Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Deep Cries Out To Deep…

I was once asked why I love The Lord of the Rings so much and why do I keep returning to read them.  Before this class, I could not communicate why I enjoyed Tolkien’s stories so thoroughly, but now I know exactly why.  The reason has not changed, but my understanding of it has.
            First of course, concerning Hobbits, I feel as if I can quite relate to them (as I’m sure many do).   But to explore the point further, which was brought up in class as to why the hobbits were sent on the most dangerous and important quest of the Third Age, I have a few thoughts.  Yes, the Hobbit-folk have sinned by their complacency and lack of proper worship of Ilúvatar, but have not all? If God (in the primary reality or Tolkien’s secondary reality) is who He claims to be, the Almighty Creator of the Universe, the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Alpha and Omega, have not all fallen short by withholding even one moment of praise from Him?  I am not sure that the only reason the Hobbits were sent on the quest was so that they could somehow “atone” for their races’ complacency and lack of appropriate worship of Ilúvatar (although I’m sure that is a great deal of the reason they were sent).  I think another part of it could be that it is once again an instance of Tolkien’s unconscious integration of religion (yet conscious in revision) because 1 Corinthians 1:27 says, “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (NIV). Similarly, Tolkien says in Letter 165, “The ennoblement of the ignoble I find especially moving.”  Perhaps Tolkien’s choice of sending the hobbits is that they are so relatable as creatures, but yet will always still surprise you by “shak[ing] the towers and councils of the Great.”
Secondly, the language of Lord of the Rings is so beautiful and moving.  I have memorized countless quotes and poems in the hope that I would not forget them when I return to the primary reality.  I think there is something inherently powerful in the actual language of worship.  Just as Tolkien encouraged memorizing the “praises” and preferred Mass in the original Latin, he believed language to be of utmost value in the practice of worshiping the Creator, as well as repetitiveness of practice.  When I read The Ancrene Riwle I was struck at how many times prayers and praises were to be spoken throughout the day.  We can see how Tolkien also valued the repetitive nature of the “praises.”  In his letters, after listing several of them he says, “If you have these by heart you never need for words of joy” (p. 66).
I heartily agree with Tolkien on this point.  All I knew before taking this class was that when Sam calls the name “Gilthoniel! A Elbereth!” as he sees his death in Shelob’s eyes, I am reminded of when I feel I can no longer run anymore at softball practice and merely say the name “Jesus, precious Jesus” to keep me going, without really knowing why.  Or again, when Sam looks up out of the forsaken land and sees the white star shining, which smote his heart because no shadow could ever reach its beauty, I think of walking home late from the library repeating memorized Psalms amazed at the beauty still thriving in the heart of my darkness.  My struggles are absolutely nothing compared with Frodo and Sam’s, but I can relate to how they handle them.  There is a power in these names and prayers that is beyond any hobbit wisdom, mine included.  For prayer is not saying or chanting magic words and hoping they come true.  Neither does prayer change the mind of God or Ilúvatar (whichever nth reality one may be praying in).  Praying changes the pray-er – it aligns our heart and will with the Almighty power behind it.  
When Frodo and Sam are literally crawling to Mount Doom, or when Eowyn rides to battle with “the face of one without hope who goes in search of death” something in us relates to this hardship – whether a moment of our lives or a season.  I know I can only speak for my own soul, but to me Psalm 42 describes it best.  “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God…Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me” (Psalm 42:1-2, 7 NIV).  I know Tolkien very much disliked allegory and did not intend The Lord of the Rings to be an explicitly religious or Catholic work but the Christian and religious themes and implicit references sprinkled throughout the tale do very much attract me to reading it, however, I did not realize it before.  There is something so relatable throughout the whole story, and now I see that it has something to do with the relatable-ness of the epic and Tolkien’s worldview that he let seep through his pen.

But faith is not just a feeling according Tolkien as he describes in Letter 250 by saying, “faith is an act of will, inspired by love.”  It takes hard work and dedication.  Prayer and Communion when one may not feel like doing either, or even when one’s “taste” may be affronted, can be the most valuable (again see Letter 250).  I am not writing to comment on the modern Church and its ideality on feeling in worship and worship songs, but only to discuss further Tolkien’s views on the matter and its relation to Lord of the Rings.  Tolkien’s worldview was so solid and foundational to his personal being he could not help but let it overflow into his work.  But he nonetheless disliked allegory, which I very much respect.  He even did not like the work of his good friend C.S. Lewis on The Chronicles of Narnia because they were so explicitly Christian.  While I do love Narnia, I hold Tolkien in the highest regard for how his Legendarium is very easily loveable and relatable even if one is not a believer in Christ.  This is why I cannot help but love and continue to read Lord of the Rings: because I am a hobbit at heart seeking streams of water from the living God – a taste of which can be found throughout much of Tolkien’s work. 

K. Kohm


  1. Dear K,
    Thanks for a very personal and meditative reflection on appreciating Tolkien from a religious or devotional standpoint. I think you’ve hit on some insights on appreciating Tolkien, especially for those with inklings of what is behind or beyond despite the difficulty in explaining that enjoyment.

    I like your reference to Paul’s saying about the ‘foolish and weak’ with the special task, shaming the apparently wise. It nicely pairs with Elrond’s statement of the ‘wheels turned by the small while the eyes of the wise are elsewhere.’ I would like to hear more about this idea, especially, as the apparently mad hope of sending unguarded hobbits into Mordor contrast with the calculative ‘wisdom’ of Saruman, trying to salvage as much as possible. Can we take a further step and draw parallels between Paul’s idea of faith of the weak and the foolish and the apparent ‘wisdom of the world?’ Or would this be too explicity theologizing (or even allegorizing) Tolkien’s secondary world?

    On this point, as well, can we connect , then, Tolkien’s humble and earthy use of hobbits mixed with the grand and ancient praises with Auerbach’s view of the mixed Christian style?

    Finally, I think there is a nice insight on the exclamations and invocations (to Elbereth, to Elendil, too?) as prayers not for changing circumstances but for changing oneself, aligning oneself aright in the face of a challenge. But what about the petition? Is not this a main feature of the Abrahamic faiths (&c)? Is it wholly lacking in Tolkien? If so, what do we make of that lack?

  2. In previous class discussions, I've mentioned that one of the things that has kept Lord of the Rings so close to my heart is the way in which the story always has something there for me, no matter where I am in my life. Before, I had referenced this in the context of heroes, and in each rereading, I found myself in Merry, or Eowyn, or in Sam or Frodo, but you've brought out a wonderful new aspect that I hadn't extended my thinking to, which is the relation of faith in Middle Earth and in my life. I agree with you - I love the legendarium all the more because it loses none of its beauty for those who come to it from outside of the Christian faith, especially because for the majority of the years that LotR has been with me, I've come to it as an agnostic or an atheist or what-have-you. And I loved it, regardless of my own religious affiliation. In my life more recently, I've started attending church and investigating the Christian faith, and you've brought out a wonderful new way in which the story continues to stay with me, in the way that the characters invoke the name of Elbereth in times of difficulty. You mentioned similarities between these vocalizations and your own in soft ball practice, which made me think of similarities in my own life - in the same way that Sam reaches for the phial of Galadriel, I often reach to finger the celtic cross necklace I wear when I'm encounter obstacles; and in the same way that the Elves sing praises to Varda, a hymn that we sing most weeks at my church, Hosanna in the Highest, often pops into my head when I'm working very intently on whatever carpentry project I've got at the moment. At first when we discussed the Christian basis of Tolkien's work, it made me very uncomfortable, even as a Christian (if I've earned the right to call myself that yet), mostly because it felt like reaching for the sugar bowl and finding it filled with salt. It was somehow unsettling to see these two heretofore separate aspects of my life intertwined in a work I loved so dearly, because I wasn't sure what it meant. After reading about your understanding and experiences with it though, you've made me realize that it's just another way in which the story has grown with me and continues to be a much-loved companion in my life. Great post! Thanks.
    Murphy Spence

  3. Reading both your post and Murphy's comment actually brought up an interesting thought in terms of my own relation with Lord of the Rings--how at times of great need I actually use it as an inspiration, as some would use religion. Though I was raised Buddhist by my parents and am fairly atheistic, every time I need to turn to some external source of comfort, I find myself thinking about The Lord of the Rings. Very like Murphy, I have a necklace that I wore for many years and would grip so often that the clasp broke and now I must carry it in my pocket: a replica Evenstar. Whenever faced with a difficult choice, I would often think to myself "what would Frodo do?" and, even though this is rarely applicable to the situation, the mere thought comforts me. Recently, my uncle passed away and, in my grief for him, I turned again to The Lord of the Rings to alleviate my grief. Upon reading these comments, I have come to wonder if perhaps the underlying influence that Christianity had on Tolkien's work combined with his lack of obvious allegory is the reason I was so readily able to approach it as almost a religious text. I have certainly found the moral and religious truths Tolkien intended his story to contain without being blatant about it.
    --Alex Hale