Christian Elements and Symbols in Tolkien
- Wednesday, April 28, 2010
C. S. Lewis conceived of devils as mirthless. Since "humor involves a sense of proportion and power of seeing yourself from the outside...we must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment..."
Tolkien's view of evil beings has much in common with this of Lewis. Laughter is the domain of good; cruel mockery and joyless mirth is attributable to evil. The latter is always devoid of refreshment. One wonders how Tolkien viewed the widespread acceptance of put-downs and cruel repartee as popular forms of entertainment.
One last example will suffice to show the close similarity Tolkien's Ring sustains to the Christian dilineation of good and evil. This is desolation. With the fall came the curse, with evil barreness: foul wilderness, grimy desert, salton marsh. The Lord of the Rings presses home this point again and again: Isengard's smokes and fumes, Mordor's ash, wanton slashing by orcs, brown lands, and the vicious hewing down of the shire's trees. One catches a theme from Hosea in this: the birds and fish languish because of Israel's sin. Fruitfulness for Tolkien, as for the Christian, is the joy of the good. Even the fact that The Lord of the Rings places rational creatures as masters of nature is significant. It is not a viewpoint one would necessarily find in (for example) a Hindu myth.
We turn now to The Lord of the Ring's view of history. Willis B. Glover remarks, "Tolkien's novel is a history not only in that its form is a narrative based on documents (eg.: The Red Book) that indicates a continuity with our own time, but also in that it presents events through which a future is being created by the actions of rational creatures." Glover considers Tolkien's sense of history as more Biblical than is usual in the modern novel, because The Ring ever suggests the existence of an "unnamed authority" to whom the actors are responsible and who works in history in ways inscrutable to finite creatures. History transcends nature, is open ended, unrepetitive, and a creative interaction of God and men in nature. All modern history comes from one work: The City of God by Augustine of Hippo, which in turn found its beginning, middle, and end in Biblical creation the ages of man, and the final apocalypse. Tolkien's history is of this kind, rather than pagan cyclicism.
Because of history's open-endedness and the input of God and man, both free will and predestination intertwine. Out of respect for freedom, Gandalf, Elrond, and other good leaders consistently refuse to coerce those over whom they exercise authority (except in punishment, as with Saruman when his wand is broken) insisting instead upon the liberty each has to make choices, and directing a measure of rational persuasion wherever it seems essential. (In this way, Gandalf persuades Theoden, King of the Mark). Yet, because of his high position in Hobbit esteem, or indeed in the esteem of all free peoples, a word from Gandalf bears almost the force of a command. This insistance on free-will seems almost to contradict the story's underlying assumption of providential predestination. Frodo is told, for instance, that he is free to take or leave the great ring and yet Elrond--in almost the same breath--assures him that to take it is his fate. Thus Tolkien maintains both elements and presents choice as a crucial event.
Where evil abounds, there must grace the more abound. Grace is not a fully developed theme in this pre-Christian world; but it is present. Much has been said in the literature of the providence which finally destroys the great ring through the greed of Gollum when Hobbit frailty was unable to do so. Undoubtedly this is a key aspect of the story, especially when we recall the numbr of merciful acts on the part of goodfolk which allowed Gollum to survive to become the destroyer of the ring. Important as this development is, I think the repentance offered the fallen is no less worthy of attention.
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