Wednesday, May 24, 2017

True Love Alone is Redemptive

When the array of (largely) dysfunctional relationships in The Lord of the Rings was considered last class, one of us put the matter succinctly, “Are we to understand that love alone is morally redemptive?” In view of the definition of love offered by Aquinas – inasmuch as he is a representative voice of the theological world Tolkien writes from – the question of whether love is uniquely salvific in Tolkien’s work will be considered through four relationships. In two of these – that of Sam with Frodo and Aragorn with Arwen – it is the case that the true love of one of these for the other is the cause of their salvation, not merely morally but entirely. In two other ‘loves’ – that of Eowyn for Aragorn and of Denethor for his sons – the imperfection of affection leads the relationship to a dead-end, figuratively for one and literally for the other.

Beginning then with a theological basis for what love must be in its fullness, Aquinas discusses love in the first article of the twentieth question in the first part of the Summa. Here, in light of the example of God’s love, Aquinas defines love as that which takes place when one “wills good to that other” according to their being other. In other words, the highest love that Tolkien inflects and tests in the relationships he forges is found when one desires the good of another strictly on the basis of the good of the other. Although their relationship is not one of the set in consideration here, the words of Faramir to Eowyn typify this kind of selfless gift and joy in the joy of another: “But now, were you sorrowless, without fear or any lack, were you the blissful Queen of Gondor, still I would love you.” In light of her being other – even if she were the Queen of Gondor – Faramir assures that he would desire her good, and this is perhaps the most concise statement of love in the trilogy. On the other hand, any hint of self-interest – when one is unable to count the good of the other as their own – is the darkening of love, and this imperfect affection is found throughout The Lord of the Rings as well.

            With this definition in mind, it is a simple matter to see the salvific work of such love in the relationship between Sam and Frodo. Even in total ignorance of the consequences and stakes of their quest, Sam offers with confidence his willingness to die with his master. So entirely given to achieving the good for Frodo, Sam gives himself entirely on multiple occasions that demonstrate to readers the sincerity of his willing only good: when he risks himself by bearing the Ring, when he carries Frodo up Mount Doom, the images of his working toward Frodo’s good are almost limitless. As a consequence, in reflecting on his quest it is as clear to Frodo as it is to us that without the love of Samwise his salvation from Gollum, Shelob, or even himself would have never been achieved.

            Likewise, the love of Aragorn for Arwen comes with a salvific effect, in which we see Tolkien’s conviction that true love is indeed redemptive. Though it is curious that Aragorn himself is rarely depicted in battle, the transfiguration from Strider to Aragorn is catalyzed by the news from Elrond that the fate of Arwen – her good – depends on the fate of the Ring. Admittedly, Aragorn had previously joined the Fellowship in order to seek the destruction of the Ring, but the change that takes place in him with this news is undeniable, and the effect of his heroism following this is indeed the salvation of Arwen when the Dark Lord is taken by Aragorn’s ploy and Frodo is cleared to destroy the Ring. Interestingly, the theme of the discussion on Monday was Immortality – yet this is precisely what Arwen gives up, even after she has been saved in part by the heroic love of Aragorn. This fact complicates our understanding of salvation as it emphasizes the distinction between moral redemption and evading death. Aragorn achieves the greatest good – because she lives, Arwen is given the gift of a choice to sail west or remain with Aragorn. The fact that she gives up her immortality reinforces our understanding of the effect of love – being given good by another without condition.

            The two examples of imperfect loves – Eowyn for Aragorn and Denethor for his sons – are as touchy as they are clear in their distinction from the loves considered above. In the first example, Eowyn’s ‘love’ for Aragorn is hardly morally redemptive, and this because it is not true love. Eowyn’s ‘love’ for Aragorn is conditioned on his reciprocity – notably, a condition absent in Faramir’s proclamation of his love for her – without which she has no recourse except to throw herself toward death (albeit her courage on Pelennor Fields being one of the noblest and most heroic endeavors of the work). Likewise – though without any of the pity or commendable traits of Eowyn’s struggle with her affections for Aragorn – the ‘love’ of Denethor for his sons is conditioned by his own pride, and when his expectations are dashed he too considers death his only option. Rather than consider the possibility of achieving a good for his son, who is not dead but very much alive, Denethor decides to bring them both into the flames. If Boromir, preeminently, and Faramir will not become the men he dreams of them to be, then they will be nothing. This, truly, is not love, and the redemption that takes place for Eowyn and Faramir are the work of the true selfless working for their good on behalf of another.

            The net of relationships that could be considered as demonstrating true love, dysfunctional affection, and everything in between, would only continue to show that the effect of true love in this work is redemption. Tolkien, and Aquinas, both lived in a world in which Love alone brought about salvation, and the loves of the men and women of this story in their truest forms are the cause of Middle Earth’s salvation.



  1. Sure, I buy this - something in Tolkien's views of love (and the impacts that love has upon characters) definitely seems consonant with Aquinas' definition of selfless love. Let me push a bit against what constitutes "salvation," or "redemption." Salvation in our/Aquinas' Christian view of the world is a straightforward enough matter, sure, but what does it mean to be "saved" in Middle Earth? Not everyone gets to go to Valinor, indeed not everyone should!

    Let me try and summarize what you say is “moral redemption.” Sam loves Frodo selflessly, devotes his entire self towards Frodo’s good, and thus “saves” Frodo from Gollum, Shelob, “or even himself.” So the way Sam saves Frodo is by enabling him to finish his quest. Aragorn’s “heroic love” for Arwen motivates him to defeat Sauron so that Arwen will be … “saved”. But how exactly did Arwen need to be saved? She was, perhaps, morally infallible as an elf, so her “salvation” was simply avoiding an early death? And what exactly is the “greatest good” Aragorn achieves? Is it simply Arwen’s joy? Let me wrestle with this a bit — perhaps the idea is that as an immortal, Arwen was infallible but also joyless, since she could not be with her lover; Aragorn’s participation in the defeat of Sauron enables her to live in true joy.

    Your final sentence gestures loftily towards “the cause of Middle Earth’s salvation.” But I’m not convinced that we’ve arrived at an agreeable definition of moral salvation from the two examples of “perfect love” that you provided. Frodo seems irreparably damaged after his quest, somehow sundered from the world, despite the fact he’s been saved from early death several times and from Gollum, who perhaps is his own “shadow”. Arwen chooses mortality, and comes close to early death without ever living with her love (had the Ring not been destroyed). What’s the moral redemption they get? Without knowing that, I don’t know how to conceive of “Middle Earth’s salvation.”

    -Elaine Yao

  2. I think using Aquinas here to think about Tolkien's understanding of love is helpful, but I would double-check on the redemptive nature of Aragorn's love for Arwen: I am pretty sure that Arwen's fading is an artifact of Jackson's, not Tolkien's. Very good point about Faramir's love for Eowyn--that it is for *her* good, not his. It is interesting to reflect on Sam's encounter with Faramir: that Sam recognizes Faramir's character, perhaps as a reflection of his own well-ordered love? RLFB