The Spirituality of Tolkien
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 10, 2002
We want to believe that in the end, God wins; that no matter how horrific or discouraging the great struggle between good and evil becomes, that good triumphs in the end.
We want to believe that the light of truth and the light of hope can never be extinguished; that as great as the darkness may seem, it is but a passing illusion—the light will return.
We want to believe that our lives have meaning and purpose, and that we all have a role to play in helping the new world of which we dream unfold.
Throughout human history, we have fashioned art and literature—myth and legend and music and stories—to manifest and affirm and encourage and foster our hope and courage.
Few examples from the annals of literature and culture speak to us so clearly in these troubled times—with war and rumors of war running rampant over our globe; with the face of terror seemingly lurking in every shadow, and fear let loose like a contagion upon the face of the Earth—as do the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, especially his great trilogy of books, The Lord of the Rings.
Since they were first written and published in the throes and aftermath of World War II, Tolkien’s works have inspired and sustained millions of readers the world over. Now, in the throes of the dislocations of September 11th—and thanks to the wonders of Hollywood—Tolkien once again is speaking to our times more clearly than ever.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born to lower middle class British parents in Bloemfontein, South Africa (where his father was employed by a British firm) on January 3, 1892. His memories of Africa are said to be “slight but vivid” because when he was just four years old, his father died suddenly, and he, his mother, and his younger brother returned to West Midlands in central England. As a boy, Tolkien's life was split between the very rural hamlet of Sarehole, where his family lived, and the bleak, darkly urban wasteland of Birmingham itself, where he was sent to King Edward's School. Around this time, too, Tolkien’s mother, Mabel, converted to the Roman Catholic Church, an act strongly opposed by other members of her family, and she and her sons were to remain devout Catholics throughout their lives.
Sadly, however, Mabel Tolkien was diagnosed soon thereafter with incurable diabetes, and she died in 1904, leaving her two sons, Ronald (as he was known by his family) and Hilary effectively destitute. At this point, Father Francis, a local priest, stepped in to oversee the boys’ welfare, boarding them first with an aunt and then in a boarding house run by a Mrs. Faulkner.
By this time Ronald was already showing remarkable linguistic gifts. He had mastered the Latin and was becoming more than competent in a number of other languages, both modern and ancient, notably Gothic, and later Finnish (he was always fascinated by Finnish, it seems). He was already busy making up his own languages, purely for fun. In 1911, he received a scholarship to Exeter College, Oxford, and Classics, Old English, the Germanic languages Welsh and Finnish, until 1913, when he transferred to the School of English Language and Literature instead. During the course of his studies of Old English, he came across a cryptic couplet in an obscure poem by an ancient scribe, Cynewulf:
Which means: "Hail Earendel brightest of angels, over Middle Earth sent to men ". "Middangeard"—“Middle Earth” was a ancient expression for the everyday world between Heaven above and Hell below. But the couplet fascinated Tolkien; and the concept of “Middle Earth” carved an indelible place in his mind,
In June 1915, Tolkien received his first-class degree from Oxford At this time he was also working on poetic projects, and on his invented languages, especially one that he came to call Qenya, which was heavily influenced by Finnish. However, his studies were interrupted by the coming of World War I, and ultimately he saw action as a second lieutenant on the Western Front in France, just in time for the Somme offensive. After four months in and out of the trenches, he succumbed to "trench fever", a form of typhus-like infection common in the insanitary conditions of war, and in early November was sent back to England, where he spent the next month in hospital, back in Birmingham.
While in hospital, Tolkien began to put his tales into more formal form, first in what became known as the Book of Lost Tales, then as the Silmarillion (neither of which works was published prior to Tolkien’s death in 1973). When the Armistice finally came on November 11, 1918, Tolkien began his search for employment in academia, and was appointed Assistant Lexicographer on the Oxford English Dictionary, which was then in preparation. In the summer of 1920 he was named Reader (or Associate Professor) in English Language at the University of Leeds. At Leeds, he collaborated on a revised edition of the famous tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and continued writing and refining The Book of Lost Tales and his invented "Elvish" languages. Then in 1925, the Rawlinson and Boswort Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford fell vacant, and Tolkien successfully applied for the post.
For Tolkien, returning to Oxford was like coming home. He and his family fit extremely well into the world of teaching, research, and the exchange of ideas. His academic publications were quite limited, however—something that would have been frowned upon by college authorities nowadays. However, as a teacher and as a provocative thinker, Tolkien’s place at Oxford soon became unrivaled. More and more, too, he was emerging as a storyteller par excellence.
From the mid-1920s onward, Tolkien got into the habit of writing his children annual illustrated letters as if from Santa Claus, later published as The Father Christmas Letters. He also told them numerous bedtime stories. The turning point came in 1935, however, when, according to his own account, he was grading examination papers in his study. When he discovered that one student had left a page of his answer-book blank, Tolkien wrote (seemingly from nowhere): "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit".
In typical Tolkien fashion, he then decided he needed to find out what a “hobbit” was, what sort of a hole it lived in, why it lived in a hole, and so on. Out of this investigation, Tolkien wrote a tale called The Hobbit, which he read to his children, and even passed around to family friends. In 1936 an incomplete typescript of it came into the hands of Susan Dagnall, an employee of the publishing firm of George Allen and Unwin. Miss Dagnall asked Tolkien to finish it, and when that was done, she presented the complete story to Stanley Unwin, Chairman of the firm. Unwin took it home and, wise man that he was, tried it out on his 10-year old son Rayner. Rayner thought it pretty great, and so The Hobbit was published in 1937. It has never been out of print since. Indeed, The Hobbit was so successful that, good businessman (as well as good father) that he was, Stanley Unwin asked Tolkien if he had any more similar material available for publication. So it was that J.R.R. Tolkien set out to write the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings.
Here, in a slightly-over-100-word nutshell, is a synopsis of the next 900 pages of Tolkien’s work:
Now, at first glance, this might seem like a rather straightforward fantasy story. When Tolkien’s friend and colleague at Oxford, C.S. Lewis, heard that Tolkien was undertaking yet another volume of The Lord of the Rings epic, he was said to have exclaimed: “Oh no, not more damned elves!” But what are the vivid, dynamic, powerful—even spiritual—themes that have made this ostensibly straightforward and simple work such an epic part of our culture’s imagination? Why does Tolkien’s work have such a hold over generation after generation of readers?
For one thing, Tolkien (like all great mystics) reminds us of the “great and fiery force, sparkling in everything that lives”, in the words of Hildegard of Bingen. He reminds us about the hidden reality, the inner reality, in which we live and move and have our being—just as much as the earthly, everyday reality of the material world. Tolkien’s words—his imaginings—his vision—feeds the spiritual hunger of our modern age. He gives us otherworldly “glimpses” of the deeper joy and hope that abide at the heart of creation. He reminds us to hold firm in the hope and the faith that there is a Power—a Life Force—far greater than any powers or principalities of our corrupted age—which, ultimately, has things in hand. Tolkien reminds us that this deeper, divine Holy Mystery is played out in our own simple lives, right here and right now.
Secondly, Tolkien casts the struggles of our times (and his) in terms of a great cosmic struggle between Good and Evil. He reminds us that the three-score-and-ten years (maybe a little more) that any of us live upon this Earth are but an inkling of history’s larger page—but that our history is part of all that has come before, and all that will come after. Throughout history, Good and Evil have been locked in constant struggle, Tolkien believed. In our own time, then, we are called upon to use the powers we have to face off against that which manifests itself as Evil. Tolkien frees us from all the relativism and moral ambiguity which often render us incapable of action by presenting a stark choice—and challenging us to make that choice in our own time, and not always to hide behind the excuses for inaction which our confusion and lack of clarity produce.
However, in this struggle, he would have us be careful—and be humble;
Throughout the trilogy, the villainous, despicable Gollum, truly an agent of Evil if there ever was one, wrecks pain and havoc on all. At one point, Frodo despairs:
But then, the wise wizard Gandulf chides him:
We must be careful in labeling that which we consider Evil—for it may not be Evil at all, but just something we don’t understand; it may be our own fears reflected back to us. Likwise, we must beware the evil—the darkness—that lurks within our own souls. The Ring has an awesome power over those who possess it; the temptation of power awakens the evil forces even within the seemingly most noble of characters.
Thirdly, Tolkien also reminds us that as deep and drear as the night might be, the darkness will pass; a new day will dawn, and that the power of evil is ultimately, a passing illusion (albeit a powerful, painful, profoundly tragic illusion) that will pass away when the Light arrives anew. Like Frodo’s simple friend Sam, we, too, can know this healing sense of transcendence—this knowledge, as another great mystic, Julian of Norwich expressed it, that “All will be well”:
Or, in the words of the American poet James Russell Lowell:
In each moment of our living, there lies a choice, and, to a great degree, we are the choices we make. The Lord of the Rings reminds us of just how even unheroic beings like you and me, and like Frodo and Sam and their comrades, are oftentimes called upon to make quite heroic choices indeed. It also reminds us of the power within us to make these choice and to meet the challenges we face, however foolish and doomed they might seem.
It’s interesting to note, I think, that the name “Tolkien” is from the ancient Norse words meaning “foolish bravery”. So, we who seem weak and worthy and so very small and lowly (like Frodo) are often called upon to face seemingly insurmountable forces. We, too, like Frodo, might despair of our chances of success: “I wish the ring had never come to me,” he laments. “I wish it had never happened in my time.”
To which the ever-wise Gandulf responds:
Tolkien reminds us of the hope of the hopeless and the power of the powerless—and that blessed are the poor and meek and the humble—in body, and spirit, and in the things of this world—for theirs is to inherit the greater kingdom that is yet to be.
Nor do we travel alone on this epic journey we walk. How great a cloud of witnesses accompanies us our way— How many blessed spirits above and below us—How many dear friends with whom we share the road.
“It is no good trying to escape you,” Frodo exclaims when Sam spoils his plans to travel to Mordor alone. “But I’m glad, Sam. I cannot tell you how glad. Come along! It is plain that we were meant to go together.”
What amazing things are possible when our souls meet, and when soul sparks with soul in friendship and in love!
We are here, among one another—here in this church this morning; here in this community, this nation, this world, at this point in time-- for an even deeper reason than we discern. When we, too, form a Fellowship of our highest aspirations and most cherished dreams—a Fellowship of Faith, and Hope, and Love as strong as that presented by the nine powerful, brave, flawed, complicated, living, breathing, hoping, striving characters of Tolkien’s vision—then we, too, unlock the magnificent gifts of life which too often lie dormant in our souls.
When, in our striving together, we affirm one another—and celebrate one another—and care for one another—then who knows what miracles of the spirit we may render? Who knows how we may make this dessert blossom anew?
When we realize—all of us—how precious this life is—what it truly means to be a living, breathing, loving, shining being upon this beautiful Earth-- then we, too, like Gandulf, will be able to proclaim that “A great shadow has departed.” Shadows of greed, and hate, and fear, and selfishness—all cast away by our efforts, together. And like the simple Sam we, too, shall proclaim; “O great glory and splendor! All [our] wishes have come true!” Then we, too, will fall on our knees in thanksgiving and proclaim joyfully, joyfully our gratitude for this Great Gift we have received.