“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.”
If I were to keep to my usual practice and to reflect on a passage from The Lord of the Rings as I read through the story then I would have to end the year, and to keep Christmas, with Frodo and Sam in Shelob’s Lair. I could not do this. Tolkien himself used December 25th as a day of hope in his story, the day on which the Fellowship left Rivendell to begin their mission. The dereliction of Shelob’s Lair comes later when Sam believes Frodo to be dead and wrestles with the choice of whether to leave him and to carry on the mission alone. We will reach that point in 2016. I could not spend Christmas thinking about it.
As I thought about what to write I recalled a piece that I wrote in December 2012 when I first began to write my Lord of the Rings blog. At that point I had not yet discovered WordPress and so posted it on my website. If you want to read what I wrote then please read it at http://stephenwinter.net/page6.htm#128678. In it I spoke of a story told by the great Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard. In it he tells of a mighty prince who while riding through fields in his country sees a beautiful peasant girl and falls in love with her. So great is her beauty that the prince decides to dress in peasant’s clothing and to work in the fields alongside her and so win her hand in marriage. Kierkegaard tells us that we all want to know when the prince will reveal who he really is to the girl and so take her off to be his princess. Then he asks, why should he do this at all? Why, if he really loves her, should he not remain a peasant and to share her life? Do let me know what you think of this!
Back in 2012 I was thinking of Tolkien’s reply to his publishers when, after the success of The Hobbit, they asked for “more about hobbits”. Tolkien’s hero, Bilbo Baggins, had been unlike any other that he had ever created, making excellent use of plentiful good luck, living by his wits and his kind and generous nature and finally spending the Battle of the Five Armies, the great climax of the story, in a state of unconsciousness. Clearly he did not feel that there was much more that Bilbo or any other hobbit could offer and that was what he replied.
The seventeen years between the publications of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were a journey of discovery for Tolkien, a journey in which he learnt about hobbits. The words he gave to Gandalf in the crucial chapter that sets the scene for Frodo’s journey, The Shadow of the Past, are surely Tolkien’s own: “My dear Frodo! Hobbits really are amazing creatures as I have said before. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you in a pinch. I hardly expected to get such an answer, not even from you.” Tolkien is taken by surprise by hobbits but by the end of The Lord of the Rings it is clear that only hobbits could possibly have accomplished the destruction of the Ring and the saving of the world.
Gandalf could only have heard Frodo’s words because he did spend many years in the company of hobbits, years in which for the most part, he was known to them mainly for the quality of his fireworks and for little else. Saruman regarded Gandalf’s interest in hobbits either with ill concealed contempt or with suspicion. The only hobbits that he could do business with are those who saw reality as he did, such as Lotho Sackville-Baggins or Ted Sandyman. He could never have received Frodo’s surprise as Gandalf did.
So at this Christmastide I would like to offer you Gandalf’s long apparently pointless sojourn among hobbits and Kierkegaard’s story of the Prince and the Peasant Girl as a meditation upon the Incarnation (John 1.14). I think they are related to each other. I do not say that they explain or tell us what the Incarnation means. It is not the purpose of stories to “explain” things but they do cause us to think about things. Are we the peasants among whom the Prince comes to live or the hobbits who enjoy Gandalf’s fireworks? Will the Prince reveal his true identity to us or is there some other great surprise to be revealed? I look forward to any reflections you may have to offer and in this Christmastide I pray that God may rest you merry!
After leaving the crossroads with the memory of the sun dipping beneath the smokes of Mordor still fresh within them Frodo and Sam are brought face to face with the haunted tower of Minas Morgul. “All was dark about it, earth and sky, but it was lit with light.” This is the city of the Ringwraiths, the most terrible of all the servants of Sauron, who were once men seduced by the greatness of the Dark Lord and the rings of power given to them that are inexorably bound to the Ruling Ring. They above all have been brought by the Ring and bound in the darkness “In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.”
Time and again Tolkien uses the motifs of Light and Dark within his tale. In recent chapters we have seen the wonderful play of light upon the falls of Henneth Annûn casting rainbow patterns upon the refuge that lies hidden behind them and we have seen the light of the sun falling upon the garland of flowers winding about the fallen head of the king whose statue once stood at the crossroads. Once moonlight welled “through the marble walls of Minas Ithil long ago, Tower of the Moon, fair and radiant in the hollow of the hills”. But now Minas Ithil is become Minas Morgul and its light wavers and blows “like a noisome exhalation of decay, a corpse light, a light that illuminated nothing.”
When confronted by the horror that lies before them Frodo and Sam are almost overwhelmed. It is as if light and dark are principles of equal power that confront one another in an eternal conflict. Such is the reality that Sauron would have us believe in and when we thought about the Fall of Númenor a few weeks back https://stephencwinter.com/2015/08/25/faramir-remembers-numenor-that-was/ we saw how he sought to persuade its king of it. But Tolkien’s great myth is not of a universe in eternal conflict. A careful reading of The Lord of the Rings reveals a world in which light is the eternal principle that bursts through again and again despite all efforts to prevent it. And that is the point. Darkness in Tolkien’s world is but a temporary reality that requires huge effort to maintain and is always fragile and desperately vulnerable to the inbreaking of light. Indeed it is the very effort required to maintain the dark that will lead to the eventual undoing of its lord.
Myth is described as that which never happened and yet is always true. Tolkien’s great myth resonates gloriously with the truth that is declared every year at its darkest hour in the Feast of the Nativity, at Christmas: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”. It resonates with the declaration that in the birth of the Christ child, as vulnerable as is the birth of any child, the illusion of the power of darkness is shattered. Tolkien described this as the True Myth, the one by which all mythology, indeed all reality, is to be understood so that all who embrace it will know an inbreaking of light, as hymn writer, William Cowper, campaigner against the Slave Trade, and one who struggled with depression all his life, put it, ”
Frodo and Sam, like Cowper in his darkest hours, will come almost to despair, but as we shall see as we journey with them into Mordor, the light cannot be overcome by dark. Hell must be harrowed because Hell is but a negligible thing so vulnerable to the invasion of light and so easily overcome by it.
Last year I heard an interview with the fine British actor, Micheal Sheen, about the Passion Play, “The Gospel of Us” in which he played the Christ figure, “The Teacher” in venues around Port Talbot, a steel town in south Wales and Sheen’s hometown, at Easter 2012. “We are a Christ-haunted people,” he said before explaining that he did not regard himself as a practicing Christian. The play was filmed by Dave McKean and is available on all the usual media if you wish to watch it. I intend to do so myself this year.
It was that phrase “A Christ-haunted people” that came to mind as I began to think about this week’s posting about The Music of the Ainur that I promised last week. I first began to think about this on Christmas Night. The days up to and including Christmas Day are a particularly intense time of the year for me as a Christian minister. Unlike Sheen I am a “practicing” Christian and I am especially visible as such as I attend school nativity plays, carol services of many kinds and with many communities and then the great services of Holy Communion at midnight on Christmas Eve and then again on Christmas morning. In one school carol service I joined the queue trying to get into the church declaring to those around me that I wanted the novel experience of having to queue to get into church. I promise you that I said it with a happy smile on my face and folk smiled back at me too.
In recent years I have become increasingly drawn to the Christ-haunted who are not regular worshippers. I feel greatly privileged to be with people who choose to get married in church, or to baptise their child, or to seek a Christian funeral for the person they have lost. In Britain the month of November has become a new holy month as the remembering of our war dead has grown in significance in recent years. The poppy installation in which a ceramic poppy was placed in the moat to represent each of those who died in the First World War at The Tower of London was visited by over a million people, a similar number to those from Britain who perished in that war. Two of my great uncles were among that number and I intend to visit their graves in military cemeteries on The Western Front. This need to remember affects me too.
And then there is Christmas…
When Charles Dickens wrote a life of Christ he produced one of the dullest things he ever wrote and I have no doubt it pleased church leaders and pious parents who surely dutifully read it to their children and so infected them with the safe and unthreatening belief that piety and dullness belong together! “A Christmas Carol”, on the other hand, is a thrilling tale and has entered the mythology of the English speaking world. That is why I have re-blogged Sarah Waters’ excellent piece that I hope you will read alongside this.
Increasingly I am sure that the Music of the Ainur can be heard anywhere if we have but ears to hear it. When I first tried to write this I thought I would be talking about the music of great composers but realise now that I cannot do this. I cannot reduce music to a narrative, even the narrative of the great Christ-story. I must trust music to lead me on although I could produce a playlist of music that has pointed me towards the great music recently. Perhaps you would like to do the same. Victoria Barlow writes movingly about this in a comment on last week’s blog if you would like to read more on this. I do encourage you to do so.
I offer Charles Dickens to you as an example of a great story-teller whose work points us towards the great story at many points and most surely in his tale of the redemption of the miser, Scrooge. I would love to hear about your examples. And I would like to add at the end of this that I would include Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as one of the great examples of the modern age.
After a journey of wonders the company led by Théoden and Gandalf arrive at the gates of Isengard to find them cast down and in ruins with a great rubble heap piled up beside them “and suddenly there were aware of two small figures lying on it at their ease…There were bottles, bowls and platters laid beside them, as if they had eaten well, and now rested from their labour.” And so it is that after all the adventures that have befallen the company since its sundering at Tol Brandir Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas are re-united with Merry and Pippin.
This is a good tale to tell at Christmas for as Mary’s great song from The Gospel of Luke chapter 1 tells us, with the coming of the Messiah the mighty are cast down from their seats and the humble and meek are exalted, the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent empty away. It was indeed Saruman’s intention to bring the hobbits to Isengard but we can be sure that he had no intention to feast them upon the best of his food amidst the ruins of his once mighty fortress. And yet it is precisely because of his intentions that Saruman has been cast down from his seat and that hobbits, the least significant of creatures, have been the means of his downfall. For the orcs that Saruman sent to bring the hobbits to his dungeons were able to bring them swiftly to Fangorn where they met Treebeard, the most ancient of Ents. And it was through that meeting that the Ents were roused from their long slumber, marched upon Isengard and reduced it to ruins.
There is no doubt that Tolkien takes pleasure in the comic elements of the scene he paints for us. The small figures who could not be less heroic, the piles of empty dishes and bottles, the smoke rising from pipes smoked at ease (and as anyone who has ever tried to smoke a pipe will tell you it is necessary to be at ease in order to smoke one well!) and all this amidst the scene of a terrible battle.
And you can be sure that Saruman does not get the joke! Nor, of course, did Herod when the Magi asked him where the King of the Jews had been born. Perhaps we get closest to the truth of Christmas if we learn to see it as a cosmic joke. So much religion seems hung up with efforts to portray itself as mighty, as deserving of a place at the tables of the powerful. If the wonderful joke of the nativity were to manifest itself at such tables then the religious might well be discomfited as much as kings and princes. Before the modern era it was the custom for kings to have a joker nearby them to remind them of who they truly were. Where are the jokers of our own age? How many board rooms of our great corporations make sure they have a joker among them? Or might they fear that the joker might bring them crashing down to ruins?
If Saruman were to get the joke then he would be free from the prison that he has created for himself. And so too would we if, as Mary sang, we allow that which desires to be rich and dominating of the weak within our souls to be “sent empty away”. Our laughter would truly be that of the merry and so would our Christmas too.
It was a year ago, after trying to write a book about The Lord of the Rings for the best part of a couple of years and basically getting nowhere, that I discovered that although I did not seem capable of writing a thousand words a day and constructing whole chapters I could write 500-700 words each week and post it as a Blog. This isn’t a boast on my part but I seem to be able to construct what would be a weekly column if I were writing for a newspaper. And so that is what I have been doing ever since that time. I have been journeying with Frodo Baggins and his companions all the way from Bilbo Baggins’s Birthday Party till Merry and Pippin’s encounter with Treebeard in the Forest of Fangorn after their escape from the Orcs and as I have done so I have written a weekly reflection on each section that I have read. I have not tried to be scholarly. I am just someone who has been reading this great work since being introduced to it by my schoolmate, Jon Flint, when I was about 14 or 15 years old. That is over forty years now and I feel that I have something to say about a book that I have loved ever since that time. I share J.R.R Tolkien’s Christian faith although not his Roman Catholicism. Like Tolkien’s great friend and collaborator, C.S Lewis, I am an Anglican.
Reading The Lord of the Rings slowly and thoughtfully has been a rich experience and I hope that I have managed to convey some of that in my weekly blogs. I have been especially caught up with the hobbits who find themselves in a story that is too big for them. And although they grow with the story they can never become heroic figures like Aragorn or Boromir. All they can do is to offer what they can the best they can. There are some in the story who have great discernment and see this offer as a deed of great worth. Faramir of Gondor is one and so is Treebeard of Fangorn who allows Merry and Pippin to lead him into an adventure that is likely to end with the destruction of the Ents. Come to think of it, both of them allow themselves to be carried into stories too big for them as well.
If there is a Christmas message in this (and I hope you won’t mind me for looking for one at this season) then it is the idea of a God who chooses to come among us and to commit himself to the same experience that we know, living a life that is too big for us and yet doing it with faithfulness, joy and love.
If you want to look at any of my earlier blogs from December 2012 to October 2013 you will find a complete archive on my website http://www.stephenwinter.net/page6.htm and whatever you do over the Feast of the Nativity may you do it with joy and delight.