Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Ending is the Best Part

Endings are always seen as a sad thing—the story is over, someone has died, a friendship has ended, or all of the above. These are most likely sad because something is finished, and the reader does not get anymore of that thing from the actual author. The journey is over, and there is nothing you can do about it. I would argue the opposite, that endings are the best and most important part of any journey.
            Take The Lord of the Rings as an example. The ending of Sam and Frodo’s story is a fond farewell before Frodo goes off to the Undying Lands. Though they will never see each other again, they exchange meaningful words and gifts. While sad, it is the best for both of them because of the closure it brings them both.
            Another ending within the book is that of the fellowship. That story ends effectively when Frodo and Sam leave and Boromir dies. This ending is also sad because of abandonment and death, but serves an important and greater purpose. It is also necessary because of the individual jobs of each character. The end is an essential component, while sad because the fellowship stood for hope and light, is crucial due to the greater importance of the mission.
            Similar to the great many missions discussed in the book, the overall ending of The Lord of the Rings—as in the ending of typed out and published in books by J.R.R. Tolkien—serves a greater purpose as well and should not be seen as sad. For the readers, the end of the books is necessary to gain closure and explanation. Without an ending, one would not know the fate of the Shire, what Sam does after Frodo is gone, and what the great elf lords and ladies did. More than that, the ending shows the true colors of each character. Rather than following Frodo, his dear master, to the Undying Lands, Sam remains in Middle Earth to be with his wife and children as well as look after the Shire and record the his story. This reflects Sam’s true and noble character of always putting others before himself and staying true to what his duty is no matter the emotional price or pain. Anther instance of an ending revealing the true quality of the characters is in the breaking of the fellowship. Aragorn could have forced Frodo to stay with him as he fought the army of Uruk-hai. This, if successful, would have meant that Merry and Pippen would have been abandoned in favor of Frodo’s mission. It also most likely would have resulted in Gollum’s death and the death of other fellowship members. Rather than doing that, Aragorn let the fellowship break, allowing Frodo and then Sam to leave, burying Boromir, and banding together with Gimli and Legolas to find and save Merry and Pippen. Showing his true quality, Aragorn facilitates a devastating ending to create the possibility of hope. 
            In the words of Sam Gamgee during the end of The Twin Towers,  It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.”
            In that quote, Sam really captures the human fear and dread of endings. Sometimes, stories are scary and sad, so how could the ending be ok? However, even with the fear, one has to stick it out to the end—even if you didn’t completely understand what happened or why. Endings matter because they teach someone to not turn back, to push past the difficulties, the sadness, the strife, to work to the end to see what happens and be glad you did. People hate endings because it reminds us that the story is not really real. Endings conclude the lives and characters you loved; they finish a great story.
            However, the conclusion does not necessarily mean the story dies. As discussed in class, dedicated readers can continue by thinking about the characters’ lives after the story ends, and fill in the blank spaces themselves. This allows for a closer connection to the story, and an appreciation for an ending because where one story and one author ends, another can begin.
            These qualities: revealing the true colors behind a character, providing closure for the reader, as well as allowing a new story and author to pick up the strands make endings the best and most important part of a story. While the written words are finished, it is something that is necessary because all stories must end at some point otherwise they wouldn’t be good. Endings, like those Sam mention, are so important because those final moments and deeds are really what stick with a reader and make them think on the story after—showing how strong and important they truly are.  

            On a more personal note, lets examine the end-of-class party today. While sad that it is over and that reading and talking about The Lord of the Rings will no longer be a daily part of my life, the party did provide a lot of closure. I got to hear the results of the ring game, listen to awesome presentations by my peers, and see my professor and TA in full regalia and force. It was an event that showed the true colors of my classmates as they realized it was the end—taking happy and satisfied photographs, thanking our professor, and having light-saber duels between a hobbit and Sauron (there’s a sentence I never thought I would write). It shows that while difficult and sad, endings are best because of the closure and finality they bring, as well as the promise for a personalized future—whether that is taking pictures of yourself proudly wearing the ring Professor Fulton-Brown bestowed on to you, continuing on final projects long after they are due, or watching The Lord of the Rings with friends gained from class next year. 


An Elegy for an Angel

Much has already been written about Tolkien's treatment of death.  I think we're so acclimated to the 'death-as-gift' mechanic of his world that we've forgotten just how jarring that notion is - at least, I have.  We've seen how death and the short lifespan of humans in Tolkien's world becomes the impetus for change and history.  It also becomes an impetus for art.

Not -the- impetus for art.  The Elves' songs of praise are among the first sub-creative pieces that appear in Arda.  But aside from the simple desire for power that is characteristic of Morgoth and Sauron, one of the strongest driving forces behind the major characters seems to be grief.  Loss is central to the motivations of many of the First Age's greatest. Feanor and the Exiles, Turin, Beren and Luthien; each are characterized by a single moment that fills them with lifelong grief.  Fast forward to the fall of Numenor, for which sad songs are spun for thousands of years afterward.  And nobody escapes the War of the Ring without cause for sorrow.  But death in Tolkien's world is not quite the same as death in ours.  Is there then a difference in how they mourn?

I don't believe so, though in these stories, the mourning ends up having a larger purpose.  In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien eulogizes the major characters he kills off in the words of other characters who bore witness to it.  Aragorn and Legolas end off Boromir's funeral with an impromptu song in his honor.  Why do they do this?  The text of the eulogy itself addresses the winds, asking for tidings of Boromir, and revealing each wind's answer.  It seems to be a commentary on a subject of great interest to Tolkien - the transition from history to storytelling to myth.  We are explicitly presented with the moment where Boromir's life goes from empirical reality to a poetic story.  Gimli does not sing a verse for the East wind, for doing so would allow the influence of Sauron to corrupt the memory of Boromir, and risk turning his life-story towards his own purposes.  As concerned as Tolkien was with the dangers of myth in our world, he imbued his characters with the same concern.

The account of Theoden's eulogy displays the continuation of this process.  To my untrained eye, it looks a good deal like the introduction to Beowulf, or more generally, an Anglo-Saxon poem.  But the tone of the song is historical; the listener is not driven to mourn Theoden personally, but to understand how deeply Theoden was mourned.  It is a song that does not stand by itself, but is given meaning if the listener is already instructed about Theoden's life.  It is not a eulogy - it is a part of a story.

I don't think it's too much of a stretch to justify this interpretation via Lewis's toolshed metaphor.  Imagine a Middle-Earth historian, seeking to understand Theoden the historical figure.  They may be tempted to focus on primary documents - edicts that he signed, direct verifiable quotations, letters - but the eulogy and its poetic descendants, though they allow an entirely different and less empirical form of understanding, would allow them to examine the immediate and long-term cultural impact that Theoden had.  And it would allow the historian to learn how Theoden's contemporaries were driven to feel by his life and loss.

So is that the purpose of mourning - to translate a living being into a mythic figure?  To yield art from reality?  Of course not; it has the capacity to do so and serves that role for certain characters, but the eulogy for Gandalf reveals a sort of mourning that we are all more personally familiar with.  When the hobbits are in Lothlorien, constructing a song in memory of Gandalf, many of the verses don't evoke historical events, or deliver 'news' - they're expressions of the hobbits' personal memories of the wizard.  And these especially include happy and joyful memories.  Every funeral I've been to, whether for someone who lived a long, full life, or for someone whose life was tragically cut short, had at least a partial aim to celebrate the joy brought about in life by the one who had died.  Frodo sings of Gandalf's tragic death, but in his next breath, Sam sings of the simple happiness of Gandalf's fireworks.

I'm sure this isn't a groundbreaking opinion, but I absolutely adore the description at the Field of Cormallen, which reads 'their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.'  It is a feeling understood, I think, by anyone who has known intense grief.  And it captures the way in which grief and joy are two sides of the same coin.  It is evocative of eucatastrophe - but I feel like it goes beyond eucatastrophe.  It is the inherent complexity of emotion.  For how can you grieve somebody without remembering, and thus feeling, the joy they brought you?  And how can you be joyful without the memory of the sadness which the joy has driven away?  We cry at weddings as often as we cry at funerals.  And a song of praise and a eulogy require the same capacity to feel.

A cheesy old saying goes "Don't be sad because it's over - be happy because it happened."  I would like to amend this to "Embrace your grief, which came from an End - but also embrace the joy that came with it."

-AJ Corso

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Lord of the Rings: Fundamentally Catholic?

     Of the many insights Tolkien’s letters give into his legendarium, one of the more initially puzzling claims from his letters we’ve discussed in class this quarter is Tolkien’s statement on the inherent religiosity of his work. Namely, in a letter to a close friend about the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien writes that the work is “of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision” (Letters 172). What does Tolkien mean by this claim, particularly in light of the fact that The Lord of the Rings clearly lacks organized religion in the manner of the modern world and does not explicitly reference Catholic teachings or writings?
     There is certainly no reference to religion in the traditional sense in The Lord of the Rings (there are not Churches or Temples to be found), let alone specifically Catholicism, but Tolkien’s letters make it clear that such organized religion is not necessary for him to consider his work “fundamentally . . . . Catholic.” There is an interesting passage in a letter to Michael Tolkien in which J.R.R. Tolkien writes that “you cannot maintain a religion without a church and ministers; and that means professionals: priests and bishops – and also monks. The most precious wine must (in this world) have a bottle” (Letters 337). This statement suggests that, for Tolkien, the critical aspect of religion is separate from its institutions, the wine inside an often imperfect bottle. Although these institutions are vital in our world, in other circumstances they may not be. Further, Tolkien elaborates in another letter that “the religious element [of The Lord of the Rings] is absorbed into the story and the symbolism” rather than in any sort of religious institution (Letters 172). Thus, it seems quite clear that, for Tolkien, any religious or Catholic element is inherent in the story’s fabric rather than in any obvious, explicit discussion in the story.
     How then might Tolkien consider his work fundamentally Catholic? Certainly there are surface nods to the Catholic tradition; the date of Sauron’s fall is said to be March 25th, the date commonly assigned to the crucifixion of Christ. There are a variety of obvious themes that also evoke Catholic ideas. Sam’s trek up Mount Doom carrying Frodo, who himself is bearing the burden of the ring, draws to mind Christ’s journey under the cross at his crucifixion; it must be noted however that, as Frodo in some senses fails in the last stage of his journey, a sharp departure from the story of the crucifixion, this similarity does not descend into religious allegory. The invocations by various characters in The Lord of the Rings of the name “Elbereth” and Tolkien’s treatment of the Lady Galadriel is reminiscent of Catholic veneration of the Virgin Mary, particularly before the second Vatican Council (when The Lord of the Rings was written). Indeed, Tolkien himself mentions this similarity in one of his letters, writing that he owes “much of [the] character to Christian and Catholic teaching and the imagination about Mary” (Letters 320). He goes on to also to write however that “actually Galadriel was a penitent,” again emphasizing that while parallels exist between Catholic teaching and Tolkien’s imagination, he does not rely on allegory in any way. The language Sam uses to describe Lembas is highly reminiscent of Tolkien’s description of the Eucharist in his letters and various Biblical passages. “The lembas had a virtue without which [Sam and Frodo] would long ago have lain down to die,” Tolkien writes. “[T]his waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as [they] relied on it alone” for “it fed the will, and it gave strength to endure . . . beyond the measure of mortal kind” (Lord 1036). Of the Eucharist, Tolkien writes that it is the “only cure” for failing faith, made more potent by “frequency,” with seven times a week being “more nourishing than seven times at interval” (Letters 338-339). Lembas and the Eucharist are both curative and made powerful through reliance upon them. The entire concept of thinking of bread in this manner also has close ties to various biblical passages in which Jesus refers to himself as the “bread of life” that will grant eternal life to those who eat of it (John 6). Thus, although Tolkien insists that his work is not meant to be allegorical, certain surface similarities and deeper religious symbols are evoked in his works.
     Tolkien’s insistence that his work is “fundamentally” Catholic, as well as his statement that religion has been interwoven into the very fabric of the story, suggests that he was considering the religious element of his story on a deeper level. In one of his letters he writes that the “purpose of life . . . is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all means we have, and be moved by it to praise and thanks” and that “devoted study [of the Universe] may be one of the ways of honoring him” (Letters 400). In short, Tolkien seems to advocate increasing our understanding of the world around us as a method of praising God and so fulfilling our purpose in life, a purpose which, Tolkien writes in the same letter, can only be found in relation to God. If Tolkien believed that fulfilling the purpose set out for oneself by God involves experiencing the world around oneself and so coming to know God and praise him, then Frodo and Sam’s quest in The Lord of the Rings might have called to mind a pilgrimage of sorts to Tolkien. Certainly, Tolkien believed in the power of journeys to shape people until new and better versions of themselves. After discussing the profound transformative effects of journeys on people who undertake them, Tolkien likens man to a “seed with its innate vitality and heredity, its capacity to grow and develop” and “in some degree also” to “a gardener” who can change himself through act of will. It is for this reason, he goes on to say, that the hobbits were sent on their journey (Letters 239-240). Through their journey they come to know the world and are thus shaped by it, something it is entirely plausible Tolkien would have seen as a religious experience.
     Thus, it is certainly possible to find evidence for the profound religious influences Tolkien professes his work to possess. Whether Tolkien himself would have held that the influences mentioned above are what makes his work “fundamentally” Catholic is another question entirely. Other than some mentions of the Virgin Mary in his letters, Tolkien does not discuss at length links between prominent Catholic imagery—the Eucharist and the Crucifixion—and his work. Further, the religious link that can be made to the hobbits’ journey is only one possible interpretation of such a transformation. Certainly, people in stories, myths, and legends—everything from Lyra in Pullman’s His Dark Materials to Marlin in Finding Nemo to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz—often go on quests and discover truths, but such journeys need not be tied to religion or Christianity specifically.
Holy Bible. The New American Bible, Fireside Catholic Publishing, 2010. 
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter & Christopher                      Tolkien, Houghton Mifflen, 2000, New York.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. HarperCollins E-Books, 2002.

Varda and Mary - sorry, Tolkien, I'm pretty sure this one's just allegory.

From a merely structural perspective, Tolkien seems to be heavily alluding to a connection of sorts between the Aratar Varda and the Virgin Mary; while Tolkien consistently rejects allegory on a fundamental level, Varda’s position within the Elves’ common history, as well as certain speech patterns presented to the reader make a substantial tie borderline irrefutable. While Varda is in never explicitly referred to as a mother in any way, shape, or form (along with all of the other Valar, she is technically childless), Varda occupies a unique space in Elven legend that firmly places her in the role of a collective mother, the primary trait of Mary. Additionally, several poems addressed to Varda in her Elbereth nomenclature very directly mimic the lingual patterns of Catholic prayers, one of the more directly forthright reflections of Tolkien’s religion in the Lord of the Rings universe.

To briefly descend into the pseudobiology of the LotR universe, the Awakening of the Elves – what can be regarded as their “birth” as a species, for lack of a better phrase – involved three Elves “waking up” in Cuiviénen, more or less fully formed and functional from the get-go, outside the lack of a common language.

“Imin, Tata and Enel awoke before their spouses, and the first thing that they saw was the stars, for they woke in the early twilight before dawn.”
As the Elves, created by Eru himself, seemed to gestate in a sleep-like state, waking up fully functional, I’ve always found the early Elves to be somewhat biologically reminiscent of creatures that hatch from eggs – particularly birds, especially considering their normally arboreal lifestyle (but that’s more or less beside the point here). Elves “hatched” from their slumber, and much like birds, woke up to meet an empty nest without their biological parent in visible sight. Many birds have been classified as performing something called filial imprinting upon birth, which, as thoroughly studied by Konrad Lorenz, involves a newborn bird characterizing essentially the first thing it sees upon exiting the egg as its mother, and retaining that association for the entirety of its lifespan.

In the case of Imin, Tata, and Enel, the first thing they saw upon their birth were “the stars”, which, in the LotR universe, are essentially the manifest representations of Varda herself. These “newborn” elves absolutely imprinted themselves onto the stars in the sky; as they grew up and eventually met Varda herself, this imprinting became transferred in a sense to Varda, as the incarnate representation of the stars.

Their fascination goes substantially further than even mere study itself, as during the initial establishment of Quenya, soon after the newborn elves gain consciousness, the prefix “El” can be interchangeably used (in most cases) between “Elf” and “Star”, or in Tolkien’s words, “It is not surprising that the Edain, when they learned Sindarin, and to a certain extent Quenya also, found it difficult to discern whether words and names containing the element el referred to the stars or to the Elves.” The elves refer to themselves as “Eldar”, which forms a linguistic backbone for all sorts of their linguistic elements, yet also create names like “Elrond” and “Elros”, which employ the “El” prefix in its “star” connotation. This combination seems to demonstrate an incredibly deep tie between the elves self-identity and Varda, almost mimicking that of the reverential relation between children and their mothers. This “collective mother” situation seems to be very reminiscent of the way that the Virgin Mary is treated in the Christian religion, from the self-referential side of things (naming like half of the female royalty from the past millennium after Mary) to the way people refer to Mary during prayer. Additionally, the “Virgin” aspect seems to stay similarly in effect with relatively minimal translation, as Varda (amongst all the rest of the Valar) is entirely childless, yet mother to an entire race of creatures. Certain of Mary’s titles also seem directly reminiscent of Varda’s role in Tolkien’s mythology: both “Star of the Sea” and “Morning Star” seem like they could be easily transferred to describe Varda, much as Varda’s nicknames of “Holy Queen” or “Star-Queen” could just as well refer to Mary.

Another parallel between Mary and Varda comes in the specific way that Tolkien phrases the various characters’ prayers to Varda. The dominant form comes in the poem “A Elbereth Gilthoniel”, an elvish hymn composed in Iambic tetrameter. Frodo invokes the latter half of the poem as the Ringwraiths are about to slay him on the peak of Weathertop:

O Elbereth Star-kindler,
from heaven gazing afar,
to thee I cry now beneath the shadow of death!
O look towards me, Everwhite!”

This prayer of salvation almost directly mimics the structure and wording of the Salve Regina, one of the more important prayers addressed to Mary:

“To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve:
to thee do we send up our sighs,
mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.
Turn then, most gracious Advocate,
thine eyes of mercy toward us,
and after this our exile,
show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”

Between the goal of the prayer – to appeal to a heavenly mother that’s supposed to be watching over the prayer’s actions – and the invocations of “crying out” and “looking”, A Elbereth Gilthoniel is an almost direct translation of the Salve Regina into Tolkien’s LotR world, much as Varda seems to be a translation of sorts of the Virgin Mary.

On a final note (not necessarily to add to the above comparison, but just something I’ve noticed), one particular side effect of the Elves’ immortality makes this comparison feel a bit odd to me. The numerous characters we see talking to each other and invoking Varda’s name throughout the Lord of the Rings proper – from Frodo, to Sam, to Aragorn, to Legolas – appear to be using it as a sort of epithet, much in the way modern language has adopted similarly holy individuals’ names. However, while our world is separated from these characters we invoke by hundreds of generations, a number of characters in the LotR world have directly interacted with Varda (the foremost being Elrond and the Istari), so having them hear her name invoked in such a sense must seem somewhat surreal to those characters.
Works Cited

Tolkien, J. R. R., and Christopher Tolkien. The Silmarillion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. New York: Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print.
Tolkien, Christopher. The War of the Jewels. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1994, Print.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Eucatastrophe, Language, Narrative Pacing, and Worship

Given Tolkien’s area of study, one might expect him to be fairly optimistic about the ability of language to capture mystic experience.  However, he states in several places his dissatisfaction with words as a vehicle for portraying such experience.  In Letter 89, writing to Christopher, he attempts to describe a vision of the Light of God, and qualifies it multiple times, describing it as “very immediate, and not recapturable in clumsy language, certainly not the great sense of joy that accompanied it and the realization that the shining poised mote was myself.”  A little further on, he fears he has “failed to convey” the comfort he took from this vision, and the passage as a whole is sprinkled with interjections and stumbling attempts to make clear his experience. 

            Should we be surprised that such an eloquent wordsmith has trouble conveying certain types of mystical experience?  I don’t think so.  As Tolkien makes clear elsewhere, eucatastrophe is a particular emotion that we come upon primarily through story – it’s in fact inherent to narrative.  Unlike other emotions, which can be conveyed more or less directly through a single passage, eucatastrophe is a kind of release which requires the ratcheting up of narrative tension and the investment over time into the fate of characters.  It is “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.”  For joy to spring out of a situation where all seems lost (at what NaNoWriMo creator Chris Baty calls the “85% mark” of a story), we must first have had a full narrative buildup to that point.

            In my view, the passage in which Tolkien most powerfully invokes this sensation for the reader is in Book VI, Chapter IV, when the gathered host of Gondor hear the lay of Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom: “And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold… until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.”  Notably, the metaphors here are fairly simple; the emotive power of the passage comes mainly from the sense of closure and release after 900 pages of emotional investment in Sam and Frodo’s journey.  The laughter and tears, both of the collected host and of the reader, only make sense in the context of the quest’s fulfillment.

            Jorge Luis Borges’ paragraph-length short story “On Exactitude In Science” describes an empire so invested in cartography that the only acceptably exact map of it is the full size of the empire itself.  Borges sketches it humorously: “In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars.”  But the conceit resembles a suggestion we toyed with in class yesterday: that eucatastrophe is meaningful and powerful to the degree which it maps onto the overarching narrative of the universe – the Christian story and the eucatastrophe contained within it are the territory, and the “map” of LOTR is effective in part because its sheer scale is closer to that story’s scale than many other works of myth. 

            Tolkien indirectly notes something similar to this in Letter 328, when he describes his realization that LOTR isn’t entirely his own work.  As discussed in class and as Tolkien correctly describes, Middle-earth is pervaded by “some sort of faith [which] seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp.”  We struggled in class to discern what that source is: I’d argue that in part it’s the ability of the story to portray eucatastrophe in a manner parallel to that of the Christ story.

            We’ve seen that Tolkien has little faith in the power of individual descriptions to draw out eucatastrophe or to describe transcendent experience, and instead relies on narrative that mirrors the Christian one to create that emotional response in us.  But are there other ways in which eucatastrophe is exhibited?  Tolkien doesn’t explicitly say so, but Letter 54, again to Christopher, suggests that liturgy gives us that experience.  “If you have [the Latin praises] by heart you never need for words of joy.”  Liturgical invocations such as the Gloria Patri are short chunks of text, but they carry embedded in them reference to the whole Christian story.  Liturgy is, like narrative, seasonal and sequential: even when one invokes it by rote and without conscious engagement, it ties one to the narrative pattern of Christianity.  If Tolkien is correct in saying that “the Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story,” then both narrative story and liturgical story can contain eucatastrophic references. 

            Indeed, Tolkien conceives of Man as storyteller: what makes us human is in part our storytelling nature.  Therefore, Man must be redeemed “in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story.”  Laughter and tears comingled aren’t simply a high aesthetic experience or a cathartic necessity: to Tolkien they are Man’s natural response to his own story, to the story of the universe, that of redemption.

-- Santi Ruiz

Not The, But A, Journey in the Dark: Wander-Worship and Journeys as More Than Just Allegories or Plot Devices

     In discussion we briefly laughed at a lighthearted criticism of Lord of the Rings: that it is just 1000+ pages of walking. This joke quickly passed as we summed up walking as just another of Tolkien’s methods of slowing down to pay attention to Creation, to reach the unknown and increase our understanding of it. In this view, walking is merely one of many vessels for prayer; it directs our attention to Creation. On one hand, this view is entirely accurate. Indeed, Tolkien’s worship routine tended to begin on the way to Mass with a similarly humble and deliberate journey of cycling, even in bad weather (Letters, 99); one might compare his contemplation on the bike to his soul-searching prayers while in Mass. And the Hobbit was based partly on Tolkien’s own teenage experiences backpacking through Europe in a group of twelve (Letters, 391)--he seems eager to note the holy size of such a pilgrimage, stopping short of any non-humbling claims of discipleship.
     Yet, travel-worship is more than a reverent search for knowledge. Tolkien complicates travel-worship in elevating the destinationless travel, the travel that targets no Unknown, as a purer form of travel-worship: the wander-worship. Perhaps the experience of Creation gathered in such a journey has no contrivance, no selection bias, and thus constitutes a more complete knowledge of Creation. Or, maybe the exercise of free will to craft a radical, immersive change in experience is precisely the way that we were intended to exercise sub-creative power. But, ultimately, the ability to endure, and benefit from, the process without an understandable destination in mind is precisely the faith that Tolkien believes is necessary to fulfill the equally non-comprehensible purpose of life.
     None more deeply understands his own reverent wanderlust than Bilbo, who raises questions on how wandering might expose Creation and one’s own role in it. Bilbo reveals to Frodo (Bk II,Ch 2) that he wrote the verses about Aragorn’s latent kingliness:
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost (Bk I,Ch 10)
These four lines contain four paradoxes of holiness hidden in unfortunate circumstances. Gold imagery in the first line, our discussions have found, is to be expected in Tolkien’s descriptions of divinity; likewise for the tree imagery of “deep roots” on the fourth line. The third line’s reference to strength in the face of mortality alludes to more latent kingliness: free-will, Creation-appreciation, and hope-driven change, the gifts hidden in the gift of death. In each case, the superficial image hides not only a holy, but a supremely sublime, value. Bilbo’s remaining puzzle hides under the misfortune of being “lost” but, keeping in parallel with the others, must redeem itself in discovery of a supreme holiness. How is wandering, then, the holiest of travels?
     Perhaps wandering is particularly holy because of its open-minded willingness to absorb all of Creation. Presupposed destinations might preclude some knowledge. Or perhaps wandering avoids self-subjugation of one’s own free will. Indeed, setting a destination sets a destiny. Yet these speculations are only aspects of the holiness of wandering. Bilbo’s holy imageries are latent and uncertain, only brought to the reader’s light in the fact that the narrator absolutely trusts that the hidden truth exists. Wandering is similar--it is an exercise of free will and trust despite a lack of hope or clear understanding of the purpose of Creation. Similarly, Bilbo’s walking song supposes an infinite road, whose end is unattainable. A traveler must be satisfied with an incomplete knowledge, and carry on past forks, to attain whatever experience and purpose of Creation is within reach--”according to our capacity” (Letters, 400).
     Tolkien further addresses free-will and travel destination, responding to Auden’s reviews of his work as a journey of random deeds that do not neatly correlate towards a “political” purpose (Letters, 238). While arguing his journeys as non-allegorical storytelling devices to create coherency, Tolkien cannot resist noting an “afterthought” on journeys. Even short trips allow “deliverance from the plantlike state of helpless passive sufferer, an exercise however small of will, and mobility--and of curiosity, without which a rational mind becomes stultified” (Letters, 239). The Elves are in such a “plantlike state”--they suffer helplessly, and lack curiosity for Creation. They journey under the Valars’ coercion, bound to destinations. To wander is not an option to most Elves; they are “doomed not to leave” (Letters, 246), chained to the land and its history, fated to experience Creation-fatigue. They suffer an inability to appreciate Creation in their immortality, which would make wander-worship unproductive even if it were possible. The Elves are thus “stultified,” unable to fulfill what Tolkien considers the only understandable part of the purpose of life: to “increase...our knowledge of God” and consequently be inspired to praise (Letters, 400).
     But this seeming rule-of-no-destination is no standard for worship; holiness is not inherent to wandering. Rather, the holiness of the travel experience is found in the bond between faith and lack of understanding. Indeed, destinations are understandable purposes to journeys. To proceed with such understanding demands no great faith. But faith while in stumbling in darkness, in contrast, is precisely faith necessary to accomplish the incomprehensible purpose of life--God’s “unattainable...answer” in which Tolkien believed (Letters, 400).  Thus Tolkien’s encouragement of destinationlessness generalizes to its underlying reason: that faith is found when one exercises free will despite hopelessness. Upon realizing the gravity of the situation with the Ring, Frodo begins to despair. Gandalf advises adhering to a firm conviction in one’s choices despite the circumstances: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us” (Bk I,Ch 2). The temptation, of course, is paralysis in the face of an end that can only be understood as ill. In these times, eucatastrophe is incomprehensible, impossible to surmise. To exercise the ability to “decide,” however, is to remain faithful to the gift of free will, and trust in its purpose--one’s own purpose--beyond understanding. Gollum’s purpose was incomprehensible even to Gandalf; trusting their feelings of pity, Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam each in turn chose not to kill Gollum, despite the hopelessness of his redemption, and the hopelessness of reaching, let alone returning from, Mount Doom. A failure of faith would have equated to leaving purposes unfulfilled.
     Whether a journey has a destination only approximates the knowledge of the purpose of Creation one can gain from it. Rather, the journeys that effectively navigate the purpose of Creation are those in which the traveler maintains faith and free-willed action despite a purpose shrouded in darkness, and despite doubt of the existence, possibility, or favorability of this purpose. To Tolkien, the idea of life being comprised of journeys in the dark was quite literal. While dark is more or less symbolic for our ignorance of God’s purpose, the journeys we undertake are not allegorical vacations, but very physical displacements: free, deliberate steps that teach us about our relationship to, and purpose within, Creation.


Love: philia and agape

In class, we touched on the different forms of love that are present in The Lord of the Rings. We talked somewhat extensively about the (perhaps misplaced) love that Eowyn has for Aragorn, as well as the romantic love between Aragorn and Arwen. The love between Frodo and Sam, however, is a different beast altogether. I think this relationship is much more complex than a simple love a servant may have for his master and is best analyzed in two different lights: that of the ‘brotherly love’ of philia and the unconditional love of agape.

It is easiest to understand what is meant by philia through some examples, particularly those relevant to the relationship between Frodo and Sam. Talking about philia in Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says “But there is another kind of friendship, viz. that which involves an inequality between the parties, e. g. that of father to son and in general of elder to younger, that of man to wife and in general that of ruler to subject,” (Ethics 1158b11). This immediately seems applicable to Frodo and Sam, and is largely the sense of love that we discussed in class (the comparison to a World War I captain and his porter comes to mind). Frodo and Sam’s relationship at the beginning of the journey is inherently asymmetric: Sam begins (and remains) Frodo’s servant and gardener. This does not imply, of course, that the extent of their relationship is that of a master-servant relationship. Indeed, as Aristotle says, such a relationship easily develops into the friendship of philia which results in different types of fulfillment for both parties involved. Aristotle also provides a few examples of such type of love, notably stating that “men address as friends their fellow voyagers and fellow soldiers,” (Ethics 1159b27). Again, given the context of the story, this seems extremely applicable to Frodo and Sam.

Viewing the Hobbits’ relationship through the framework set up by Aristotle, as seems reasonable, we can gain a few insights into its significance. Such a love between two unequal people, according to Aristotle, has a sort of uplifting effect on the ‘inferior’ of the relationship – “It is in this way more than any other that even unequals can be friends; they can be equalized,” (Ethics 1159b1). By this, Aristotle means that each member of such a relationship gets out of the relationship fulfillment in proportion to their own qualities. Sam, through his love and service to Frodo, is elevated to something above what he was at the beginning. We clearly see this through the course of their journey: Sam starts as essentially an archetypal Hobbit (not very adventurous or ‘simple’), and by the end he has become a hero in his own right. His character development is largely motivated (although, it should be noted, not exclusively) by his desire to serve Frodo, and that desire itself arises out of Sam’s love for him. Frodo, too, is uplifted by his love for Sam over the course of their travels. Frodo frequently is pushed onward and encouraged and even carried by Sam, and would not have reached Mt. Doom without him. This type of relationship is quite succinctly summarized by Aristotle thusly: “friendship asks a man to do what he can, not what is proportional to the merits of the case … but the man who serves [his friend] to the utmost of his powers is thought to be a good man,” (Ethics 1163b17). Frodo and Sam serve each other as they can, and each is uplifted because of this.

This “brotherly love” seems to accurately describe the type of relationship described in class. While it is no doubt applicable, I argue that the notion of agape sheds a different light on the relationship between Frodo and Sam. Agape is exemplified by the divine love that God has for humans, but also that love that humans have for God. When directed towards other humans, this type of love has its root in a love of God. In a sense, we direct this love of the divine towards other humans on earth. The notion of Frodo as a Christ figure was briefly mentioned in class, but I think such an idea is very relevant here. If Frodo had Christ-like qualities (even unintentionally so, as he admittedly hated allegory), then Sam’s love for him naturally may reflect some of the qualities of this love of God. Further, agape is frequently described as unconditional – it is the love that Christians are called to have for all people, even their enemies. While Frodo is of course no enemy to Sam, I think it is still fair to characterize his love as unconditional, especially considering the great trials he goes through for it.

This distinction becomes meaningful when we consider the aspects in which agape differs from philia. There is a sacrificial aspect to agape, as evidence in the Gospel of John – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son…” (John 3:16). Here love is meant in the sense of agape. It is a love that drives one to sacrifice greatly for the object of the love. Sam is, of course, the perfect example of such a sacrifice. He is willing to give up those things he holds most dear – the Shire, Rosie, gardening, etc – to follow and serve Frodo in Mordor. Furthermore, he does so with no true expectation of reciprocity. To be sure, he enjoys Frodo’s companionship and friendship, yet his love for Frodo persists even after he may no longer reasonable expect to enjoy such things. The episode in Cirith Ungol perfectly exemplifies this: Sam takes the Ring, but through his love for Frodo he can overcome both its temptation and the despair of having ‘lost’ his master long enough to discover that he had not truly lost him at all. In these instances, Sam fully loves Frodo with “all of [his] heart, all of [his] soul, and all of [his] spirit,” (Matthew 22:37). The lack of reciprocity is the main distinguishing factor between this love and that of philia, and likely the most important in its implications. Sam loves Frodo unconditionally with no expectation of receiving such love in return. If Frodo is really Christ figure, then Sam is truly a model ‘Christian’.

Such notions of love were likely known to Tolkien, even if he did not explicitly incorporate them in his work. It is likely that Frodo and Sam's relationship cannot be easily placed into either framework, but rather that each highlights different yet important aspects of their love. Being as devout a Catholic as he was, it isn’t unreasonable that Christ’s commandment to “love one another as I have loved you” was on his mind.  In this context, it does seem that Sam’s love is an attempt to represent how a man may express such a divine love. Tolkien himself states that, while he did not write The Lord of the Rings with a theme in mind, “it is only in reading the work myself (with criticisms in mind), that I become aware of the dominance of the theme of Death,” (Letters 267). Much of his work deals with how mortal creatures live their lives in the face of an eventual death. What role do these types of love play in such a life? There is likely no definitive conclusion reached by Tolkien, but C.S. Lewis offers an apt summary in his essay The Four Loves: “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”


Works Cited:
Aristotle. Introduction to Aristotle. "Nicomachean Ethics" Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 1947. Print. Modern Library College Editions.

The Bible (New American Bible Revised Edition)

Tolkien, J. R. R., Humphrey Carpenter, and Christopher Tolkien. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien: A Selection. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. Print.

Experiential Knowledge Leads to Worship

 “So it may be said that the chief purpose of life, for any one of us, 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."[1] Tolkien believed that the purpose of rational life was to gain experiential knowledge of God that inspires worship of Him. Therefore, the most dangerous, rebellious lifestyle a rational being could engage in is one that is oblivious to or distracted from God. In his poem, "Mythopoeia," Tolkien explains that those who "have forgot the Night,/or bid us flee to organised delight,/in lotus isles of economic bliss, forswearing souls to gain a Circe kiss"[2] are living this dangerous, rebellious lifestyle. True escapism is not the myths of religion or literature, but the stubborn, near-sighted refusal to see that this material existence is a reality secondary to the one in which we commune with God. In this sense, the hobbits live this escapist lifestyle, until they are graciously allowed knowledge of the Valar and of creation, both of which are ways of experiencing God in this world.

Tolkien believed that Christians have personal guardian angels whom they can call upon for help. These guardian angels are "not a thing interposed between God and the creature but God’s very attention itself, personalized”[3]. The Valar are the attention of Eru Ilúvatar in the form of powerful beings sent into Middle-Earth. The children of Ilúvatar, Elves and Men, learn much from them. Elves gained knowledge of creation and the creative process directly from the Valar, while Men have secondary contact via Elves. Hobbits, however, have no contact.

Hobbits live ignorant of the existence of Eru, the Valar, and even the evils that threaten their own homes. As the end of the Third Age approached, “Little of all this [bad news], of course, reached the ears of ordinary hobbits. But even the deafest and most stay-at-home began to hear queer tales; and those whose business took them to the borders saw strange things”[4]. They care only for their many meals, their gardens, their pipes, and other aspects of material life.

The hobbits we encounter in The Lord of the Rings were graciously chosen to go out into the unknown and gain experiential knowledge of creation, and so, by extension, of God. "I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, 'Here I am, here I am,' to a nation that was not called by my name"[5]. Just as in Christianity, God offers people outside of the chosen people to know Him[6, 7]. Multiple times there are allusion to divine providence working for the good of Middle-earth. Before Frodo even leaves the Shire, Gandalf says that, “There was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought”[8]. Frodo is told at Rivendell that he is "called hither. Called, I say, though I have not called you to me, strangers from distant lands. You have come and are here met, in this very nick of time, by chance as it may seem. Yet it is not so. Believe rather that it is so ordered that we, who sit here, and none others, must now find counsel for the peril of the world”[9]. And they as they experience creation beyond the Shire, as they come into contact with those specifically labelled "the children of Ilúvatar," they gain knowledge and appreciation of creation itself, as well as of the creative powers employed in its shaping. They learn early on from the Elves the power of invoking the name of Elbereth in chasing away the Black Riders[10]. Sam puts the newfound knowledge into practice when he invokes her name after rescuing Frodo from Cirith Ungol[11]. Not only do the hobbits learn to seek the help of the Valar in times of crisis, they also return to the Shire with a deeper appreciation for its peace. Having seen the splendor of Rivendell and Lothlórien, having seen the horrors of Mordor and especially of Mount Doom, having learned how fragile and dependent their local peace was, having been away from home for the first time, they truly appreciate the Shire. When they see what Saruman has done, it is "one of the saddest hours of their lives”[12] because of these new experiences. They have something to compare to as well: “‘This is worse than Mordor!’ said Sam. ‘Much worse in a way. It comes home to you, as they say to you; because it is home, and you remember it beforeit was all ruined”[13]. And when they have driven the invaders out of the Shire, Sam, having met Galadriel, having received her gift of "magic" soil, helps heal the Shire[14].

Whereas before, the hobbits had pragmatic knowledge of their limited world, after The Lord of the Rings, they have discovered a wider world, a patron to call upon, and a stronger love for their own homes. And though the Third Age is still clearly a pre-Christian time, we can see that the hobbits have gained the experiential knowledge for creation that leads to the kind of love and gratitude that Tolkien knows is the foundation of worship.

Vanessa Camacho

[1] Letter 310
[2] Mythopoeia
[3] Letter 89
[4] LotR 1.2
[5] Isaiah 65:1
[6] Genesis 12:3
[7] Exodus 33:19
[8] LotR 1.2
[9] LotR 2.2
[10] LotR 1.3
[11] LotR 6.1
[12] LotR 6.8
[13] LotR 6.8
[14] LotR 6.9

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Are You My Mother? No, Sorry, She's Dead

Are You My Mother? No, Sorry, She's Dead

   A part of me, and a fairly large part, at that, is very tempted to try and continue the conversation from the past two classes, about Tolkien’s female characters and whether or not his treatment of them qualifies as sexist. However, I feel that entering into a conversation in that direction will basically just lead to me talking in circles around myself, much as the discussion about the subject in class has tended towards the unproductive. I do feel, personally, that Eowyn’s character is worse off for how she ends the story—that handing in her sword to go garden is, in some way, a move that is predicated on the fact that she is a woman, and that I, personally, do not agree with this end for her. I recognize the counter-arguments against this position, and even agree with some of them, but my opinion, I don’t think, is likely to change. However, I also don’t think I could convince anyone who doesn’t find her character problematic.
            Basically, a blog post about this will go nowhere. With this in mind, the subject of my post will be about motherhood in Tolkien’s Legendarium, and in the Lord of the Rings in particular. To risk over-generalization, the mothers of Tolkien’s characters seem decidedly less important than do fathers. Looking solely at the Fellowship, there really aren’t any extant mothers—Legolas and Boromir’s mothers are both dead, leaving them with relatively distant fathers. Frodo’s parents are both dead, of course. Aragorn’s mother is (or at least was) alive, but he seems to have been influenced much more by his foster father, Elrond (allowing him to join in the time-honored heroic tradition of loving your sister (but this time it isn’t by blood, so it’s fine.)) The mothers of Gimli and the other three Hobbits don’t appear to be dead, at least, none of these four really have any character development in relation to their families—except, of course, Gimli’s hatred of Elves, which stems from his father, who at one point was held hostage by Legolas’s father. Essentially, none of the mothers of the members of the Fellowship really seem to have done very much.
            This arrangement is, of course, not unique to Tolkien. What is interesting, however, is how the relationships of the unseen mothers factor into living arrangements of some of the characters who are seen. Eomer and Eowyn are fostered by their uncle, their mother’s brother, after their parents die. Considering that the culture and language of the Rohirrim seems to be heavily influenced by Anglo-Saxon traditions, it seems worth noting that much the same happens with the archetypical Anglo-Saxon hero, Beowulf, who is also fostered in the court of his maternal uncle. The main elves that we see are related through the female line, as Galadriel was the mother of Elrond’s departed wife, Celebrian. Frodo may be related to Bilbo through both sides of his family, but he is closer on his mother’s side[1]. If one chooses to include the characters of the Hobbit in this examination, Fili and Kili are on their quest with Thorin, their maternal uncle[2].
            Basically, the bonds of motherhood seem to be crucial for understanding the upbringing of many of the main characters of the Lord of the Rings, which doesn’t seem like a shocking revelation. Who could have guessed that characters would be defined by their mothers? The ‘novelty’ of this, of course, lies in the fact that it’s principally the absence of these mothers that makes them remarkable. Are there even mothers in the story? Considering the relative scarcity of female characters, it isn’t difficult to go through most all of them. There are, of course, a good number of future mothers. Arwen will, of course, eventually have her children. Rosie has thirteen herself. Eowyn’s children aren’t, I believe, ever mentioned, but it can probably be safely assumed that she has them. As for characters who are mothers at the time of the story, we have Galadriel, who has had her child so long ago that she seems to have lost any conventional trappings of motherhood[3]. There is…Lobelia Sackville-Baggins? She has a child, although he doesn’t quite make it[4]. That’s about it for female characters. Goldberry exists, I suppose, although I think her and Tom have surpassed the need for children.
            There are, of course, many more examples of father-son relationships within the books, whether foster-father or blood relations (although a father’s chance of actually living isn’t much higher than the mother’s). There are, of course, reasonable arguments that can be made for this disparity in the mentioned characters and relationships. As was mentioned, I believe, in class, this is essentially a war story, something that Tolkien almost certainly would not have seen as particularly appropriate for women. The Lord of the Rings also exists as a quasi-medieval fantasy, and this necessitates a larger focus on the roles of soldier and general or king and prince, things that leave no place for women. These arguments could all certainly be made, and might even seem somewhat convincing at the time. I’m not here to say that they don’t have their place.
            I’m still troubled by them, however. I keep thinking about something that was said, I believe, last Wednesday in class. Tolkien was very fixated on making sure that all of the relationships he created having their designated children, so the story of the next generation can be told and their stories can be passed down. That’s fine—that is, pretty much, how life works. Sure, there’s something stiflingly heteronormative about the expectation that every relationship will settle down and produce a passel of babies, but I can’t blame Tolkien for being born in 1892 (I mean, I could, but I don’t think that would get me anywhere.) Arwen and Aragorn will have their children, and the story of Middle Earth will pass to those children, just as Feanor’s story passed to his seven sons[5]. I don’t, strictly speaking, have a problem with this.
            When this narrative trend is combined with the fact that the mothers of characters in the Lord of the Rings are basically nonexistent, however, it seems like a less welcome trend. It seems, almost, as though the role of many female characters within Tolkien’s legendarium is to have their children, who will do great things and proceed on with their own part of the story, and to then be unceremoniously removed from the story. This is maybe most blatant in the story of Feanor’s birth. After his birth, his mother, Miriel, says that “strength that would have nourished the life of many has gone forth into Feanor.”[6] She then proceeds to fade away and die, and Feanor, once he grows up, ruins literally everything. Sure, the death of a mother can provide excellent character motivation and the like—but it seems as though the most important events in any woman’s life are the birth of her children and her death.
            This same trend makes other stories, such as Aredhel’s abduction by Eol seem even worse (and, since she was literally abducted and held captive and raped (I don’t care if Tolkien says she was not ‘wholly unwilling’, any relationship that has the man ‘[taking] her to wife’ is not o.k.[7]), it’s pretty hard to do that.) She literally exists to bring about the fall of Gondolin through her child—her only significant actions are giving birth to Maeglin[8] and being killed by her ‘husband’ in front of her son[9].
I’m not trying to say that Tolkien is doing this on purpose, or even that this is some sneaking unconscious idea. Honestly, the same claim could be made of a lot of male characters—I’m sure Finwe was a mighty king and everything, but it seems like his most important act is to be killed by Morgoth[10] and thus inspiring Feanor to begin his streak of ruining absolutely everything. However, there are many fewer female exceptions to the idea that the only things of import you can do are have children and then die (and since there are a lot fewer female characters in general, Tolkien basically gets fewer strikes.) Are there female exceptions? Sure, Luthien admittedly does some pretty amazing things, and I think her child is probably incidental to getting the Silmaril back (maybe not in terms of the overarching story, but it works to a degree). To be sure, this is somewhat of a historical trend, and certainly not something that Tolkien alone is guilty of.  I have nothing against female characters having children, and I acknowledge that there is a long literary and mythological tradition of a mother’s death being an excellent motivation, or something to that affect. Just because it has a storied tradition, however, doesn’t mean that it’s good.


[1] Primula being Bilbo’s first cousin, while Drogo was his second. The Fellowship of the Ring, pp. 23
[2] Which ends spectacularly for everyone involved, of course. Poor Dis.
[3] I suppose she differs from the Virgin Mary in the respect that her own child is hardly mentioned in the book.
[4] Although I’m still inclined to rate Lobelia fairly highly as an exemplary female character since she, you know, has a personality.
[5] One of these fathers, it should be noted, did a much better job of not ruining absolutely everything. In fact, he fixed things. What a novel idea.
[6] Silmarillion, pp. 63
[7] Silmarillion, pp. 133
[8] Silmarillion, pp. 133
[9] Silmarillion, pp. 138
[10] Silmarillion, pp. 79