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


  1. Thank you for drawing our attention to this image! It is one of my favorites, too. You do a lovely job exploring its implications! I have only one quibble: you are absolutely right about feeling oneself enveloped and connected to God, but I do not think Tolkien would agree that in finding ourselves thus connected to God we therefore lose our individuality. This is what he realized in the other letter to Christopher that we read when he saw the mote in the light as an image of God's attention: there is not only the umbilical cord, but the guardian angel, a.k.a. God's attention to the individual soul. It is a hard idea to grasp as we tend in contemporary parlance to think in such either-or terms, either we are one with the universe or we are isolated individuals. For Tolkien (as I read him), the mystery is two-fold: we are both part of the whole and significant as individuals, both subsumed into the whole and singled out by God's love.


  2. I would echo Prof Fulton's hesi tance to ascribe union with God with a loss of individuality. If we accept that one of the greatest gifts to humanity (if not its main purpose) was the capacity to exercise free will. Individuality is necessary for that. Thus it would be odd that in the act of connecting with God, this crucual element is lost.

    In an example you provide about Sam at Mt Doom, it was his divine connect (guadrian angel if you will) that gives him the strength to choose to persist in the face of hopelessness. Or, after having made the choice he was given the strength to endure. I'm not sure what the causal relations are supposed. In any case, the choice was Sam's as an individual. The divine connection did not erase that.

    It would be helpful to think of Tolkien's concept of God not as anything personified or finite, not a this or that, but rather as a phenomenon or a this-and-that-and more all at once. This God can be three distinct aspects and yet a single whole at the same time. He/it can be around us, within us, and yet not in control of us.

    -Jason A Banks