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

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“If there’s any magic about, it’s right down deep, where I can’t lay my hands on it, in a manner of speaking.” “You can see and feel it everywhere,” said Frodo. “Well,” said Sam, “you can’t see nobody working it.”

Divine Providence in Middle-earth

Divine providence is the medium in which the world of Middle-earth lives and moves and exists.   It is the deeply felt magic of which Frodo and Sam speak in Lothlórien, as it is the least obscured in that Eden-like refuge, but its presence can be found throughout Middle-earth, albeit dimmed.  According to a biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien “wanted the mythological and legendary stories to express his own moral view of the universe; and as a Christian he could not place this view in a cosmos without the God he worshipped.”[1]  Yet, in wanting to preserve the necessary “imaginative colour” and power of Faerie, “God is present in Tolkien’s universe” but “He remains unseen.”[2]

Again and again, the reader can detect a Will that works along-side the choices of the characters of Middle-earth, turning what was meant for good or evil into wise and perfect ends.  Middle-earth is not undergirded by a blind, mindless, or unpredictable fate, but rather by a kind of Providence that bespeaks of power, intelligence, and goodness.  Gandalf tells Frodo that the Ring was trying to get back to its maker, Sauron, by escaping first Isildur and then Gollum.  Yet, he notes, “behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design” of Sauron.[3]  This Will ensured that it was Bilbo that found the Ring instead, so into the “small-hands” of the Shire, among the half-lings, hardly whole enough to be seen by those that worship power, the Ring remained undetected for years.[4]

Still, like in our own world, Providence’s immediate designs are hidden even from the wisest in Middle-earth.  “For even the very wise cannot see all ends,” Gandalf replies when considering the part that Gollum had to play in the Quest to destroy the Ring.  Behind the events of Middle-earth, there was an unsearchable will.[5]  Galadriel refrained from giving the Fellowship advice on where to go after leaving Lothlórien, even though they no longer had the wise council of their grey wizard to guide them.  “I will not give you counsel, saying do this, or do that,” she says, “for not in doing or contriving, nor in choosing between this course and another, can I avail; but only in knowing what was and is, and in part also what shall be.”[6]

Yet, it is significant that she tells them that if all of the Fellowship remains true to the Quest, then hope remains.[7]  Even when our wisdom fails us, hope is to be found on the virtuous path, though it appears to be the “path of despair” through lands where “Earth, air and water all seem accursed.”[8] And the ways of this Providence were not completely veiled, as both Gandalf and Galadriel were indeed encouraged to see that such a courageous and humble people as the hobbits had been allowed to be a part of overcoming the dark intentions of evil.

Middle-earth is a place where the readers can see the action of Divine Providence in its past, as well, with its numerous references to history.  In his essay on the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, Tolkien admired that the ancient work gave “the illusion of surveying a past, pagan but noble and fraught with a deep significance – a past that itself had depth and reached backward into the dark antiquity of sorrow” and this informed “his own complex layering of the past of Middle-earth.”[9]  The events of The Lord of the Rings seem like “the passing seasons” which “are but ripples ….” on the surface of a deep and enchanted history that is working towards a specific end.[10]  Wood writes that Tolkien “gives a convincing fictional life to a deeply providential sense of time and history.”[11]  This is especially powerful for readers today for not only is our age cut-off from nature, we have untethered ourselves from history because of a tendency towards a “chronological snobbery” that views almost everything pre-Enlightenment as barbaric.

Placed within the context of a long history of struggle and triumph, Tolkien reveals not only the action of divine providence but also his characters’ knowledge of the meaningful role they played within history, something that we have certainly lost today. The heroes of The Lord of the Rings take part in the ever-present struggle of each generation of Middle-earth to save, store, and hold sacred all that is good from “some primordial ruin.”[12]   They join the annals of its history and lore by remaining faithful to the Quest not “to master all the tides of the world” but to persevere in the tale in which they were set, “uprooting the evil in the fields that [they knew], so that those who live after may have clean earth to till.”[13]  Sam comes to an understanding of this while in Mordor when he realizes that he and Frodo were part of this grander narrative.  Their own travails had enabled him to now see that “the tales that really mattered … the ones that stay in the mind” were the tales in which “folk seem to have been just landed in them … their paths were laid that way.”[14]  Sam remarks, “But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten.”[15]

It is also significant with respect to Tolkien’s natural theology that some effects of evil’s marring cannot be completely undone without some kind of supernatural restoration.   Like our world, Middle-earth seems to be winding down.  There is a “sorrowful theme of decline and loss,” writes Stephen Morillo in his essay “The Entwives.”[16]  Tolkien has set his story at the transition point between two ages and makes it clear that “many fair things will fade and be forgotten” including the removal of the Elves to the Land beyond the Sea.[17] This casts a profound sadness across the pages of The Lord of the Rings that highlights the moral actions of its characters all the more as they respond to this reality. “Yet all the Elves are willing to endure this chance,” said Glorfindel, “if by it the power of Sauron may be broken, and the fear of his dominion be taken away forever.”[18]  This cost is felt when Frodo explains to Sam why he must journey to the Undying Lands: “But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”[19]

In the end, hope in a “Joy beyond the walls of” Middle-earth is the strength that undergirds the moral choices of the heroes – a hope that goodness is real and will ultimately prevail.[20]  Even from within the darkling plains of Mordor, Sam and Frodo are able to draw upon this hope. This stands in stark contrast to our age, where the concepts of good and evil are explained away as the useful fictions of a blind evolutionary will to survive.  There is no longer room for such hope-filled courage in our world; therefore, the visions of it in Middle-earth stand out all the more.  Wood writes that his students often report feeling clean after spending time in Tolkien’s fairyland with its “bracing moral power” and “its power to lift … out of the small-minded obsessions” that are left when belief in the transcendent is lost.[21]  We learn from Tolkien that there indeed are first principles that are worth holding onto, even if it requires one to face death.  These truths and this hope from Middle-earth flow seamlessly into the void that is left in our modern age, quenching a thirst for a supernal righteousness that is indeed “written on our hearts” in indelible ink.

In describing the origins of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien repeatedly gave the impression that it was just as much a journey of discovery for him as the author as what it became for his readers.  In the course of its writing, he “met a lot of things on the way that astonished” him.[22] He “had the sense of recording what was already ‘there’, ‘somewhere’: not of ‘inventing.’”[23]  In the fairyland that grew out of the “leaf-mould” of Tolkien’s mind, we find “not an academy or an abstract republic” or “a place of myths allegorised or dissected or explained or explained away”, but we find “a place of dreams come true.”[24]  The natural theology and monotheism of Middle-earth speak to “very deep things in our nature, some dim sense of the dependence of great things upon small, some dark suggestion that the things nearest to us stretch far beyond our power, some sacramental feeling of the magic in material substances.”[25] In speaking to these primeval longings, Tolkien created a perilous realm that “does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure” for “the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance.”  What the Quest to destroy the Ring does deny is “universal final defeat”, and in doing so it gives “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”[26]

The Journey:

Introduction: Natural Theology in “The Lord of the Rings” 

Part One: Natural Theology in “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

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

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J.R.R. Tolkien

 

Notes:

[1] Humphrey Carter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (New York:  Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 99.

[2] Ibid., 99.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition, loc. 1381, Kindle.

[4] Ibid., 5710.

[5] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (London: William, Clowes and Sons, 1934), 53, Kindle: “I had always vaguely felt facts to be miracles in the sense that they are wonderful: now I began to think them miracles in the stricter sense that they were willful. I mean that they were, or might be, repeated exercises of some will.”

[6] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition, loc. 7438, Kindle.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 5702, 14385.

[9] Paul E. Kerry, ed., The Ring and the Cross: Christianity and the Lord of the Rings (Lanham, MD: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2011), 157.

[10] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition, loc. 8085.

[11] Paul E. Kerry, ed., The Ring and the Cross: Christianity and the Lord of the Rings, 147.

[12] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 57.

[13] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition, loc. 17636, Kindle.

[14] Ibid., 14389.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Paul E. Kerry, ed., The Ring and the Cross: Christianity and the Lord of the Rings, 111.

[17] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition, loc. 5700, Kindle.

[18] Ibid.

[19] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition, loc. 20574, Kindle.

[20] J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-stories: Expanded Edition With Commentary and Notes, 75.

[21] Ralph C. Wood, The Gospel According to Tolkien, 76.

[22] Humphrey Carter, ed., The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 216.

[23] Ibid., 99.

[24] G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, 150, Kindle.

[25] Ibid., 87.

[26] J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-stories: Expanded Edition with Commentary and Notes, 67.

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