Part 1: Orc Is A Process

There is a lot of speculation out there as to where orcs come from in the Tolkien legendarium. There are a lot of answers to this question. The slimy mud-pits of Peter Jackson’s Isengard come to mind, for example.

Some things we “know”: there seem to be no orc nor goblin women at all. There are no children, adolescents, etc. No orc villages where they grow up and raise crops. We have no idea what they eat in Goblin Town, when they can’t get dwarves and a hobbit. Orcs are, when we meet them, either singing tormentors or war-wearly soldiers who fear the secret police. We know that over time, mountain tunnels re-fill with orcs. They breed, if they breed, in secret, like vermin. They are described as “…squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” (Letter 210) (I’m not going into the implicit racism here and elsewhere in Tolkien’s works – but there it is) In an unpublished letter to a Mrs. Munsby, he said, “There must have been orc-women. But in stories that seldom if ever see the Orcs except as soldiers of armies in the service of the evil lords we naturally would not learn much about their lives. Not much was known.” The ambiguity is increased by Tolkien’s method with his own legendarium, which I appreciate – treating it like a set of documents with multiple authors and a lot of uncertainty.

I just re-read The Lord of the Rings for the many-teenth time, and part of what was on my mind was this whole orc question. The text itself does not answer the question, and even reading Tolkien’s other writings and letters gives no clear, definitive answer. One theory found in the Silmarillion is that when Morgoth captured elves he twisted them, by slow torturous arts, into the first orcs. We know that Morgoth, and by extension Sauron and Saruman, cannot create new forms of life but can only twist what already exists. In the context of the Silmarillion, this is presented as a theory among the elves that they don’t know to be true.

So, if that is true, how did Saruman begin to create the half-orcs and goblin-men we see as early as when the hobbits first reach Bree? We can look at the White Wizard because, unlike Morgoth or Sauron, Saruman created orcs and goblins over the course of the story we know, and I think that the way his creations are described gives us insight into where orcs and goblins come from.

There must be some mid-way point between non-orc and orc that Saruman was able to reach while working in secret. Now, one assumption is that he bred half-orcs, meaning he presumably kidnapped humans and forced them to have sex with orcs. So the pits beneath Isengard would have been rape-pits. Now, Tolkien is famously uninterested in where dwarf-children come from – the only implication that dwarf-children even exist is that dwarves who used to live in Dale were highly-skilled toymakers. In this, Tolkien is simply drawing on his source material: Germanic myth and legend, equally uninterested in where dwarf-babies come from. (Come to think of it, all of his elvish characters also enter their particular stories as full-grown adults, and the elf-children tends to refer to elves who lived near the creation of the world rather than literal children.) But Tolkien is no more interested in dwarf-children than the Norse Sagas and Eddas were, and this disinterest is also applied to orcs.

My theory is that orcs are the result of torment. This explains a lot of things in the story, while bringing in the theory (attributed to the elvish creators of the stories Bilbo presumably translated in The Silmarillion as Translations From the Elvish by B. B.) that the first orcs were born of elves, twisted and tormented in the prisons beneath Angband in the First Age.

It Explains Goblin Town

When we first meet orcs, it is in The Hobbit, and they are called goblins. What do we learn about them? They are tricky – they have a clever trap designed to help them capture travelers who take refuge in a particularly desirable cave. Once the goblins have captured the dwarves, they sing a song about how they are going to drag them down underground to work as slaves, presumably until they die. In An Unexpected Journey, the Goblin King goes into greater detail, spelling out the torture as well as slavery that the dwarves have to look forward to.

But what if the reason that the caverns beneath the Misty Mountains slowly fill with goblins and orcs over the years is because they are capturing travelers, like the dwarves, and tormenting them underground until they become orcs themselves?

It reminds me of the short story of a person who is tortured by a devil in hell. Eventually, the devil hands the person the torture implements, because they have become a demon, and then a new person is sent to them in order to be tormented. Hell is self-sustaining.

It Explains Sauron’s Control of the East and South

We are told more than once in the Lord of the Rings that Sauron holds sway over the Haradrim, Corsairs of Umbar, Easterlings, and similar peoples living south and east of Mordor. Then why, one wonders, would he use orcs at all? Why not just bring up human conscripts, as he does during the War of the Ring, all the time? Why are his minions almost invariably orcs?

In my theory, he has control of these regions so that he always has a fresh supply of people to torment and turn into orcs. Additionally, this explains why orcs are racially coded as dark-skinned and/or Asian – just as people living in the East and South of Middle-Earth would be. If all of the living orcs were descendants of the first elves Morgoth captured and twisted to his own purposes, why would they have features reflecting the lands that Sauron controlled? They would all have twisted elvish features, one would assume.

One can speculate, perhaps, that Sauron lacked the power to capture and twist elves the way that Morgoth, most powerful of the Valar, could. Maybe Morgoth’s orcs, some of whom are still clearly around (note the conversations Sam overhears in the tower of Cirith Ungol between orcs who seem to remember the First Age), were superior, and Sauron is only able to round up humans who are easier to corrupt, to create his own orcs. That would fit with the overall theme, in the ancient world and in Middle-Earth, of decline over the centuries on all sides.

It Explains Why Mordor Is So Awful

Mordor, as a stronghold, makes no sense. High walls, literally raised by Sauron’s power and by his orcs after the fact, sometimes manufactured out of slag and industrial waste, encircle this land, keeping foes out and allies in. Within those encircling mountains is a horrific land where almost nothing grows, where the water is almost undrinkable, and the ‘air itself is a poisonous fume’ as Boromir explains in the first Peter Jackson film.

Mordor is precisely the kind of place that orcs would create – wherever we see them, they trample and harm and vandalize – but why would Sauron create it? Mordor makes no sense if orcs are just another species of being, like elf or dwarf or hobbit, but Mordor makes perfect sense if orcs are created by torment. They have to live in a perpetual hell in order to remain sufficiently orcish. The walls have to keep the orcs in as much as keep foes out, because torment is what makes an orc.

It Explains Saruman’s Half-Orcs

This is precisely why Saruman is working with what appear to be half-orcs or goblin-men – he has not had the time to twist his own slaves sufficiently to make them into full orcs. They are larger than normal for orcs, who are described as smaller in stature than most humans, and they are still able to move around freely during daytime, but they are sufficiently orcish to have all of the cruelty he desires in a personal army. This is why he is able to send some of the less-goblin-looking north as spies and, later, as ruffians serving the Boss Lotho. The orc-ing process is not complete. Throughout The Scouring of the Shire, the impression we have of Lotho’s men (really Sharky’s men) is that they are orcish humans. They have the racially-coded features, and the seemingly innate small-mindedness and cruelty, but are not so orcish that the hobbits know to resist them at first they way they would if they were invaded by a small army of goblins. (Ask Golfimbul)

It Connects Orcs to Wraiths

Wraiths are once-great humans, kings of Numenorean descent, twisted and warped so profoundly that they lose their physical bodies and all sense of individual will. They are called wraiths very intentionally, as wraith shares an Old English root word with wreath and writhe – to twist, or to be twisted. Orcs created by ongoing torment would fit the strong theme in Middle-Earth that evil can only corrupt what is and cannot create something new.

Against Authoritarianism

Not only are orcs twisted and cruel, but they are also thoroughly authoritarian, especially in the case of the orcs of Mordor. During the chapters following Shelob’s attack on Frodo, Sam overhears a lot of orc-talk, and it is almost always preoccupied with bosses, punishment, secret police, traitors, and so on – orcs here would fit perfectly well in a dystopian story like 1984 or Fahrenheit 451. This is a connection that Tolkien made intentionally – he said once in a letter that his own political leanings were more toward anarchism, as in the ‘abolishion of control.’ The heart of evil, for Tolkien, was the will to dominate other people. But in orcs, we have a people who are dominated and truamatized so thoroughly that they replicate their trauma wherever they go.

We all know of people like that, I think.

Trump Makes Orcs

Tolkien wrote to Christopher in Letter 71:

Yes, I think the orcs as real a creation as anything in ‘realistic’ fiction: your vigorous words well describe the tribe; only in real life they are on both sides, of course. For ‘romance’ has grown out of ‘allegory’, and its wars are still derived from the ‘inner war’ of allegory in which good is on one side and various modes of badness on the other. In real (exterior) life men are on both sides: which means a motley alliance of orcs, beasts, demons, plain naturally honest men, and angels. But it does make some difference who are your captains and whether they are orc-like per se!

To Tolkien, orcs were realistic, much as they have been panned since as irredeemably evil cannon-fodder. I’m not sure about entirely realistic, but if orc is a process, as I believe, then we can see that process at work wherever we look.  For example, who could possibly work at a concentration camp that served as a detention center for small children stolen from their asylum-seeking parents?

Orcs, that’s who.

And who is currently flourishing? Who is getting their way? We have a whole, large contingent in the United States of people who seem to mainly take pleasure in other’s suffering and discomfort. We have the vapid, nihilistic cruelty of Internet trolls, waves of rape threats aimed at any woman who dares appear in a science fiction film or comment on…anything, and a President who seems to have been elected solely to tear down various institutions. It is easy to see this as an age of orc-behavior, hurting for the sake of hurting, combined with growing comfort with regard to fear and authoritarianism.

In his refections on the Fourth Age, the so-called Age of Men, Tolkien talked about how he saw a rise in “orc-mischief,” that is, non-orcs behaving in orcish ways. A young cult arises in Gondor decades after the death of King Elessar – one can imagine such a cult arising on 4chan or through Breitbart. Hell, it already has. It’s called the alt-right by people who have forgotten what “Nazi” means.

The story of the Fourth Age never got off the ground for Tolkien, so among other things, we don’t know from his work what can be done about orcs, short of fighting them. This is where the presentation of evil in Middle-Earth is limited, as it is in any story. We only have the stories we have.

Perhaps the question is, what is the torment that has created these particular orcs? Because if I’m right, and if this is a meaningful comparison at all, then ending that torment, whatever it is, might be the way to halt the orc-process.

Another question that I’m thinking through, given the idea that orcs are created by torment, is why are almost all of the people engaging in orc-behavior in our day and age white? Even a cursory glance at American history reveals a panoply of torment aimed at non-whites by whites. Genocide and slavery and exploitation and apartheid. So why are all of these Trump-voting orcs white?

Thoughts on this interpretation of orcs? Of our current situation in the US? What do you think is the torment and its source? 

Tolkien and Virtue Ethics

Virtue Ethics in Middle-Earth
Douglas Hagler
Issues in Virtue Ethics

Virtue and Story

In our course of study, we’ve looked at a few different virtue-ethical systems, including those described by Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and James F. Keenan. Aquinas, Keenan and others offer modified versions of Aristotle’s system of virtues, but they do so outside of the context of a narrative. Their virtue systems are presented and applied to various problems and subsequently analyzed, but life is not breathed into them. In order to do that, one requires a story. (MacIntyre, After Virtue, 121)

One might argue that for Christians, that story is salvation history as expressed in scripture, but this is not quite the narrative that a virtue ethic requires. A virtue ethic requires a story of ennoblement, wherein the virtues espoused are demonstrated to function. Scripture, on the other hand, is a wildly various collection of ancient genres of writing, usually seen as whole but not composed as a whole. Aristotle’s culture, in contrast, was steeped in these heroic and epic stories (Ibid, 122-125) constituting a rich storytelling tradition, the surviving fragments of which we still treasure thousands of years later.

It is my contention that, despite the great interruption in the development of virtue ethics, which MacIntyre identifies as the entire experiment of modernity, this storytelling tradition continues to this day. The difference is that we do not identify it as such, and it is not widely used as a source for virtue ethics. But we are still steeped in our own stories of ennoblement, and these can be a source for our ethical reflection in the context of virtue ethics.

The example I will focus on is the corpus of J.R.R. Tolkien, with specific focus on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, with reference to this other works, books, essays and letters. Tolkien is a potentially superb example of modern stories as living virtue ethics because he is in an interesting position. On the one hand, he is steeped in the heroic storytelling of northern Europe – the languages, traditions, cultures and so on, from Beowulf to the Elder Edda to the Kalevala. He also set out, particularly in The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, to create stories which reflected his own Catholicism (Carpenter, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 172), including the tradition of Catholic moral theology in the tradition of Aquinas. Finally, his stories are avidly devoured by millions of fans worldwide, and have been adapted many times into various media since their publication. (Endnote 1) It seems that there is a clear potential here for one to find living, breathing virtues expressly located in modern storytelling.

Tolkien’s Intent

In Tolkien’s work, we are inoculated against some of the intrinsic ills of modernity which MacIntyre describes. Tolkien was profoundly anti-modern in almost every way, watching with horror and disgust as modern society devoured itself in two great wars, and then set upon devouring his beloved English countryside, one ugly building after another. (Letters, 88, 165, 190) You will not find many “witches and unicorns” (MacIntyre, 70) in his works – there is little reference to rights or rules of conduct, and only a light smattering of language one might call consequentialist. He is steeped in premodern values, and it shows.

But we must ask – did he intend to do what I am describing? Did he in fact set out to embody virtue in story? It is hard to say that this was his primary motivation, but there can be little doubt that his intent is there. He writes, in a draft of a letter, that “I would claim, if I did not think it presumptuous in one so ill-instructed, to have as one object the elucidation of truth, and the encouragement of good morals in this real world, by the ancient device of exemplifying them in unfamiliar embodiments.” (Letters, 194)

This is the best example of a theme in his letters when he is discussing the purpose behind his writing, particularly of The Lord of the Rings. He is doing what the authors of the ancient works he was so familiar were doing – clothing truth in story, for the purpose of “ennoblement”. (Ibid, 215, 237) In fact, this vision came to him and a group of friends very early in life, that he was called expressly to “rekindle an old light”. (Ibid, 10)

But was he successful? Because his virtues are expressed through story, and because the story is more than a simple virtue allegory, one cannot posit a comprehensive system of virtues in the works of Tolkien. Systematization is one thing and story is another. However, it is possible to identify embodiments of certain virtues, and also identify their opposite number, characters that fall and are destroyed because of their lack of the same virtue.

The three virtues I will focus on are fidelity, hope, and mercy. I will present Sam Gamgee as a character who is ennobled and saved by fidelity, and Saruman as a character who is destroyed by a lack of it. I will then go on to discuss Gandalf and his calling to foster hope in the world, contrasted with Denethor, who destroys himself for lack of hope. I will follow with a discussion of how Frodo is saved by mercy, and how Gollum is undone from the beginning by a lack of it. In all three cases, Tolkien has his own understanding of these virtues which needs to be discussed in order to understand how they function in his mythopoeia. (Endnote 2) I will then go on to a brief discussion of courage, in Bilbo contrasted with Boromir. Finally, I will discuss Tolkien’s understanding of the source and manifestation of evil, and how that affects his ethic at every level.

Fidelity

Tolkien describes Sam as a character who is saved by his fidelity to Frodo. (Letters, 161, 329) Not only is he saved by it, but he is empowered by it to go beyond the usual limits of his stature and accomplish great things. He is constant in fidelity when he is constant in little else, even putting the rest of Middle-Earth at risk for the sake of friendship and devotion. (The Lord of the Rings, 877-881) It is his fidelity which leads Gandalf, at the beginning of the story, to include Sam on Frodo’s quest, encouraging Frodo to take along friends he can trust. Gandalf sees that Sam has little else to offer in the way of help, but also correctly predicts that Sam’s virtue will be crucial to ultimate success.

The turning-point for Sam comes at Cirith Ungol, when he learns that Frodo is poisoned but not dead as he had appeared when he was attacked by Shelob. On the one hand, he should continue down into Mordor to destroy the Ring and save the world. On the other hand, he feels he can’t leave Frodo behind – but to rescue him he has to face an evil tower brimming with Orcs. He does not have a natural store of courage, but he is empowered to go beyond himself by his fidelity.

At the emotional climax of the Ring quest, Frodo collapses on the slopes of Mount Doom. Sam knows he can’t take the Ring again, but decides to carry Frodo the rest of the way up the volcano to the Cracks of Doom. He has already been moved beyond himself to great courage, but now he is moved to self-sacrifice as well, which we will see later is the heart of courage for Tolkien.

Saruman, in contrast, is defined by his “treason” and violation of all fidelity. His betrayal is revealed to Gandalf. Saruman, like Gandalf, was sent to Middle-Earth as an emissary of the Valar (Ibid, Appendix B, 1057), who are lesser gods in service to the one greater God, which is described in The Silmarillion in the Ainulindale (Endnote 3), which depicts the creation of the world. He is the head of the order of Wizards, or Istari, who are themselves supernatural beings called Maiar, servants of the Valar – the same kind of being as Sauron, or the Balrog.

In his betrayal, Saruman is not only violating his position among the Istari and peaceful relations with his neighbors the Rohirrim, but is also violating his position as emissary of the gods. He is breaking all bonds, the equivalent of oaths and blood ties, for the sake of personal power. He also spreads his treason, in particular through Grima Wormtongue, whom he sends to corrupt the court of the Rohirrim.

When Gandalf confronts him, he receives the first part of his punishment for his shattered fidelity. He is stripped of his position, and ultimately flees his tower at Orthanc. (Rings, 568-569, 960-962, 994-995) Ultimately, he comes to the Shire, and begins working corruption there as well. In a last ironic twist, he is killed by Wormtongue, who until that point was the only of Saruman’s servants who showed any fidelity to him. Saruman’s viciousness comes full-circle, and the most powerful of the Istari is stabbed to death on a doorstep in Hobbiton.

Hope

For Thomas Aquinas, Hope is a theological virtue, a gift from God, and this is essentially true in Middle-Earth as well. Gandalf is doubly charged with spreading hope in resistance to evil in Middle Earth. He is first sent as emissary of the Valar, but he is given particular training which the other Istari do not receive. He studies with Nienna, the Vala who represents wisdom that comes from suffering. (Endnote 4) She is something like the goddess of tears and grief, but in the mythological beginnings of Middle-Earth, her grief is a crucial ingredient in healing and restoring light to the world when it is almost snuffed out. (Ibid, 113) The connection between grief and suffering on the one hand and hope and wisdom on the other cannot be overstated where Gandalf is concerned.

He is charged with bringing hope again upon his arrival in Middle-Earth, when he meets Cirdan the Shipwright, an ancient and powerful Elf living on the western shore of Middle-Earth. Cirdan is the keeper of Narya, the Ring of Fire, but he gives it to Gandalf. He can see that Gandalf will be called upon to kindle hope in the coming darkness, and will need the help of the ring more than Cirdan ever will.

As a divine being, Gandalf is actually quite limited in what he can choose to do to affect change in the world. He cannot accomplish anything through a show of force or a direct demonstration of power. His task is primarily to call mortals to go beyond themselves in the resistance of evil. (Letters, 159; Rings Appendix B 159-160) He can only call upon his full power when battling other Maiar or spiritual beings, and even then only when others aren’t around to see. This is the case when he faces the Balrog in Moria and falls into the abyss. (Rings, 321-323)

In the case of Theoden, Gandalf is successful in fostering hope in the face of despair, exemplified by his healing Theoden of Saruman’s spiritual and psychological poison delivered through Wormtongue’s machinations. Because of the hope which Gandalf kindles, the Rohirrim are rallied to the defense of their own lands, and then mobilized for the defense of their old ally Minas Tirith. Tolkien describes the passage where the horns of the Rohirrim are heard on Pelennor Field, turning the tide of the battle for Minas Tirith, as one of the passages in the book that moved him when he re-read it throughout his life. (Letters, 376)

For Tolkien, hope is tied up in providence and in the concept of eucatastrophe. These are both complex and multifaceted concepts in their own right, but as briefly as possible: providence is not specifically identified with God in Tolkien’s stories, but it is without a doubt a primary aspect of Middle-Earth. When Gandalf talks about how “even the wise cannot see all ends” (Rings, 58), he is referring to providence. When references are made to the great importance of “chance meetings” (Endnote 5), which are often so crucial to Tolkien’s narratives, this is also in reference to providence. Fate is not blind but is in benevolent hands, not simply the sum total of chance and mortal decisions.

“Eucatastrophe” is a word that Tolkien invented to describe a sudden turn of events which could be seen as an act of providence. In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, eucatastrophe is heralded by the same words: “The Eagles are coming!” (Hobbit, 256; Rings, 874) This is the point when the tide of a crucial battle turns in an unexpected way, bringing victory out of disaster. In his speech and essay On Fairy Stories, Tolkien discusses eucatastrophe, using it to connect even the Gospel to what he describes as a fundamental aspect of “fairy stories” or fantasy – the moment when all seems lost, and then beyond hope, good enters into the story and overcomes evil. (Tolkien, J.R.R. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics) For Tolkien, the reason that hope can persist beyond all reason is the possibility of eucatastrophe, and providence is the theological category to describe this kind of hope.

In a parallel situation to his rousing success inspiring Theoden, however, Gandalf fails utterly to engender hope. When he comes to the court of Denethor, the Steward of Gondor is prepared to refute his encouraging claims. Denethor has already essentially abandoned hope, and he finally breaks when he sees the vast army of Mordor marching on the city. Denethor has given up all hope of any eucatastrophe, believing that he can see all ends and that defeat is inevitable. (Rings, 805-807) He abandons his position and attempts to burn himself and his son Faramir on a pyre in the ancient mausoleum of Minas Tirith before he is forcibly stopped by Gandalf.

Perhaps the difference between the two is that Theoden was poisoned by betrayal, whereas Denethor was poisoned from within by pride. He actively and consciously denied providence, and instead of eucatastrophe saw only catastrophe for himself and his city. This isn’t to say that he was being unreasonable. His circumstances were incredibly dire, and he had no rational source for hope beyond trust in providence. But when that hope was offered as a gift, he refused it, and was destroyed. In Middle-Earth, hope is still a theological virtue, offered as a gift of divinity, rooted in providence, rather than arising from personal effort and reflection.

Pity

“The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.” When Gandalf says this, he is of course speaking on behalf of the writer, but this is another instance where Tolkien is closer to Aquinas than to Aristotle. For him, pity, or mercy, is more important than justice. In fact, he describes pity as that which perfects justice (Letters, 191, 326), even when it contradicts what Tolkien calls prudence, which amounts to common sense. (Miller, Aristotle: Ethics and Politics, 196-197)

In The Lord of the Rings, it is the pity Frodo exhibits that is the most influential in the success of his quest, both in the short term and overall. In the short term, he reflects Bilbo’s treatment of Gollum, his pity on him which leads to mercy when prudence might demand a harsher reaction. Gollum is thus made a temporary ally, enabling Frodo to enter Mordor by a way he would never have found on his own. (Rings, 601-605, 623-624)

In the long term, it is pity which insulates him from the evil influence of the Ring for as long as it does. Because his ownership of the Ring began with pity rather than greed or a will to power, Frodo is able to resist its corruption far longer than others of much greater stature could have. (Letters, 327) In this, Tolkien is connecting pity to humility, a vice to Aristotle but a virtue in a Christian context. The Ring is the manifestation of the will to power (Letters, 160, 200), from Smeagol’s petty desire leading to murder to Isildur’s failure to destroy the ring when he had a chance, from Galadriel’s temptation to take the ring and make herself Queen of Middle-Earth to Boromir’s desperate grasp for the ring so he could use it to save his people. The Ring is power and the desire for power both made manifest. Humility is the best defense against this, and humility manifests itself in pity, in the understanding that it does not fall on an individual to judge a life as good or evil, as deserving or undeserving. Through pity, justice is perfected because ultimately justice is left to God, or to providence perhaps in the context of Middle-Earth. “Even the wise cannot see all ends”; therefore, justice must always be tempered by pity.

Gollum is a creature without pity. He does not even have true pity for himself (In the virtuous sense, distinct from self-pity, which he has in abundance), though he is clearly pitiable to anyone who meets him. He began his ownership of the Ring by killing is cousin Deagol, who was the actual finder of the Ring. Because of this lack of the inoculation of pity, he is lost almost immediately, turning to petty crime in his community until he is ultimately exiled, and then crawling down into the roots of the mountains to eat raw fish and strangle the occasional Goblin, muttering to himself in the dark until he meets Bilbo hundreds of years later (a good example of a “chance meeting”).

In more than one way, Gollum and Frodo appear similar. Even Bilbo and Gollum shared some elements of culture, such as the riddle game described in The Hobbit. (Hobbit, 69-74) They are racially and culturally from similar stock, though now many generations removed. (Rings, Appendix B, 1062) They also share the burden of the Ring, though it had far longer to work its evil on Gollum than on Frodo. The difference between them is Frodo’s pity. He is able to see another from their point of view, able to empathize, and able to see that good can come even from apparent evil. Gollum is almost entirely unable to see beyond his desire for the Ring, for the thing that has destroyed him and corrupted him beyond repair. His lack of pity, at the beginning, necessitated his utter downfall in the end.

Courage

Tolkien describes his characters as having that which he saw himself lacking – courage. Courage is the catalyst in much of his stories which enables characters to act despite fear which would otherwise hold them back. It is exemplified best in the character of Bilbo as he changes over the course of The Hobbit. Its redemptive power, beyond its power to catalyze right action, is best demonstrated by the heroic death of Boromir at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring.

For Bilbo the first act of courage is one of self-preservation, when he kills a huge spider that is trying to poison and then eat him when he becomes lost and separated from his companions in Mirkwood. (Hobbit, 141-142) This act, defending himself against something monstrous and hungry, alone and in the dark, is described as working a great change in him. At this point, his position in the company changes significantly, and he goes on to rescue the Dwarves first from spiders and then from the prisons of the Elvenking.

His most courageous act that is described in The Hobbit also comes when he is alone, when he is going down into the darkness of Smaug’s lair. He is making his way down into the earth, and comes to a point where he can no longer see the light from above, nor hear his companions’ voices, but he is certain of the reality of a Dragon at the end of the tunnel below – he can see the red light that Smaug gives off faintly before him. Continuing onward down the tunnel is an act of bravery – almost for its own sake. One might say that it is for the sake of fidelity, since he has promised the Dwarves to do just what he is doing, but the courageous act itself is presented as having its own value, particularly when it is not a response to a direct threat but a conscious decision to do something despite being terribly afraid. (Hobbit, 193)

Boromir’s situation is quite different. He is already a person of proven courage, but by the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, he has fallen from grace, betraying Frodo’s trust when he is overwhelmed by desire for the Ring. He tries to take it by force, and Frodo escapes him and disappears. Soon after, Uruk-Hai attack the Company, and they are scattered. Aragorn commands Boromir to protect Merry and Pippin, who go running off to find Frodo and Sam in the confusion.

Boromir finds them being hounded by dozens of Uruk-Hai, and dies defending them. Though they are ultimately captured, he has time before he dies to speak with Aragorn again. He repents and is absolved, because in the end he died with courage, defending the weak and obeying a command given to him by someone he had accepted as his liege. (Rings, 395, 403-404) For Bilbo, courage is a catalyst, but for Boromir, courage is redemptive.

Evil

In Tolkien’s narratives, the will to dominate others is at the heart of all evil. It is not simply a Nietzschean will-to-power, but it is dominion in place of God. (Letters, 152, 200, 220, 262, 326) It is usurpation of divine sovereignty for one’s own purposes. The ultimate example of this is in the story of the creation of Middle-Earth found in The Silmarillion. In it, the music of Eru, or Illuvatar, or God, brings forth creation, and the Valar join in the music, each fulfilling their allotted part – except for Melkor, the most powerful of the Valar and a clear parallel to Lucifer.

Melkor corrupts the music to his own ends, and even turns to the outer darkness and seeks to create for himself. He fails in both counts. He cannot create on his own – for Tolkien, evil is ultimately impotent, and can only corrupt and twist what is good. (Letters, 146; Silmarillion, 50, 106) His attempt at corrupting the music of creation is also a failure, because Eru/Illuvatar/God finds a way to re-incorporate even his corruptions into the overall music. (Silmarillion, 4-5)
If you look into why characters fail to demonstrate virtue, the answer is essentially self-will.

Saruman succumbs in his study of Sauron’s crafts of control and mechanization and attempts to put himself forth as a second Sauron in a second dark tower. Denethor trusts in his own wisdom and his own visions through the Palantir as absolute, and his last act of control is to choose his own death, and to choose death for his son who is sick but could still be saved. Gollum’s ownership of the Ring begins with greed and petty desire – he lacks the stature of Saruman or even Denethor – but it is a species of the same sin – self-will.

The virtue of fidelity moves the focus from the self to the relationship with those you are bonded to. The virtue of hope is ultimately trusting not in your own power but in the power of providence to bring good out of evil, eucatastrophe out of catastrophe. The virtue of pity perfects justice because it puts ultimate judgment aside. It is the ability to identify with the one you might otherwise judge. Courage is expressed as self-sacrifice on behalf of others and never as recklessness. These virtues are set in opposition to domination in Tolkien’s works.

Story before system

In his essay and speech Beowulf, the Monsters and the Critics, Tolkien helps redefine the study of Beowulf for a generation of scholars continuing into the present. What he espouses, in essence, is taking Beowulf at face value, rather than lamenting what it is not. He uses the analogy of a person who owns a plot of land covered with ancient stones. He builds a tower out of the ancient stones, but scholars knock the tower down in order to study the inscriptions on the stones. They never realize that, from the top of the tower, the man could glimpse the sea. (Monsters and Critics)

In engaging in analysis like this of a narrative, the danger is that the beauty and wholeness is sacrificed for the sake of analysis itself. Tolkien did not set out to present a comprehensive virtue system, and one probably cannot be derived from his writings. I think he did, however, present a functioning virtue system in his writings, once which, in the scope of the narrative, served to ennoble and even to sanctify. (Letters, 234, 251-252)

This may be a fruitful endeavor for anyone who wants to present virtue ethics as a functioning way of making decisions and living a life. When deontology is presented in narrative form, for example, it takes on the shape of a morality play, where the rules are broken and the consequences meted out predictably. But life is not a morality play. It is messy and indistinct and unpredictable. Virtue ethics finds in narrative its natural habitat, and our culture is no less steeped in stories than ancient cultures were. The success of Tolkien’s works is proof that there is a thirst for what those stories provide, which Tolkien observed when his books far outsold anyone’s expectations in his lifetime. (Letters, 98, 147) Among other things, his stories provide a living, breathing virtue ethic, not comprehensive, but certainly comprehensible. What else might narrative do to change the nature of moral discourse in our culture?

Endnotes

1. The Hobbit has been made into an animated feature. The first half of the Lord of the Rings was made into an animated feature, but the second half was never finished, so the Return of the King was made by the same company that made The Hobbit. Of course, there are also Peter Jackson’s recent films, and there is also a musical version of The Lord of the Rings in London. These are just the major examples of adaptations of Tolkien’s works (not including obscure rock albums and so on).

2. Published in Tree and Leaf by J.R.R. Tolkien with Christopher Tolkien as editor.

3. Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion, 3-13; (Translation: “The Music of the Ainur”)

4. The Silmarillion, 21-22, 24-25; here he is still known as Olorin

5. Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. Annotated by Douglas A. Anderson., Appendix A, 376

Works Cited and Consulted

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae. Questions 49-64.

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Hackett Publishing Co., Inc., 1985

Carpenter, Humphrey, Ed. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000.

Keenan, James F. Proposing Cardinal Virtues. Theological Studies 56:04, 2006.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue, Third Edition. University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.

Miller, Fred D. Jr. Aristotle: Ethics and Politics. From The Blackwell Guide to Ancient Philosophy, Shields, Christopher Ed.

Pope, Stephen, Ed. The Ethics of Aquinas. Georgetown University Press, 2002.

Shippey, Tom. Author of the Century. Houghton Mifflin Co., 2002.

Tolkien, J.R.R. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. Humphrey Milford for the British Academy (First Edition), 1937. Originally a Sir Israel Gollancz Memorial Lecture at the British Academy.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Annotated Hobbit. Annotated by Douglas A. Anderson. Houghton Mifflin Co., 2002.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion. Ballantine Books, 1977.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Tolkien Reader. Del Rey, 1986.

Tolkien, J.R.R. and Tolkien, Christopher, Ed. Tree and Leaf: Including the Poem Mythopoeia. Houghton Mifflin Co., 1989.

Tolkien and Theology: The Power and Limits of Evil

To present the conflict between Good and Evil as a war in which the good side is ultimately victorious is a ticklish business. Our historical experience tells us that physical power and, to a large extent, mental power are morally neutral and effectively real: wars are won by the stronger side, just or unjust. At the same time most of us believe that the essence of the Good is love and freedom so that Good cannot impose itself by force without ceasing to be good.

The battles in the Apocalypse and “Paradise Lost,” for example, are hard to stomach because of the conjunction of two incompatible notions of Deity, of a God of Love who creates free beings who can reject his love and of a God of absolute Power whom none can withstand. Mr. Tolkien is not as great a writer as Milton, but in this matter he has succeeded where Milton failed. As readers of the preceding volumes will remember, the situation n the War of the Ring is as follows: Chance, or Providence, has put the Ring in the hands of the representatives of Good, Elrond, Gandalf, Aragorn. By using it they could destroy Sauron, the incarnation of evil, but at the cost of becoming his successor. If Sauron recovers the Ring, his victory will be immediate and complete, but even without it his power is greater than any his enemies can bring against him, so that, unless Frodo succeeds in destroying the Ring, Sauron must win.

Evil, that is, has every advantage but one-it is inferior in imagination. Good can imagine the possibility of becoming evil-hence the refusal of Gandalf and Aragorn to use the Ring-but Evil, defiantly chosen, can no longer imagine anything but itself. Sauron cannot imagine any motives except lust for domination and fear so that, when he has learned that his enemies have the Ring, the thought that they might try to destroy it never enters his head..

Taken from WH Auden’s review of The Return of the King, “At the End of the Quest, Victory”

I was going to write some of my own thoughts, but I realized that it has already said better than I probably could. “Evil…has every advantage but one – it is inferior in imagination.”

I have observed that the failure to find nonviolent solutions to problems is almost universally a failure of imagination. It is as if, given that we must not fail to resist evil, and that we must not become evil by doing violence against our enemies, there were nothing in between.

As if the Bible is absolutely true in what it says about sex, or gender, or the “end times”, but completely idealistic and foolish in what it says about violence, or love, or justice, or mercy, or enemies, or neighbors.

I find that view impossible to abide without a great deal of frustration.

Tolkien wasn’t a practicing pacifist by any means, and even he could imagine a great deal more. Even more than that, he could imagine a core difference between good and evil – that evil is such because it imagines only evil means – power, domination, violence, force.

A light shone into the darkness, but the darkness didn’t understand it.

And still doesn’t.

Tolkien and Theology: Eucatastrophe

This is posted in honor of a big piece of unexpected good news we received Dec 2nd- a genuine eucatastrophe.

Eucatastrophe is a term that Tolkien coined as early as 1939 as part of his Andrew Lang lecture at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. This concept was outlined in more detail in the publication of his 1947 essay On Fairy Stories, which is something of an apologia for fantasy literature in general. The term comes from adding the Greek prefix meaning “good”, eu, to the word catastrophe, which refers to the unraveling of the plot in a story, as well as, obviously, disaster.

Tolkien identifies eucatastrophe as central to his idea of mythopoeia, which I’ve mentioned a few times before. Mythopoeia is his term for a fictional mythology that comes from Tolkien’s poem of the same name…to say a lot more about it would entail at least another blog post in itself. Suffice to say, all of these things are carefully connected.

Eucatastrophe refers to a sudden reversal of fortune, at the point when hope seems entirely lost, in which the story is redeemed and the protagonist is saved by what is often an un-looked-for force or influence or event. For Tolkien, the Resurrection of Christ is the ultimate, archetypal eucatastrophe. He also sees it as central to the literary category of “fairy story”, which loosely includes his own works, though he made the conscious attempt to go far beyond what his contemporaries were doing in creating what we often think of as fairies, what Tolkien strongly detested and derided in his letters.

He seems to have seen the Victorian take on European myths about “fairy”, as a place and as a kind of being, as part and parcel of the general domestication of the imaginative/mythological landscape that goes hand-in-hand with industrialization and, though he wouldn’t use the term, reductionism. It was all part of the disenchantment of the world, and Tolkien’s own fictional writings were self-conscious attempts to counteract this trend in his own small way. Of course, in doing so, he essentially invented the modern literary genre of Fantasy.

In both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, it is a simple thing to locate when the eucatastrophe occurs, because Tolkien intentionally marked the reversal which brings about a good ending in the exact same way. At the moment when all seems lost, around the time that the point-of-view character goes unconscious, someone looks up and shouts “The Eagles are coming!” In The Hobbit it is Bilbo himself; in The Return of the King it is an unnamed person whom Pippin hears.

In The Hobbit this occurs at the peak of the Battle of Five Armies at the gates of the Lonely Mountain. Thus far, only four armies had arrived – the army of the Elvenking of Mirkwood, the army of Dwarves under Thorin including his companions in the Lonely Mountain and reinforcements from the Iron Hills, and the Men of Dale led by Bard on one side, and loads of Goblins from the Misty Mountains and the Grey Mountains under Bolg on the other side. At the moment in the battle when it seems that the Goblins are going to overwhelm the protagonists…

“The clouds were torn by the wind, and a red sunset slashed in the West. Seeing the
sudden gleam in the gloom Bilbo looked round. He gave a great cry: he had seen a sight that
made his heart leap, dark shapes small yet majestic against the distant glow.
‘The Eagles! The Eagles!’ he shouted. ‘The Eagles are coming!'”

In the Return of the King, the cry is heard at the peak of the battle at the Black Gate, when the armies of the West, from Minas Tirith, Dol Amroth and Rohan, have been encircled atop two hills and are only awaiting their demise. Pippin is crushed beneath the dying body of a troll..

“‘So it ends as I guessed it would,’ his thought said, even as it fluttered away; and it laughed a little within him ere it fled, almost gay it seemed to be casting off at last all doubt and care and fear. And then even as it winged away into forgetfulness it heard voices, and they seemed to be crying in some forgotten world far above: “”The Eagles are coming! The Eagles are coming!”

You could find a parallel easily enough, if you can imagine the women, led by Mary, running to the Disciples who are huddled, frightened, in a borrowed room, shouting as they burst through the door “The tomb is empty! The tomb is empty!”

The reversal itself, the eucatastrophe, seems always to be in the form of grace. No one expected the Eagles to arrive during either climatic battle; and surely no one expected an empty tomb. When the good thing comes, it is more often than not unexpected, because it does not come from something you can predict or understand. It is an invasion of good into a situation of what appears to be inexorable evil, making a sudden landing on our shores from across a sea we thought infinite…our out of a sky we thought empty.

Tolkien and Theology: The Natural World Part I

Yes, the series is back. (Bonus points if you can name the tree in the picture)
If the names confuse you, keep Google/Wikipedia handy. I might add links later to make it a bit easier, but this won’t be interesting to non-Tolkien fans anyway…

The natural world has a very important place in Tolkien’s work. As usual, I’ll be focusing on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but this is a generalization that is true about everything Tolkien wrote that I’m aware of.

There are a lot of ways I could handle this topic, but to avoid being overly theoretical, I’ve decided to ground the discussion in particular characters, or groups of characters, from the Trilogy. I’m going to talk about, on the one hand, examples of evil or villainous characters (or groups) who despoil the natural world, and then contrast them with virtuous or heroic characters (or groups) who honor the natural world. As I think about this, I actually get the feeling that this topic will have to span two posts, but we’ll see.

Really, all I have to say about this could easily become a book in and of itself, but I’ll try to spare you.

Villains Despoil the Natural World

Ted Sandyman is the closest thing to a Hobbit villain in the Lord of the Rings. At the beginning of the story, he’s the Hobbit who makes fun of Sam Gamgee when Sam talks about rumors of walking trees in the Old Forest and about Bilbo’s dealings with Elves. Ted Sandyman sees this sort of foolishness as “daft” and scoffs at it. At this point, he’s essentially a nuisance and a foil for Sam’s gleaming-eyed enthusiasm.

Ted Sandyman comes up again, however, at the end of the trilogy, in the chapter The Scouring of the Shire. In this chapter, the evils that the Hobbits have faced in the wide world have come home to corrupt the Shire, and one of the loci of that corruption is Ted Sandyman’s mill. The mill has changed into a looming, threatening structure that belches out black smoke day and night, and Sharky’s men are known to congregate there, as are their supporters.

The key insight here is that Tolkien’s shorthand for Ted Sandyman’s corruption is the fact that his mill belches out black smoke. It is part and parcel for the corruption all over the Shire, which mirrors what Tolkien felt was the corruption (industrialization) of the English countryside he loved. This corruption takes the forms of increased industry, pollution, and the destruction of homes to be replaced with drab, uniform housing with no aesthetic sense. (More on this topic when I talk about Tom Bombadil)

Orcs are a no-brainer. They are depicted as, among other things, taking sheer delight in despoiling nature. They not only move at a rapid pace, but as they go they go out of their way to destroy anything beautiful they pass. They destroy beautiful things because they are beautiful, and they corrupt and pollute nature through their way of life. Wherever they go, they carry senseless and filthy industry with them, filling natural places with wheels and furnaces and pollution.

(Interestingly, when corresponding with his son Christopher while he served during World War II, Tolkien referred to the soldiers Christopher served with who seemed to enjoy warfare and revel in it as “the Orcs”. In this sense, Orcs were a kind of person that Tolkien had learned about during WWI when he was a fusilier, representing in general a modern violent nihilism.)

The key insight here is that, for Tolkien, the world around him was becoming more Orcish all the time. Human life was valued less, the natural world was exploited more, and people seemed to care less. Think about Blackwater and tell me Orcs only exist in fantasy stories. There is nothing that Orcs do, functionally speaking, that Elves do not also do – build homes, cultivate food, create weapons and tools, even wage war. The difference is in how these things are accomplished.

Its common to see Saruman as corrupted by his study of the One Ring, but the way it is depicted by Tolkien is more subtle. Saruman is the Maia who was instructed by Aule, who was the Vala otherwise known as the smith (who created the Dwarves, for example). Saruman’s interest in the crafting of beautiful and useful objects isn’t presented as a problem in and of itself – it is, however, the door through which corruption enters.

Which leads us to Sauron – another Maia who was not so much talented at crafting as talented at theft. He learned how to craft from the Noldor, and used his skills to create things of power and beauty in order to earn their trust. The Elves of Eregion in the First Age called him “Annatar”, Lord of Gifts. Skipping ahead, it is through this stolen craft that Sauron was able to forge the One Ring.

As Saruman studied the craft of Sauron, presumably in order to learn how to more effectively combat him, he became ensnared. It is never spelled out explicitly, but he seems to have been corrupted by a desire for power. (The topic of the just use of power is another blog post at least)

Saruman turns Orthanc into a seething cesspit almost overnight when he finally reveals his corruption. He immediately begins cutting down Fangorn Forest to feed the fires of his hellish industry. There is the incessant sound of hammers and chopping and shouting, the churning of hidden machinery and smoke and ash from the huge furnace fires. This is the sound of corruption, the sound of evil, to Tolkien at least.

The key insight here is that Saruman is not corrupted by craft per se, but by its misuse. As I’ll talk about later on with Elves, craft rightly used, in harmony with nature, is a good. Craft wrongly used, for personal empowerment and war, is an evil. Saruman’s patron Vala, Aule, was a deity of good. He created the Dwarves specifically to be able to resist Morgoth, the Vala who fell from grace to become Melkor (Sauron’s boss). There is no reason Saruman could not have followed the same path. But for Tolkien, things like industry must be very carefully managed. They are a constant temptation to break harmony with nature and with justice and to fall into the pattern of exploitation and violence – which invariable follow one another.

So, what does this tell us about God? I think that Tolkien probably would not reject industry and technology, and even war, as such, out of hand. He clearly believed in evil, and that at times it is necessary to resist evil with violence. He also lived in Europe after the Industrial Revolution had already had a lot of its impact.

What Tolkien seems to reject is 1) turning from harmony with nature to exploitation of nature and 2) turning from a sense of beauty as a good to a reductionist materialism that is concerned only with function and efficiency. Tolkien is a good Catholic who believes in a good creation and to some degree in natural law in the traditional sense. There is a God-ordained order to the world, and we violate that order at our peril. He also connects, as I said above, exploitation of the natural world and violence – and this is exactly what I see in our own world, repeated over and over again.

If you are willing to exploit the natural world for selfish gain, it is a small step to move toward exploiting other human beings. You’ve already demonstrated that you have an instrumentalist view of your surroundings, and that you will use power against that which cannot resist you. What about human beings who can’t resist you? Or who you think are beneath you?

I think that there is no solid distinction between human beings and nature. We are nature, and we are in nature. We are of nature. Genuine care for other human being entails care for the natural world and vice-versa.

Next up is the positive side of this discussion, where I will talk about, among other things, Tom Bombadil, hiking, starlight, Elves, Ents and possibly, virtue ethics again.

Tolkien and Theology: Gandalf

Gandalf arrived in Middle Earth as Olorin, one of at least five Maia sent by the Valar during the Third Age to help resist Sauron as the Elves were departing into the West in increasing numbers and in the wake of the fall of Numenor.

As a Maia, Olorin was in the same class of beings that included Saruman, Radaghast, and the Balrogs of Morgoth. If we think of the Valar as essentially demi-gods, then the Maiar are similar to angels and demons. (Though angels don’t show up in Middle Earth named as such, Gandalf does refer to the Balrog of Moria as a “demon of the ancient world” in the Fellowship of the Ring.)

When Olorin arrived at the Grey Havens, the westernmost outpost of the Elves in Middle Earth, he met Cirdan the Shipwright, an ancient Noldor Elf who was in charge of building the swanlike vessels that took the Elves into the Uttermost West. Since the breaking of the world, these vessels needed to be able to travel through the emptiness of space that now separated Middle Earth from the the Undying Lands – once accessible by water, they were now sundered from the world (essentially, an Upper-Earth or Asgard in the Northern European scheme that Tolkien adopted for the structure of the world – where Middle Earth ~ Midgard).

Cirdan at the time was the bearer of Narya, the Elven Ring of Fire, one of the “three Rings for Elven Kings under sky”. When he met Olorin, Cirdan gave him Narya, to wear in secret, seeing that Olorin would be called upon to ignite the courage and spirit of many in resistance to Sauron. It wasn’t revealed that Olorin/Gandalf had the Ring of Fire until the end of the Return of the King and the destruction of the One Ring.

Olorin, obviously, wasn’t the name that this Maia went by for the most part – he allowed those he met to give him names in their own languages that usually translated as something like “wanderer” or “grey pilgrim”. He was known as Gandalf Greyhame in Westron, the language of humans and Hobbits, and as Mithrandir in Sindarin, the language of the Grey Elves; as Tharkun to the Dwarves and Incanus in the South – and so on. Wormtongue named him Lathspell, but that one didn’t stick.

If you’re familliar with the stories of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, I don’t have to rehash all that Gandalf accomplished. It is clear that the defeat of Sauron and the destruction of the One Ring is primarily the work of Gandalf.

But long before Gandalf ever came to Middle-Earth, he was living among the Valar, and studying under a particular one named Nienna. Nienna is the Vala associated with grief and mourning, as well as the color grey (the reason Gandalf was “the Grey”). She took part in the creation of the Two Trees of Valinor, which first joined the stars in lighting the world, and when Ungoliant poisoned the trees and destroyed them, her tears were able to coax the final fruit from them that became the Sun and the Moon.

What Nienna teaches is pity and endurance, and it can be said that it is pity and endurance which enabled the defeat of Sauron. Pity which stayed Bilbo’s hand when he could have killed Gollum when they parted ways, pity that later stayed Frodo’s hand, enabling Gollum to fulfill his destiny in the destruction of the Ring. And endurance, even beyond hope, is at the center of the story of the Lord of the Rings.

It is very, very interesting to me that the greatest hero, the moral compass, and perhaps the most powerful archetypal character of Tolkien’s most popular stories is Gandalf, and that Gandalf is associated with grief of all things. Gandalf is also the one who is resurrected as the White – a rather Christlike event. Behind almost everything accomplished in the Third Age, there is Gandalf. And he was taught by the goddess of tears. Not authority. Not power. Not craft, or beauty, or dreams, or fate. The goddess who weeps for the world, and whose tears can heal the most terrible injury.

In a religion where we worship a God who was killed, I think we have a lot of thinking to do about grief. There is the grief of God, and there is the grief that we have for God. What is Holy Week if not a week of grief? What are Good Friday services if not services of grieving?

Do we dare face our grief? I think if we do, it can be powerful. I think we have no idea how powerful our grief can be. When faced with pain, it is common to become afraid, or to become angry – to seek vengeance and restitution. These things, I think, are in some ways attempts to escape our raw, naked grief. Can grief heal? We think in terms of healing grief, but is it the grief itself which heals?

I think Gandalf, and Tolkien, would say yes. And that’s one of the most powerful things, for me, about the whole mythopoetic enterprise that Tolkien underwent. I think he is saying that grief is central to salvation from evil, central to healing and redemption. For me, this is worth a lot of thought.

Tolkien and Theology: Eternal Life

I have what is likely too many ideas for this particular series, so I thought I’d start with what I’m thinking about at the moment. I’d also like to offer a disclaimer – if you aren’t interested in Tolkien, Middle-Earth, etc. at all, skip this. If you have not read The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion at least by Tolkien, some of this will not make a lot of sense. I’m assuming some familiarity, but will try to explain things clearly so everyone will get something out of this series. Also, always know that I am simplifying what I talk about a great deal. Always assume that hundreds of pages are being condensed into a few paragraphs when I talk about Tolkien.

***

Life and death are central themes of all of Tolkien’s works. The very nature of the world as it is created presents deep questions about life and death. The Elves, the First Children of Illuvatar (read: God) are immortal. They can only die by violence or by grief. Otherwise, they will live on forever at the peak of their power and vitality. Galadriel, for example, is over ten thousand years old when she appears in The Fellowship of the Ring – she was alive when there wasn’t even a sun and moon yet, but the world was lit by the shining fruit of two sacred trees, and before by the stars alone.

Men, on the other hand, the Second Children of Illuvatar, die. They are fragile in every familliar way. In fact, death is described as Illuvatar’s gift to Men – they alone of the conscious creatures inhabiting Middle-Earth are able to, through death, leave the confines of the world and travel…elsewhere. It is never said where they go, or how they arrive there, or what happens next. Tolkien leaves mortality a great mystery, which is one of the things I appreciate about mythopoetical work.

In the portion of the Silmarillion called the Akallabeth, this question of death and immortality is brought to a head. There has arisen a race of Men called the Numenoreans. They are the peak of human capacity in every way – in warfare, in craft, in exploration, in intelligence, etc. They are granted an island to live upon, and continue to develop their advanced civilization there.

Over time, however, they come to love their lives too much. They seek ways to live longer and longer, and they begin to fear death and nothing else. They build massive tombs and learn to preserve bodies and are always motivated by the fear of their own mortality.

This fear becomes so acute that the Numenoreans come under the influence of Sauron (yes, the Dark Lord from the Lord of the Rings). Sauron knows he can’t overcome them openly – they’re too powerful – so he corrupts them from within. He plays on their fear of their own mortality, and in the space of a few generations he is able to convince them to sail West to the Undying Lands and wrest eternal life from the Valar (who are essentially powerful angels or servant-gods of Illuvatar).

So a few faithful Numenoreans sail East to Middle-Earth (Aragorn is a distant desecendent of these) and many sail West to challenge the gods and escape their mortality. The result is the downfall of Numenor. For their hubris, the Numenoreans are thrown down and their island is devoured by the earth and covered by the sea, their civilization wiped out forever.

Now, what does this say to me theologically? That eternal life should be something other than the understandable, but selfish and unnatural, desire to prolong my own life as I know it now. That grasping is rooted in a fear of death, and death is part of life, as trite as that sounds. It is rooted in the desire to be strong, to be young, forever, rather than to succumb to time and age, to nature and mortality.

It also says a great deal about trust. What happens when mortals die is not dealt with in Tolkien’s writing – it is only said that they depart, and that no one, not even the Elves or the Valar, know where they go. This is Illuvatar’s design from the beginning – that death be a final mystery.

Could we say that death was part of God’s design from the beginning? Scripturally, I think it is justifiable. Death is depicted as entering creation through the Garden of Eden, but a creation that remains in Eden is hardly a creation at all. When God allows choice, then drama arises on a cosmic scale. When God makes creation free, even in part, then there is jeopardy and triumph, gain and loss, sin and repentance. When God allows the chance of death, then I think God allows a chance at meaningful life as well.

Is death then an evil? In faith we affirm that it is not an ending, but like the Numenoreans, like every being conscious of its own mortality, we can’t be sure what comes after. Like Tolkien, I’m not motivated to get into the details of what I think comes next. For me, the challenge is in coming to see it as a gift rather than a curse, as something to be accepted rather than feared and hated. It is hard to learn to let go.