Archive for the ‘Pre-Modernism’ Category

In my Lenten Lord of the Rings journey, I’ll be starting on book 5, the Return of the King, tomorrow (which is also Tolkien Reading Day), after finishing The Two Towers (The Choices of Master Samwise) today.  I’ve noted several interesting things during this read of Lord of the Rings, for upcoming blog posts.  For this time, some observations regarding Frodo – some modernist tendencies, and his understanding of men.

Frodo, in contrast to Sam, acts as a bridge to us modern readers and our modern way of thinking – of the rational, material, logical approach to life, looking (mainly) at secondary causes.  For example, after the hobbits (in The Taming of Smeagol), use the elven rope that Sam brought along to get down a steep cliff, Sam is dismayed at having to leave the rope behind.  When Sam says “farewell” to the rope with one last tug, it suddenly falls down, returning to him.  Frodo insists that either the rope tore from its knot at the top of the cliff, or that the knot came undone – the only two options, seemingly.  The other end is not frayed, so Frodo concludes that the knot itself wasn’t tight to begin with.  Sam objects, noting his own skill with ropes and knots (as in the family tradition), and reveals to us the third option:  the rope had “elven magic” in it and came to him at his bidding.

Later, in Frodo’s conversation with Faramir, Frodo questions the story Faramir tells of seeing the elven boat with Boromir laid in it in funeral state.  Frodo’s skepticism connects us to modern times and the modern tendency to focus on the secondary causes, neglecting the reality of the power of God, the God who is still present and who still performs miracles.

‘Yet how could such a thing have happened in truth?’ asked Frodo. ‘For no boat could have been carried over the stony hills from Tol Brandir; and Boromir purposed to go home across the Entwash and the fields of Rohan. And yet how could any vessel ride the foam of the great falls and not founder in the boiling pools, though laden with water?’

Faramir reminds him of this power, manifested in Middle Earth through the elves:

‘You passed through the Hidden Land,’ said Faramir, ‘but it seems that you little understood its power. If Men have dealings with the Mistress of Magic who dwells in the Golden Wood, then they may look for strange things to follow.

Somewhat related to this, we also see that the hobbits have less discernment (at least in their head knowledge) regarding men, than men of the halflings.  It was at Rivendell, after the adventures with Strider in the wilderness, and thinking about Strider, that Frodo admitted to Gandalf:

I didn’t know that any of the Big People were like that. I thought, well, that they were just big, and rather stupid: kind and stupid like Butterbur; or stupid and wicked like Bill Ferny.

‘You don’t know much even about them, if you think old Barliman is stupid,’ said Gandalf. … But there are few left in Middle-earth like Aragorn son of Arathorn. The race of the Kings from over the Sea is nearly at an end. It may be that this War of the Ring will be their last adventure.’

In later conversation with Faramir, as Sam began to trust Faramir he spoke more freely, and  slipped out the news about Boromir and the Enemy’s ring.  Again it is Frodo’s head knowledge thinking that objects, “Sam!”  As Faramir points out to them, you are less judges of Men than I of Halflings, and to Sam, your heart is shrewd as well as faithful, and saw clearer than your eyes.  For strange though it may seem, it was safe to declare this to me.

Throughout both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, the hobbits generally are considered a “bridge” from the mythic past to the modern world and modern-thinking readers.  Even within that framework, Tolkien developed specific traits, such as Frodo the rationalist, materialist-influenced thinker as contrasted with Sam the heart and intuition type of person.

And tomorrow is March 25: Tolkien Reading Day (see this page at The Tolkien Society), and a significant date in Middle Earth, the day that the One Ring was destroyed.  That date is also significant within classical, liturgical Christianity, as the Annunciation, the day of the announcement to Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus Christ.  It is also the date, in classical Christianity, of Christ’s death on the cross.  (March 25 is 9 months before December 25, thus the importance of March 25.)  An online search shows many people observing March 25, Tolkien Reading Day.  As one special activity, I attended an online event yesterday, a scholarly lecture series with speakers from Europe and America, on “Values Tolkien Teaches.”  The recording of that event will be available at this Youtube link soon.

For all of you my readers, what Tolkien work do you have plans to read, for March 25 Tolkien Reading Day?

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An interesting point brought up in an Amon Sul podcast (episode #24), in relation to myth and story:  in our modern world, people often focus on “how can I relate to this person?” and similar questions.  As for example, which character in Tolkien’s world am I most like, or which one do I want to be like?  Modern people often ask, how do I relate to such people who are not ordinary, who do not have “ordinary” lives such as mine?  So it is in our modern, very psychologized world.  This can be seen as a symptom of modernism with its stress on individualism and lack of community.  A key part of community life, in contrast with our age, is that of ritual participation: the repeated, common experiences of a group of people, such as in observances in the calendar each year.  Such was the experience in pre-modern societies, whether pagan or in the early and then medieval Church.

In our age, science fiction and fantasy fiction lend themselves to a type of ritual participation: dressing up in costume, going to Star Trek or other sci-fi or fantasy conventions, for instance.  I remember my early days attending such events every year.  Lord of the Rings is another entry into ritual participation:  Doxamoots and related convention gathering events, but also the simple pleasure of the repeated experience found in re-reading through Lord of the Rings every year or at set times of the year.

On this note, I have even come across a reading schedule for Lord of the Rings.  It’s like a yearly Bible reading schedule, but for all the days of Lent (about 2 months) – and with specific chapters for assigned reading each day.  The schedule is even adjusted each year, with the 2023 reading schedule available here.  Various blogs have followed the Lent schedule, with posts related to the reading in the Lent schedule, such as this post from a few years ago, and also this post from 2015.  There’s even a Lenten Lord of the Rings podcast that provides daily updates, brief “devotional” thoughts on each day’s reading.

It’s certainly an aggressive schedule, one that I’m not sure if I’d be able to complete every day, but I think I’ll give it a try.  I may include audio book reading, with the audio book version (unabridged) I have (read by Rob Inglis).  Of course, Lent season is still four months away, and I completed this year’s reading of Lord of the Rings a month or so ago, to start on The Silmarillion now.

What are some other ideas and reading schedules for Lord of the Rings reading, or for reading of Tolkien’s other works?

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One great thing I like about having an electronic edition of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, is the ability to do word-studies on various themes — similar to Bible word-studies; in this case to see Tolkien’s vast use of language and Middle Earth themes.  From my recent re-reading through Lord of the Rings, I am again struck by the importance of the spoken word, and the idea of words having power.  Numerous examples abound, including Saruman’s voice which has power to deceive, or the word “key lock” at the gates of Moria, and the general idea of vows and oaths taken, a topic I explored in this previous post.

As pointed out in podcast episode 16 of Amon Sul, one interesting aspect of the story is the many times that speaking is with reference to NOT speaking about a particular thing:  namely, the Black Riders / Ringwraiths.  We first see it with Gandalf in the second chapter of Fellowship of the Ring, where Gandalf is sitting by Frodo’s fireplace telling Frodo the history of the ring:

‘Last night you began to tell me strange things about my ring, Gandalf,’ he said.  ‘And then you stopped, because you said that such matters were best left until daylight.  Don’t you think you had better finish now?’  and then,when reading to Frodo the writing on the ring:  The letters are Elvish, of an ancient mode, but the language is that of Mordor, which I will not utter here.

and again in the very next chapter when Pippin asks the elves about the Black Riders: let us not discuss this here; then later Gildor speaks privately about the riders to Frodo.  Throughout Lord of the Rings, people are cautioned not to speak about certain things openly: Gandalf speaking the words of Mordor at the Council of Elrond, for instance.  After Sam questioned the amount of time they had spent in Lothlorien, Legolas talked about the slow passing of time in Lorien, and then this interesting dialogue where Frodo speaks too casually about the elven ring:

“But the wearing is slow in Lorien,” said Frodo.  “The power of the Lady is on it.  Rich are the hours, though short they seem, in Caras Galadhon, where Galadriel wields the Elven-ring.”

“That should not have been said outside Lorien, not even to me,” said Aragorn.  “Speak no more of it!”

Clearly, these great matters are so grave, as to require certain spaces or places where they can be talked about.  Words, and especially spoken words, seemingly have the power of blessing and cursing, and such power is more than just a mere wish or hopeful thought.  Similarly, in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, the “deplorable word” in The Magician’s Nephew was what destroyed the world Charn.  We are never told the specific “word” but the idea again is of spoken words having power to destroy a world.

In our world, of course, it was the spoken word of God that created this world.  God spoke the world into existence.  And He later came in the flesh, the incarnate Word.  I think also of the ancient world, in which people who put great importance on spoken curses (as well as blessings).  The Old Testament especially is replete with references to spoken curses as well as blessings.  Jacob did not want a curse to fall on him, for deceiving Isaac and claiming to be Esau – Rebecca allowed the curse to fall on her instead.  Then in Judges 17 we see a son greatly concerned because of a curse his mother had spoken, regarding silver that had been taken from her.  We also have God’s promised blessings and curses put on the people of God (Leviticus and Deuteronomy), as part of their covenant with God, and again these blessings and curses were to be spoken publicly before the assembly.

As for Tolkien’s idea of words not being spoken in particular places, but sometimes allowed in other, more private and prepared places, I am also reminded of an interesting point from early church history.  The early church had the writings which became the New Testament canon, writings which were circulated among believers and available to unbelievers.  But they also had their own traditions, and particular practices, which were only dealt with orally, and only in their places of worship.  As application of Jesus’ words in Matthew 7 about not casting your pearls before swine, the early church leaders considered certain matters of such special, sacred importance, that these teachings were not to be written down and available to the unbelieving (swine and dogs) and were not for discussion (verbally) with unbelievers, but were only for the catechumens and the church congregations, as in this excerpt from St. Basil (4th century):

Of the dogmas and sermons preserved in the Church, certain ones we have from written instruction, and certain ones we have received from the Apostolic [oral] Tradition, handed down in secret [i.e., discreetly]. Both the one and the other have one and the same authority for piety, and no one who is even the least informed in the decrees of the Church will contradict this. … Is this not the silent and secret tradition? … Is it not from this unpublished and unspoken teaching which our Fathers have preserved in a silence inaccessible to curiosity and scrutiny, because they were thoroughly instructed to preserve in silence the sanctity of the Mysteries [i.e., Sacraments]? For what propriety would there be to proclaim in writing a teaching concerning that which it is not allowed for the unbaptized even to behold?

And summarized in a current-day look at this early church history  (Know the Faith, by Michael Shanbour):

Generally, however, dogma was neither preached to unbelievers nor written down for fear that it would be misunderstood, trivialized, and mocked, subjected to petty curiosity that is demeaning to holy things. As St. Basil the Great puts it, “Reverence for the mysteries is best encouraged by silence.” Although counterintuitive to our modern minds, the Church was very reticent to “throw pearls to swine” (Matt. 7:6), lest that which is holy be trampled upon. . . . Therefore the dogmas of the Church were purposely kept discreet and unwritten. Catechumens were instructed not to write down on paper what they were hearing and not to share dogma with unbelievers. The Church’s more intimate teachings and many of her practices were taught only by word of mouth or not spoken of at all until one had entered the Church and experienced her inner life. Even the Lord’s Prayer was not taught to catechumens (let alone unbelievers) until after or just prior to their baptism.

The parallels between the ancient world and ideas brought out in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (and in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series) continue to fascinate me.  So much of what made Tolkien’s writing so successful and well-received, comes from his expertise in the history and literature of the ancient, pre-modern world.

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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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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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