Posts Tagged ‘The Lord of the Rings’

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

December 27, 2014

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

 

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

—from The Gospel According to Tolkien

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The Lord of the Rings and Apocalyptic Writing

October 21, 2014

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

The Lord of the Rings

 

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

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

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

The Lord of the Rings as Apocalyptic Literature

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

The Cast of Characters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 30, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tolkien lecture 1: Intro and bio

September 18, 2014

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

 

 

Tolkien lecture 1: Intro and bio

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PICTURE OF TOLKIEN

 

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

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