Archive for April, 2022

Christian themes in Lord of the Rings:  It is sometimes said that Tolkien’s fiction is not “Christian” because it does not show people in a church context with worship and prayer to God.  The answer is more complex, and subtle — we see types  (that is pictures, examples), of the prophet, priest, and king roles, plus many other Christian themes.  The background history told in The Silmarilion is where we find the more direct Christian teaching of Iluvatar (God) along with Middle Earth’s creation story.  In Lord of the Rings (see boxed set for sale at Abebooks) itself, one event often mentioned is that of Faramir and his men standing, facing west, in a moment of silence before dinner is served — “so we always do,” said Faramir — “we look towards Numenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be.”

In my current re-reading, I’m nearing the end of The Two Towers, and again impressed with Faramir.  In particular, in my reading up to this point, is the importance of oaths and vows, of promises that are made by something greater than the person making the promise.  In book 2 of Fellowship of the Ring, Elrond gave his final words including the charge to the ring-bearer — and for the others in the fellowship “no oath or bond is laid on you to go further than you will.”  Then earlier in book 4 of The Two Towers, Frodo requests of Gollum a promise that Frodo can trust.  Smeagol says he will swear on the Precious — and Frodo presents Gollum with the solemness of oaths, and the important distinction between swearing “on” something versus swearing “by” it — and will only accept Smeagol’s swearing by the Precious.

Oaths and vows are one feature that give Middle Earth its flavor of ancient, legendary times.  We know that in our world, oaths and vows, and the concept of one’s integrity and making trustworthy promises, was a characteristic in ancient times, as seen in the earliest history in the Bible, in the early chapters of Genesis, as well as among the pagans.  Biblical history soon after the Fall, shows God making covenants — which include oaths, promises — first in the Protoevangelium (Genesis 3:15), and later with Noah and Abraham.  The Gentile nations, all descendants from Noah’s three sons, and though fallen still Image Bearers of God, retained among their basic moral values, the importance of trust, oaths, and vows.  This article from a secular viewpoint, tells about oaths taken by soldiers in ancient Rome.  Oaths and vows continued in our history through medieval times, and again Lord of the Rings has a medieval feel.  Who can read the scene of the hobbit Pippin swearing fealty to Denethor the Steward of Gondor, without thinking of the medieval knights?

The actual word “prayer”  is also found in Tolkien’s Middle Earth — though only twice.  The first use is near the end of The Hobbit, when the Elvenking heard the the news that Smaug the dragon was dead;  “the king, when he received the prayers of Bard, had pity, for he was the lord of a good and kindly people”.  The next time occurs in The Two Towers, from Faramir, referring to Frodo’s prayer to accept Gollum as his servant and to have Gollum under his charge.  In this context, the meaning of prayer conveys the idea of a request from a lesser person to one of a higher social station, and in this same scene Frodo calls Faramir “Lord.”  And such a type of request is certainly part of what is involved in prayer.

In a key scene, Faramir tells Frodo what his response would be to finding the “heirloom” that belonged to the Dark Lord.  He does not actually use the word oath or vow or swear, but says:

“But fear no more!  I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway.  Not were Minas Tirith falling in ruin and I alone could save her, so, using the weapon of the Dark Lord for her good and my glory.  No.  I do not wish for such triumphs, Frodo son of Drogo.”

Later, when Faramir finds out that “this thing” is the enemy’s ring, he attests to what he had earlier said: We are truth-speakers, we men of Gondor.  We boast seldom, and then perform, or die in the attempt.  Not if I found it on the highway would I take it I said.  Even if I were such a man as to desire this thing, and even though I knew not clearly what this thing was when I spoke, still I should take those words as a vow, and be held by them.

Faramir shows great qualities of character, truth, and integrity, and yet he is just one example of such in the Lord of the Rings.  Often, when I read through Lord of the Rings, I think about which character I am most like, and which character I would aspire to be like.  In the Frodo and Faramir story, I generally identify with Frodo, the introverted traveler who does not easily trust others, keeps things to myself and slow to trust.  But I certainly would want to be like a Faramir, an encourager and able to help others in need, as providence brings such situations into my life.  What about you?

Questions and “food for thought” for Lord of the Rings fans:

  • What are some other positive character traits seen in Faramir?
  • What are some other examples, with other characters, of showing their integrity and keeping promises?


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One of my earliest childhood memories is that of staring at snow and puzzling over what it was:  not the white drops falling from the sky, but the end product, several inches of a “blanket” that completely covered the grass.  We had moved from southern Texas to a much colder climate (Denver) a few months before, and so at age 3 1/2 I literally did not know what snow was.  I remember staring out the window, several times over a few days, puzzling over what had happened to the grass, and thinking of different words to describe what I saw.  I knew that the grass was green, and that this white thing looked like a blanket; the best explanation I could come up with was that this white blanket had completely swallowed up the grass and the grass was gone forever.  After a few days of checking on this new white coating, though, I finally saw very clear spots where the white stuff was now gone, revealing that the grass was still there after all.

J.R.R. Tolkien, in his classic lecture/essay On Fairy Stories, noted the power of the human mind to discriminate between a substance and its attributes:

The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent.   The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water.  …
When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes.

Indeed Tolkien himself made good use of color in his descriptions of Middle Earth scenery:  the greensward (a word which refers to ground turf that is green with growing grass), for instance, as well as the richness of several colors of nature.

The “enchantment” continues in the development of a “green stone,” using the adjective green for a stone, and its special significance developed within the second half of Fellowship of the Ring.  First, Bilbo explains to Frodo about a poem he had written, that it was all mine.  Except that Aragorn insisted on my putting in a green stone.  He seemed to think it important.  The green stone finally appears, as a gift to Aragorn from the Lady Galadriel, one of the early scenes that hints at Aragorn’s kingship:

She lifted from her lap a great stone of a clear green, set in a silver brooch that was wrought in the likeness of an eagle with outspread wings; and as she held it up the gem flashed like the sun shining through the leaves of spring.  …”In this hour take the name that was foretold for you, Elessar, the Elfstone of the house of Elendil!
Then Aragorn took the stone and pinned the brooch upon his breast, and those who saw him wondered; for they had not marked before how tall and kingly he stood.

I consider also the significance of the color green: it represents plants, and springtime, and thus the renewal of life.  Our God is a great artist, who gave us the rainbow and its full palette and range of colors.  But He marked out certain colors to signify particular themes.  God could have made the plants purple, or blue, but instead we see the many references in the Bible to “green”:

  • The green plants created in Genesis
  •  The green plants eaten up, everything green, by the locusts during the plagues of Egypt
  • The green pastures and green plants described in peaceful scenes in the book of Psalms (such as Psalm 23)
  • Then Jesus’ words to the women, as He carried His cross to Golgotha, to weep for themselves: for if they do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when the tree is dry — a metaphor describing the spiritual life of the nation as healthy and “green” now, but it will be dry, no longer green, when the judgment comes.
  • The judgment theme continues into Revelation, where one of the judgments includes mention — hearkening back to the plagues of Egypt — that “all the green grass was burned up.” (Revelation 8:7)

Another significant use of the color green, in the Bible, is to the emerald — a green gem.  This is one of the 12 gems mentioned in the Old Testament ceremonial law, as one of the gems on Aaron’s breastpiece, where the twelve gemstones represented the twelve tribes of Israel always remembered by God.  But the emerald especially comes out in a wonderful description in Revelation 4, of the throne-room scene.  In Revelation 4:3, “a rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne” — thus indicating special significance in the color green.  This rainbow is not showing the full spectrum of all colors, but specifically green — referencing life and renewal.

It is this reference, as I see it, that especially relates to Tolkien’s choice of not just any stone of any color, but a green stone.  Whether or not Tolkien himself had Revelation 4 in mind, this text certainly agrees with the theme of Aragorn as the returning king.  For it is well known that Aragorn, as seen in glimpses throughout Lord of the Rings, and especially revealed in Return of the King, is the returning king and a clear type of Christ as our great King.  As the rainbow around the throne is green, so this green gem is especially fitting for the type, Aragorn the King of Gondor.

I thank God for so many of the little things in life, such as natural beauty and the color green.  I’m also thankful for imaginative fiction such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings for bringing out the grandeur of creation and showing us features of God’s word in mythic form.

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At the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo did not see the end of his journey:  For where am I to go?  And by what shall I steer?  What is to be my quest?  Bilbo went to find a treasure, there and back again; but I go to lose one, and not return, as far as I can see.

Even then, Gandalf pointed out that he did not know what would happen.  Later, Frodo learned from Faramir of Boromir’s death.  Frodo already thought Gandalf was gone — he had seen him fall into the abyss — and so now he considered that in addition to Boromir, likely all of his companions were dead.  Faramir also encouraged him, pointing out a reason to believe that at least some of his companions still lived — who else had prepared Boromir as for a funeral?  Frodo faithfully continued in his quest, to see the destruction of the ring in the fires of Mount Doom.  Then came an unexpected turn, the “eucatastrophe” as J.R.R. Tolkien coined the phrase: in how the ring was destroyed, and especially after that.  Sam and Frodo woke up to see Gandalf, who had returned from the dead.  As Sam exclaimed in a famous line, “Gandalf!  I thought you were dead!  But then I thought I was dead myself.  Is everything sad going to come untrue?”

Likewise, Christ’s followers thought Jesus was dead and gone.  The disciples on the road to Emmaus — they thought He was the one to redeem Israel, but now He’s dead.

The women went to the tomb; “why do you search for the living among the dead?”  Even more so than Gandalf, Jesus had told them it would happen — that He would be killed and then three days later He would rise — but they weren’t listening.  What great joy they then experienced, beyond belief, when they finally saw the risen Christ (ref. Luke 24:41).  The Don Francisco song “The Traveler / Joy” captures that feeling of joy so well —

Some lifted hands toward heaven
And then knelt without a sound
Some just stood and stared at Him
As if rooted to the ground

But I could not contain the joy  That flooded heart and soul
It came rushing out in praises  I had no wish to control!

As J.R.R. Tolkien said so well, in his lecture On Fairy Stories, the gospel is the true story and the great eucatastrophe:

But this story has entered History and the primary world… The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history.  The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation.  This story begins and ends in joy.

A very blessed Good Friday and Easter / Resurrection Sunday to all!

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I’ve been reading through one of Elisabeth Elliot’s books, Finding Your Way Through Loneliness, and impressed by the general thrust and themes in it — particularly the points of obedience, and offering oneself and all that one has (and is, and does, and doesn’t have) as a complete sacrifice to God.

One of her illustrations is that of mythic adventures and the promised great reward:

The heroes of the world’s great legends let themselves in for all kinds of fearsome troubles because of the promise of a great reward—the favor of the king, a pot of gold, marriage to a princess. Because there was a shining goal, they entered in with heart and will to participate in the as-yet unseen and unknown hazards of the dreadful journey. Their heroism lay in acceptance—a wholehearted acceptance of conditions other men would avoid at all cost—and in endurance. The dark caves, tunnels, and labyrinths were not problems to be solved but hazards to be traversed, the storms and heavy seas were to be braved, the giants and monsters to be slain. All were accepted and endured in view of the prize.

Though Elliot never mentions J.R.R. Tolkien specifically (she does occasionally reference writings from C.S. Lewis), this quote and similar thoughts remind me of this heroism as seen in both The Hobbit and in Lord of the Rings.  Certainly The Hobbit fits into her category, of characters that are willing to take on great difficulties because of the promise of a great reward.  Indeed, in the sequel, Frodo himself makes this point to Gandalf:  Bilbo had gone off on a treasure hunt, to gain something and then return:  For where am I to go?  And by what shall I steer?  What is to be my quest?  Bilbo went to find a treasure, there and back again; but I go to lose one, and not return, as far as I can see.

Still the adventure experience itself is something that imparts life lessons.  This article at An Unexpected Journal makes some great points regarding life as an adventure, drawing from the stories of Saint Brendan–and from Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit:

Life is meant to be an adventure. When we cease to reach out and stretch ourselves something in us dies or we feel frustrated; for life to be lived to the full it has to be adventurous. I believe that God calls us to adventure, to extend ourselves, and to seek new horizons . . . In all our lives there are mystery and depths that are unfathomable; if we lose our sight of this life becomes more of a problem or we become dull and bored. … There is a great risk of loss in both adventure and faith, but the benefits are both immediate as well as eternal. In the end, knowledge of oneself and one’s God is gained through adventure, and one begins to see the familiar in new ways. …

Yet in many ways, Frodo’s experience, and that of the other Hobbits, picture for us in story form what Elisabeth Elliot describes, regarding suffering (including loneliness) and our obedience in our tasks, whatever those may be.  In my current reading through The Two Towers, book 4 (the second part, about Frodo, Sam and Gollum on their way to Mordor), a scene from chapter 3 “The Black Gate is Closed” particularly makes the strong point of obedience to the will of God — in the story’s context, Frodo’s commission, that he had accepted in the council meeting at Rivendell — and one’s commitment to complete that work, whatever the consequences.

“I purpose to enter Mordor, and I know no other way.  Therefore I shall go this way.  I do not ask anyone to go with me.” … “I am commanded to go to the land of Mordor, and therefore I shall go,” said Frodo.  “If there is only one way, then I must take it.  What comes after must come.”

Then, in chapter 5 of Book 4, Frodo’s continued resolve, even in the face of fear and sorrow (in the meeting with Faramir):

Almost he yielded to the desire for help and counsel, to tell this grave young man, whose words seemed so wise and fair, all that was in his mind.  But something held him back.  His heart was heavy with fear and sorrow: if he and Sam were indeed, as seemed likely, all that was now left of the Nine Walkers, then he was in sole command of the secret of their errand.  Better mistrust undeserved than rash words.

What a great example, from our great literature, of single-minded purposeful obedience.  Frodo’s was an obedience that included much suffering, with continued uncertainty as to the outcome.  Until the end came, neither he nor Sam knew if they would accomplish their task, of destroying the enemy’s ring and thus putting an end to Sauron and all his works.  (And we who continually re-visit the world of Middle Earth know the ending well – Frodo failed in one sense, but “the pity of Bilbo” won the day.)  How much more revelation we have – we know the end of the story, of the “true myth” of the Gospel, as we look forward to the “Return of the King” Christ’s Second Coming.

Yet in the details of our own particular stories, of each of our own lives, like Frodo we do not know the outcome of specific events and trials.  We walk by faith, and not by sight, as we encounter the blessings as well as the trials, the circumstances and providences that God puts in the path for us.  This life is a spiritual warfare.  Oh, let us always keep our eyes on our God and walk the path of obedience–in loneliness (reference Elisabeth Elliot above) and all other suffering–with such steadfastness as displayed in Frodo.

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While reading an audio book version of Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live recently – and enjoying it, this first time reading —  I was reminded of J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing.  I have continually returned to Tolkien over the years, always finding joy and hope and adventure in Middle Earth.  In Schaeffer, I noticed similar thoughts in terms of worldview and especially a pre-modern view of history and the world.

An online search on Schaeffer and Tolkien turned up a few common references, including this interesting five-part series from Credomag:  Retrieving an Ancient Sacramental Ecology.  Starting with the early church’s view of nature as a great contrast with our industrialized modern age, this series traces the development of Christian thought from the ancient world through the Middle Ages; the 4th and 5th articles specifically look at the Inklings (Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis) and then at Francis Schaeffer, and their pre-modern (before the industrial age) views of ecology.

Lord of the Rings is so rich with so many themes.  I have always enjoyed the interesting characters, the background history, and the grand themes of good triumphing over evil and joy out of sorrow.  As I re-read through it this time, I’m noting even more the types of Christ in the characters along with Christian themes.  I’m also observing the references throughout to the natural creation – the many detailed descriptions of the various places along the journey, but also giving more attention to Tolkien’s love of trees and flowers.  As noted in the Credomag article:

When the Lord of the Rings books were published in the 1950s, Tolkien explicitly portrayed the ravages of “industrialized and militarized agriculture.” His villains—from Sauron and Saruman in their dark towers to the hobbit Lotho Sackville-Baggins who takes over the Shire—regularly despoil the land over which they rule through industrialization. Saruman the wizard “has a mind for metals and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment,” wrote Tolkien.

The “black engines and factories” of Mordor were decried by Tolkien’s sentient trees, such as the Ent Treebeard, who responded to Saruman’s deforestation of Isengard: “We Ents do not like being roused; and we never are roused unless it is clear to us that our trees and our lives are in great danger.” Mordor was a “land defiled, diseased beyond healing,” with “dead grasses and rotting weeds.” In short, Tolkien associated large-scale, slave-based agriculture with horrific evil.

Then the next (fifth) article has good insights into Francis Schaeffer.  From the recommendations in this article, I’ve also bought a used copy of Schaeffer’s “Pollution and the Death of Man,” to read in the near future.

While Schaeffer may have been co-opted by America’s “Evangelical Right,” he was never truly part of it. Indeed, in his The God Who is There (1968), he chided conservatives for being “far too provincial, isolated from general cultural thinking.” At the same time, he rightly complained that modern theology was not merely pantheistic but anthropomorphic, in that it worships human achievement. He argued that modern theology was blindly following cultural trends. To wed God to human culture or accomplishments was indeed what Bacon’s philosophy tried to do. But in his Pollution and the Death of Man, Schaeffer contended that such theologians were merely pragmatic and technological. According to Schaeffer, pragmatism is the death of morality, offering only a completely “egotistic position in regard to nature.” We save nature only because of how it affects us and our children and the generations to come. “Modern man has fallen into a dilemma because he has made things autonomous from God,” wrote Schaefer.

Schaeffer indeed is in a similar line of thinking with the earlier writers J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  As mentioned in the description of this book – An Encouraging Thought: The Christian Worldview in the Writings of J.R.R. Tolkien — on Goodreads, the author learned a lot about the Christian worldview from Francis Schaeffer and CS Lewis, but it was actually Tolkien who first showed him that such a thing exists and is an essential component of maturing faith.

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