Tolkien and the Age of Myths 2

February 15, 2015

The RINGJ. R. R. Tolkien – the Age of Myths… and modern fantasies

(Part 2 – of spiritual things)

Welcome back! In the first part I tried to explain the whole allegory versus imaginary history project. Now let me expand on the whole symbolic / mythical / spiritual level of the story.


Here we reach the second part of the “mighty purpose” that the sheer length and complexity of the novel serves, in the following line of thought: if miracles happen in a world very similar to our own, then they might just happen in this real world as well. This makes a more spiritual way of life that much more attractive for anyone that got literarily conquered by The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was no preacher and at no point in his entire works does anything even remotely Christian-like appear physically… there aren’t any Bible quotes or crosses or churches or even priests or rituals… but indirectly, he did a great job reaching the hearts of many.

Let me point out just two of the more Christian-like moments than can be identified, despite their lack of religious appearance. They are both about Gandalf the wizard. He is not a man at all, as those of you who read the stories carefully know. He is one of the Maiar, a spirit that serves the Valar, which are the greater spirits that shaped the world according to their supreme master’s will, Iluvatar (which is basically God, for this imaginary universe). Gandalf is, therefore, a guardian spirit of the world – much like an angel.

As such, it is not his place to fight man’s battles for him, but only to guide and protect and through it all, for better or for worse, respect man’s own free will to choose between the path that leads to salvation or the one to perdition. Some words, decisions and actions of Gandalf really can’t be understood at all otherwise, at least not from a rational point of view, unless we see him as being very similar to a Christian angel.

For the first example, he is against killing any human-like creature throughout the entire story, even when we, as humans, might have chosen this way for various reasons. This doesn’t apply to orcish creatures and he didn’t hesitate to turn to stone three trolls in The Hobbit, for these aren’t human, but mere extensions of evil that corrupts nature (perhaps some of you remember, orcs were elves once, corrupted beyond salvation by darkness). However, his opinions change when it comes to Gollum, which was once a hobbit named Smeagol.

He advises Frodo not to kill Gollum should he cross his path. Gollum does not represent absolute evil, he is merely wounded by evil, even if we find that it is beyond any healing. Even so, he does not deserve to die by mortal hands. Frodo doesn’t understand why Bilbo didn’t kill Gollum when he had the chance and Sam would like to do so near Mordor, where they meet him, but Gollum is always left alive because of Gandalf’s advice. He recommended pity and has a strong belief that even creatures like Gollum might yet have a role to play in this world. During the moment that he explains those things to Frodo, the wizard also explicitly states that if you can’t give back life to those that did not deserve their death, then it is no justice and you do not have the right to give death to those that don’t deserve to live. Eventually, Gollum’s own evilness will kill him in some sort of punishment that simply did not require another mortal being committing murder. This is nothing short of an incredibly subtle Christian belief that, in simpler words, sounds like this: evil shall be vanquished for certain, while you need not tarnish yourself with any sin, for any reason. Be humble, be patient. You might suffer, but you must not retaliate to evil with evil. Ever. The amazing thing is that Tolkien doesn’t need to tell you this, he just shows it to you directly in a context where it appears the most credible.

A second example reminds you of the time Gandalf the White (as returned from the Khazad-dum fight) goes to see Saruman after Isengard had been conquered by the ents of Fangorn. Gandalf then warns the king of Rohan, Theoden, and all his men, not to listen to Saruman’s voice, which is very melodic and seductive. The movies did a great job in representing how enthralling and charming Saruman’s words are, and at the same time, full of lies. But surprisingly enough, Gandalf does nothing more than that! At Saruman’s tower of Orthanc, he lets the enemy present his long and eloquent speeches. For us it can only be amazing why he doesn’t just make Saruman shut up, when he knew very well that his sweet and poisonous voice will seduce the men around! He actually lets the evil one speak his full mind until he even convinces some of the men to make peace!

But you see, it is not his job to fight the battles of man, he already gave his warning. Now it is time for humans to show their own true valor and king Theoden is wise enough not to let himself be fooled. He stops Saruman and proves that his vile, yet attractive words, no longer have power over the enlightened soul. Why would Gandalf risk the fall of man? Because, as a guardian angel, he protects and gives us good advice, but he does not fight our battles for us.

One other thing we might ask ourselves is this: if there is truly a very Christian spirit going through the entire works, then where does magic come in all of this? We all know Christians despise the occult and superstitions as demonic work. Tolkien made it simple! – it comes with the evil ones, of course. In his essay, On Fairy-Tales, the author knew he would have to explain how a religious public can relate to stories that contain magic. Therefore, he associated it with the evil folk, while for the good ones he kept wisdom, harmony, law abiding and… art. If you read the books, you might have noticed that elves do not do magic. Gandalf is not a magician, but a wizard – a wise man. Thorin_and_CompanyOnly the enemy does magic and spells. Elves, dwarves and their allies and all the good folk, starting with the original Valar from the Silmarillion use healing arts and enchantment. One thing to notice is that this is a word hard to translate in Romanian while keeping it from any occult meanings. Tolkien, however, found that it is suitable enough for English to designate what the fair folk does, as opposed to magic.

For him, as a Christian, magic means working with demons (or the occult). And man only leaves God to work with demons when he is not pleased with the world and the current state of affairs. Magic is supposed to make forced changes in the world with demonic help, but according to man’s desires, obviously against God’s laws about how this world should function (especially in regard to the reward and punishment factors). Tolkien doesn’t have demons in his imaginary universe, but he does have evil forces of all kinds and magic remains their territory – magic is a sort of evil where beings try to manipulate one another and change the world forcefully after their own desires. He also called it the Machine, which means that if we insist in seeing allegory, the dark magic from Tolkien’s works resembles the extreme industry and reckless machinery invasion of our world. It prevents man from being in harmony with the world as it is, or as it should be, and to be at peace.

On the opposite side there are the elves, and before them, in Silmarillion, there were the Valar, spirits that helped to shape the world according to Iluvatar’s thoughts. The Valar and then the elves protect the world as it is to keep it pure. But they do not change it. They preserve beauty and whatever art they do create themselves, it mimics the beauty of the original pure world. They en-chant, they use arts, which have some more extra fantastical powers than real-life art because it was also based on goodness and faith and a strong relation with the spiritual level. Then man came and things started to change, but the elves still struggled to keep their parts of the world pure. The elves in The Lord of the Rings represent the very last bit of myth and pure spiritual beauty and force that Middle-Earth has left.

Whenever the main characters find elves, they see a little bit of the former purity of the world even if they do not understand it. When elves leave, Sam says that it makes him sad as if the world has lost something. And it has – it’s lost its myths, its golden age, its naked and pure spirituality. The world of man that remains after the destruction of the Master-Ring is a modern world, our modern world, freed from mythology but, at the same time, a world of struggle and overwhelming materialism. At times I believe that The Lord of the Rings has simply been written for those that would like to taste pure wonder and miracle once more, and renew their faith in the real world.

It is simply amazing how Tolkien can point you to an absolutely fabulous story with one hand, and with the other very gently feed you some deep spiritual advice little by little. One may refuse the message of the story or not accept its tenants, but it is still very hard to deny the craftsmanship with which the novel was written and thought out to serve two purposes at once: make you enjoy a great story and try to strengthen your belief in everything good – and why not, even holy – by showing you that it works in a very realistic, albeit fictional history and, therefore, it can work in the real one.

Do you remember John Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which he extends quite a lot the moment the angels fell and demons appeared and their war in heavens, before the creation and then fall of man? This is what Tolkien does as well. Long before the stories of Middle-Earth in The Lord of the Rings, there was Silmarillion, a collection of invented myths for the entire world of Tolkien, called Arda.

All these foreign myths are put to work in favor of Christianity, expanding the single moment when the forces of good and evil fought long before man. This is the time of Morgoth, Sauron’s master, when angelic beings fought the great evil themselves. This is the first age, of myths and it is very spiritual in nature.

Then comes the second age, of great heroes and legends, where elves come in, the ones who inhabited the world before man. It is going to seem funny to you, but for me it is like the age of elves is here to replace the less known age of dinosaurs… you know, the age just before the rise of man? Elves are just better fit for the spiritual universe and the entire let’s-put-man-and-faith-together-back-where-they-belong project.

the lord of the rings booksAnd finally, the third age belongs to heroic humans and their glorious history. At the end of The Lord of the Rings,darkness is defeated, the elves leave and the fourth age is basically our modern age, when we sort of look back to where we came from, now that we do have a long, sturdy tradition.

And the trip until now has been so much more fascinating, hasn’t it?

Do you know all those fans today, and the cosplay types? All they’re trying to do is keep the feeling alive and re-create the universe that they loved by pretending to be a character in it. Well, the sad truth is you can’t live (in) a story… but hey… if you really liked it, the spirit of it, then you can live as if you are part of a majestic and miraculous universe. There may not be a Mordor to fear, a Sauron to fight against, a ring to destroy all evil with it once and for all, or a Valinor to aspire to, but certainly there are enough hellish places in this world as it is and even more so, there are plenty of good things to be done to fight against the evil. Mordor is, after all, not just the dark realm in Middle-Earth. It is always the place where the shadows lie… and we aren’t out of shadows just yet, are we?

by Anca-Raluca Sandu

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2 Responses to Tolkien and the Age of Myths 2

  1. Tolkien and the Age of Myths 1 | eLitere on February 15, 2015 at 7:01 am

    […] Tolkien and the Age of Myths 2 February 15, 2015 […]

  2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe | eLitere on April 30, 2016 at 6:32 am

    […] get into that. If you are interested in this topic, please check out Raluca’s article posted in two parts about J. R. R. Tolkien’s literary masterpiece Lord of the […]

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