written by Rick Williams, Urbana Seminary student, for the class “A Journey with Hobbits: The Work of J.R.R. Tolkien”
I have, on numerous occasions, stood before a class of high school seniors and asserted, “Reading the Lord of the Rings changed my life. It gave me my first glimpse of the Gospel and started me down the path on which I ultimately found Christ.” I’ve said as much again recently, but until now I’ve never really been able to clearly articulate why this is so. Over time, I’d learned to relate the experience in terms of “baptized imagination” and “sanctified myth.” But after last week’s class I see a bit more clearly the “cognitive metaphors” at work in my young life, providing glimpses into myself and reality I could imaginatively “feel” but had no context (at that time) for rationally grasping. What follows is an attempt to unravel the “cognitive metaphors” involved in the way Tolkien’s writings first transmitted the Gospel to me.
Looking back, I clearly recall the imaginative “feelings” stirred by my reading of The Hobbit, LOTR, and the The Silmarillion (read in that order, from late high school into my early college years). They centered on three ideas that captivated me in ways that were both powerful and elusive: 1) realities that transcend appearances; 2) the past as a source of meaning; and 3) the allure of “lordship” evoked by a lost/restored king. I realize my articulation now of these ideas is more informed than it would have been then, and I’m trying not to “read back” more into those feelings than were actually there at the time. I will consider each in turn as I understand them now with the help of Tolkien’s words and some interpretations thereof.
Tolkien pointedly wrote in an oft-quoted letter, “The Lord of the Rings is fundamentally religious and Catholic.” In response, Tolkien scholar Joseph Pearce asks that if this is so, “why is Christ never mentioned in its pages?” He goes on to answer his own question. “Christ is never mentioned by name simply because Tolkien’s myth takes place many thousands of years before the incarnation. He is not mentioned in The Lord of the Rings for the same reason that he is not mentioned in the Old Testament. He had not yet revealed himself in the flesh and, consequently, is present implicitly through grace, not explicitly in person.” He concludes, “Christ is, however, king of Tolkien’s myth, the unfolding of which points to him in much the same way that the Old Testament points to him.” (http://catholiceducation.org/articles/arts/al0161.html)
This explanation nicely captures my own experience reading Tolkien as a “longing pagan.” To begin with, I desperately wanted there to be more to reality than appearances offered. I desired that the metaphorical idea of “life as a journey” would be made real, not only in longed-for adventures and experiences, but also as an existential truth. I knew I should be “going somewhere” with my life, I simply did not know where to go (or how to go there). Bilbo’s adventure implied that such “direction” in time, place, and even character might come from unexpected places and lead down unseen (but still providential) paths. Frodo’s quest augmented that sense of direction with other “essentials”: mutually-supportive and sacrificial fellowship, dependence on deliverance beyond one’s abilities, and transcendent will to persevere in the face of suffering and defeat. In both adventure and quest, “There was more than one power at work” in life, and “Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker.” There were things in my life (and aspects of myself) that were “meant to be.”
But where could I look for that true direction, that full meaning, that ultimate design? It was easy to see the hobbits’ world was shaped by a deep, directing cultural history into which glimpses were given through songs, stories, poems and proverbs. Could that be true for me as well? My sense that profound meaning came from the past was amplified by reading The Silmarillion. Here were my Genesis, my Chronicles, my Prophets, Psalms, and Proverbs, long before I ever opened an Old Testament. In the Music of the Ainur I heard “a way things were meant to be” (and it was Good). In Melkor’s discord and saw that disharmony originated in prideful refusal to submit (and insistence on having one’s own way). “He desired rather to subdue to his will both Elves and Men . . . and wished himself to have subjects and servants, and to be called Lord, and to be master over other wills.” In Beren and Luthien I experienced the sacramental power of love. In the choices of Turin, that the gift of free will bears bitter fruit when wielded in anger and vanity (but that grace yet abounds).
These and countless other tales from the past give meaning to the “present” and impress eternal truths upon the reader. Most importantly, they provide the context for “Lordship” that is essential for understanding the role of the King and the significance of his return. This more specific claim on my life was longer in the understanding. It was easy to imagine myself in a world of purpose and meaning in which I was called to play an important part. Much more was involved in acknowledging the Lordship of the Source of purpose and meaning over my life. And to bend my knee to that rightful King was even longer in coming. But I think it helped to have already seen it, in Aragorn, willed so selflessly, won so valiantly, and worn so nobly.
It all, for me, comes together in the beautiful images evoked in the “All that is Gold” poem. Here, metaphorically embodied, was a king through whom I was prepared to meet the King. Here is the paradox of the suffering servant, the branch from the stump of Jesse, the light in the darkness, the broken bread, the crown of thorns, the King of Kings. Here is the Gospel. It just took reading the same words over and over to finally and fully see what they had been showing me all the time.