This is part three of a conversation between two authors whose books discuss the faith of J. R. R. Tolkien and the religious values underpinning The Lord of the Rings. Parts one and two appeared on our website earlier this week.
Bradley J. Birzer is assistant professor of history at Hillsdale College in Michigan, where he specializes in the history of the American West, and related topics. His book, J. R. R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth, was just published by ISI Books.
Mark Eddy Smith is a graphic designer at InterVarsity Press, which published his book, Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues: Exploring the Spiritual Themes of The Lord of the Rings, earlier this year. (purchase)
What a great response—thought provoking to be sure! I laughed pretty hard when I read your "out of my depth" comment. I felt the exact same when I sent the email (number 2) to you yesterday. I thought, "Oh man, I really hope I got all this right." And, I probably didn't get it all right. But, then, I can give the excuse I got in theology classes most of my life—"well, it's all a mystery." A few years ago, that response frustrated me to no end. Now, it comforts me.
And, writing of mystery, I was particularly fascinated by your discussion of modernity. I'd like to stay there for a bit, as I think it was one of Tolkien's (as well as Lewis's) most important contributions to (well, really against) twentieth-century thought. For a Catholic (and a Christian Humanist such as Lewis), modernism, and hence, modernity is/are brief, fleeting, and, ultimately, in error. There are several reasons: first, pertaining to the above comments, modernity attempts to destroy mystery (that is, the unknowable Good in God's creation) and know all things through science, ideology, and materialist philosophies; second, it divorces faith from culture, and, hence, places man at the center of the universe: "ye too shall be as gods"; third, it attempts to alleviate all suffering on this earth; fourth, through its love of technology and egalitarianism, it mechanizes the human person.
The third point, I think, is the hardest for any of us. I don't think either one of us (or any who are reading this) would want to go to the dentist 100 years ago; so there are things in modernity that aid us greatly. Yet, Tolkien and Lewis believed we were simply pilgrims on this earth—never to become too comfortable here, especially as it manifests a desire for immortality, or at least prolonging our lives as long as possible and fearing death (the temptation of Sauron to man in the Second Age of the mythology). And, our suffering, St. Peter wrote, is a gift to Christ (1 Peter 4:13). Finally, death is simply a gift from God. As Aragorn tells Arwen when he chooses to end his earthly pilgrimage: "Behold! We are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory. Farewell!"
As to the fourth point (and very much related to the first two points): When Harvey Breitt of the New York Times Book Review asked Tolkien in 1955 what made him tick, the then-relatively obscure author responded: "I don't tick. I am not a machine. (If I did tick, I should have no views on it, and you had better ask the winder.)" Tolkien stressed—especially through the Fellowship—that we are each unique individuals, born in a certain time, in a certain place, for a certain purpose—all according to God's Divine Economy. Tolkien wrote that the saints living in the modern world were those "who have for all their imperfections never finally bowed head and will to the world or the evil spirit (in modern but not universal terms: mechanism, 'scientific' materialism, Socialism in either of its factions now at war)." For both thinkers, an attack on man also meant an attack on Creation itself. Radical democracy, by equalizing humans, makes them less than God intended them to be. God, according to Tolkien, loved hierarchy, as he created each thing different, unique, and yet all reflecting his infiniteness.
One last thing, especially regarding the question of evil. Tolkien may have taken things too far in his attack on The Screwtape Letters as diabolical. But, I still think there is something to focusing only on that which remains good in creation. For a Catholic, there is no such thing as "once saved, always saved." In his first letter, St. John wrote: "If anyone see his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death" (1 John 5: 16-17). Catholics interpret this as relating to those who are "saved." That is, there is some sin (mortal) that can destroy salvation, and other sin that is merely annoying (venial). Either sin, though, weakens the soul, as it takes us off the path of sanctification. We can will our selves to hell, but only by grace can we get to heaven.
Thanks Mark. This has been a wonderful and edifying discussion. Thanks for your thoughts, and for a great contribution to Tolkien and Christian scholarship. Believe it or not, though I should be grading finals, I am off to see Peter Jackson's version of The Two Towers!
Well, I just saw The Two Towers and fortunately had the chance to debrief afterwards with friends. I don't want to give away too much in deference to anyone reading this who hasn't yet seen it, but after some truly insipid previews for upcoming movies and a brilliant Coca-Cola commercial, The Two Towers began with an exhilarating scene that erased the twelve months since the Fellowship movie and had me on the edge of my seat, eyes wide and mouth undoubtedly open. Unfortunately, my enjoyment cartwheeled rather quickly downhill after that, as departures from Tolkien's text became more and more disheartening and disorienting.
As I was trying to reconcile these differences and to respect the filmmakers' poetic license, I found myself thinking about your comments on evil and modernity, because it seems to me that Peter Jackson, et al., are more comfortable, better equipped—something—to portray evil than they are to portray the good. None of the good characters in the movie live up to their counterparts in the book. One of the few things they capture brilliantly is Gollum's inner turmoil. I hope to deal with my frustrations and see the movie again (and, no doubt, again and again), in the hopes that, knowing what to expect, I will learn to enjoy the movie on its own merits, rather than being infuriated by the deviations from my beloved LotR.
There are wonderful moments, don't get me wrong, and more stunning scenery, but Théoden's thralldom to Saruman, and the ents' ignorance and naïveté are, I think, unfaithful to the spirit of Tolkien's work. So few of his characters are ever on the fence between good and evil. Boromir is one, but as soon as he understands the evil he has done, he is ready to lay down his life for Merry and Pippin, and dies firmly on the side of good. Gollum is another, from the opposite side of the spectrum. But by and large, Tolkien's characters are good or evil, and if they once change sides, they are unlikely to change back. The movie versions of these characters seem to waver almost constantly between despair and hope. Heroism in the "minor" characters seems minimal, whereas in Tolkien, there really are no minor characters, only characters we don't know as well as the others. But they have their own history, their own heroism or villainy. Some of the changes the movie made seem tantamount to portraying David the shepherd as having to be convinced by his brothers that he could take on Goliath.
I guess my biggest complaint is that the movie lacks the gravitas of the book. Other movies, such as The Matrix, or even TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which are original, made-for-live-action-and-special-effects myths, do a much better job of portraying spiritual profundities and moving me to laughter and tears, much as Tolkien's trilogy always has.
As for modernity in general, I think you and I see things from different vantage points more often than we disagree. For instance, when you wrote that modernity is "ultimately, in error" because "it attempts to alleviate all suffering on this earth," at first I was taken aback and thought, "Isn't that a good thing?" But then I thought about it some more and remembered that I do believe that "suffering" is a good thing, in that it builds perseverance, character and hope. The evil that so often creates suffering is not good, and should be fought against tooth and nail. But suffering is not itself evil.
Modernity has provided many of the justifications for the bloodiest, most destructive, and dehumanizing centuries the world has ever seen. On the other hand, the technology and egalitarianism of modernity have been used to redress many injustices. Might it not be possible to take a page from Lewis and Tolkien, who sanctified myth, and for our part attempt to sanctify modernity? Are we not in some measure doing that by using email to converse with each other and publishing the results, free of charge, to everyone in the world who has Internet access? Not that I expect this exchange to do much to counteract the vast libraries of pornography and online gambling, etc., which is also readily available on the web, but as we (along with Christianity Today's website and a host of others), bring God into cyberspace, surely he can begin to redeem it.
This discussion has definitely expanded my thinking, and I will continue to think on these things. Thanks for taking the time to explore with me the mysteries of Faerie. One line I can't resist quoting from the movie is an exchange between Faramir and Sam. "Are you his bodyguard?" asks Faramir. "I'm his gardener," says Sam.
I love Sam.
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See the earlier parts of this conversation:
Part One: Why The Lord of the Rings Is Dangerous | The authors talk about the Christian life in Faerie (Dec. 18, 2002)
Part Two: Does The Lord of the Rings Teach Salvation By Works? | The authors talk about whether Tolkien was too ignorant of evil and other subjects (Dec. 19, 2002)
Yesterday's Film Forum rounded up what Christian critics and others are saying about The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
Earlier articles on the Lord of the Rings movies include:
Soul Wars, Episode Two | The second Lord of the Rings film raises the spiritual stakes (Dec. 18, 2002)
Books & Culture Corner: Saint Frodo and the Potter Demon | The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series spring from the same source (Feb. 18, 2002)
Film Forum: The Fellowship of the Raves | Critics grope for superlatives for The Fellowship of the Ring. (Dec. 21, 2001)
Film Forum: Gandalf and the Gamblers | As everyone talks about The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, critics also get around to reviewing Ocean's Eleven, In the Bedroom, and The Business of Strangers. (Dec. 13, 2001)
Film Forum: First Looks at a Feature Fantasy | Early reviews for Fellowship of the Ring are in. (Dec. 6, 2001)
Lord of the Megaplex | The onscreen Fellowship of the Ring launches a new wave of Tolkienmania (Nov. 11, 2001)
Earlier articles on Tolkien include:
Christian History Corner: 9/11, History, and the True Story | Wartime authors J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis help put 9/11 in perspective (Sept. 13, 2002)
Christian History Corner: Intro to the Inklings | C. S. Lewis's intellect was stimulated at one of the most fascinating extracurricular clubs ever (May 18, 2001)