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. 

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.

The Name of the Light

I just recently started the first of many re-reads I’ll be doing of The Lord of the Rings and I just need to go on record to say that the first 70 pages or so are NOT boring. Not in the slightest. Many have criticized Tolkien’s epic for its slow start, but I haven’t seen it. The action may be minimal, but the stage is simply being appropriately set. We need this base from which to leap off to the wider story and world. We need to have the good in life firmly established so we can see why it needs saving, so we can be reminded of hearth and home and how central they are to the health and well-being of our souls. Tolkien prepares us well in this regard for the conflict ahead.

But all that is just an observation and not the real point of this brief post, which is a simple little detail that harkens back to one of my early posts: the power of light. As Frodo is working his way out of the Shire with Sam and Pippin they have already needed to hide from a black rider twice and on the second occasion just as the rider is crouching down on all fours to sniff out the Ring like the bestial inhuman creature it is, singing drove it away. We might be tempted to think that it is simply the presence of other people approaching that drives the rider away, especially since we discover it is elves who are singing as they walk down the road, when in reality it is the song that drives it off, though of course Tolkien doesn’t explicitly tell us this. No, we must know the mythology and the deep lore contained in The Silmarillion if we are to see what is really going on here.

“O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!”

It’s almost like a breath prayer. Short enough to speak in one breath, but powerful enough to drive away even the most powerful servants of evil. Simply speaking the name of the light is enough to drive away the darkness. Which shouldn’t surprise us because our world works the same way. Spiritual darkness and evil cannot stand the Name of the Light. It is filled with too much glory and goodness. Too much truth. Too much beauty. It’s a name we should call on more frequently.

“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on us.”

Saruman’s Ring? Now that’s a scary thought…

in the Foreword to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings Tolkien refutes the claims that his epic was inspired by WWII noting that if it had served as inspiration then

Saruman, failing to get possession of the Ring, would in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth.

Imagine that with me for a moment if you will. What a different meaning the title The Two Towers would have taken. And what a different story it would have become. It would be a darker tale, that is for certain. A tale very much lacking in hobbits who “would not have survived long even as slaves.”

I think we can all be thankful Tolkien found his inspiration in other countries Places than in the current events of his day. By drawing on older and deeper truths he was able to craft a story of lasting significance beyond what he ever imagined. And we are all reaping the benefits of that today. 

The American Tolkien?

In 2005, Time Magazine’s Lev Grossman—a fantasy author in his own right—called George R. R. Martin “The American Tolkien” and the label stuck. But the comparison only holds true on the surface. The world Martin conceived in his epic series A Song of Ice and Fire unapologetically takes the path of darkness and unremitting violence that Tolkien believed Fantasy must avoid. The characters are motivated by honor and greed, lust and revenge. In some cases they are just trying to survive, just like fallen humanity in the world we know. But in Martin’s Westeros there is no joy to pursue, no beauty to protect. From the outside we can see that it is a world in desperate need of Recovery, but from the inside it is unclear if Recovery is even possible, because if there was no Fall, Recovery would not be necessary. But rather than positing an unfallen world, Martin has proposed a world in which the fallen state we see and know is the natural one. Martin’s world has always been a hostile and unforgiving place. Sorrow and failure have always been either on the horizon or a present reality, but where some of these things sound true of the world as we know it, Martin’s world doesn’t seem to have the room for the eucatastrophic turn that our world does. Universal, final defeat seems inevitable for Westeros. Martin meant it as a mirror-world in the sense that all fantasy mirrors reality to some degree, but the world Martin mirrors is the fallen and broken one we know and long to escape.

As a self-attested lapsed Catholic fascinated by religion, but unconvinced about the existence of a gracious and loving God sovereignly caring for all that he has made, it’s easy to see how Martin’s foundation differs from Tolkien’s. Their worlds bear a passing similarity, but where Tolkien’s is broken and fallen, Martin’s is simply dark. It is not broken, because that implies a state preceding the current darkness. In this case, the different roots cause their trees to produce very different fruit. This is not to say that there is no good in Martin’s series. By setting out to write nuanced, grey characters who reflect humanity’s dual potential to do good and do harm, Martin offers characters who feel real. They are no different from people walking or driving through cities and towns all around us. By making the central conflict one between people who are equally capable of cruelty and benevolence rather than between good and evil on the macro level, Martin’s world resembles ours today. It takes into account the reality that two sides may be at war, but that doesn’t necessarily make either side wholly good or wholly bad. Tolkien has been unfairly criticized in recent years for writing a struggle that is too black and white, but this criticism mistakes Tolkien’s roots for Martin’s. It is expecting Tolkien’s world to mirror ours in the way Martin’s does, but that is missing the heart of Middle Earth. Middle Earth is a sub-creation both as a secondary world conceived by Tolkien and as a primary world within the story itself where it was sung into existence by the Ainur as they play their part in the great symphony propounded by Eru, the One. But in the context of the story itself, it is also primary creation. Eru proposed the music. He conceived it. The Ainur participated in the making, but the concept belonged to Eru alone. Martin’s Westeros is not primary creation. In the context of the story, it is not creation at all.

This is of the utmost importance. Middle Earth’s mirroring of our world as a primary creation means that it too contains the possibility of Escape, Consolation, and Recovery—of eucatastrophe—that our world does. But Martin’s does not. Martin’s offers superficial escape—to a land of dragons and magic, but not a world that hints at the redemption of the primary world. It offers no consolation because there is no hope that things will ever truly change. If people are people in the way Martin imagines, darkness and violence will never end, which means there can be no recovery because there is nothing to be regained. No goodness has been lost; no beauty can be reclaimed; and truth is dark and grim. This is clearly illustrated in Martin’s belief that Tolkien took a wrong step when Gandalf came back to life. According to Martin, Gandalf should have stayed dead. Where Gandalf came back, no longer as Gandalf the Grey but as Gandalf the White, Lady Catelyn Stark comes back as the cold and ruthless Stoneheart, living in her physical body but dead in her soul. Both experience a resurrection of sorts, but the kind Martin imagines is unlike the kind Tolkien provides in The Lord of the Rings and the kind Jesus offers in the primary world. Gandalf comes back as he does because Tolkien’s world mirrors one in which “the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe” has actually occurred: our world. Martin’s world mirrors one that is lost and hopeless: it is what ours would be if Christ not only had never come, but did not even exist. And that is a truly grim world to consider.