They Should have done their Homework

Of all the television networks you would think that the History Channel would be most conscientious in preparing their specials. This is not the case, as demonstrated by last night’s “Clash of the Gods: The Lord of the Rings.” The show falls prey to the commonest of pitfalls: allegory. Not only that, but their analysis is severely reductionist, and omits key points necessary to an understanding of Tolkien or his work.  I regret the time I spent watching it, but felt compelled to comment. 

The show lists precedent after precedent as the true source for the Ring, Gandalf, the Hobbit and many elements of Tolkien’s writing. While it is true that Tolkien read, taught, and was inspired by these works this by no means implies a one to one relationship. The one saving grace here was an aside, by one of their experts: Tolkien had the unique ability to combine elements of pagan and Christian mythology.

One example of “Clash’s” narrow interpretation is the orcs. They claim the orcs are representative of capitalism. Yes, it fits…but it is too narrow a focus. There are no one to ones in Tolkien. Or if so, it is not quite so specific. Tolkien was suspicious of most technology and industry, seeing how they came to dominate the landscape and destroy natural England. Orcs are the embodiment of those who delight in machines and wanton destruction. They represent the evils of Modernity, no matter the economic or political credo.  Yet this is just one interpretation I see (see Evil or Not), one application.  The wonder of LotR, and its staying power, lies in its use of applicability in place of allegory.  The opinions of “Clash” are valid, but they are mere applications, not the source or the meaning.  Herein lies the power.  In place of the all-powerful author, controlling meaning and intent, we have the all powerful reader, free to find numerous and unique meanings upon each reading and each time.  I understand the desire to interpret and condense, but the lack of any mention of applicability, (but the very noticeable mention of allegory a few times) is troublesome…when the author went to such pains to express his ideology within the pages of the book itself! 

Through all the discussion of source materials, they never mention the true impetus of the story and the reason Tolkien actually admits: language. Very little time is spent on Tolkien’s invention of language, which he claimed is the progenitor of all myth. The Silmarillion and his subsequent writings, all stem from Tolkien’s creation of elvish. He not only desired an English mythology, but to discover the world of his languages.

In the end the biggest flaw is one so crucial to an understanding of Tolkien, and his understanding of Christian providence, that I cannot believe it was never mentioned. Not only that, but it was blatantly ignored! This concept is eucatastrophe; the sudden entrance of Grace, which saves all from despair. In the show, they remark on how “contrary to his Christian beliefs” it is that Frodo does not conquer the Ring and destroy it…that he does not succeed. That a “good” character succumbs, and the “evil” (Gollum) succeeds in his place through evil designs. This is blatantly wrong. Tolkien believed in Eucatastrophe, taking his cues from the greatest moment of Eucatastrophe in history: the Crucifixion and Resurrection of our Lord. This  moment in the narrative depicts Man’s reliance on providence. Gollum succeeds in regaining the Ring. He accidentally falls into the Cracks of Doom. The destruction of the Ring is no success on any character’s part, it is apparent chance; miracle. And this is central to both Tolkien’s myth-making and theology.

Christian Undertones in Tolkien’s City Plan

In medieval art and architecture geometry and number were given prime importance as symbolic forces.  Almost all the great Cathedrals ever built use the square, circle and triangle and their proportions in their design.  Number also has a spiritual effect: 1, 3, 4, 7, 12, 24…etc.  One and three for the Trinity.  Four for the Evangelists; seven for the days of Creation and Mary.  And so on.  It is crucial to the understanding of Medieval architecture, exemplified in its cathedrals, that we understand the teaching role of the church structure.  Great debate surrounded the nature of art at this moment in history: did it break the Commandment?  This question led to the Iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire…and some of the greatest religious art throughout Europe.  The Second Council of Nicaea (787) decreed that:

representational art… is quite in harmony with the history of the spread of the gospel…are to be exposed in the holy churches of God…The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models

Art was the primary teacher of the Gospels to a mostly illiterate population.  Springing from this role of church as teacher, comes the development of the anagogical effect of architecture: that which evokes the sensation of the sublime and the presence of God in the visitor.  This effect was largely pursued throughout the Medieval period through the use of proportion, shape and number.

I don’t know if Tolkien knew of any of this architectural or ideological history, but it does fit into Middle Earth.  Tolkien lays out Minas Tirith in great detail.  He is very specific.  It consists of seven concentric circles.  The number seven has two major meanings in the Christian worldview: the days of Creation and the seven wounds or sorrows of Mary.  From pagan mythology, there is also the seven-ringed layout of the city of Atlantis.  However, in this case I believe Tolkien knew of the significance of these “sacred” numbers through his Catholic faith.  The use of the circle is up for grabs.  Tolkien is known for his deft twining of both Christian and pagan symbols, the circle may be one such case.  The circle represents eternity and the oneness of God. 

Minas Tirith has become the capital of Gondor through the turmoil of the past.  It has become the “mother” of the nation.  It is its center, its caretaker.  It is also the nation’s one hope for renewal and rebirth.  The city is the home for the hoped for ‘return of the king.’  It is both a monument to the past, its glories and its failings, and to its future hope to return.  Just as Mary brought hope into the world through Jesus Christ, so Minas Tirith is also the source of hope and succor in Middle Earth.

There are subtle hints within the throne room itself.  Here we can see the kings of Gondor taking the place of Christian theology, teaching the supplicant the history of the Kingdom of Gondor through the use of art and staging.  Between columns to either side, stand the kings of Gondor’s past, an episodic timeline of Gondor’s development.  The steward’s throne on the lower step, while the king’s throne lies empty above, sets in stone the political hierarchy.  Both rule, both are part of the same dias, yet the king remains foremost.  And the throne, crowned overhead by a canopy reminiscent of Tuor’s helm.  Each element is steeped in history, and expectation.