Of Good Afternoons and Good Mornings

“Good afternoon,” said Scrooge.

“I want nothing from you; I ask nothing of you; why cannot we be friends?”

“Good afternoon,” said Scrooge.

“I am sorry, with all my heart, to find you so resolute. We have never had any quarrel, to which I have been a party. But I have made the trial in homage to Christmas, and I’ll keep my Christmas humour to the last. So A Merry Christmas, uncle!”

“Good afternoon!” said Scrooge.

“And A Happy New Year!”

“Good afternoon!” said Scrooge.

-From Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, pg. 7

Upon reading the passage above, particularly excised from its surroundings, I was immediately put in mind of another passage. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is an obvious holiday favorite, and one I return to almost every year; yet this is the first time I’ve noticed this simple passage.

Scrooge’s nephew has come to wish his uncle a Merry Christmas, and is met by a gruff “Bah Humbug!” and a long lecture regarding the foolishness of the holiday, which ultimately devolves into the chill greeting I quoted above. At first glance, each utterance of the greeting (or should I say dismissal) ‘Good afternoon’ seems a simple repetition of annoyance, dismissal and disinterest in the continuation of the conversation, but there is more to see.

Tolkien begins The Hobbit in much the same way, with the meeting of acquaintances who have their own verbal sparring match. Here, Tolkien much more explicitly develops the change of tone in the repeated greeting ‘good morning’ giving the reader insight into the characters of both Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf.

The first instance is an expression of goodwill, further expanded through Gandalf’s wordplay to encompass wish, feeling, and natural state:

“Good Morning!” said Bilbo, and he meant it.

“What do you mean?” he said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”

“All of them at once,” said Bilbo.

The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien, Ch1 pg 6-7

The second utterance devolves into annoyance, as quite obviously Gandalf has soured Bilbo’s otherwise relaxing and pleasurable morning and shall ruin it altogether should he remain:

“Good morning!” he said at last. “We don’t want any adventures here thank you!”

…”What a lot of things you use Good morning for!” said Gandalf. “Now you mean that you want to get rid of me, and it won’t be good till I move off.”

The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien, Ch1 pg 7

Now, of course, Bilbo is much too much a gentleman to admit to such a wish, and swiftly changes the conversation to introductions and reminiscing. Though the text states his intent to end the conversation, it also informs the reader that he is “a very well-to-do-hobbit” and “very respectable” which can be understood to mean such a blunt and even rude dismissal is out of character (Tolkien 1).  This second exclamation therefore may be understood as an ejaculation of fear and dismay, perhaps with little or no thought with regards to propriety. So when called out by Gandalf, Bilbo immediately shifts focus; only to be dragged back to the prospect of adventure by the clever wordplay of the wizard. This leads to the third, and final, ‘good morning’ which is a true dismissal, but one given in haste and even panic:

“Sorry! I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not today. Good morning! But please come to tea-any time you like! Why not tomorrow? Come tomorrow! Good bye!”

The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien, Ch1 pg 8

That final torrent of words smacks of nervous energy and the complete loss of control by Bilbo. Indeed, upon closing the door, he immediately remonstrates himself for his foolishness in inviting the wizard to tea.

Tolkien’s writing often explores the many meanings and uses of words and expressions in his day and in the past. In these early passages of The Hobbit, he goes further by teasing out the coded language of polite speech, which says something altogether different below the surface.

Dicken’s passage immediately reminded me of Tolkien’s, which in turn caused me to look closer at Scrooge’s use of ‘good afternoon.’ Does this scene reflect the same internal monologue seen in Bilbo, coded in polite greeting (however gruffly delivered)?

In small subtle ways it may. Though all Scrooge’s ‘good afternoons’ appear to be negations, denials, and dismissals no different from a ‘Bah Humbug!’ there is nuance. After discussing Fred’s marriage, career, and finally love, Scrooge’s first ‘good afternoon’ is both dismissal and repudiation of the foolishness of love. The second utterance marks a dismissal and a refusal of human affection. The third, an utter refusal of Christmas cheer, given weight by the finality of the exclamation point. And the fourth, a final dismissal and a statement of ignorance, again ended definitively by exclamation point. The sameness of Scrooge’s response may also imply his complete disconnection with the conversation. From the very first exclamation of ‘good afternoon’ the conversation, and his part in it, is concluded. He is a broken record or a wall battered under the onslaught of Fred’s goodwill.  There is no real change in Scrooge; just as there is no real change in Bilbo at this stage in his story. Both stand at the precipice, about to be utterly transformed.

The discussion of these two passages is meant in no way to imply a correlation or source from one author to another, rather it is an exercise in applicability. Tolkien defines applicability in the Foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, in which he disparages allegory’s ‘purposed domination of the author’ and embraces the ‘thought and experience of readers’ (Tolkien xvii). The knowledge, experience, and imagination of the reader are intended, in Tolkien’s mind, to build upon the story and create the proper interpretive lens. Using the insights of ‘On Fairy Stories’, fantasy is further empowered by a “freedom from the domination of an observed ‘fact’” through the use of sub-creation (TM&TC 139). There is a danger in growing older: “a danger of boredom or anxiety to be original;” a weariness of all that exists to be experience (TM&TC 145). This danger leads to a dangerous pattern of creation, whereby in the unremitting desire of the original, the first, all creative energy devolves into “drabness, and the fantastical complication of shapes to the point of silliness and on towards delirium” (TM&TC 146). Tolkien finds the cure for this imaginative malady in the recovery offered by the fairy-story.

“Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining –regaining of a clear view. I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’ – as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness of familiarity – from possessiveness.”

‘On Fairy-Stories’ Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, p 146

Recovery leads to escape and consolation. Escape is not surrendering the real world for the imaginary, but rather embracing the fullness of the world beyond our understanding and familiar use. Tolkien uses the example of a prisoner to make this point clear: “the world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it” (TM&TC 148). The consolation of recovery is “the joy of the happy ending,” summed up in Tolkien’s use of the term eucatastrophe (TM&TC 149). This is not an isolated event, but rather one which resonates through the entire tale, “[reflecting] a glory backwards” (TM&TC 150). Therefore, whether through memory of the story traversed, or by re-reading, the fairy-story is irrevocably transformed by the eucatastrophe, such that all steps along the journey are uplifted, and informed by this singular event.

This is why a re-reader chuckles at the folly of Bilbo’s fumbling attempts to avoid adventure, and perhaps sheds a tear to the utter simplicity his quest tears from him. This is why the perceived coldness of Scrooge is ultimately transfigured into pain, loneliness and despair, which only increases the reader’s joy upon reaching his moment of redemption. Particularly after learning of the repeated loss (both self-inflicted and not) via the ministration of the Ghost of Christmas Past, the reader may begin to understand the symbol of pain and loss which Christmas has become from Scrooge. Of all the spirits, the Past appears to have the most effect, with the following two simply cementing the lesson. The abandoned childhood, the loss of his beloved sister, the gradual loss of self in gold and avarice, leading to the loss of Belle lay the foundations for the broken Scrooge we see in this early conversation.

Also, by reading in the light of applicability and recovery, the cautionary tale of Ebenezer Scrooge may also inform Bilbo’s journey. Bilbo begins as a country gentleman, stuck in his ways, unimaginative and immobile. Though not lacking in charm, humor, and kindness, the quest of Bilbo is in many ways just as necessary as that of Scrooge.

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The Word made Flesh

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

John 1:1-5

Tolkien describes the “Birth of Christ [as] the eucatastrophe of Man’s history” in his seminal essay ‘On Fairy-Stories.’ This joyous event marks the pinnacle of all creation: the moment when the Word, when the divine cast as myth, was made incarnate and entered the world. All sub-creation aspires towards this singular event, reflecting a shattered fragment of the ultimate Truth.

C.S. Lewis and JRR Tolkien famously discussed the nature of the Gospels; discussions which ultimately would lead to the former’s conversion. Initially, Lewis claimed “myths are lies, even though…breathed through silver” (Biography, 151). Tolkien’s iconic poem ‘Mythopoeia’ forms the backbone of his response. Man is fallen, and therefore may only grasp at the perfection and Truth known before the Fall. All words, stories and myth, through sub-creation, yield only a glimpse of Truth; but Truth is there.

The Nativity of our Lord, celebrated today, marks the beginning of the Great Myth, “a myth that works on us in the same way as the others, but a myth that really happened” (Biography, 151). This “story is supreme; and it is true…art has been verified…legend and history have met and fused” at the moment of the Incarnation of the Word (OFS). Christmas does not negate myth and legend, “it has hallowed them, especially the ‘happy ending’” (OFS). Myths evoke the human condition, expressing the deepest Truths known to Man, especially the desire for the divine.

Tolkien was a devout Catholic, with great devotion and reverence for the Blessed Sacrament:

“I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament…There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon the earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance which every man’s heart desires.”

–Letter 43

“The only cure for sagging of fainting faith is Communion. Though always Itself, perfect and complete and inviolate, the Blessed Sacrament does not operate completely and once for all in any of us. Like the act of Faith it must be continuous and grow by exercise.”

–Letter 250

I was struck this morning at Mass, contemplating the Nativity of our Lord, by an awesome fact; one which I probably would overlook without knowledge of Tolkien’s views on myth. At the moment of consecration, the moment of transubstantiation, the Word is made incarnate, present, God with us, Emmanuel once more. The Mass is the source and summit of the Christian life, in which we reenact the sacrifice of the Lamb. The bread and wine do not change in appearance or taste, yet they are ontologically different. By transubstantiation, in the Eucharist, Christ is born to us in our sight! The Word is made flesh! Myth made True. It is a simple shift of perspective, but makes the miraculous nature of the incomprehensible gift of the Eucharist more precious, particularly at this time of year.

Christmas (the Gospels) is not just a story, some myth far removed by time. It is made present to us each day in the Mass. The Incarnation story is ever present, with God with us if we but let Him into our hearts.

I wish you all a most blessed and joyous Christmas. May this great eucatastophe of our history open your eyes to recover the miracles taking place all around us in every moment.

Contemplating the theological meaning of The Lord of the Rings with the Catholic Guy

Over the course of this year, I have become addicted to listening to the Catholic Guy radio show. I had received a free trial of Sirius XM with my new car. Sadly, I couldn’t afford to renew. But most thankfully, the Catholic Guy show does weekly podcasts which are available for free on their website. So I’ve been catching up on older shows.

Lino Rulli (The Catholic Guy) and Father Rob Keighron make me laugh like nothing else I’ve ever experienced, while also sharing the wonders of our Catholic faith. So when I saw a podcast discussing The Hobbit, I couldn’t resist (http://www.linorulli.com/?p=927), expecting the usually tomfoolery to ensue and Fr. Rob’s infectious laughter.

Ultimately, I should not have been surprised to find the discussion centered more on Fr. Rob’s attempts to describe the plot of The Lord of the Rings to Lino and its Christological symbolism. Fr. Rob is convinced that Frodo represents the person of Christ in his quest to Mordor. Callers both support and refute Father’s statements. Now, many months later, I figure why not weigh in myself?

I agree up to a point with Father Rob’s assertion that Frodo is representative of the person of Christ. However, I think Father would do well to read the book to get a fuller view. Frodo represents Christ only in so far as we are all called to be Christ for others. He suffers and sacrifices. He treats others with both wisdom and mercy.

However, in the final test, he fails to destroy the Ring. He claims it for himself.

This is a critical point. In this the success of the quest falls to the power of Providence. As discussed in a few of my previous posts, on eucatastrophe, Frodo and the quest are saved by Grace. His good deeds and empathy towards Gollum lead to the conditions by which the quest is achieved. As for all Christians, Frodo is reliant upon Providence for ultimate success. Like all Christians, he is called to bear his own cross, which are the Ring and its temptations.

In the end chance, or eucatastrophe, the sudden entrance of Grace, saves the day. Yes, Frodo’s extraordinary virtues and labors make the success of the quest possible, but he like us cannot achieve it in a vacuum on his own. We a prone to sin and temptation, the lesson to be learned is that God is there to help us pick up the pieces and by His grace fulfill our full potential.

While I cannot claim the sound theological background or knowledge for my argument, I have been pondering this question ever since listening to the podcast. As in all Tolkien discussions there are no true answers due to his reliance upon applicability in place of allegory. We know, as readers, as Tolkien states The Lord of the Rings is a truly Christian and particularly Roman Catholic work, but he never states what makes it so. That is up to the applicability and inspiration of the reader. For myself, it is yet another reason the reading and rereading of this work is enlightening. As all experiences color my interpretation, so to as I grow in the Faith, the revelations and inspiration that comes from this book change and grow. Ultimately, this makes LotR a highly person experience, in which your own knowledge and experiences dictate the meaning, rather than being enslaved to the author through allegory.

But I still can’t help but wonder, how might Tolkien respond to this question?

Eucatastrophe, Discatastrophe and the destruction of the Ring

The concept of the eucatastrophe, and conversely the discatastrophe, is central to J.R.R. Tolkien’s conception of fantasy literature or the Fairy-Story.  Eucatastrophe, as defined by Tolkien in his lecture “On Fairy-Stories,” is the “good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’…it is a sudden and miraculous grace…a fleeting glimpse of Joy” (On Fairy-Stories 153). Going further, it is a moment of Evengelium, referencing the greatest moment of eucatastrophe in human history: the birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ; a myth in which “Legend and History have met and fused” (On Fairy-Stories 156). Eucatastrophe was not just a literary tool for Tolkien, but an opportunity to elicit Truth and therefore explore the nature of Providence. It is through the mechanism of eucatastrophe, sudden miracle, that The Lord of the Rings becomes a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work” (Letter 142).

Just as light is unperceivable without darkness, so too is eucatastrophe meaningless without the presence of discatastrophe or “sorrow and failure” (On Fairy-Stories 153).  This duality of light and dark, hope and despair, victory and defeat is an integral part of Tolkien’s subcreated world.  It is subconsciously present upon the first reading, but is revealed in rereading.  The sudden joyous turn “reflects a glory backwards,” revealing the Truths, and unnoticed eucatastrophic moments along the way (On Fairy-Stories 154). In this sense eucatastrophe becomes Tolkein’s greatest vehicle for applicability.

One of the recurring questions surrounding The Lord of the Rings is whether Frodo fails in his quest.  The quest is achieved, though not explicitly by Frodo, but through the entrance of Grace in the final struggle at Sammath Naur.  However, having experienced the Joy of this moment, upon further thought it is necessary to reflect that final moment of glory backwards on all preceding events.

The manner in which Tolkien begins The Lord of the Rings is of utmost importance.  It is essentially a small primer in the nature of eucatastrophe and discatastrophe, which begins this great theme that unites the whole work and foreshadows the final mechanism of victory.  Tolkien begins with two fire-side scenarios, one with Bilbo and one with Frodo, which are in many ways identical and yet at the same time polar opposites.

Bilbo Baggins is not a central figure in The Lord of the Rings and yet without him, the quest would have failed before it began.  The tale begins with the Long Expected Party, in which Bilbo, following Shire custom, gives many gifts and performs his great “joke” in hopes of making the sacrifice of the Ring easier.  It is obvious this is not the trinket of The Hobbit, it has a true and strong hold on Bilbo.

Following his joke, Bilbo returns to Bag End, packs his things and places the Ring in an envelope for Frodo, and “at first he put it on the mantel piece, but suddenly he removed it and stuck in his pocket” (LotR 31). The use of the word suddenly implies subconscious, instinctual or outside motives.  This is reinforced when Bilbo doesn’t even remember the act when asked by Gandalf.  He says: “’There it is on the mantelpiece. Well, no! Here it is in my pocket!’…’Isn’t it odd now?’…’Yet after all, why not? Why shouldn’t it stay there?’” (LotR 32). This moment, and the many similar which follow, demonstrate the holding power of the Ring. Bilbo at first registers shock upon discovering his subconscious action, but later affirms and appropriates that action and its motives to himself.

Gandalf repeatedly has to urge Bilbo to relinquish the Ring and move on with his life (LotR 33-34). After no less than six entreaties and reminders by Gandalf, Bilbo finally gives in:

“Bilbo took out the envelope, but just as he was about to set it by the clock, his hand jerked back, and the packet fell on the floor. Before he could pick it up, the wizard stooped and seized it and set it in its place. A spasm of anger passed swiftly over the hobbit’s face again. Suddenly it gave way to a look of relief and a laugh.” (LotR 34)

And so ends the first eucatastrophic moment of The Lord of the Rings.  It is a moment of great hope, often overshadowed by the darkness to follow, but should also be seen as instructive in the nature of grace in Middle Earth. Gandalf later tells Frodo:

“’A Ring of Power looks after itself…It may slip off treacherously, but its keeper never abandons it. At most he plays with the idea of handing it on to someone else’s care…Bilbo alone in history has…gone beyond playing, and really done it. He needed all my help, too.” (LotR 54)

Bilbo does not leave the Ring purely through his own power; it is due to the presence and perseverance of Gandalf that he succeeds.  Gandalf or Olorin is a maiar and therefore a representative of the Valars’ and ultimately Iluvatar’s will in Middle Earth.  He is a divine or angelic entity, and so a tangible agent of Grace, helping to bring about this first moment of eucatastrophe and set the stage for the intangible entrance Grace at the Cracks of Doom.

The second “fire-side episode” is a moment of discatastrophe, mirroring the first, and casting the entire quest in doubt. It reinforces the impossibility of the quest and the necessity for providential aid, while the first episode reveals the real chance of success and the seed of hope.

Seventeen years pass between the Long Expected Party and the second fire-side episode. In that time Gandalf has discovered the history of Ring and has only one last trial to perform to prove it to be the One Ring to rule them all: fire.  Gandalf relates the long history of the Ring to Frodo, and asks him for the Ring:

“[Frodo] unfastened it and handed it slowly to the wizard. It felt suddenly very heavy, as if either it or Frodo himself was in some way reluctant for Gandalf to touch it…To Frodo’s astonishment and distress the wizard threw it suddenly into the middle of a glowing corner of the fire. Frodo gave a cry and groped for the tongs; but Gandalf held him back.” (LotR 48)

A short time later, Gandalf removes the Ring from the fire, and hands it to Frodo, finding it cool to the touch.  This fact is crucial to an understanding of what happens next.  Here follows the rest of this episode:

“’But why not destroy it, as you say should have been done long ago?’ cried Frodo again. ‘If you had warned me, or even sent me a message, I would have done away with it.’

‘Would you? How would you do that? Have you ever tried?’

‘No. But I suppose one could hammer it or melt it.’

‘Try!’ said Gandalf. ‘Try now!’

Frodo drew the Ring out of his pocket again and looked at it. It now appeared plain and smooth, without a mark or device that he could see. The gold looked very fair and pure, and Frodo thought how rich and beautiful was its colour, how perfect its roundness. It was an admirable thing and altogether precious. When he took it out he had intended to fling it from him into the very hottest part of the fire. But he found that he could not do so, not without a great struggle. He weighed the Ring in his hand, hesitating, and forced himself to remember all that Gandalf told him; and then with an effort of will he made a movement, as if to cast it away – but he found that he had put it back in his pocket.

Gandalf laughed grimly. ‘You see? Already you too, Frodo, cannot easily let it go, nor will to damage it…Your small fire, of course, would not melt even ordinary gold. This Ring has already passed through it unscathed, and even unheated.” (LotR 59)

As Gandalf notes, Frodo has already witnessed the Ring pass through the fire unharmed, but what is important about this moment is Frodo’s intention to do harm to the Ring, not whether the attempted act would succeed.  It is also noteworthy that Gandalf urges Frodo to attempt to harm the Ring and is unsurprised by the resulting failure.  The quest appears doomed to failure even before it is formed.

However, Gandalf is an agent of Grace, and though limited in his foreknowledge has reason to hope, and that hope lies in Providence.  When they come to the time of the Ring with Gollum, Frodo expresses disgust and wishes for his death. Gandalf responds:

“Many that live deserve death.  And some that die deserve life.  Can you give it to them?  Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.  For even the very wise cannot see all ends.  I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it.  And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring.  My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many-yours not the least.”(LotR 58)

Though it is open to interpretation, Gandalf’s intuition here taken with the reflected glory of the final eucatastrophic moment reveals the hope for the future.

The two fire-side episodes highlight both the hope of success in Grace and the doom to failure without it.  The apparent conclusion is that Frodo cannot destroy the Ring. If this is the case, what grounds are there for hope? Why would Gandalf and the wise encourage this quest? The answer lies at the heart of faith, hope and eucatastrophe.

As Bilbo cannot free himself of the Ring’s power without Gandalf’s help, Frodo also requires aid beyond himself in order to achieve his quest. While the accomplishment of the quest may take but single moment, in Truth it is the culmination of a series of eucatastrophic moments through which the final outcome is determined.

On the edge of the Dead Marshes, Gollum catches up with Frodo and Sam and they capture him. Upon seeing him in his sorry state, Frodo has a change of heart, saying “’for now that I see him, I do pity him’” and offers him a path to redemption (LotR 601). Gollum at first tries to escape, but is recaptured, and to avoid the elvish rope begs to swear by the Precious. Frodo responds harshly, “’On the Precious? How dare you?’…’Think! One Ring to Rule them all and in the Darkness bind them. Would you commit your promise to that, Sméagol? It will hold you. But it is more treacherous than you are. It may twist your words. Beware!’” (LotR 604). Gollum subsequently swears to “be…good…never to let Him have it…[and to] serve the master of the Prescious” (LotR 604). During this scene, Gollum ceases to be “My Precious” or the solely onomatopoeic “Gollum,” but rediscovers his sense of self referring to himself as Sméagol. Henceforth Frodo treats Sméagol with mercy and dignity, as an ancient and tortured hobbit and refuses to let any other harm him.

A key part of the nature of eucatastrophe is the idea of Evangelium, or the revelation of Truth.  The notion of mercy and charity is central to The Lord of the Rings, just as it is central to Tolkien’s Roman Catholic faith.  Christians are called to treat others as Christ, just as they are called to be Christ-like:

“’For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:35-40)

Just as Gandalf is the agent of Grace in the first fire-side episode, so too is Frodo an agent of Grace in his mercy towards Gollum, cementing the final outcome of the quest. It is Frodo’s pity that saves Gollum, and allows him to be reborn as Sméagol, if for a short time. It is also Frodo’s pity which guides Gollum to his fateful oath. It is well established that the Ring can twist the bearer’s words or deeds, and so achieve its own ends. However, here it may be the powers of Providence working through Frodo to use the machinations of the Ring against itself.

In the penultimate confrontation on the side of Mount Doom, Frodo and Gollum grapple with each other before Frodo flings him to the ground. And then Sam sees a curious vision. It should be noted that Sam has worn the Ring, and therefore some of its powers to see beyond the veil may have been conferred on him.

“Sam saw these two rivals with other vision. A crouching shape, scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing, a creature now wholly ruined and defeated, yet filled with a hideous lust and rage; and before it stood stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire. Out of the fire there spoke a commanding voice.

‘Begone, and trouble me no more! If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom.’” (LotR 922)

The description of Frodo here highly resembles Frodo’s vision of Glorfindel while wearing the Ring at the Ford of Bruinen, where he sees “a shining figure of white light” (LotR 209). This vision is a reflection of the elf’s true nature; a reflection of the glory of Valinor he at one time beheld.  So too is this raiment of white a veiled reference to the Transfiguration, and ultimately symbolic of holiness or wisdom, marred only by the fire of the Ring.

In the final throws of the Ring’s corruption, Frodo’s part in the quest essentially ends.  His role as the conduit of Providence is transferred to Sam, who after this confrontation is left to face Gollum, of whom he has never had any liking or trust, yet even he finds his heart filled with pity and empathy:

“Deep in his heart there was something restraining him: he could not strike this thing lying in the dust, forlorn, ruinous, utterly wretched. He himself, though only for a little while, had borne the Ring, and now dimly he guessed the agony of Gollum’s shriveled mind and body, enslaved to that Ring, unable to find peace or relief ever in life again. But Sam had no words to express what he felt.” (LotR 923)

Sam lets Gollum go. In all of their dealings with Gollum since the stair of Cirith Ungol, it should be noted how Gollum refers to himself. He is no longer Sméagol, and his few uses of the first person are long gone. He is no longer anything but a shell wholly enthralled by the Ring and in essence become the Ring, or “My Precious.” The creature before Sam is utterly destroyed by the Ring, and it seems only just that one so tortured by its machinations would bring about its destruction.

Here at the brink, particular attention must be paid to the words sworn by or enforced by the Ring. Gollum’s oath is two-fold: to keep the Ring from Sauron and to serve the master of the Ring. As stated by Gandalf, following the Council of Elrond, there is only one master of the Ring, and that is Sauron (LotR 220). In following Frodo, and attempting to prevent the destruction of the Ring, might Gollum be serving Sauron? Yet at the same time, he has sworn to keep the Ring from Sauron, and the Ring will hold him to that as well as to Frodo’s last warning.

When Frodo claims the Ring for his own, “the Dark Lord was suddenly aware of him…[and]…at his summons, wheeling with a rending cry, in a last desperate race there flew, faster than the winds, the Nazgûl, the Ringwraiths, and with a storm of wings they hurtled southwards to Mount Doom” (LotR 925). Gollum swore to keep the Ring from Sauron, the Ring holds him to that oath, and so he succeeds in gaining the Ring only to fall over the edge into the fire, thus fulfilling both his oath and the command of Frodo.

This is the final and greatest moment of eucatastrophe in The Lord of the Rings, a tale which is united by a string of miraculous events which presuppose the final victory. The will of Ilúvatar is present throughout, though he is never named. As he states in the Music of the Ainur, “’no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined”’ (Silmarillion 17). This is another example where Tolkien’s faith was woven within the fabric of Middle Earth. In this manner do all the peoples in the War of the Ring take part in the final eucatastrophe, building steps along the way to the final moment of glory.

            It is the virtue of mercy and pity which is the ultimate defeat of the Ring, first by Bilbo, then by Frodo and finally by Sam. Without pity, that fateful oath would never have been uttered. Without continued patience and mercy, it would never have been fulfilled.

The case of the Magic Sun

The Tale of the Sun and the Moon, in the Book of Lost Tales is remarkable for many reasons, not least for its length.  Tolkien notes this himself, writing that this tale is “in need of great revision, cutting down, and [?reshaping].” (TBoLT I p. 194)  As Christopher Tolkien states in the commentary, it is a mystery whether in rewriting the tale later in life, Tolkien shortened the Tale through compression or rethought and possibly rejected some of the ideas in this Tale.

One such mystery caught my eye: the case of the “Magic Sun.”

After the Darkening of Valinor, efforts are made by Vána and Lórien to heal the trees mainly by lavishing what little store of light they have remaining on their roots.  These efforts are in vain.  They are ultimately stopped by Manwë, who scolds them for this waste of precious light, which the Valar have no means of creating.  So they call on Yavanna to use her power to mend the Trees.  She refuses, saying,

“Many things shall be done and come to pass, and the Gods grow old, and the Elves come nigh to fading, ere ye shall see the rekindling of these Trees or the Magic Sun relit……Tis of fate and the Music of the Ainur.  Such marvels as those Trees of gold and silver may even the Gods make but once, and that in the youth of the world; nor may all my spells avail to do what ye now ask.”  (TBoLT I p. 200-1)

At the end of the tale of the Music of the Ainur, there is mention of the Second Music of the Ainur and the Great End.  This may lend some insight into the meaning of the Magic Sun, which I think may not be separated from the notion of the Great End.

“I will end the tale…concerning the building of the Sun and Moon with that great foreboding that was spoken among the Gods when first the Door of Night was opened.  For ‘tis said that ere the Great End come Melko shall in some wise contrive a quarrel between Moon and Sun, and Ilinsor shall seek to follow Urwendi through the Gates, and when they are gone the Gates of both East and West will be destroyed, and Urwendi and Ilinsor shall be lost.  So shall it be that Fionwë Úrion, son of Manwë, of love for Urwendi shall in the end be Melko’s bane, and shall destroy the world to destroy his foe, and so shall all things then be rolled away.”  (TBoLT I p. 247)

Now this quote is not terribly illuminating in and of itself, but taken in conjunction with an understanding of the nature of Arda’s creation, it can lead to some interesting conclusions.  Following the Music, Ilúvatar leads the Ainur out into the void, where he shows them the world they have sung into being through his power.  As I’ve previously stated, this is the theory of subcreation placed in the context of mythology.  However, where is Ilúvatar in the creation of Arda?  He states:

“’One thing only have I added, the fire that giveth Life and Reality’—and behold, the Secret Fire burnt at the heart of the world.” (TBoLT I p. 53)

Now the last piece to finish the puzzle is the application of faith.  The Secret Fire is essentially the Holy Spirit of Tolkien’s Catholic faith.  Tolkien’s goal in writing his mythology, largely stated with regards to LotR but applicable here as well, was to create a pre-Christian Christian myth.  With this in mind, I believe two possible meanings of the Magic Sun become quite clear.

The first is that the Magic Sun is in reality Jesus Christ, who through his death and resurrection redeemed the world, making all things new and ending the tyranny of sin.  The Valar are bound to Arda, and therefore bound by its rules.  Their power is finite, but the power of Ilúvatar is not.  It is unclear if the Great End is the end of the world, or just the end of an Age.  If it is the end of an Age, this application fits quite well and ties the mythology of Middle Earth firmly to our own.

And yet another meaning, which cannot be fully separated from the last, is that the Great End and the rekindling of the Magic Sun is a veiled reference to the Second Coming.  Often in the Christian faith, we refer to the Light of Christ or the fire of the Holy Spirit.  Given mythological dress, it is not difficult to see the connection; whether it is correct is another question.  But whether it is or not, the implications of such a tie, even only hinted at, are fascinating to ponder.

Resurrection and the Barrow Downs

Firstly, I’d like to wish you all a blessed and joyous Easter!

As today is Easter, and we’ve passed through Good Friday and Holy Saturday, this put me in a particular frame of mind which I found perfectly suited for reading “Fog on the Barrow-Downs.” There is such wonderful symbolism that can be applied to this chapter. Whether it was ever the intent of Tolkien in writing it, I don’t know, but this chapter literally sings of Resurrection.

The hobbits are tricked and trapped by the wight in its barrow-mound. There, Sam, Merry, and Pippin fall into a death-like trance. Frodo is miraculously awake and sings for their salvation: Tom Bombadil. His coming reverberates through the land, making it seem the very ground is singing. And with “a loud rumbling sound, as of stones rolling and falling, and suddenly light streamed in, real light, the plain light of day” the tomb was opened. For me, at this time of year there can be no greater symbolism than this, the opening of the tomb and the entrance of light. This is but one small moment of eucatastrophe, in which both Tom and Frodo act as the instruments of Grace.

It is also a moment of rebirth. The hobbits are awakened from their sleep and marvel at the cleanness of the grass, the brightness of the sun. Finding themselves clothed in burial robes and girt in gold chains, they cast of the raiment of death and run naked on the grass. They are reborn to the joy of living and breathing in the world. The casting off of their clothes I found particularly significant. During the Stations of the Cross, the tenth station: Jesus is stripped of His garments is almost always paired with the words of the prophet Job: “Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb and naked shall I go back again.”

The hobbits were dressed in the clothes of death by the wight, in stripping themselves of these garments they reclaim their life. They are, in a sense, reborn.

There is one other Biblical application that jumped out at me reading today. As usual, I return to the question of the nature of Tom Bombadil. As yet I, nor anyone else excepting perhaps Tolkien himself, know who he is supposed to be or what. But reading today, I found a new link that I found quite appealing. It came as Tom named the hobbits’ ponies, which the narrative told they would answer to the rest of their lives. Naming is a powerful thing and this episode bears great resemblance to the naming of the creatures of the land, sea and air in Genesis. So perhaps Tom can be interpreted as a sort of Adam figure in Middle Earth. Maybe even the Adam who never fell from Grace.

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.