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3.29.2004

Tolkien, Part Two

The Christian symbolism is in my opinion easy to miss, especially if one gets caught up in the very engaging story.

Nevertheless, it is increasingly clear that Tolkien intended to put allegorical symbols in.

Gandalf's mishap in Moria is actually intended to be a death-and-resurrection number. This is easy to miss if you have read The Silmarillion, for that book makes clear that Gandalf and his kind can change shapes (ie, bodies) the way other people change clothes. (It is a mark of Sauron's slow decline that he eventually loses this power.) Knowing this, you might miss the resurrection symbolism of Gandalf's return -- the all-white clothes, the increased power, etc etc. Gandalf after Moria is a white rider on a white horse -- right out of Revelations, I would think. Tolkien wrote elsewhere (forget the exact cite) that, because he had imagined a world which was different from ours but subject to the same rules, that the death-and-resurrection aspect of Gandalf's fall was his world's version of Christ's d-and-r number in the Christian faith. In other words, once you find the author's intent from an extramural source, you can look back and see The Christian Symbol, which an innocent reader might miss. I missed this until I read Tolkien's commentary on this. Other readers I know picked up on it right away.

The symbolism is distinctive, original, and at times plain weird. For instance, the "lembas", the bread of the elves, is meant to be a symbol of (Catholic) communion. Tolkien was a Catholic rather than a Christian (one source of his differences with CS Lewis), and the symbolism runs to Catholic rather than to Protestant forms. For instance, there are many references to the Virgin Mary, both as an archetype and as a role model. The Elvish songs to Elbereth are more or less hymns to the Virgin Mary. Galadriel, who Tolkien actually viewed as a penitent, is not unrelated to the BVM archetype. Certainly the idea of Lorien, the immaculate land, relates to Catholic ideas of immaculateness. And yes, Galadriel is a penitent (this is explained in the Silmarillion) who, in declining Frodo's offer of the ring, earns the right to return to Valinor by boat at the end of the book.

This is easy to miss, unless you are clued in to the author's very intense Marian devotion. The ancestral Tolkiens had been given the choice, in Germany (if memory serves this was Frederick The Great), of becoming protestant or being exiled. They chose exile, and thus became English Catholics. Tolkien's own mother, who was of course English, was disinherited for marrying his father, who was Catholic. The motifs of exile and disinheritance are all over Tolkien's work once you know what to look for. Moreover, Tolkien appears to have been one of those Catholics who rate Mary very highly indeed. He had what is known as a special devotion to her. The papal pronouncement in the mid-20th-century, that Mary is co-mediatrix with Christ, would have seemed obviously true to Tolkien and like-minded others. To Protestants, of course, it is heresey or idolatry or both together.

Then there is the calendar aspect of the thing. Frodo's epic begins with one Christian date (I think it is Christmas, can't recall) and ends with another (the Old English date for Easter), so that everything happens in the same liturgical year. Unless you know what to watch for in the dates department, it is easy to miss this as well.

One plausible account I have read suggests that the kingdom which returns at the end of LOTR is a kind of icon or image of the Holy Roman Empire, reconstructed in some way in the future (or in an alternate world) so that Catholic unity becomes re-established. This may have been one way Tolkien, as a Catholic, viewed the Second Coming.

I would say that Tolkien divvies up the Christ-figure into three characters: Gandalf, Aragorn and Frodo. The three together constitute the Christ motif of the work. Gandalf is always presented in the iconic and visual terms which Germanic myth usually reserved for Odin -- who, perhaps not coincidentally, was also a crucified divinity. Aragorn is Christ in his aspect of returning king. Frodo is more the martyr aspect -- his departure at the end of the book is a symbolic death. So the Christ motif is there, but handled with much greater literary skill, subtlety and depth than CS Lewis could muster. I think this is one reason the LOTR story packs so much punch: the reader can feel the author's seriousness, without quite deciphering the allegory which has been coded into the work. This combination of skill and obscurity is, in literary terms, one of the best ways of achieving the effect of the sublime; the Ultimate Symbols are there, but not in plain sight.

I suspect that Tolkien's frustration with the way he was received and mis-read (as an allegory of WW2, as a proponent of psychedelic drugs, etc.) contributed to his refusal to make things plain. But there were good literary reasons to not make it any plainer. If you have ever read his essay on Beowulf, it is a masterpiece of deliberate obfuscation, designed in my opinion to hide his understanding of what Beowulf is about.








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