Troving Tolkien’s “deep narrative”

My husband would tell you that I am a “Tolkien purist” and there’s some probably some truth to that. It’s certainly a fact that I’ve read The Lord of the Rings once a year, every year, since 2003. And it’s true that the more often I read The Lord of the Rings, the less I like Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations (and no, not just because of the missing Tom Bombadil). At the same time, I wouldn’t say that I’ve studied Tolkien’s novel, and I’ve never made it though The Silmarillion. So while “purist” is debatable, let it be shown that I am, at the very least, a constant and devoted reader.

All of which is to say — I recently finished reading Fleming Rutledge’s The Battle for Middle-earth: Tolkien’s Divine Design in The Lord of the Rings and I was blown away.  It’s a phenomenal book and I would recommend it unreservedly to anyone who loves The Lord of the Rings and wants to read it in a deeper, richer way.

The Battle for Middle-earth is a careful read-through of The Lord of the Rings, supplemented by Tolkien’s collected letters, aimed at uncovering what Rutledge calls the story’s “deep narrative”: the theological/liturgical/biblical current that undergirds the surface action of the tale. Tolkien was a deeply committed Roman Catholic, and even though LotR takes place in a pre-Christian world (which, interestingly, he always framed as our world long ago), the drama of the Ring and Middle-earth is molded in a way that is recognisably Christian. Most intriguing to me is how Rutledge points out the ways in which The Lord of the Rings is a long meditation on the tension between human freedom and God’s divine will, or providence. Or perhaps I should say, the presumed tension between them.

We first begin to see this being worked out at the Council of Elrond, in Book II: The Ring Goes South, when Frodo puts himself forward to take the Ring to Mordor. Tolkien writes that “At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice”. Elrond confirms Frodo’s decision, saying both that the task “is appointed” for him and that he must “choose it freely”. But is it appointed, or is it his choice? Or, somehow, is it both? Rutledge writes,

[…] the way this issue is worked out in narrative form in The Lord of the Rings strikes me as one of the very best illustrations of the paradox to be found anywhere. Frodo is “appointed” for the great trial. It is clear that he does not have the strength within himself to accept the appointment, but “some other will” is working in him. Christian theology would say this is the action of the Holy Spirit arming him for the fearsome task.

The primary emphasis in the scene at the Council of Elrond is on the appointment, or divine election, of Frodo and the help that comes to him from somewhere outside himself. However, at the same time, Elrond is able to say that Frodo has taken the decision freely. It is important to get these two seemingly contradictory thoughts in the right order. There will always be those who insist that “free will” is primary. Taken overall, the saga of the Ring will show that true freedom occurs in the context of divine predestination and cannot occur anywhere else. A verse from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians puts the paradox this way: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13, emphasis added). (113-4)

Rutledge traces this providential in-breaking of “power from another sphere” throughout the narrative of The Lord of the Rings, noting that it is almost always indicated by a shift to the passive voice. This power is the hand of God — never named, but recognisable for those with eyes to see it. This intervention is critical for, as Tolkien reminds us, the forces of evil are also constantly at work. One occasionally hears it bandied about that “evil doesn’t exist on its own; it is merely the absence of good”. That is a nice sentiment, I suppose, but it isn’t the biblical picture of evil, and it is entirely inadequate to address the real evil we see in the world every day. Satan “prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8); evil is active, malevolent, and intelligent:

Tolkien lays out for us here the situation in an unredeemed world. We may  “choose” this or that, but — using New Testament terminology — this present evil age is ruled by the Prince of Darkness, so no matter what we choose Sin and Death speak the final word in the end. The notion that we can make an autonomous decision to be free of this tyranny is a delusion. There has to be an intervention from outside; the Enemy’s territory has to be invaded by a superior Power. There can be no question that this is what Tolkien intended to convey; he says so in his letters, many times in various ways. (208)

Rutledge’s account of the invasion of the Superior Power throughout the narrative of the Ring saga is deftly-wrought and compelling, and there’s a lot to digest there. But it’s only one of the themes she treats in The Battle for Middle-earth; she also writes on Tolkien’s meditations on fatherhood (see: Denethor vs. Theoden), the virtue of pity/mercy, and others. While I found the entire book fascinating in its own right, what shows me its value above all is that it has made me even more eager for my upcoming annual re-read of Tolkien’s masterpiece. I can’t wait to dive into the world of Middle-earth once more, this time with my eyes opened to threads and themes I haven’t seen before. Who knows? One of these days I may even, with Fleming Rutledge’s encouragement, dare The Silmarillion.

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  1. Pingback: Reading Round-Up: January 2018 | In this Ordinary Time

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