Archive for the ‘Obedience in Suffering’ Category

As I continue to study this topic, Christian themes in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, I find more and more story similarities to Christian truth and even to particular events recorded in the Bible.   For example, a recent Sunday sermon was on Acts 21, and in this story, especially verses 11-14, I was reminded of a similar illustration from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers (see Abe Books offer) — and Faramir’s last words with Frodo.

These verses in Acts 21 tell of when the prophet Agabus visits and makes a “bad news” prophecy, that trouble awaits the apostle Paul in Jerusalem:   the Jews of Jerusalem would bind Paul and hand him over to the Gentiles.  The people, on hearing this, plead with Paul not to go to Jerusalem.  But Paul insists on going to Jerusalem, proclaiming his willingness to be bound and even to die in Jerusalem, and then the people accept this, saying “The Lord’s will be done.”

As harsh as Paul’s experience ended up being, Tolkien’s picture of a similar type of thing appears to be of even worse circumstances —  with great details to engage the reader and to strongly identify with the characters.   This illustration in turn can give us a greater appreciation of the actual trials experienced by the apostle Paul.

In the Middle Earth event, the place is that of known danger, of some great, ancient evil — Cirith Ungol.  Frodo at first does not know its name, and can only describe the general direction and path of this entrance into Mordor that Gollum has described.  Faramir plays a role similar to Agabus and the people who heard Agabus’ prophecy:  first, in the prophecy of extreme danger, and then — like the people who heard Agabus — strongly advising Frodo not to go there.  Yet, like the apostle Paul – and in a way that both Jesus and Paul in Christ’s steps showed us — Frodo keeps to the will of God (as pictured in the Council of Elrond, and the great task that he must accomplish).  After giving the warnings to Frodo, and seeing Frodo’s determined choice and willingness to his work, Faramir — like the people who accompanied the apostle Paul, in similar effect did the same:  Since he would not be persuaded, we said no more except, “The Lord’s will be done.”

It is this feature in Frodo’s character, as well as later events that happen to him, that is in mind when Frodo is commonly referred to as the representation of the Priestly Office of Christ — along with Gandalf the Prophet and Aragorn the King, for the types of Christ as Priest, Prophet, and King in Tolkien’s epic work.  A few excerpts for consideration, from the scene in The Two Towers:

‘Frodo, I think you do very unwisely in this,’ said Faramir. ‘I do not think you should go with this creature. It is wicked.’

‘You would not ask me to break faith with him?’ ‘No,’ said Faramir. ‘But my heart would. For it seems less evil to counsel another man to break troth than to do so oneself, especially if one sees a friend bound unwitting to his own harm. But no – if he will go with you, you must now endure him. But I do not think you are holden to go to Cirith Ungol, of which he has told you less than he knows. That much I perceived clearly in his mind. Do not go to Cirith Ungol!’ … …. Of them we know only old report and the rumour of bygone days. But there is some dark terror that dwells in the passes above Minas Morgul. If Cirith Ungol is named, old men and masters of lore will blanch and fall silent.’

Then a further plea:

It is a place of sleepless malice, full of lidless eyes. Do not go that way!’

Frodo’s response:  ‘But where else will you direct me?’ said Frodo. ‘You cannot yourself, you say, guide me to the mountains, nor over them. But over the mountains I am bound, by solemn undertaking to the Council, to find a way or perish in the seeking. And if I turn back, refusing the road in its bitter end, where then shall I go among Elves or Men?  … ‘Then what would you have me do?’

Faramir: ‘I know not. Only I would not have you go to death or to torment. And I do not think that Mithrandir [another name for Gandalf] would have chosen this way.’

‘Yet since he is gone, I must take such paths as I can find. And there is no time for long searching,’ said Frodo.

‘It is a hard doom and a hopeless errand,’ said Faramir. ‘But at the least, remember my warning: beware of this guide, Sméagol. He has done murder before now. I read it in him.’

Faramir’s final words on this subject:

He sighed. ‘Well, so we meet and part, Frodo son of Drogo. You have no need of soft words: I do not hope to see you again on any other day under this Sun. But you shall go now with my blessing upon you, and upon all your people. … If ever beyond hope you return to the lands of the living and we re-tell our tales, sitting by a wall in the sun, laughing at old grief, you shall tell me then [Faramir’s questions about Gollum, and how Gollum had been involved with possessing the great ring of power]. Until that time, or some other time beyond the vision of the Seeing-stones of Númenor, farewell!’

An important element in both the Bible story in Acts 21, and the similar type of event in Lord of the Rings, is that the main character, the protagonist, is heading into great danger.  For Paul it certainly meant bonds, being whipped and physically abused, and (for all he knew) death.  For Frodo it meant likely death, and indeed we see in the later events, that Frodo (again similar to Gandalf and Aragorn) did experience a type of death  that is like to the real sufferings of Paul as well as Christ.

Yet, when Agabus gave that prophecy to Paul, nothing in the prophecy itself indicated to the recipient (Paul) that he should thus change his course and direction, and avoid the place that would provide such a negative experience.  A common life saying I’ve heard from a local acquaintance goes something like, “if I knew the place where I would die, I would avoid that place like the plague.”  Such is our natural reaction, to avoid pain and suffering.  But the call of God on the life of a Christian, as shown in the 1st century experience of the apostle Paul, and shown for us in the best of tales and epic sagas, takes precedence.  As Elisabeth Elliot observed (see previous post), the great heroes went on their adventures, facing great difficulties, because of the promise of great reward.  Paul the apostle certainly had this heart, knowing the love of God which constrains us, with a willingness to suffer, since (Romans 8:18) our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the future glory.  Frodo, too, realized the importance of carrying out his mission — to destroy the evil works of Sauron the Dark Lord, to bring peace and safety and happy lives to the people of Middle Earth, to free them from their fears and the threats and bondage of Sauron.

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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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