In the last few weeks I’ve begun to really read the Lord of the Rings properly for the very first time. I’ve had them all read to me more than once, and I’ve seen the movies plenty, and I’ve always felt a little guilty that I didn’t appreciate them as I knew I ought. But now, for the first time since Annie and Karen and I formed our own “Council of Galadriel” in fourth grade, I’m really coming to them as an adult. Let me tell you a secret: THERE IS SO MUCH THERE.
I don’t mean just mean all the intricacies of Tolkien’s fathoms-deep lore, which I sometimes find fascinating and sometimes find annoying. I mean wisdom. It is startling how willing the characters are to pronounce something good or evil. Barrow wights? To be feared. Orcs? Terrifically icky. Uruk-hai? Even more foul. The Balrog? The worst of the worst. Saruman? An infamous traitor. Sauron? Black and awful. But the Shire is all that is good. Gandalf is wise and infinitely trustworthy. Samwise is forever loyal.
We so rarely speak in definites. We are frightened to call things what they are. We do not like to talk about good and evil because it makes things hard. It means that if we intend to be good, there is a very real evil which we needs must pit ourselves against. And we might suffer and die and fail. Tolkien’s characters are not oblivious to this, yet we could learn much from them.
Aragorn hides from his opportunity for goodness and his ultimate destiny, even going so far as to look fairly objectionable at first meeting. Yet, “All that is gold does not glitter, all who wander are not lost; the old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost.” The point is, Aragorn is absolutely, unequivocally gold. And so too, is the rest of the fellowship. Boromir wavers and falls. The ring, which exponentially increases the dreadful power of sinful desire and service to evil, affects his mortal nature, but we must not forget his departure. He dies valiantly protecting Merry and Pippin, and with his last breath, he tells Aragorn that he has failed. Aragorn denies it saying, “No! You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory.” Boromir dies the death of a good man.
Perhaps the most striking are the Hobbits, because it is quite clear at the beginning that they do not really understand evil, because they have not known it. They know the goodness of food and friendship and the abundant blessings of the shire. They have hardly heard of Mordor. Again and again, one wise character after another points out that had they known the perils ahead they could not have mustered courage to come.
But even Frodo does not really know the darkness fully. At the Council of Elrond, when everyone has (finally) stopped talking, they sit in quiet desperation, wondering what is to be done. At length, out of the silence, the hobbit speaks. “’I will take the ring’ he said. ’Though I do not know the way.’”
It reminded me suddenly of a passage from book three of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The scene is heaven, and God the father is asking a question:
Which of ye will be mortal, to redeem
Man’s mortal crime, and just, the unjust to save?
Dwells in all Heaven charity so dear?
He asked, but all the Heavenly Quire stood mute,
And silence was in Heaven: on Man’s behalf
Patron or intercessor none appeared—
Much less that durst upon his own head draw
The deadly forfeiture, and ransom set.
And now without redemption all mankind
Must have been lost, adjudged to Death and Hell
By doom severe, had not the Son of God,
In whom the fulness dwells of love divine,
His dearest mediation thus renewed:—
Christ stepped into the silence and offered to take sin to the cross, as Frodo offers to take the ring to Mount Doom. Apparently, Tolkien knew his Milton, but I’ll tell you something else which Tolkien probably also knew: Christ was no Frodo. He knew the way ahead. He had no ignorance with which to swaddle courage. He knew every step of suffering, all the blood, sweat, and tears, He knew that if He did this thing, he would have to endure separation from His Father. For He was God on High, not a homey, hairy-footed hobbit.
And yet, with that terrible knowledge He makes Himself in the form of a man, all so that “From the ashes a fire shall be woken, a light from the shadows shall spring; renewed shall be blade that was broken, the crownless again shall be king.”