Christian Elements and Symbols in Tolkien
- Wednesday, April 28, 2010
Of all those to whom repentance was offered, only Boromir accepted it. It has always been a disappointment to me that no one else repented. Especially disappointing was the eventual loss of Gollum. At one time he stood very near redemption, but Sam's suspicion pushed him back, and he soon after attempted his most vile deed, the attempted murder of Frodo by Shelob. Not one person with whom serious persuasion was used--Saruman, Gollum, Wormtongue--was able to change course.
There are whole classes of fallen which appear unreedemable. These are the orcs, trolls, balrogs, etc. In many ways their graceless existence seems akin to that of devils or demons. In other ways, this is not so; they remind the reader of those groups of people whom Israel was told to annihilate as if none were capable of salvation, because their wickedness was full.
In Tolkien's Middle Earth, each person receives his just deserts. Justice, while tempered with mercy, is inexorable in the end. For his betrayal of Frodo, Boromir dies of orc arrows. In remembrance of his repentance, however, he dies honorably; but it is death all the same, and flows as a direct consequence of his treachery; it was he who scattered the fellowship of the ring and made them vulnerable to attack.
Sauron, after bringing desolation to much of the world, is fated to gnaw himself through endless ages. Gnawing one's tongue is a symbol also used in the Bible of eternal doom. Even Frodo is penalized for his final failure at the brink of the chasm. He has a wound which will always give him pain. The same could be said also of Bilbo. Frodo's penalty may even include self-exile from Middle Earth. Examples could be multiplied, but the list would be too long. One facet of Justice emerging from The Lord of the Rings is the incapacity of repentance to forestall just dessert.
For all that, hope is a dominant note of the trilogy: hope despite darkness, fear, or pessimism. Hope is possible only in a Christian world. It makes no sense to a non-believer; hence the despair of modern man in this post-Christian age. In any given situation neither characters in books nor their counterparts in the more complex real world know in what their choices will result. So limited is our vision and theirs, that circumstances and evil seem omnipotent. Without hope, such times would overwhelm the anxious heart. Such hope is found in the certitude of God, the Unseen Mover.
The Christian element I find among the most appealing is individual worth and responsibility. Even the smallest hobbit has great potential; indeed, only in Sauron's lands are the merits of individuality ignored. There, everyone has a number and not everyone a name. More explicitly Christian is the notion of the small thing, the weak and simple, overthrowing the wise and powerful.
Of all the elements remaining to be discussed, the most neglected among reviewers are the virtues of patience and perseverance. These two qualities, along with fidelity and humility, win the war for the free peoples. It is just the absence of these same characteristics which overthrows Sauron, despite his long years of patient brooding.
Having mentioned fidelity, perhaps I should note the stress Tolkien places on this virtue, for while he illustrates the others often enough, he indoctrinates us with this one. There are numerous examples and remarks decrying the hideous practice of oath-breaking, the need of oath-keeping, the sobriety with which oaths are to be sworn. This is biblical and in stark contrast to (say) the oathbreaking of Guthrum with Alfred the Great after swearing on his sacred bracelet. Whatever deadly price must be paid, an oath once made is sacred. We do not always remember what a nasty pincers the Israelites put themselves in when they made their treaty with Gibeon--war against the united forces of Southern Palestine. Yet, they fulfilled their pledge and it brought them their greatest victory.
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