draft of the lecture I offered to one of my church’s adult Sunday School classes on Oct. 19, 2014.  I was rewriting and reorganizing up until the last minute; in particular, I could not decide whether to discuss the “Character Sketches” or “The Lord of the Rings as Apocalyptic Literature” first.  Also, I didn’t cover the material in italics at all.  However, you might find the information useful, if you are the sort of reader who cares more about ideas than style.

The Lord of the Rings

 

As discussed last week, Tolkien saw four purposes to fairy stories: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape and Consolation. I would summarize the relationship between these four thus: Fantasy allows us to see the familiar and commonplace as magical and extraordinary, and to see the possibility for the extraordinary to break into the familiar and commonplace. As C. S. Lewis put it, talk of enchanted woods helps us see all woods as enchanted; that is Fantasy and Recovery in action. And as Samwise Gamgee put it, the people in those stories had lots of chances to turn around, and didn’t, because they were holding onto a hope that there was still some good left and that good can still come to us even when so much bad has happened; that is Escape and Consolation at work. The Lord of the Rings is a fairy story, and these are its central functions. However, as Tolkien also says, to understand the story, we need to look at the particularities of that story. The storyteller has a reason for telling it just this way.

            Not only was this a three part series, but each part has two volumes; so it is a very complicated plot. Considering that writing wasn’t even his day job, it is amazing that it only took from 1937 to 1949 to write. It took another six years to get the entire series into print; Tolkien first offered it to Collins Publishing, which rejected it, then turned to Allen & Unwin. Tolkien’s first choice to follow up on the success of The Hobbit would have been to publish The Simarillion, but Allen & Unwin had suggested he write “more hobbit stories;” so starting in 1937 he began composing a new tale, including hobbits but also picking up on many of the themes and much of the tone of The Simarillion. For those of you who have not read the books or seen any of the movies, first, how long have you been in al Qaeda? And second, here is a brief recap. The story begins pretty much as “Hobbit: The Next Generation,” some 60 years after the events of The Hobbit. So yes, I’m telling the story out of sequence because I wanted to end with The Hobbit in celebration of the coming film. Bilbo is an old man, preparing for his 111th (or “Eleventy-First”) birthday party. His favorite cousin and legal heir, Frodo Baggins, is 33 and therefore has just legally become an adult. Gandalf arrives, ostensibly for the party and to provide fireworks; but actually, he is there for a much more serious reason. He has become suspicious of the magic ring Biblo found on his adventure with the dwarves, and has determined that he should separate Bilbo from it. With assistance and some pressure from Gandalf, Bilbo slips away to Rivendell, the kingdom of the elves, to retire, leaving the ring and all his possessions to Frodo. After further investigation Gandalf returns, having confirmed his fears that Bilbo’s ring is actually a powerful talisman, the “One Ring to Rule Them All” created ages ago by Sauron, servant of Melkor, and worn first by him in his attempt to conquer Middle Earth. He tells Frodo to take the Ring and his faithful gardener, Samwise Gamgee, to Rivendell, where the wise elf Elrond will help decide what to do with it. The two hobbits pick up two more, meet a mysterious human called Strider, and after adventures and mishaps manage to reach Rivendell. There it is decided that the Ring must be returned to Mordor, the land Sauron rules, and there destroyed in the very volcano where it was first forged. Frodo volunteers to take the Ring, and representatives of the Humans, Elves and Dwarves agree to accompany him, along with his three hobbit friends. After adventures, hardship, war and suffering, Frodo succeeds in his quest. The Ring is destroyed, Strider is revealed to be the true King Aragorn and takes his rightful throne, and at the end of the movies the elves and wizards, together with Bilbo and Frodo, leave Middle Earth forever to return to the western lands where elves originated, the White Shore, which is essentially Heaven. In Tolkien’s writings, it is revealed that the Elves all leave Middle Earth to return to the Creator, the Dwarves tunnel deeper into the earth and are eventually forgotten, the Hobbits gradually grow taller and become humans. The kingly line begun with Aragorn peters out anticlimactically, eventually leaving a less magical world with more mundane terrors and joys, in which we now live.

            Now that I’ve totally ruined the story with a flat and rushed retelling, let me try to say something about why it is far more significant than my synopsis suggests. This work is part of Tolkien’s overall project of creating a mythic backdrop for England and the modern age. He aims first to write the best stories possible, using all his gifts of Sub-Creation and Fantasy to offer his readers a chance to see a new world, and to see their own world anew. He imbues his stories with Christian themes and values, though he rarely mentions even the elvish religion described in The Simarillion. This is an ancient, prehistoric world from our perspective; God has not been revealed. We therefore see little in the way of religion and no signs of religious institutions among the peoples of Middle Earth. Tolkien despised allegory; he preferred give his readers plenty of room for their own exercises of Fantasy. Therefore, unlike the Narnia stories which were appearing at the same time, he has no direct Christ figure (Aslan), no overt biblical references (such as referring to humans as “Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve”), and in general no “code” such that a reader who didn’t get the reference could be said to have misunderstood the book. Instead, Tolkien presents a story much more in the form of a fairy-story or legend about a quest to accomplish some task, overcoming monsters and other challenges moral and physical along the way, through which the inner heroic nature of some persons is revealed, while others fail in the quest and fall tragic victims of their inner flaws.

The Lord of the Rings as Apocalyptic Literature

The Ring can be analyzed as Fairy-Story, or even Epic; today, it is discussed more as Action-Adventure or perhaps Sword and Sorcery. As a theologian, I consider it as another literary genre: Apocalyptic. This is what I argued in my paper for SECSOR, though there I had more video to show off. Apocalyptic is a genre of Biblical writing, which appears in later portions of the Old Testament as well as in the New. According to Stephen Harris, the author of the textbook I used when I taught Intro to New Testament at Santa Fe College, the word “apocalypse” means “revelation,” and “is thus a disclosure of things previously hidden, particularly unseen realities of the spirit world and future events. Apocalyptic writers typically describe visions or dreams in which they encounter supernatural beings ranging from hideous monsters to angels who communicate God’s future intentions.” Harris lists several qualities of apocalyptic literature in the Bible. Since my main interest here is to compare Tolkien not so much to the Bible as to other 20th Century writers, I will try to be brief.

  1. Universality: the writers typically do not merely discuss a particular city or even nation, but address the whole world.
  2. Cosmic Dualism: particularly, there is a dualism between matter and spirit, with the spiritual realm having great power to act in and control the material world.
  3. Chronological dualism: apocalyptic writers describe how this age is evil, but will be swept away by a future good age.
  4. Ethical dualism: people are either material and evil and walk in darkness, or they are spiritual and good and godly. The evil will be destroyed when this evil age is destroyed; the good will live in blessedness thereafter.
  5. Predestination: whatever will happen has already been foreordained by God.
  6. Exclusivism: reject the world and its evil ways completely, show total fidelity to God.
  7. Limited theology: no sympathy for outsiders; they are damned and deserve it.
  8. A Violent God who wreaks judgment and vengeance.
  9. Eschatological preoccupation: much interest in what comes after death, etc.
  10. Use of symbols and code words.

Apocalyptic writing and preaching has been important in Christian preaching for a long time. What is interesting here is how, starting in the 20th Century, there began to be a number of apocalyptic fictional writings and movies. In the 1970’s there was A Thief in the Night, which was a relatively low-budget production aimed at showing Evangelicals, particularly youth, a literal understanding of the events predicted by apocalyptic Biblical writings, as these are interpreted primarily by 19th and 20th Century Protestant Evangelical Dispensationalist theologians. In 2000 the movie The Omega Code opened in December near the top of the box office sales. But the real phenomenon has been, of course, the Left Behind series, which first saw publication in 1995 and became a series of movies beginning in 2001. The books have sold many millions of copies, often topping the New York Times bestseller lists despite the fact that the NYT does not generally count sales at purely Christian bookstores, where many copies were sold. For those of you who never saw or read such a thing, here’s a taste:

[SHOW CLIP: RAPTURE SCENE ON THE PLANE: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j7tOcyBkLEQ]

 

These movies show many of the classic traits of Biblical apocalyptic literature, particularly emphasizing ethical dualism, limited theology, predestination and an image of God as judgmental and harsh, willing to leave millions to suffer on Earth because of their lack of faith or doctrinal purity. They do differ from the Bible in one respect: they try to present everything as literal fact. Therefore, they tend to interpret or eliminate the code words and symbols presented in the Bible. A really literal presentation of John’s Apocalypse would look like a Japanese monster movie; instead, “The Beast with seven heads” becomes a human being, usually the Secretary-General of the United Nations, with other symbols being similarly interpreted. Generally, this also means that other supernatural elements are downplayed as well.

To begin to make my case that The Lord of the Rings is apocalyptic literature, let me start with this clip (Aragorn Arrives at Helm’s Deep):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1oJFbPr5X8

 

First, the qualities that LOTR shares with apocalyptic literature from the Bible: First, it is universal. This is not just the battle of one kingdom against a tyrant; it is the battle of humanity against utter destruction. It is an army bred not just to conquer a kingdom; it is an army bred to destroy the world. In such a battle, there is no middle ground; even those who seek to remain neutral will eventually either take sides or be destroyed by the evil. The Bible has a cosmic dualism; Tolkien does not divide reality into “spiritual and material,” but between Primary World and Faerie, the Perilous Realm. While John told his story of being taken up into Heaven and seeing visions, Tolkien tells stories of a Secondary World where magic, monsters and elves are real. Unlike the apocalyptic norm, however, Tolkien’s Illuvatar is neither vengeful nor overtly controlling. Tolkien might point out that we should look at the story’s origin, the Storyteller, to understand the tale. Most Biblical apocalyptic was written to people undergoing violent persecution. To them, the assurance that God is firmly in control despite all appearances was vitally important. Tolkien aims at an audience that may or may not currently believe in God, though he hopes to nudge them along. His primary interest is to provide moral ideals and imaginative role models. He wants the reader to be able to put himself or herself in the character’s place. He wants us to feel the moral challenge Frodo and Sam feel when confronted with Gollum, or Borimir’s struggle against the Ring. Thus, he needs free will. As the elf Galadriel tells Frodo the hobbit, “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future .” (in the movie The Two Towers). Even if you think you are the most insignificant person alive, you matter, and may even save or doom the world; so every choice you make matters.

By contrast, in the Left Behind movies you hear the repeated refrain, “You cannot go against the word of God.” Ultimately, nothing any of the characters in the movies does matters one whit. You cannot fight the Antichrist; everything that happens, even the evil of the Antichrist, is part of a script God wrote before Time began, which must be followed until the last line.

This is why I object to the Left Behind theology. Unlike the original, Biblical audience, it is not really directed at the persecuted. The characters in that movie were all pretty middle-class and comfortable. Evangelical theology grew out of the revival tradition, which generally aimed first to make the listener of the sermon as uncomfortable as possible. The message was not, “Take comfort, for God is in charge;” it was, “You are sinners in the hands of an angry God; be afraid, for God is in charge.” While Tolkien hopes his reader will be empowered to make moral choices and act decisively, the Evangelical emphasis is not on doing good but on believing correctly. This is shown most dramatically in the movie through the character of a young preacher, who knew the theology and who preached to his congregation, and all of them are raptured away and he is left in an empty church, because he didn’t believe enough. (A Thief in the Night has a similar Christian character who is left to endure the reign of the Antichrist because she attended a church that didn’t teach Evangelical theology.) In the end, there is a real paradox here, that begins to peek out when you read the back of the box for Left Behind. The box asks you, which character would you be? How would you be in this story? But every viewer of that story is expecting NOT to be anyone. We good people will be raptured away; you bad people, who looked down on us and said we were silly, will be forced to live through the Tribulation while we look on from Heaven. Tolkien invites you in, to participate as one or maybe several of the characters, and to really imagine yourself facing these terrors; Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins invite you to escape all the troubles and all the fear and all the suffering, and to move from the relative comfort of your middle-class life to the complete joy of Heaven without any of the suffering of any of the people in the stories. The ones who suffer are good, but they weren’t good enough or they didn’t believe enough or believe rightly; now you can do better than them and learn, not from imitating them but by avoiding the mistake that put them in the story in the first place.

One of the purposes of “the stories that matter” is that the reader or listener can put himself or herself into the story and learn something from it. This is why Beowulf fights monsters instead of fellow Norsemen. I read a promotional tag for Left Behind; “Which one would you be?” But the problem with Left Behind is that it seeks to speak “literal truth” and thus to evoke Primary Belief. And if this is a tale of the Primary World, there is no way anyone should want to see himself or herself in the story. It becomes a cautionary tale, not an inspirational one. Before the characters could become role models, we first have to see them as fictional. When we see them as fiction, we can resolve to make them real, in us. That is the genius of Tolkien and the failure of this sort of literalist dispensationalism. I can meaningfully ask, “What Would Frodo Do?” and when I answer myself, I can try to do that in my own life. The fact that The Lord of the Rings is a fairy-story makes this all the easier. Before I can learn any such lesson from the slurry of biblical images and party politics that is today’s dispensationalist theology, I have to stop taking it literally; which is the one thing I am told NOT to do.

The Lord of the Rings and Left Behind are both tales about the end of the world. One purports to be Fantasy, a fairy-story, that is shot through with religious lessons. The other purports to be a literal reading of the Christian Bible and a road-map through the future. One offers images of how to face challenges; the other seeks to frighten the reader or viewer into avoiding those challenges by giving the story Primary Belief. One invites the reader or viewer to enter the story for a time and then return to the Primary World; the other urges the reader or viewer to avoid becoming part of the story. And one promotes the Christian virtues, and particularly humility; it is the totally unheroic hobbits who save the world. The other promotes self-righteousness coupled with fatalism. I can illustrate that with one line that comes up repeatedly in the “Left Behind” theology: “You cannot go against the Word of God.” The dispensationalist is thoroughly convinced that he or she knows exactly what the future holds; our only job is to speak the lines God wrote for us. After the Rapture, the characters agree that they cannot hope to overthrow or meaningfully oppose the Antichrist; the only thing they can do is “witness.” There is no point in trying to reduce the suffering around them, since this suffering is foreordained; all they are to do is tell people that this suffering was all predicted by their theology. In a similar way, Evangelical preacher Kay Arthur said “You cannot go against the Word of God” as she described how Israeli Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated to prevent peace between Israel and the Arabs; after all, such a peace would prevent the battle of Armageddon.[1] Others say that poverty is part of God’s plan, so we shouldn’t try to eradicate poverty. Others say God is raising the Earth’s temperature, and that any attempt to protect the environment is literally doing Satan’s work (this from a large church near Sun City, Florida). Tolkien, on the other hand, says that God entices and urges, but does not overrule our freedom. God uses our freedom as part of His design. Even Gollum’s sin becomes an integral part of saving the world. And Tolkien’s writings take the mistakes people make, and the suffering these cause, seriously. The dispensationalist may gleefully look forward to the Battle of Armageddon, confident that he or she will be safely in Heaven watching everyone else suffer and thinking smugly, “I told you so!” Tolkien looks at war as grim, full of suffering and pain, even when it is also necessary and honorable. The dispensationalist may say God and only God rules the world, so we shouldn’t think about the environment; Tolkien uses Saruman’s desolation of the land around Isengard to show us the effects of our modern mind of metal and wheels. Tolkien’s style invites us to see ourselves as imitators of the characters, as Paul offered himself, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” The lessons he offers reaffirm that call to be sub-creators and co-workers with Christ. The “Left Behind” theology, by contrast, encourages a proud sense of having secret knowledge, a superiority over all those around you who disagree with your right views; and in style, by claiming to be literal, Primary World truths, they actually discourage one from imitating whatever positive examples one might find.

The Cast of Characters

I can’t possibly discuss the full significance of all the characters; even if I were up to such a task, time doesn’t allow it. Instead, I will focus on a few characters who seem to me to be particularly interesting from a theological perspective. And since this is “The Lord of the Rings,” I will begin with a character which is not a person, has no spoken lines, and yet moves the entire story: the One Ring.

Without going too much into the details of the mythology of The Simarillion, the Rings of Power are said to have been made from the essence of the original light of Creation, stolen by Melkor the rebel and then used by his lieutenant Sauron after Melkor’s second and final defeat. While the elves were persuaded to make rings for themselves, the dwarves and for men, Sauron forged the One Ring for himself, which would give him control of the others or at least neutralize them. With this magic, Sauron nearly conquers Middle Earth, until the ring is cut from his finger by Isildor, a human king and warrior. However, Isildor decides to keep the ring for himself and use it to maintain his own power. Eventually the ring slips from his finger at a key moment, and he is killed. The ring then passes to Gollum, then Bilbo, and finally to Frodo Baggins, a good-hearted and unassuming hobbit.

Some have tried to argue that the Ring is a symbol for the atomic bomb, a power so destructive that it should never have been made. Tolkien rejected that and all other attempts to reduce his writing to straightforward allegory. The One Ring is a metaphor for evil, for the desire to control, but it is not meant to represent any one “real world” evil. That would limit the meaning and the applicability of Tolkien’s story too much. What the Ring does represent is the nature of evil, and temptation.

The Ring has three primary powers: invisibility, longevity and coercion. The invisibility aspect seems to have begun in The Hobbit before Tolkien had decided to make this anything more than a lucky ring. However, he knew the story from Plato’s Republic of the magic Ring of Gyges. That tale argued that anyone who had a ring of invisibility would be shameless; knowing his deeds could not be seen by others, he would stop at nothing to satisfy his own appetites and ambition. Its second power, longevity, answers particularly to the fear of moral humans: death. The ultimate result of both of these is made visible in the character of Gollum. He lives in darkness, where no one can see him. To be invisible means to be cut off from community with others, to be solitary. His greatly lengthened lifespan is no gift either, as his life has length but no corresponding content; it is just an endless repetition of eating raw fish and the occasional murdered goblin to satisfy his hunger. The Ring’s power of coercion is primarily seen in its control of Gollum, who is nearly consumed by the Ring. In the hands of a powerful wielder, like Isildor or Sauron, it becomes the ability to command others against their will.

Evil rarely tempts head-on; generally, it appeals to our virtues first. Gandalf sees this and fears to even touch the Ring for a second, knowing his own pity for others would lead him to want to control them, for their own good, and thus destroy their personhood. Boromir is a brave warrior who wants only to save his homeland; but his bravery is used against him by the Ring, to tempt him to kill Frodo, steal the Ring for himself, and then replace Sauron as the Lord of Middle Earth. Frodo, and Sam briefly, and Bilbo are able to handle the Ring more safely, probably because they are hobbits: simple, rustic, unpretentious, rightfully humble hobbits. They have no desire to dominate others and no belief that they could. There is simply very little for the Ring to grab onto.

As to the original Lord of the Ring, Sauron, he has invested so much of his own power into creating the Ring that he has no real physical form anymore. In a very real sense, he is The Ring. His will radiates out from his stronghold in Mordor, to control the orcs and other evil things that serve him; but he lives only because the Ring still exists, and until he is united with it he is divided and weakened. In the end, Evil is defeated by humility, by weakness and not strength, as the hobbits Frodo and Sam throw the Ring into the volcano where it was forged and the only place it can be destroyed.

Next I would like to discuss Legolas the Elf and Gimli the Dwarf, and more generally with elves and dwarves. Illuvatar the Creator made the Valar to be his servants and co-workers, and delegated much of the work of creation to them. He directly created two beings: Elves and Men. Only Illuvatar could do this, because only God can create a free-willed being; the work of the Valar was to create a world with lesser beings where these two peoples could live. The Elves were immortal in that they don’t die of old age, though they can die either violently or voluntarily.   They were intended to live in Valinor, also known as the Undying Lands, a Paradise created by Illuvatar as their home. However, one group of elves disobeyed. Having been seduced, morally weakened and then betrayed by Melkor, the rebellious Valar who serves as a Lucifer figure, this group of elves left the place the Creator assigned them to chase their evil foe to Middle Earth. Ultimately they failed to defeat him, and found themselves exiled from the Undying Lands.

Dwarves have a different origin from either Elves or Humans. They were created by one of the Valar, who desired to imitate Illuvatar and make a people. As we saw last week, it is natural for the created to imitate the Creator. However, Illuvatar was not pleased, because the Valar had not asked permission first and Illuvatar wanted the Elves to be the first people; at the time the Dwarves were made, the Elves had not yet been awakened. Also, the Dwarves had no free will, since only God can make a free-willed person. Their maker therefore prepared to destroy them in obedience to the Creator, but the Creator knew that this was not a rebellion but just over-eagerness on the Valar’s part; and he also took pity on the Dwarves. Therefore, he gave the Dwarves free will, but said they must wait until the Elves were awakened before they could be brought to life on Middle Earth.

Thus, Elves are created by Illuvatar the Creator, and are the very essence of Faerie: magical, immortal, and from another land, Valinor, not really native to this world. The Dwarves are said to have been created in the depths of a mountain, so they are much more “of this earth.” They are long-lived but mortal. They are as skilled craftsmen as are the Elves in many ways, but not as magical or wise. And their maker created them tough, to fight Melkor, and they seem to be even more resistant to the temptations of Melkor and his lieutenant Sauron than the elves were. They are said to be “step-children” of Illuvatar, since they were not made by him initially but he took care of them and gave them full personhood. Tolkien writes that there is much tension between elves and dwarves, partly due to their different temperaments (elves being rather “out there” and otherworldly, dwarves being solid, stolid and practical). Sometimes this led to dwarf nations staying neutral in the battles between good and evil, preferring to ignore the rest of the world rather than ally with either the elves or the evil orcs.

Legolas the Wood Elf and Gimli the Dwarf represent old enemies. In The Hobbit, the Wood Elves capture a party of dwarves trying to cross through their forest to reclaim their kingdom which was destroyed by the dragon Smaug. Gloin, Gimli’s father, was one of those dwarves who was captured, then freed by Bilbo the Hobbit. The climax of The Hobbit (and the end of the movie series) is “The Battle of Five Armies,” where an army of Wood Elves (led by Legolas’ father, the Elf King) attempts to take the dwarves’ treasure by force, together with a group of Men, only to ally with the Men and Dwarves to fight a goblin army that arrives (watch the movie to see who the fifth army is).

In The Lord of the Rings, Legolas and Gimili are initially rivals; Gimli’s father had been imprisoned by Legolas’ father, so neither really trusted the other’s people. They each join the Fellowship to destroy Sauron and the evil Ring of Power initially to keep an eye on each other. Their rivalry becomes a competition to see who can be the bravest and most effective warrior; rather than fighting each other, they compete to see who can do the most good. Through shared hardship and willingness to sacrifice themselves, they become fast friends. After evil is defeated, Elves eventually return to Valinor, leaving this world to the Men. Dwarves simply disappear from history; I’ve looked and I can’t find where they went. But Gimli and Legolas are such great friends that after many years of traveling together and visiting each other’s lands, Gimli joins Legolas for the final voyage to Valinor, becoming the only dwarf to enter the Undying Lands.

Legolas and Gimli illustrate Tolkien’s belief that good, and only good, brings people together, through shared endeavors and through service to one another. Good induces and invites; it does not override freedom. Thus the friendship between Legolas and Gimli had to develop on its own. Despite personal, historical and even metaphysical reasons to oppose each other, they become the best of friends.

By contrast, the origins of the Orcs reveals the nature of Evil. The Orcs were created by Melkor, not in obedient imitation of Illuvatar but in rebellious envy. Melkor wanted a people of his own. However, Evil cannot create anything; as St. Augustine said, Evil is only the absence or lessening of Good, not an independent reality. To make a people, Melkor had to parasitize the good creation. He corrupted and mauled captive elves to make them into his creatures. They are creatures of pure hate; they hate themselves, they hate other races, and they hate their creator and lord. Evil never has true community, or true freedom; it knows only coercion and violence. The orcs show this in their squabbling and murder of one another, as well as other creatures. They are said by Tolkien to make no beautiful things, but many clever ones, particularly for war. They aren’t stupid; they are simply evil. They are incapable of voluntary cooperation at all, because they are incapable of either trust or service to neighbor; they only work together when forced to by a stronger leader.

The contrast between dwarves and orcs shows the difference between genuine sub-creation and illegitimate invention. The maker of the dwarves could not match God’s creative activity, though he tried to imitate the Creator as best he could. When he realized he could not and should not have tried, he even offered to destroy his work in contrition. Because of this, God gave that sub-creation real existence. By contrast, Melkor would not be humble before God, and his attempts at creation are all not in imitation of God but attempts to supplant God. This sort of work cannot be redeemed. It is evil and all it does is evil. It is not true creation at all, but merely a twisting of what was originally created good. And ultimately, evil is self-destructive, just as good is nourishing and truly creative.

This contrast shows up again in the contrast between Gandalf and Saruman. Both of these are maiar, spiritual beings who took physical form at will and served the Valar in their work of creation. Five of these spiritual beings took the form of wizards. Two went east and play no major part in any stories. Radagast the Brown is mentioned in passing in the published books, becoming a much more important character in the movies. The two principle wizards are Saruman the White and Gandalf the Grey. Saruman is the mightiest and wisest, but his greatness is the source of his temptation. He seeks to understand his own nature, better to control the power rather than merely serve it. He thus refracts his own white, becoming Saruman the Many-Colored; his apparently white robe is found by Gandalf to actually be millions of different threads of every hue. As Gandalf says, “he who breaks a thing in order to understand it has left the path of knowledge.” Instead of serving the good, Illuvatar the Light, Saruman has splintered his light, thinking this would make him even more knowledgeable and powerful; instead, it leaves him too shrewd for his own good, and he tries to join forces with Sauron to gain still more power and safety. He is described by Tolkien as having a mind of metal, full of wheels and machines. He is the archetypal modern industrial scientist, using his creative powers without regard either to nature or to other persons, seeking only his own safety and power. In the end his politicking, plotting and betrayal failed, and he wound up escaping imprisonment only to be defeated by an army of hobbits led by Samwise Gamgee. What could be more pathetic?

Gandalf the Grey, on the other hand, grows stronger by not seeking his own good, but that of others. He is said by Tolkien to have been particularly close to the Valar of Mercy, and it is pity and mercy that drive him. While he is known for dire prophecies, he always acts for the good of others. In the end he offers his own life to save his friends and ensure the quest to destroy the Ring will continue. As a result, he is reborn to the place where Saruman would have been, becoming Gandalf the White. It is in service to others that the faithful find true greatness. He does not seek to master this new power for his own ends, as Saruman did, but rather serves it and uses it for others.

I will not try to do justice to the other main characters here. I will suffice to point out perhaps the major difference between the Narnia tales and The Lord of the Rings: a gaggle of Christ figures. C.S. Lewis wrote evangelical (small “e”) allegories, so he has a straightforward Christ symbol: Aslan the Lion. Tolkien is determined to depict a world before Christ or even Abraham. However, as he said in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” all fairy tales are a sort of precursor or echo of the Gospel consolation. If every fairy story is a kind of Gospel, Tolkien can have several characters who are a precursor of Christ. And in fact, he would say, every Christian should be an imitator of Christ, in his or her own way. Aragorn is a type of Christ the King who returns; he offers literal healing and redemption even to the dead; and he offers his life in a suicidal attack on Mordor to give Frodo a better chance to succeed. Frodo bears our evil upon himself and suffers for it, and finally rids us of it. Gandalf lays down his life for his friends and comes back to life again. But even humble Sam the Gardener has his part to play, as a type of St. Christopher, the Christ-Bearer, who carries Frodo the last few steps.

[1] Bob Simon, “Zion’s Christian Soldiers,” 60 Minutes, Oct. 6, 2002, http://www.wrmea.org/2002-december/zion-s-christian-soldiers-the-60-minutes-transcript.html (accessed October 13, 2014) or see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JsJ-dDPiTbk and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=adyUNQ7U8NQ

Tolkien lecture 2: Monsters, Fairy Stories and the Imageo Dei

September 30, 2014

Tolkien lecture 2: Monsters, Fairy Stories and the Imageo Dei

 This is my current draft of the second lecture of a series of four which I am preparing for my church’s adult Sunday School sessions in October.

Two early childhood creations mentioned by biographers are the language he and his brother invented together and the story he wrote about a dragon. It seems that his mother early instilled in him an appreciation for both the world of imagination and the intricacies of grammar and the way language functions. Much later, however, he reported that as a child he lost interest in “fairy stories” for a time, eventually becoming interested in fantasy again as an outgrowth of his studies in philology.

As an adult, he wrote stories for his own interest and for his children, while at the same time becoming a successful professor of philology. These two interests combined strikingly in his lecture titled “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” which he delivered in 1936 to the British Academy and published the next year. This essay is credited with revitalizing Beowulf studies. Tolkien began by lamenting the status of Beowulf criticism at that time, claiming that there really wasn’t any. Instead, he argued, there were a lot of historical dissections of “The Beowulf,” attempts to find the mundane historical foundation or to find some pre-English precursor, instead of any attempt to consider the story as it is presented to us now. For those of you rusty on your high-school English literature, here’s a brief synopsis lifted from Wikipedia:

In the poem, Beowulf, a hero of the Geats in Scandinavia, comes to the aid of Hroðgar, the king of the Danes, whose mead hall (in Heorot) has been under attack by a monster known as Grendel. After Beowulf slays him, Grendel’s mother attacks the hall and is then also defeated. Victorious, Beowulf goes home to Geatland in Sweden and later becomes king of the Geats. After a period of fifty years has passed, Beowulf defeats a dragon, but is fatally wounded in the battle. After his death, his attendants bury him in a tumulus, a burial mound, in Geatland.

 

All in all, it is a pretty simple story: boy meets monster, boy kills monster, boy kills monster’s mother, and then nothing more is said about the boy until fifty years later when the boy, now an old man, kills and is killed by a dragon. Tolkien summarizes the consensus of scholarship in his day as saying that the story puts the important things at the edges and the unimportant things in the center, and that whatever flaws it has, it is still Highly Significant. He agrees that it is highly significant, but disagrees that it is misguided. Instead, he argues, the critics are unhappy because it is not what they want it to be, whether that be an epic, an historical narrative or whatever. It is instead a poem, and should be read as one. It should be read as a finished product intended to say something particular about life, not simply rummaged through to find what historical facts about the ancient Norse might be gleaned. Above all, the center is right where it should be: on the monsters. Modern critics wish to do away with monsters and find the “real” basis for the story. “Reality” has to be some historical account of a human fighting an enemy, or maybe an allegorized story of a war between two clans, or something “normal.” Tolkien says no: the emphasis is on the monsters, and should be. The poem of Beowulf, he argues, was written by an early Christian monk, who looked back over the heritage of his pagan Anglo-Saxon history (just barely past) to comment on the pagan understanding of life. The hero strives against monsters because he is not just some guy fighting some other guy; he is every hero fighting death itself. In fighting Grendel, he fights evil itself, that which hates music and joy and all the mead hall was meant to celebrate. He defeats it, and thus becomes truly the hero. The hero is he who fights that which threatens to corrupt and destroy human nature and human fellowship. The hero is one who behaves heroically in the face of these dangers. And, the poet shows us, the hero (in pagan times) is one who is heroic without hope. Having proved his boasts true and defeated Grendel and his mother, the next time we meet Beowulf he is facing a more inhuman monster, a dragon, who is truly Death itself. The Teutonic hero faces death bravely, and slays the monster while himself being slain. The beginning of the hero and his end are thus presented in the poem, and that is all paganism offers: birth, striving, death, and then nothing. The ancient monk who wrote the poem both celebrates the heroic virtues of the past, and illustrates the limits of the pre-Christian view of life. No “realistic” story could have done this as well; the hero strives against cosmic forces, and these must be represented as the monstrous, superhuman forces that they are if the hero’s struggle against them is to reflect humanity’s struggle with the cosmos.

This then is Tolkien’s explanation of Beowulf: a Christian poem making Christian points using the language, imagery and even older tales from the pre-Christian past. The author does not mention the Norse gods, Tolkien says, because they are false gods and he doesn’t want to endorse them. Today Thor is one of The Avengers, but when “Beowulf” was written Thor was still The Thunderer who our grandfather prayed to but we no longer do, but who still lived in the back of our minds. We today can treat the Norse gods as fairy tale creatures who live far away in another realm; for the author of “Beowulf” it seemed better just to ignore them.

In many ways, Tolkien saw himself as doing what he felt the author of “Beowulf” had done. At the time he gave the lecture, 1936, he had just finished the manuscript for The Hobbit. This is a fairy-story, and I’ll say more about that later, but it really is a very different tale. The Lord of the Rings had not even been imagined, since it grew out of his publisher’s urgent request for “more hobbit stories.” But Tolkien had been working on The Simarillion for more than twenty years. It was a labor of love for him, beginning as an attempt to create a national myth of England equivalent to the Finnish saga he was studying in 1912. He tried repeatedly to get it published in his lifetime, but even with his other literary successes Allen and Ulwin were hesitant about taking on such a large and complex work; besides, it had no hobbits. Instead, it remained a private project, and since it remained unpublished he continued working on it his entire life, leaving it for his son Christopher to edit and publish posthumously. And this was a work that uses older themes and tales of a pre-Christian world to present Christian values. Many readers of Tolkien have remarked on the fact that there is no institutional religion and little explicit belief ever expressed in his more famous works; but this again is fitting, particularly given what he says about “Beowulf.” Tolkien is depicting a world where there is no “chosen people” because the Creator has not yet chosen any nation. God has not become revealed in history. And certainly, there has been no Incarnation. With the true god unknown in the world, any religion would be false, so it is better just not to deal with it. At the same time, Tolkien’s world is one that is much closer in time to the Creation, and Eru Illuvatar, his name for the Creator, is more present everywhere. The elves were the first people created, immortal and magical, destined eventually to fade from the world and return to their Creator. Wizards are the human forms of the Maiar, who are essentially messengers of the Valar, the heavenly host who surround and assist the Creator. You might say they are the angels’ angels. So in a very real sense, humans are surrounded by agents of the divine though they do not know it. In the Revelations of John we read that in the New Jerusalem there will be no temple, because God is everywhere. In Middle Earth, God is likewise everywhere and therefore not worshipped anywhere specifically. At the same time, though, in Middle Earth God is invisible, because He has not revealed Himself; God’s purest agents are the practitioners of magic, the wizards and elves, who appear to the mortals around them as merely unusual and powerful beings like themselves, superlatively powerful and wise but not “supernatural.” Tolkien’s mythology has its own versions of Satan and the Fall, and the name “Sauron” implies a serpent (notice the similarity between the name “Sauron” and the word “dino-saur,” Latin for “terrible lizard”). The tales of the Simarillion and The Lord of the Rings are thus cosmic tales of the struggle between good and evil, order and chaos, creation and destruction.

And of course, in cosmic tales you must have monsters. The elves are the original people, closest to Eru Illuvatar; the orcs are elves captured and mutated by Melkor, the Lucifer of Middle Earth, the Valar who rebelled against the Creator. They are thus literally evil made flesh, though individually of a low level. By contrast the Balrog and Smaug represent personifications of greed and malice equal to Fafnir, the giant turned dragon which Siegfried slew in German mythology. The struggle against monsters is a cosmic struggle, a moral struggle, and a physical struggle against a dangerous foe, all at once. It is a physical struggle because they are physical realities and pose physical dangers. They thus also require physical courage, and cleverness, and other virtues to overcome, just as “ordinary” dangers such as war and hardship would require. It is a moral struggle because the monsters represent moral evils made manifest, and evoke in others the vices they represent; or sometimes they result from the ordinary vices. For example, the dwarves of Moria were too curious and too greedy and too proud, and thus dug too deeply into darkness and secrets they should not; in that way they uncovered the Balrog which destroyed their kingdom. This monster was only defeated by one who fought bravely without hope of advantage for himself, but on behalf of others. Service to neighbors is an important virtue in Tolkien’s writings, whether it is Gandalf defending the bridge or Mr. Niggle who leaves off painting his picture so he can run an errand for his neighbor with the bad leg.[1] And monsters are also cosmic evils, representations of the powers that would plunge everything back into Chaos, incarnations of death and greed and oppression. When Beowulf fights the dragon, he knows he is going to meet Death, and determines to meet it bravely and dutifully. Tolkien’s monsters are likewise manifestations of the decay that threatens the world. And just as the author of Beowulf described his monsters as children of Cain to link them to the rebellion against God, Tolkien’s monsters are generally agents of Sauron, servant of Melkor the arch-rebel of The Simarillion. To fight monsters is thus to do the work of defending and repairing Creation itself, becoming God’s co-worker.

But enough about monsters: what about elves and fairies and the good? These are the subjects of Tolkien’s 1939 lecture at St. Andrews’ University, “On Fairy-Stories.” At this point Tolkien was already a successful author; The Hobbit was selling well and had gotten good reviews, and his publisher was pushing him to write a sequel. That sequel, barely started at this point, would ten years later be The Lord of the Rings. And of course, Tolkien’s labor of love, The Simarillion, was seventeen years in the making at this point and still growing. He might have been humble about his qualifications to write about fairy-stories, but the world was beginning to know him as an excellent writer of fairy-stories himself.   This essay also, of course, says much about what he saw as his own mission as a writer.

Tolkien begins by attempting to define the concept “fairy-story” more clearly. Many so-called “fairy tales” really aren’t, in his view. Some are simply moralistic allegories aimed at children and sugar coated by saying the heroes are fairies. Some are simply talking beast fables, similar to fairy tales but lacking the magical or fantastic element. So saying anything using a fairy as a character is a “fairy-story” is too narrow, Tolkien thinks; and saying anything with a marvelous nature (like Aesop’s fables) is a fairy-story is too broad. And speaking as a philologist, he points out that before the Tudor period “fairy” was not used to refer to a magical being like an elf, but rather to a magical place or dimension, the Perilous Realm, the land of enchantment. The fairy-story is the story of another reality than the one we generally inhabit, one more mysterious and beautiful and dangerous. It is the realm of Magic, provided “magic” is understood as perfectly serious and real, and not confused with “the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician.” As an example, he points to the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a story that is full of magic but has no “fairies” at all. This is a story he lectured on often and had previously discussed in a scholarly essay.

After a discussion of the sorts of tales he would include under the genre “fairy-stories” and the various sorts of faux fairy stories he would reject, he turns to consider the question of the origin of fairy-stories. This question could be considered in two ways, and Tolkien discusses both. The first is the question of the origin of a particular story. This is the sort of thing that scholars debate constantly. If, for example, you find a similar tale in two widely different locations, what is the explanation? Do some tales just travel around the world until every culture has some version? Do some tales originate in multiple locations simultaneously? Tolkien moots most of these questions that so fascinate scholars. First, he says they aren’t using the tale as it was meant to be used. Just as he complained so-called critics had for years dissected Beowulf rather than just read it as a poem, so he says they often do with all fairy-stories. It’s a fine procedure in its own way, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the actual story. We often find stories about witches eating (or trying to eat) children, but that doesn’t mean Hansel and Getel, Baba Yaga and “Hocus Pocus” are “the same story.” And deciding that the first two arose independently and the last imitated the first but not the second tells us little about why this theme should have been used in this story in this way. Ultimately, Tolkien points out, any explanation of the fairy-story goes back to some Story-teller, who had a particular reason for telling this tale in this way. He writes that “The human mind, the tongue and the tale are all coeval.” That is, fairy-stories are as ancient as language and the mind itself. This may be more provable than Tolkien knew, if those cave paintings of horned men suggest (as some scholars believe) that Paleolithic humans imagined a magical man-beast. Tolkien says in his essay that the human mind is able to abstract the qualities from the world and combine them in new ways, imagining the green of grass on an old witch’s skin or the yellow straw being spun into yellow gold. This is the essential creative activity of the human mind: taking the things God has made and seeing them in new ways, in new relationships, and with new possibilities. This is the beginning of Faerie.

The origin of the fairy-story is the story teller. The origin of Faerie is the ability of the human mind to abstract concepts from the observed world and combine them in new ways. But why should anyone seek to do this? Why make up stories about other worlds, and the Perilous Realm? Why did the ancient storytellers choose tales of Faerie, and why do so many modern storytellers continue to do so? Why does there continue to be such a hunger for fairy-stories, even among modern people?    Tolkien says that the chief value of fairy-stories, if they are well done, lies in their literary merit just as it does for any other work of art. He utterly rejects the idea that they are “children’s stories” or as we call them today, “Young Adult literature.” Their chief value is not that they are good for children; if they are good, they are good for everyone. But fairy-stories in particular serve four distinct functions: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, and Consolation, all of which Tolkien says adults generally need more than children do.

Fantasy: Of the four, Tolkien regards Fantasy as the most important: he devotes as much space discussing Fantasy as he does the other three combined. Tolkien says it is because human beings are inherently, essentially creative. It is human nature to want to create something new. As he puts it, “Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made; and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

As a theologian, I find this statement extremely interesting and even exciting. Tolkien is making a claim about the doctrine of the Imageo Dei, the image of God in which Adam was created. We have an irrepressible urge to create because we are ourselves created in the image of the Creator. There are, of course, many sorts of creation. Building, making and using tools, running a business, writing a science textbook or a dramatic novel or painting a still-life, even having and raising children are all creative activities. Tolkien is not saying that only Faerie is connected with the Imageo Dei or that only fantasy writers are truly following the example of the Creator. But he is saying that fantasy is one expression of the Image of God. It can be abused, creating nightmares and idolatries and pagan cults of human sacrifice, whether those be the old Norse religion or the mythologies underlying 20th Century totalitarianisms; but the abuse of the gift does not change the fact of its divine origin.

Tolkien’s word for this human activity is “sub-creation.” We live every day in the “Primary World,” the world God has made. Made in God’s image, we have a desire to create our own “Secondary Worlds.” That is what Fantasy represents. The story-maker tries to create an internally consistent and compelling Secondary World, and invites the reader or hearer to enter it for a time. When the story-maker does a good job of it, we enter into that world. That is often called “suspension of disbelief,” but Tolkien finds that a poor term since it suggests a deliberate choice to push aside disbelief; if the Secondary World is compelling and the story well-told, disbelief does not appear in the first place. It is more like dreaming, as we enter into the Secondary World and give it Secondary Belief: not equal to the belief we give the Primary World, but just as real for the time we are under its spell.

Recovery: Life can be exhausting. The sameness of the passing days can drain the spirit. There are only three primary colors, only straight or curved lines; the elements of reality are always the same. The sameness can dull our ability to see them at all. To see reality clearly we must learn to see it anew, from a different angle. We must see the elements of reality in their distinctiveness. We need the gift of Recovery. Fantasy allows us to take the elements of reality and recombine them in new ways. This in turn allows us to see them afresh and to appreciate them as they are in nature. We see the familiar and are startled to see it from a different angle. Above all, we see things, in Tolkien’s words, “as we were meant to see them—as things apart from ourselves.” Over-familiarity leads to a sense of possessiveness; Recovery means regaining a clear view, to see things in their independent reality. Tolkien says that Fairy-Stories are not essential to this sort of view of reality; humility would be enough. But fairy-stories are one way we can regain this view of things as things instead of seeing them simply as revolving around ourselves. And furthermore, Fantasy can allow us to set all our ideas free from their previous confines and relationships and experience them in new ways.

Escape: The gift of Recovery grants the ability to Escape. In Tolkien’s day as in our own, there is much scorn directed towards “escapist literature.” At the very least, it is often considered like candy: it’s alright if you’ve already eaten your vegetables. It’s unhealthy or at best empty, but not too bad in small doses. Some critics would go further and see all such “escapism” as unhealthy and perhaps a bit immoral. You should put your feet in the “real world” and stick to your work; anything else is shirking your responsibilities. I’m afraid Christianity has contributed to this attitude, particularly Paul’s injunction that Christians should forswear frivolity and confine themselves to singing hymns and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:15-20, for example). Tolkien takes these critics head-on and says the “escape” offered by Fantasy should not be compared to the laborer shirking his responsibilities but rather to the prisoner slipping his chains. Humans have probably always longed to escape the limits of their existence, to fly or swim as easily as a bird or fish, to converse with other animals and so on. More specifically, fairy stories allow us to escape the limits of our own lives. In this mechanized, industrial, polluted, crowded, impersonal, confining and completely un-heroic world we live in today, Tolkien thinks, it is only natural to long for at least a temporary escape. When we have learned to see the trite and familiar in new and fresh ways, and to see the ideas that made up our Primary World in new relationships and full of new power, we can break free of the psychological confinement and limits which we have accepted too easily. And perhaps, he says, they can put us in touch with true reality. He cites the attitude of some of his contemporaries that electric street lights and railroads and traffic jams are “real life” and “inevitable progress.” Really, they are unreal; what could be real about making night as bright as day, isolating human life from the land and air that sustains it, making long distances seem short? Fantasy may create monsters that live in the sea or fly in the skies, but at least it does not try to utterly do away with the oceans or the heavens. Only modern industrial man would think to do that. Escape from that sort of world is escaping from the artificial to seek the natural.

Consolation: Escape opens the way to Consolation. What, exactly, is Consolation, and how does the Fairy-Story offer it? I would answer that by returning to a piece of literature which is not a “Fairy Story” but which does contain many elements of Faerie: the poem Beowulf. True, dragons and ogres are clearly denizens of the Perilous Realm; but monsters notwithstanding, the remarkable thing about Beowulf, the first thing I noticed when I first read it as a teenager, was the relative lack of fantastic elements. No gods or elves or spirits aid the hero or even advise him; the human is on his own against the monsters. That, Tolkien says, is the ultimate conclusion of paganism. One fights against the forces of evil and suffering and decay until one loses, and that is the end of it. Beowulf, in the poem, fights and dies bravely, without consolation. Old age, more than the dragon, finally claims him, as it claims us all. What the poem lacks is what Tolkien called the “Eucatastrophe.” This is another word of his own invention. It literally means “the good catastrophe.” What we usually call a “catastrophe” is the sudden reversal of order and joy, the sudden collapse and destruction. The Eucatastrophe is the sudden reversal, the sudden and unexpected turn of good that come out and redeems the catastrophe. The abused stepchild finds she has a fairy godmother who sends her off to the ball, there ultimately to win her way out of poverty and serfdom. The fatherless son, starving and penniless and the victim of con men, finds his way to a magical realm where he overcomes a giant and wins wealth and fame. What is the traditional end of a fairy-tale? Say it with me: “And they all lived happily ever after.” The fairy-story is an expression of the hope that one might somehow, despite all reason and the way things usually go in the Primary World, somehow Escape from disaster. And of all the disasters that threaten, what is the ultimate? We may dream of escaping from gravity or poverty, but the ultimate escape is the escape from Death. And ultimately, that is what the Fairy-Story hints at: Somehow, by some magic, we might escape the Dragon that claimed Beowulf.

This is why Tolkien claims the Fairy-Story as “a kind of evangelium.” The fairy-story is the story of wondrous Escape and the promise that life might be a bit better than appearances seem to allow. This, Tolkien claims, is a universal hope of all humankind. There is no one who could not wish this were true, except someone who has really fallen to wrath and despair. As a Catholic, Tolkien was familiar with St. Augustine’s prayer: Our hearts, O LORD, are restless until they find their rest in Thee. The fairy-story reflects that restlessness and answers to it. It is a kind of gospel, a precursor to the Gospel. But as humans, the story-tellers through the ages could only create their Secondary Worlds and place their consolations therein. God has placed the ultimate Consolation in the Primary World. The Gospel is the ultimate Eucatastrophe. When history seemed dark and hopeless, Light was born. When Death had won, suddenly the stone was rolled away. As Tolkien writes, “This story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—–and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.”

Tolkien scorns the notion that two stories with similar themes are “the same story.” It is essential, he says, to focus on the Story-Teller, and the intentions of the story-teller in telling the story in just this way. So he is definitely not saying that all fairy-stories are the same. What he is saying is that they all speak to a common longing: the need for a Eucatastrophe, the escape from Death, Consolation. And in saying that the Gospel is a Fairy-Story, he certainly does not mean that it is “only” a fairy-story. This was the center of his argument with Lewis, and how he finally turned him from rationalism back to belief. Something can be “mythology” and still also be true in this Primary World. That is, we can understand the historical events of the Gospel as the fulfillment of the intentions and desires of earlier mythology, while still believing that they actually did happen in the “real world.” As the Scripture puts it, Christ came “in the fullness of time,” when all Creation groaned for liberation. The fairy-story reflects that universal longing.

Looking at these non-fiction essays, we can see what Tolkien was up to in his writing. First, as he says, it is essential that the work has its own literary merit. His first goal was to write a good story; if it isn’t good reading, no noble purpose can make it good. Like the author of Beowulf, Tolkien sought to express Christian truths implicitly, telling stories of a pre-Christian and even pre-Abrahamic time. Also like Beowulf, he celebrated the virtues of the heroic age, such as courage and loyalty, putting them in the service of his Christian message. More explicitly than Beowulf and more like the fairy-story, Tolkien sought to create a Secondary World through his exercise in Fantasy, to give his readers the opportunity to join him through their own Secondary Belief. In doing so, the reader has a chance to see another world, a world without motor cars or tenements, a world closer to nature than many of them experience in their lives, and to appreciate again the joys such a world can offer. He presents the dangers and challenges of life as monsters and demons to be fought and defeated, whether by courage, or cunning, or humble persistence. He presents supernatural aid in the form of magic, primarily exercised by elves and wizards. He gives his readers a chance to see things afresh, whether they are things that have become invisible through overfamiliarity or things that are no longer familiar. And he offers stories of Consolation, and Eucatastrophe, where faith is satisfied and virtue rewarded after it seemed impossible. They are stories of redemption; and one reason they have endured and become so popular is that readers, and now viewers, often come away a feeling a little bit redeemed. And while Tolkien rejects the direct allegorizing of C. S. Lewis and seeks to give his reader the imaginative freedom to apply the story to his or her own life, he does expect that by tasting a little redemption in his Secondary World, the reader’s appetite for the true Redemption will be awakened.

[1] “Leaf by Niggle” is an interesting story, but more complicated than I feel I can really explain here; I recommend you read it yourself.

 

Tolkien lecture 1: Intro and bio

September 18, 2014

I use this forum to publish a variety of ongoing projects.  Here, I am working on a mini-course on Tolkien which I am to lead for my church in October.  These are the notes for my first lecture. 

 

 

Tolkien lecture 1: Intro and bio

 

First, when I start a new class I usually tell the students who I am and what relevant background I have for the course. In this case, I admit I am an amateur when it comes to Tolkien. My specialty is philosophical theology, and most people think of Tolkien as a writer of fantasy literature. Perhaps, if they are bit more informed, they think of him as a religious fantasy writer. Religion and Lit. is not necessarily my professional expertise, but it is a longtime interest.

My first qualification, I would say, is that I wanted this course. I’ve heard for a long time that if you want something done around the church, you should volunteer to do it. With the last of the Hobbit movies coming out this December, there seems no better time to look at Tolkien.

My second qualification is my decades-long interest in fantasy literature, movies, games and so on. Tolkien really established fantasy and influenced generations of writers afterwards. Another writer of fantasy literature, great in his own way though not as grand perhaps, was C. S. Lewis. I was pleasantly surprised when I first learned that these two great religious writers were friends and collaborators. I read both Tolkien and Lewis first in the mid 1970s, during the Tolkien craze in the U.S. and like millions I loved the books. In my church youth group we did discussions of some of Lewis’ books, but never discussed Tolkien. It was much later that I first realized that Tolkien was just as much a religious writer as Lewis, although they had very different styles and strategies.

As I began my scholarly work in Religious Studies, I encountered various psychological methods of analysis, including those of Carl Jung. I learned that Jung influenced Joseph Campbell, whose work on comparative religions in turn influenced George Lucas. Tolkien’s more theoretical discussions of religion and mythology began to interest me as alternatives to the Jungian approach. More on that next week.

And getting back to my professional focus, I became interested in Tolkien as a theologian about ten years ago, when SECSOR issued a call for Tolkien papers in conjunction with the release of Peter Jackson’s Ring movies. That seems only fair, since Tolkien was not really schooled in theology yet he wrote theologically significant essays, and I’m a theologian who’s not really schooled in Tolkien yet I write about him. One thing I hope to do here is discuss some of the theological concepts developed by Tolkien, and consider whether they offer better alternatives than some of the most popular theology today. Again, more on that later.

Still, I would not dare to stand in front of a group like this, which I know to be pretty sharp, if it weren’t for my confidence that sheer enthusiasm can make up for a lot in a teacher; and I am enthusiastic about Tolkien, both as a writer and a theologian. As a first step towards a greater appreciation of Tolkien as a theologian, I’d like to start with a short summary of Tolkien’s life, and consider in particular how some of the events of his life shaped his writing and his religious thought.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born January 3rd, 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa. His father, Arthur, was a branch manager of Lloyds Bank of Africa, having come originally from England with his wife Mabel two years earlier. The climate in South Africa was not good for mother or children and John was often sick. His father died in South Africa in 1896 of rheumatic fever, while the family was away visiting England. They then moved there permanently, first living in the small town of Sarehole Mill for four years before returning to Mabel’s hometown of Birmingham in 1900. Birmingham at that time was at the epicenter of English industrialization, and young John desperately missed the rural life he had left to move to this mechanized and dirty city. It was also about this time that he began studying languages and grammar. His mother converted to Catholicism, which estranged her from many in her family. Four years later she was dead from diabetes, leaving the parish rector, Father Morgan, as their legal guardian so that they would be raised as Catholics (1904). John was 13.

For the next four years the brothers lived with an aunt who was not emotionally close, but spent as much time as they could at school or the church with Fr. Morgan. In 1908 the boys moved out to a boarding house near the church, and John met another lodger there, a 19-year-old girl named Edith. Although she was three years older than he was, they declared their love for each other in 1909. Fr. Morgan did not approve when he found out about their relationship, and moved John Ronald to another house and forbade him from seeing her until he turned 21, at which point he would be legally an adult.

Over the next four years the two exchanged letters but never saw each other. JRR finished his schooling and won a scholarship to Oxford. On the day of this 21st birthday he wrote a letter to Edith and proposed. When she replied that she was already engaged to another man, he traveled to see her five days later and persuaded her to marry him. She converted to Catholicism a year later, and they were married Nov. 22, 1916.

JRR finished his studies at Exeter College of Oxford University, focusing on philology. After he finished his studies he joined the British army and fought in France during WWI. Originally sent to Flanders, he soon became ill and spent most of his military service in and out of hospital until he was discharged. By 1918, when the war ended, he wrote “All my close friends but one are dead.”

During this time his career was beginning to take off. Privately, he had begun writing poems years earlier, and began work on the Simarillion in 1917. Professionally he worked as a tutor and on the New English Dictionary, particularly the letter “W”. Years later, when an editor attempted to tell him that spelling “dwarves” with a “v” was not proper according to the Oxford dictionary, he replied, “I WROTE the Oxford English Dictionary!” This was also a time when he learned a great deal about language, as he researched the etymology of words back to Old English and other roots.

In 1920 he became a Reader at Leeds University, and in 1925 he was elected Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, beating out his former tutor. The position required at least 21 lectures a year; his second year he gave 136, and eventually settled down to 72 a year through the end of the 1930s. So he wasn’t lazy.

May 11, 1926 Tolkien met C.S. Lewis. Lewis is said to have been warned never to trust a Catholic or a philologist, and Tolkien was concerned that Lewis might oppose his efforts to improve the linguistics portion of the college syllabus; but the two became friends because of their shared interests in good beer and good stories. At the time they met, Lewis was not religious; his conversations with Tolkien and mutual friend Hugo Dyson led to Lewis’ conversion to Christianity in 1931. Lewis’ ongoing suspicion of Catholicism did somewhat strain their lifelong friendship at times.

In 1932 Tolkien, Lewis and several others formed a literary club, calling themselves The Inklings. This group met weekly to share meals, give public readings of ongoing projects (and offer criticism), and generally socialize.

One biographer remarked that after this point in Tolkien’s life, nothing much happened. That’s “nothing,” of course, aside from writing some of the most widely read and beloved books in the English language, with combined sales of over 250 million copies and still going. But at this point, the story becomes less about what made J.R.R. Tolkien, and more about what J.R.R. Tolkien made. In addition to his scholarly work, he had been writing fantasy first for himself, and then for his children; but he never intended to publish most of it. He was a respected scholar and a popular and busy lecturer, working far harder than his job demanded; he was a husband and father; and he met weekly with the Inklings. And that is where it probably would have remained, except for an event that Tolkien recounted years later in a letter to a friend. He said that around 1930 he was grading exams for secondary school students to earn some extra money, when finding a blank page in the exam book and feeling bored he scribbled, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” And there he left it, he said, for a very long time; but eventually he began to wonder himself what a hobbit was and what they were up to, so he began writing a story to find out where it would lead. While he was working on that he wrote, in 1936, probably his most important non-fiction work, his essay on Beowulf titled, “The Monsters and the Critics.” This lecture is credited with revitalizing and revolutionizing Beowulf studies, and today we can see it as a statement of Tolkien’s own intentions as a writer. He shared early work on “The Hobbit” with Lewis, who urged him to publish. The tipping point came when a former student who worked for Allen and Unwin Publishers showed it to a coworker, who urged him to finish it. It was then reviewed by the resident reader of children’s literature, Stanley Unwin’s ten-year-old son Raynor, who gave it a very favorable review and said it did not need any changes. And at that point, Tolkien began the transition from obscure but respected scholar to world-renowned author.

The Hobbit received favorable reviews, including one written by C. S. Lewis that predicted that the work could become a classic. And as Rayor Unwin had predicted, children enjoyed the book and found it very exciting. As a result it sold very well, and soon Allen and Unwin were pressing him to write “more hobbit stories.” Tolkien, on the other hand, wanted to publish The Simarillion, which is a collection of tales describing the creation of Middle Earth. The work does not have the easy style of The Hobbit, or the narrative unity; and worst of all, it has NO HOBBITS. Instead, Tolkien began work on a sequel to The Hobbit which also picked up on some of the themes of The Simarillion, the struggle against Melkor the evil rebel against the creator God, and so on. This work turned into the massive Lord of the Rings. This is published as a three-part story, though the parts themselves are actually separate volumes so it could appropriately be said to be a six volume series. The story of Bilbo’s obtaining the magic ring, which had been a fairly short affair in the original telling, was expanded and the character of Gollum added to The Hobbit to tie it closer to the story Tolkien wanted to tell. While The Hobbit is a fairly straightforward fairy story about a rather stuffy, middle-class, nebbish who gets dragged off by a wizard and his dwarf friends on an adventure (and in the process becomes something more), The Lord of the Rings is a tale of four simple hobbits who are swept up into not only a world war, but a cosmic struggle of the agents of good against an evil that has existed since the creation of the world.   As it was written during the time of World War II and the Cold War, many readers sought to see it as an analogy or political allegory; but Tolkien vigorously denied this. He wanted it to be received as whatever the reader’s imagination said, so each person could apply it to his or her life. At the same time, while it was not explicitly or obviously Christian the way Lewis’ Narnia tales were, religious themes are integral to the book. The religious undertones and the epic scope of the work make Tolkien the figure he is. In the USSR, there were people called Tolkienisti who read smuggled books in secret. While it is likely the Soviets would have disapproved of fairy tales like The Hobbit, I have a hard time believing people would have risked persecution to read Tolkien were it not for the substance and sustenance they found in The Lord of the Rings.

In 1965, the American firm Ace Publishing released an unauthorized edition of The Lord of the Rings. Although publishers generally were expected to respect international copyrights, Ace had decided that since The Lord of the Rings wasn’t registered in the U.S. it would treat the work as public domain. Tolkien reacted by quickly reaching a deal with another American publisher, Ballentine, to publish the authorized version, and then made efforts to promote the authorized edition and to encourage his readers not to buy from Ace. Tolkien readers are a loyal and basically moral group, and proved willing to pay a bit more for an authorized version that paid the author royalties. Eventually Ace was forced to capitulate and pay royalties. The upshot of the lawsuits and publicity was that Tolkien became an internationally known author, and sales soared. It was the beginning of the Tolkien boom.

After this, even works that had been passed over by publishers began to attract attention. Hobbits or no, anything by Tolkien was likely to attract a readership. There was even consideration to finally publishing Tolkien’s own personal favorite, as far as I can tell, The Simarillion, although it remained unpublished and he continued to work on it until the end of his life. He passed away in 1973, while his son Christopher continued to edit and publish his father’s previously unpublished works for years after.

If I made it this far and didn’t run out of time or have to skip oodles of material, I am surprised. However, let me close by trying to sum up what I think a survey of Tolkien’s biography reveals about him as a man:

PICTURE OF TOLKIEN

 

As we look at Tolkien’s life, we can see how events made him the man he was.

  1. As a child,
  2. He showed an early interest in language, making up his own as a game. He also showed an interest in fantasy and fairy stories.
  3. Also, he was born in South Africa, but the dry climate did not suit him. His happiest memories were his young childhood in rural England. Shehole became the model for The Shire. By contrast, he hated the large, industrial city of Birmingham.
  4. He had a strong appreciation for nature and an aversion to technology that harmed the environment, such as cars and later trains.
  5. He lost both his parents at a young age. He knew suffering and loss.
  6. His mother converted to Catholicism, and was estranged from much of her family as a result. He learned that you may have to give up something for faith, because faith is important.
  7. As a teenager (to age 21),
  8. He was raised by Fr. Morgan. His aunt, in whose home he and his brother lived in the years after their mother’s death, was cold and distant; Fr. Morgan was engaged and supportive. Tolkien’s faith and his studies were a shelter and escape from an unpleasant home situation.
  9. His long separation from Edith and their eventual marriage shows his devotion and commitment.
  10. As an adult,
  11. He was a patriot, and he knew the horrors and loss of war.
  12. He was a perfectionist; he worked harder than he had to as a scholar and a teacher, and as a writer he generally had to be prodded to publish because he was unsure if his work was really ready.
  13. He was a devout Catholic.
  14. He was devoted to his family, writing regular stories for his children. His marriage to Edith lasted more than fifty years, until she passed away in 1971.

 

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. xvi)

June 25, 2013

CONCLUSIONS

            For Campbell, mythology, psychology and metaphysics are all of one piece.[1]  Religion reveals the structure of the unconscious as this is collectively expressed, and this in turn expresses our understanding of the nature of reality; or to read it backwards, the structure of reality gives rise to psychological themes and symbols that are expressed, codified and institutionalized in religion.  Since virtually every role-playing game will express the monomyth, every such game will be an individual’s using those symbols drawn from the collective unconscious to understand himself or herself, to understand the cosmos, and to understand how the one fits into the other.  Perhaps that is one reason why these games can be so powerfully attractive.  Knowingly or not, players are manipulating the deepest symbols of the human condition, and of their own unconscious.

For Tolkien, any act of creativity is an expression of the imageo Dei.  That does not mean that every such expression is good or healthy; he says that much of human history has shown the perversions of this creative nature, whether in ancient human sacrifice or modern fascism and leader-worship.[2]  But when done properly, fairy-stories present a kind of gospel, a eucatastrophe, that reflects the deep human thirst for the true gospel; and perhaps they can whet the appetite for that true Consolation.  Most sorts of role-playing have the potential to express Fantasy, Recovery, Escape and Consolation to some degree.  One major difference is that a reader or hearer of fairy-stories must imaginatively enter into another’s Secondary World; in role-playing, everyone plays a part in creating the shared Secondary World together, so the experience is more immersive and active.

Many years ago, I read an article on the psychology of gaming, examining the question of whether or not role-playing games were dangerous (again, this was before the MMORPG, so the study was concerned primarily with Dungeons and Dragons).  In most cases, the conclusion was “no;” but the author did note that in a group home for boys with behavioral/psychological problems, gaming made them more resistant to therapy and particularly to group therapy.  I think that Tolkien and Campbell show us why this might be so.  In a sense, all fantasy is therapy, an expression of one’s deepest creative impulses, shared together and validated by the participation of others.  If one’s deepest nature is self-destructive, one will create a Secondary World that is hostile and destructive; or to put it another way, one will choose symbols and stories that thwart the hero and embrace chaos and destruction without rebirth.  Role-playing is a therapeutic technique, although therapeutic role-playing generally has little of what makes genuine role-playing games so popular and satisfying; and role-playing games can be a sort of self-medication or self-therapy.  Compared to the other sorts of self-medication that are common, RPGs would seem to be safer and more effective than most.  But having played various games for over thirty years, I can say that they can have some negative effects as well.  Their psychological and religious power can also lead players to compulsively play, to avoid reality rather than using the games as a tool to grow to face reality.

To be continued….


[1] Hero with a Thousand Faces, pp. 256-59

[2] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 75

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. xiv)

June 9, 2013

It seems that in Campbell’s view, myths and fantasy work best when one doesn’t analyze them or have conscious awareness of what they are doing, since their power lies in the symbols of the collective unconscious.  For Tolkien it seems that while the storyteller may be intentional in crafting an evangelium it is just as possible that the storyteller and the audience are unaware, without changing the fact that it is a kind of gospel and an expression of the imageo Dei.  But it seems that for Kierkegaard, the individual needs to be aware of the workings of reflection, envy, and leveling in order to resist, and aware of the religious to choose it.  This would seem to be a major difference between them.  However, the story (or the game) can still offer “illusion” that the person may then choose to see as possibility.  It can offer a place of rest before one returns to the journey of life.  It can offer imagination’s way out.  But without choice, it cannot offer the religious.  At most, it can simulate another life, where one tries on the ethical or the religious persona for a time and perhaps gets a glimpse of life beyond the merely esthetic and egoistic standpoint, and beyond the conformity of the herd and a world which has banished heroes.

What if one is intentionally religious?  Can one choose to make one’s game playing a religious exercise, on Kierkegaardian terms?  The game as genre is inherently “poetic” in Kierkegaard’s terms:  imaginative, creative, dealing with possibility rather than actuality.  Deciding to play with overtly Christian characters  (say, in a St. George vs. the Dragon setting, where Catholic priests and pious knights slay agents of Satan) would make no difference; it might even make things worse, since it would reduce a gospel intended to be an existence-communication from a call to existence in actuality to a mere imaginative possibility.  Christian first-person shooters and Left Behind games might have horrified Kierkegaard, although he does write (through Johannes Climacus) that children should be allowed to play with holy things.[1]  What he definitely would have said, though, is that such things are not eo ipso “Christianity” merely because you fight demons or your avatar is dressed as a cleric.  Such things make Christianity ludicrous.[2]  It is only a little better when the work is done well, as in the Christian allegories of C. S. Lewis; having Aslan die to save a boy who ate the witch’s enchanted Turkish Delight both presents the mystery of salvation and trivializes it (the movie studio that optioned the Narnia stories didn’t care whether viewers became Christians or not, so long as they bought tickets).  From the perspective of Two Ages, Tolkien’s more subtle religious metaphor is far preferable to Lewis’ straightforward allegory, as Tolkien is better able to avoid the power of envy.  Kierkegaard argues that in the age of reflection, it will no longer do to have a prophet step forward and thunder, “Thus says the LORD!”  The obvious problem with this is that all attention will immediately be riveted not on the message, but on the speaker.  Instead of being the Word of God, he or she would become interesting, perhaps a celebrity even, to be gossiped about and speculated about, to be attacked and defended, and ultimately to be shown to be no better than the rest of us really (perhaps a tabloid would run pictures of the prophet at the beach in an unflattering swimsuit just to make that point).  In all this flurry of excitement, the one thing no one would think to do is actually heed the prophet’s words. ………

To be continued…..


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, v. 1; translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1992) p. 601

[2] Fragments, p. 594

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. xiii)

May 30, 2013

            What “way out” do role-playing games know?  In a sense, they know “actuality’s way out” even when they are most fantastic.  They may be unrealistic, but they must be internally consistent; and within that consistency the characters expect the assistance of actuality fully as much as do the heroines in A Story of Everyday Life.  Even in Call of Cthulhu, you need to give the players some chance to survive against the eldritch horrors they alone know lurk in the darkness, and chances for victory (however temporary and limited) against the evil plots of insane wizards and fanatical cultists.[1]  On the other hand, the theories of Jung and Campbell suggest that whether or not the myth is understood as actual history or poetic metaphor, it still functions by lifting the individual out of the concrete particularities and trafficking symbolically with great existential and metaphysical realities.  This would seem to be “imagination’s way out” by Kierkegaard’s standards.  Perhaps part of the power of role-playing games is that they uniquely combine elements of actuality and transcendence, by allowing players to act as particular concrete (albeit fictional) characters who still symbolically express and embody universal powers and eternal values.

 

            Kierkegaard says, however, that the escape of imagination or actuality will not suffice; only the religious can save from the power of leveling.[2]  The individual who wishes to escape leveling cannot hope to stand alone against the combined envy of everyone else, not to mention the power of his or her own reflection and the self-doubts it raises.  The individual must choose to stand as an individual against the power of leveling to force everyone back into the herd; but that choice alone is only the first step.  The next step is to stand before God as an individual, and to allow one’s relationship with God to affirm one as an individual.  The fact is that leveling is right, in a way.  Envy says, “Who do you think you are; do you think you are better than us?”  Religious humility says, “I am no better than any of them; we are all equal before God.”  But just as people in the age of revolution were individually oriented towards an idea, and united in being oriented towards the same idea, so in the age of reflection an individual can be oriented towards God and sustained as an individual; and all those who likewise orient themselves as individuals towards God are united with one another as individuals in equality.  Without some greater idea, selfhood collapses, and all becomes crudeness and the herd mentality.  Only those who have something more to live towards than their own selves can preserve their own selves in the crowd, by living as individuals with a great task; but reflection tears down every partial idea and incomplete goal, calls them into question, undermines them and the self-confidence of the individual who looks to them for sustenance, and ultimately reflection wins the day, leaving the essential equality of all individuals to collapse into the mutual envy of the members of the herd.  God is not a partial idea; God is the absolute telos, as Kierkegaard says in another book, the goal that can relativize and also complete all other goals.  For this reason, Kierkegaard thinks, the individual can turn to the religious to find the power to sustain the sense of individuality even in the age of reflection.  Only the religious provides the task that unites all tasks, the “idea for which I am willing to live and die.”[3] 

 

To be continued….


[1] From a Campbell/Jungian point of view, such games seem to symbolize the journey of Life and the struggle against Death, a struggle we know in the end we will all lose.  Horror role-playing seems to accept that dark reality, but seeks to find meaning in the struggle itself for as long as it lasts.  From Tolkien’s perspective, this seems similar to his understanding of the pagan world-view in general, and the Norse view in particular; see “The Monsters and the Critics,” p. 117.  The players, like the Norse warriors, are called to fight on the side of right, knowing all the time that Chaos and Unreason ultimately will triumph; for it is better to be right and defeated than dishonorable and victorious.

[2] Two Ages, pp. 85-90, 106-109

[3] as Kierkegaard put it in his journal on August 1, 1835

 

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. x)

May 8, 2013

            Towards the end of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous phase, he wrote a book review in his own name:  Two Ages:  The Age of Revolution and the Present Age, a Literary Review.  Being one of Kierkegaard’s signed works, it is a much more straightforward expression of his views.      This is a review of a novel; it is neither a fantasy nor a role-playing exercise, though it is fiction.  As fiction, it does share some qualities with the fairy-story. Kierkegaard says of the novel Two Ages that “The author has been faithful to himself.[1]  In this we see that the author has, as Tolkien would have put it, been consistent in creating her Secondary World for the reader to enter.[2]  Like Tolkien, Kierkegaard even compares the creativity of the writer to that of the Creator, although he does not go as far or become as explicitly theological in his comparison.  It is not quite religious, says Kierkegaard, but it tends in that direction; it knows “actuality’s way out” from the pain of life, rather than “religion’s way out.”[3]  And for this reason, it can offer “a place of rest” for the reader.[4]  This sounds very much like the role of Escape in the fairy-story, as described by Tolkien.  And the “way out” sounds more than a little like Consolation.  One difference is that while Tolkien is ready to describe the fairy-story as a kind of gospel, Kierkegaard takes pains to specify that no novel or work of “poetry” could be truly religious, since the realm of the religious is actuality and the poetic deals only in possibility.  But the novel simulates actuality and can thus offer insights into it.  I suggest that in the same way, a role-playing game can simulate life and in the process suggest truths about life (or, if the game is badly written, suggest lies).

 

            The “two ages” Kierkegaard discusses are the “age of revolution” and “the age of reflection,” or “the present age.”  The novel compares these two ages by presenting two love stories, both of which take place in Denmark (the country of publication).  The first takes place with the French Revolution as a backdrop.  A group of French travelers, including envoys of Napoleon, arrives at the house of a well-connected Danish merchant.  Their stay brings the passion and historical power of the Revolution to the home, stirring passion among the Danes as well.  This passion flows through everything from world-historical struggles and ideological debates to clandestine love affairs.  After love, separation, an illegitimate birth and reconciliation, young lovers are finally reunited and the first part of the novel ends.  The second part of the novel likewise revolves around a love affair, but it takes place in the reflective, petty age we live in now.  No charismatic foreigners come to Copenhagen to arouse the passions; there are no passions to be found.  Instead there is backbiting, gossip, envy and indecisiveness.  Instead of lovers who are driven by passion to do forbidden things, there are young people afraid to love because he doesn’t have enough money to support her.  Instead of the dangers and trials of a world at war, there are the snide comments of servants ridiculing the young stepdaughter of the family.  As Kierkegaard puts it, “If we say of a revolutionary age that it goes astray, then we must say of the present age that it is going badly.”[5]  As his own first pseudonymous work put it, in the Old Testament people have passion:  they murder, they curse their descendents, they sin; today they lack the energy, and at most try to weasel their ways through life with a little self-indulgence here and there.  This is what he sees illustrated in the novel.  The characters are driven by petty concerns to indulge in petty behaviors.  Instead of being united by some great passion and forced to decisively choose whether to be for or against (but all concerned for the same thing, the Revolution), today all are only interested in one another, in who is getting too full of himself or herself, who needs to be brought down a peg.  The only social force uniting people is envy, and the only result is not revolution but leveling.[6]  In the novel, Kierkegaard sees this illustrated in the petty meanness to which the heroine Marianne is subjected, merely because she is a stepdaughter (and hence vulnerable) and because she dares to love and to hope.  Kierkegaard sees this same dynamic playing out in society as a whole, becoming a social force on its own.   In the age of revolution, people looked for a great person, a Napoleon or a Luther, who would incarnate the great ideas and towards whom they could orient themselves either by joining or opposing; but today “the age of heroes is past.”[7]  Now, they only seek out the great ones to watch them, hoping to see them fall so they can all mock them for thinking themselves superior to the rest of us, or so they can tell themselves that the deed really wasn’t so great, anyone could have done it really, so again envy is satisfied:  “whereas a passionate age accelerates, raises up and overthrows, elevates and debases, a reflective apathetic age does the opposite, it stifles and impedes, it levels.”[8]  Whole social institutions (most notably the modern press) exist solely to tear down what is great and noble and exceptional, without anybody having to take responsibility for doing so. 

 

To be continued….


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages:  The Age of Revolution and the Present Age, a Literary Review; translated with an introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1978) p. 13, italics Kierkegaard’s. 

[2] Kierkegaard knew full well that the anonymous author was a woman, but respecting her anonymity he consistently refers to the author as “he.”

[3] Two Ages, pp. 14-15

[4] Two Ages, p. 21

[5] Two Ages, p. 69

[6] Two Ages, pp. 68-96

[7] Two Ages, pp. 87-89

[8] Two Ages, p. 84

 

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. viii)

April 25, 2013

            From Tolkien’s perspective, by contrast, the decision of the player to adopt an evil character is to enter into a Secondary World where one sides with what is destructive and hostile for the sake of power for oneself.  As the fates of Gollum, Saruman and the Lord of the Nazgul show, this starts out as an attempt at self-aggrandizement but ends up as self-destruction.  To join in such a story is to deny the very essence of the Fairy-Story, which is its Consolation.

            The general trend over the decades seems to have been away from the moral dualisms of early Dungeons and Dragons to more pluralistic settings, where groups might be considered evil by some standards or some other group, but still have a firm moral code and be good and just in their own eyes.  Even so, there is almost always some greater, ultimate evil, seeking to destroy the heroes and the world they live in.  Perhaps this ultimately vindicates the theories of Campbell and Tolkien.  It is one thing to have a hero who has some darkness in his or her soul; but for the hero to be a hero, there has to be an ultimate evil, Death Incarnate, whether as a dragon or Cthulhu or the Burning Legion.  The game is simply meaningless unless it is also a quest.  It is having something to strive for, and something that must be striven against, that makes the role-playing game feel important, at least in a Secondary sense.  Otherwise, the whole thing is simply killing stuff to level up over and over again, always basically the same, basically pointless, and essentially boring.  And boredom is the root of all evil.[1]

To be continued…..


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or v. 1; translated, with an introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1987) p. 285