Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Stoking the Sacred Fire

In Tolkien’s mythology and creative methodology, daily worship and devotion has the primary purpose of deepening a relationship with God, and by this bettering oneself, bolstering joy and happiness. However, it also has a different, slightly subtler purpose, to aid in sub-creation. For Tolkien, to succeed at the act of creation, to bring something wholly good into the world, that creation needs to be rooted in God. Tolkien’s understanding then calls for daily worship as the only way to truly foment this rooting in God.

To further the relationship between creation and God calls for an understanding of the nature of that relationship. Creation is impossible without prayer, as prayer is an essential method for communication with God, and true creation is only possible through the Creator. Furthermore for Verlyn Flieger, communication plays directly into the idea of unity—community in the earthly sense, communion, in the divine. “To take Communion, to partake of the body and blood of Christ, the Word made flesh,” Flieger maintains, “is to participate in God and the word by means of God and the Word, to be in community with God.”

Also in Splintered Light, Flieger also expresses how “Communion in the religious sense is communication lifted beyond language to the experience of the unutterable.” This “unutterable” experience is Tolkien’s endgame, his focus and purpose through his creation in Middle-Earth and his daily life. In essence, Tolkien’s devotion to the Blessed Sacrament informs his entire creative process, simply in that his devotion to the Body of Christ was the most direct way for him to communicate with God on earth. It seems reasonable to infer then as well, that Tolkien’s devotion to the Virgin Mary in his daily life arises from his greatest devotion as well. She, as the mother of Christ, the nurturer of the true presence imbrued into the bread of the Eucharist, is thereby the most trusted advocate, the truest and clearest route to the Godhead.

For the characters in his works then, this sense of Communion is achieved through a less physical way, or at least a more roundabout way. Primarily, the Eucharist in Middle-Earth, in Tolkien’s Catholic understanding, is expressed through Elbereth, who, as the “star-kindler” is the clearest analogue to the Virgin in his work. Both are bearers of light—Elbereth, the light of Eru; Mary, the Light of the World in her womb. A roundabout physical parallel, as we discussed in class, could be the wafer-like and sustaining lembas bread, but this is also ultimately useless without its source in Elbereth.

When Elbereth is extolled in Quenya by the elves at Rivendell in “Many Meetings” in Book II of The Lord of the Rings, it’s directly as a hymn. However, the instances where her name is invoked without its grounding in a formal prayer or devotion, are the instances where this “unutterable” experience is most visible and tangible. Sam’s experiences with his memories of the elves, of the night when he and his fellow Hobbits met Gildor on the fringe of the Shire seem to tap into this experience: “Sam could never describe in words, nor picture clearly to himself, what he felt or thought that night, though it remained in his memory as one of the chief events of his life. “

The elves, who make their presence known to the Hobbits through their song of praise to Elbereth, are her most devoted pilgrims in Middle Earth. And while their invocation of her is done on a higher plane, as any of them have actually witnessed her, saw the actual light of Eru shone through her, the important reaction is the one who hasn’t. In this way Sam is most like us, (and Tolkien of course). We, as humans, not immortal elves, (which Shippey paints as some sort of “fallen angel”) only have this “unutterable” reality as proof of the divine. This breathless wonder is the most human of responses and reactions to the divine, here expressed through the lady Varda, or Elbereth, or, by not too extreme an extension, the Virgin Mary.

It’s also the truest, because it is the closest to the actual creator. Through Communion, our mortality eclipses true comprehension of the wonder of the transcendent. Tolkien’s greatest intention for his works was to be able to instill them with an imprint of this wonder, in as close a manner to his own wonder as possible.

Daily worship then was for Tolkien a way to best imbrue this wonder through his sub-creation because it provides the clearest pathway to his Creator. For his characters, fruit of his creation, worship is everywhere, in a more immediate and omnipresent way simply because this creation, as an act of love by Tolkien for his Creator, is already close to the divine. There is no need for Sam and Frodo to stop in adoration, or even more generally, be Catholic. That is already entwined so heavily in the work, plus that misses Tolkien’s point.


Elbereth is constantly invoked because praise is written into the very mythology of Lord of the Rings. It can’t be obvious because Tolkien’s own true internal expressions of praise for his God weren’t obvious, or at least,  in their essence not really even expressible to others. The creation of the Lord of the Rings, through this intimate conversation with God, seems the closest Tolkien could come to providing a testament to the inexpressible nature of reaching out to communing with his Creator.

Jack Nuelle

4 comments:

  1. To further discuss this point, I think we can look at instances of sub-creation on the part of the characters, too. The one big one I’m thinking of is Aule. When he creates the dwarves and Eru gets mad, Aule sayd, “May Eru bless my work and amend it!” Then Eru shows some mercy. In this instance, what Aule says, which is prayer-like in structure, serves to protect his sub-creation. In that sense, it’s an aid.

    Another thing to look at, though, are the Rings of Power and the Silmarils. I can’t find evidence that any kind of daily worship was invoked in their creation, but they are still created. They are still sub-creations.

    I guess my quibble with this post, then, is that you say that you need daily worship “to succeed at the act of creation, to bring something wholly good into the world.” But these two things are not necessarily the same thing, right? There are a bunch of acts of sub-creation in the Legendarium that are not wholly good—but that does not mean they are not sub-creations. It’s like how Melkor’s creation is technically rooted in God, but not wholly good, even if it will be “good to have been.”

    -Daniel Lewis

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  2. I guess I'm a little confused by this post, because you reference the "daily worship and devotion" that exists in Tolkien's universe. I'm struggling to call to mind one instance of any character being seen or relating an instance in which they either worshiped or showed devotion to a divine being as a matter of daily ritual, not as an matter of exceptional circumstance, as was the prayer to Elbereth in the chapter you mentioned. In fact, religion and worship are entirely absent from the Lord of the Rings. When you say that “For his characters, fruit of his creation, worship is everywhere, in a more immediate and omnipresent way simply because this creation, as an act of love for Tolkien for his Creator”, what does that mean, exactly? That because Tolkien was Catholic, his work is Catholic? Does this mean that because JFK wrote and signed Executive Order 10925, the Equal Employment Opportunity is a Catholic work? We can note that there are no churches, no curses involving Eru, no holy book. There is a history of the Valar and Ainur and Eru, sure, but that's because in this world, those events actually happened. What would be myth or religion to us is history to them. Further, making the comparison of Mary to Varda is a far stretch at best—besides being associated with light (which approximately 50 other characters in LoTR are), what characteristics do they have in common? They’re both female? I just feel that before anyone starts making grand statements about worshiping God in a book that literally never once mentions religion or anything even coming near to religion, we need a little more concrete evidence to go on than the one time that the Elves praised Elbereth.

    --AGB

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  3. "I'm struggling to call to mind one instance of any character being seen or relating an instance in which they either worshiped or showed devotion to a divine being as a matter of daily ritual, not as an matter of exceptional circumstance, as was the prayer to Elbereth in the chapter you mentioned." --We talked about this in class. See IMS's post: http://tolkienmedievalandmodern.blogspot.com/2014/06/has-shire-been-saved.html. RLFB

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  4. Daniel

    Might I suggest that the degree to which those sub-creations are true creations and not perversions is precisely the degree to which they are good? In the back of my mind I have the Thomist insight that all things are good insofar as they are.

    AGB

    I think it's important to note that Elbereth's description as Queen of Heaven is *extremely* similar to traditional Catholic descriptions of Mary. Extremely to the degree of "obviously borrowed."

    Jack

    I think you're absolutely spot on about the centrality of Mary and especially the Eucharist to LotR. A number of posts, especially on the latter weeks, have highlighted the fundamentally material nature of divine interaction with Middle Earth, the jewels, the trees, the Phial, and I think your post pinpoints the reason why this is the case.

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