Friday, June 3, 2011

Tolkien's Gift

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.


  1. I totally agree with a lot of what you're saying here. We can talk all we want about what specific things The Lord of the Rings is trying to accomplish, or what the historical roots of The Silmarillion are, but when it comes down to it, we each get something remarkable out of Tolkien's works, whether it's a refuge, a new way to look at the world or a little bit of courage for our own lives. For me, the value of reading this kind of literature about heroes and great quests, was to take a little bit of courage from it. Not as in: “it could be worse, at least you don't have to face a dragon” but as in: “this is the task that is set in front of you.” I think the narrative strength and value of Tolkien can be pared back to that most simple story of people doing what they must, regardless of the difficulty or cost. That's something we can apply to the every-day, and the results can be remarkable.

    E. Moore

  2. I enjoyed this reflection very much! I have never seen “Shadowlands,” but the line you’ve quoted—“we read to know we’re not alone”—supports (if I understand it correctly) my feeling that to find ourselves in Tolkien’s story and to participate in its magic is also a way of finding ourselves in the broader scheme of Creation. I think you are right to point out that the best sub-created stories exist in a kind of harmony with the universal Story and its Writer (to adopt some of Tolkien’s terms), and likewise suggest to us better ways to orient ourselves to the Creation around us. I am moved by the quote from “Sanctifying Myth” that you’ve selected: “Incarnation proves the intrinsic worth of each human person.” I see The Lord of the Rings, too, ennobling what we might otherwise consider “common” and “familiar,” especially by showing us its place—and in turn, ours—in God’s larger plan.


  3. I definitely see where you're coming from with this post. The relationship between the importance of the individual and the idea of performing the tasks/role one has a duty to perform are clearly linked in Tolkien's works. The members of the Fellowship, for example are all individuals who rise to the occasion and perform their duties and beyond. Gandalf dies for his cause, and comes back more powerful than ever to continue his task. Legolas and Gimli overcome the barriers between their races and chase a company of orcs and urukhai across the plains for the sake of rescuing their friends. Merry helps Frodo escape the Shire, helps bring down Isengard, joins the Rohirrim, and helps to drive out Saruman from the Shire. Pippin also helps to bring down Isengard, becomes a guardian of the citadel, stops Faramir from being burned alive, and helped to drive Saruman from the Shire. I'm not even going to touch on Aragorn, Sam, and Frodo. You get the idea.


  4. Beautifully put! You capture perfectly the balance between worship, creativity and incarnation that (I would agree) is at the heart of Tolkien's work. Giving ourselves in our work to the praise of God is both worship and service, a realization of ourselves as individuals and an offering to others. This is the task that is set in front of us, as Gandalf says!


  5. You definitely make a good point in saying that for Tolkien, Duty to god lies in the every-day, belonging to a hierarchy starting at the betterment of the self and ending at the ultimate betterment of creation. In particular, the chess analogy is interesting because of the way it addresses the relationship between God and Man as a kind of love without regards greatness or stature.
    I would take it a step further even and say that not only does god ‘not treat us as pawns’, but that he would probably not make the distinction between the pawn and the knight, rook, or bishop. I would say that these distinctions are the product of human thought, a ranking system that is more the product of Man’s desire to ‘find’ (make) order in the world. However, this conception does not reflect man’s actual duty to God, but rather his attempts to systematize and generalize that duty, even though one may not know what his duty is. After all, Man may be the one moving around the squares, but God is the one who made the board. And we can only make sense of the world from where He placed us.

    Mattías Darrow.

  6. I think this is totally spot on, and if you want to go Catholic with it (and I do!) you can make the connection with Catholic theories of salvation and justification. Among Protestants it is believed that a person is saved sola fide, that is to say by faith alone – it is belief in God and His Christ that brings about a person’s salvation. Catholics, however, believe that a person is saved not just through faith but also through good works – you must do good and be righteous to attain the Kingdom of Heaven, not just believe. This seems to be consistent with Tolkien’s beliefs that we must go out into the world and do something beyond “mere” worship. I too was very struck by the passage referred to about how we must and can only do the task in front of us, and I think it’s really cool how Tolkien’s great work in large part makes it easier for his readers to do their great works by giving us comfort and courage. Middle-Earth is a fabulous place to go when the world becomes too much, but it never fails to remind us that our duty and our selves are out here. As peaceful as Tom Bombadil’s refuge was the time inevitably comes when we must return to our journeys, but we can always take comfort that even in the worst of times Bombadil is still there, singing songs and eating dinner with Goldberry.
    -Daniel Betancourt