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.