By far, the most powerful moment for me in the entire Lord of the Rings is when Gandalf delivers the following line: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” I find this line so spectacular because it speaks simultaneously to the glory and the limitations of humanity. I feel that this is a central thread that runs throughout Tolkien’s work and philosophy.
The readings for class picked up on this thread, as well, particularly the belief that human beings, as part of the larger creation of God’s work, have a specific place in that creation and specific duties to perform. The way God organizes the universe does, in a way, “put us in our place” and knocks us of our perch because it enforces our dependence on God. In the Ancrene Wisse, which, for my money, spent an inordinately large amount of time discussing prayer schedules—pretty glad I am not an anchorite—we see the level of devotion that is required as a servant of God. Of course, we don’t all have to do what those anchoresses did-at least, I hope not—but what we do need to do, according to Tolkien, is to work for God. As he puts himself, the purpose of life 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” (138, Sanctifying Myth).
This thought answers the first question of the two that Christian humanists, as Birzer points out, are concerned with: what is the role of man in God’s creation? The second question, however, is “how does man order himself within God’s creation”? (133). In this second question, there’s a hint that there’s more to serving God than just honoring him through prayer. We need to also, on our own, personally create something. Tolkien puts is much better when he writes that “we, as human persons, are to sanctify our own gifts by putting them to the service of the betterment of ourselves, our community, our society, the Church, and, ultimately, the world” (136). We are to be active servants, then. We have to do more than pay homage; we have to go out into the world and produce something that honors God.
In the passage we read from Shippey, these beliefs are echoed. Shippey mentions Gandalf’s advice to Theoden about what they should do. Gandalf replies “Do the deed at hand…If we fail, we fall. If we succeed—then we will face the next task” (183). Furthermore, Shippey later on reiterates how much of Tolkien’s philosophy urges “that you must do your duty regardless of what you think is going to happen” (183). Shippey, however, adds an addendum to the two questions of the Christian humanist by showing that our task is an everyday affair. Talking about the style of the poetry in Beowulf—although it can be and should be applied to Tolkien—Shippey feels that “the plain, even rustic language appeals to everyday experience” (192). Even though the Lord of the Rings and a lot of other writings by Tolkien deal with an epic story of saving the world from destruction, Tolkien’s main prerogative was to show readers that we do our duty in the arena of everyday life. This explains why Tolkien can appeal to so many people. He does not focus on things that are foreign to us but that come as a result from “a slow probing of the familiar” (193).
Viewing this cynically perhaps would lead us to the conclusion that this worldview condemns humanity to the role of a pawn. Tolkien, however, wouldn’t see it like that at all. True, we are here for God but the relationship between us and the Creator, as Tolkien sees it, is based on love which means that God does not treats us as if we were pawns. More than that, each individual has the divine spark in him or her. According to Tolkien, “Incarnation proves the intrinsic worth of each human person” (136, Sanctifying Myth). This shows that each person is an important piece in the puzzle that is the universe. We are for God and we are here to do a job. But we have the tools to do it and do it well.
Looking back on Tolkien’s works and this class as a whole, I come face-to-face with the impact that Tolkien has had. Becoming acquainted with his work and the secondary literature made me realize that The Lord of the Rings is more than a great story; it’s a gift. Ultimately, I think this was Tolkien’s intention all along, to give a gift to a readership that would cherish it. It’s remarkable when we consider how much time and effort he put into his legendarium and how much he theorized about what he was doing and why he was doing it. He dedicated his life to Faery. It’s even more remarkable when we consider the reaction to his effort. Not to get corny at a moment like this but in the movie Shadowlands, which features Tolkien’s friend, C.S. Lewis, a student tells Lewis that “we read to know we’re not alone.” I think Tolkien would have agreed with this assessment and would be pleased with the connections that readers have made to him and his work. Being a human in God’s creation is not always easy and, as this post, we have a lot of work to do. But books like The Lord of the Rings and people like Tolkien who are willing to reach out to you and to others make it a little more fun for us all.