Sunday, January 29, 2017

Understanding Tolkien: Christianity

Of all the influences on Tolkien’s life and work his faith was not only the most important, but the earliest to appear.  When his mother brought him back to England from Africa after the death of his father she returned to the Catholic church, an act that resulted in her near banishment by the rest of the (mainly Baptist) Tolkien family. When his mother died only a few years later, Tolkien believed it was at least in part caused by the struggle of taking care of him and his brother in the absence of any help from her family. He thus saw his mother as a sort of martyr, who worked herself to death rather than abandon the Catholic Church. After his mother’s death, both of the Tolkien boys were raised by Father Francis Morgan, who had been a good friend to Tolkien’s mother and continued their education, having a profound impact on the rest of Tolkien’s life.
As we have seen, Tolkien was presented with two very different views of the world, the modern and the ancient, each contradicting the other in how they perceived evil, progress, fate, and much more. Tolkien believed that the men and women of both eras were making honest observations, but missing important facts and details skewed their understanding. The ancients, glorifying the epic hero, missed the human propensity to misuse power, while the modern world, blinded by atrocities and the resulting cynicism, failed to appreciate the heroism that mankind can achieve.  In Christianity, Tolkien had a timeless reference through which to view these conflicting viewpoints and see that, in many cases, they viewed opposite sides of the truth to the exclusion of the whole truth.
                In his treatment of evil Tolkien shows us a force that is powerful and real, in agreement with the ancient stories and the modern World Wars, but in contrast to many of the pacifist arguments of his age. Tolkien’s heroes face evil both from within their own ranks and from the forces of the enemy. There are two places where this can be seen most clearly, Amon Hen and Pellenor Fields. In each case, the forces of good are handicapped by actions from within their own ranks before being assaulted by overwhelming attacks. At Amon Hen, Boromir tries to take the ring from Frodo, convincing him that the Fellowship cannot be trusted and effectively breaking the Fellowship of the Ring. At Pellenor Fields, the actions of a despairing Denethor pull Gandalf away from the fighting, removing the one person capable of withstanding the Witch-King of Angmar.
Both Boromir and Denethor should be heroes according to the ancients, rising above such despair and overpowering all who stand before them. According to the moderns their fall should signal the beginning of the enemy’s victory. But neither occurs. In each case the actions another are able to stall the effects of their defeat. In contrast to Boromir’s claim that he is more worthy to bear the ring, Aragorn sacrifices himself to protect the halflings, and at Pellenor Fields, instead of cowering in the face of the Witch-King, whom he cannot hope to match, Theoden charges onward, rejecting the despair which Denethor has embraced. Aragorn and Theoden each face similar temptations as their counterparts but reject them, for Tolkien understood that the evil within is powerful, but not invincible.
Sauron himself is no easy foe, to be understood or reasoned with, but neither is he nor the evil he represents the final predetermined end of the world as in Ragnarok or as some pessimists in the modern age would have us believe. Evil is a threat to man from the inside, as those of the world war recognized, but it is not an insurmountable threat. The great error of paganism, as G.K. Chesterton pointed out, is that it puts things out of place, either making them more than they really are or disregarding them entirely. What has made Tolkien such a powerful voice about evil, and nearly every other topic, over the years is that he puts things in their proper place.

                Fate is one of the things Tolkien believed everyone had gotten a piece of, but lacked a whole. We speak of ‘chance’, the ancients spoke of ‘Wyrd’ and nobody seems exactly sure what is going on behind it all. Tolkien believed he did.  One of the fascinating things about Tolkien is his use of details and asides to make veiled references to one grand theme or another. One of these is Tolkien’s habit of qualifying any reference he may make to chance. As Tom Shippey points out
‘Tom Bombadil says, when he rescued the hobbits from Willow -man ‘Just chance brought me then, If chance you call it’ (my emphasis). Ruin was averted in the North-lands, Gandalf says in appendix A (III) ‘because I met Thorin Oakenshield one evening on the edge of Bree. A chance-meeting, as we say in Middle-earth’ (my emphasis again)
The resulting picture that emerges, in combination with this and other references such as Gandalf’s remark that he was ‘sent back’, is of a higher power directing the events in Middle-Earth. Further examination of Tolkien’s writing shows that these and others are references to the Valar, the heavenly beings of Tolkien’s world, who are ruled by Eru, The One.
In the ancient world, fate was an impersonal, irresistible force that could be influence only slightly by the ‘undoomed man’, while in the modern world it is either ignored or seen in a similar manner. In Christendom, however, we see Fate as the will of God misunderstood by the blind. In Midgard, fate overpowers human choice and makes it as nothing, while under Christ, the will of God enables human choice, and frees us to reap the rewards of our choices.
                The fulfillment of these two beliefs can be seen in Tolkien’s treatment of the ‘little people’. The Hobbits are referred to as little people, but this can also refer to the nameless, faceless, and seemingly unimportant characters throughout the story. A central tenant of Christianity is God’s use of those the world holds in little regard, and in Lord of the Rings the fate of Middle-Earth, of the great kings and noble elves, of the great cities and ancient dwarves all rests on the actions of two lonely hobbits.  Frodo and Sam are successful in part because they are ‘little people’ and are overlooked by Sauron who is focused on the ‘great people’ in Middle-Earth. Even until the last he cannot comprehend of the hobbits as being anything more than spies.
Lord of the Rings could not have been written by someone like T.H. White, who saw in humanity only unending evil that joyed in destruction and pain and was futile to resist. Nor could it have been written by the Norsemen, who struggled to understand how a carpenter who did not pursue martial glory could save the world. So too did the modern world struggle to understand how such selflessness and humility could avail against the evil that so overwhelmed them. Frodo is a uniquely Christian hero, at once free from the terrible oppression of omnipotent evil yet at the same time enslaved to the unyielding standard of goodness in contrasts that a pagan world cannot help but admire even as it is baffled. 
Christianity allowed Tolkien to create a balanced world, one that included both good and evil, pain and beauty, joy and sorrow in a way that resonates with the world we live in. Tolkien does not turn a blind eye to the suffering of the 20th Century, nor does he attempt wish it away with easy pleasures. Middle-Earth, in it's reflection of our world, offers hope amidst the sorrow while reminding us that we are not alone. 
And that is ultimately what makes the Lord of the Rings such a great story, it portrays the Truth of good and evil.

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