Skip to comments.The Gospel According to J. R. R. Tolkien
Posted on 09/12/2003 2:45:41 PM PDT by Vindiciae Contra TyrannoSCOTUS
2003 Professor of the Year Dr. James Dixon spoke during Chapel on Sept. 9. His address follows.
What are English professors good for? Well, listen to this. On an early summer day in 1930, an English professor sat in his study in Oxford, England, grading examination papers. As he later recalled, "One of the [students] had mercifully left one of the pages with no writing on it (which is the best thing that can possibly happen to an examiner) and I wrote on it: In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit" (qtd. in Carpenter 175). With this humble beginning, J. R. R. Tolkien began to craft the master literary epic of the modern age, beginning with The Hobbit and culminating in The Lord of the Rings, works which many of you have no doubt read, some of you several times. When The Lord of the Rings first came out in 1954, the publisher worried that it wouldnt sell enough to cover the costs of publication. Since then it has sold over 50 million copies, and has been translated into an astonishing number of languages. And most recently, of course, its world-wide reputation has been boosted by the stunning series of films directed by Peter Jackson, the third installment of which is scheduled for release this Christmas (some of us cant wait!). How can we account for this phenomenal success?
I propose to speak to you this morning about why The Lord of the Rings succeeds so well as literature and how Tolkiens Christian faith is central to the profound success of his work. Tolkien was a devout Christiana life-long Catholic. He was a close friend of C. S. Lewis and was instrumental in leading him to faith in Christ. Ironically, however, a common criticism of Tolkiens work is that his Middle Earth lacks two very human experiences: sex and formal religion. Thankfully, I dont have time to deal with the first of these. But the lack of religion is curious. Whats a good Catholic boy like Tolkien doing by leaving religion out of The Lord of the Rings? Tolkien wrote in a letter that The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like religion, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism. (172)
As a Christian, Tolkien saw his creative work as an act of worship to the Creator of the primary world, in whose image we are created to be creators. But as he suggests, his Christian understanding of the world saturates his literary vision in ways that go far beneath the surface as well.
I will explore with you this morning this deep texture of his Christian faith in his work in two major themes: 1) the mysterium tremendum; and 2) the nature of Grace.
First, the mysterium tremendum. What is this? In his seminal book, The Idea of the Holy, theologian Rudolph Otto describes this as that sense of wonder, awe, fear, humility of the individual soul in the face of the demands of a transcendent reality. It is at the heart of true worship, says Otto, but in Tolkien it is essential for triggering the spiritual and ethical responses that drive the plot.
In The Lord of the Rings, this pattern recurs in numerous ways and in varying degrees, as when Frodo takes the Ringand the quest to destroy it in Mordorat the council of Rivendell. After discussing at length the immensity of the evil facing them, and the sheer impossibility of the task before them, the Council sits in silence [and this, as you will note, is one of the moments in which the book is quite different from the film]:
No one answered. The noon-bell rang. Still no one spoke. Frodo glanced at all the faces, but they were not turned to him. All the Council sat with downcast eyes, as if in deep thought. A great dread fell on him, as if he was awaiting the pronouncement of some doom that he had long foreseen and vainly hoped might after all never be spoken. An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbos side in Rivendell filled all his heart. At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice.
"I will take the Ring," he said, "though I do not know the way." (Fellowship 354)
In facing the "great dread" of an unbearable responsibility, Frodo encounters the mysterium tremendum, the sense that he is but a very small part of a much larger story whose meaning he cannot begin to fathom. Little though he is, no one else can do at this moment what he alone must do. And so he embarks on an impossible quest: the weakest and most unheroic of creatures in Middle Earth will set out to defeat the undefeatable evil of Sauron by returning the Ring to the site of its birth; Mount Doom will become the site of its death as well. If Frodo is successful, however, Mount Doom will also be the site of his own death, his own doom. Doom hangs over this quest from the very beginning, and only folly would presume a grace that would overturn this doom. Yet Frodo must act as though such an impossible grace might come, or else why even begin the quest. It is hope without hope. It is the acceptance of an unbearable responsibility. It is the faith that, somehow, in weakness there is strength.
Bearing the Ring means deathparadoxically, for it is in the very nature of the Ring to extend the self of its wearerto impart immortality if one could possess it long enough. But possessing the Ring is dangerous business, for it soon begins to possess the bearer. The longer Frodo bears the Ring, the more "stretched out" he feels, weary, burdened, less fully himself. In gaining himselfi.e., lengthened life, power, visionhe is losing himself. And only by losing himself, and the Ring that threatens to become the self, his "precious," as everyone who is owned by the Ring ends up calling it, will he ever be able to find himself again. The fulfillment of the quest will require something larger than himself, something at work outside himself, something from the mysterium tremendum which he could not anticipate. He senses and submits to that awesome mystery, and he says (and note the wording here: "as if some other will was using his small voice"): "I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way."
This is Tolkiens version of the need to take up ones cross daily in the service of an absolute good beyond the self in the face of an overwhelming evil. But who or what is at work beyond the walls of this world to draw such seemingly insignificant characters as Frodo into his larger plan? Though he makes it a very real presence, Tolkien preferred to leave his mysterium tremendum well mysterious. He makes very clear that something transcendent makes its demands on Frodo ("as if some other will was using his small voice"); but in this work, that "something" remains nameless. Tolkien repeatedly uses the passive voice to this end: "Why was I chosen?" asks Frodo. Gandalf responds, "You were meant to carry the Ring." And the elf lord Elrond affirms later: "If I understand aright all that I have heard, I think that this task is appointed for you, Frodo; and that if you do not find a way, no one will . . ." But exactly who chose or appointed Frodo is never named.
The closest Tolkien comes in The Lord of the Rings to providing a name for this transcendent reality who demands the impossible from Frodo and the little fellowship of the Ring is in the mines of Moria, when Gandalf confronts the monstrous Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-Dum: "I am a Servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass!" (Fellowship 429). Fittingly, that cry immediately precedes Gandalfs own gift of death, his descent into the abyss with the demonic Balrog. But the "Secret Fire" is a name that is not a name, it is secret, a burning call to responsibility. "Our God is a consuming fire," writes the author of Hebrews (Heb. 12:29).
But in Tolkiens imagination, this God, though certainly mysterious and wholly other, does cross the barrier of his distance from his creation. In The Silmarillion, which he began writing long before The Hobbit, Tolkien provides a theology, and a cosmogony, for the universe he is creating. He names the Creator Eru, or Iluvatar. And he names the nine Valar, archangelic figures by whose singing Eru created the universe. He also describes the Maiar, lesser than the Valar, who are sent into the world of Middle Earth as guardians. Gandalf, in fact, is one of these Maiar.
The structure of this mythology was in Tolkiens imagination (much of it in fact already written down) when he wrote The Lord of the Rings. But its absence in The Lord of the Ringsalong with the absence of organized religionallows Tolkien to demonstrate that the special truths of Christianity are also evident in general ways outside the realm of Christendom proper. They are universal, for as Romans 1:20 suggests, they are written on the heart of man and in the very nature of creation. These are archetypal patternscharacters, plots, themesthat keep recurring in literature throughout history from different cultures. They are part of what we call "general revelation," and Tolkien clearly employs several archetypes that are central to Christianity, including: 1) the fall of man; 2) the descent into hell; and 3) the gift of death, as realized most fully in Jesus statements that "greater love hath no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends."
And this leads us to the second major reflection of Tolkiens faith in his work: his profound understanding of Grace. For him, this included the incarnational pattern of which Paul writes in Phil. 2: 5-11: "let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus," and Paul then details Christs descent from privilege and power to the hell of sin and the humbling of oneself, even unto death, but a death that miraculously leads to new life. Perhaps the greatest example of this is the one to which I have already alluded. Gandalf, though he is certainly not God, yet is a divinely appointed mediator between the divine and the created orders. He demonstrates the archetype of the gift of death in an incarnational love that mediates the divine to the human; he descends into hell, in his struggle with the demonic Balrog; and he ultimately defeats this evil and rises "from the dead" to new life and power.
Another major instance of these patterns is Aragorns passing through the Paths of the Dead, before he can emerge in his full glory as the long-awaited king to defeat his enemies in the battle of Gondor. The very title of this final section of Tolkiens epic, The Return of the King, reflects an archetypal pattern that will be fulfilled ultimately in the second coming of Christ.
But the battles against the larger evils of Middle Earththe orcs, Saruman, Sauronare also reflected in the individual soul. Tolkiens belief in the souland its potential for salvation and damnationis evident especially in his portraits of Frodo and Gollum. This disgusting, pitiable, clawing creature who haunts Frodo has been consumed by the Ringhe calls it "my precious," for as we know, where your treasure is there will your heart be also. Gollum follows and then serves Frodo only because he wants to be near the Ring, and he plots to get it back. Yet we discover that Gollum was once a hobbit himself, named Smeagol, and even in the Two Towers, on the threshold of Mordor, Gollum is not so completely lost a soul that remnants of the old Smeagol cant be elicited by Frodos sheer grace toward him. For it is gracein the sense that any generosity toward Gollum is completely unmerited. But Frodo shows mercy when he could easily show vengeance. He remembers to Sam the words of Gandalf from long ago: "Deserves death! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give that to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends" (Two Towers 281). These words come back to Frodo as a gift and cause him to put down his sword. He has no ulterior motive, only a pity for Gollum and a humility that he "cannot see all ends."
But Frodo spares Gollum for another reason: he sees in Gollum a portrait of himself. Like Gollum, Frodo too has felt the corrupting influence of the Ring. He sees in Gollum a darkness in his own soul. And he longs to save Gollum as he longs to save his own soul from corruption. They are both fallen creatures. So Frodo persists to the very end in believing that Gollum is not beyond redemption, that he may have a purpose in the larger scheme of things.
Frodos grace to Gollum is absolutely essential to the conclusion of the quest. And this brings us to the end of The Lord of the Rings. I have to tell you that I had planned a lot of really neat things to say at this point, but my son John indicated that I simply couldnt give away the endingespecially for the large number of you who may only know the work through the films and are eagerly awaiting the final installment to see how this wondrous story turns out. So to avoid producing a mass exodus, I wont provide any "spoilers" at this point. But I will emphasize that the ending magnificently exemplifies what Tolkien calls "miraculous grace" and "Joy." He even coins a new word to explain this: "eucatastrophe," which he defines as The good catastrophe, the sudden joyous turn . . . ; this joy . . . is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; 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 the world, poignant as grief. ("On Fairy Stories" 68)
"Evangelium" means "gospel," and Tolkien goes on to say that "The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Mans history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation" (72).
For those of you who have seen the two films but not read the final volume, it may be hard to imagine that the hell into which the characters must descend in their quest to destroy the Ring will get any deeper and darker than we have already seen in the Mines of Moria or the orkish hordes swarming over the land in the Battle of Helms Deep. But it will. Trust me. All Hell is ready to break loose, and Frodo, Sam, Gollum, Aragorn, Gandalf, and the rest of Middle Earth will be engulfed in it in ways that stagger the imagination. But in the face of that apparent "universal final defeat" comes the "eucatastrophe," a "sudden and miraculous grace" that is not imposed from without but comes brilliantly from within the very fabric of the plot and characterizations Tolkien has woven for us.
This "evangelium" is central to the ongoing appeal of The Lord of the Rings. It speaks to us of the deepest longings of the soul for connection with a goodness, truth, and beauty that transcend the evil that would consume us. After reading this work, we are left with the memory of profound examples of the gift of death, that gift in the face of the terrible mysterium tremendum that calls us to responsibility and leaves us with a confirmation of the potential of our irreplaceable singularity as persons. Written in the heart of manand in the very nature of realityis that sense of the "Secret Fire"the mysterium tremendumwhich calls us to a sacrificial love in service to others and in service to a higher reality. This call of God on the human soul in a fallen world produces great anguish. It demands a descent into hell. But it also produces what Tolkien calls evangelium (or "good news"): "a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief." This is the gospel according to J. R. R. Tolkien. Glory be to God.
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Third, he read G.K. Chesterton's Everlasting Man and finally arrived at a belief in God.
At this point Lewis was a theist, not a Christian. He struggled for many long months to understand the Gospel story and the doctrines of redemption and resurrection. He read the Gospel of John in Greek.
Then, in the fall of 1931, he had dinner with two faculty members, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings, and Hugo Dyson, a professor of English literature. After dinner, the three of them talked about the great question concerning the truth of the Gospels and asked the question that one of Lewis' pupils referred to as, "And is it true, and is it true, this most amazing tale of all?" They talked and walked for hours along a path called Addison's Walk. The clock in Magdalene Tower struck three in the morning before they parted. This talk had a profound effect on Lewis. Nine days later, Lewis took a trip by motorcycle with his brother. He wrote, "When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo, I did." Later, Lewis wrote: "My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it." When Worldviews Collide
And, since C. S. Lewis was mentioned, I will note in passing that Ignatius Press has brought out a new book by Joseph Pearce, C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, which explores the question of why Lewis never crossed the Tiber.
"This elegantly written and compelling comparison of the worldviews of Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis provides a riveting opportunity to consider the most important questions mankind has ever asked: Is there a God? Does he care about me? This profound book is for anyone who is earnestly seeking answers about truth, the meaning of life, and God's existence." -- Francis Collins, Director, National Human Genome Research Institute - NHGRI
Many of history's greatest thinkers have wrestled with the ultimate question of belief and nonbelief in God. Though it might seem unlikely that any new arguments could possibly be raised on either side, the twentieth century managed to produce two men who each made brilliant, new, and lasting arguments, one in favor of belief and one opposed. Few spokesmen have ever championed their respective positions better than Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis. Sadly, as far as we know, they never met or debated each other directly.
In The Question of God their arguments are placed side by side, as if they were standing at podiums in a shared room. Both thought carefully about the flaws and alternatives to their positions; each considered the other's views. Both men considered the problem of pain and suffering, the nature of love and sex, and the ultimate meaning of life and death. Here, with their debate made explicit, we can take ringside seats at one of history's most profound encounters.
For more than twenty-five years Armand Nicholi has studied the philosophical writings of both men, and has taught a popular course at Harvard that compares the two worldviews. In The Question of God he presents the fruits of years of labor among the published and unpublished writings of Lewis and Freud, including an extensive exploration of their private letters. He allows them to speak for themselves on every major question of belief and nonbelief, but also skillfully draws conclusions from their own lives. Why did Freud have such difficulty maintaining lifelong friendships? How did Lewis's friendships change after his transition from atheism to belief? Why was Freud unable to willfully ignore his own internal moral sense, even though he believed it to be purely a product of socialization and not in any way eternally "true"?
The Question of God may be the best book about belief and nonbelief ever written, since it does not presuppose which answer is correct. Instead, it uses two of history's most articulate spokesmen to present arguments on both sides. In the end, readers must join Nicholi's hundreds of former students in deciding for themselves which path to follow.
The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Winter/spring 2004
Producing organizations: Tatge/Lasseur Productions. Episodes: 4 x 60. Status: preproduction, scripting. Budget: $3.1 million, including $225,000 outreach budget. Major funders: PBS/CPB Challenge Fund, Fidelity Foundation, Peter Lynch Foundation, Paul Montrone Foundation, Laurance Rockefeller Foundation. Executive producer: Catherine Tatge. Contact: Dominique Lasseur, email@example.com, 212-222-5677. Based on Armand Nicholi's popular Harvard University course, the series contrasts the spiritual worldview of C.S. Lewis with the materialistic philosophy of Sigmund Freud and emphasizes dramatic events in the lives of both men. Program guide, online component, ancillary videotape seminar, six-city tour planned.
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While many of these concepts (Tolkien, his works, and their Christian perspective) have been examined before, it is always heartening and refreshing to see them brought to light once again.
I was watching The Two Towers again with my children, and they "get it." They comprehend the struggle of good vs. evil in the story with such wonderful clarity. I read in the Washington Times Culture section last Friday that an author recalled a critic of the movie who was squeamish with revulsion upon seeing Aragorn utter his order at the wall of Helm's Deep:
"Show them no mercy, for you shall receive none."
He said: "To one critic, this response was ...to evocative of the 'hysteria' following Sept 11."
And yet--to the eyes of babes, the truth of good vs. evil is always more clear. Just as Christ said that He thanked His Father for hiding the truth from the haughty and the wise, and for revealing it to the innocent, and the simple.
I look forward very much to speaking to JRR in heaven one day. I bet he tells one hell of a good story.
I always believed the trilogy was very religious, though not in an overt way. It sure makes you think!
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