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Spiritual Lessons in 'Lord of the Rings' - Kevin Black

On December 9, 2001, I gave a talk at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Montgomery on spiritual themes in The Lord of the Rings. On my way over, I congratulated myself that I was making my own small contribution to all the free hype and publicity that has built up around Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring movie, but I was very surprised to find out how seriously my words were taken by this group of Sunday churchgoers, which included many academics, military people, and loads of gray hair. I was prepared to face snickering when I pronounced names like "Saruman" and "Aragorn," but instead, when it was over, I found myself moderating a debate raging from one side of the room to the other about the prominence of female characters in the trilogy (something I hadn't touched on in my remarks). Several people talked to me about their plans to read the books again, or told me that they had just finished re-reading them, and there was a lady who had just finished her ninth reading. With the time I had I barely scratched the surface of the subject, but I'd be happy to hear your thoughts here. [krblack42@yahoo.com]. The text is below.

Thank you all for coming. The title I gave to this presentation before I had really figured out what I would say is "Spiritual Lessons in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings." I think everyone has a few areas in life where they can claim to be really knowledgeable; and for me lore about Hobbits and Wizards and Elves and Dwarves is one of the more obscure areas. Let it not be said after today that it was never any use to anybody. Long before I was a death penalty lawyer or had any thought that I would live in Montgomery, Alabama, I was an English major at a fairly strait-laced university, and a part of my graduation requirements was to write a major independent thesis on the topic of my choosing. Being eager to please my advisor, I chose to write on Thomas Hardy, and spent a summer reading grim novels about cruel fate, oppressive weather, suicidal children, and studying verses like:

If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: "Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!"

(Thomas Hardy, "Hap," lines 1-4, 1866.) J.R.R. Tolkien was my deliverance. That Fall, I announced to my advisor that I was now writing my thesis on The Lord of the Rings, which I believe I had last read behind a Biology textbook in ninth grade science class. I didn’t know what I would find in it to fill an academic paper with, but eight months later I discovered that I had written eighty-one pages, won a writing prize, graduated with honors, and that I still had no idea where I was going to find a job. However, in The Lord of the Rings I had re-discovered a treasure, one that has inspired me in all the important choices I have made since that day.

For those who don't know, The Lord of the Rings is a fantasy novel by John Ronald Reul Tolkien, which is set in the world of Middle Earth. The book is so long that it took Tolkien twelve years to write it, and when it was finished the publisher decided to split it up into three parts and release it as a trilogy, naming each part The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. If you’ve been to a Burger King recently, or if you own a television set, you may know that the books are also being made into a trilogy of movies, the first of which will be appearing at multiplexes in ten days. The trilogy tells the story of Frodo Baggins, who is a Hobbit, which is to say he is part of a race of beings who live in an agrarian society and stand between two and four feet tall. Otherwise, Hobbits are perfectly ORDINARY in every respect. Tolkien says about them, "they liked to have books filled with things they already knew, set out fair and square with no contradictions." (Fellowship, page 28.)

Hobbits know everything about each other’s business, but they know next to nothing about the outside world, which is just blank space on the borders of their maps. Frodo’s sedentary life is disrupted when he inherits a magic Ring from his uncle Bilbo, and his old family friend Gandalf who makes those beautiful fireworks at festivals and parties turns out to be a Wizard who tells Frodo that the Ring is a tool of an ancient Enemy. This Enemy, named Sauron, sunk half of his power into the Ring before losing it in a battle almost three thousand years before Frodo was born. Though once cast down, Sauron has risen again and is forming an army to challenge the kingdoms of Middle Earth, and with all of his power he is searching to recover the Ring which everyone agrees would ensure his success. Now Frodo must flee into the wild with his friends to stop the Ring from being captured and used for the destruction of the world.

What follows is a great yarn full of dangerous quests, strange creatures and desperate heroics. My talk is directed more to underlying themes behind these great adventures, but you should be aware that by doing this I am going against the author’s wishes, who announced in a Forward written ten years after the first publication, "As for any inner meaning or "message," it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical." (Fellowship, page 10.) As a student I might have thought at this point that my senior thesis was really in jeopardy. Tolkien went on to say that instead of allegories, he "much prefer[s] history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers." (Id.)

One of the interesting things about Tolkien is that by profession he was never a writer; he was a Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford with a lifetime appointment which took care of all of his needs, one that he never abandoned until reaching retirement age. Included in his academic writings is an essay on the epic poem Beowulf in which he complains that the critics will go on endlessly attempting to dissect the life of the author, make linguistic analyses of the syntax, and make guesses about the historical period in which it was written, without mentioning once that it is a story about a Dragon, and sea monsters, and a murderous bogeyman that lurks in the poisonous atmosphere of the fens. I take his point, but I think that despite the great invention behind the Balrogs and Ringwraiths and Orcs in his own story, Tolkien would not mind me saying that this story, like Beowulf, is one with deep roots. Hear me now: notwithstanding anything different you might hear from ignorant critics, The Lord of the Rings is not an exuberant adventure, or a simple story of good versus evil, or story for children. It is sad, even elegiac; it is quite scary; and it speaks to deep conflicts, longings, and feelings of spiritual isolation within the human mind. If I could, like the protagonist in a poem by T.S. Eliot, squeeze the universe of Middle Earth into a ball, and roll it up into one overwhelming question that lingers in the shadows of every scene, it would be this: How are we to live on earth without God?

Now I need to back up. I should tell you that Tolkien himself was a devout Roman Catholic. He firmly believed in the evidence of his own salvation that was contained in scripture. It is a measure of his conviction that he was responsible for converting his friend C.S. Lewis from agnosticism to Christianity, which Lewis went on to defend eloquently in numerous essays and a few fantasy stories of his own. We know from scraps of letters and a long poem which Tolkien wrote about their debate that one thing they discussed Lewis’ contention that the stories of Christianity were myths, and that like all myths they were lies, although "lies breathed through silver." (Humphrey Carter, Tolkien: A Biography page 147.) Tolkien responded this is not so, that human beings create myths because they are made in the image of a Creator; and by imitation may come to know more of the Creator’s mind.

Though Tolkien believed in the Gospels, professionally he was concerned in the study of works that pre-date them, and he wondered aloud at times how these earlier peoples and writers could have carried on, without the promise of salvation that was made by Jesus. In fact, he much admired the "spirit of doomed resistance," as he called it, that these earlier pagan peoples showed, the will to strive and the heroic spirit, despite the certainty of their death without any promise of reward in an afterlife of eternal bliss. (See Tolkien, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.") So you might say that Tolkien’s imagination was centered in "pagan" times, before the invention of Christianity; in fact he described his aim in writing as an effort to create a pre-history of his beloved England; a body of myths to compensate for the lack of any purely English mythology that has been preserved through the ages. And I would point out that the times in which Tolkien lived and wrote were very pagan in spirit and imagination.

Tolkien was born in 1892 and as a young man he fought in World War I. Trench fever put him in a hospital bed and took him away from the front lines; otherwise he would almost certainly have been killed along with most of his regiment. He wrote in the second Forward to The Lord of the Rings, "By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead." Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings between 1937-1949, and as he wrote he sent chapters to his son, Christopher, who was serving in the Royal Air Force in World War II. It is hard for me to imagine what it was like to live in those days, so comparatively soon after the Industrial Revolution with hearts and minds full of the horror produced by the first industrial Wars. It was a time of tremendous artistic upheaval, as the writers, artists and thinkers answered the call raised by Ezra Pound to "make it new"—to abandon the forms of yesterday which it was believed no longer had any relevance in the changed, "modern" world. Although the question had not yet been published on the cover of Time magazine, it was already whispered in some quarters that "God is dead."

Soon it would be written on the walls of subway tunnels that "Frodo lives." Tolkien was disdainful of the modern approach to literature, but like his countrymen he was horrified by the trajectory of technology and current events. He wrote in one letter:

The news today about "Atomic bombs" is so horrifying one is stunned. The utter folly of those lunatic physicists to consent to do such work for war-purposes: calmly plotting the destruction of the world! Such explosives in men’s hands, while their moral and intellectual status is declining, is about as useful as giving out firearms to all inmates of a gaol and then saying that you hope "this will ensure peace."

(Humphrey Carpenter (ed.), Letters of Tolkien page 116.) Perhaps it was time for a cranky iconoclast Catholic medievalist to re-imagine moral life in a pagan world; one that could have been England before the dawn of recorded history; a world of rich culture in decline, threatened by war, a world which had never heard of Christ.

Whether for this reason or some other, there is no religion in The Lord of the Rings, which Tolkien later admitted was deliberate. There is no one for the characters to pray to for guidance when the evil Ring falls in their laps, forcing them to choose their way, no Holy Book to consult written by a divinely inspired hand. You might say that the Hobbits are early Unitarians—they rely primarily on rational means to navigate a course through evil to a more peaceful world. Which is not to say that Middle Earth lacks a spiritual life. Along their road the Hobbits encounter mysteries that raise theological questions, and although some of these questions have found answers in posthumous publications, Tolkien allowed them to go unexplained in The Lord of the Rings and throughout in his lifetime. Who is Gandalf really? Where do the immortal elves go when they tire of Middle Earth and sail beyond the sea? We encounter resignation by some of the principal characters that although they have free choice they are not the authors of their own destinies, and there is speculation that small actions may have consequences beyond what can be rationally foreseen. In one passage dear to my heart, Frodo asks why the powers that be did not execute Gollum, a corrupt character who was recently in prison, but has escaped and returned to cause mischief, for surely with his wretched nature Gollum deserves death. Gandalf responds:

"Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends."

(Fellowship, page 93.) Generally, however, the heroes cannot feel as if they have any outside source to guide or console them; no sense of safety to carry them through. The only glimpses they get of peace and beauty are fleeting, and seem to underscore rather than relieve their spiritual abandonment. In the city of Lothlórien live Elves who have contrived by magic to keep all evil influences out of their land; their realm is like paradise and some of the deathless Elves that live there can indeed remember what it was like to dwell in the Blessed Realm beyond the sea from whence they came in eons past. But no foreign travelers are welcome there, and during their short visit Frodo is told that the Elves themselves cannot survive the War of the Ring and will soon pass from Middle Earth. When Frodo’s company is forced to sail away from Lothlórien, never to return, Tolkien says that it is as if Lothlórien was sailing away from them, leaving them exiled in a grey and leafless world. One of Frodo’s companions, Gimli the dwarf, declares "I would not have come had I known the danger of light and joy. Now I have taken my worst wound in this parting, even if I go this night straight to the Dark Lord." (Fellowship, 490.)

In this spiritually poor environment, the greatest struggle the heroes endure is against themselves. Can they stay the course and remain true to their ideals throughout all the strange unknown perils that lie before them? For, with the help of a Council of the Wise, they have decided on a course that is quite revolutionary. The Ring they have is, after all, a weapon. Just as Sauron wants to use it to enslave the world, the Hobbits and their allies could use it to defeat the Dark Lord. But the power of the Ring is corrupting, and whoever attempts to use it in imitation of Evil will, in the end, become evil himself. Rather than use Sauron’s weapon to defeat him, Frodo and his companions have decided instead to unmake the Ring by casting it into the fires in which it was forged–a giant volcano deep in Sauron’s own realm, in the midst of all his armies. In this fashion, they hope to catch Sauron unawares, and break the cycle of violence that has been repeating itself for centuries with all the apparent inevitability of doom.

Whoa, right? They decide on this course, even though it has never been tried, and no one can honestly hold out much hope for its success. It isn’t a decision not to fight–preparations for war continue and warriors are sent with Frodo on his quest–but rather it is a decision how to fight. You might want to ask yourselves how this approach compares to decisions that have been made this century by contemporary leaders in global conflicts.

The most difficult business in The Lord of the Rings is unifying the people of the world around this goal; the goal of not only resisting the Dark Lord, but resisting everything that he represents. Gandalf’s fellow Wizard, Saruman, once the leader of the Wise, has already succumbed to the temptation of the Ring and is raising his own army in an effort to seize it. In the words of one character, "[I]n nothing is the power of the Dark Lord more clearly shown than in the estrangement that divides all those who still oppose him." (Fellowship, page 451.)

As I suggested above, this is really a spiritual quest. The heroes must find for themselves the reasons which are worth sacrificing and dying for; they must hold fast to those reasons through all manner of adversity and temptation, and to succeed they must find an inner strength to accomplish feats beyond anything they could have previously imagined. Their choices are necessarily made from limited knowledge, and often require soul searching and a leap of faith, but the rightness of those choices is a tonic for those who struggle to see the moral and even spiritual ends of the choices they make in the "real" world.

I said I would talk about spiritual lessons, and here I encourage you to read the books, if you’re so inclined, or if you're short on time, by all means see the movie. I will offer two points that I have carried away with me from my readings. One is the idea that while people themselves are not just good or evil, or as the Elvish loremaster Elrond says, "Nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so" (Fellowship, page 351), there is a real distinction between right and wrong in the choices we make, and the distinction matters. One of the moral centers in the work is the character of Aragorn, the leader who ultimately rallies all the military the forces together to oppose Sauron. Someone asks him, you know Aragorn, these are strange days. How can a person judge what to do in times like these? Aragorn replies, "As he has ever judged . . .Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is [our] part to discern them[.]" (The Two Towers, page 50.)

Second, imagination helps. Finding your way these days can be a real thicket, and Tolkien himself observed in his own writing that very few things in the world today look similar to the way they would look if you encountered them in a fairy tale. In one of my favorite passages of an essay Tolkien wrote about Fairy Stories, he writes that "In Faërie[-land] one... cannot conceive of a house built with a good purpose–an inn, a hostel for travelers, the hall of a virtuous and noble king–that is yet sickeningly ugly. At the present day it would be rash to hope to see one that was not–unless it was built before our time." (Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories" pages 64-65.) Tolkien also thought, however, that thinking about myths and legends could help restore clarity of sight and give strength to those who struggle to find meanings today.

We’re used to thinking that truth is stranger than fiction, but Tolkien might have said that truth is not as complicated as we think it is, and fiction is one means we have of sorting things out. In the story, the Hobbits’ adventures in faraway places prepare them to find and confront evil doings in their homeland–small acts of tyranny and environmental devastation, in a place where nobody cares very much about magical quests or believes in Dragons. Tolkien thought that was the real purpose of escapism, to awaken the mind, uncloud the senses, and rouse the spirit. Earlier in the story, a skeptical character asks Aragorn "Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?" (Towers, page 45.) Tolkien’s answer was that it is possible to do both, if you find and explore the makings of legend in your own life.

- Kevin Black [email]

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