Posts Tagged ‘“On Fairy-Stories”’

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.

 

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. v)

April 4, 2013

Recovery is another element that is well illustrated by The Time Machine.[1]  It is the moment when you see the overly-familiar Primary World in a new light, as if it were new and alien.  Tolkien uses the image of seeing familiar England as if it were some distant future seen only with a time machine.  In that future, the class divisions that were so common in Victorian England that one scarcely noticed them became a strange story of two separate races of humanoid:  one condemned to a joyless life cut off from both Nature and Culture, both enslaved to the technology it serves and enslaving through it; and the other living a life of beauty and joy, supported by the subterranean race but itself helpless and useless except as food.[2]  Dwelling on that image, one can begin to reflect on the nature of class relations, what rich and poor owe to one another, and what constitutes a “Producer” versus a “Moocher.”

Recovery opens the door to Escape.[3]  Fantasy, whether it be RPG or soap opera, is often condemned as “escapist;” but Tolkien asks,

 

 

“Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?  Of if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?…  Why should we not escape from or condemn… the Morlockian horror of factories?”[4]

 

 

Escape is envisioning a world that is better than the Primary World one finds oneself in.  Having Recovered the ability to see the world afresh, one can decline to, as we so presciently say, blindly accept it.  One can reject, one can condemn, one can imagine a Secondary World where things are better, one can Escape for a time.  But Escape is not merely a modern need; humans have always longed to escape from the limits of physicality, from everything from illness to gravity to the separation between the Human and Natural worlds.  The Fairy-Story allows this, at least for awhile, by inviting us into a Secondary World where we are free.  One denied Escape is truly a Morlock, condemned for all eternity to live in the moral and physical darkness.

There is little specifically religious about either Recovery or Escape.  Escape, however, leads to consideration of “the Great Escape:  the Escape from Death,” and with it, Consolation.[5]  This was ultimately where Campbell sees the monomyth aiming as well.  However, for Tolkien, the highest Consolation is not merely another aspect of Escape.  He writes:

 

 

Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending.  Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it.  At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story.  Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—-I will call it Eucatastrophe.  The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.[6]

 

 

 

The eucatastrophe is the sudden, joyous turn, the unexpected rescue, the happy ending when no happy ending seemed possible.[7]  It is an escape from the tragedy and pain that is all too common in life.  It admits that these are the usual way of the world; the sudden happy ending is always presented as unexpected, unique, and not to be counted on.  But “it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of this world, poignant as grief.”[8]  The fairy-story is, in effect, a kind of Gospel, “good news.”  It is a Subcreation; it is true, but only in the Secondary World of the storymaker, and capable of commanding only Secondary Belief.  By contrast, what God does is Creation, true in the Primary World.  Tolkien writes:

 

 

But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.  The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history.  The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation.  This story begins and ends in joy.[9]

 

 

The fairy-story expresses the hope and wish of human nature; the Gospel fulfills it.  The fairy-story is the desire for the Gospel, sometimes even older than the knowledge of the Gospel itself.  As Augustine said, “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”  The fairy-tale expresses that restlessness.


[1] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 75-78

[2] I wonder how many of the Occupy Wall Street protesters with their signs saying ”Eat the Rich” knew they were echoing 19th century science fiction.

[3] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 79-85

[4] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 79, 82

[5] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 85

[6] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 85

[7] “Fairy-Stories,” pp.  85-90

[8] “Fairy-Stories,” p.  86

[9] “Fairy-Stories,” pp.  88-89

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

March 28, 2013

In many ways, Tolkien’s theories of myth and fantasy move in the opposite direction from Campbell’s.  Tolkien specifically rejects theories that see the significance of the tale in what it borrows from or shares with similar stories.[1]  Rather, Tolkien says we should focus our attention on what is unique to the particular story as presented by the particular storymaker.  While the author or poet or storyteller may use themes and symbols that are common property, Tolkien urges us to look at how the storymaker changes them.  Is the Orphic myth of Dionysus the same as the story of the Crucifixion of Christ, because both tell the story of a god who dies and is resurrected?  Should we focus more attention on the common elements, or on the differences, such as the fact that Christ is said to deliberately offer himself in place of humanity, or that the events take place in history rather than prehistory?  Tolkien would say that in any story, we should look at the intent of the storymaker and the message that is invented through his or her creative activity.  Both may be stories of divine heroes who conquer death, but while one explains human sin as a natural result of human origins (part Titan and part god) the other sees it as unnatural, the result of human rebellion, which is now to be undone by God.

Campbell and Tolkien disagree on the origin of “fairy stories” or “myths,” and likewise disagree on the essential elements.  Campbell’s list was more structural, Tolkien’s reads more like a list of ingredients:

 

 

First of all:  if written with art, the prime value of fairy-stories will simply be that value which, as literature, they share with other literary forms.  But fairy-stories offer also, in a peculiar degree or mode, these things:  Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things which children have, as a rule, less need than older people.[2]

 

 

These are the distinguishing characteristics of the fairy-story, according to Tolkien.  For the most part, they are not necessarily present in any particular order, except that Consolation refers to the “happy ending.”  There are two general reasons for this.  First, it reflects Tolkien’s emphasis on the uniqueness of each story; while Campbell is arguing that all myths are basically the same story with different fonts, Tolkien wants to emphasize the variations introduced by the author and thus is more inclined to an examination that enlarges the space for authorial originality.  Second, Tolkien is attempting to distinguish the fairy-story as a specific genre, different from similar tales such as the dream story or beast fable.[3]  For this reason, he wants to present the distinctive characteristics of the fairy-story.  But while his emphasis is often on the unique and distinguishing, he also has much to say about what all such stories have in common; and like Campbell, he traces this to human nature itself, and particularly to the spiritual in human nature.

Of Tolkien’s four qualities of the true fairy-story, Fantasy is the most fundamental and the one he discusses most extensively.[4] Tolkien affirms that “Fantasy is a natural human activity,” an expression of human creativity and imagination.[5]  As such, it is fully consistent and even dependent on human reason and logic.[6]  It may be distorted into destructive and self-destructive idolatries and Morbid Delusion, but it cannot and must not be suppressed.  But Tolkien does not see the capacity for Fantasy merely as an expression of a human psychological or intellectual need; he sees it as expressing a theological truth:  “Fantasy,” he writes, “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.”  Human creative activity is the expression of the Imageo Dei.  Humans are given the capacity for “sub-creation.”   The finest Fantasist can create a whole Secondary World, where fantastic images such as a green sun have “the inner consistency of reality” and command Secondary Belief.  Only God can create the Primary World, of course, and only the Primary World can deserve Primary Belief; but a Secondary World can invite or even “command” (in Tolkien’s words) a temporary belief, a feeling that such things are possible and perhaps a wish that they were true.  It can even suggest possibilities that could be true.  One of Tolkien’s repeated images is H.G. Wells’ story of the Morlocks, those descendents of 19th Century factory workers who evolved into technologically superior troglodytes, farming the surface-dwelling, beautiful but idiot descendents of the aristocracy.  This is hardly a happy “fairy-story;”  The Time Machine is a cautionary tale rather than a true fairy-story in Tolkien’s sense.  But it is an admirable expression of Fantasy, despite an appalling lack of elves or magic.  It takes the elements of this world, reworks them as a potter takes and reworks the clay, and creates an internally consistent Secondary World.

To be continued…..


[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in Tree and Leaf; reprinted in The Tolkien Reader, by J. R. R. Tolkien, (New York:  The Random House Publishing Group, 1966) pp.  45-8

[2] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 67

[3] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 34-44

[4] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 68-75

[5] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 74

[6] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 75

Review: The Hobbit: an unexpected journey (pt. iii)

January 4, 2013

The Hobbit as Fairy-Story:  Campbell’s interest is to find the similarities between seemingly disconnected myths and fairy-tales, in order to find the unified reality he feels underlies them all.  Tolkien himself, by contrast, rejects the argument that the common elements are the most important.[1]  Instead, he says we should look to the particularities of the story at hand.  After all, behind ever story there was an original storyteller, and each successive storyteller has made some changes.  Of course there will be common elements in traditional stories; what matters is understanding how the storyteller has used those elements to make his or her unique point.  Dwarves and trolls and wizards are common elements of European folklore, of which Tolkien himself was an expert; many details (such as the trollish vulnerability to sunlight) came directly from such sources.  The Ring seems most closely based on the Ring of Gyges from Plato’s Republic, which also was a ring granting invisibility, political power and moral corruption to its owner, but the similarities are stronger in the Lord of the Rings than in The Hobbit.  In this prequel, the evil of the Ring is not fully worked out, and it seems simply to serve the purpose giving Bilbo a sudden magical power, which he uses to thwart enemies and help his friends.  Dwarves, dragons and their common love of gold are likewise fairytale clichés.

What is the point of the story as Tolkien has offered it?  And what is the meaning of the changes Jackson has introduced?  Bilbo is a good, prosperous, bourgeois Everyman.  The most distinguishing thing about a Baggins is said to be his predictability.  Suddenly, a magical figure enters his life.  This figure is not a total stranger; his name and something of his powers are known, even if he has been long absent.  He used to make life “interesting,” which is something that Bilbo apparently secretly yearns for (secret even from himself) but also fears.[2]  Most of us, too, are basically caught up in the world of creature comforts and social respectability; but Tolkien believes that there is a small part that still yearns for something more.  Gandalf is that “more.”  As Tolkien writes, “fairy-stories offer also, in a peculiar degree or mode, these things:  Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people.”[3]  “Fantasy” is the element of imagination, of breaking away from the ordinary and the expected and the all-too-human.  Gandalf is that call to imagination.  Bilbo initially seeks to escape the wizard’s call; as Tolkien says, Fantasy has a bad name these days.[4]  But Gandalf does not take “no” for an answer; in fact, he seems to scarcely take an answer at all.  He issues the call, issues the invitation to the dwarves, and plans the adventure.  But in the end, Bilbo must decide whether to cooperate, which is the only thing that turns this from a kidnapping into an adventure.  Jackson’s version gives a bit more freedom to Bilbo, who chases after the dwarves and Gandalf rather than being hustled along by Gandalf after the dwarves.  But in both versions, there is the theme of two forces pulling at Bilbo:  the Baggins side of his nature, all respectability and comfortable, versus his mother’s side of the family, those Tooks, with their family history of adventure and courage and being just a little odd and distrusted because of it.  The Tookish side wins out as Bilbo listens to the dwarves’ song of gold and great deeds of the past, and he answers the call to adventure.

In the book, Bilbo is even less suited to adventure than in the latest movie.  His first attempts at burglary nearly get all the dwarves killed, and they are only rescued by Gandalf’s timely return.  Still, he does his best and endures the hardships of the trail, until the party is captured by goblins.  In the book, Gandalf rescues the party single-handedly, with poor Bilbo getting lost during the escape; in the movie, Gandalf and the dwarves fight their way clear together, with Bilbo getting separated much earlier due mostly to his good luck and small size.  And here is where Bilbo’s fortunes really change:  the meeting and defeat of Gollum.  I have always thought the character of Gollum resembled Tolkien’s understanding of Grendel.  As he wrote in his essay on Beowulf:

 

 

If the dragon is the right end for Beowulf, and I agree with the author that it is, then Grendel is an eminently suitable beginning.  They are creatures, feond mancynnes, of a similar order and indeed significance.  Triumph over the lesser and more nearly human is cancelled by defeat before the older and more elemental.  And the conquest of the ogres comes at the right moment:  not in earliest youth, though the nicors are referred to in Beowulf’s geogoöfeore as a presage of the kind of hero we have to deal with; and not during the later period of recognized ability and prowess; but in that first moment, which often comes in great lives, when men look up in surprise and see that a hero has unawares leaped forth.[5]

 

 

Like Grendel, Gollum is “more nearly human,” or in this case, more nearly hobbit.  In this story, we know nothing about Gollum’s origins or nature, except that he is nasty and dangerous.  The movie vividly depicts his schizoid personality, without explaining it.  But at the same time, he is no larger than a hobbit.  He is nearly bestial, bent and largely quadrupedal, and more a creature of the darkness and water than of the sunlit world Bilbo calls home; but still, the two are alike in more than just size.  They understand one another’s language, and they both understand the notion of riddles and contests.  Neither is a master of magic like Gandalf, or of arms like Thorin.  They are two like minds, one twisted, dark and malicious while the other is lost and far from home and basically decent, contending with each other for the secret Gollum holds of escape from the world of darkness and return to the light.  The only element of magic here is the Ring, which Gollum does not realize he’s lost and Bilbo does not realize he’s found.  It is his defeat of Gollum that allows him not only to return to his world, but to perform his first real act of burglary:  the successful theft of the magical power, the Ring, which will allow him to overcome his later obstacles.  As Tolkien writes, this is not at the beginning of his adventures, since he has been on the path of adventure for awhile now; but it is at the first moment when he emerges as a hero “unawares.”[6]

Fantasy is the work of sub-creation, the human echo of the divine creativity, creating a Secondary World that the reader or hearer can share in for a time.[7]  This experience of another reality grants us the opportunity to see our own from a new perspective—-or rather, from the old perspective, to see it as if for the first time, without the dulling effects of habit.  It allows us to experience “Recovery,” which is “re-gaining of a clear view.”[8]  In stepping away from our own world for awhile, we recover our sense of our world and the wonder and possibilities therein.  It also allows us to “Escape” from the triteness, the blandness, the conformism and the despair that crushes the hopes and individuality of so many.[9]  The last of Tolkien’s list of functions of the fairy-story, “Consolation,” relates particularly to the end of the tale; and this is obviously where the book and movie diverge the most.

What Tolkien has given us in this part of his tale (roughly the first six chapters, or one-third of the book) is an ordinary person who is called (or dragged) to a more than ordinary destiny, and who begins to be something more than ordinary by conquering a monster that is his own nature twisted by darkness and hate.  He does this without the help of Gandalf, for once.  The movie contains some elements that seem included merely to strengthen the connection with the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Of the elements that seem to add meaning, some seem to be speeding up the emergence of Bilbo’s heroic side.  This is necessary, given Jackson’s expansion of the story to three films; in the book, Bilbo does not begin to come into his own until events that aren’t even depicted in the first film, so without some sort of foreshadowing Bilbo would remain a terrified, squeaking dead weight (literally; in the book he has to be carried by the dwarves since he is too slow to keep up while they flee the goblins).  Other elements link the events of The Hobbit to the coming apocalyptic struggle against Sauron, setting the whole story in a more menacing context.  But most interestingly, Gandalf reveals his reason for shanghaiing Bilbo into this adventure in the first place.  In a conversation with Galadriel, queen of the elves, he says that he and his fellow wizard Saruman have a philosophical difference as to how to oppose evil.  Saruman believes that one must fight the power of evil by having greater power.  Gandalf, by contrast, asserts that it is simple, humble acts of kindness, and a generous and unpretentious heart that matter most.  Bilbo was chosen precisely because he was unheroic and knew it.  He has a good heart, a better heart than he himself realizes; his sympathy for the dwarves leads him to abandon his own home for a time, and to risk his life, to help them return to their own home.  He lacks power of magic or of force, but he has the power of conscience.  And in the movie, this power leads him to charge a much larger goblin and defeat him, saving Thorin’s life and finally winning his respect.

For Tolkien, Consolation is the most salvific function of the fairy-story.[10]  It is the Eucatastrophe, the unexpected happy ending.  It is the affirmation that despite all the evil and pain and hardship and darkness of the world, it is still possible that good can win through.  This is the highest function of the fairy-story, says Tolkien, and is what gives us its particular Joy.  Even in the face of dyscatastrophe, in the face of undeniable tragedy and disaster, we can have hope for Joy.  We can see it in the fairy-story, in this work of sub-creation, so we can envision it as a possibility here in the Primary World as well.  After all, we are sub-creators, ourselves made in the image of a Maker, whose creative actions are only an extension and imitation of the Creator’s own work; what we can do in our Secondary Worlds the maker of the Primary World can also do there.

Since Jackson has not really presented us with the end of the story, a viewer who had not known the books would not know whether this will end as eucastastrophe or dyscatastrophe if we had only the tale itself.  Since Jackson has added a prelude, showing Bilbo working on his book in the future, we see that Bilbo does make it home.  At the time, all Bilbo had was Gandalf’s reassurance that if he went on the adventure, when he returned he would be changed, and for the better—if he returned.  Eucastastrophe and dyscatastrophe seemed equally possible to Bilbo at the time; he risked his life to answer the call to adventure.  Considering the end of An Unexpected Journey alone, without the other two films to finish the tale, what we see in that conclusion is the beginning of the fulfillment of Gandalf’s promise.  At the start of the adventure, Bilbo was a rather fearful and petty bourgeoisie, insisting as the adventure began that they would have to return so he could retrieve his pocket-handkerchiefs. But by the end of the tale, his love of his comfortable home has been transmuted by sympathy for the dwarves, who have lost their home.  Where once his greatest fear was that his unexpected houseguests would break his dishes, and he does not even want to touch a sword, by the end he is willing to throw himself into combat to save Thorin’s life.  He does so, he says, because he loves his home, and he understands the pain they must feel, and therefore he vows that he will do whatever is in his power to help them regain what they have lost.  He has truly been changed, as the goodness and generous sympathy that Gandalf saw as latent within him has replaced middle-class Epicureanism as the ruling force in his life.

As a fairy-story, it seems to me, the movie is incomplete by Tolkien’s standards; which is not surprising since the story is not finished.  We know that a happy ending is coming, but we haven’t seen it and can’t really predict it.  And with all the foreshadowing of the great War to come, our eucatastrophe will really have to wait until The Return of the King.  For now, it is an unfinished tale.  Is it a successful movie, in its own right?  By the standards of today, the answer is, “Yes;” it has made a lot of money.  But the market does not choose whether a movie is good or bad, in either the aesthetic or moral senses; it only counts how many people will shell out cash for a ticket.  More interesting would be the question, why has it been so successful financially?  It seems that the reason is that Jackson has done his work as a sub-creator well.  People who have visited his Secondary World want to return again and again.  I would like to believe that this is not just because his world is so convincing and beautiful, with the striking New Zealand landscapes combined with cutting-edge special effects to make everything seem so strange and real simultaneously.  I hope it is also because the underlying theme, that it is little things done by little people with good hearts that redeem the world, is a message that many want to hear and want to believe.  In our Primary World, we see hurricanes, wars, poverty, oppression, and pain.  There are two ways to fight it.  One, as Bill O’Reilly said is to affirm that “You have to make it to give it.”[11]  That is the logic of Saruman.  In the face of so much evil, the only way to accomplish anything is to accumulate as much power and wealth as possible.  Become an entrepreneur yourself, make a few billion dollars by any means necessary, and then you can turn around and do a lot of good—like Rockefeller did when he drove rivals into bankruptcy, worked employees to death and spent millions to buy the presidency for McKinley, and then used all that dubious gain to fund charities in his old age.  The other way is to first try to be good, and then to do whatever small thing you can do now, with the limited power you have, having faith that your good deed will call forth others and somehow things will turn towards the best.  That is the way of Gandalf.  Jackson’s movie ends with the affirmation that the least of the group can have the most conscience, and that this conscience is the most noble and salvific thing there is.


[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, “Tree and Leaf:  On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York:  Ballentine Books, 1966) pp. 45-48

[2] The Hobbit, pp. 18-19

[3] “On Fairy-Stories,” p. 67

[4] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 68

[5] J. R. R. Tolkien, “Beowulf:  The Monsters and the Critics;” in Beowulf:  A Verse Translation, translated by Seamus Heaney, edited by Daniel Donoghue (New York and London:  W. W. Norton and Company, Inc, 2002) p. 128

[6] Since Jackson’s first movie ends well before the encounter with Smaug, we will save the comparison of Bilbo’s dragon with Beowulf’s for another day.

[7] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 72-75

[8] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 77

[9] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 79-85

[10] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 85-90

[11] “The Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium 2012,” (http://www.therumble2012.com/index.html) accessed Jan. 4, 2013