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Orthodoxy in the Shire

Orthodoxy in the Shire - A Tribute to J R R Tolkien
by Eadmund Dunstall

J R R Tolkien was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Old English at the University of Oxford. Folk who think that all Professors are dull, but who love those marvellous stories of his, The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, find this fact hard to remember. However it was Tolkien’s great love of language and history, that enabled him to earn his living amid the dreaming spires, and it was the same love which enabled him to devote much of his leisure time to recording the adventures of those resourceful and surprising little creatures the Hobbits. The account of how The Hobbit was started in the first place, when Tolkien in a moment of abstraction scribbled the first words of the story on a blank examination paper that he was supposed to be marking, became a legend in his own lifetime. However, the aspect of Tolkien that I wish to consider here is his religion insofar as it is displayed in his books. Tolkien was brought up in the Roman Catholic tradition, and he was profoundly religious, both facts which influence his work, but the world of Middle-Earth, in which his books are set, is by no means the legalistic, narrow-minded place that one might expect: it shimmers with mystery. To read even a chapter of The Silmarillion would be sufficient to convince one that its author had a profound religious faith, but I think it would also cast doubt on whether the breadth of it would fit into the exact and legalistic requirements of Roman Catholicism. I feel sure that had Lord of the Rings been written in the Middle Ages, and had it achieved the widespread fame that it enjoys today, its author would have been condemned by the Vatican. Middle-Earth is our own earth enchanted. The flora and fauna (especially the trees), the seasons, weather and stars exist as in our world, but with a heightened, enchanted presence. Tolkien loved the mystic sense of creation, and he complained that the new English Roman Catholic Mass, which replaced the Tridentine Mass in the sixth decade of the last century, demystified that church.

On a superficial level there is very little religion in Lord of the Rings and none in The Hobbit. Little reference is made to human or hobbit characters praying in the accepted sense, except when Frodo and Sam meet up with Faramir in the wilderness and they join their hosts in a kind of ‘grace’ before eating. The elvish ‘hymns’ are directed not to God as we know Him, nor even to the Virgin Mary, but to a ‘pagan’ goddess.

On the same superficial level there are plenty of echoes of our own pagan past. The Kings and elders who come out of the sea are akin to Scyld Scefing, who appeared mysteriously as a baby on board a boat, and as mysteriously disappeared again when he died in a ‘Viking’ funeral that begins the poem Beowulf, our national epic. Gollum, the hobbit turned bad, a tragi-comic character who still has some vestiges of good in him, is very like Loki. The wizard Gandalf has many of the characteristics of the pagan god Odin/Woden - his appearance, his shortness of temper, his wonderful horse, his appearing in the thick of the battle etc. The same could be said of the personification of evil, Sauron. He only has one eye with which he scans all the world, sending out his winged messengers (ravens in Woden’s case, Nazgul in Sauron’s) to strike terror into all who come near them, and he is a Necromancer. The names that Tolkien uses are taken directly from the myths of the Norsemen - Mirkwood, Gimli and Beorn for example - and the dwarves, goblins and dragons are also drawn directly from them. But the allusions to paganism cannot disguise the fact that the books are written by a Christian author, any more than can the pagan allusions in Beowulf or The History of the English Church and People by the Venerable Bede. However, if we were to dismiss Tolkien’s books as a scholarly re-hash of the themes of old tales we would be completely missing the point of them. The whole purpose of the books is the primæval and eternal contest between ultimate Good and ultimate Evil. The books are set in a time before Christ walked on earth, although His coming is prophesied. However, anyone who has read The Silmarillion will know that the principle of Good is The One, and the creation myth in The Silmarillion is a beautiful re-telling of Genesis from a Northern point of view. Tolkien simply imagines what the writer of Genesis might have written had he lived in our part of the world. The difference between Tolkien’s myth and the real myths is that Tolkien’s is more obviously a prequel to the revelation of the Gospel by St Augustine at Ebbsfleet. It is a kind of Old Testament for the English nation, just as the Biblical Old Testament was the account of the Jews’ fumbling attempts to penetrate the mystery surrounding the majesty of Yahweh. There are also some overtly Christian references in Lord of the Rings. For example, the elves give the travellers some sweet honey-cakes that they call lembas or waybread, which can sustain one in a way that no other food can, and grow in power the more one places reliance on them: surely a prefiguring of the Bread of the Eucharist. The use of the name of Elbereth, which stills all terrors, and which even the dreaded Nazgul blanche at, is surely a prefiguring of the Holy Name of Christ. Gandalf also in his ‘death’ in Moria and subsequent ‘resurrection’ could be seen as a figure of Christ. There are other such examples, but even these are not overt. Tolkien knew better than to preach: something which in my view mars The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe series of books by his colleague and friend C S Lewis. In fact Tolkien is known to have disliked these books, probably partly for this reason. Like the power of Gandalf, the power of Tolkien’s religion is greater for being cloaked. It is something that the reader must find out, not something that is worn on the sleeve. Tolkien, after all, was not the first to wrap his message in parables and mysterious sayings ...

Tolkien’s books work on so many levels of allegory, that it is not possible to deal with them on a one-for-one basis: one might as well try to analyse a rainbow. However, I think that one of the meanings of the ruling ring can be found in the Tree of Knowledge. The Ring is fatally flawed, so that even though it may be taken with the intent to do good, its power will corrupt the user to a greater or lesser amount according to his spiritual stature. Even the works of the Elves - Lothlorien and Rivendell - will come to an end, because the power that made them was associated with the power of the Ring.

Tolkien in his overall plan of Lord of the Rings, states where his sympathies lie. The book is about a war between a Good City, Minas Tirith, set upon a hill close to the mighty river Anduin the Great and a wicked land, Mordor, the home of shadows and evil. Anduin divides the East, the home of cruelty and darkness, from the West, the home of light and love. A war has been raging on and off between these two for countless years. The city in the West is supported by faithful allies, who come down from their home in the North to save it when it is besieged by its Eastern enemy. Some have seen in this an analogy of the Cold War between Washington and Moscow. However the Enemy is not Capitalism, or Communism or any of the other -isms with which we label systems of ideas: it is the systems themselves, and the States that we invent to enforce them, exercising power as domination. The Orthodox Christians of old were well aware of the ‘Ring’ and tried to warn Rome, which nevertheless seized it, probably with the best of intentions.

But if one is determined to find the historical war that provided the pattern for Tolkien’s story, there is another, more ancient war, which provides a very close fit. Constantinople stood in the West by a mighty river, separating East and West, its gates constantly under attack from the East. If only some brave men could, like Aragorn, have roused the ghosts of the men of the West, who had so often betrayed the City to which they owed homage, and brought them to fight in the great battle: if only the Cossack horsemen had once and for all been able, like Theoden, to swoop down from their Northern steppes and to drive the Turks from the gates: how might our history have been changed?

Tolkien was, after all, a Professor of Anglo-Saxon. He was a Roman Catholic because that was the faith of his forefathers, but his interests took him back to a time before the great Schism when Rome and Constantinople were as one. I think that whatever label was hung around his neck, he was a believer in the pre-Schism Church: the united Church of God, and his message is broad and important enough to overcome any petty labels that humanity can invent.

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