Charles Williams on poetry

I am currently struggling through Charles William’s text The Figure of Beatrice: a Study in Dante. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a pleasant struggle, but I am feeling my dearth of a classical education here. I have no Latin, I have no Italian, and I’ve only read The Divine Comedy and none of Dante’s other work. But I’ve had this book on my shelf for a few years now and it felt like the right time to pick it up — especially since I have a hankering to re-read the Comedy, perhaps in the new year.

At any rate, I’ve been wading through Williams’s prose, dredging out such insights as I may. I am not getting as much out of this as others might, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean I’m not getting anything out of it — and last night I found a wonderful gem about poetry:

The poems (in both? certainly in both) have two meanings — literal and ‘allegorical’; he will deal with both. It is perhaps worthwhile pointing out that when a poem is said to have two meanings, both are included in the poem; we have only one set of words. The meanings, that is, are united; and the poem is their union. The poem is an image with many relevancies, and not only so, but it is itself the expressions of the relevancy of its own images to each other. The poem, not the literal or allegorical meanings, is the existing thing, the image we have to deal with; the meanings assist and enrich the line; they do not replace it (which is the danger of all — even necessary, even Dante’s — criticism and comment). One goes outside the poem, in following the meanings, but only to return; only to centre again what, for a good purpose, has been de-centred. (Williams, The Figure of Beatrice, 45)

That is a very helpful image for me, especially when we are talking about the “meaning” of a poem: there is a plain or literal meaning, and there is often a secondary allegorical or figurative meaning, and each is equally what is meant and expressed by the same words. Their meanings are in contrast to each other without being in competition with each other, because it’s the unity-in-tension that they form that is the poem.

There is a paradox here — or something that seems paradoxical to us, at any rate. But it made me think of another paradoxical image, one that surely came to mind because of Williams’s subject matter: Dante’s vision of the Trinity at the very end of Paradise, the concluding volume of The Divine Comedy. In this final canto, Dante has been granted (through the intercession of St. Bernard and the Blessed Virgin Mary, a vision of the Godhead at the centre of the created universe. He writes,

Now, even what I recall will be exprest
More feebly than if I could wield no more
Than a babe’s tongue, yet milky from the breast:

Not that the living light I looked on wore
More semblances than one, which cannot be,
For it is always what it was before;

But as my sight by seeing learned to see,
The transformation which in me took place
Transformed the single changeless form for me.

That light supreme, within its fathomless
Clear substance, showed to me three spheres, which bare
Three hues distinct, and occupied one space;

The first mirrored the next, as though it were
Rainbow from rainbow, and the third seemed flame
Breathed equally from each of the first pair.

How weak are words, and how unfit to frame
My concept — which lags after what was shown
So far, ‘twould flatter it to call it lame!

(Dante, tr. Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds, The Divine Comedy III: Paradise, XXXIII.106-123)

The image of three spheres occupying the same space, and yet distinct, is one which our reason has difficulty grasping — so too the doctrine of the Trinity, so too William’s image of two meanings found united in one set of words. Yet we recognize a truth in these images, even as we grapple with them in our reasoned understanding. They are not anti-reason; they are rather beyond it.

I haven’t gotten far enough along in The Image of Beatrice to get to The Divine Comedy — I just finished Williams’s chapter on the death of Beatrice and am about to start reading about the Convivio — but I am looking forward to further insights and connections when I do!

Dying to be seen

Do you ever wonder at the way that some books just seem to reach you at exactly the right time? Some time ago — long enough ago that I can’t remember who it was or how it happened — someone recommended that I read Unseen: The Gift of Being Hidden in a World that Loves to be Noticed by Sara Hagerty. I added it to my to-check-out list at the library, and there it sat for months. And then I thought I should finally check it out, so it came home with me one day and then sat in my to-read pile for another few weeks as I made my way through the books ahead of it. But when I finally picked it up, I was immediately struck by these words in the foreward:

The internet is one of those things that’s both a blessing and a curse — a blessing, because of the sheer power of its innovation and how it has given access to information and given voice to so many who never had one, but a curse because it’s creating a new humanity, a new way of doing things, rewiring our being.

We are shifting the way we live in order to create better pictures to post and content to create. Many of us no longer go on a hike and then take a picture to remember it. We want to take a picture to post, so we go on a hike to get that picture. It’s driving us. It’s feeding our insatiable desire to be seen. Be affirmed. Be noticed. Be loved. Be liked.

A few years in our home state of Washington, a guy wanted to get a selfie with a moving train in the background. He wasn’t paying attention to the track he was standing on, and another train sped right into him, killing him instantly.

And this isn’t an anomaly. An entire Wikipedia page is devoted to selfie-related injuries and deaths. We are, literally, dying to be seen. (Jefferson and Alyssa Bethke, pp. 11-12) [here is the Wikipedia page]

After all those months on my library list and weeks in the pile, how strange to have picked this book up the very morning I finally deleted my Facebook account. Not that Unseen is fundamentally about social media or selfie-related mishaps — far from it. But that point in the foreward certainly served to draw me in to Hagerty’s beautiful writing about the value of the unseen life, those moments of intimacy with God that root our entire being and nourish the parts of our life that aren’t in the view of others. The longing to be seen, to be noticed, and to be thought valuable that social media exploits isn’t a bad thing in itself; it’s part of what makes us human. But that longing can’t be satisfied — not wholly, not for very long — by other people. Instead, it is a prompt to turn away from chasing the recognition of other humans and toward the only one who knows and loves us perfecty and completely. Hagerty’s call is to surrender to the hidden life, to seek God in the unseen moments of our days and in the deepest vulnerabilities of our souls, and so to cultivate intimate friendship with the Lord who created us in that most secret of places:

Even as we are known, we are nonetheless born into hiding. “God saw us when we could not be seen,” writes Charles Spurgeon, “and he wrote about us when there was nothing of us to write about.” For the nine months we are encased in the womb, unseen even by the eyes of the woman whose body labors to give us life, we grow from the size of a seed to that of a watermelon. Unseen, we grow about 1,600 times larger than thetiny union of cells we started out as. In that secret place, we are incubated. Hand-hidden. Known. Witnessed. Concealed. Within the hiddenness of the womb, God gives us a glimpse of a forever truth, the truth that quickens and multiplies in secret.

The problem is not that we long for significance but that we are shifty or misguided in where we look for it. When we crave most the eyes of others — their opinions and accolades — we break our gaze with the only eyes that will ever truly see us. We forget the beauty of the Creator-eyes turned toward us, the ones that saw the inception of our lives and loved what He saw. (41-2)

Hagerty speaks most eloquently about those times in our live when we feel unseen: caring for elderly parents or young children, working thankless jobs, dealing with chronic illness, enduring a difficult marriage, or watching our peers get married or have children while we wait for something that feels like it’s never going to happen. These difficult seasons in our lives, she writes, are not accidents but invitations to growth:

… our biggest mistake is to call our hiddenness accidental. You’ve probably heard statements like these: “If I could just get out of this transition and into a role where I’m using my gifts…” or, “When the kids get a bit older and I can leave the house more…” or, “When he’s not sick anymore, I’ll reallybe able to give my life away for God’s kingdom,” or [insert yours here]. We forget that it’s in the interruptions, the waiting seasons, the disappointments that we grow best. (69)

What makes her messages so effective is that Sara Hagerty is writing out of her own experience. After a rocky start to their marriage, she and her husband endured twelve years of infertility before they adopted their four older children (she has since given birth to two more). In these unseen, heartbreaking years Hagerty was learning to sink the roots of her soul deep into God’s love. “Our growing root system,” she writes, “reaches and creeps and drinks, deeply, of a greatness that the world can’t measure, a greatness that even some within the Christian community might not recognize or understand. But the long-term greatness of a tree is always found in the depth and health of its roots” (73). This is the greatness that God calls us to: not a life that is great in the eyes of the world (though this may ceratinly happen, for some) but a life that is centred and rooted in intimacy with him.

Now maybe this call to a life of prayer and growth in the hidden places can sound like a lot of navel-gazing, in that we are more accustomed to hearing calls to spring into action: feed the hungry! clothe the poor! write to your representatives! sponsor a child! start a ministry! write a blog post! quick, quick, quick! do, do, do! But sit quietly and contemplate the goodness of God? Doesn’t that seem a little irresponsible in the face of the world’s many needs?

Hagerty assures us that, in fact, the opposite is true. Intimacy with God is not about doing nothing — it’s about being able to hear clearly, to discern what we are being called to as particular people responding to particular issues, rather than the random flailing that trying to respond to the world’s needs on our own terms often feels like:

On any day, I am overwhelmed by the needs of the world, but my greater need is to interrupt this kneejerk cycling between the cries of the world and my response so that I can cultivate friendship with God. It’s there that I learn that it’s the friends of God who truly change the world. It’s there that I have the depth of friendship that informs the way I respond to the world’s needs.

When I let friendship with God become my first priority — talking to Him, hearing from Him, letting His Word shape my thinking — I align myself with an agenda that does, in fact, help meet the needs of others. But instead of being driven by my limited cost-benefit analysis, I get to tap into the wisdom of the greatest king of the earth and heavens. And as I scoot nearer to Him, my senses are awakened. I move from being an efficient and productive worker to a friend who can touch and see and engage with God. I grow to love the things and the people He loves — with my actions, with my time, and with my presence.

Lovers will always outwork workers. (135-6)

I don’t generally make claims like this, but this is a book that I think every Christian would benefit from reading. It’s a beautifully written look at the life that’s found in the hidden places, those secret places where we grow and grow deep. Unseen came to me at precisely the right time, and I am so grateful that it did.

To the heart of Heaven

After nearly one hundred cantos  my mystical journey with Dante is now complete: having made it through Hell and Purgatory, last month I (finally) finished Paradise as well. I’ve started writing this post about three or four times now, unsure of how to start or which direction to move in, because my reading of Paradise was extremely scattered; it is hard to gather a coherent impression of it in my mind. (What can I say? All that Olympic figure skating wasn’t going to watch itself.) And at this remove, I’m not sure why I flagged all the passages I did. For the moment, in consequence, I think I must give up on coherence — so in no particular order, here are a few notes which will have to do:

1. Very early on, Dante speaks with the soul of Piccarda dei Donati, and questions her as to how she can be satisfied with the little of God she has been given (relative to those who dwell closer / have a larger capacity to be filled): “But tell me, you whose happiness is here, / Have you no hankering to go up higher, / To win more insight or a love more dear?” (III.64-66). I was very much struck by her reply: “Brother, our love has laid our wills to rest, / Making us long only for what is ours, / And by no other thirst to be possessed. […] Nay, ’tis the essence of our blissful fate / To dwell in the divine will’s radius, / Wherein our wills themselves are integrate […] And please the King that here in-willeth us / To His own will; and His will is our peace…” (III. 70-72, 79-81, 84-5). I love that. And His will is our peace.

2. Dante’s passage in Canto VII on God’s means of redemption is both beautiful poetry and beautiful theology:

Either must God, of his sole courtesy, / Remit, or man must pay with all that’s his, / The debt of sin in its entirety.

Within the Eternal Counsel’s deep abyss / Rivent thine eye, and with a heed as good / As thou canst give me, do thou follow this.

Man from his finite assets never could / Make satisfaction; ne’er could he abase him / So low, obey thereafter all he would,

As he’d by disobedience sought to raise him; / And for this cause man might not pay his due / Himself, nor from the debtor’s roll erase him.

Needs then must God, by His own ways, renew / Man’s proper life, and reinstate him so; […]

For God’s self-giving, which made possible / That man should raise himself, showed more largesse / Than if by naked power He’s cancelled all; /

And every other means would have been less / Than justice, if it had not pleased God’s Son / To be humiliate into fleshliness. (VII. 91-104, 115-120)

3. Dorothy L. Sayers died quite suddenly while working on Paradise; she had translated the first twenty cantos, but had not begun any of her introductory or explicatory notes. The work was finished by Dr. Barbara Reynolds, who was both a gifted scholar of Italian and Sayers’s goddaughter. Reynolds’s notes lack that particular Sayersian sparkle that I love so well, but I was interested to see how seamlessly the translation itself progresses between Cantos 1-20 and 21-33. If I hadn’t know there were two translators, I probably would not have guessed.

4. I enjoyed the sarcastic bite of this snippet from Beatrice’s injunction against presumptuous preachers: “Christ His Apostles did not thus address: / Go forth, preach idle stories to all men / But taught them his true doctrine to profess.” (XXIX.109-111)

5. The metaphor department: one of the great puzzles of the Christian faith is how to image/explain the Trinity. I’ve heard some doozies over the years (the Godhead is like an egg! like a clover! like a water molecule!) but I like Dante’s vision here, of three spheres occupying the same space:

But as my sight by seeing learned to see, / The transformation which in me took place / Transformed the single changeless form for me.

That light supreme, within its fathomless / Clear substance, showed to me three spheres, which bare / Three hues distinct, and occupied one space;

The first mirrored the next, as though it were / Rainbow from rainbow, and the third seemed flame / Breathed equally from each of the first pair.

How weak are words, and how unfit to frame / My concept — which lags after what was shown / So far, ‘twould flatter it to call it lame! (XXXIII. 112-123)

And so ends the journey, with Dante’s sense-defying vision of the Trinity. It is interesting to see that Paradise (and indeed, the trilogy as a whole) ends not with a dénouement as we would typically expect, but at the moment of climax. There is no accounting for Dante’s return to earth, the end of his vision, or the like — no sense at all of what happens next. But how, one wonders, could there be? After ninety-nine Cantos, Dante has said all that he will say on the matter — and the poem ends with his will moving in perfect harmony with God’s. Once again we are reminded of Piccarda dei Donati’s statement that “His will is our peace” — and Dante has at last reached this state himself. It is a beautiful and fitting ending.

On Purgatory

I have to admit that the doctrine of purgatory is something I’ve never known much about, except as another item on the long list of Things Catholics Believe But We Don’t. So I was interested to begin Dante’s Purgatory not only to find out what happens in the story, but to get a glimpse of how the medieval mind imagined purgatory — and perhaps a few insights into what modern Catholics believe, as well. To the latter end, I again found Sayers’s notes quite helpful, as she laid out a few common misconceptions about purgatory and their doctrinal corrections:

We may add here a few words to clear up a number of widely current perplexities and misunderstandings about Purgatory.

(1) Purgatory is not a place of probation, from which the soul may go either to Heaven or to Hell. All souls admited to Purgatory are bound for Heaven sooner or later, and are for ever beyond the reach of sin.

(2) Purgatory is not a “second chance” for those who die obstinately unrepentant. The soul’s own choice between God and self, made in the moment of death, is final. (This moment of final choice is known as the “Particular Judgement”.)

(3) Repentance in the moment of death (in articulo mortis) is always accepted. If the movement of the soul is, however feebly, away from the self and towards God, its act of confession and contrition is complete, whether or not it is accompanied by formal confession and absolution; and the soul enters Purgatory.

(4) The Divine acceptance of a repentance in articulo mortis does not mean that the sinner “gets away with it” scot-free. What it does mean is that the soul is now obliged, with prolonged labour and pains, and without the assistance of the body, to accomplish in Purgatory the entire process of satisfaction and purification, the greater part of which should have been carried out on earth.

(5) The souls in Purgatory and the souls on earth are in touch with one another and can aid each other by their prayers. But it is wrong for the living to distract the dead from their task of purgation by egotistical and importune demands for attention. […]

(6) Souls which have so persevered in virtue till the moment of death as to accomplish their whole purgation in this life, are not detained in Purgatory, but pass immediately into the Presence of God. These are the Saints. N.B.: Canonization is not (as Bernard Shaw implies in the Epilogue to St Joan) the award of an earthy honour, but the recognition of a Divine fact. There may be, and undoubtedly are, innumerable saints unrecognized and uncanonized. (59-60)

We note also that the purgations experienced by the souls in Purgatory are meant to be palliative cures, not arbitrary punishments — and even when the method is the same (as the Simoniacs in Hell and the Lustful in Purgatory are both consumed by fire), the attitude of the penitent soul ensures a very different outcome and experience:

It has been well said by a great saint that the fire of Hell is simply the light of God as experienced by those who reject it; to those, that is, who hold fast to their darling illusion of sin, the burning reality of holiness is a thing unbearable. To the penitent, that reality is a torment so long and only so long as any vestige of illusion remains to hamper their assent to it: they welcome the torment, as a sick man welcomes the pains of surgery, in order that the last crippling illusion may be burned away. The whole operation of Purgatory is directed to the freeing of the judgement and the will. […] the resolute breaking-down, at whatever cost, of the prison walls, so that the soul may be able to emerge at last into liberty and endure unscathed the unveiled light to reality. […] There is no difference in the justice; the only difference is in the repudiation or acceptance of judgement. (16)

That is the doctrinal framework through which we are to understand what Dante sees and experiences as he travels through Purgatory, accompanied and guided first by Virgil (as in Hell) and then by Beatrice. The effect of moving from Hell to Purgatory is immediate; it is obvious from the opening lines that this will be a very different book than the first installment. Dante opens Canto I with a second invocation to the muses; the tone and description are a welcome change from the grim miseries of Hell:

For better waters heading with the wind / My ship of genius now shakes out her sail / And leaves that ocean of despair behind; / For to the second realm I tune my tale, / Where human spirits purge themselves, and train / To leap up into joy celestial. / Now from the grave wake poetry again, / O sacred Muses I have served so long! / Now let Calliope uplift her strain / And life my voice up on the mighty song / That smote the miserable Magpies nine / Out of all hope and pardon for their wrong! / Colour unclouded, orient-sapphire, / Softly suffusing from meridian height / Down the still sky to the horizon-line, / Brought to mine eyes renewal of delight / So soon as I came forth from that dead air / Which had oppressed my bosom and my sight. (I.1-18)

This comes as a breath of fresh air for the reader as well as for our stalwart narrator! And the lovely tone continues throughout Purgatory as Dante climbs higher and higher up the mountain to the earthly paradise where Beatrice appears to guide him to Heaven. The souls in Purgatory tell their stories just as others did in Hell — but their attitude is, to a one, one of humble acceptance of their purgation and eagerness to complete each necessary level quickly, so as to gain Heaven with least delay. When a soul finishes its purgation and makes that final leap, the entire mountain quakes as all upon it shout Gloria in Excelsis Deo! The whole thing is surprisingly lovely, really. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Purgatory (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write); where Hell had turned into a bit of a grim slog by the end, Purgatory constantly enticed me on.

Now, was this enough to entice me to the doctrine of purgatory itself? No — not quite — and I would have to take a hard look at its actual origins/support/etc. before deciding something like that. But it did convince me that there is a certain logic to it, much more than I would have previously supposed. (After all, the list of Things Catholics Believe But We Don’t seems to have a fairly large overlap with the list of Catholic Beliefs Protestants Misrepresent!) But in any case, Purgatory was a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I am looking forward to finishing the journey in Paradise.

I’ve been going through Hell lately

… with Dante and the shade of Virgil, that is. (I’m fine, Mom.)

The summer that I was doing most of the research for my thesis, I ended up reading all four volumes of Dorothy L. Sayers’s collected letters. I was primarily reading for mentions of my own subject, of course, but Sayers is such an interesting correspondent that I quite enjoyed even the parts that were quite irrelevant to my project. Towards the last decade or so of her life, her letters were nearly all concerned with her massive undertaking for Penguin Books: an entirely new translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I had read the first volume (Inferno, as Mark Musa’s translation titles it) as an undergraduate; the course was essentially an introduction to the Western Canon, and so we spent very little time on it, and I hadn’t found it particularly memorable. Sayers’s passion for Dante’s epic, however, made me keen to revisit it, and especially to read the translation to which she dedicated the last years of her life (she died midway through her translation of Paradise, which was completed by her god-daughter, the scholar Dr. Barbara Reynolds). And so I have lately finished Hell, and will shortly start working my way up the mountain of Purgatory towards the heavenly realms.

The experience of reading Hell was most definitely helped by Sayers’s extensive notes, particularly her introductory matter. As she writes herself, the ideal way to read Dante would be simply to pick it up and dive in — but our social and cultural remove from his time means that most of the references that would have been obvious to his contemporaries are opaque to us. The notes, therefore, are a very necessary evil:

Let us suppose that an Englishman were to write a contemporary Divine Comedy on Dante’s model, and that in it, mixed up with a number of scriptural and mythological characters, we were to find, assigned to various circles of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, according to the religious and political convictions of the author, the following assortment of people — some referred to by their full names, some by Christian name or surname alone, and some indicated only by a witty or allusive phrase: Chamberlain (“him of the orchid”), Chamberlain (“him of the umbrella”), [Steward Houston] Chamberlain, “Brides-in-the-bath Smith, “Galloper” Smith, Horatio Bottomley, Horatio [Lord Nelson], Fox [Charles or George to be inferred from the Context], the Man who picked up the Bomb in Jermyn Street, Oscar Wilde, Oscar Slater, Oscar Browning, Spencer, Spenser, Lord Castlereagh, Lord Castlerose, Lawrence [of Arabia], [D. H.] Lawrence, […] Dick Sheppard, Jack Sheppard, and “the widow at Windsor”. Let us further suppose that the writer holds strong views on Trade Unionism, the construction of UNO, the “theology of crisis”, Freudian psychology, Einsteinian astronomy, and the art of Mr Jacob Epstein. Let us then suppose that the book is to be read, six hundred years hence, by an intelligent Portuguese with no particular knowledge of English social history. Would he not require a few notes, in order to savour the full pungency of the poet’s pronouncements and thoroughly understand his attitude to the cosmic set-up? (17-18)

Quite so. I need notes myself just to get through Sayers’s paragraph, not living in Britain in the early 1950s; no small wonder that in reading Dante we need not only the language to be translated, but the culture and (perhaps) theology as well.

One of Sayers’s most helpful explanations is to do with the allegorical nature of Dante’s epic. Dante is not expecting us to take it as a literal picture of Hell. We do not need to believe that Satan is imprisoned at the centre of the earth; we do not suppose that suicides really turn into bleeding trees or that there are giants guarding the circle of traitors. But Dante paints a powerful picture of the soul when it sunders itself from God through sin. It is, Sayers writes, “the drama of the soul’s choice … not a fairy story” (11). In approaching the poem, we must “accept the Christian and Catholic view of ourselves as responsible rational beings. We must abandon any ideas that we are the slaves of chance, or environment, or our subconscious; any vague notion that good and evil are merely relative terms, or that conduct and opinion do not really matter; any comfortable persuasion that, however shiftlessly we muddle through life, it will somehow or other all come right on the night. We must try to believe that man’s will is free, that he can consciously exercise choice, and that his choice can be decisive to all eternity” (10-11). What Dante’s Divine Comedy emphasizes for us is that everyone must make a choice to either accept God or reject Him; there is no option beyond those two, and our eternal fate depends on the choice. Dante is unequivocal on this point: “Neither in the story nor in the allegory is Hell a place of punishment to which anybody is arbitrarily sent: it is the condition to which the soul reduces itself by a stubborn determination to evil, and in which is suffers the torment of its own perversion” (68).

That being understood — what of Hell itself? Dante’s imagery is precise and vivid as he depicts the progressive punishments of Hell, from the ever-whirling souls of the lustful (The blast of hell that never rests from whirling / Harries the spirits along in the sweep of its swath, / And vexes them, for ever beating and hurling.” V:31f), to the river of boiling blood in which the Violent against their Neighbours are immersed (“So with this trusty escort, off we set / Along the bank of the bubbling crimson flood, / Whence the shrieks of the boiled rose shrill and desperate. / There I saw some — plunged eyebrow-deep they stood / And the great centaur said to me: ‘Behold / Tyrants, who gave themselves to ravin and blood.’ XII:100f) to the bodily mutilations suffered by the Sowers of Discord (“No cask stove in by cant or middle ever / So gaped as one I saw there, from the chin / Down to the fart-hold split as by a cleaver” XXVII:22f), to the final centre of the earth where Satan perpetually devours Judas Iscariot and other traitors. The images become progressively more and more disturbing as Dante and Virgil travel deeper into the pits of hell (and allegorically, further into sin and away from salvation).

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Hell for before-bedtime reading! But I would recommend it. Dante takes us on a journey that should disturb us — but all is not grim; he reminds us also that while we are yet living, there is every chance to turn away from this fate. Hell has not been given the final world! I am very much looking forward to continuing this journey with Dante and Sayers, from the mountains of Purgatory to the blessed heights of Paradise itself.

 

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.