Thursday, May 25, 2017

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


  1. Nicely observed on the way in which the hobbits' journey gives them better appreciation of the peace they previously enjoyed in the Shire. Could you say more about how this appreciation is for Tolkien a foundation for worship? Perhaps from Letter 310? RLFB

  2. "and that is deeply interesting, because these things are 'other' and we did not make them, and they seem to proceed from a fountain of invention incalculably richer than our own. Human curiosity soon asks the question HOW: in what way did this come to be? And since recognizable 'pattern' suggests design, may proceed to WHY? But WHY in this sense, implying reasons and motives, can only refer to a MIND. Only a Mind can have purposes in any way or degree akin to human purposes" (Letter 310).
    Now that the hobbits have this deeper appreciation for the Shire and have been awoken out of complacency, their wonder will lead them to faith in a great Designer. Their new connections to Elves and the line of Númenor should offer some help in discovering and learning how to worship this Designer.