Rethinking Tolkien

One of the things that’s been keeping me from posting on the blog lately is that I’ve been teaching a Sunday school class on Christianity in Tolkien for the past several weeks and my research and writing time has been in part devoted to preparing worthwhile material for that (I’ve also been slowly working on an Avar Narn short story or novella which you’ll see in the future, but that’s for another time).

I wanted to share some of my thoughts and realizations in preparing for teaching the class here. The late revelation of some of these ideas is a bit shameful to me–I’ve long had all of the evidence needed to come to these conclusions and yet somehow failed to do so until recently. I’m trying to keep that thought humbling and not humiliating; we’ll see how it goes.

In particular, I had long held Tolkien to be an exemplum of that easy trope of “epic” fantasy–evil and good painted in black and white without gray. My more recent (and mature) study of his works has revealed his writings to be anything but. Instead, they are indicative of the nuance of good and temptation within man’s soul, with many permutations of the characters falling momentarily to evil ways only to recover themselves (Boromir, for instance) and with lasting temptation that claws at even the sturdiest of souls (Frodo and Sam). The variegated grays in his works have dashed my thought of my love for gritty fantasy as somehow an evolution from or response to Tolkien. Stylistically, perhaps, but not in philosophical approach or theme.

The first four lessons I’ve taught centered on the following topics: the Silmarillion’s creation story and idea of “Fall” (and–a topic very dear to me as aspiring theologian/fantasy author–“subcreation”), Tom Bombadil as unfallen Adam and the One Ring as Sin, Gandalf’s resurrection narrative, and Tolkien’s Christianization of the Anglo-Saxon mindset. Much (much) ink has been spilled on the first two topics and I cannot claim much thought there as my own, so I’ll focus on the latter two. If you’re interested in reading more about the first two ideas, I’d recommend Ralph Wood’s The Gospel According to Tolkien. As a second admission, I think the class had intended for me to follow that book a little more closely in my teaching, but I’ve taken them down the rabbit-holes of my own interests instead. Such a rebel, I am.

Gandalf’s Resurrection as Odin Christianized

It is tempting and popular to view Gandalf’s resurrection after his fight with the Balrog (told when he re-encounters Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn in Fangorn Forest) as a thinly-guised Christian story of death and resurrection. But Tolkien was adamant about disliking easy allegory when incorporating Christian Truth into his stories (it might be fair to say that he does this despite his own protestations, but his letters indicate a conscious attempt not to). The preface of the Silmarillion (actually a letter of Tolkien’s) says as much.

And we know that mythical Odin provided great inspiration for the character of Gandalf, both in his nature as wise instigator and magician and in his very appearance with the worn grey clothes of the wanderer and the pointy hat now inseparable from the idea of a wizard. To look for some other relationship back to Odin in Tolkien’s resurrection story seems a ready move to make.

Let me summarize the myth I want to refer to in particular: Odin’s discovery of the runes. For excerpts from the original texts describing this legend, click here, and spend some time on the Word and Silence Blog while you’re at it. And now my summary:

In his quest for knowledge, Odin decided that a sacrifice was necessary, so he pierced himself with a spear and hung himself from the branches of Yggdrasil overlooking the fathomless watery depths below. For nine days he hung suspended there, without food or drink or comfort, waiting for revelation to come. Finally, on the ninth day, he began to discern shapes in the water beneath him, the runes. These runes are both indicative of the power of written word (perhaps that must fundamental and far-reaching of technologies) and the representations of a powerful system of magic for which Odin would be remembered and revered.

We know in Norse culture that human sacrifices were made to Odin (known as blót, though this term is more expansive than the particular instance here). These humans were sacrificed by being pierced by a spear or hung from a tree, or both–almost certainly related to this legend of Odin. In some way, this makes Odin’s time on the tree a sacrifice to himself in the search for knowledge and transcendence, a self-driven (perhaps selfish) ascension.

It is this, I think, to which Tolkien obliquely refers in Gandalf’s narrative. Gandalf returns full of new knowledge and insight (he spends several pages detailing the plans and failings of the Fellowship’s major adversaries) but having forgotten much about himself (such as that he “used to be called” Gandalf). That he has become Gandalf the White (as he says, “Saruman as he should have been”) is about as plain an indication of ascension as possible.

But it’s important to note the differences between Gandalf and Odin. Gandalf’s fight is an external one, very in line with the “northern heroic spirit” we’ll discuss shortly. Despite this, Gandalf sacrifices himself for the Fellowship, not for his own ascension and aggrandizement. That ascension is the unexpected reward–and responsibility–given by Eru Iluvatar, the supreme God of Arda (the cosmos of Middle-Earth). It is in the nature of his sacrifice that we see Christianity creep into the Odin story–“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Yet, while Gandalf has ascended in some way, we cannot forget the fact that he has been resurrected with purpose–because his task “is not yet finished.” His ascension carries with it responsibility, not entitlement to reverence and worship.

This goodness and Christian virtue gives Gandalf the White the right to supplant Saruman as the head of the Istari, for Saruman has chosen the pursuit of power over the role of protector and counselor to which he was intended. After his return from the Abyss, Gandalf tells us as much, that Saruman’s pursuit of power has made him foolish, that his hope of seizing the ring and gaining advantage over Sauron has been lost (though he does not yet know it), and that his massed armies, though still formidable to Men and Elves, have revealed him as an enemy of Sauron rather than an ally.

In comparing Gandalf to Saruman, we are led to ponder Matthew 16: 25-26: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Two lines, Gandalf in the first, Saruman in the second.

So, by focusing Gandalf’s actions (and the “reward” that follows) outside of himself, takes the mythic construct of sacrifice that results in ascension exemplified by Odin on the tree and “purifies” it, taking those things that are good an virtuous even in the Norse story and, through the addition of love of others, refining the unvirtuous parts into something Christian and Good.

We see this general strategy throughout The Lord of the Rings (and Tolkien’s other works) in his general fusion of Anglo-Saxon virtue with Christian virtue.

The “Heroic Northern Spirit”

We don’t know as much about the Anglo-Saxon religion as we’d like. We know it has strong connections with the Old Norse religion, but we have a paucity of evidence about were the variations and boundaries lie. Much of the Anglo-Saxon literature available to us was written by Christians, so it’s difficult to know the extent to which the “heathenry” of those texts as Christianized in the retelling. This is something medievalists and Anglo-Saxon scholars–Tolkien included–have long debated.

We do have more evidence of the Anglo-Saxon mindset, generally speaking. I’m going to point to a few examples with that we know Tolkien was intimately familiar with.

The first is an Anglo-Saxon poem called “The Battle of Maldon,” based on an historical event. In that poem, the Anglo-Saxon leader Byrhtnoth is tasked with fending of a warband of invading Danes (a common occurrence at the time). Byrhtnoth encounters the Danes camped on a sort of island connected by a narrow causeway to the mainland. By positioning his force at the mouth of the causeway onto proper land, he can force the Danes to fight only a few at a time against a much greater number and score an easy victory.

But Byrhtnoth will have none of that. There is no glory, no honor, in a slaughter. So, despite the risk–or rather, because of the risk–Byrthnoth pulls his troops back, giving the Vikings space to cross the causeway and deploy a full shieldwall formation in a pitched battle–one the Anglo-Saxons lose badly. Byrthnoth was killed.

Tolkien viewed the poem, which he believed to be written by a Christian scholar, to be a commentary and criticism of Byrhtnoth’s pride rather than a tale about the Anglo-Saxon’s courage. He penned a work of historical fiction of his own in response, “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorthhelm’s Son.” Scholar Mary R. Bowman interprets this as Tolkien’s attempt to refine the “impure alloy” of the “northern heroic spirit” by refocusing the courage (read: “reckless pursuit of glory”) reflected in that ideology into a bravery expressed for the good of others (like Gandalf’s tale).

And then there’s the granddaddy of Anglo-Saxon literature: Beowulf. If you’re not familiar, you should read it as soon as possible. At least get the Cliff’s Notes or look up the summary on Wikipedia.

If you didn’t know, Tolkien (as scholar) wrote what is arguably still the most influential piece of criticism about Beowulf, his lecture and essay entitled, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” In that text, Tolkien argues (among other things), that the monsters are indispensable from the story and that they should not be disregarded to try to read the text as one of mythologically-enhanced history. It should be read as literature. He goes on to argue that the author was likely a Christian familiar with the older story who had penned the text to Christianize it. In that way, we see a morality story develop between the “northern heroic spirit” of the young Beowulf, who ventures to save Hrothgar’s people to build up his own glory, and the old King Beowulf, who lays down his life to protect his subjects when a thief rouses the anger of a sleeping dragon by stealing a cup from his hoard (anyone see a resemblance there?).

For Tolkien, that “northern heroic spirit” (at its best) is about defiance to the forces of chaos, even in the face of inevitable defeat. There are numerous places in The Lord of the Rings where we see a similar function–the Christianization of the virtue of the “northern heroic spirit.” I’ll point out only a few.

The most obvious to come to mind is Boromir. His speech before attempting to take the Ring from Frodo drips with the “northern heroic spirit” as he proposes overthrowing Sauron by force. While Tolkien’s work accepts that sometimes violence is necessary, its just use is always a stalling or defensive tactic to make space for sacrifice to occur, and Tolkien is clear that the threat of Sauron and the Ring can never be defeated by the exercise of power and violence. Even were Sauron defeated in such a way, he would only be replaced as a Dark Lord by the usurper.

And, of course, Boromir’s imagining of the overthrow of Sauron puts himself at the head of the army, where he may win glory and renown for himself. Contrast him with Faramir, who has a much more reasoned (and humble) approach to the resistance of Sauron.

After the “northern heroic spirit” momentarily possesses Boromir and drives him to his immorality, he recovers, immediately repents, and redeems himself from his infractions in the most poetic way possible–through the redeemed “northern heroic spirit” itself. He fights and dies to protect the Hobbits as they are attacked; we are told he slays at least twenty orcs in the fight. He wins the renown and glory he so desired, but only by laying down his life for others.

The Battle of Helm’s Deep provides a set of related examples. The whole action by the remnants of the Fellowship at Helm’s Deep (the Hornburg, really), courses with defiance in the face of overwhelming odds as the Uruk-Hai (and, if memory serves, their Dunlending companions) prepare to destroy all resistance. But we also have three very specific instances as well.

First, the competition between Gimli and Legolas as they taunt one another with their killcount. They spur one another to greater acts of heroism in the face of the enemy (heroism because they are fighting to protect the innocent). It is especially interesting to me that when Legolas inquires after Gimli when they are separated, he says it’s so that he can tell the dwarf he’s no up to thirty kills. His very affection for the dwarf is masked under the expression of the northern heroic spirit. We might digress here onto the topic of toxic masculinity in the northern heroic spirit, but I’ll save that ball for someone else to unravel.

Second, Aragorn’s defiance of the Uruk-hai from the walls of the Hornburg as he goes to see the dawn of the third day. That exchange is well worth the short read. Perhaps as code for modern society’s version of the “northern heroic spirit,” “the balls on that one, let me tell ya’.”

Third, Theoden’s speech to inspire the men to ride out against their attackers rather than to wait and hide, even though sallying forth means almost certain death. He says that he will die fighting, not of old age. The Norse/Germanic spirit is strong in those words.

That final act of defiance, riding out on horse from the Hornburg, brings us to a third important point.

Eucatastrophe

In his “Letter 89”, Tolkien says, “I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back.”

He further elaborates on “eucatastrophe” in On Fairy Stories:

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’, nor ‘fugitive’. In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

The idea of eucatastrophe in Tolkien is a fascinating subject, one that Wood’s book spends time on and that is elsewhere much discussed. It is, in some sense, deus ex machina in both micro- and macrocosm.

But what truly fascinates me is the interplay between the northern heroic spirit and eucatastrophe.

The eucatastrophe that concludes the Battle of Helm’s Deep is Gandalf’s arrival with the Ents of Fangorn Forest. Given Gandalf’s nature as one of the Istari, his recent resurrection and ascension, this, I think, equates directly to medieval stories of a military force’s unlikely salvation coming when a host of angels descends upon the battlefield against their enemies. It is this divine intervention that saves the day for the Rohirrim and for Aragorn.

But pull the camera or the Eye of Sauron back just a little bit to the bigger picture. Yes, the final salvation comes from the divine and is completely out of the hands of the mortals (and Elves) fighting in the battle. But without their grim determination and defiance, their northern heroic spirits, would there have been space for the eucatastrophe at all?

And this, I think, is an existential masterstroke in Tolkien’s Christianization of the “northern heroic spirit.” The willingness to resist, to fight despite the odds, for the good of others creates the setting for divine intervention. Though God (in this existence or in God’s guise as Eru Iluvatar in Middle-Earth) does not need to rely on created beings to intervene and save the day, God finds usefulness and purpose in drawing mortal beings into participation in the grand narrative of the resistance to and defiance of Evil. To borrow Tolkien’s term, we have an example of “subcreation.”

We then have a combination of free will and divine determination in the argument, the same existential outlook I’ve argued for in my own theological writing.

Perhaps this is the best answer to that perennial question: Why don’t the Great Eagles just carry someone to Mt. Doom to drop the Ring in? Because, as much as Tolkien resists the idea, the story is allegorical, and God doesn’t seem to work that way. God has created in such a way that we must be tried and tested, that we must learn the value of sacrifice firsthand. This is our experience in the “real world,” and it’s similar to the experience of the Fellowship–enough so that Frodo and Gandalf briefly talk theodicy at the very beginning of the trilogy!

 

 

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