Friday, May 27, 2011

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.



  1. This is a very nice meditation on the nature of suffering and how it allows Tolkien’s world to intersect with Christian spirituality. Suffering is not always an act of praise, but when it is a sacrifice, that is, when it is chosen, perhaps it has the power to express a new relation between the subject and the divine or the world. The ring obscures proper relationships between individuals by, in effect, turning some of them into slaves (not subjects, not servants). One point of the ascetic tradition (not just the Christian one) is that true meaning is found by denial. In fact, I think Tolkien has a profound sense of superficial and actual meaning, and the idea of sacrifice is consonant with these multiple layers. Nothing (e.g., rings) should be so valued that it conceals this actual meaning. It can be a hard lesson. The ring presents the opposite world, of power and obedience. I especially like your point about the need for an external source of strength. The source of the hero’s perseverance is certainly mysterious. Christ is an easy example of this, whose prayer “Take this cup from me” might imply the overcoming of a human will by something external, i.e., divine (which happens to be himself, but here it gets complicated). If heroes weren’t in communication with something beyond self, it’s hard to see why exactly they are chosen, why they become the hero. This means too that their suffering is a kind of dialogue with something outside of self. Some will self-destruct from it, as in tragedy – and Frodo’s story is at least part tragedy. Others will find a wedding-banquet at the end, like Sam who marries Rosie, and Christ who, in effect, renews by his death his mystical marriage to the church.

  2. This was such a great post!

    I want to add something to it, if I may. I wholeheartedly agree with your comments about Sam being the one who shows complete devotion to God, but at first I didn’t think that it was all for the purpose of praising God. I couldn’t help but think that the focus of Sam’s actions was always Frodo. Right from the beginning, Sam’s number one priority was accompanying and protecting Frodo throughout their quest. Your examples of him abstaining from food and water to symbolize fasting and reliance on God are true, but to me, it was all so Frodo could eat and drink and be strong for the rest of the journey (which is exactly what you said). Everything Sam ever did was because of his love for Frodo.

    Towards the end of the post, however, I remember that the Bible, in 1 John 4:8, says “…God is love.”!! It was then that I realized that you were absolutely right! Sam’s willingness to sacrifice everything for Frodo was the ultimate act of Love. As you said in the beginning, the Bible says that we should praise God through our actions, and I think that’s exactly what Sam did. His reliance upon God was made possible because his love for Frodo never diminished or left, and it was in that love that God was always present.

    -Seleste M. :)

  3. I want to discuss you claim that Sam is “devot[ed] to the prise of God” in more nuance. In particular, I want to draw a distinction between the consequence (or meaning) of an action and its motivation. I would agree that Sam’s actions show a devotion to God. God is goodness, and to be good both follows divine will and prises Him (drawing on Augustine here). So in this sense, one can interpret Sam’s actions as showing a devotion to God, and I think this is a reasonable interpretation.

    However, this becomes murky and misleading if we confuse interpretation with motivation, and start to think that Sam is “motivated” by love of God. I think this would be misleading, because there isn’t any evidence that Sam seems himself this way. Rather, Sam is motivated by love of Frodo. Since Frodo is trying to destroy the Ring for the cause of good and the free people of Middle Earth, Sam’s devotion to Frodo translates into a devotion to Good and to God. However, we shouldn’t forget that Sam is motivated by love of Frodo, not the love of a God whom he doesn’t mention or seem particularly aware of. I don’t believe that this distinction in any way ‘cheapens’ his devotion to God; it only makes Sam more human. (Or more Hobbit.)


    (removed and reposted to include my initals)

  4. Everything you say here is beautifully nuanced and excellently put! I like particularly the way in which you balance praise and suffering, so that one does not override the other (as sometimes happens in modern descriptions of Christianity). I think, too, that it is entirely appropriate to focus on Sam rather than Frodo in understanding the significance of suffering as an act of praise. To be sure, Sam is not carrying the burden of the Ring so he is in very real terms freer than Frodo to praise God, but it is Sam, as you point out, who finds his will strengthened at the moment of utmost trial--perhaps, indeed, because of his love for Frodo as much as anything else. Ultimately, Frodo fails because he tries to rely on the strength of his own will; Sam, on the other hand, arguably succeeds because he doesn't.


  5. This is a phenomenal post. I wanted to touch even more on Sam. We’ve talked a lot in class about Sam as a servant. And indeed, this is what he is to Frodo. But here, we find Sam in another light, as ultimately a servant of God. It is interesting that, as you noted, the actual destruction of the Ring, its casting into the fires of Mount Doom, is by God’s grace. It becomes even clearer then, that the destruction of the Ring is not only paramount to the people of Middle Earth, but to God as well. We’ve discussed how it is an affront to His authority, distracting minds from devotion to God and compelling God’s creations to praise the Ring and Sauron, subcreation and subcreator, and evil ones at that.

    We clearly see how the mission to destroy the Ring is directly a praise of God in that it destroys a subcreation which demands devotion to itself. But why then should it be Sam, not Frodo, whose will is fortified when he falls? It is clear that Frodo attempts to rely solely on his own will, yet it is difficult to see how Sam can devote himself to God when God is never explicit in this story. However, Sam has the distinction that he is the only person who bears the Ring and does not fall into devotion of it. His service is always out of love for Frodo and in accordance with that love. Thus, it is clear the Frodo never could have been the one to complete this mission. Yes, he sacrifices himself for God’s glory, but in the process succumbs to the thing which he seeks to destroy. It had to be Sam, through his resistance to the allure of the Ring and his service of Frodo, who would have his will restored and allow the Ring to reach Mount Doom.

  6. "Ultimately, Frodo fails because he tries to rely on the strength of his own will; Sam, on the other hand, arguably succeeds because he doesn't."

    I disagree with this assertion. Frodo fails not because of any fault of his own--indeed, Tolkien writes in Letter 191 that Frodo "had then done all that was within his utmost physical and mental strength to do"--but because "the power of Evil in the world is _not_ finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however 'good'" (Letter 191). Frodo fails and Sam succeeds not because one is better than the other, but because Frodo's quest is so much harder than Sam's. One can be ennobled by suffering consciously chosen through love and performed in service to another, as this post eloquently testifies, but in Tolkien's world one cannot directly encounter ultimate evil without falling.

    Much of our commentary on the Mount Doom passage has focused on Sam--which makes sense, given that at this point most of the narration is from Sam's point of view--but I actually find Frodo's role here much harder to figure out. Frodo sacrifices much more than Sam, but Frodo's sacrifices are not as conscious: while Sam choose to sacrifice because of his love for Frodo (and, through that earthly love, love for God), Frodo is stripped of his finger, his mind, his future because of the overwhelming power of the Ring. One can make the argument that Frodo did choose this when he chose to take the Quest, but there are two objections: firstly, Frodo did not understand the enormity of the sacrifice involved (as I believe Gandalf remarks at some point); secondly, when Frodo does choose, it's as if "some other will was using his small voice" (LotR II.2). On the slopes of Mount Doom, Frodo thus seems to have become the battlefield in a war between Good and Evil; the Voice and the Eye remain, but the conscious, choosing Frodo we saw on Amon Hen has disappeared. Even in physical form, Frodo has been reduced: he crawls up the path and must be carried by Sam.

    But perhaps a positive aspect of this is that Frodo allows himself at the end to rely on Sam in a way that he didn't rely on anyone else at the start. Frodo in the beginning has a bit of a martyr complex: he journeys from the Shire because he wants to protect everyone else; he runs away from the Fellowship for the same reason. Yet at the end, Frodo becomes entirely reliant on Sam. Admittedly this is not out of the choice, but Frodo does independently understand and accept his own frailty at the end: one of the first things that Frodo says upon his release from the Ring is, "I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam."