Thursday, June 2, 2011

Religion, "Cultus," and First Love

After giving the example of being inside the beam of light in the toolshed, versus viewing it objectively, standing in the darkness, Lewis provides a second, analogous situation – that of being in love. “A young man meets a girl,” he postulates, and “the whole world looks difference when he sees her. Her voice reminds him of something he has been trying to remember all his life” (God in the Dock, 212). Of course, the scientist – that viewer from the objective darkness – comes along and ruins it all, going on about hormones and biological stimuli and what-have-you. The joyful and irrational illusion is revealed, though perhaps the young lover isn’t ready to listen yet; there may, of course, come a time when he, ironically, perhaps devastatingly, realizes it of his own accord.

This passage was particularly resonant for me because it describes an experience that I feel is very analogous to falling in love: reading Tolkien. There was a time when The Silmarillion alone occupied me on every car trip and every rainy afternoon, when I took several pounds of the HoME with me to summer camp several years running, when I spent hours devoted to drawing sub-par, manga-esque renditions of obscure characters. In seventh grade, in lieu of a simple “do not disturb,” I was very proud of the homemade sign on my door the proclaimed, to any unwitting passerby, Get thee gone from my gate, thou jail-crow of Mandos! I could go on and on (though I won’t, for my dignity), but I know that a lot of you out there in the crowd probably have similar histories with Tolkien, if not also with other authors and their respective thought-worlds (OK, I won’t kid myself, that’s kind of just a fancy word for fandom. I believe someone in class today already ‘fessed up to the fanfiction thing. I say, virtual high-fives all around! Seventh through ninth grade was a great time…as is the present!). To put it is Lewis’s language, in immersing ourselves in such naturally immersive texts, when we look from inside the beam of light and stare outwards in awe at the “green leaves moving on the branches outside and beyond,” we give ourselves entirely to a world alien to our own, ever devoting and stretching ourselves towards the perfection, depth, and mystery that we perceive to be.

Before this class, I had honestly preferred to not consider the religious dimension in my recreational (though wholly devotional) enjoyment of Tolkien’s writings. Though fully cognizant of Tolkien’s Catholicism, I preferred to know Middle-earth in a vacuum, putting any possible religious symbolism in the category of allegory, which I had discerned was something Tolkien did not want construed on his pure story. In fact, I had always been under the impression that the LotR books stood opposed to the self-conscious Christian allegory of Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia – the departure through the door of light, Susan’s not being allowed to return, now that she wears hose and lipstick and has fallen from innocence. Here, in an academic context, it’s obviously difficult to disregard Tolkien’s religiosity, and I certainly confess that it has been pretty critical to understanding the context of his moral universe. Based on the language I just found myself using – devotion, striving, mystery – it seems that reading The Lord of the Rings et al was, in fact, a kind of religious experience, and one that left me with an imprint of the devotion of its creator. In this strange way, a kind of transmission of faith was engendered.

In part, this must have been the kind of thing Tolkien intended for his readers, or at least hoped might happen, though he knew that, for better and worse, he relinquished control of the story to these new minds that were exposed to it. In other ways, I am certain that it was what he would not have wanted to happen, for I know that I, in my time of greatest mania, was a card-carrying member of “the deplorable cultus” that semi-deified him in the ‘60s, and continues to do so this day. I didn’t end up finding God through Lord of the Rings, because that wasn’t who I was looking for, at age thirteen. I was hungry for a world, and I swallowed it; that world became a compass, and internal mythology, that was of indescribable importance to me for a not insignificant portion of my life. It’s still there, and it still compels me.

But it’s not the same as it once was. Returning to the stories over the past weeks has been familiar and comfortable, like stepping into well-worn shoes, and don’t get me wrong, it’s been wonderful. Yet the joy of total immersion, of one’s brain chemistry, at age thirteen, reacting to the Doom of Mandos, is irretrievable. Is this because I put the wrong kind of faith into Tolkien, because I was looking for things that weren’t there, making meanings that weren’t there? A few years past the zenith of my obsession, I was fortunate enough to visit Wolvercote Cemertary in Oxford, and by the time I finally read Beren and Lúthien on the grave, I was completely, unexpectedly inconsolable. Like the children in A.S. Byatt’s novel, I was distraught, for here the story ended, when I hadn’t wanted it to, when I wanted, and needed, for there to be much, much more. In Tolkien’s mind, as we discussed today, the story never does end; it is living, and we are part of it, even when we don’t intend to be. My problem might just be that I’m still half in Middle-earth, without realizing that the world around me is still Arda, evolving from age to age.

- J. Wetherell


  1. Even though I've finished up my required comments, but I was so moved by this that I had to comment. I think this is a beautiful essay that sums up very well what it is to fall in love with reading Tolkien. The way you describe your realization of your experience via the language you end up using is something I think Tolkien himself would appreciate, and maybe even have intended. Just reading the end of your post where you found yourself "unexpectedly inconsolable" made me feel almost the same kind of sadness. Endings like that catch us off guard, don't they? At any rate, I wholeheartedly agree with what you've said here and I think it's a perfect, albeit bittersweet, way to end the course. Well done!

  2. Couldn't agree more. In spite of all that talk about sudden, unexpected endings, I left class yesterday feeling immensely satisfied: in my mind, the very character of Tolkien couldn't have been summed up more movingly than with the image of Lewis' light beam beckoning us toward a higher plane of understanding. Some might balk—and understandably so—at the thought of a particular faith doctrine being foist on them, but the fact of the matter is that The Lord of the Rings is inextricably linked to the stuff: faith in a secondary reality; faith in the intrinsic value of sub-creation; faith in the eventual triumph of good over evil, no matter the odds; and, if you're willing to follow Tolkien from start to finish, faith in God. I've always felt that Tolkien's own faith is subject to the host of unfair prejudices that go along with the Catholic label. He is no disingenuous, hypocritical once-a-year believer. He is no stubborn, insensitive proselytizer. Rather, I think you've hit the nail on the head: the "transmission of faith" you describe is precisely what Tolkien had in mind (or, perhaps, didn't originally envision, but couldn't help but express by virtue of his genuine, thoroughly internalized commitment to demonstrate his own beliefs). Just as Tolkien’s legendarium is a living, breathing expanse in which we are all contributors, his theology transcends past, present, and the dismissal of the extra-beam skeptic; the “objective darkness,” Tolkien might say, can only exist relative to the positive, illuminative truth of the beam. You’ve captured that essence perfectly. Bravo.

    -H. Glick

    P.S. My seventh grade self *wishes* his signs were as cool as yours.

    P.P.S. By some twist of fate, “The End Has No End” by The Strokes came up on shuffle as I was writing this. How apropos, iTunes.

  3. Good essay. I’ve been thinking about what fandom means in the last couple of months, and how that is analogous to love, so I think this essay is pretty timely. I remember what it was like when I was young to read Lord of the Rings and how much I wanted to be completely immersed in it. I wanted to know every detail. I wanted to live in it. In many ways I see how that affected me now, how I tried to emulate and take strength from my heroes, how I’ve looked upon other people. Since then there have been other fandoms, and each one has left me different in a certain way.

    So what I mean to say is that this feeling of wanting to be completely immersed in something that is naturally outside of your self is in many ways a reflection of what love is. Fandom is in many ways a reflection of the love for life, for the lives and situations of others. I don’t really know why fandom makes me as giddy as it does, but I know that being in love makes me feel the same way. I also don’t believe it is a form of escapism, but an acceptance of situations and lives that will always be foreign. I will never be a hobbit, or a Numenorean king, but I can appreciate what those characters teach me about my own life and who I want to be.


  4. Like the other commenters, I have to say that this is fantastic. It's essentially the essay I've been desperately trying to write, in my head, about how much I love Lord of the Rings. And, yes, I did a lot of the crazy fan things, too, and that part of my relationship with Middle-Earth is equal parts embarrassing and endearing.

    What you said about the "transmission of faith", though, is what really seemed to hit the nail on the head. When I was younger I also missed the religious nature of the Lord of the Rings, and even if it had been pointed out to me, I doubt I would have given it much of a second thought. Throughout this course, however, the religious nature of Tolkien's work couldn't be ignored, and I was always unsure what exactly to think about it, as a fan, a student, and someone raised by vocal ex-Catholics. I still haven't worked it out, but the phrase "transmission of faith" has started the gears turning. What is so remarkable about Lord of the Rings is the fact that this imagery can be completely passed by, but when it is noticed, it isn't proselytizing or even overtly judgmental. It's just faith, (admittedly a Catholic faith), and that, I can work with.


  5. As a devout comic book fan I totally understand the initial embarrassment in admitting to having made a “Get thee gone from my gate, thou jail-crow of Mandos” sign. However when you think about it loving a story, having an almost religious experience with a story isn’t anything new, and certainly there’s nothing to be ashamed about it. If you don’t know what Splash! is I won’t go into depth explaining it (but it’s awesome and everyone should look it up and participate), but I taught a class at the MIT, and UofC Splash!es about Comics and Mythology. One of the driving questions in the class was what myths actually are, and to that extent I included in the course material a page from a particular comic that I would like to quote here, as it’s pertinent to the topic. This is from a wonderful series by Mike Carey called The Unwritten and in this scene a seeming super-fan of the Harry Potter-esque series Tommy Taylor is dressed as the villain Count Ambrosio and attempting to kill the son of the author (also called Tom Taylor)

    Tom Taylor: It’s just a story man, it’s not worth dying for!
    Count Ambrosio: Just a story? Tell that to the Greeks who fought a Troy, Tommy. Tell the women burned as witches. The Rosenbergs. Sacco and Vanzetti. Tell the martyrs of all the religions and the millions who fell in all the wars since time began. Stories are the only thing worth dying for!

    This isn’t just me geeking out, I really love this quote, and it’s really something we’ve been dancing around all quarter, that I think Julia, you’re talking about. Stories are the most important things in our lives. When we want to share our lives with people we tell stories, when we talk about our faith we tell stories, and when we die all that will remain are stories. Our culture sometimes diminishes stories, (especially fiction, and especially scifi/fantasty) but at the same time we can’t deny that they are important to us. Maybe it’s because we keep most of our stories in books, and reading books isn’t very cool outside of academia, but I never understood why.

  6. The reason adults have more difficulty immersing themselves into stories is because we were all foolish enough to grow up. For some reason or another, we all decide that the real world is important or something and that we need to focus on “real world things” like jobs and homework. Imaginary worlds start to take secondary status. It isn’t always about faith, the right or the wrong kind. It’s about becoming the boring hobbits who never went on any adventures or did anything unexpected. Children have their own Gandalfs built in who tell them to do fun exciting things and that anything is possible. In a way, we all become like the scientists who figured out what hormones make different feelings. We realize it was only our imaginations that let us go to the different worlds. However, I think it is still possible to access those worlds. Even if you know the only reason you are in love is that there are a bunch of chemicals telling you how to feel, someone in love still sees the world differently. I think the same can still be done with stories. We know it’s just pretend, and we can never get rid of that knowledge, but we can still become enthralled in all those worlds that we love.


  7. I do not think that the scientist explaining the biology of love necessarily destroys its mystical meaning; in fact, it just adds another dimension to the mystery. Somehow, this wonderful, wispy, ethereal feeling can be created by such ordinary interactions and transformed into a thing of surpassing beauty.
    Analyzing the Lord of the Rings, as we did in class, usually involved us acting the scientist, looking at individual facets and screwing them back into place so that we could more accurately explain individual lines or paragraphs in Tolkien’s work. We can appreciate the mechanics of writing the Lord of the Rings and realize that, one word at a time, the manuscript is transformed into a sweeping epic that evokes all of these feelings.
    The Lord of the Rings had an ending that did not leave any burning, immediate questions; evil was vanquished, all conflicts were resolved, everyone was happy. And yet it left us all wanting something more.
    The fact that we cannot end a story (I personally read the last 5 pages of RotK at least 15 times in a row before demanding my mother to give me the rest of the story), despite the resolution of all problems makes me wonder if we have to create that scientist to continue our tale from another angle. After delving into the book/beam of light and basking in it for so long, when we can finally see what is on the other end, we immediately try and find another angle from which to approach it so that we can continue living in the tale, but from a new viewpoint. I can think of a lot of parallels in life where this happens. Some of it may come from our inability to let go, but some of it may come from a desire to capture these ephemeral, wispy threads of life and hold on to them from as many angles as we are able to grasp.
    -Prashant Parmar

  8. This is beautiful, and I’m struggling to comment. You’ve led me into the toolshed, and I don’t know what to do. I’m trained to look at things dispassionately, and yet, if I look at what you say, I’ll utterly miss your point. My response is silent awe. What I will say may be reckoned straw. You have captured here that moment where “pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness”. This quarter we have been documenting the inevitable change that Middle Earth undergoes, only to find at the end that we’ve changed as well. At the same time, part of the past abides, and we find ourselves in a complex relation to it. The zeal of youth is irreplaceable, and its experience cannot be altered. It was. Our analysis of Tolkien’s universe may have expanded and complicated our understanding of the story. But we are not only analyzing the story. We are also analyzing ourselves. As I think of it, understanding any story means charting out and extending the frontiers of our interior life. We cannot understand a story unless it is also inside of us, at least as an object of memory. “It’s still there, and it compels me,” you write. Ideally, all stories should be inside of us. It’s a losing battle, but we keep reading anyway. This internalization may take place through the act of reading but it leads to a kind of knowledge. This knowledge is the source of more profound experience still. This means when we come to a story over and over again, we’re a different person each time. I’m glad you made the C.S. Lewis comparison, and in fact mentioned this particular example from his books. Stories are always bigger than their author, because they enter the order of words, a mansion of many chambers linked unexpectedly and everywhere by secret doors. If we remove from Susan the heavy-handed Christian moralizing, we learn that one can only come to a story as a virgin – which is what I think is allusively being referred to here. No matter how many times we’ve read or heard the story, we’ve never known it. If you read this 'know' in the biblical sense, your comparison with first love is extremely fitting. Every time we read a story, it is, or should be, the first time.

  9. Truer words were never spoken! Like the stories and their endings mentioned in Wednesday’s class, I can honestly say that this course is one I wish didn’t have an ending. (Kudos to Professor Fulton for ending the course the way she did; which by the way was entirely bittersweet and heartbreaking for me). I was struck by your consideration of reading LotR as a religious experience. And now that I think about it, I’d have to agree with you. When I first read the books, I won’t deny that I too wanted to completely immerse myself in them, filled with a desire to know Tolkien’s exact thoughts on every word and image presented.

    Like SRG said above: this, in many ways, is what love is. But it is also, in a way, a form of worship and praise towards the creator; of having reverence for something outside out realm of reality. Now I’m not saying we bow to Tolkien and called him lord. But, similar to our experiences in praising God, I can’t deny that reading the books fills me with a desire to offer praise to Tolkien for writing what he did.

    -Selene M.

  10. I never really understood why Tolkien despised the extreme fandom of his books that evolved into what may be considered cult status. Other than the small populations of fans who may have created a religion out of the books and worshipped Elbereth in their own lives, the majority of people held their devotion in moderation. Pretending to be in Middle Earth as children and even dressing up for our party next week are examples of our affection to the texts and a way to show ourselves and the world what they mean to us. We are allowed to devote ourselves entirely to another person but not a book. I see no reason why we cannot love a piece of literature like we can love another human. As we have just discovered by taking a full quarter to learn about a singular fictional universe, The Lord of the Rings contains just about as much dimensionality and layers as a person. That might be an exaggeration, but it is completely true that there is an endless amount of hidden meaning and mysteries within the legendarium. Just like a person, it imparts on us joy, laughter, and sorrow. Although some people may take their devotion too far and turn it into a new false religion, nobody could be upset at the celebration of a magnificent volume of subcreation.

    Alex Allen

  11. This was an elegantly written and moving post. I also found that C. S. Lewis’s essay provided a very useful metaphor that we can use to think about the way we experience and think about stories and faith, but I have a problems with it as well.

    First of all, I think that stories they allow one to look along different beams of emotion, faith etc. within their own secondary reality context without corresponding primary reality faith and that this is, in fact, the essence of true enjoyment of a story. When I read a book that I love (and LOTR is only one such book, I have equal love for Wuthering Heights, Moby Dick, and The Rings of Saturn (by W. B Sebald) among others) I immerse myself completely within the story and, within the context of the secondary reality, I believe fully and passionately. I am filled with hope when the eagles arrive in the Return of the King when I read LOTR and at the end of Moby Dick when they try to kill the white whale I feel the irrational and feverish desire of the crew and the profundity of the all that Moby Dick has come to embody to them. However, I emphatically do not believe that to look along the beam of the story one must believe in some corresponding truth in our primary reality. When I read the Mahabarata I moved by the Bhagavad Gita, Krsna’s speech to Arjuna’s right before the great battle. I feel strongly that I have looked along the beam of this religious text and felt its power but in no way do I believe that its Gods or messages regarding the nature of faith operate in my primary reality. Tolkien allowed himself to be moved by polytheistic myths and pagan monsters without corresponding primary belief. Looking along, the beam can happen on a secondary plain and that has value in and of itself.

    Also I think that Lewis feels that Lewis feel unduly threatened by Academia’s adherence to the out-of-beam perspective. Let’s talk about love for a moment. In the case of love I do not see any inconsistencies between out-of-beam and within-beam perspective. Yes, love is caused by chemical responses in the brain that evolved over thousands of years because the chemicals produce emotions which in turn produce actions that improve our odds of creating children and nurturing them effectively to sexual maturity, thus passing along our genes (for a discussion of how romantic love increases evolutionary fitness I recommend you talk to Professor Jerry Coyne of the biology department). However, why should knowing the mechanism that produce love in anyway devalue the experience. One can easily say, “yes chemicals produce these emotions but these emotions are exceedingly pleasant and therefore I will embrace and nurture them.” We can recognize what love is and appreciate it anyways without contradiction, just as I can learn about the physics and the chemistry of stars and still appreciate their beauty at night. I balk at people that think something has lost importance or value just because its mechanism are earthly or can be explained using science. If out-of –beam does not devalue in-beam then what’s the problem?

    If they do contradict each other then let Academia argue the out of beam and Religious institutions etc. argue the in-beam . I feel that Academia is inherently out-of-beam. If academia picked the in-beam side of a contradiction when scientific evidence was on the other side then I would argue that it failed to fulfill its purpose. That is not to say that all people must side with academia in any given contradiction but just as every criminal trial must have a lawyer for each opposing side I believe that it is important that an institution exists devoted to pursuing the out of beam perspective.

    Okay, I am sorry this was so long, however this essay really got my wheels turning.


  12. I have to echo all the other commenters and say that this is a beautiful post and I couldn't agree more. I was struck by you likening reading the Lord of the Rings to a religious experience and to falling in love, but after I thought about it, I have to say those labels captured my experience with his legendarium rather well. How else can you define the feeling of wanting to be completely immersed in something outside of yourself, of wanting to know anything and everything there is to know about it, of devoting yourself to it without any ulterior motive?
    Being raised Protestant, I suppose I'm more comfortable with the religious nature of the Lord of the Rings. As it is, I'll be the first (or maybe not the first, given the long line of comments before me, and, of course, the brave soul who 'fussed up to the fanfiction thing in class) to admit that the Lord of the Rings is neither the first nor the last fandom I've ever immersed myself in, nor is it even the only one with a religious theme, obvious or not. One thing that endeared me to Tolkien's legendarium more than those that keep the readers more conscious of its religious nature (C.S. Lewis coming to mind), however, is the subtlety and elegance way in which the transmission of faith is achieved. Instead of playing a detective game of "Find the Christ-figure," the readers are allowed to experience the religiosity without it being condescending or invasive to the experience. As you read the book, you were in that particular beam all that time--you just haven't realized you were yet.
    - CZ

  13. Another pat on the back for a good post. Our response to Tolkien’s body of work, our fandom, is largely reflective of Tolkien’s success in creating an “inner consistency of reality” he takes about in On Fairy Stories, a secondary world. As you remark, “he relinquished control of the story to these new minds that were exposed to it.” A creator exposes what he has created to the will of others. It is both the writer’s doom and blessing. (Having to write my short story for the Final Project has made me increasingly aware of this.) Creating an “inner consistency,” a richness, elevates the story itself, while inviting the reader to share in it. Though we need stories, the stories also need Us. As Bilbo says to Frodo after giving him Sting in Rivendell, (from memory, he says:) “I suppose the story doesn’t truly end. Someone else must carry it on.” As readers we are the ones who carry it on. What else would drive someone to hang a “Jail Crow of Mandos” sign on their door? Sure parts of the story must come to a close, but rain does not cease for the sake of a raindrop hitting the pavement. Tolkien’s reality is continuous. Who can resist the urge to stretch our arms and let it pour down on our heads? Like it or not, The Lord of the Rings has baptized Us.

    Sam Diaz

  14. Thanks to your post and the wonderful comments that it has generated, I have (I must confess) been thinking in a whole new way about faith this past week. I'm not quite sure what it was that triggered this understanding for me, because I know that it was potentially there in Lewis's essay, which I have a habit of quoting whenever I am stuck for an explanation of how hard it is to give an explanation of faith, but I think it was where you describe being left with "the imprint of the devotion of [the LotR's] creator". On the one hand, this is a very gentle metaphor, but on the other taking an impression is one of the most powerful experiences we can have. In medieval terms, it is becoming like wax, ready to receive the imprint of the matrix. And yet, as you describe it, it is simply a willingless to see along the beam what the creator is showing us. I am not capturing here the fullness of the thoughts I have been having about faith. I'm with JCT: I don't want to comment too much lest I miss your point. But I wanted to add my thanks to your other readers for such an excellent post!