An Element of Tolkien’s Work Missing in The Children of Hurin

I’ve gotten halfway through The Children of Hurin by J. R. R. Tolkien and edited by his son Christopher Tolkien.  So far it exudes a style and mood at variance with other works of Tolkien.  It feels more like a Greek tragedy or Viking saga: it has the style of the latter and the tragic flaws of the former.  None of Tolkien’s eucatastrophe is present therein, unless we count the happy death of Androg, who died a better man than he lived.  If it were not for this happy death, I should doubt that the famous Tolkien really wrote the story.  Little else relieves one from the heavy sense of sorrow hanging over the action.

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Joy or even humor is missing from the work.  Tolkien’s major work, The Lord of the Rings, can get pretty dark at times, but its characters defy their desperate circumstances with joy, humor, or even glory.  Boromir’s death lost some of its sting by the exuberant courage of his last stand.  Homely humor from Samwise Gamgee brightened up Sam and Frodo’s trek through Mordor.  How about the orc slaying game played between Legolas and Gimli at the desperate Battle of Helm’s Deep?

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Thoughts on A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War

Studying World War One has been on my mind for the past while.  The Great War set the course for all the events which came after it and deeply altered Western culture.  The part this war played in shaping the fiction of Tolkien and Lewis has also aroused my curiosity.  And so, this book supplies for both of my wants, since it describes the world prior to the war, the attitudes of Tolkien and Lewis to WWI, their careers during the war, and how it shaped their lives and works.  The book contains an impressive amount of information in its short two hundred pages.

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The early chapters inform the reader of the important intellectual movements prior to the war.  These movements proposed that science, technology, and the state could build a superior society without reliance upon God.  Eugenics and Social Darwinism played a huge role in these Utopian schemes, which all crumbled in the cataclysm of 1914-1918.  World War I ushered in an era of pessimism with patriotic and religious values being suspect and often disowned.  Former soldiers often led the way in literature by sucking all the glory and meaning from war.  The book attempts to answer the question why Tolkien and Lewis defended traditional values in a world where most intellectuals were turning against them.

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Utter Darkness

Those of you who also follow me on Medieval Otaku know that I’ve placed that blog on hiatus.  Of course, that need not mean that I shall quit blogging here–though, the thought did cross my mind.  That blog was placed on hold so that I might read more, and how better to may one understand what one reads more than by writing about it–especially if people comment on my ideas?

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The following passage of The Two Towers occurs after Samwise’s fight with Shelob and the apparent death of Frodo.  Some people accuse Tolkien of not having very interesting prose or prose which obscures his personality–as Neil Gaiman writes.  While it is certain that Tolkien’s work shines more in conversion and when he wishes to give a place a mythic feel, he can create very powerful prose descriptions which have a direct link to his experience.  Read the following perfectly constructed sentence:

And then black despair came down on him, and Sam bowed to the ground, and drew his grey hood over his head, and night came into his heart, and he knew no more.

How many better images of utter despair are there in literature?  How many of these are as succinct?  In a single sentence, images of crushing darkness are added upon one another until the light of the intellect is extinguished.  Black despair presses down on Sam from without, the drawing of the grey hood over his head shows that despair has taken a hold on his mind, and lastly the night coming into his heart saliently conveys the image of darkness as all-encompassing and pervasive.  How much more so when one recalls that this takes place in a lightless tunnel?

Anyone else like how Tolkien names the two traditional seats of thought in this sentence?  The heart and the head are also the two traditional seats of the soul.  The heart and the head, in that they point to the soul or the form of man, show the immersion of his mind in black despair.

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Tolkien admitted that Samwise was supposed to represent the average doughboy of WWI.  Tolkien lost all save one of his friends in that awful conflict, and one can’t help but think that this image of despair relates to his tragic experiences in this war.  Perhaps, Tolkien even imagined–like Sam–that his last close friend had died at one point.  Then, all the sense and meaning was taken out of life: “and he knew no more.”

Well, I found this passage really cool, but what do my dear readers think?  Any other ways such grim despair might have been present in Tolkien’s life?

A Curious Criticism

In my friend’s article on Tolkien, he adduced a rather curious point against Lord of the Rings: hardly any of the protagonists died.  At first blush, this struck me as a fine absurdity!  Annoyed by a dearth of death!  Fie!  One ought to be more prone to criticize a work because too many of the characters die, as we see in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire.  Or are we to consider killing off beloved characters a virtue?  (Perhaps, if the story goes on for far too long, as in Sherlock Holmes, but we know how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s attempt to kill off Sherlock Holmes ended!)  Yet, below J D Thomp’s article, a commentator expressed aggreeance with his criticism!  This forces me to give the idea serious consideration.

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There used to be an excellent WWII show called Combat!, where the writers would throw darts at a board with the characters’ pictures to see which character should die in a particular episode.  The fact that one’s favorite character could die at any moment created a great sense of realism in that show; however, a similar callousness seems inappropriate in an epic fantasy or, rather, this epic fantasy.  A writer must pick what truths he wishes to examine in a book, and the mortality rate on a medieval battlefield or on a desperate journey does not concern Tolkien.  But, I will say that casualties among well armored persons, as our heroes were during the major battles of the work, were indeed very low in the Middle Ages.  Otherwise, I expect that Medieval noblemen would have had the same attitude to war as Hemingway and the other Lost Generation writers.

You can bet they're all having the time of their lives!

You can bet they’re all having the time of their lives!

In a prior post, I mentioned how themes of mercy, providence, and sin abound in Lord of the Rings.  It does not make Providence look very provident if Gimli (when cut off at Helm’s Deep), Pippin (in fighting the Black Rider), Gandalf (in Moria), Sam (Mordor), and Frodo (Mordor) all end up dead by the end of the book, does it?  (Of course, if one wishes to examine the problem of evil, so many deaths is quite appropriate.)  There were ample opportunities for all of these characters to die!  As for the Deus Ex Machina rescue of Sam and Frodo, that fits in with the above three themes.  “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.”  As Frodo spared Gollum’s life despite Sam’s urging to kill him, it is no wonder that Frodo should be providently rescued.  If the ring represents sin, salvation is naturally found when sin is destroyed–and the advent of salvation is as marvelous as it is unexpected!

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I should adduce one more thing for consideration.  I have written the first draft of a novel, where one of my favorite characters dies–and relatively early in the work.  Note my wording: “where one of my favorite characters dies.”  Does this not sound altogether passive?  That’s because it is so.  In the story in my mind, I simply saw Thord dying in that battle.  To write otherwise would be false to the story.  It would not surprise me if Tolkien faithfully passed on a story he felt that he was given.

I want a library like that.

I want a library like that.

And should this make us upset?  No!  When a great character should die, let him die and take a piece of our hearts with him.  If a great character lives, let us rejoice that he obtains the glory and peace due to him.

Chapter Two of The Fellowship of the Ring as LOTR’s Thematic Hub

It has been very famously said by Tolkien that The Lord of the Rings was a Catholic fairy tale: first unconsciously, then consciously so in the revision.  Reading Lord of the Rings for the fourth time now, the Catholicity of the work sticks out like a sore thumb to me.  In particular, the conversation between Gandalf and Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring contains brilliant use of Catholic imagery and spirituality, which lays out the recurrent themes of the work.

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First, I should like to point out that the Ring symbolizes sin, perhaps venial sin in particular.  Gandalf speaks of how lucky Bilbo was to cast off the ring when he did; otherwise, he might have been ensnared by the powers of darkness: “Alas! Mordor draws all wicked things…” (72)  Even venial sin, though not taking away the life of grace within the soul, draws it to hell and repeated venial sins–despite the fact that many venial sins, no matter how many times they are repeated, cannot add up to a mortal sin–often lead to the commission of a grave sin, which is damning.  *Huge Spoiler Alert to the end of this paragraph* Indeed, Gollum, who had been completely possessed by the Ring, falls into Mt. Doom at the end, and Frodo narrowly escapes.  This is reminiscent of the first letter of St. Peter 4:18: “And if the righteous is scarcely saved, where shall the ungodly and sinner appear?”

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People can become absorbed by sin.  They become a preoccupation either in the penitent or impenitent.  This is symbolized by the obsession produced in Gollum, Bilbo, Frodo, and those covetous of the ring.  This absorption leads to people becoming irritable when admonished by others–plain in the case of Bilbo in chapter one and Frodo by the end of the work.  Even if the sinner acknowledges his fault, he cannot overcome his fault without help:

Frodo drew the ring out of his pocket again and looked at it…It was an admirable thing and altogether precious.  When he took it out he had intended to fling it from him into the very hottest part of the fire.  But he found now that he could not do so, not without a great struggle…and then with an effort of will he made a movement, as if to cast it away–but he found that he had put it back in his pocket.

Frodo later protests that he really wants to destroy it, but grace acting upon nature, the formation of will power through developing good habits–is necessary for overcoming sin.  And so, we have the concept of a long journey, which symbolizes a life of resisting temptation and striving to do the right.  As a matter of fact, Bilbo’s very, very long life symbolizes God’s mercy: even though Bilbo cannot cast away the ring, he is given a very long time to do so, which results in the eventual triumph of grace.

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But, the Ring’s ability to make one invisible symbolizes how sin destroys charity and weakens faith.  We see from Gollum’s back story that his use of the ring led to people distrusting him and eventually exiling him.  Also, since all sin indicates deficiency of faith, the sinner, while he sins, might imagine himself invisible to God.  Instead, God still sees the sinner, and, worse yet, the sinner becomes more apparent to his enemies and more easily disturbed by them, which is excellently displayed in Peter Jackson’s movies.

Then again, the theme of spiritual acedia and sinners preferring darkness to light (John 3:19) is apparent in Gollum’s story and what happens to the ring-bearers.  After all, all ring bearers start to feel “thin” and generally become weary of life.  This is due to hiding from Life Illimitable by continuing in sin–even if apparently trifling.  Gollum even hates the presence of the sun and hides himself in caves!  Then, sinners lie rather than face the truth, as Gollum does, and so further enter the darkness encircling them.  Darkness itself promises “great secrets” (p. 68), but Satan “is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44); therefore, all his promises are empty.  The reward for sinning is nothing but guilt and pain: nothingness itself.

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But, there is always hope, and there is always a part of the sinner reaching for the Light, as Gandalf avers.  This is the case even when the case is most desperate–as with Gollum.  On the other hand, Tolkien sets out hope for sinners in the form of Charity: “Pity?  It was Pity that stayed [Bilbo’s] hand.  Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need.  And he had been well rewarded, Frodo.  Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so.  With Pity” (p. 73).  This echoes Luke 7:47: “For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”  As much as any sin breaks the laws of God, which are based on charity and derive from Charity Himself, charity covers many sins.  Gandalf’s further remarks on the pity Bilbo showed Gollum show the idea that God can save anyone.

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Tolkien also has the understanding that God’s will is always accomplished, as is revealed by Gandalf’s words:

Only to be picked up by the most unlikely person imaginable: Bilbo from the Shire!

Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker.  I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the ring, and not by its maker.  In which case, you were also meant to have it.  And that may be an encouraging thought.

God’s presence may not always be felt, but we can trust that He is always there and will give us the strength to carry out his will.  God can even turn good out of evil for His glory.  This passage also reveals another attribute of God: He uses the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  “When I am weak, then truly I am strong” (2 Corinthians 21:10).  It is also symbolic of David and Goliath.

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Three other Catholic symbols I have picked up on from this conversation were the Cain and Abel imagery between Gollum and the friend he murders, Deagol, the Men of Westernesse as the Jews, and therefore, Aragorn of the kingly line of the Westernesse, as the Son of David, whose return symbolizes the Second Coming.  Lastly, the juxtaposition of Bilbo and Gollum reminds one of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, whose greatest difference is that the former showed charity to their fellow men while the latter did not.  But, there is so much to the Lord of the Rings that it could fill many pages of commentary.  A truly remarkable work!