Tolkien and Boethius

Have you ever had one of those moments when you read something that perfectly encapsulated something you’ve been thinking (and possibly writing about) for months? Well I had one of those moments last week and it was reading Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. In this particular bit, Boethius is writing about the effects of sin on human lives, and his phrasing (aside from the fact that the translation I’m reading from is about 400 years old) sounds like something straight out of my partially-written chapter on Saruman. In this chapter I’m thinking through what exactly happens to Saruman over the course of his personal story arc. I’m thinking through his starting and ending points, and Boethius nails it! As I’ve already mentioned in a previous post, Saruman in effect become no-one and no-thing as a direct result of his actions within Middle-earth (though as a created spirit with free will he can never really become no-thing in the truest sense since created spirits cannot be annihilated, but within the context of Arda, and possibly Ea, he ceases to exist in any meaningful fashion), or as Boethius’ anonymous 17th century translator puts it, “Whatsoever is, must also bee good. And in this manner, whatsoever falleth from goodnesse, ceaseth to be…”
This is straight up Tolkien. All created things are good since they are created by Eru, Iluvatar, the One. So even that which is broken and fallen with Arda was not always so; not Morgoth, not Sauron, not orcs, not Saruman. All things were originally good and by virtue of being maintain some semblance of goodness. But, by pursuing vice and falling from goodness created things cease to be what they once were. They lose their goodness and in doing so lose their very being; so too for Morgoth, Sauron, orcs, and Saruman. By embracing evil, wickedness, and sin and pursuing them they sacrifice their goodness and their very being, leaving themselves to become, in the end, no-one and no-thing. They are an absence rather than a presence. But still they have power. Still they can negatively affect the world. And yet while “evil labours with vast power and perpetual success” it always does so “in vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in” (Letters, 76). 
This is the truth of the world all around us. It may seem that evil is winning, but it’s not. It may seem that the darkness will forever prevail, but it won’t. It may be that hope has died, but it will always be reborn. Evil cannot conquer forever. One day, it will cease. It will become what it truly is: no-one and no-thing. 

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Ennoblement

It’s nice when you start working on a PhD thesis with an idea in mind, a hunch about the way things are, and after working on it for close to two years you come across confirmation that you’re on the right track–that what you’ve suspected all along is actually true…

“I regard the tale of Arwen and Aragorn as the most important of the Appendices; it is part of the essential story, and is only placed so, because it could not be worked into the main narrative without destroying its structure: which is planned to be ‘hobbito-centric’, that is, primarily a study of the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble.”*

  • The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin (2000), p. 237.

A Prayer Project on Saruman

No surprise here, but I’ve been thinking a lot about Saruman lately (after all I am currently writing a chapter of my thesis on him). Most recently I’ve been thinking about the power of his voice to coerce and manipulate, to sway others to his point of view, and basically remove their personal agency from them to replace it with his own. What’s worst about it is that Saruman was explicitly forbidden from acting in this way before being sent to Middle-earth. The Valar forbade the Istari from unveiling their power to dominate Elves or humans, yet Saruman was swayed away from obedience by his desire to see a good end accomplished in the particular way he wanted to see it done. It’s sad to see one with such potential for goodness and redemptive influence go so wrong, but it has really only highlighted for me the ways that I live in similar (if much less dramatic) ways.

How often have I name dropped, or responded to situations so as to communicate that I already knew the information being shared–that I am well-liked and in the know, that my voice should be attended to and welcomed? How often have I disobeyed express commands from the One who sent me into this world? How am I really any different from Saruman?

Well, hopefully I’m different in the same ways the characters of the story are. They too are faced with life under the sun in the same way I am. They too are tempted toward self-aggrandizement and subtle pomposity. They are human, with the same struggles and foibles I have–with the same struggles Saruman has–but they actively resist. I can do the same. But, I have an advantage against these struggles that they do not have. I, like all Christians, have the Holy Spirit alive in me. The very presence of God breathing light and life into limbs prone to sin. I, by the grace of God, can choose obedience and faithfulness. I don’t need to end up like Saruman. Rather, I can end up like Frodo or Sam: granted passage aboard a ship bound for a port beyond the walls of the world. What a gift! What grace! Hallelujah! Amen.

Sméagol

No matter what name you call him, whether it be Slinker, Stinker, Sméagol, or Gollum, he is one of the most fascinating and tragic characters in The Lord of the Rings. Wait. Tragic? Yes. His is a tragic case, which Tolkien well knew.

Many of the characters who meet or interact with Gollum hold little hope for his restoration or redemption. But Gandalf believes it possible, even though it remains unlikely. Unlikely though it may be, Gollum is within a hairs breadth of losing his battle with Sméagol on the stairs leading up to Shelob’s lair. After sneaking away to inform Shelob of his plans to lead Frodo and Sam to their deaths he returns to find them sleeping and the tender sweetness of the friendship shared by the two hobbits is the final straw. Sméagol wins out and had either hobbit woken to see the creature he was at that moment all might have worked out differently. Sméagol, the tired, lonely, and weary outcast who has long outlived any who may have once loved or cared for him looks with longing on the two hobbits, wishing he could share in that kind of fellowship. He reaches out to tenderly rest his hand on Frodo, who, feeling the touch, groans softly in his sleep and wakens Sam who seeing Gollum’s hand on his master lashes out with harsh words, failing to see the reality of the situation. And just like that, Sméagol is gone again and only Gollum remains.

We can ponder how the story might have been different if Sam had seen the truth in that moment, but ponder is all we can do, just as in the Primary World. What might have happened if things had worked out a little differently? If we had made different choices? If we had spoken up? If we had kept our mouths shut? We can never know the answer to those questions, but we can allow them to lead us back to one of the underlying themes throughout The Lord of the Rings, and that is the reality and importance of divine providence. As Tolkien so often repeats throughout his reflections on the role and nature of evil in his mythology, we can say with confidence that if we could see the whole picture–if we could see as Eru alone can see–we would know that the world and the story are better just so.

And that is reassuring, is it not? Even though this scene is tragic and one who was oh so close to redemption is driven away and fallen anew, it is somehow better so. We cannot know the possible outcomes. We cannot see or know how this is better than any of the other alternatives, but in Tolkien’s mythology–as in the Primary World–we can trust that it is so. It won’t make sense to us here on Earth. We won’t understand. But we can trust. We can hope. We can believe. And perhaps that is all that is asked of us.

Frodo’s Hopeless Quest

It occurred to me as I began re-reading LotR again, that Frodo’s quest is hopeless from the beginning. Utterly hopeless.

When Gandalf returns with news of just what the Ring is, both he and Frodo see that even after such a relatively short span of time (if you consider 14 years a short span) he is unwilling to see it harmed. It already has a hold on his soul. If already (at page 45 or so) he can’t bear to see the Ring harmed, how can anyone expect him to cast it into the fire 900 pages and around a year of story-time later? Especially when we consider the Ring’s growing power and its corrupting influence; the Ring’s desire to get back into Sauron’s hands and its constant pull toward destruction and sin? Tolkien makes it clear from the very beginning that Frodo cannot succeed in this quest. And in the end, he doesn’t. Frodo doesn’t complete his quest. Don’t get me wrong, he did everything within his power to even get the Ring that far, and the fact that he got it to the Cracks of Doom is remarkable, but he cannot complete the mission. The Ring won’t allow it.

So it’s not that Frodo fails. His quest is simply not possible for him to complete. In fact, the intentional destruction of the Ring, while being the only hope for Middle Earth, is also the one thing that no one within Middle Earth can actually accomplish. No one could have done more than Frodo did. Not Gandalf. Not Galadriel. Not Aragorn. The Ring would have corrupted them and turned their desire to be rid of Sauron into them taking Sauron’s place as a new Dark Lord, wielding his power to possess and subdue. If Gandalf and Saruman, who are beings of comparable status to Sauron, could not have followed through on its destruction (and it is clear from their individual story arcs that neither of them could have), then certainly none of those of lesser status (be they elves, dwarves, men, or hobbits) could have either.

So how is it that the Ring is destroyed and Sauron defeated if no one within Middle Earth can willingly do the job? The Valar do not step in. They are actually committed to staying out of the war aside from sending Gandalf, Saruman and the other Istari to fight against Sauron. So what other power is there of greater power than Sauron? The Power that made it all and proposed the music in the beginning; the Power that meant for Bilbo to find the Ring and pass it on to Frodo; the Power that delights in Mercy and Freedom; the Power that Sauron, Gandalf, and Saruman know personally (even though only one of them has stayed faithful) has been at work providentially guiding the history of the world toward its fulfillment and eventual healing. This is just one chapter in Arda’s long march toward restoration. It will be mended in the end and there is only one Power who can accomplish that…

Morgoth’s Ring

So, I’ve been reading Morgoth’s Ring (History of Middle-Earth, Vol. 10), and Tolkien’s reflections on Morgoth, Sauron, and the Ring are simply fascinating. In an unfinished essay entitled “Notes on Motives in the Silmarillion” Tolkien compares Morgoth and Sauron, the ultimate evils of their respective eras. While Morgoth is the superior being, he was foremost among the Valar along with Manwë, and Sauron is a lesser spirit, one of the Maiar, Sauron is actually “greater” in his era than Morgoth was in his. But why? First, a little back story may help.

As one of the chief among the Ainur (or Valar), Morgoth was one of those who sang the themes propounded by Eru (or Iluvatar: God) and thereby fashioned the world. He was integrally involved in the process, and was in fact the one who introduced discordant threads into the music in his desire for glory and dominion. When it came time to get their hands dirty and make the world fit for the Children of Iluvatar (meaning elves and men), Morgoth volunteered his services pretending to be rehabilitated after his altercation with Eru. But because he could not stand being confronted with things outside of himself in which his mind and will had played no role, he sought to taint and destroy all that the other Valar attempted, thereby making himself their enemy.

What Tolkien reveals in his unfinished essay is that in his desire to dominate and corrupt Morgoth invested most of his being into the physical constituents of the world, in the same way that Sauron invested the greater park of his power into the One Ring. But where Sauron’s power was localized into one item, small and potent and thereby always at hand, Morgoth’s power was distributed through all things that were “born on Earth and lived on and by it, beasts or plants or incarnate spirits” (395). This means that all matter outside of Valinor (the earthly home of the Valar) contained a little bit of Morgoth–one might say that every atom contained a piece of his being–and therefore every living thing, to greater or lesser degree, leaned toward Morgoth and his ways. His being was disseminated far and wide, so though his power and being were far superior to Sauron’s in his original “angelic” form, he spread himself too thin and fell far from what he was. Sauron had not fallen so low in his era. His power was with him, contained in a ring on his finger rather than spread through every atom of the world outside Valinor.

This also means that the whole of Middle Earth was Morgoth’s Ring. It was the item he had invested the greater part of his being and power into so that he might achieve mastery and dominion over it. This is why the Valar were cautious in bringing battle to Morgoth. They knew that overthrowing his power would desolate parts of the world. And though they cast him down and the world was not wholly broken, neither was it cleansed of his taint.

The only way to cleanse the world of its terminal case is to break it down and build it anew.

At the end of days, Tolkien’s imagined world will, just like our own, need to be made new. The old must pass away and the new must come. Only then can the corruption of Morgoth be exorcised from the very fabric of the world, and the Children of Iluvatar be free of the pull to be like that fallen “angel” and those he has ruined.

Saruman’s End

Wow. One of the most striking scenes in The Lord of the Rings was the death of Saruman. That may sound odd at first glance, I mean he is a villain after all. But his death is tragic because, like all that is evil in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, he was not always so. He was corrupted. He was tainted. And in becoming so he was lessened and diminished. He lost the fullness he once displayed and became just a shell. This is powerfully displayed several hundred pages before his death when his power is stripped from him and he is cast down by Gandalf the White, also known as Saruman as he could have been. When we finally encounter Saruman again on the hobbits’ journey from Minas Tirith to Rivendell, we see the shriveled and shrunken soul he has become–bereft of power and dignity as the truth of his heart is laid bare. Again, he refuses the offered redemption, and again we are invited to pity him as we see how far he has fallen.

But all that is just the prelude, the table-setting if you will, for his truly tragic end. I found the passage so powerful that I will just include it in its entirety:

To the dismay of those that stood by, about the body of Saruman a grey mist gathered, and rising slowly to a great height like smoke from a fire, as a pale shrouded figure it loomed over the Hill. For a moment it wavered, looking to the West; but out of the West came a cold wind, and it bent away, and with a sigh dissolved into nothing.

So why does that matter? Well, Saruman, like Gandalf and the other Istari (wizards), is from the West–from Valinor–the home of the Valar and the final home of the elves. He was likely one of the Maiar (the same kind of eternal being as Sauron, though of a lower order than Varda) and as such had chosen to follow the Valar into Arda for love of the world that was being made and the children of Iluvatar (elves and men) who would populate it. Once his task in Middle-Earth was completed, he was to return home, like Gandalf, to Valinor, but it seems his soul will never make that journey. He and the other wizards were sent from Valinor to contest the dominion of Sauron, to lend their aid to the cause of men and elves in their pursuit of freedom from the darkness. Their time in Middle-Earth was to be a short one, and then they would return to dwell with their kind, but Saruman becomes so debased that it seems no return is possible for him.

When Gandalf dies, he is brought back to Middle-Earth to continue his task and ultimately he is allowed to make the journey West at the story’s end because he has proven himself faithful, but Saruman is not. His soul is blown away by a cold wind from the West. His home and his people have rejected and banished him for his treachery and deceit. It seems his soul is not even granted access to the Halls of Mandos (a kind of temporary afterlife for those who have died while bound to Arda). There is no hero’s welcome for him. There is no homecoming. There is no hope–because he rejected the offered mercy time and again, choosing instead his own destruction. He chooses this doom, and that is the true tragedy.