Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: Tolkien (page 1 of 1)

Smeagol, philologist

I’m sure others have said this before — I doubt I have many thoughts about Tolkien that others have not had before me — but I am reflecting on this passage from Gandalf’s account of Gollum in the chapter of The Lord of the Rings called “The Shadow of the Past”: 

The most inquisitive and curious-minded of that family was called Sméagol. He was interested in roots and beginnings; he dived into deep pools; he burrowed under trees and growing plants; he tunnelled into green mounds; and he ceased to look up at the hill-tops, or the leaves on trees, or the flowers opening in the air: his head and his eyes were downward. 

Is this not a Portrait of the Philologist as a Young Man? (Or as a young proto-hobbit.) Isn’t Tolkien here describing the déformation professionnelle of the historian of language, the characteristic danger faced by the scholar who always burrows deeper and deeper into the history of words, thinking — Gabriel Josipovici in his wonderful The Book of God says this is the characteristic illusion of 19th-century scholarship — that truth is always archaeological, always to be found at the Source or Origin. Gollum would eventually learn that “All the ‘great secrets’ under the mountains had turned out to be just empty night: there was nothing more to find out, nothing worth doing, only nasty furtive eating and resentful remembering.” 

Perhaps, then, writing a book like The Lord of the Rings is, for the philologist, a spiritual discipline, a healthy re-ordering of priorities; and a reminder that genealogy — the long living history of a language, with unexpected detours and adventures and late flowerings — is more important, more alive, than archaeology? 

repetition and summation

When you blog for a long time, as I have done, you inevitably repeat yourself. Sometimes this is conscious and intentional, as you work to develop themes: I have listed some of the main themes of this blog here. At other times you just forget that you’ve said something before. 

But there’s a third kind of repetition: the kind that arises when similar events prompt you to respond in similar ways. This has a good side and a bad side. If you do respond to these related provocations consistently, that suggests a certain stability of outlook; you’re not just blown about by the winds of mood or whim, you have a genuine point of view. On the other hand, you could’ve just saved yourself some time and effort by citing one of your earlier posts on the subject. “I refer the honorable gentlemen to the reply I gave some months ago.” 

I just realized recently how often I have responded in very similar ways to the desperate-times-demand-desperate-measures Christians, the ones who believe that our current circumstances are so horrific that we have to throw out our historic practices and habits out the window. To cite just one common topic of recent years: There are a great many Christians who say that Tim Keller’s approach to evangelism and apologetics might have been okay Back In The Day — you know, fifteen years ago, in a previous geological era — but simply won’t work in our current Negative World. I have of course questioned the Negative World thesis — I’ll return to that in a moment — but more than that I have insisted that such people are making a category error: the question to ask is not whether this or that approach works, but rather whether it’s faithful, whether it’s obedient to Jesus. As I said in that post, 

To think only in terms of what is effective or strategic is to fight on the Devil’s home ground. As Screwtape said to Wormwood about the junior tempter’s patient: “He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false’, but as ‘academic’ or ‘practical’, ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary’, ‘conventional’ or ‘ruthless’. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous — that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.” Christians who evaluate Keller not by asking whether his message is faithful to Jesus’s message but rather by asking whether it’s suited for this moment are inadvertently following Screwtape’s advice. 

And in another, closely related, post, I called attention to this challenging statement from George Macdonald: “Instead of asking yourself whether you believe or not, ask yourself whether you have this day done one thing because He said, Do it, or once abstained because He said, Do not do it. It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe, in Him, if you do not do anything He tells you.” 

That is what counts, whether this is a Negative World or a Positive World or any other kind of world. Our obligations remain the same in every world. What we need is to stop trying to read the tea-leaves of politics and instead learn to be idiots

Obedience is both difficult and boring; and the boring part is especially challenging in our neophilic age, in which we cannot readily perceive the renewing power of repetition. It’s no wonder that people would rather think about plans and strategies than to strive to practice obedience. But “strategic thinking” is the classic excuse for disobedience

Finally, I have consistently found it useful (or sometimes just fun) to see the various stances I’ve described here as exemplified by characters from The Lord of the Rings, e.g.: 

  • Denethor: the evangelist of despair who’d rather blow everything up than be faithful through hard times; 
  • Boromir: one who thinks that if he could just seize the reins of power then everything would be great, because he is committed to all the Right Things and therefore couldn’t possibly rule badly or tyrannically;  
  • Faramir: one who has immersed himself in ancient lore and by so doing has learned humility and mercy;  
  • Aragorn: one who understands that we must judge between “good and ill” today as we have ever judged; they don’t change their character, nor is the need for discernment ever abrogated; 
  • Gandalf: one who is content to be a steward rather than a ruler, and to strive to give to the next generation “clean earth to till.” 

Okay, thus endeth the summing up. Now whenever these issues come up again in the future, I will try to remember to link to this post, rather than write a new one that makes the same points.

the sovereignty of mercy

In his sixth-and-lastly LOTR post, Adam Roberts graciously responds to my recent attempts to correct his errors, and this leads him into some fascinating territory, e.g. “the lack, or apparent lack, of the death penalty in Middle Earth.” 

I can think of two examples in LOTR of a death penalty having been decreed, and they come close together: those who wander in Ithilien without the permission of the Lord Steward of Gondor, and those who come to Henneth Annûn, the Forbidden Pool, are alike to be killed. Yet Faramir overrides both decrees, in the full knowledge that his decisions, if his father hears about them, could cost him his own life. What underlies those decisions he explains to Sam, when the young hobbit rashly challenges Faramir’s treatment of Frodo: 

‘Patience!’ said Faramir, but without anger. ‘Do not speak before your master, whose wit is greater than yours. And I do not need any to teach me of our peril. Even so, I spare a brief time, in order to judge justly in a hard matter. Were I as hasty as you, I might have slain you long ago. For I am commanded to slay all whom I find in this land without the leave of the Lord of Gondor. But I do not slay man or beast needlessly, and not gladly even when it is needed. Neither do I talk in vain. So be comforted. Sit by your master, and be silent!’  

That is, Faramir has internalized the very standards that, as Adam notes, Gandalf articulates in the second chapter of the whole novel, “The Shadow of the Past”: the sovereignty (among moral imperatives) of pity and mercy. Gandalf on Bilbo: “It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need.” Faramir is indeed what his father accuses him of being: “a wizard’s pupil.” 

“Sovereignty” is a key concept here, as Carl Schmitt realized when he said that the sovereign is whoever or whatever can “declare the state of exception.” Faramir assumes a local sovereignty when he overrides the death penalty in these two cases — as, by the way, do Eomer (when he allows Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas to ride free in the Mark rather than bring them back to Theoden) and Háma, the doorward of Theoden, whose charge is to deprive visitors of their weapons:  

‘The staff in the hand of a wizard may be more than a prop for age,’ said Háma. He looked hard at the ash-staff on which Gandalf leaned. ‘Yet in doubt a man of worth will trust to his own wisdom. I believe you are friends and folk worthy of honour, who have no evil purpose. You may go in.’ 

So you can see that one of the great themes in the middle two books of the novel is the necessity of wisdom — of prudential judgment that overrides the letter of the law. In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle says that any law is necessarily deficient because of its generality, so wise rulers will need to develop the virtue of ἐπιείκεια (epieikeia), a word impossible to translate: in many contexts it means clemency, gentleness, or, yes, mercy, but Aristotle seems to mean something broader: perhaps discretion is the best one-word translation. But discretion will typically, for Aristotle, involve relaxing or modulating the demands of the law. In any case, again and again in LOTR the success of our heroes depends on their encountering people in power who manifest such ἐπιείκεια. 

But what is the origin of the laws they they thus relax? It seems that in every case they arise from personal decrees by rulers. (Denethor speaks and it is so.) Because the Shire doesn’t have a ruler, the hobbits who live there seem to depend not on law at all but rather custom. The law in any sense recognizable to us — an entity like the Code of Hammurabi or the Mosaic law — doesn’t appear to exist in Middle-Earth. 

And I wonder if this absence of Law-as-such is related to the (oft-noted) absence of Religion-as-such. Our word religion comes from the Latin religio which in turn probably comes from religare, to bind. To be “religious” is to bind oneself to certain beliefs and practices. But in this context to bind is a reverberant notion: we may well think of the One Ring as the One Religion and One Law of Middle-Earth in the Third Age. It is noteworthy that most of the various decrees which good men exercise their ἐπιείκεια to relax were created in response to the increasing power and ambition of Mordor. Those who act wisely in this book seem to be aware, perhaps not quite consciously, that decrees made in order to respond to Mordor will likely be tainted by Mordor’s logic of power. Eomer and Háma and especially Faramir seem to intuit another logic, a greater logic of ἐπιείκεια that comes not from the decrees of the sovereign but rather … well, from where? 

When I teach The Lord of the Rings I take my students through the book’s oddly pervasive use, in certain circumstances, of the passive voice. Gandalf  tells Frodo that he and Bilbo were meant to find the Ring; Frodo asks, “Why was I chosen?” — by whom, we wonder; Elrond tells the council gathered at Rivendell that they were called there (“though I did not call you.”) There are many more examples. Says Gandalf, “Behind that” — Bilbo’s finding of the Ring — “there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker.” But what? No one seems to know, though perhaps Gandalf does know and is reluctant (or forbidden) to say. But whatever it is, it seems to whisper of the sovereignty of mercy above that of legal decree. It shows us a world in which penalties of death are declared, but are then abrogated by the wise and kind. A world in which Schmitt’s “state of exception” is indeed instituted, but not by the power-hungry — rather, by the merciful, no matter what it costs them. 

self-sacrifice and despair

Adam Roberts:

And in the middle (round about the two-thirds point, actually) there is the odd, striking scene of Denethor’s suicide. I wasn’t sure what to make of this, actually. In one sense he has to die, in order for the rule of the Stewards to end and the rule of the King to begin. But suicide is a semiotically tangled and troubled a thing for JRRT’s imagination. He doesn’t want to parse it as a nobly Roman action, and strains it into the straight-jacket of over-coded pseudo-Christian moralising: ‘Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death’ snaps Gandalf — perhaps forgetting that he himself effectively threw himself into the chasm at Khazad-Dum in order to save his comrades. Or perhaps it’s one law for wizards, another for Gondor. ‘Only the heathen kings, under the dominion of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair …’ [III:129]

It’s tempting to see this as a double standard. For in point of fact one of the general trajectories of this book is precisely that pseduo-samurai or Horatius-at-the-Bridge sacrifice of self: Frodo and Sam going (as they think) into certain death; the Rohirrim galloping will-nill towards a massively larger army; Gandalf rejecting the truce terms and dooming (they all think) the entire army to destruction. More, Gandalf does not lecture Denethor to prevent him from ending his life, only to stop him from doing so by his own hand: ‘your part,’ he tells the Steward, ‘is to go out to the battle of your City, where maybe death awaits you. This you know in your heart.’ If you want to die, fine: go out into the city and get cut down by an orc. That would be OK! This sees to me a strange logic, as if we might say ‘suicide is wrong, but suicide-by-cop is fine’. 

I think Adam is wrong about this. (As I’ve said before, he is rarely wrong; maybe it’s only about The Lord of the Rings that he’s wrong.)  

Let’s make some distinctions — but before I jump in, let me say this: I don’t think that suicide is always (maybe it is not even usually) the result of despair. Many people who take, or try to take, their own lives have not come to a conclusion about the meaningless of life, or of their lives. When someone tells a suicidal person that things will get better, the suicidal person doesn’t necessarily disagree with that — doesn’t necessarily have a view about it at all. Often, those who take their own lives simply cannot bear their pain any longer and will do whatever they have to to make it stop. 

Okay, having made that sobering statement, now let me move on. 

Point the First: There’s a difference between fighting a battle you’re sure you’ll lose and “suicide-by-cop.” The point of the former action is not to be killed by an orc, but to kill orcs — and by killing them maybe saving a friend from being killed, or slowing the advance of your enemies long enough for some of the women and children to escape. You may be certain that eventually an orc will kill you, but you’re going to try to take as many with you as you can, and you’re doing that for a cause larger than yourself. Similarly, even if we grant that Gandalf “effectively threw himself into the chasm at Khazad-Dum” (a point that as it happens I do not grant), the fact that he did it “to save his comrades” — to keep the Quest going, to give Frodo a chance to make it to Mount Doom with the ring — makes it an act not of despair but of hope

Point the Second: It is important to note that Denethor is the Steward of Gondor, which is to say, he has sworn vows to preserve and protect that land. This is what Gandalf is reminding him of in this exchange, in which Denethor speaks first: 

“The Lord of Gondor is not to be made the tool of other men’s purposes, however worthy. And to him there is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands than the good of Gondor; and the rule of Gondor, my lord, is mine and no other man’s, unless the king should come again.” 

“Unless the king should come again?” said Gandalf. “Well, my lord Steward, it is your task to keep some kingdom still against that event, which few now look to see. In that task you shall have all the aid that you are pleased to ask for.”  

To accept the mantle of the Steward of Gondor is like getting married in that one does it “for better or worse.” By taking his own life Denethor is simply, and disgracefully, renouncing and mocking his own vows. (It is telling that he refers to himself simply as “The Lord of Gondor,” whereas Gandalf more precisely refers to him as “my lord Steward.”) By contrast, if he were to go out and fight, even in the certainty of his own death, he would be faithful to his vows, for reasons noted above. 

Point the Third: Denethor couldn’t be more explicit that his despair arises from the thwarting of his personal preferences: 

“I would have things as they were in all the days of my life … and in the days of my longfathers before me: to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me, who would be his own master and no wizard’s pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated.”

My way or the fire way, as it were. This is not a decision born of intolerable pain but rather one born of a childish indulgence in ressentiment.

In all these ways we see that even by the standards of his own pagan warrior culture — as opposed to Tolkien’s own Christian standards — Denethor’s despair is clearly blameworthy, and Tolkien doesn’t have to tie himself in knots or smuggle in Christian ethics in order to show that. As Aragorn says much earlier in the novel, “The counsel of Gandalf was not founded on foreknowledge of safety, for himself or for others. There are some things that it is better to begin than to refuse, even though the end may be dark.” 

Point the Fourth: But there is an interesting difference between the pagan understanding of despair and the Christian one. The pagan denunciation of despair is not, as we have seen, based on a commandment to have hope, for yourself or for others. This is a point that C. S. Lewis often made when he described his own deep attachment to the ethic of the Norse gods. In his late book Letters to Malcolm he wrote, 

You know my history. You know why my withers are quite unwrung by the fear that I was bribed — that I was lured into Christianity by the hope of everlasting life. I believed in God before I believed in Heaven. And even now, even if — let’s make an impossible supposition — His voice, unmistakably His, said to me, ‘They have misled you. I can do nothing of that sort for you. My long struggle with the blind forces is nearly over. I die, children. The story is ending’ — would that be a moment for changing sides? Would not you and I take the Viking way: ‘The Giants and Trolls win. Let us die on the right side, with Father Odin.’ 

(I suspect that in writing that last sentence Lewis had in mind this fable by Robert Louis Stevenson.) The key thing here is not the belief that the Good will win out — that’s as may be — but rather the belief that the Good is the Good, and deserves on that account alone our loyalty. 

But Christianity raises the stakes by asking us to believe not just that Good is Good, but that Good will in the end prevail. For the Christian, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the prefiguration and guarantor of one’s own personal resurrection and also, and more important, the renewal of the world, the eventual coming of the New Creation. Despair in this account is the loss of hope for one’s own future and for that of the world. (And again, though Christian theology has often associated suicide with despair, I deny that there is any necessary association. Many people have left suicide notes asking for God’s forgiveness and — rightly, I think — hoping that He will raise them up on the last day.)

Is this understanding present in The Lord of the Rings? A question to be asked. In the great chapter called “The Last Debate,” the one in which our heroes decide to take the battle to Sauron even though his armies dwarf theirs, Aragorn says that their decision “is the last move in a great jeopardy, and for one side or the other it will bring the end of the game.” This holds out more hope for the triumph of the Good than Norse mythology does, but not much more. Gandalf had said something similar a couple of pages earlier: 

“We must walk open-eyed into that trap, with courage, but small hope for ourselves. For, my lords, it may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands; so that even if Barad-dûr be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age. But this, I deem, is our duty. And better so than to perish nonetheless — as we surely shall, if we sit here — and know as we die that no new age shall be.” 

That’s as much as to say: We have a tiny chance (“only a fool’s hope,” he says elsewhere) of prevailing, but if we do not fight, then Sauron will most certainly win — he will eventually get the Ring, and “his victory will be swift and complete: so complete that none can foresee the end of it while this world lasts.” Whether there might be something more to come after this world ends Gandalf does not say, though surely he knows something more than Aragorn and the others do.

It seems to me, though, that we’re not really invited to speculate about such things here: the whole context of the story is the life of Middle-Earth, not any other world that lies beyond it. The calculations to be made are purely this-worldly, and therefore one makes one’s decisions about which side to take not from prudential calculation but from a clear-eyed perception of the difference between good and evil. When Eomer asks “How shall a man judge what to do in such times?” Aragorn briskly replies: “As he ever has judged. Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden wood as in his own house.” 

weapons and separations

Adam Roberts:

But the thing that struck me is the way Gandalf comes back invulnerable. The last we see of Gandalf the Grey he is complaining that he is tired (‘what an evil fortune! And I am already weary’ [348]). Now he has almost limitless energy — when the four of them ride all day and all night across Rohan, Gandalf permits them only ‘a few hours rest’…. Not only does he not need sleep, he cannot be harmed by weapons: ‘Indeed, my friends,’ he tells his companions: ‘none of you have any weapon that could hurt me’ [516]. This carries with it the suggestion that all Gandalf’s subsequent battlefield galivanting with Glamdring is a kind of play-acting: for he can no more be slain than could Milton’s Satan. 

Adam is rarely wrong, as I’m sure he will confirm, but I think he’s wrong here. There’s a big difference between “none of you have any weapon that could hurt me” and “no weapon of any kind can hurt me.” Later he is openly uncertain whether he is a match for the Lord of the Nazgul — why couldn’t that encounter at least potentially end in his death again? I suspect that Adam thinks (confirm this for me, friend) that Gandalf could himself be transformed into a wraith, but if that’s what he’s in danger of, I suspect that Tolkien would have him say so.

But that’s just a suspicion — I’m not sure what could befall Gandalf. I just don’t believe we can say that he is “invulnerable” in any sense of that word I know. 

(By the way, in the movie of RotK, when Gandalf finally does confront that antagonist, Peter Jackson makes one of his very worst mistakes by having the Boss Wraith instantly destroy Gandalf’s staff, thus demonstrating absolute dominance over the wizard. It’s impossible to imagine that Gandalf, who has returned from death to fulfill his role as the Enemy of Sauron, could be utterly helpless before one of Sauron’s servants. Jackson then compounds the error by having the Wraith distracted from Gandalf by events on the battlefield: he immediately flies away rather than pausing for the four seconds it would clearly take him to destroy the staffless wizard whom he knows to be the leader of the rebels against the Dark Lord. It’s such a dumb scene.) 

I’m ignoring the main topics of Adam’s post, but I cherish that as my right. One further thing though: At the end Adam discusses Eomer’s complete ignorance of the existence of Lothlorien, though it’s almost on his borders. I wonder if this is meant to be an illustration in small of a more general phenomenon: the separation of the various peoples of Middle Earth, their withdrawal into “gated communities” with a consequent xenophobia. The leaders of Gondor are largely ignorant, and when not ignorant suspicious, of natural allies like the people of Rivendell; the boundaries of Lothlorien are closely guarded; the people of Bree rarely see travelers from the Shire; the dwarves of the Lonely Mountain don’t even know what has become of their kinsman Balin — and don’t seem especially interested, though they are curious. (How far is it from the Lonely Mountain to Moria? Maybe 600 miles? A goodly distance, but people in these books make such journeys fairly regularly.) We are often reminded that what’s called the Last Alliance of Men and Elves occurred thousands of years before the events of this book. The whole world seems to be afflicted by a mistrust of everyone except those who are definitively One’s Own People. There can be good reasons for mistrust, mind you, but not all of these folks act on good reasons. 


In his brilliant book J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Tom Shippey spends a good deal of time trying to account for the depth and intensity of the hatred of Tolkien among the literati. Many of his points are worthy, but I am especially drawn to something he writes near the end of the book, which he is comparing Tolkien to James Joyce — and there are indeed some interesting points of comparison, for instance in the generic forms their great ambitions take and their fascination with language. But of course there are huge differences as well, and Shippey focuses on one of the most important when he notes their radically different attitudes towards the classical tradition. 

Shippey points out that much Modernist writing depends heavily on literary allusion, and especially allusion to the literary inheritance of Greece and Rome. Ulysses is the obvious example here, followed closely by Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Joyce refers occasionally to Irish myth and legend, and Eliot quotes the Upanishads, but those references are not central; if you really want to get to the heart of those texts, you must know Odysseus and Tiresias. (Shakespeare too.) Even Yeats, for all of his invocations of Irish legend, expects his readers to know about Leda and the swan and to grasp the significance of the death of Agamemnon. The essential works of the classical tradition are the lingua franca for the most ambitious and demanding writers in English-language Modernism. (As they were for Milton, who effectively defines ambition for so many writers that follow him.) 

Tolkien doesn’t care about any of this.

He alludes frequently to works of what he regarded as his own tradition, the ‘Shire tradition’ of native English poetry…. Tolkien’s heroes and his major debts came from the native and Northern tradition which Milton never knew and Eliot ignored: Beowulf, Sir Gawain, Sigurd, the Eddic gods — a tradition seen by most modernists as literally barbarous (the possession of people who speak incomprehensible languages). 

In brief, “Tolkien was as educated as [the literati] were, but in a different school.” 

Educated in a different school. And the key point here — Shippey hints at this, but is not quite as explicit as he might have been — is that Tolkien never expects his readers to know any of what he knows. To fully appreciate Ulysses you need to know the Odyssey, but the reader of The Hobbit need not be aware of Snorri Sturluson’s “Tally of the Dwarves” in his Skaldskaparmál:

Nár, Nainn, Nipingr, Dainn,

Bifur, Báfur, Bömbur, Nóri,

Órinn, Onarr, inn, Miöð̠vitnir,

Vigr og Gandálfr, Vindálfr, Þorinn,

Fili, Kili, Fundinn, Váli … 

Indeed, perhaps it is better if we don’t know, at least not until after we’ve read and enjoyed the story. Similarly, it is certainly interesting to note that the exchange between Gandalf & Co. and Háma, the Doorward of Théoden, in The Two Towers is nearly identical to an early scene in Beowulf — but Tolkien doesn’t expect you to know that and your appreciation of the scene isn’t diminished if you don’t. 

The great Modernist writers have a tendency to flatter their learned readers and disdain the others; they are in many respects principially elitist. (As has often been noted, Leopold Bloom is Joyce’s hero but he couldn’t have read Joyce’s book about him.) There’s none of this in Tolkien; the astonishing range of allusions to medieval writing in The Lord of the Rings is certainly meant to provide a kind of felt (not directly perceived) coherence to the reader — Shippey is great on this — but its primary purpose is to satisfy Tolkien’s own imaginative needs. There was, I think, something creatively liberating about having been educated in a school — Germanic and Anglo-Saxon philology — that virtually none of his readers ever attended. 

Denethor the impious

Long-time readers of this blog will know that I am a proponent of what I call the Gandalf Option. Such readers will also know how often I look to The Lord of the Rings for images and analogies: it is my handbook for discernment in our difficult times.

I want to return to the very scene from which I take my understanding of the Gandalf Option, just before the passage I quote in that linked post. The moment I want to call attention to is one in which Denethor, Steward of Gondor, is snapping back at what he believes to be the unnecessary intervention of Gandalf in the affairs of Gondor:

‘The Lord of Gondor is not to be made the tool of other men’s purposes, however worthy. And to him there is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands than the good of Gondor; and the rule of Gondor, my lord, is mine and no other man’s, unless the king should come again.’

‘Unless the king should come again?’ said Gandalf. ‘Well, my lord Steward, it is your task to keep some kingdom still against that event, which few now look to see. In that task you shall have all the aid that you are pleased to ask for.’

Gandalf goes on — as I explain in that post linked above — to describe the nature of his stewardship, but in this post I want to focus on something else: “it is your task to keep some kingdom still against that event.”

Denethor’s mind is wholly occupied by what he fears and what he hates; there is no room left in it for constructive work — for conservation, preservation, restoration. Denethor is the Steward of Gondor and he isn’t stewarding anything; he merely steeps in his own resentments. He thinks hating the right things and the right people is enough. It ain’t.

This is the theme of my recent essay in Comment, “Recovering Piety.” “Renewal of trust in institutions will not happen unless the institutions recover their integrity, and that will not happen unless the people who work within them become pious — devoted, faithful, committed not to their own personal flourishing but to the flourishing of that which they serve.” I hope you’ll read it.

My concern there is primarily with institutions, and especially with the institution called the Church, but Denethors are everywhere these days. People who know how to fear and hate but don’t love anything, don’t care for anything, can’t be bothered to take positive care for anything good. It’s especially sad to me when I see so many “Christian conservatives” who don’t conserve one single solitary thing and never speak of Christ — indeed show no evidence that they are aware of anything that Christ has commanded of us — and evidently assume that if they hate the right people hard enough the Earthly Paradise will miraculously emerge. It won’t.

The people who will repair the world are the truly pious. We should keep our eyes peeled for them, and encourage and strengthen them wherever we find them.

makers and making

Let’s think about three ways in which technological making can go wrong, using some Ludlumesque naming conventions.

First, there’s the Zuckerberg Imperative: “Move fast and break things” in order to achieve DOMINATION. This is evil by intention: it openly rejects moral responsibility.

Second, there’s the Oppenheimer Principle: which I describe here: “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.” This is not purposefully evil, but it often leads to evil through neglect of moral responsibility.

And third: the Fëanor Temptation.

Many readers of Tolkien’s Silmarillion tend to think that Melkor (effectively the Satan of Tolkien’s legendarium) is the central figure in that collection of myths and tales, but he isn’t. The central figure is an Elf named Fëanor, who makes the Silmarils, the three jewel-like and yet somehow organic objects for which the book is named – because so many of the conflicts that deface Middle-earth (and even places beyond) are brought about by love and desire for the Silmarils.

Let’s approach the significance of Fëanor in a somewhat roundabout way, as Tom Shippey – whom I’m basically stealing my ideas from, straight no chaser – does in his superb book The Road to Middle-Earth. Shippey asks whether the Elves are fallen in the same way that Men, according to Tolkien’s Catholic faith, are. If so:

A natural question is, what was their sin? To keep the pattern consistent, it ought not to be the same as that of Adam and Eve, by tradition Pride, the moment when, as [C. S.] Lewis said, ‘a conscious creature’ became ‘more interested in itself than in God’. In fact the elves seem much more susceptible to a specialised variety of pride not at all present in Paradise Lost, not quite Avarice or ‘possessiveness’ or wanting to own things (as has been suggested), but rather a restless desire to make things which will forever reflect or incarnate their own personality. So Melkor has the desire ‘to bring into Being things of his own’; Aulë, though subjecting himself to Ilúvatar, creates the dwarves without authority; Fëanor forges the Silmarils. One might rewrite Lewis’s phrase to say that in Valinor, as opposed to Eden, the Fall came when conscious creatures became ‘more interested in their own creations than in God’s’. The aspect of humanity which the elves represent most fully – both for good and ill – is the creative one.


Significantly Fëanor learns not from Manwë, nor Ulmo, but from Aulë, the smith of the Valar and the most similar of them to Melkor; Aulë too is responsible for the despatch of Saruman to Middle-earth…; Aulë is the patron of all craftsmen, including ‘those that make not, but seek only for the understanding of what is’ – the philologists, one might say, but also the scopas, the ‘makers’, the fabbri, the poets. Tolkien could not help seeing a part of himself in Fëanor and Saruman, sharing their perhaps licit, perhaps illicit desire to ‘sub-create’. He wrote about his own temptations, and came close to presenting the revolt of the Noldor as a felix culpa, a ‘fortunate sin’, when Manwë accepts that their deeds will live in song, so that ‘beauty not before conceived [shall] be brought into Eä’; fiction, poetry, craftsmanship are seen as carrying their own justification and as all being much the same thing.

And finally, Shippey brings us to the heart of the matter, with a reference to Tolkien’s comment, in one of his prefaces to The Lord of the Rings, that his story is not an allegory of our era but may well have “applicability” to our era:

Love of things, especially artificial things, could be seen as the besetting sin of modern civilisation, and in a way a new one, not quite Avarice and not quite Pride, but somehow attached to both. In that view The Silmarillion would have something like the distinctively modern ‘applicability’ of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, for all its archaic setting.

You can see from all this that what I am calling the Fëanor Temptation is closer to the Oppenheimer Principle than to the Zuckerberg Imperative. There is no direct intention to dominate, no thought of controlling or even influencing others. We are told that “Fëanor and the craftsmen of the Noldor worked with delight, foreseeing no end to their labours” – they find their work “technically sweet,” you might say.

But in the making of the Silmarils there was something of greater dignity, a love of something not made by Fëanor or any other of the Children of Iluvatar (i.e. Elves and Men): “For Fëanor, being come to his full might, was filled with a new thought, or it may be that some shadow of foreknowledge came to him of the doom that drew near; and he pondered how the light of the Trees, the glory of the Blessed Realm, might be preserved imperishable.” The desire to make the Silmarils, then, arises from a delight in the light of the Two Trees made by the Valar, the archangelic demiurges of this imagined cosmos.

But is there in Fëanor, perhaps, a certain desire to compete with the Valar? The Valar themselves seem not to have been concerned: “Varda [the Queen, as it were, of the Valar] hallowed the Silmarils, so that thereafter no mortal flesh, nor hands unclean, nor anything of evil will might touch them, but it was scorched and withered; and Mandos foretold that the fates of Arda, earth, sea, and air, lay locked within them.” Yet there is cause for concern in the next sentence: “The heart of Fëanor was fast bound to these things that he himself had made.”

So strong is the hold of the Simlarils over Fëanor that when Melkor offers him shelter for them he is briefly tempted; and though he fiercely rejects Melkor – indeed he is the one who renames Melkor as Morgoth, the Black Enemy; and when Morgoth kills Fëanor’s father we are told that “his father was dearer to him than the Light of Valinor or the peerless works of his hands.” He is no monster; or not for a long time. But when Morgoth steals the Silmarils Fëanor becomes (quite literally, I think) insane with rage, and he and after him his sons are willing to defy the Valar and kill anyone who might stand between them and the recovery of those gems.

They swore an oath which none shall break, and none should take, by the name even of Ilúvatar, calling the Everlasting Dark upon them if they kept it not; and Manwë they named in witness, and Varda, and the hallowed mountain of Taniquetil, vowing to pursue with vengeance and hatred to the ends of the World Vala, Demon, Elf or Man as yet unborn, or any creature, great or small, good or evil, that time should bring forth unto the end of days, whoso should hold or take or keep a Silmaril from their possession.

The gems are good; their making was at least potentially innocent; but afterward arose a lust for owning and controlling that led to great tragedy. Shippey again: the Fall of the Elves occurred “when conscious creatures became ‘more interested in their own creations than in God’s’. The aspect of humanity which the elves represent most fully – both for good and ill – is the creative one.”

And this is why “making” in and of itself is not the answer to our decadent moment. “Love of things, especially artificial things, could be seen as the besetting sin of modern civilisation, and in a way a new one, not quite Avarice and not quite Pride, but somehow attached to both” – and this is the Fëanor Temptation. It is in light of this temptation that I advocate repair, which is a mode of caring for what we have not made, but rather what we have inherited. We will not be saved by the making of artifacts — or from the repair of them, either; but the imperative of repair has these salutary effects: it reminds us of our debt to those who came before us and of the fragility of human constructs.  

Tolkien and Auden

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J. R. R. Tolkien and his wife Edith with their grandson Simon, at their home on Sandfield Road, Oxford, 1966. Photo from the Oxford Mail.

Tolkien was not an easy man to be friends with, as he himself knew. But relatively late in his life he became friends with the poet W. H. Auden, thanks to Auden’s reviews in the New York Times of the first and third volumes of The Lord of the Rings. Those came at a moment when the success of LOTR was by no means assured, and indeed those who hated the book — most notably Edmund Wilson — made a point of including Auden in their denigration. There were moments of tension later on, most notably when a London newspaper quoted Auden as having said that the decor of Tolkien’s home was “hideous”; and Tolkien — so it seems to me anyway — was never fully at ease with non-Catholics. But in the main the friendship remained firm, if rather distant, and was a source of pleasure and comfort to both men. When some medievalists produced a festschrift for Tolkien on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, Auden contributed “A Short Ode to a Philologist”; and when Auden received a sixtieth birthday festschrift in the journal Shenandoah, Tolkien offered a lovely tribute, “For W.H.A.,” in both Anglo-Saxon and modern English. 

You can read about their relationship in the biographies that Humphrey Carpenter wrote about each man, and also in Tolkien’s letters. But it seems to me that the relationship is interesting enough that it deserves some kind of artful presentation; perhaps one that portrays their friendship as more intimate than it really was. And I have always been haunted by the fact that, though Tolkien was fifteen years older than Auden, they died within a few weeks of each other: Tolkien in Bournemouth on September 2, 1973, and Auden in Vienna on September 29. 

So I wrote a short play about them

There I imagine a conversation between them — taking place probably in 1967, though don’t try to pin me down about that — a conversation based on things they actually said to each other, usually in letters, and things they said or wrote on matters of mutual interest. That is, Auden really did invent a parlor game called Purgatory Mates, and Tolkien really did say that Auden’s proposal to write a book about him was “an impertinence.” Auden’s final words in the play are based on an encounter he had with the young Jay Parini. And so on. So, the play is Based on True Events and Words, even though I seriously doubt that they ever would have had a face-to-face conversation like this. Auden had become by this point in his life too garrulous, and Tolkien too mumblingly reticent. (In both cases excessive alcohol consumption played a part.) So I had to make Auden more shortly-spoken than he was in real life, and Tolkien more articulate. 

Anyway, it’s probably really terrible, but I enjoyed writing it. It scratched an itch. 


learning from Bilbo

On his death-bed, the dwarf king, Thorin commends Bilbo’s blend of courage and wisdom, adding, “if more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” Food and cheer are transitory pleasures, which take their value from the moment and the company. The Hobbit is actually as much about food or lack of it — as well as the fear of being eaten — as it is about the shiny solidity of metal. The dwarves are continually tightening their belts or existing on cram.

Just as Bilbo teaches the dwarves the value of sharing their gold, so they teach him at their first encounter — the unexpected party — the value of sharing food and distributing it as widely as possible. What, one wonders, was one bachelor hobbit going to do with a larder as full as his obviously was with mince-pies and cheese, seed-cakes, pork pies, cold chicken and pickles?

Economics is not a party, and the Incarnation is not a political program, but I believe The Hobbit has something profound to offer us at this festive season about the true use of the bounty and beauty of the earth, which is to distribute it in such a way as to enable and make visible as many relations between producers and consumers, and fellow-workers as possible in contrast to the barren golden abstractions and glamour of money-markets. Ruskin wrote, “there is no wealth but life” and the hobbits are so successful a race as enablers and burglars because deep down they know that too.

But even the comfort and the fellowship of the Shire must be given up, “made strange” and riddled, so that one can travel “there and back again.” When Bilbo brings us back with him from the Lonely Mountain, ordinary hobbit and human life can itself be received back as a gift, and seen as such, so that its comforts may be shared with others.

Alison Milbank, in a wonderful essay on the theological economics of The Hobbit — the book, that is, not the films

why Gandalf and Elrond were wrong

I’m sure this has been said before, but … I don’t think much of the advice given by Gandalf and Elrond during the great Council at Rivendell. Glorfindel’s suggestion that the One Ring be cast into the sea is instantly rejected by Gandalf, and that rejection is echoed by others, after which Elrond says, “We must send the Ring to the Fire.” But I believe Glorfindel’s idea is by far the best one offered at the Council. Let’s look at the two objections to it, starting with the second, Galdor’s.

Galdor argues that “the flight to the Sea is now fraught with the gravest peril. My heart tells me that Sauron will expect us to take the western way, when he learns what has befallen.” But Galdor speaks as though there were just one “western way.” In fact there were many. It would indeed have been foolish to try to take the Great River all the way to the sea, but why not try a more northerly course? At this point Sauron’s military might was concentrated in the South, where he had not yet even been able to overcome the armies of Gondor. The North was beyond the reach of his power, especially since the Nazgûl had been unhorsed and rendered temporarily powerless. Again, Elrond speaks of “the western road” as though the Road itself is the only way, but we know it isn’t: earlier in the story Frodo and the other hobbits see Elves moving Westward through the woods. Moreover, Aragorn had just led the hobbits across a largely uninhabited region with nothing to trouble them except the Nazgûl; why shouldn’t he lead them back roughly the same way? They could be at the Grey Havens before Sauron could re-deploy the Riders. Certainly this would be far less risky — almost infinitely less risky — than marching into Mordor and heading straight for Mount Doom.

So Galdor’s argument fails. What about Gandalf’s? The great wizard says, “It is not our part here to take thought only for a season, or for a few lives of Men, or for a passing age of the world. We should seek a final end of this menace, even if we do not hope to make one.” One might dispute whether taking a million-to-one shot at ending a great menace forever — remember that, as Gandalf says much later in the story, other evils will come, since “Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary” — is really superior to taking a much more likely chance to avoid it “for a passing age of the world.” But I will waive that point. Let’s agree that Gandalf is right and they must think of the longest term. Are they doing so wisely?

It is clear, I hope, that the chances of getting the Ring to the sea are far, far greater than getting the Ring into the Cracks of Doom. But once the Ring is dropped into the sea? Gandalf only says, “There are many things in the deep waters; and seas and lands may change.” But this is vague. How likely is it that any of those “many things” would find the Ring in the overwhelming vastness of the ocean? And in the highly unlikely event that something did find it, what are the chances that that would lead to its being returned to Sauron? And if indeed “seas and lands change,” is there any reason to think that they would change in ways that would lead to Sauron’s recovery of the Ring? They might well change in ways that would bury the Ring still deeper. And again, we have to consider these possibilities in light of the vastly more likely, indeed certain, perils that accompany any attempt to enter Mordor and get to Orodruin.

Yes, in the end things worked out, but only because, as Gandalf hints near the beginning, “there was more than one power at work” in these matters; not because Gandalf and Elrond were wise counsellors. Their counsel was poor indeed. Too bad Glorfindel didn’t win the day.

P.S. Some of my tweeps are getting upset by this. Don’t take it too seriously — think of it as an exercise in playing’s Melkor’s advocate. I really do understand why they made the decision they made, but I think the alternatives are passed over too quickly. Gandalf and Elrond say they do not offer a “counsel of despair,” but it certainly looks like they that’s what they offer; and I think they should spend some time explaining why they believe it is impossible to resist Sauron in any other way.