Part One – A Journey of Recovery: Natural Theology in “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien

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“In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lórien, there was no stain.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Lord of the Rings”

“Through What Has Been Made”

For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made.  Romans 1:20

In the process of appropriating scientific knowledge about our world, we have also alienated ourselves from it.  Not only have the predominant philosophies of our day emptied our moral lives of meaning, all of nature itself has been reduced to meaningless matter.  For Tolkien’s generation, this sense alienation had become all the more tangible after two world wars that showcased the dehumanizing effects of mechanized warfare for the first time in human history.  Technology like the atomic bomb seemed to make a mockery of the traditional concept of heroism.  It is not surprising that a deep cynicism with respect to ultimate issues was hastened by these realities.  Today, the feelings of cynicism, alienation, and depersonalization have been carried forward by the widespread acceptance of materialist philosophy, a dizzying rate of technological advances that are driven by utilitarianism and immediacy, and consumerism that preys off of our most besetting sins of greed and selfishness.

The world of Middle-earth is the balm to heal the wound in this age that is cut off and cut down.  Tolkien’s natural world is teeming with life and meaning, but it is also subject to a groaning of which it is not unconscious.  Nature is not silent in Middle-earth, for it either writhes in pain or is at peace.  In short, it seems sensitive to the moral atmosphere of its inhabitants.  Indeed, the environment provides a moral compass of sorts for the characters of The Lord of the Rings, the extremes of which are the Eden-like setting of Lothlórien representing all that is unsullied and living, and the dead lands of Mordor displaying all that is profane.  At the heart of the profanity is the lust for dominance, and nature is the first casualty in Middle-earth.

In considering the depiction of evil in The Lord of the Rings, Ralph C. Wood notes in his book, The Gospel According to Tolkien, that “Tolkien profoundly discerns” that evil is not something that exists as distinct from goodness, rather “it is something secondary and derivative”.[1]  Evil cannot create, it can only malign and mock in its acts of sub-creation, as Sauron’s orcs represent a perverse caricature of Elves.  This is seen in the fact that even the luminescence of Minas Morgul, the garrison for Sauron’s forces, was secondary, “paler indeed than the moon … wavering and blowing like a noisome exhalation of decay, a corpse-light, a light that illuminated nothing.”[2]  The landscape was equally as unnatural with its “shadowy meads filled with pale white flowers … beautiful and yet horrible of shape, like the demented forms in an uneasy dream; and they gave forth a faint sickening charnel-smell; an odour of rottenness filled the air.”[3]

This principle of perverted Good can be seen throughout all the lands that have been overcome by the Shadow.  They become more barren and inhospitable as one approaches Sauron’s “ancient fastness in the Dark Tower of Mordor.” [4] As in our world, the evil in Middle-earth is anti-nature, and those who choose its path join it in destroying its beauty and goodness.  Saruman exemplifies this with his mind that had turned toward “metal and wheels,” no longer caring “for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.”[5]

In starkest contrast to Mordor is Lothlórien, the “fairest of all the dwellings” in Middle-earth.[6]  Sauron’s pernicious shadow was kept from that realm by one of the three Elven rings kept by Lady Galadriel.  Frodo describes it as something like “a vanished world” having “no stain” and upon which was a “light …for which his language had no name.”[7]  Tolkien would write that this ring gave the power to heal “the real damages of malice, as well as the mere arrest of change.”[8]  The Elves love the land and it responds in kind, being filled with a beauty and peace that brings healing to the Fellowship.  It is here that Galadriel gives Frodo a phial in which “is caught the light of Eärendil’s star, set amid the waters of [her] fountain.”[9]  As she prophesied, this phial would indeed provide a light for Frodo in the darkest of places, Shelob’s lair.  Tolkien wrote that Eärendil’s star contained a portion of the primeval, first Light, unfallen and pure.[10]

Here, as in any time that stars are mentioned in the tale, such light is fortifying and foretelling of upturns in the fates of those that are striving against evil.  Even from within the forsaken land of Mordor, “full of creaking and cracking and sly noises,” their light could be seen.[11]  Far from the groans of Middle-earth, they silently declare a “light and high beauty forever beyond [the Shadow’s] reach.”[12]

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

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The Journey:

Introduction Natural Theology in “The Lord of the Rings”  

Part Two:  Natural Theology in “The Lord of the Rings”  – “Written on their hearts” –  For whenever the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, these who do not have the law are a law to themselves. 15 They show that the work of the law is written in their hearts, as their conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or else defend them .. Romans 2:14-15

Part Three: Natural Theology in “The Lord of the Rings”  – Divine Providence in Middle-earth

Notes:

[1] Ralph C. Wood, The Gospel According to Tolkien (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 51,61.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition, loc.14224, Kindle.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition, loc.14233, Kindle.

[4] Ibid., 1280.

[5] Ibid., 9684.

[6] Ibid., 6980.

[7] Ibid., 7316.

[8] Humphrey Carter, ed., The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (New York:  Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 236.

[9] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition, loc. 7848, Kindle.

[10] Humphrey Carter, ed., The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 148-149.

[11] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition, loc. 18423, Kindle.

[12] Ibid., 18426.

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