Sunday, January 23, 2011

Tolkien as a Christian Writer

Stephen Lawhead is a fantasy, science-fiction and historical fiction novelist moderately well-known in Christian circles for his celtic-themed and religiously inspired work. In his essay, J.R.R. Tolkien, Master of Middle Earth, he explained that the principle influence Tolkien’s work had on him was not in structure or content but in purpose. He, apparently, was brought up to believe that all of a Christian’s artistic energy must be channeled directly into evangelism, but Tolkein’s work freed him from this and allowed him to be satisfied writing from a Christian perspective without all of his work being the gospel in disguise. In this essay he claimed to have, despite the lack of a Christian allegory or evangelistic message, seen “Tolkien’s Christianity written on every page”; while this is certainly both hyperbole and metaphor a more nihilistic evaluation of Tolkien’s mythology will show the argument to be false, and the entire “Christian” good vs. evil structure to be philosophically flawed.
Many christian writers, many of them quite scholarly, have made these same assumptions regarding Tolkien’s work; their critical, collective, mistake is to focus exclusively on The Lord of the Rings, often referencing its popularity following Peter Jackson’s films, and entirely ignore the Silmarillion and its derivatives. Another excellent source for this kind of analysis would be the Histories of Middle-Earth series, though due to time constraints (it is a twelve volume set) they will not be considered here.
While Tolkien was a Christian, a Roman Catholic, the spiritual themes and underlying divine order present in his work, much more explicit in The Silmarillion than in The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, are more similar to pagan Anglo-Saxon spirituality mixed with his own post-WWI despair than to Judeo-Christian ideals. What Lawhead emphasized most in his essay, and what many conservatives lament being lost from modern literature, was a clear, even absolute, view of good and evil; and of the triumph of good over evil. And on the surface Tolkien’s work does seem to oppose relativist existentialism (it is nearly always clear who the “good” and “bad” characters are, and the protagonists are almost always “good”). This view of Middle Earth, however, required a rather shallow reading of his works, or perhaps a reading only of The Hobbit (which was a intended as a children’s tale).
In the Christian tradition good always triumphs over evil. In the gospels this is accomplished through love, God’s love overcomes the evil of the world and is victorious in the resurrection of Christ. The idea of love as the supreme force has been imitated in any number of great works of literature, but it is not present in Tolkien. Of his major stories, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion divided into four discernible plots - The War of the Jewels, Beren and Luthien, The Children of Hurin, and The Fall of Gondolin, love is a major theme in one of them (Beren and Luthien), a minor theme is three more (LOTR, The Children of Hurin, and The Fall of Gondolin), and the deciding, positive factor in the resolution of the conflict of none.
In The Lord of the Rings the ring of power is destroyed because of chance (or divine will, depending on interpretation). In The Hobbit “good” barely triumphs at all, and when it does it is for no very good reason, Beorn simply appears and saves the day. In the Children of Hurin “good” is decisively defeated, the lies of Glaurung (the doom of Melkor in actuality) overcome the nobility of Turin and Nienor and they die in despair. Love is in fact used against the protagonists, urging them toward their rather Oedipal doom. In The Fall of Gondolin the result is similar, the overwhelming power of Angband destroys the glorious city of Gondolin and the protagonists, Idril and Tuor, barely escape. Again, love is a destructive force, driving Maeglin toward the betrayal of his city.
In the greater story of the Silmarillion, the War of the Jewels, love is likewise absent, Feanor and his sons do great evil in the cause of revenge and are utterly defeated. The victory of the Valar over Melkor is accomplished by sheer might. Only in the story of Beren and Luthien does love even approach the dominating force it is in the Christian gospels. Love is clearly the motivating force behind the actions of Beren and Luthien, and because of that supreme love they are eventually able to be together. Their victory however, is minor: it is “joy in midst of weeping,” a defiance of evil but not a triumph over it. Thus, thematically, Tolkien’s work is not Christian in nature. While the protagonists are often very loving, romantically (Beren and Luthien, Aragorn and Arwen, Idril and Tuor) or platonically (Frod and Sam, Turin and Beleg), they are never victorious because of their love. Or rather, evil is not vanquished by love. It is vanquished by the will of Illuvatar, by the order of Eru over the chaos of Melkor.
Contrary to the view presented in The Lord of the Rings films, elves, though immortal, are neither perfect nor sublime. Many times in the Silmarillion elves are shown to be just as malevolent, rash and greedy as men or orcs. Thus, while certain characters can be said to be good or evil, the distinction is not as clear as many reader seem to assume. Or rather, there is an absolute evil, orcs can be nothing else and neither Sauron nor Melkor has any underlying “good” motivations, but there is no equal (or greater) and opposing good. One can assume that Illuvatar, the creator god of Tolkien’s cosmogonic myth, is far greater in power than his creations, but he is absent from the rest of Tolkien’s work. Acting in Illuvatar’s stead are the Valar, created beings on the same level as Melkor - principally Manwe, Ulmo, Aule, Orome, Mandos, Tulkas, Varda, and Yavanna (also Lorien, Nienna, Este, Vaire, Vana, and Nessa). Unlike Melkor, whose will is the definition of evil, the Valar fall somewhat short of the good they champion, while always intending well they are capable of failure and are quite nearly defeated by Melkor on several occasions.
Both in the Silmarillion and the Lord of the Rings “good” is ultimately victorious over “evil”, but at a cost few other fantasy authors are willing to admit. Even after Angband has been destroyed and the Silmarils recovered the sons of Feanor again attack and commit a kin-slaying to reclaim the jewels, before being killed themselves. Christianity, and Christian inspired literature, always portrays a solution to the ills of the world. A messiah myth, a conquest of evil or some other crucial change that promises to produce a better future. The Lord of the Rings is in this vein, the last evil lord is defeated and destroyed, his servants are scattered, the kingdoms of the Numenorians are re-built, and everyone is supposed to live happily ever after. This is very different from the conclusion of the Silmarillion, where it is written that everything has passed into darkness and ruin and that this was ever the fate of the world and if there is a solution even Manwe and Mandos do not know of it. Even in the Lord of the Rings though, and this is mirrored to a lesser degree in The Hobbit, the very thing the protagonists wanted most to protect is despoiled. The world is never exactly as it was, there is no new heaven and new earth. Not all scars heal, thing are never truly made right again.
All of this, the misunderstanding of Tolkien’s work by Christians, may be more the fault of a misunderstanding of Christianity than of Tolkien. It is doubtful that Tolkien, living in the era he did, would agree with this interpretation of his work; informed as it is more by post-modern literature than medieval epic poetry. The problem lies in an understanding of the Christian narrative, the unfinished story of the Hebrews. According to the prophecies of St. John the legions of heaven are coming to wage a final war just as the Valar fought the War of Wrath, but just as the Valar attacked not the unfaithful Morquendi but Angband itself, Christ, garbed in white robes dipped in blood, is coming to enchain Satan, not to destroy the evil nations of the world. Thus from a Christian perspective the war between good and evil must be seen as completely above the actions of ordinary men, apart from any narrative that occurs within it. In neither tradition are men (or elves) ever victorious over evil (even in The Lord of the Rings, where men come to closest to victory, it is a chance misstep, not the goodness of Frodo, that defeats Sauron). Men are utterly outmatched by evil, only through divine intervention - the War of Wrath, the destruction of the Ring of Power, the resurrection of Christ - can victory be achieved. Authors like Lawhead and the vast majority of fantasy and science-fiction writers, in whose stories ordinary men defeat evil, are deluding themselves; such stories do not reflect the essential nature of the world we live in, and thus, unlike Tolkien’s work, are essentially false - fiction in the truest sense of the word.

Special thanks to Wikipedia, Emily Smith, and Scholastic Inc.

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