Christmas! A Good Time to Start a Venture that will Save the World From Evil.

“Go now with good hearts! Farewell, and may the blessing of Elves and Men and all Free Folk go with you. May the stars shine on your faces!”

So says the Lord Elrond at dusk on the 25th December in the year 3018 in the Third Age of the Earth as the Fellowship of the Ring sets out upon the quest to take the Ring of Power to the fires in which it was created upon Orodruin, Mt Doom, in the land of Mordor.

Within the story the date upon which the Fellowship sets out is determined by events such as Frodo’s decision to leave Bag End upon his birthday, the 23rd of September. This means that it is in the dead of winter that the great quest will leave Rivendell. But for Tolkien there is another reason why the 25th of December is chosen and that, of course, is because of the place of that date within the church’s calendar. It is Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity, of the birth of the Saviour to Mary and Joseph in a stable in Bethlehem. It is the day upon which the great adventure begins, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

In Tolkien’s legendarium, unlike C. S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, there is no incarnation. There is no figure like Aslan, around whom the whole story turns, who will die and rise again for the world. But the whole story is a preparation for the Incarnation. All of Tolkien’s great work prepares us to hear the great words that are proclaimed in the Christmas gospel, that “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

The destruction of the Ring of Power and the Fall of Sauron is not the end of the story. Tolkien goes to great lengths to show that. It is the point of the heartrending chapter near the end of The Lord of the Rings that he entitles, The Scouring of the Shire. The Ring may have gone to the Fire but a small band of brigands under a malicious leader can still do serious harm. It is the point of the departure from Middle-earth of Galadriel, Elrond and Gandalf and the ending of the great works that they were able to do with the three Elven Rings whose power fades with the destruction of the One Ring to which they were inextricably linked. For with the end of Sauron comes also the fading of Lothlórien and of Rivendell.

Christmas is yet to come in Middle-earth. We sense that when it does come it will do so as Tolkien’s great eucatastrophe, “the sudden happy turn in a story that pierces you with a joy that brings tears.” The long slow defeat of Tolkien’s story and our own experience of the world will end, not with the going out of the light for ever, but with the dawning of endless day that grows ever brighter. To this Great Day the Fall of Sauron and the Coronation of Aragorn as the returning King of Gondor and of Arnor is but a signpost. The reality that the sign points to has not yet come.

But for now we get ahead of ourselves in the story. It is the 25th of December and a small company without much gear of war goes south with the Ringbearer.

“There was no laughter, and no song or music. At last they turned away and faded silently into the dusk.”

The Dayspring From On High Comes to the Aid of the Hobbits

Thanks to the people who have been reading this post today in the fourth week of Advent when, from of old, the church has sung the O Antiphons, an ancient prayer that had such an effect upon the young Tolkien when he first read them in Old English. The connections between Tolkien’s Christian faith and his legendarium are often hidden but they shine forth in Shelob’s Lair. When you have read this why not try putting the O Antiphons into a search engine and see where they take you.

Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings

Frodo and Sam are trapped in the darkness visible of Shelob’s Lair as the foul monster advances upon them. As he grips the sword that he took from the barrow Sam suddenly thinks of Tom Bombadil. “I wish old Tom was near us now.” And as he does so it is not Bombadil who comes, but Galadriel, in an insight of such clarity that it has the force of a vision. Sam sees her as the giver of gifts upon the lawn in Lothlórien when she gave to Frodo the Star Glass, “a light when all other lights go out.”

Frodo raises the glass and the light of a Silmaril blazes forth in the darkness. Frodo is wonderfully empowered by this and he advances upon Shelob crying, “Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima!” Frodo does not know what words he speaks for it as if another voice has spoken them in this place of…

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Faith and Fantasy: Tolkien the Catholic, The Lord of the Rings, and Peter Jackson’s Film Trilogy

Tolkien caused the Fellowship of the Ring to set out from Rivendell on their great journey on December 25th, Christmas Day, the Feast of the Nativity, and that the Ring should be cast into the fire on March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation (which is in itself a huge clue to the reality that his story points to something greater than itself. The fall of Sauron is not the end of the story.) Stephen Greydanus has written a beautiful reflection on the Catholic Faith that Tolkien brought to the writing of his greatest work and in this final week of Advent I would like to offer it to you here.

Gandalf Teaches Us that the Just Shall Live by Faith.

Let us begin by speaking in the defence of Denethor, Steward of Gondor. He is no traitor. He knows about the Ring and about Frodo’s mission but even though he is in despair when he looks into the Palantir for the last time he does not betray what he knows. Sauron may have been able to seduce the proud heart of Saruman but Denethor is too great a man for that. But the Dark Lord is able to control all that Denethor can see in the Stone and so at the last as Denethor sits beside his wounded son his spirit is broken and he refuses to lead his people in their final defence against the hosts of Mordor.

“Follow whom you will,” he says, “even the Grey Fool, though his hope has failed. Here I stay.”

And so at the darkest moment it is Gandalf who takes command of the defences of the city.

“Wherever he came men’s hearts would lift again, and the winged shadows pass from memory. Tirelessly he strode from Citadel to Gate, from north to south about the wall; and with him went the Prince of Dol Amroth in his shining mail.”

All through his stewardship Denethor has placed great value on the gaining of intelligence and it has served him well. He has often been able to remain a step ahead of his foes and to muster sufficient force to hold them at bay. But Sauron has always been able to play a long game. Even the loss of an army has not truly weakened him and at the last he is able to show such overwhelming force that Denethor is convinced that all is lost and so he abandons the duty that he owes to his people and retreats to a private place within his heart.

Gandalf knows just as much about the power of his enemy as does Denethor. In his case that knowledge is not about the size of a particular army but is based upon an experience of long resistance to a foe that he first encountered when Sauron was chief lieutenant to Morgoth in the First Age of the Earth. Gandalf knows, even more than Denethor, just how powerful Sauron is and yet he does not despair. Denethor derides Gandalf’s refusal to give in as a “Fool’s Hope” but it is founded upon something that goes far deeper than that.

Gandalf’s “Fool’s Hope” is based, as far as Denethor is concerned, upon the belief that two hobbits can penetrate the defences of Mordor and carry the Ring to the Cracks of Doom and there destroy it. For a man who has spent his life assessing the likely outcome of any action based upon good intelligence the possibility that Frodo will succeed is so ridiculously tiny as to be laughable. Of course any course of action based upon such a possibility can only be dismissed as a “Fool’s Hope”. But Gandalf has not placed his faith in Frodo. Of course he trusts that Frodo, aided by Sam, will give the very best that they can and he honours them for this but it is not their courage or even their luck that is the basis of his faith. Gandalf’s faith is in God and in a goodness that will ultimately prevail even though all seems lost. Frodo caught a glimpse of the Music of the Ainur when in the Halls of Elrond in Rivendell, an unseen flow that runs through history and will carry us to an ending that will have nothing to do with death so that its aliveness will be beyond anything that we have ever known. Sauron can never know it because he can only see death and darkness as the end of all things and so he worships these things. Gandalf  has long known this music and so he teaches us, as does St Paul, that “the just shall live by faith” and he refuses to give in even if the end of the battle will be his own death. He knows that his own death will not be the end.

The Siege of Gondor: A Word to Those For Whom Hope Has Gone

“So now at last the City was besieged, enclosed in a ring of foes.” And in the next few pages Tolkien relentlessly builds a picture of hopelessness as the hosts of Mordor begin the assault upon Minas Tirith until he reaches the appalling climax of the winged ride of the Nazgûl.

“Ever they circled above the City, like vultures that expect their fill of doomed men’s flesh. Out of sight and shot they flew, and yet were ever present, and their deadly voices rent the air. More unbearable they became, not less, at each new cry. At length even the stout-hearted would fling themselves to the ground as the hidden menace passed over them, or they would stand, letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands while into their minds a blackness came, and they thought no more of war; but only of hiding and of crawling, and of death.”

And so Tolkien brings us to a dark place once again and, as with Frodo and Sam in Shelob’s Lair, a light will break in that will proclaim that there is no darkness so deep that it cannot be breached. And the words of the one hundred and thirty-ninth psalm come to mind declaring:

If I say surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me.

Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light  are both alike to thee.

This week’s posting on my blog is dedicated to all those who are in dark places; to all those who see no way to light and life beyond the darkness. It is dedicated to those for whom everything in which they have placed their trust has proved to be a broken reed. They are like the men of Gondor looking out across the Pelennor and seeing no possibility of relief; like the defenders of the city thinking “only of hiding and of crawling and of death”.

In a few days time on this blog I will tell the story of a man whose wife lies, an innocent prisoner in a foreign jail, a pawn in a game played by people of power; a man who cannot reach her or see her. Today I dedicate this piece to him and to his wife. And if you know something of the darkness that the defenders of Gondor know then this is for you as well.

Don’t give up.