Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A Very Disagreeable Feeling Indeed

We ended last class asking how people felt about the religious themes we had uncovered in the Lord of the Rings, in particular the underlying message that our purpose or meaning in life is to join the rest of creation in praising God.  Two people responded, more or less, that as non-practicing Jews, it made them uncomfortable.  It seemed to be questionable if a book that was fundamentally Christian could be something “for them”.  Professor Fulton then asked how the Christians in the class felt.  It is undoubtedly an important one to ask.  It cannot be denied that “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work” (Letter 142).  As a fairy story with eucatastrophe (a reflection of the Great Eucatastrophe) it could be no other way for Tolkien.  However, the underlying religious and Christian message, that our purpose in life is to praise God, is very religious, but not solely Christian.  We can see this call to worship God again and again in the Psalms, written by Jewish people, for Jewish people, well before there were any Christians.
I would like to propose a different question:  how do the practicing (Christian or Jewish) members of the class feel about this message?  The distinction between practicing and non-practicing is, I think, as important, as that of Christian and Jewish.  After all, there are neither Jewish nor Christian characters in The Lord of the RingsThe Lord of the Rings is set in is a pre-Christian world: Christ has not yet come.  It would seem to me that it is also a pre-Jewish world:  God has not yet made His covenant with His chosen people.  Tom Shippey describes The Lord of the Rings as “a story of virtuous pagans in the darkest of dark pasts, before all but the faintest premonitions of dawn and revelation” (The Road to Middle-Earth p. 199).  I am not sure if this is the most accurate way to describe it.  The characters could be called pagan, as that they are neither Jewish nor Christian, but they are not completely ignorant of God.  All the different peoples that inhabit Middle-Earth have at least some knowledge of Ilúvatar and of the Valar.  The Elves of course, and especially the Calaquendi, know the most, but the Dwarves and Men (particularly the Númenóreans and their decedents) also have some knowledge of Ilúvatar.  Even the Hobbits know some of the “great stories”, although they sometimes seem to think of them mainly as legends and fairy tales.  There are no Jewish or Christian characters in Middle-Earth, but all the characters (or at least almost all of them) know of God.
What one can find in Middle-Earth are practicing and non-practicing believers.  There are people who constantly praise Ilúvatar or the Valar, and constantly remind themselves of their belief.  But there are also people who, although they have knowledge of Ilúvatar, do absolutely nothing about it.  This is an important concept for Tolkien.  In his letters to his son Christopher he recommends that he “make a habit of the ‘praises’” (Letter 54), and in a letter to his son Michael who had written about his “sagging faith” he says that “the act of will of faith is not a single moment of final decision:  it is a permanent indefinitely repeated act” and that Communion, like faith “must be continuous and grow by exercise” (Letter 250).  Tolkien did not believe that it was enough to believe.  For him it was also vitally important to constantly exercise his faith, to be a faithful practicing believer.   In Middle-Earth the Elves are of course the perfect examples of this.  They are constantly calling out to Elbereth, sometimes in times of danger, but most often simply as praise.  The Men of Númenor before its fall were also practicing believers.  They had the Meneltarma where they would go to pray, and where on special days the King would, in front of all the people would give thanks to Ilúvatar.  Even after its fall, the decedents of the Númenóreans still “look towards Númenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be” before they eat.  The Elves and Men are for the most part practicing believers, but the hobbits are not.  They know of Ilúvatar, but they have no customs or habits of seeking him, praising him, or doing anything at all that shows that they believe in him.  They instead isolate themselves from those who are practicing believers, and seem to completely ignore Ilúvatar and the Valar.  In class we identified this as the Hobbit’s sin, which Frodo and the other hobbits, who on the quest represent all of hobbit-kind, are in some way atoning for.

To return to Professor Fulton’s question, as a practicing Christian I am not uncomfortable with the idea that The Lord of the Rings has this underlying message (that our purpose or meaning in life is to join the rest of creation in praising God).  I think that this message is one of the main reasons that I love The Lord of the Rings so much, and that I come back again and again to reread it.  However, as a Christian who is not always nearly as good about practicing her faith as she should, the idea that the hobbits, as a people, are sinning is makes me uneasy.  The hobbits are, after all, more or less “good” people.  If we are to accept that the hobbits are sinning, it would mean that being “good” is not enough to keep from sinning.  And this, if you claim to be a practicing (and not simply cultural) Christian, can be very troubling indeed.   But it is not the uncomfortable feeling of discovering that the book you love so much is hiding a message that you do not agree with, or that because of this the book is somehow “not for you”.  It is rather that disagreeable feeling that a message is very applicable to you.  In sum, it is the message itself, as opposed to its existence in the book, which causes discomfort. 


  1. Great post, it’s nice to get your perspective on the religious undertones present in The Lord of the Rings. One aspect of the story that I think is significant is that, in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit at least, the spiritual nature of Middle Earth is never thrust upon us – rather, we hear of the Valar, of Iluvatar, and of the legends of the path only through the stories and songs of the immortal elves.

    We never actually see the Valar in either of Tolkien’s traditional novels. Certainly we hear tales of Elbereth, and we see the power her name holds over evil peoples, but there are no actual interventions of divine or angelic powers into the events of the War of the Ring. In this sense, Middle Earth is remarkably similar to the primary world. There exist in the modern world no real, definitive examples of divine existence or involvement. Those who believe in God derive their beliefs from stories of the past, and from the effects their personal faith has on their own lives.

    How, then, is religiosity inherent to the world of Middle Earth? Certainly you could read it as Tolkien intended, as a world of free peoples faithful to the divine powers in Valinor and beyond the Earth. However, you could view the elves and Numenoreans just as you would any religious person today, as faithful individuals following a religion of which they have no definitive proof, with the tales of the Silmarillion as a scripture of sorts, an account handed down from past generations.

    There is a major caveat in that there exist in Middle Earth several individuals who have actually met the Valar (Galadriel, Gandalf, Sauron, etc.), which implies their stories are a bit more verifiable than real myths. Still, the separation of Valinor from Middle Earth provides us with a level of separation from the divine that mirrors our real world.

  2. Just as a continuation of meditation on faith, I'm not exactly in agreement with the idea that those who believe but are not practicing are actively sinning, persay. Faith is a journey--a work in progress. To truly believe, one must engage with one's faith--and that is something that intrinsically takes time. Faith is not passive. If you don't engage, you stagnate; and that is exactly how I consider the Hobbits. Stagnant.

    If those who believe but do not practice are stagnant, then we do have a concern. However, it is a fundamental belief in Christianity that God is forgiving; we have but to reach out to Him and enrich our relationship with Him. Would it be too wrong to say that the true error of those who are non-practicing believers is that they do not seek to enrich themselves by enriching their relationship with God?