Reflections on The Lord of the Rings

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“Well” said Pippin “I have known of him all my short life as you may say; and lately I have traveled far with him. But there is much to read in that book and I cannot claim to have seen more than a page or two. Yet perhaps I know him as we’ll as any but a few.”- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of The King, 760.

I am often known as a Christian, and am frequently believed to be someone who knows a great deal about Jesus. The above is a far more accurate depiction of our relationship. Knowing about Jesus is difficult, and getting to know Jesus is even more so. Yet it has been my experience that the difficult things are often the most worthwhile. The Lord of the Rings is a story about characters who are passionate about doing such things.

The trilogy contains delightful stories. They capture the imagination quickly, and yet, the depth of the world Tolkien created is large enough for adults to explore. J.R.R. Tolkien employs subtle Christian allegory through the books, which adds a depth of symbolism and metaphor which extends outside the book and into the real world of religion and philosophy. The author has something to say about the way the world works, as well as the nature of good and evil.

I read an article (*) this week that didn’t care for Tolkien’s work, or others like it ( the author, cited Beowulf among them). The crux of the disagreement: the definition of heroism. The blogger- a well spoken linguist- took exception to the idea that heroes are violent or destructive. She implied that this was barbaric and unenlightened and quoted Brian Andreas, “Anyone can slay a dragon …but try waking up every morning and loving the world all over again. That’s what takes a real hero.”

First, I must say, I agree with the principle of the quote. Heroes are indeed those who display courage and character, regardless of their flaws. Heroes are not solely to be judged on their destructive prowess. The reality of postmodern filmmaking and storytelling is such that heroes are often murky characters. When this combines with Hollywood’s desire to sell tickets through explosions and chase scenes, we are often left rooting for a character who is, in great measure, a villain.

Yet earlier definitions of “hero” were a corollary not due to the fact that he destroys, but rather, because of the character of what he destroys. Watering down the definition of “hero” to “a nice and loving person” robs us of a valuable word, rendering it meaningless. True, the postmodern reader may disagree with the idea that a person or thing may be wholly evil; yet because we have moved beyond modernism hopefully many would agree that Evil exists (i.e. the dragon in the above quote, **). This brings me to the substance of my contention: not just anyone can slay a dragon!

It takes a hero to destroy evil. Heroes come in all shapes and sizes (Tolkien makes this clear) but not everyone is a hero. Many quail in the face of evil, some corroborate with it, and some are indifferent and hope to remain neutral in the battle between the two sides. Evil cannot destroy evil. It may seek to do so from evil intention but in so doing, evil has grown and not diminished. There is a strength of character required for a hero. True they may be flawed, but their aim must be good, or else they may become a villain. Indeed, “the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

In The Lord of the Rings there is a character named Aragorn, the king who returns in the third book. He is an excellent example of a hero; he loves the world, does not glory in violence, yet neither does he shrink from the task of defense of the weak and destruction of evil. Those who travel with him become more like him, they are encouraged by his presence and begin to imitate his apparent lack of concern for his own well-being. This is what I appreciate about Jesus – those who follow Him well, become more like Him. The New Testament depicts Jesus as a hero. He is someone who consistently and successfully combats evil. People often think His heroism lies in the fact that He was a great lover of the world, which is true but it is not enough for me. This would not make Him a hero, only a very nice man. At the end of the story He is Jesus, The Lord, The Christ, The Dragon-Slayer, the Ultimate Hero.

* (a disclaimer) I must apologize, I didn’t take down the blog’s information, and thus I cannot cite the blogger and allow her rebuttal. Further, I must apologize for a lack of familiarity with the work of Brian Andreas, my issue with the quote comes from the way it was used and thus not with this author.

** Thus a good person who destroys a dragon, regardless of the ease of the task, would, to some degree, be a hero by virtue of the fact that she has destroyed something evil. There are indeed potential holes in this line of thinking; a thorough examination of which would exceed this post. However, the thrust of my above argument is not normative ethical behavior, rather the simple proposition: the defeat of Evil accomplishes the purposes of Good.

A Matter of Life and Death

In Th’ early morning
Death met me, bleary eyed
Nodded and with a yawn
tipped dusty brow with shrouded hand
Others frenetic
desperate to recover
The hill Oblivious
Quite still
I slipped quietly out
Growing steadily more aware

Watching a man die is a strange but not an uncommon experience in the life of a pastor.  My first experience was in an Adult Emergency department.  Those who work in the AED are a part of a surreal community.  They battle Death regularly and often successfully, but it leaves them with a strange sense of humor.  In the hospital, Death was a regular part of the conversation.  Out of the hospital, people were often uneasy with the subject.

I had a professor in an undergraduate class claim that if you want to know what the taboos are in a society look for euphemisms, i.e. kick the bucket, buy the farm, bite the big one, shuffle off this mortal coil etc. etc. (this is true of sex in America as well, despite the comfort we claim to have with the “casual” nature of it).  We are wildly uncomfortable with the idea of Death.  We look to science/modern medicine to cure us of it and we deify/ demonize it in movies like Final Destination and other horror films.  Death, for many of us, is the only real force of evil we believe in.

The strange thing about such attitudes is this: since the beginning of time, every human being has died (Christians would say that this is not a permanent condition).  Our days are numbered as it were (Ps 39:4).  In the hospital I would sometimes get to chat with people who had faced the concept of their death and had come to terms with it.  These conversations were a privilege.  People who are dying have a remarkable clarity about their lives.  It is as though all their concerns, all the things we worry about on a regular basis,  have passed through an emotional furnace.  The only ones that remain are the important ones; almost exclusively, they want to talk about their family, where they stand with God, and the meaning of it all.  I wonder if we could handle living with such honesty.