Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Faith, Mercy, and Guardian Angels

In class we discussed the larger scale aspects of religion in Lord of the Rings- the prayers to Elbereth, the similarity that Frodo’s journey has to a pilgrimage, and the rituals like looking to the West that mirror Christian practices. But as someone unfamiliar with organized Christian practices, when I looked at the impact of religion on Lord of the Rings I saw instead smaller, most subtle influences—not of Catholic rituals but of faith in more general terms. Throughout the book, characters act almost like there is something watching over them, guiding them. Gandalf claims that “there was something else at work” in the discovery of the Ring other than mere coincedance or the Ring’s desire to escape Gollum; he claims that “Bilbo was  meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you were also meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought” ( Fellowship 88). It is as if something or someone is watching over the characters. We already discussed free will, but I think this is a different issue than simply having Bilbo be fated to find the ring; Gandalf specifies intent, implying some sort of divinity rather than impersonal fate.
This raises the obvious question: meant by whom? By Eru? That is never really specified, but Eru seems to be rather hands-off when it comes to the governance of Arda. He created the world and let the Valar shape it, and while the world was described in his Music, it is unclear how detailed his intentions really were. Humans, too, are exempt from the Music, and hobbits seem to resemble humans in that regard far more than they do elves. The Valar are by the time of Lord of the Rings even more separate from Middle-Earth; Elrond says that “Those who dwell beyond the sea would not receive [the Ring]: for good or ill it belongs to Middle-earth; it is for us who still dwell here to deal with it” (Fellowship 349). Yet Gandalf alludes to some higher power watching over Frodo.
Tolkien himself references this idea in his letters. He describes the final destruction of the Ring as a “salvation from evil” (Letters 252), reminiscent of the Lord’s Prayer’s request for God to “deliver us from evil.” Frodo is, quite literally, delivered from temptation towards evil. He succumbs to it- he fails, as Tolkien emphasizes repeatedly in his letters- but yet is saved from this temptation. Again, the question arises—saved by whom? In the same letters, Tolkien offers some answers to this question. “[Frodo] (and the Cause) were saved- by Mercy: by the supreme value and efficacy of Pity and forgiveness of injury” ( Letters 252). This was not Frodo’s “Mercy,” although it was his pity and forgiveness of Gollum that was a cause; rather it was the “extragavent generosity which the slight easing of, or escape from, the consequence of our own follies and errors represents. And that mercy does sometimes occur in this life” (Letters 253). This is divine mercy, divine forgiveness, not Frodo’s mortal forgiveness.
  If Frodo is saved by this divine Mercy, who then is the divinity? At Mount Doom “the Other Power then took over: the Writer of the Story (by which I do not mean myself), ‘that ever-present Person who is never named’”( Letters 253). This doesn’t sound to me like the Valar, or even Eru, although in that assessment I may be misguided. To me this sounds like specifically the Christian God, Tolkien’s God, not the in-universe Eru. Tolkien was very careful to avoid actual worship in his stories lest it stray too close to religion and risk blasphemy, but here it seems that his personal religion is expressed quite strongly. When he states that “that mercy does sometimes occur in this life” it is clear that this scene resonated strongly with his personal beliefs.
To call this act of mercy, or the idea that Frodo was intended to have the ring, “divine intervention” seems to have the wrong connotations, but it encapsulates the idea fairly neatly. Perhaps a better term would be “Guardian angel”- this has entirely the wrong connotations as well, but when it is examined through Tolkien’s conception of the term it is surprisingly fitting. For Tolkien the “Guardian Angel” is the representation of divine support. God is “behind us, supporting, nourishing us” and the “bright point of power where that life-line, that spiritual umbilical cord touches… is our Angel” (Letters 66). It is “God’s very attention itself, personalized” (Letters 99). The notion is subtle, and I can’t say that I entirely understand it, but it seems entirely compatible with Frodo’s salvation.

I wouldn’t be completely comfortable saying simply that it was this “Guardian Angel,” this divine support and aid, that gave the Ring to Bilbo and saved Frodo from temptation, just as I would hesitate from identifying a specific character, Eru or otherwise, to credit for Bilbo’s discovery of the Ring. The story was not written as a direct allegory for Tolkein’s beliefs, and the “Writer of the Story” seems to be fundamentally separate from it. Tolkien didn’t write the scene at Mount Doom to clearly demonstrate his ideas about redemption or guardian angels, just like he didn’t mean to specify what exactly intended for the ring to pass to Frodo. Instead, these moments of redemption and faith are embedded in the story, left vague to provoke thought. The inhabitants of Middle-earth is not Christian, but that does not mean that Tolkien’s ideas of faith are lacking. This is what Tolkien means when he says that the Lord of the Rings is a thoroughly Christian text; while he refrains from the more blatant allegory of writers like Lewis, his religious ideas are subtly embodied in the story.

-Will Adkisson


  1. We must be careful as we are walking the thin line between mandated fate and free will. I think Tolkien’s Music of the Ainur manages to explain this coexistence of these two phenomenon pretty well. The music was a guideline, but not a story. It set up the general narration and even may have created a loose narrative as to how the world unfolds, but it does not give details and it can deviate. It deviates for good and for bad. The sun and the moon were not in the original music, but were more perfect and amazing than could have been imagined before. As for evil, the orcs were not in the music, but were corrupted into the form they retain. In any event, the beings of Middle-Earth are able to retain their free will to craft the story of the world as they would. Even when Eru intervenes, he does not force or alter the will of his children, but creates specific action in the world. His sinking of Numenor or tripping of Gollum are physical actions he takes. He insists on the integrity of his gift.
    -Elliott Snyder

  2. I think the reading with the addition of a guardian angel works very well. Like you say, it is not as if Eru/God/The Writer intended Biblo (and then Frodo) to get the Ring, but rather that a guardian angel (Mercy) intervened and saved Frodo from temptation. Another (potential) example is when Sam and Frodo are climbing down a cliff using the rope given as a gift from Galadriel. They make it down the cliff, but assume the rope must be left behind because it is tied at the top of the cliff. However, Sam gives it a tug and it unties and falls down. The hobbits are unsure of whether this is due to another being, luck, magic, or craft and it is soon forgotten. The actual reason is never explicitly stated, but could be the work of Divine Mercy. Events like this and the ones discussed in the post support the idea of a Divine Mercy, and I think that Divine Mercy serves an important role in the story. A true Christ allegory would leave Frodo dead or wounded, his soul saved, but the Ring in the hands of the Enemy and widespread suffering that the world has to bear gracefully in order to reach the equivalent of the Kingdom of Heaven. The influence of Divine Mercy allows Frodo to fall and be saved, as well as the rest of Middle Earth, which, in my opinion, makes for a better story. Thus, Tolkien uses this concept of Divine Mercy to save Frodo and the story of The Lord of the Rings.

    -Peter Alexieff

  3. Thanks for the post, Will. Let me try to cut the not-quite-Gordian knot here by saying that for Tolkien—who is attempting to write something true and real, if mythic and fictional—Eru and the real-world (for Tolkien Catholic, Christian, and Trinitarian) God are the same. Eru is how he’s perceived by the Elves, who are the narrators of the Silmarillion. Their understanding (or theology if you will) of him is different from Christians’ for manifold and obvious reasons, but when Tolkien’s writing in letters of a Person-with-a-capital-P, he pretty much unambiguously means God, Author of the Universe (“Person” also being a specific term of Trinitarian dogma that he’s likely using metonymically and maybe as a bit of pious or arch periphrasis for plain ol’ “God.”).

    On Frodo’s deliverance, if we’re thinking in terms of the Our Father, I think we can say that in terms of deliver us from evil, Frodo was delivered by his, Bilbo, and Sam’s mercy—with Gollum as the object of their mortal mercy and perhaps, as Peter suggests, the instrument of divine Mercy. When it comes to lead us not into temptation, however, Frodo is most definitely not delivered. He succumbs finally and utterly to the temptation of the Ring. He claims it as his own, saying “I [freely] choose not to do” what he came to do. And, I suspect, one of the reasons that Frodo is so broken is that he knows he did not have to choose the Ring, and yet in Middle-Earth without religion, he knows of no way to achieve forgiveness for this profound transgression, which, for all the mitigating, understandable circumstances, was his choosing to do something profoundly evil—and he knew it. While he was delivered from the consequences, Frodo remains, in a sense, unredeemed. He goes across the sea to heal and live out his days as best he can, but in pre-Jewish, pre-Christian, pre-religious Middle-Earth neither he nor anyone has any inkling of a means of redemption.

    As far as Gandalf’s cryptic comments about Bilbo’s having been meant to have the Ring, that’s a mystery—maybe in the specific theological sense of an unknowable point. Gandalf’s literally an incarnate guardian angel—not specifically of a person, but of the world in general. Consequently, he may have some better access to the mind (and benevolence) of Eru in some form, though he doesn’t have foreknowledge (hence his constant insistence on the theological virtue of hope). Perhaps he’s just sensing that the sheer, colossal unlikelihood of the most powerful weapon in the world’s coming into the possession of as benign and doughty a character as Bilbo has the feel of some sort of Providential involvement, even if he (and especially we) can never be completely sure of it.

  4. I don't really know if it matters if Eru is the Christian God or not. (I think he probably is). The point of the LOTR is, as you said the inherent religious undercurrents. Therefore what really matters is that there's an undercurrent at all. If what Tolkien is striving for is a way of connecting to something greater, if the LOTR is that beam of light we as readers are meant to look along, we already know the end point, there doesn't need to be speculation. If Tolkien's world is a sub-creation it's safe to say that any religious inference within the works points toward the larger, truer religious reality in this primary reality, and doesn’t have to correspond on a one to one level. LOTR is simply using real truths for Tolkien as building stones of a world, I think that is the only understanding we need.

    Not to put down the question. I think it’s valid to consider what these characters actually are being governed by. I just think it's a Christian influenced intervention, albeit one removed from the earthly context of denomination and ritual.