Monday, May 30, 2011

Subcreation as Worship of Creation

I began my reflections for this post by simply looking up the definition of worship, and there were two aspects to it that most struck me: firstly, that it can be to honor a deity through religious rites; secondly, that it can be an expression of reverence toward a deity. This active, participatory aspect to worship is what first called to my mind the concept of subcreation as a form of worship itself, for it is the active participation of a component of creation in shaping that same creation of which it is a part.

Flieger suggests that there are two primary concepts inherent in Tolkien's philosophy: “One is the inevitability and absolute necessity of change. The other is the centrality of language and its importance as both cause and result” (Flieger 167). For Flieger, these two concepts work together in order to “subcreate a new reality” (Flieger 167). Change is a necessity of creation for creation is a process of development towards ultimate fulfillment, and without change this could not be achieved. Subcreation, within this context, is the act of change itself, which works in collaboration with creation and with the designs of the creator in order to achieve this fulfillment of creation. Subcreation is an act of expression on the part of a single component of creation, and for subcreation to bring creation to its eventual fulfillment, it must be in cohesion with creation. For one to commit an act of subcreation in its purest form, one must do so with reverence to creation and to its creator, making it a form of worship.

Language, for Tolkien, has just as important of a role as change in the fulfillment of creation, for language, according to Flieger, is itself an act of subcreation. Where other forms of subcreation make a physical alteration of creation, language is more a subcreation of the psyche, for it affects and shapes human perception of creation, which is as much a part of creation and its fulfillment as the physical aspects. Flieger points out that the purpose of language is communication, and she then points out the etymological ties of communication with community and communion, stating that: “without communication there can be no community. Without community there can be no sense of communion. Without communion...humanity is truly separated not just from others but also from the source” (Flieger 168). Flieger seems to be suggesting that the fulfillment of creation requires the communion of every component of creation with every other component, and simultaneously the communion of creation with its creator. Language, then, acts as a subcreative force that can construct these bonds of communion, and so further creation toward fulfillment. As such, language too could be seen as an act of reverence toward creation, and therefore also a form of worship. This becomes especially evident in the inherently vocal aspect of praise in religious rites.

As an example of this aspect of worship within subcreation, I would posit the tale of Aule and the creation of the dwarves as played out in the Silmarillion. Aule wished to take subcreation to its absolute extreme: as an act of pure creation independent unto itself. It would seem from this that Aule had distorted the purpose of subcreation as an act of reverence and worship towards creation, since he wished not to partake of creation but create his own. Yet even so, his intentions in this aim are pure as regards the purpose of subcreation. Aule's reason for attempting to commit an act of independent creation was that“so greatly did [he] desire the coming of the children...that he was unwilling to await the fulfillment of the designs of Iluvatar” (Tolkien 37). Aule is not attempting to subvert creation, but is merely trying to hasten the fulfillment of creation. When Iluvatar reprimands him for creating the dwarves, Aule responds: “it seemed to me that there is great room in Arda for many things that might rejoice in it, yet it is for the most part empty still, and dumb” (Tolkien 38). From this, it would seem that the purpose of subcreation is to fill the empty spaces of creation so that it is a cohesive whole. I would also point out that Aule calls Arda “dumb,” highlighting the inherently vocal aspect of praise that can be found in the subcreation of language. Aule goes on to say that: “the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child...that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without mockery, but because he is the son of his father” (Tolkien 38). According to this passage, an act of subcreation is an expression of the traits that we have inherited from the creator and are done so that we might be in greater communion with the creator. As such, subcreation is not just worship of creation in an external sense, but worship of the self because we too are a part of creation and have been crafted in the image of the creator. Therefore, subcreation, in its purest sense, is the worship of the aspects of the creator reflected in creation by forming creation to reflect those aspects more purely.

Tolkien too was aware of this collaborative aspect of subcreation with creation. In one of his letters to his son Christopher (Letter 89), he described this vision he had of a beam of light shining on a speck of dust floating in the air, and how this beam of light made the speck shine white. He says he envisioned it as God emitting a beam of light, which he equated to an angel, bringing the light of God to that speck, which would be some component of creation in his metaphor. The fulfillment of creation is for all of creation to be bathed in the light of God, and the role of subcreation in this is to let this light into yourself and then to project it outward onto the rest of creation until all creation is filled with light. As Flieger points out: “[Tolkien] also knew beyond any doubt that he was the prism, not the light” (173). For Tolkien, subcreation was not only about realizing the light for yourself, but communicating that light unto the rest of creation, and as such it takes on the language of praise and could be seen as a form of worship of creation.

C. Carmody

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Ring Verse in Old English

I recently came across this video on YouTube:

An excellent "translation" of the the Ring Verse into a poem in the Mercian dialect of Old English, which Tolkien used as the language of the Rohirrim.  The Anglo-Saxon is in the video's description, as is a link to the Modern English translation.  A nice bonus is that one can get the alliterative force of the kind of poetry Tolkien loved.

Best to watch this one at night in a dark room to get the full, spooky effect.

-G. Lederer

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Prayers of Middle Earth

Prayer varies widely in its purpose and its execution, regardless of the Someone-Else with whom we are communicating. During the process of (Presbyterian) Confirmation, I was taught to remember ACTS—adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication—during my regular prayers. ‘Lament’ is another type of prayer-purpose that should not be overlooked, but remains blessedly separate from our recommended daily prayer checklist. By then, the Confirmands had all (mostly) memorized the Gloria Patri, the Lord’s Prayer, and a few others that our church happened to use on a regular basis. Prayer in its various forms is a fundamental way through which one communicates with God, and indeed Tolkien urged Christopher to seek comfort in the ‘praises’ which he should know by heart so “you never need words for joy” (Letters, 66).

It has by now been firmly established that The Lord of the Rings came from a deeply faithful Christian, a devoted sub-creator / “renewer,” acting as “the prism, not the light” of the work that was ultimately produced (Splintered Light, 173-4). Tolkien’s own Catholic faith came through accidentally at first, as he explained in a letter to Robert Murray, an influence which was acknowledged and maintained upon its discovery. It was a deliberate choice “not [to] put in, or [to] cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’” (Letters, 172). That said, the people of Middle Earth are clearly not without faith. One of Tolkien’s many anonymous critics described Middle Earth as “‘a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp’” (Letters, 413). Given the history of light in Middle Earth, perhaps this comment was not far off the mark.

If prayers and song are a gift from God in our world, and if such a “source” is invisible in Middle Earth, what then do we make of the words in LOTR that are clearly worshipful? Calls to Elbereth are repeated as song, poetry, and cries of desperation, directed at the light-giving Star-Queen. Such communication includes nearly every form of prayer I learned during Confirmation. Without the “religion” of a guiding Creator, a Christian-like God, it is worth noting that the Elves (and others, as necessary) turn to the one who brought the light to Middle Earth. As a symbol of hope and sheer goodness, it seems natural that Elbereth would be so important—not only to the Elves—in the fight against Sauron.

Prayer is indeed the last resort more than once during the quest to destroy the Ring. Frodo cries to Elbereth while facing the sheer terror of the Black Riders, and Sam is later bolstered against Shelob by the words of the Elves’ hymn to Elbereth Gilthoniel. It is almost a passive thing, a prayer of supplication which the two Hobbits experience in these darkest moments. Frodo “heard himself crying aloud,” (Bk I, ch. 11) and Sam’s “tongue was loosed and his voice cried in a language which he did not know,” (Bk IV, ch. 10) as if the intervention is provided both against the darkness and in the formation of the prayer itself. Tolkien did not speak much in his letters on prayers of supplication, save to suggest that “there is nothing to do but to pray” (Letters, 393) about perhaps the most difficult struggles of the moment. When all else fails, prayer is offered as a final source of comfort, wisdom, and strength—and the potential for actual intervention. The light provides guidance to Sam in the deepest darkness, and it is through the light again that he realizes his own strength.

Though Tolkien naturally turns to prayer as part of his Catholic faith, he lifts the sacrament of communion to the highest importance in terms of communication with God. In fact, he says, “The only cure for sagging of fainting faith is Communion” (Letters, 338). It is with this assertion that he is able to further separate the faith and hope of Middle Earth with true Catholicism or any other religion. Through this distinction, and his other discussions of religion with Christopher and other correspondents, he reiterates his assertion that Middle Earth does not have “religion.” This is an important distinction when considering prayer in The Lord of the Rings, and the distinction becomes confused when examining the relationship between the light-bringer and those who would call her name. Tolkien’s argument is both implied and explicitly stated: “you cannot maintain a religion without a church and ministers” (Letters, 237), but moreover “the religious element [of The Lord of the Rings] is absorbed into the story and the symbolism” (Letters, 172). While many reeled at the idea that LOTR is fundamentally Catholic, further confusion arose based on the lack of explicit religion in Middle Earth.

In the repeated cries to Elbereth, one witnesses again the real importance of light against the darkness of Sauron. Simply her name and the words of a hymn are used for a variety of purposes, ranging from lament to praise and of course supplication depending on the issue at hand. The repetition is reminiscent of Tolkien’s urging to Christopher on the ‘praises,’ and indeed it seems the words are a gift of comfort to those who need them. Though they are without “religion,” it seems appropriate that the people of Middle Earth look to the light as their source of hope and guidance against the darkness in the world.


Friday, May 27, 2011

The Form of Myth: Re-reading Tolkien as both Scripture and a Product of the Modern Age

In Wednesday’s discussion, Dr. Fulton asked us why we re-read the legendarium. If we all already know what will happen in the stories, what changes for us when we return to them? Several reasons abound. Some people claimed that different words and phrases become important when refocused by class discussions and course readings. Others, myself included, find that stories have different meanings when read in different contexts. Because I am a much different person now than the first and most recent times in which I read the legendarium in earnest (eleven and nineteen years-old, respectively), I respond to elements and themes of the story most relevant to my primary reality as a graduating fourth-year preparing for medical school: uncertainty about what lies beyond Arda/campus and hoping [for admittances] without any guarantees. Yet, to other students, they re-read the legendarium with a greater focus on Tolkien himself as a main character. They abstract the stories’ events and characters to question or analyze what Tolkien thought in the creative process.

Although I practice each of these reasons for re-reading the legendarium, I am most invested in re-reading the Silmarillion and the Histories of Middle Earth, specifically, because their biblical forms provide me with more than merely stories or histories. Much like how I find different meanings to long-familiar passages from Jewish sacred texts, like the  Torah, Talmud, Tanakh, Nevi'im, and Ketuvim, the Silmarillion and other Histories of Middle Earth react on me in ways unique from other books. Because Jewish texts and ‘Tolkien scripture’ feature stories heavy with implicit meaning, they resonate with me differently and different times of my life. The stories are archetypes that different people can access at diff parts of their lives. The stories’ simplicity allow readers a level of interaction in which they able to read the stories into their lives and their lives into the stories. Each reader interprets the stories into her own lens. Because the stories provide a form rather than content, the reader projects himself into them when he wants to accept that form.

The form of the myth often deals in absolutes, even when it seems like the actor is taking the middle-ground. These force us to pick a side and then force us to align our fortunes with it because they are so absolute. I find that with modern novels, there is a type of moral ambiguity or general ambiguity that allows us a distance from the actor. However, myths force readers to put themselves into characters in ways unlike different genres. At some point it does seem like there is ambiguity or conflict, but ambiguity and potentiality for conflict forces the religious/ Tolkien scripture reader to justify, apologize, or defend them in ways that draw the reader closer to the text.  For instance, those same commentators are well within the framework of traditional Judaism. Although we are given a framework and parameters of understanding the torah, it is still left to the interpretation of the scholar; everyone understands the stories differently. By definition, the Torah is meant to be understood in multiple ways and multiple levels. In the Midrash, one finds that there are 70 "faces" or facets to the Torah (in Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15). This statement reveals the myriad ways of interpreting the text…and the wealth of rabbinical commentary on it. In composing those volumes of commentary on the same stories, the rabbis bring both themselves and their readers closer to the scripture.

In Tolkien scripture, I am most fascinated by the Ainulindalë. This genesis story gives me more than merely a conceptual outline for my final project in this class. Reading it now as a graduating student, I understand it as a cautionary tale about over-ambition and impatience with creation that one has yet to achieve.  In the story, Melkor grew upset and impatient with the persisting Void (and then sought in vain for the Sacred Fire with which to convert more of the Void into creation). Believing that Eru took little interest in creating more non-Void, Melkor ultimately thought he could better manage or perfect that process because of his powers and the independent thoughts he gained from his time in searching for the Sacred Fire in the Void. To me, this archetype is a shadowy reflection of my personal issues with the creative process. Be it a piece of music, an academic paper, or (and most especially) a blog post for this class, I struggle with perfectionism. As those tendencies drive me to find some new, creative point hitherto unmentioned on the blog—which is absurd since everyone’s posts are both amazing and humbling—I get mired in a vicious circle of self-sabotage.

Because Melkor is an archetype of my own creative struggles, I agree with Fleiger’s claim that while Tolkien’s work “may draw on ancient myths for its truths…it speaks directly to the modern age, an age acutely concerned with the workings of its own unconscious, a society familiar with psychology." (152) Much like how the “journey, the battle, and the monster are both within and without” for the Lord of the Rings, the same is true for the Silmarillion and its meaning to me. In my earlier readings of the Ainulindalë, I did not see Melkor as my shadow incarnate nor as some monster within the mythical frame. However, as I now struggle to manage those irrational tendencies listed above, I find solace in venturing into Faerie to encounter the shadow and see how other primary authors like Eru integrate or harmonize the shadow. Despite Melkor’s best efforts to mar and overthrow Eru’s third theme, Melkor’s discordant theme’s "most triumphant notes were taken by [Eru’s] and woven into its own solemn pattern." To me, the outcome of this struggle is a meaningful reframing of a Jungian concept: “The integration of the shadow, or the realisation of the personal unconscious, marks the first stage of the analytic process...without it a recognition of anima and animus is impossible.”

Lastly, because of this modern framing of the legendarium, I have also found meaning in other long-familiar stories, like the two Númenórean chapters on Elendil and his son Herendil in the Lost Road. Like Frodo at the Sammath Naur, the young Herendil is “pinioned between light and dark both outside and inside…and tormented by the equal stress exerted by positive and negative forces.” (Flieger 153) He is caught between the corrupting, albeit attractive, revisionist history from by the King’s Men and the warnings from his father. Although Herendil fears Sauron’s dungeons, he also fears the internal shadows of not simply death but sameness: “Death comes here slow and seldom; yet it cometh. The land is only cage gilded to look like paradise.” Because “every road is trodden hard…and every tree and grass blade counted,” Herendil fears that he will not “escape the shadow of sameness, and of ending” without following the will of mighty Sauron. However, even after this sentiment upsets Elendil, Herendil, much like Frodo, “becomes aware of himself again as an independent being with a will of his own. He is free to choose.” (Ibid.) When Elendil presents his son with a choice “between thy father and Sauron” or to “even to report as may seem good to thee all that I have said,” Herendil chooses love: “‘Atarinya tye-melane (my father, I love thee)…I stay, father.’”

Until I learned to appreciate the modern framing of this story, I simply read the account of the father and son as an interesting narrative on the corrupting of Númenor before the fateful invasion of Valinor. I learned about the nature of the propaganda created by Sauron and his servants as well as how they manipulated Númenórean discontent with the ‘over-known’ nature of the Isle to “futher the policy of ‘imperial’ expansion and ambition…” However, I find new meaning in Herendil’s choice for love. Because Tolkien “was concerned above all with the relation between the father and the son [in these chapters],” he releases Herendil from the forces striving in the character, thus allowing Herendil to demonstrate the power of love and free will over ambition, if not evil.


Tolkien for the Agnostic

            I turned away from Catholicism after being raised in a family that attended Mass weekly and said Grace at the dinner table every night. I received four of the seven sacraments before making the very conscious decision to leave the Church. Not surprisingly, this was also around the time that I adopted the Lord of the Rings as my favorite book, and the movies as a kind of scripture that I could recite passages from. Because of my own rejection of Catholicism, I struggled with the idea on Monday of Tolkien’s work being “fundamentally religious and Catholic.” I felt betrayed, even, because my favorite fantasy work was imbued (intentionally or not) with this religious message from a religion that I had fled from.  Did this mean that I would forever read the Lord of the Rings with my eyes open for religious symbolism? Would I forever see the Passion in my head as Frodo and Sam, the heroes of my adolescence, struggled up the side of Mount Doom? Would I never read it as fantasy again, and see only the religion that I turned away from? Would the fantasy be forever ruined for me? In this post, I will argue that one can read LOTR for itself, without the religious undertones, and still glean the same message from it. While Tolkien’s purpose was Catholic, his message is universal.
The Lord of the Rings is religious in theme, rather than content, because aside from characters’ supplications to Elbereth – which are, admittedly, frequent – the characters do not display overtly religious behavior. They do not speak of God, heaven, or hell, except to wonder what happens after death. Their ponderings are not necessarily religious, just human. As someone who does her best to ignore religious undertones in writing, I never picked up on the symbolism of, for instance, the Mount Doom chapter: Sam carries Frodo as Simeon carries Christ’s cross; Frodo’s finger, which betrayed him by putting on the Ring, is cast off like “the hand that offends him”; the Hobbits eat lembas, “waybread of the Elves,” like the viaticum, the Communion; the Hobbits are barefoot, and Frodo is dressed in a simple robe tied with a rope; and so on. I felt like a fool for not seeing Tolkien’s rather obtuse symbolism. Had I been tricked into reading a religious text and thinking it was just fantasy?
I don’t think that Tolkien intentionally included all of this symbolism in the final chapters, because that would border on allegory – and we all know what Tolkien thinks of allegory. It’s more likely that though some of it was intentional, he unconsciously included the rest, because Tolkien always saw the world through a religious lens. In Letter 142, he even notes that its initial religiosity was unconscious, though later deliberate. The religiousness is “absorbed into the story,” rather than being overt. His purpose in and motivation for writing was religious, so it will naturally flow through into the writing itself. After all, as Flieger notes, Tolkien recognized himself as the prism through which the light of God shone, rather than the light itself. A prism can’t help but reflect the light. If this is not the way one, as a reader, sees the world, it does not have to be the way one reads the LOTR. If it offends, the overtly religious symbolism can be ignored without losing meaning of the work. Interpreting the symbols as religious is only to read the book as Tolkien thought of it, and we should not be confined by that.
But this symbolism is not the primary reason for why Tolkien considers LOTR a religious book. Frodo and Sam’s journey up Mount Doom can be compared to the Passion and the subsequent Resurrection, which Tolkien describes as the ultimate eucatastrophe. Tolkien coined this term for “that sudden joyous turn,” just as all hope is lost, that leads to a “fleeting glimpse of joy” to “deny universal final defeat” (“On Fairy Stories,” 86). But it brings both joy and sorrow – the kind of ending that brings tears. And, of course, the eucatastrophe of LOTR is the moment when the Ring is finally destroyed, Frodo and Sam are saved, and the world rejoices. It is simultaneously the happiest and most tragic ending to the book, because one celebrates the downfall of Sauron while weeping for Frodo’s incredible sacrifice. One does not have to be religious to appreciate the eucatasrophe – anyone with an appreciation of goodness and happy endings can benefit from this.
Finally, we discussed on Monday Tolkien’s third religious purpose in the book. “What is the meaning of life?” Tolkien is asked by a curious young reader in Letter 310. He responds, after deliberation, that it is ultimately to praise God and his “sole right to divine honor.”  The Lord of the Rings is, in effect, praise for God’s creation. Tolkien’s undertaking as a subcreator is undeniably driven by his religious roots. He understands that his book is threatening because it is a Creative endeavor, and in writing it, he risks mimicking God (mimicking, not copying, because humans cannot perfectly subcreate as God has because of the Fall). According to Tolkien, because we are made in the image of God, we are also made to subcreate.
This brings us back to one of the initial themes of the class. According to Tolkien in “On Fairy Stories,” one purpose of fairy stories is not just escapism, but a recovery: seeing the world anew in all its beauty after viewing it through the lens of fantasy. At the end of a fairy story, we feel refreshed and see the world in a new light with a new appreciation. In his effort to praise God and his Creation, Tolkien has created Middle Earth, and through it, we can more fully see, love, and praise the world. For the secular reader, this is not necessarily a religious experience – one must only have an appreciation of the beauty of the world and all of God’s creations (regardless of to whom you want to attribute the creation of these things) to benefit from the ultimate purpose of the Lord of the Rings. Appreciation and celebration of beauty are not purely religious activities, so the purpose of the book is not lost on we secularists.
            The Lord of the Rings speaks to people, both religious and secular alike, for the reason that the “well-known man” identified in Letter 328, when he insists that Tolkien must have seen the pictures that he shows him. Tolkien gave voice to universal themes that the man saw in the pictures – indeed, themes that all would identify in the pictures, because they, like LOTR, have touched upon some universal truth of humanity. I wish we knew what those pictures were, and what themes they had evinced, and I wonder if we would see the same things, having read LOTR so closely. Regardless, we’ve all come to this class because the book speaks to us with a profound message, whatever that message might be. Tolkien’s message was religious, but as readers, we do not necessarily have to be religious to grasp it. While we are literary analysts and critics, we must acknowledge the religiosity of the book, but as readers, if this is not important to us, we can get the same message out of it.


Praise With Every Breath

Tolkien once stated in a letter to Camilla Unwin: “the chief purpose of life, for any one of us, is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks,” (400). This is clearly in accordance with his Catholic beliefs, and leads one to wonder how this doctrine is represented in his works, particularly in The Lord of the Rings.
            It might first be helpful to define the notion of praising God. While the common conceptions of praise as prayers and worship are both true and critical to the Christian faith, true praise of God, as Tolkien understands it, is in fact much deeper. 1 Corinthians 10:31 says “so whenever you eat or drink, whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” We are meant to praise God through our daily actions, within every facet of our lives, by offering Him all glory. Furthermore, we are called to praise God through our sacrifice of self in pursuit of His will; by denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following Christ (Matt 16:24). The renunciation of our personal wills and desires in pursuit of God is the most fundamental form of praise. Nowhere in Tolkien’s work is this form of praise portrayed more clearly than in Sam’s actions in Book Six, Chapter 2: “Mount Doom”. Though God is not explicitly mentioned in The Lord of the Rings, we can easily regard Sam and Frodo’s quest to destroy the ring as their highest act of praise, because it brings about the destruction of Sauron, who desires to usurp God’s power and praise for Himself.
            Sam’s sacrifices during his journey to Mount Doom exemplify his deep devotion to the quest, and by extension his devotion to the praise of God (or Iluvatar). In fact, many of his actions in this chapter are in essence monastic. He abstains from water throughout most of the journey so that it can all be used to strengthen Frodo. He eats nothing but the Elvish Waybread, which as we discussed in class can easily be taken as a metaphor for Communion, or the inward acceptance of Christ. This choice both physically parallels the Christian practice of fasting as a method of praising God and symbolically shows Sam’s complete reliance on God for the ability to complete the journey.
            Near the middle of the journey to Mound Doom Sam and Frodo cast off many of their possessions. In particular, Sam releases his most prized possession, his pots and pans, dropping them in a deep crack. This parallels the monastic practice of poverty, and call also be seen as a response to Jesus’ order to the wealthy man in Matthew 19:21 to “go, sell your possessions…then come follow me.” Biblically, worldly possessions are often portrayed as hindrances to our pursuit of and praise of God. In fact, the quest itself can be seen as another example of this same practice. Sam and Frodo are traveling to Mount Doom in order to destroy the one ring, which itself is seemingly the ultimate worldly possession.
            Every choice Sam makes during this journey is made in an effort to complete the task of destroying the ring, in an effort to praise God. He is exemplifying the call to praise God through all our actions, and to deny ourselves to follow Him. However, it is clear that his sacrifices alone are not enough to bring the task to completion. In fact, Sam at one point seems to give up hope that their quest will be successful. His hope is then somehow externally renewed, and his will is strengthened for him. The passage reads:

But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam’s plain hobbit-face grew stern…as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue (934).

Tolkien’s use of the passive voice to describe Sam’s experience helps readers understand that this renewing of will is not coming from Sam himself, but from some outside source or power. As is stated in 1 Corinthians 10:13, God will not lead His followers into situations that they are incapable of handling through their faith in Him.
            Furthermore, when, in large part due to Sam’s sacrifices and devotion he and Frodo do eventually reach Mount Doom, Frodo is incapable of casting the ring into the fire. The destruction of the ring, in the end, only occurs because Gollum has followed them up the mountain and in his lust for the ring bites Frodo’s finger and falls into the Crack of Doom. God allows for the task to be completed despite Frodo’s faltering of will, further bringing glory to Himself.
            This then, is the deeper reason for Christian praise through sacrifice. Through our suffering, we not only praise God by expressing our devotion to and reliance on Him, but we are also reminded of our own mortality. We are forced to recall our weaknesses and limitations, which leads to greater amazement at and appreciation for God’s infinity. Though we may falter and fail, He never does. This of course, is the reason we praise Him in the first place, for His perfection and limitless power. So then, praise in fact is almost cyclical. As we devote ourselves to God, we come to further understand His character, as well as our own, and are moved to praise Him all the more.


Hobbits and Worship

I really struggled with the question of how the Lord of Rings teaches us about worship because Iluvatar is not explicitly present in it. So, how is it possible for it to be a work that exemplifies worship if the recipient of that worship is not there?

As I mulled over this question more and more, I kept being drawn back to two specific quotes. One was from letter 183, which were Tolkien’s notes to W.H. Auden’s review of The Return of the King. Tolkien writes, “In The Lord of the Rings the conflict is not basically about ‘freedom’, though that is naturally involved. It is about God, and His sole right to divine honour.” The other was what Sam said to Frodo in The Two Towers:

Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that’s a long tale, of course, and goes no past the happiness and into grief and beyond it – and the Silmaril went on and came to Earendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got – you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on (IV, Chpt. 8).

I think it’s fairly fitting too, to discuss worship after we spent some time talking about the hobbits (was that intentional, Professor Fulton?) because as I pondered over these quotes and the topic of worship, I came to the thought that even though Iluvatar is not directly present in The Lord of the Rings, perhaps one way worship is exhibited is how the hobbits come to understand themselves in terms of the “bigger picture.”

If I could bring in something from outside of class, John Piper, a Christian pastor, once wrote that worship is “magnifying God” – part of which includes us understanding ourselves in the proper light and knowing our place within creation and with respect to the Creator. For the hobbits in particular – as exemplified by Sam’s quote when he and Frodo are on the Stairs at Cirith Ungol – the Lord of the Rings is their journey to understanding themselves in the context of a larger world.

In the beginning of the Fellowship of the Ring, as a people, the hobbits are focused on themselves. We see this from the very first chapter: they are focused on Bilbo’s party and the prospect of splendid food and presents. Indeed, when the Gaffer and other hobbits gather in The Ivy Bush, the Gaffer tells the other hobbits of what he reminds Sam: “Elves and Dragons! Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you. Don’t go getting mixed up in the business of your betters, or you’ll land in trouble too big for you” (I, Chapter 1). This viewpoint that the Gaffer holds seems indicative of the hobbits’ approach to the “outside” world – and confirms the brief background history we get of them in the Prologue. They have withdrawn from the whole of Middle-Earth and primarily concern themselves with only their own history (hence, their great love of genealogies and “dark” family stories) and their own going-ons.

But Frodo and Sam (and Merry and Pippin) leave insular Hobbiton and go out into that very wide world – Middle-Earth itself and find themselves part of a history that they did not even know about. When they meet Tom Bombadil, who tells them stories of the Old Forest and Barow-wights, and arrive at Rivendell and hear about the whole history behind the Ring and the wars of the past, they begin to get a greater glimpse of the world of which they are a part. And yet though they feel small, this does not prevent Frodo from stepping forth and accepting the responsibility as Ring-bearer. By the end of the Return of the King, each one of them – Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin – understand better the world at large and how they fit into it. They know their right place with in it and are not concerned only about themselves and the events in Hobbiton.

The hobbits’ understanding of how they fit into the world contrasts with how Melkor does not understand himself correctly. In the beginning of the Silmarillion when Melkor first brings discord to the music, he does not understand – or rather, chooses to deviate from – his role as under Iluvatar, the Creator and Sovereign over his creation. Rather than being content with his role, Melkor “sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself” (Silmarillion, 16). Before he reveals to the Ainur the vision of their music, Iluvatar tells Melkor, “…no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined” (Silmarillion, 17). In contrast to the four hobbits, who discover their role and begin to understand how they fit into the whole history of Middle-Earth and beyond, Melkor does not understand his “proper” role. He desires to magnify himself and in doing so, not worship Iluvatar as Iluvatar deserves. While Frodo and Sam (and Merry and Pippin) never encounter Iluvatar directly or make explicit mention of him, they do come to a right realization of their place and role in history and Middle-Earth. And perhaps that in itself can be considered as worship of Iluvatar – even though he is not present, the hobbits recognize their smallness, and at the same time their significance, within the created world.

V. Lau

Tolkien, Freud, and Christ

Let me start of by saying that none of the forthcoming analysis is something that I think Tolkien intended or would particularly want. We have in Tolkien's letters a remarkable luxury as scholars of his texts. Tolkien was, perhaps above all else, a very intentional and self-aware writer. The very writing of the letters and his self-commentary serve (1) to demonstrate an incredible amount of awareness and intentionality in his work, and (2) to point the reader in the right direction. We, as literary analysts, often ask the question “what does this mean?” and in Tolkien, we have the luxury in many cases of having a relatively ready answer at least to the question “what did Tolkien mean by this?” Therefore we know what sort of analysis and interpretation Tolkien would tend to invite. But intentionality is never the whole story.

Someone in class pointed out that the reader of Tolkien probably does not become aware of the heavy religious quality of the work by panning out nuggets of religious symbolism or allusion. Indeed, Tolkien himself stated that it was not his original intent to write a religious work. Just as the tendrils of religious devotion enter unintentionally into the work, so too do they rise out of the work and settle in the mind of the reader, almost before the reader notices. This is an example of communication that can occur between the author, the text, and the reader, while going completely unacknowledged. Owing to Tolkien's remarkably self-reflective process, it is not unacknowledge in this case. However, as Tolkien noted in his letters, it was only upon revision that he became aware of the trend. If either he had not revised so extensively, or had been less self-reflective generally, the systematic presence of undeniably religious themes would have gone unacknowledged by the author. Tolkien's religious consciousness is strong, partially as a result of his religious education. Therefore, it is not surprising that he noted and strengthened the religious aspect of his text. However, there are certainly other themes and aspects of his own consciousness in which Tolkien is decidedly less interested, which begs the question- are there other unconscious dialogs between the trinity of Tolkien, the text, and the reader that in fact has gone unacknowledged, while all the while not only being present, but perhaps unconsciously influencing our reading of the text? Certainly, the conscious author and the text are not the same thing- even a writer as meticulous as Tolkien is nonetheless beholden to certain unconscious tendencies in his own mind. To that end, what follows is essentially a Freudian analysis of Biblical allusion in The Lord of the Rings, with emphasis on the Ring and the Mt. Doom sequence.

I spoke a little bit in class about a particular passage from the Sermon on the Mount:

“But I say to you, that whosoever shall look on a woman to
lust after her, hath already committed adultery with her in
his heart. And if thy right eye scandalize thee, pluck it out
and cast it from thee. For it is expedient for thee that one of
thy members should perish, rather than that thy whole body
be cast into hell. And if thy right hand scandalize thee, cut it
off, and cast it from thee: for it is expedient for thee that one
of thy members should perish, rather than that thy whole
body go into hell.” (Matthew 28-30)i

Here, the term “scandalize thee” is of paramount importance. In the original Greek it reads skandalidzei se (σκανδαλίζεισε)ii which essentially means “causes you to stumble” or, here, “causes you to sin.” In the Mount Doom sequence, we have a relatively literal reenactment of Jesus' advice: Frodo casts away (although unwillingly) what causes him to sin. Notably, however, it is not just the Ring that is cast away, but Frodo's right ring-finger as well. This is of course a relatively close parallel to the right hand that Jesus suggests be cut off. Through this parallel, we get something else- Jesus suggests that we cast of that which causes us to sin. In this case, that is not only the Ring, but Frodo as well. While the Ring is evil and 'scandalous' insofar as it subverts wills and induces sin, it requires participation. The Ring is not exerting power if it's simply placed next to a rock, nor can it fly away to Mordor on its own. So it is both the Ring and Frodo's desire for it- participation in its evil- that creates the sin.

However, both Tolkien's text and the associated biblical passage invite a certain Freudian interpretation. First, there is the quality of the very act that can be called sinful here- putting on the Ring or, phrased otherwise, poking a part of the body into a round hole. The imagistic similarities to the sex act cannot be escaped. If we read the episode in this light, the story becomes about castration. A little more exegesis on the biblical passage reveals notes of the same. Specifically, proximity of the suggestions that one casts off parts of the body that causes them to sin with the renewal and strengthening of the commandment against adultery. It does not take a great leap of interpretation to merge the two. What part of the body, after all, causes a man to commit adultery? What body part's removal would stop the sinful adulterous act and, in perishing, preserve the man from that sin?

One may object of course that Tolkien is actually quite a fan of sexuality and certainly subscribes to the “be fruitful and multiply” imperative, what with Sam's 13 children and the conception of marriage as a vehicle for child-bearing. However, this is not quite applicable to disprove the point. Notably, Tolkien's view of marriage and sex as a tool by which children are produced confines the sex act to the only Biblical approved use of it. This role assignment maintains the Biblical view of sex as inherently sinful but also totally negates the power of the sex act as a thing unto itself. In fact, the strength with which Tolkien ties sex, marriage, and childbearing can well be read as evidence of his (almost certainly subliminal and unrealized) conception of sex as inherently sinful and something to be feared. His appeal to multiplying as the validation for the occasional engagement in the act is therefore an appeal to the Bible as a talisman against that very evil. After all, if we accept that the quest to Mount Doom and the climax of the book represents the ultimate good AND if you're willing to go along with me for a moment and indulge the interpretation of that scene as a castration narrative, then castration becomes the ultimate good. This association could only emerge from a fear of sexuality which (incidentally) is heavily encouraged by the Catholic Church.

E. Moore


i. Holy Bible, Translate from the Latin Vulgate, Published with the approbation of His Eminence James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore. Trans: English Colleges at Douay and Rheims. Philadelphia, Pa. Douay Bible Publishing Co. 1899.

ii. Robinson, Maurice, and William Pierpont. The New Testament in the Original Greek: Byzantine Textform. Southborough, MA: Chilton Book Pub. 2005.

1. I really don't mean this as an indictment of Tolkien's work in any way.

2. I chose this edition of the Bible(instead of the RSV) because it was(1) contemporary to Tolkien's life and upbringing and (2) the primary translation relied upon by contemporary traditional English speaking Catholics.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Through the Umbilical Cord

The passage that struck me most about one of the letters we read and discussed in class, number 54 which Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher in 1944, was not the section exhorting Christopher to remember the praises, but the section on the umbilical cord.

“As souls with free-will we are, as it were, so placed as to face (or to be able to face) God. But God is (so to speak) also behind us, supporting, nourishing us (as being creatures). The bright point of power where that life-line, that spiritual umbilical cord touches: there is our Angel, facing two ways to God behind us in the direction we cannot see, and to us.”

I was specifically struck by his use of the term umbilical cord and the idea of there being a kind of spiritual navel—the point at which everything comes together, the point at which everything is tied together and connected, the point of nourishment, the source of life, the point of connection to something larger, something warm and enveloping, something that goes so far beyond the individual and indeed brings into question whether he is even an individual at all.

God, for Tolkien, is not just a divine individual, “a plump lady with swan-wings,” to whom one provides a litany of complaints just before bed. Instead, God is before and behind, surrounding us the way the womb surrounds the unborn child, the way the beautiful landscape of Middle-Earth surrounds those travelers who pass through it. As we said in class, this natural beauty is something intrinsically beautiful and comprises a divine whole that makes the idea of the individual rather silly.

It is no coincidence that he goes on to urge Christopher to “make a habit of the praises.” This is the very act of subordinating the individual to the womb, to the landscape, to God. Praise is communion with the divine precisely because the individual ceases to function as an individual and instead takes his place among the whole. Worship is one of the means of communicating through the navel.

There is an opposite—or seemingly opposite—means of communicating through the navel, namely suffering. This is the form of reaching through the navel that Tolkien explores in the chapter Mount Doom. The hobbits’ suffering as they make their way across Mordor is a subordination of the individual to the whole, a form of worship, a reaching through the navel to face God. The key moment here is when Sam gazes across the desert at Mount Doom and comes to the realization that they cannot realistically expect to survive their current mission, that they as individuals can derive no benefit whatsoever from the act which is supposedly going to save Middle-Earth. This realization, however, does not result in despair. In fact, it is quite the opposite:

“But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam’s plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through his limbs a thrill, as if he were turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue.”

At this point their suffering goes beyond suffering to become self-sacrifice, or at least the willingness to sacrifice themselves. It is the ultimate denial of one’s individuality and the acceptance of belonging to a much larger landscape, if you will. But rather than grow weak from suffering and the premonition of his own death, Sam actually becomes possessed of a previously unknown strength, a strength almost supernatural. He is communicating through the navel and facing God while receiving support from behind.

Tolkein, however, is not content merely with communication through the umbilical cord, with recognition of one’s place in the world. The miracle, or eucatastrophe, as he puts it in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” is a reciprocation of God. Trying to get at the nature of miracles in letter 89, he describes them as “intrusions (as we say, erring) into real or ordinary life.” His example, a story about a sick little boy miraculously cured, he describes as an “apparent sad ending and then its sudden unhoped-for happy ending.”

This eucatastrophic ending he describes as the highest purpose of fairy stories. Retrospectively he identifies the ending of The Hobbit, specifically Bilbo’s exclamation, “The Eagles! The Eagles are coming,” as well as the end of his current project, The Lord of the Rings, as eucatastrophic.

His belief in eucatastrophe extends well beyond fairy stories, however. Indeed, Tolkien is quite invested in what he calls the greatest fairy story of all, that of the resurrection. The product of the resurrection is “Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.” In other words, this is the point at which one’s connection through the umbilical cord to the whole becomes most intense, so intense in fact that the individual ceases to exist. As he says, selfishness and altruism, its own form of selfishness, completely subsumed in Love.

There is thus a reward for facing God—and not just a fantastical one, as Tolkien’s devout Catholicism makes clear. It is not enough to worship, to suffer, to recognize one’s connection with the rest of creation and thus the divine, but eucatastrophe is to be awaited as the reward.

-Curran Boomer

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Despair or Folly?: The Faith and Heroism of Sam and Abraham

“’Despair, or folly?’ said Gandalf. ‘It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope.”

So Gandalf tell us at the Council of Elrond, in response to Elves who claim contemplating the destruction of the Ring to be folly. (LOTR 269) This quote has always struck me. Essentially Gandalf is arguing that despair is the result of knowing all ends (as we discussed in class), and wisdom is knowing what must be done. That is clear enough. What sticks out to me, though, is Gandalf’s use of the phrase ‘false hope’. Is he saying that trusting in the success of something that appears impossible but necessary is to have false hope? And is this a bad thing? It seems that it is a negative thing, in Gandalf’s view, to have this false hope, as it makes wisdom seem a folly. But is that not what Gandalf is asking the Council to do? To have hope that the Quest they are formulating will succeed, despite all odds? This, then, would make it a false hope by Gandalf’s own definition. He then appears to be suggesting that it is folly to believe that it will be possible to destroy the Ring in the fires at the Cracks of Doom. And yet he asks that everyone present pursue the Quest regardless, for it is paradoxically the path of both wisdom and folly.

But what does this have to do with worship and the Catholicism of the story? During our discussion about Worship, and Sam and Frodo scaling Mount Doom, someone brought up Abraham. This seems like a valid comparison to make, and I would take it further. The themes of the Abrahamic story persist throughout the entire book; they are not exclusive to the end of the Quest.  Kierkegaard comes to mind here[i]. He argues that Abraham is a hero of faith because he recognizes that he is going to lose Isaac. It would be absurd for Abraham to have hope that his son will remain in the temporal world, but he does believe this anyway; he believes the absurd while also knowing that Isaac will die. Abraham can do this because he has faith in the Christian God. And in the end, fully prepared to kill his only son, Abraham’s hand is stayed because of this faith.

Gandalf’s discussion of despair and folly echoes Kierkegaard’s argument for the heroism of Abraham. It is wise to recognize the need for the destruction of the Ring, just as it is noble for Abraham, according to Kierkegaard, to agree to sacrifice Isaac. And just as it is absurd for Abraham to believe that Isaac will be spared, Gandalf calls it folly to believe that the Quest will be achieved. For Abraham, belief in the absurd requires faith. For the Fellowship, belief in success requires hope, even false hope. Hope becomes a theme throughout the rest of the story, then. And this hope is, in a way, a manner of religious worship, and certainly not a negative thing at all, though it is a false hope.

Whenever Sam and Frodo edge toward despair, believing that they are sure to fail, they invoke Elbereth, most desperately so by Sam while he and Frodo are assailed by Shelob.
“A Elbereth Gilthoniel
o menel palan-diriel,
le nallon sí di’nguruthos!
A tiro nin, Fanulios!” (LOTR 729)
As we discussed in class, this is clearly a religious invocation. After Sam exclaims thus, he is able to pull himself up and assail, and eventually mortally wound, Shelob. His hope, the force that lends him strength, is Elbereth. Similarly, when hope is giving way to despair in the plains of Gorgoroth, Sam finds rest and regains his hope when the light of Eärendil pierces through the great Shadow. (LOTR 922) Throughout all of these events, and the others that lead Sam and Frodo to Mount Doom, the hobbits remain ignorant of their end. This makes their hope false, and folly by Gandalf’s definition, but their recognition that they must keep going, seen through the emphasis Tolkien places on duty, is their wisdom. From this contradiction comes both their faith and their heroism.
            Without faith in the power and the protection of Elbereth the hobbits would have lost their hope and their wisdom, and they likely would have become certain of their failure. They then may have despaired, and been nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy, for their despair would lead them to the very failure that their certainty of the impossibility of their success would lead them to. When either Sam or Frodo invokes Elbereth she is being called on for strength, much in the same way a Catholic might invoke a particular saint. This element, of requesting help from one closer to God than the person in peril, is a particularly Catholic theme. The idea that Elbereth, for the hobbits, and a saint, for a Catholic, can act as an intermediary, proffering a fragmented bit of the grace of God due to that intermediary’s closer position to the One, be it Eru or God, allows a small, seemingly insignificant, person to draw hope and strength from the greatest power. This connection between Middle Earth and a Catholic primary reality is support for Tolkien’s claim that LOTR is a primarily Catholic work, especially because that notion of intermingled false hope/folly and wisdom is what impels much of the action in the story.
            Gandalf first brings up this driving theme at the Council of Elrond. It is at Rivendell that the hobbits learn the high stories of the Elves, of Elbereth and Eärendil, and (presumably) other stories found in the Silmarillion. Later, at Lothlórien, Galadriel gives Frodo the Phial. It is after this event that the hobbits begin habitually invoking the help of the Vala. The instances in which Frodo invokes Elbereth before receiving the Phial are at Weathertop and the Ford of Bruinen, both times when he was being pursued by the Nazgûl, and both occurring after the hobbits’ initial encounter with Gildor and his Elven companions; they are singing of Elbereth when the hobbits come across them. Frodo recognizes that they are High Elves, for “They spoke the name of Elbereth!” (LOTR 79) Clearly, then, Frodo knows a bit of the story of Elbereth before encountering Elves, but his time with Gildor, Elrond, and Galadriel enhances that knowledge. Once Sam and Frodo begin to more fully understand the power of the invocation they use it in times of need. It bolsters their faith, and helps them to continue on.
            The Elves, however, do not use Elbereth’s name in this way; they do not invoke her, but rather they praise her deeds. Perhaps this is because they know their fate; the Elves despair and do not need the false hope or faith that the hobbits do. The hobbits’, and especially Sam’s, maintenance of this false hope, what Kierkegaard would call the absurd, is what makes their deed so heroic. Sam never gives up; he does falter occasionally, but he always finds himself and rights himself on the path toward Mount Doom. Even though it is absurd, he always believes that he will return to the Shire. As Frodo is beginning to truly despair, Sam says, even as Mount Doom is spewing fire all around the hobbits, “But after coming all that way I don’t want to give up yet. It’s not like me, somehow, if you understand.” And he continues to look to the sky to the North, whence comes their rescue in Gwaihir. (LOTR 950)

            It would seem to me, then, that Sam is the most religious of all of the characters of the story. He is the one so fascinated by Elves, and their stories change him. He continues to hope, continues to call on Elbereth and look for salvation, even in the darkest and most hopeless moments at Cirith Ungol and Mount Doom. By Kierkegaard’s reckoning, Sam is a hero of faith, just as Abraham is. Sam constantly believes, while knowing that the task is impossible, that it will be done and he will return to the Shire, though folly it may seem. I think that, as a reader, the same applies: every time I read LOTR I want the hobbits to succeed so badly despite the odds, that I continue to believe they will (ignoring the fact that I already know the ending). Maybe this opportunity to believe against the odds, and see that belief come to fruition in Tolkien’s eucatastrophy at Cormallen, is what keeps bringing me back to the story. The strong concurrent belief that something is impossible, yet that it will be achieved, is rare and powerful, and gives Tolkien’s work both literary and religious force and keeps me returning to Middle Earth.

E. Minehart

[i] All references to Kierkegaard taken from Fear and Trembling, Penguin Classics 2003 edition.

Still need a final project idea?

Iowa artist Patrick Acton used  non-sulphur tip matches to create a replica of Minas Tirith. Anyone thinking of making a scaled replica of Orthanc?


Genre and Religion

In class today, we explored Tolkien’s statement of his book’s religious character—namely, his claim that “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision” (Letters 142). In this post, I intend to reflect on religion and Catholicism in The Lord of the Rings slightly differently than we did in our discussion. Instead of investigating the religious characteristics of this particular work of fantasy—which I think we did admirably in our session together—I would like to consider a more general question: how might ‘fantasy’ as a genre be especially suited to a religious work like Tolkien’s? In other words, why is fantasy the right type of fiction for a book with religious features like those of The Lord of the Rings? Would a work of ‘naturalistic’ fiction have been as effective? What other generic concerns might be relevant?
I will begin with a disclaimer of sorts: The Lord of the Rings is a book that resists generic classification. At least one of Tolkien’s interlocutors in the Letters has proceeded too hastily in this regard, and Tolkien corrects him: “My work is not a ‘novel’, but an ‘heroic romance’ a much older and quite different variety of literature” (329). 
Yet, in my view, Tolkien here understates his book’s complexity. Certainly, elements of The Lord of the Rings are rooted in the tradition of the ‘heroic romance’—for example, the character of Aragorn and his quest to win his kingship and marry Arwen. But the book is meaningful in part because it transcends the conventions of the traditional romance. On this point, Verlyn Flieger describes how a conventional medieval story (whether epic, romance, or fairy tale) often “focuses on one figure—the hero of the tale.” She writes, “In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien has written a medieval story and given it both kinds of hero, the extraordinary man to give the epic sweep of great events, and the common man who has the immediate, poignant appeal of someone with whom the reader can identify” (124). For Flieger, the combination of Aragorn and Frodo “reveal[s] new values in the old pattern,” partly because “[t]he sacrifice is all the greater for being made by one so small” (145). 
In this merging of ‘high’ and ‘low,’ we have the first answer to our earlier question—how does The Lord of the Ring’s relationship to its genre deepen its religious significance? The combination of Aragorn and Frodo—itself a kind of generic innovation—reflects the Christian departure from the traditions which, according to Erich Auerbach, “classified subjects in genera, and invested every subject with a specific form of style as the one garment becoming it in virtue of its nature” (Mimesis, 45). Ancient writers assigned ‘low,’ comedic style to the lower classes and ‘high,’ tragic style to the upper classes, but the Gospels describe social outcasts making contact with the divine. Auerbach elaborates: “A scene like Peter’s denial,” for example, “fits into no antique genre. It is too serious for comedy, too contemporary and everyday for tragedy” (45). As a result, the Christian style merges high and low, modeling itself on the simultaneous sublimitas and humilitas of Christ’s Incarnation.
I have written almost 600 words on the topic of genre before addressing ‘fantasy’!(Perhaps this is the right chronology, though, given how much The Lord of the Rings has shaped our conception of fantasy.) How might Faery be the right mirror for faith? Ursula Le Guin writes, “Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction is” (The Language of the Night, 79). In my view, it is also nearer to religion.
This is because fantasy establishes a particular kind of distance from our ordinary experience, and thus surpasses the common sense and man-made reason with which we often make sense of that experience. In her essay on Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Mary McCarthy distinguishes between what she calls “the plane of everyday sanity” and “the plane of poetry and magic” and argues that something may be true on either or both of these levels. It seems to me that if we neglect the latter (“the plane of poetry and magic”)—whether in our works of fiction or in our accounting of our own existences—we underrepresent the real magic which is a part of human life. Faith is not possible in a world of common sense and man-made reason, which is a world denuded of all enchantment. 
Fantasy itself has the power to re-enchant our perception of the world. In “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien describes “Recovery” as the “regaining of a clear view.” He writes, “I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’…though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’” (The Tolkien Reader, 77). 
What might this mean? In my view, Tolkien indicates here the challenge of paying attention to our world in the right way. In his letter to the Romans, Paul laments the frailty of human attention. Paul attests, “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Romans 1:20). Yet we often lose sight of God’s greatness—we are distracted by worldly goods and neglect the higher good which they signify. Paul instructs us to direct our attention to the things of the world so as to glimpse in them the glory of God. To me, fantasy—the genre of fiction which reveals the danger, power, and magic of that which we consider trite and familiar—seems to be one good answer to Paul’s challenge.

Heroism-- Mortals and their Deeds

We discussed at length in class on Monday the nature of the hero in the Lord of the Rings, and the different ways in which love inspires or reinforces true heroism. However, we did not really discuss in any depth the differences between the mortality of Hobbits and Men, and the role which this difference might make to their respective forms of heroism.
            Both Men and Hobbits are among the mortal of Middle Earth—and yet there is a readily perceptible difference between the ways in which each views their death. Men, as we know, were given death as a gift from God, and it is a defining part of their role in the history of the world. It is their doom to leave the world forever after only a brief time spent upon it. Through the shadow and workings of Morgoth, this came to be feared rather than rejoiced, but even if this were not the case, the ‘doom’ of Men would nonetheless be apprehended as a limit: a natural limit on life, on ability, on the achievable, and therefore, ultimately, a challenge.
            Mortality, then, as a defining characteristic of Men, plays out in their heroism as the challenge to achieve such acts as they can within their natural limit. This may sound obvious, but it is the key to understanding the difference between an action and a heroic deed in the lives of Men.  The attempt to stretch the limit of death as far as possible, to achieve the greatest things possible, and most of all, to invest as much of the limited resource of life as possible into these acts is to attempt heroism. The limit, therefore, defines the heroism and allows it to inspire awe. This is why valor for Elves must be something more akin to etiquette, where for Men it is literally a matter of life and death.
            Hobbits, as begins to become apparent, are a different case entirely. Being excluded from the old tales, we know not whence their mortality proceeds, but we can see clearly that they apprehend it in a different manner from Men. Where Men define their lives by the fact that they must die, Hobbits seem to have no such inclination. The key, once again, is in the apprehension. Where Men apprehend their Mortality as a limit and a challenge, Hobbits apprehend their mortality—how?
            This is a difficult question to answer, especially because we only have a few instances of Hobbits face with their mortality directly, and those are the ‘exceptional’ cases of Bilbo, and the Hobbits of the Fellowship. There are also the passing references to the heroism of Bandobras ‘Bull-Roarer’ Took, but they do not really serve as a true example since they are used mainly to point out the rareness of Hobbit-Heroism at the time of the Lord of the Rings. Even Bilbo, when faced with his age at the beginning of the Fellowship, desires only that he see the Mountains again—but then he is already an uncommonly old Hobbit and a very uncommonly heroic one.
            Some more common specimens we might draw on are the Sackville-Bagginses, whose one goal within their span is to gain Bag-End, and in Otho’s case perhaps, as is referred to in Letter 214, to become the head of two Hobbit families and become Otho Baggins-Sackville-Baggins. This may seem unduly petty, but it bears on the elaborate interest that Hobbits have in lineage and heritage. Indeed, how can this interest be seen otherwise than as a complicated societal response to mortality? We must be careful, however, for in this respect Hobbits are similar to Men, who hold their lineage in just as much if not more esteem. The difference is that the lineage of Men serves to connect Men to the deeds of their forbears, and therefore to add to them dignity, honor, and ultimately a greater urge to heroism. In Hobbits, however, the interest in lineage seems to have become almost entirely divorced from deed.
            And yet it remains a matter of upmost importance in Hobbit culture. Why should this be? Is it that Hobbits are incompletely conceived and actually lack the motive that would explain their behavior? Or does it have to do with the fact that Hobbits at large seem an unfallen people (since their fall seems to figure individually, by encounter with the ring: Smeagol, Bilbo, Frodo &c)?
            I have gone and asked larger questions than I am capable of answering, and yet I feel the truth is near. For while Hobbits are obsessed with their own familial record, the fact that lineal deeds are practically absent is equivalent to saying that their lineage has no bearing on the world at large and is only applicable within the Hobbit community. Indeed, the Shire is exceedingly insular, having nothing to do with the world at large. We discussed that this might be a necessary narrative device, but even as such, it might serve to be a defining characteristic of the Hobbit’s apprehension of Mortality as necessarily community oriented. Were the shire populated by Men, it would be impossible that the towers in the west would remain unclimbed—this is Man’s apprehension of mortality as a challenge. However, for Hobbits the elf towers have no significance on their community and therefore no place in their legacy. All that matters is the Shire—their as yet unspoiled paradise. The heroism of the Hobbits of the Fellowship can be seen to spring from this, from their love of their community in its insular form, an attempt to keep it from falling.   

--Mattias Darrow

The Journeys of Life and Death

“The story of The Lord of the Rings  is a journey, both literally and metaphorically” says Flieger, author of Splintered Light.

And indeed, this thought seems to hold true for every aspect of Tolkien’s epic.  From the literal journeys through which the tale is told to the symbolic journey that Tolkien pursued in creating his work, the idea of transition, of movement from  one state to another seems inherent to the world of The Lord of the Rings. These transitions are best exemplified by the story’s primary characters—Aragorn, Frodo, Sam, Gollum, Bilbo, etc.—whose physical travels engender their internal passages into fuller, more complete individuals.  However, another journey runs in fascinating parallel with these, sharing many of the same experiences and pitfalls:  the universal flight of all men towards death.  By comparing these two sorts of journeys (and their literal and metaphorical qualities), I hope to illuminate the importance that both serve in Tolkien’s creation.
Both hobbits and men, being “relatives” and mortal, are well familiar with these resonating journeys.  In the case of literal journeys, Frodo and Aragorn, Sam and Gollum all end up setting out in pursuit of some aim or ideal (and as we well know, the moral nature of these aims varied by the nature of the pursuer).  For the reader and author, the actual achievement of these aims is less important than the internal transformations these characters undergo during their quests.   This is because these quests somehow bring out everything the characters have to offer, allowing them to fulfill a potential unknown even to themselves.  These ideas are well-expressed by Sam’s apt description of his journey:  ”…I feel different.  I seem to see ahead in a kind of way. I know we are going to take a very long road into darkness…I don’t rightly what I want:  but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire” (LotR, Book 1, Chpt 4).  This notion of one’s destiny being fulfilled through the completion of a journey interestingly coincides with Tolkien’s mythological conception of death, and the special role he has assigned to man in their ability to die.  For “the sons of men die indeed, and leave the world…death is their fate, the gift of Iluvatar…of old the Valar declared to the Elves that Men shall join in the second music of Ainur” (The Silmarillion, 38-39).  Even in reality, Tolkien identifies a certain “greatness” that is fulfilled during one’s journey toward death.  Though he overshadows this greatness with the tragedy of the collapse of T.C.B.S., Tolkien nonetheless pays homage to the “holiness of courage, suffering and sacrifice” that overlayed a friend’s memory who died in World War I (Letters 9).  While this friend was technically “defeated” in the end (much like Frodo on Mt. Doom), he achieved the true greatness of his journey—”the greatness I mean was that of a great instrument in God’s hands—a mover, a doer, even an achiever of great things, a beginner at the very least of large things” (Letters 9). 
Another connection between the characters’ journeys and the journey towards death is their negative alternatives.  Since transition and movement are so important to the structure of the work as a whole, Tolkien portrays the desire not to journey and stay home—which is to say, an overt attachment to places or things—as generally flawed.  This is well-displayed when Bilbo complains of the Ring’s effects to Gandalf: “I need a holiday, a very long holiday:   don’t suspect I shall return…I am old Gandalf…Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean:  like butter that has been scraped over too much bread…I want to see mountains again” (LotR, Book 1, Chpt 1).   Two evils are expressed here:  one is the undesirability of immortality (t least the sort of immortality that the Ring gives), the other is strain of staying in one place for too long.  Bilbo’s complaint is made even more interesting by the fact that he equates the sensations of the unnatural lengthening of his life with those of restlessness.  What Bilbo experiences through the Ring is the suspension or cessation of time’s movement, or a “clinging to time”, which results in the same sort of stagnation that occurs when one resists the transition or growth provided through journeys (Letters 267).  In both these cases it is the overt attachment to things opposed to creation and development that truly demark them as evils for Tolkien.
Thus, Tolkien’s conception of death shares some poignant qualities with the literal journeys his characters pursue.  To further complicate matters, one should also consider the fact that often times the end result of the characters’ literal journeys seem to be death itself.  Again, Sam describes this phenomenon best:  “…after all, he never had any real hope in the affair from the beginning…Now they were come to the bitter end.  But he had stuck to his master all the way, that was what he had chiefly come for” (LotR, Book 4, Chpt 3).  Therefore, is the real question of this topic whether or not one’s journey—and the self-development that accompanies it—is worth it if everything will end for naught? Perhaps the purpose of -Tolkien’s emphasis on journeys is to relay the overarching message that—even when contemplating the finality of death—it is the actual journey towards the end that is of the most consequence.
-Jessica Adepoju

Nothing Wrong with Wanting to be a Hobbit

When I was younger, I used to play an online computer game called Shadowmere, which at one time had a relatively large player base. In this game, the user will begin a kingdom of a particular race such as orcs, trolls, dwarves, humans, halflings, high elves, dark elves, wood elves, or even options such as deities. Over weeks to months, the player would run his or her kingdom and do battle, steal from, or help other players of similar score. One of the main influences upon the design of the game was the influence of Tolkien’s Legendarium upon the selection and the characteristics of the races. It was the elves with the strong troops and the excellent scholars, who I would always play. I never wanted to play as the halflings, despite their excellent thieves and spies.
At the beginning of our class, the question was posed as to who would like to be a Hobbit. My initial reaction was that this was a rather silly question. Of course, no one would want to be a Hobbit. However, I was given some pause at the number of people, who had raised their hands to indicate their preference for the Hobbit life. Over the course of the lecture, as I mused on the question somewhat, and I came to (the unusual) conclusion that my instinctive reaction was totally incorrect. This blog post will be devoted to instructing readers as to why it makes sense to want to be a Hobbit.
Initially, I can see why I thought that being a Hobbit would be undesirable because being a Hobbit does admittedly have some drawbacks compared to being a member of another race. For instance, the Hobbits are oblivious to the rest of Tolkien’s legendarium, and they live a sheltered life away from the rest of the epic events of Middle-Earth. Furthermore, the Hobbits are often the comic characters, which I sometimes saw as meaning that they did not merit being taken seriously. In terms of behavior, Shippey summarizes that Hobbits are plain, greedy, frequently embarrassing, and distrustful of outsiders (Shippey 78). While the elves suffer from a form of stagnation in their societies, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings left me with the distinct impression that the society of Hobbits was stagnant in that there was little innovation and development. Individuals seemed to live out their lives without their society making progress. In addition, in terms of physical characteristics, I’m a runner, but Hobbits are described as generally fat and smokers, which I find unappealing (Fellowship 7; 9). Even worse, Tolkien writes that Hobbits have little interest in scholarly study outside of compiling genealogies (Fellowship 3). Yes, I can see why I did not find the idea of being a Hobbit appealing at first.
Nonetheless, I believe that my older impressions of Hobbits were overly harsh because I now realize that Hobbits illustrate many characteristics and virtues that are central to the human condition. For example, although Hobbits seem to always need a push out the door in order to do great things, it is easy to forget the human tendency to procrastinate. Essentially, people often do not act until pushed. In terms of Hobbit pettiness and their tendency to be embarrassing, we all have our moments in which we are petty and embarrassing, and these moments often pertain to informal venues in our own life, which correspond to the homely world of the Hobbits in the Shire. It is also important to remember that Tolkien describes Hobbits as speaking the language of men in the distant past (Fellowship 2). As we have discussed, Tolkien uses language to establish kinship, so Hobbits are aligned most closely with men in Middle-Earth. As a people, the Hobbits are described as ancient, nimble, good-natured, merry, and hard to daunt (Fellowship 1-2; 6). Hobbits also display generosity in frequently giving presents to many others as tokens of goodwill (Fellowship 28). These are all positive human characteristics.
To answer my own criticism that Hobbit society does not display much progress, I think that since Hobbit society is portrayed as so homey and idyllic, there is no need for rapid progress. Hobbit society is not stagnant so much as it is a paradise, which can be upset by vulgar introduction of industry that can be used towards destructive ends. Hobbits are stagnant in an intellectual way in that there is no mention of Hobbit philosophers, but it is possible that they are living an enjoying life more than many of the elves, who are vulnerable to the tendency to fade into stagnation and tire of long life. It is also significant that Hobbits are mortal and are meant to die like humans, but the elves are meant for immortality because it is the natural nature of each of them.
In addition, to understand why it is not bad to be a Hobbit, one must understand the origins of Hobbits. In brief, the Shire and the Hobbits can be described as a portrait of the English in their country. Shippey asserts, “Tolkien’s new equation of fantasy with reality comes over most strongly in his map, account, and history of ‘the Shire,’ an extended ‘Little Kingdom’… transplanted to Middle-Earth. The easiest way to describe it is to say that the Shire is ‘calqued’ on England” (Shippey 77). ‘Calquing’ is used by Shippey to describe a linguistic process of translating the elements of a compound word to make a new word in a different language that is indebted to the original word. While the derived word does not sound like the original, the influence is clear (Shippey 77). In other words, Tolkien created a society that can be thought of as an imagining of a society like England in Middle-Earth. In terms of the development of the Shire, Shippey writes, “Thus historically, the Shire is like/unlike England. The Hobbits are like/unlike English people. Hobbits live in the Shire as the English live in England, but like the English they come from somewhere else … Both groups have forgotten this fact” (Shippey 77). Shippey’s position is easy to hold when one sees parallels between the British and the Hobbits such as the integration of tribes after settling their land and the derivation of names of locations in the Shire from names of locations around Tolkien (Shippey 78). Hence, the Hobbits in the Shire are not a precise imagining of English men and women in Middle-Earth, but the Hobbits are a representation of the important characteristics that distinguish the rural English men and women such as the adaptability of English young men to the dire situations they faced in the trenches of WWI. Although Hobbits are more human than men in a homey, unheroic way, Tolkien subcreates them in Middle-Earth with the potential to do extraordinary things. Thus, the hobbits become instruments of Eru’s hands in disposal of the One Ring, which was a task that was destined for the ring bearers Frodo, Sam, Bilbo, and Gollum to complete.
In addition, I believe that Hobbits are portrayed in the most flattering light when one considers Sam and Merry as exemplary Hobbits that are matured by their journeys in a way that parallels children becoming adults. Both Merry and Sam find a world that gives them a push to self-improvement. As Bradley points, out Merry’s helps into old forest and his assistance with bringing ponies for the journey marks Merry as a good child figure in the early quest, but Merry discovers the world on his journey (Bradley 79-80; 82). Eventually, moved by love Merry finds a father figure in Théoden, and Merry states, “as a father you [Théoden King] shall be to me” (King 39). Upon the death of Théoden and the return of the Hobbits to the Shire, Bradley notes that Merry and Pippin have become embodiments of  the good in Aragorn, Théoden, Gandalf, and Denethor (82 Bradley). Thus, Sam, Frodo, Pippin, and Merry are described as “Fearless Hobbits,” and Merry is the one who articulates the command, “Raise the Shire!” in resistance to the tyranny they observe (King 309; 310).
In addition, in Sam was have another character, who grows from a mere comic relief to a character that embodies some of the best human virtues. Because Sam accompanies Frodo out of love rather than out of commitment to a quest, Bradley asserts that Sam and Frodo have an idealized friendship based on platonic love (Bradley 90). Sam’s service to Frodo is marked with constant self-sacrifice and loyalty to his duty, which is like a war bond. Sam’s compassion for Frodo even grows in the heat of Mordor as Frodo weakens (Bradley 88). Moreover, Sam faces despair with bravery as he contemplates his possible doom, which Denethor was unable to do (Bradley 88). Furthermore, it is noteworthy that Sam is wise with the ring in that he sees the temptation of the One Ring and does not let himself be deceived into thinking that he can use it, and he immediately returns it to Frodo when it is requested, which shows remarkable self-mastery given the power of the ring. Back in the Shire, Sam rebuilds and helps to govern the Shire, and he reflects Aragorn’s renewed leadership of Gondor as mentioned in class. Now, the servant has elevated himself to become the leader. In addition, his marriage to Rosie Cotton and his numerous children reflect the cultivation of subcreation of life in Middle-Earth just as he cultivates the new gardens of the Shire. While Elves have immortality, Hobbits and men have a sort of immortality in genealogy by their kinship and relations to each other.
To sum up, the Hobbits of the Shire are a reflection of the homely characteristics in men in a fairytale world. If we keep this in mind, we realize that it is very important that humans and hobbits should live according to their natures. The Hobbits reflect the human capacity for growth when outside of the home, which is a reflection of the growth that people experience on journeys through life. While I might have secretly wished to been an elven lord while playing Shadowmere, I realize that immortality as a biologically living being is not in accordance with human nature. In this light, desiring to be elven seems to be an unnatural desire. Therefore, it is more natural for me as a human to desire to be a Hobbit than it is to be an elf. In many ways, we can attain the best characteristics that we see in Hobbits, while the human are fascinated with Elves because they have unattainable superhuman immortality, strength, art, and dexterity. However, this fascination might actually be unhealthy because those characteristics are arguably incompatible with our human natures when taken to such extremes. We should all be trying to emulate the self-sacrifice and growth of Hobbits such as Sam and Merry. We should want to be the best that Hobbits can be.
-Andrew Wong


            Bradley, Marrion Zimmer. “Men, Halflings, and Hero Worship.” In Understanding the Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism, ed. Rose A. Zimbardo and Neil D. Isaacs. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. 122-144.
            Fleiger, Verlyn. “Frodo and Aragorn: The Concept of the Hero.” In Understanding the Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism, ed. Rose A. Zimbardo and Neil D. Isaacs. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. 122-144.
Shippey, T. A., The Road to Middle-Earth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983.
Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Random House, 1994.
Tolkien, The Return of the King. New York: Random House, 1994.