Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Relation of Tolkien's Writings and Christianity

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Yesterday, I visited a local used bookstore. While browsing, I happened across their fantasy section. It was very diverse. The books were arranged alphabetically by their authors. There were a few exceptions. Among these were entire shelves completely devoted to C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien.

Now it is no secret that The Lord of the Rings is my favorite book. I absolutely love it. It is spiced with the flavors of every literary genre, and contains depth of plot not typical in the fantasy genre.

Looking at those shelves, I was amazed at the fantasy literature I haven't read. I have always fancied myself a fan of fantasy. But, in truth, I suppose I am not. I have read more contemporary fantasy in the past, and I think it lacks something that is, in my estimation, a required component in within fantasy. It lacks what I call, "integration". Let me explain what I mean.

Most of today's fantasy books contain simple plots. There is an antagonist and a protagonist, all at odds with each other. The antagonist is usually someone who has turned malevolent from some abuse or neglect of society, and obviously has the stronger influence, making the protagonist the underdog in the conflict. In the end, the protagonist fends off the antagonist through more subtle tactics that involve virtue and strength of character. Such scenarios, thrown into a gothic of medieval environment filled with otherworldly entities, constitutes the status quo of fantasy literature today. The plot is one that can be easily adapted, without much deviation in the actual components or individuals, to primitive society, modern society, or even to the more advanced societies of science fiction.

Tolkien's story is certainly distinct from this. His story does have the proper "integration". His story would be hard to adapt to another genre. His antagonist is a force wholly otherworldly. Reading his book is both entertaining, informative, and a study in sociology. From the organic and primitive hobbits, to Rohan, a culture seemingly stuck at an intermediate stage of social advancement. The elves, who are both powerful and graceful, skilled in all manner of crafts, warriors, and so effeminate in appearance that their males often resemble their females, stand in stark contrast to the dwarfs, who are encumbered by physical limitations, though very strong, and so masculine their females resemble their males. Dwarfs and elves are also at different ends of the spectrum in regards their materialistic ambitions. Dwarfs are greedy, and elves desire only knowledge.

The people of Gondor stand as a neutrality of sorts. Certainly the military force of Middle-Earth, it represents a beacon of light. Their culture is a civilized one, who embraces every technological advance offered to them. Unlike Rohan, Gondor's buildings and society is an advanced one where the primitive is often supplanted by the modern. But it is also the historical center of Middle-Earth, and serves as the culmination of all the culture in Arda.

There are other finer points of interest. Elves, who tend to be intelligent and cultured, also tend to be in tune with their environment. They are friends to trees, and other living things. Orcs, by perplexing relief, are less intelligent and less cultured. Their society tends to be one of industry and competition. This type of society is, by nature, exploitative of the environment. Living primarily in industrialized areas all my life, I can see from whence Tolkien was drawing inspiration when he designed the Orcs as technologically advanced in the implementation of industry. Tolkien disliked the uprooting of the natural landscape to accommodate our industrial needs. Orcs also completely lack finesse, in favor of raw power. And the environment fuels this raw power. It should be noted that Orcs were once elves, corrupted by Melkor, the fallen Ainur who is the original otherworldly antagonist to the entire landscape of Middle Earth.

It is with great interest that almost every Christian book I read today will reference either Lewis' or Tolkien's myth to make a point. Is it because both Lewis and Tolkien were Christian? Is it because of the Christian undertones (which are profoundly more subtly embedded in Tolkien) that lay in both stories.

Living in the Bible Belt, it was generally taught during my adolescence, in my circle of Christians that fantasy literature was off limits to a sincere Christian. Supposedly because it references to many elements expressly forbidden to the ancient Hebrews, and consequently, Christians. Things like wizards, witchcraft, mythological creatures, and the unbridled use of one's imagination. Tolkien steers around many of these reservations by making subtle differences in our definitions and his definitions. For example, wizards, and their "magic", are as integrated into the landscape as humans. Magic isn't some otherwordly, and expressly forbidden, art used to manipulate our reality. In Tolkien's world, magic is just as much part of the landscape as water and soil. In his world, a wizard isn't a human who decides to study magical arts, but a whole race of beings delivered to Middle Earth by its primary deity (Iluvatar), and are known as the Istari. In other words, wizards aren't human, though they share many of the human frailties as well as human in appearance. Regular humans, generally speaking, do not possess magical attributes in Tolkien's world.

I think it is a shame. The cultural and sociological aspects within The Lord of the Rings is one that could benefit Christians if studied. Understanding the diversities within the various societies brings the genius of Tolkien into full light.

How does the elves' synergy with the environment provide a stark contrast to the Orcs who exploit their environment to progress and expand their industrial demands?

How does the primitive society of hobbits continue to flourish in spite of their deliberate naivety and apathy to the troubles beyond their own borders, and in spite of remaining true to the most primordial means of existence?

Does it surprise you that Rohan, who has its own unique culture, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the society of Norse mythology, maintains a strained relationship with their culturally diverse and socially elite neighbor, Gondor?

The idea of good vs. evil in Tolkien's myth is closer to Christianity than most contemporary works of fantasy, in my opinion. The source of evil is otherworldly. It cannot exist on its own, but subsists on perversions of things that were originally good by design. The strategy for overcoming this evil lies in a amalgamation of unity, faith, and the honest efforts of all who hate the evil. It requires believing for the impossible, and placing the outcome into the sovereign will of a divine power believed to be benevolent. It is the story of a king who chose a life of humility and exile in service to his people instead of just asserting power and authority, assuming his throne, and serving transparently from lofty heights.

The character conflicts are too numerous to list here. To name just a few, Boromir's patriotism urges him to assume a power he knows can only destroy, to preserve his nation. Frodo, who refuses to forsake the evil he is sworn to destroy must have the body part the evil is attached to severed before the evil can be completely abandoned. And Gollum, whose natural life is prolonged by assuming possession of the evil, but the prolongation of life only prolongs his misery the evil has produced.

There is much a Christian can learn from these stories, and it is my sincere desire that Christians will acquaint themselves to it more zealously. It is a worthy read. Lewis' Narnia is as well, but it was written for children. Tolkien writes for adults in his myth. You will be surprised at the level of depth into the human condition he explores. Those who really know Jesus Christ, who know what it is like to have your life intrinsically embedded in His, who knows what it is like to have Him wake you in the middle of the night with whisperings in your ear, you will see things in this myth that will amaze you. So, if you are a Christian, after your Bible studies, clear your mind with Tolkien's myth. Start with The Hobbit for necessary backstory.

Engage your mind, and happy reading!

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