Some Religious Aspects of Lord of the Rings

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[page 209] {Title Art: The font for the title and author is handwritten in a stylized script. The title is surrounded by embellishments. The author's name appears between two floral embellishments, bellow a stylized depiction of a woman's face and air, and above an abstract embellishment.} Some Religious Aspects of _Lord of the Rings_, Sandra Miesel J.R.R. Tolkien _Lord of the Rings_, like its prelude, _The Hobbit_, is fundamentally the tale of an odyssey. Thus the story stands in a venerable tradition, for the epic journey to conquer evil a theme as ancient as Sumeria, is the basis of countless fairy tales. Moreover, this kind of plot is common in literary works that try to expound spiritual or philosophical truths. (_Pilgrim's Progress_ is an obvious example.) Tolkien' s art is neither didactic nor allegorical but nevertheless manifests a deeply Christian philosophy of life. This paper will attempt to explore the framework and expression of the author's views. At first glance Tolkien's world is strikingly devoid of religion. While moral sensibilities are highly sophisticated, via elvish influence, there are no cults or rites. Prayer is unknown in Middle-Earth though in our world it exists even in non-theistic religions like Buddhism. The only acts of worship recorded are those of Sauron by depraved men and the monster Shelob by Gollum. Perhaps the Speaking Peoples feel no need of liturgy because they live in such harmony with life, with beauty, with goodness that their ordinary actions are implicit worship. The good beings' lives are a continual celebration of wonder. Drawing upon the findings of anthropology and comparative religion, the author has developed his own unique salvation history. First he has borrowed from that scholarly abstraction, the universal paradise myth. Eliade describes the specific marks of paradisal man as "immortality, spontaneity, freedom; the possibility of ascension into Heaven and easily meeting with the gods; friendship with the animals and knowledge of their language."² By some misfortune Heaven and Earth became estranged, thus altering the structure of the cosmos and man's mode of being within it. Thus in the golden Elder Days of Middle Earth, the 'angelic'³ Valar visited men. Long lives were the rule and the Undying Lands still lay within the circles of the world. But this perfection was irreparably spoiled by the Great Enemy, poisoner of the Two Trees. His malice was continued by his servant Sauron who seduced the Numenoreans with promises of immortality. As the Edain fell unden the Shadow, their life spans shortened--a parallel to Biblical and Vedic notions of corruption. [page 210] SANDRA MIESEL Yet the fall of Numenor is not the primal Fall of Man as the Judeo-Christian, or indeed any other major tradition conceives it. A fallen "angel" as tempter and man's tragic attempt to seize eternal life are points of resemblance between the Biblical and the Ring account. But the Numenoreans were the ancestors of the Dunedain aristocracy only, not of all men. Though glorious, Numenor lacked the serene timelessness of paradise. The islanders sinned and dwindled long before their final destruction. Ancient Elain privileges were not forfeited by racial guilt.4 Although Tolkien's characters remark upon the inherent imperfection of mankind, they do not connect this observation with any concept of Original Sin. How could they in a world lacking supernatural revelation or apparently, even legends of humanity's beginnings? The very sharp fallen-unfallen dichotomy of C.S. Lewis's cosmic trilogy has no place in _Lord of the Rings_. The remoteness and silence of Tolkien's unworshipped One is typical of primitive theology. The Sumerians, Norse, Polynesians, Australian aborigines, and some African, American Indian, and Turco-Ugaric tribes, among other cultures have believed that once the Creator-God's work was completed, he committed the world to the care of messengers, guardians, or demi-gods These then became the chief figures of interest and evocation.5 Thus Middle Earth honours the Valar, the Guardians of the World. They are invoked at Aragorn's coronation. In this pre-evangelic world the notion of survival after death is quite vague. In the beginning, death was called the Gift of the One to Men; later it became the Doom of Men. Men envy elven immortality but it is not an unmixed blessing. It can indefinitely prolong sorrow, as in Elrond's case. Only in her last years does Arwen come to understand the Numenoreans' fatal lust for endless life. Acceptance of death without despairis the final test of Aragorn and Arwen. Aragorn's hints of reunion "beyond the circles of the world" are the only allusions to an afterlife in the story. There is no promise of heaven for the races of Middle Earth. There is only some unexplained reunion Elsewhere won by fidelity and submission to destiny in the absence of any certain hope. While the cultural framework is religionless, the attitudes expressed within it are traditional Christian ones. Contrary values are condemned by Gandalf as pagan. Moral issues in the trilogy cluster about three major antitheses: good and evil, true and false kingship, victory and defeat. Tolkien adopts the usual Augustinian description of evil: it is a perversion of good, not a positive entity. "Not even Sauron was evil in the beginning," says Gandalf. Depravity is measured in the greatness of the good corrupted. The Great Enemy was once a Valar Saruman a wizard, and the Chief Ringwraith a king. In general, each class of being has a dark analog: Ringwraiths of men, great orcs of elves, lesser orcs of dwarves, trolls of ents, Gollum of hobbits, and the Nazgul steeds of honest horses and birds. The seat of good and evil is the will. Confrontations between adversaries are primarily duels of will. The One Ring acts like a lens to focus and magnify the wearer's will to power. The Dark Lord's maleficent will is his direst weapon. Without this motive impulse, his slaves cannot function. Likewise, the stern will of Aragorn holds his followers firm in spite of desperate perils. [page 211] RELIGIOUS ASPECTS OF LORD OF THE RINGS Sauron's minions submerge their identities wholly in his. The Lieutenant of the Black Gate has even forgotten his own name and calls himself the Mouth of Sauron. Contrarily, the Defenders of the West emerge from the conflict more perfectly individuated than before. Evil cannot create, only destroy. Under the Shadow cities fall into ruin, fields wither, forests harbour deadly gloom. Sauron can blast and tear the very earth. The reeking slag heaps of barren Mordor and· the clanging foundries of its Dark Tower seem all the viler in contrast to the green-gold groves and timeless harmony of Lothlorien. During Saruman's occupation, a noisome mill pollutes the Shire. Arrogance is the mark of evil as humility is of goodness. These character traits presage the tragic end of Boromir and the triumph of Aragorn. The fruits of evil are fear and strife as in the madness of Denethor. But these very consequences can mar the Dark Lord's designs as in the reduced efficacy of the Dead Army and the lucky quarrels among the hobbits' captors. Forgetting old enmities, Sauron's foes of every race and nation and degree of civilisation band together against him. Solidarity is the key to victory. While the Enemy lusts, after universal dominion, his opponents counter with complete renunciation. The Three Rings, are sacrificed to destroy the One. Frodo, a Christ figure, willingly dies to the joy of living. As he tells, Sam: "It often must be so... when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them." The personal price Frodo pays epitomises that which all the non-human races are paying to win a respite for man's sake. The ancient magic of Middle Earth must fade if any goodness is to survive. Men will inherit the whole earth when the others have passed away. {Image: The following line drawing appears to the left of the two previous paragraphs. A cloaked figure stands before a sepulcher. The figure is drawn only as an outline standing before a shadow. The sepulcher is filled by a giant cobweb. The image is signed "DEA."} Each principal character is tempted in proportion to his strength and according to his role. Frodo's greatness is demonstrated by the intensity of his challenge, Aragorn's by its duration. But their triumphs are not unexpected, for Frodo and Aragorn are in all ways remarkable persons. It is the apotheosis of humble, utterly mundane Sam that strikes the reader most forcefully. [page 212] SANDRA MIESEL Only love for his master leads him from the Shire, fuels his unfailing loyalty, and transforms him into his master's equal. The Ring harms him least, perhaps because he is unused to seeking his own will. The quest could not have succeeded without Sam, and he is rewarded with passage to the Undying Lands. Tom Bombadil, the oldest living individual in Middle Earth, serves as a counterpoint to the stark contrasts of good and evil. He is a sort of incarnate nature spirit, as literally amoral as the Elf Queen in "The Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer." The Ring has no power over him for he lacks the will to power. Like a Thomistic angel, he is the sole member of his particular species. Tom's wife Goldberry is a lesser female analog. Kingship is the second of the principal themes. Tolkien contrasts true kingly heroism to _ofermod_, overweening high spirit. This rash pride destroys followers as well as leader. _Ofermod_ is exemplified by Beowulf fighting the dragon alone, Roland refusing to summon aid, and the last King of Gondor duelling @dueling@ the Chief Ringwraith. It tempts the lord to exploit his subordinates' devotion and needlessly risk their lives. Denether @Denethor@ is as blameworthy for imperiling his sons as Arthur is for pitting Sir Gawain against the Green Knight. Denethor, the arrogant, despondent Steward is supplanted by Aragorn, the healing, saving King. Having won his crown after so much hardship, Aragorn becomes the noblest of mortal kings. In his glory he mirrors that exemplar of all Middle Earth rulers, the Elder King in Valinor. In _Lord of the Rings_ victory springs from apparent defeat. "Only through darkness shall I come to my heart's desire," says Aragorn. The Numenorean survivors establish splendid kingdoms in exile. Heirs of the northern kings maintain unbroken lineage and uncorrupted hearts through reduced to the status of wandering chieftains. Success is attained by following the least hopeful path, as in the mission of the Ringbearers and the strategy of the westernarmies @western armies@. Demanding too much security reaps disaster and despair, as in Isildur's refusal to destroy the One Ring and Denethor's suicide. Yet no victory over evil in Middle Earth can be permanent or perfect. The effects of evil have not been completely undone. The work of Mordor continues though Mordor has fallen. Saruman's destruction does not restore the Shire's innocence. The westlands face invasions long after the War of the Ring. New evils inexorably arise. This is the story's tragic aspect: there is mitigation but no full redemption or reconciliation within the circles of the world. Yet Eowyn's fatalism is too simple a response.8 It is far easier to die than to live and watch the beauty fade. Galadriel and Arwen meet their personal dooms of exile and death without rancour. The tales of Middle Earth are fair but sad, and the beings of Middle Earth must pass away unredeemed. For those who have called _Lord of the Rings_ an idyll have not read it aright. This is no story of a happy never-never land but an elegy for fading wonders. Though the heroes have triumphed, the elven ships depart, the leaves of Lothlorien fall, and Arwen lies in a lonely grave. It is the voluntary renunciation responsible, for these losses that makes them meaningful. Some have given up what they love most so that others may live fruitfully. Marvels cease so that more homely realities may endure. Thus the saviors of Middle Earth foreshadow a greater Redemption which they were never promised. [page 213] RELIGIOUS ASPECTS OF LORD OF THE RINGS To us, this epic of a Secondary World is a magnificent sign of consolation and hope. It does not deny the existence of...sorrow and failure... It denies (in the face of so much evidence...) 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.9 {Note on the text: The following text appears in two columns. Footnotes 1-4 make up the left column; 5-9 make up the right. Footnote 2 has been marked too early. Subsequently, all numbers after 1 have been crossed out and rewritten in red ink. The numbers that appear are the revised numbering.} FOOTNOTES 1) Yet meals have a certain quasi-sacramental significance, especially for the hobbits. II) This author does not consider that the hobbits' several invocations of Elbereth Gilthoniel compromise this statement. They are really invoking the power of her name against evil, not begging personal intervention. 2) Mircea Eliade, _Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries_, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York: Harper, 1963), 60. 3) The Valar can be called "angels" even though they are hardly the sexless pure spirits its angels are generally imagined to be. They function as angels, being intermediaries between creatures and Creator. In earliest times angels were pictured more carnally than later (see Genesis 6: 1-4). 4) Doomed Numenor closely resembles Plato's Atlantis (_Timaeus_ 24e-25d), an arrogant island empire enslaving nations across the sea. 5) Also recall the emergence of Mithra-worship from Zoroastrianism. 6) Sam's position as the faithful subordinate is even clearer in the light of Tolkien's remarks on _ofermod_ ("The Homecoming of Beirhtnoth, Beorhthelm's Son," _The Tolkien Reader_ (New York: Ballentine @Ballantine@, 1966), 22-4. This places Sam on a par with Beowulf's Wiglaf and Arthur's Gawain. 7) Also consider the marriage of Aragorn's parents, the fall of Arnor, and "The Song of the Ents and the Entwives." 8) Eowyn's reaction to the threatened fall of Minas Tirith resembles that of Aeneas to the imminent fall of Troy (_Aeneid_ ii. 268-704). Both at first try to die fighting, then are convinced to take the harder road of survival. 9) J.R.R. Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories," in "Tree and Leaf," op. cit., 68. {Image: A line drawing of a floating skull against a dark sky fills the bottom of the page. Four stars surround the skull. An unidentified structure appears to the right of the skull. The image is signed "DEA."}

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