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.