My summer has been completely consumed by something which I know will probably consume most of the rest of my life, namely The Institute for Orthodox Thought and Culture (about which you can find information here, and please take the survey here). I am hoping that things will settle down in a few months, and I can return to reading and writing on a regular basis, that at least is my hope. I have done a good bit of administration and committee work in my time, and generally though not always have found it to be a great hindrance to the life of the mind and the purpose of the academy. Yet someone has got to do it, and because I hate it, I generally think it may be better that I do it, for if someone takes up the mantle who loves it, he will just create more work for me than I already have. But despite all of this, I have still been reading and writing and thinking.
Tonight in the car with Kristen we fell into a conversation about Tolkien and the Blessed Virgin Mary. My thoughts on this have been piqued by my reading of Secret Fire: the spiritual vision of J R R Tolkien by Christ’s servant Stratford Caldecott (who fell asleep in the Faith just over two weeks ago). I have been reading two books by Strat, also finding myself enjoying his Beauty in the World, an excellent treatise on education, whose chapter on grammar is worth the price of the whole book, though most of the other chapters are also of such quality. Indeed, Strat’s comments on grammar , though not intended to be, are truly devastating to those who would think that any text could hold an authority in-and-of itself, that is, to those who hold to sola scriptura, but that’s a blog for another day. What caught my attention more in Secret Fire in his discussion of the theology of creation that Tolkien gives. Ostensibly, the creation represented in The Silmarillion Tolkien made consonant with that of Genesis but not explicitly so; something that could be held by our ancestors that approximates the truth while having never obtained the insights provided by revelation.
The story, as all who have read it know, surpasses riveting, in that it is at once both tragic and heroic; epic all the while tinged with a pessimism that can be found in so many other of Tolkien’s works, such as The Mariner’s Wife. As one makes his way from one chapter to the next, it becomes evident that no matter how great and brilliant were the high elves, the Noldor, no matter how exalted in their creation and regardless of their bravery, they are no match for Morgoth (Tolkien’s original Satan, though in Tolkien, as with Dostoyevsky, the line between good and evil divides every Man’s, Elf’s, dwarf’s, Maia’s, Ent’s and Hobbit’s heart). Their efforts to overcome him, springing initially from Feanor’s coveting of the light of his creation (the Silmarils were jewels he had created, taking their brilliance from the light of two sacred trees . . . hmmm) which Morgoth had treacherously stolen, were carried on by his sons in their own hard-heartedness and willfulness. When the Noldor had first pursued Morgoth they had been told that not all their combined might could withstand Morgoth, let alone hope to overthrown him. The only time when there was such a moment was when Beren and Luthien penetrated Morgoth’s great fortress of Angband and Luthien was able to put Morgoth to sleep by song. Beren then pried one of the Silmarils from Morgoth’s crown, and the tale of Beren and Luthien represents the lone real victory within the whole book. Luthien’s song is part of a telling theme repeated throughout Tolkien that real song unites us to the true and beautiful in ways that logic does not (lex orandi), for it was from the vision of song praising the One God that the lesser gods set the pattern to create the world, though when the One God had finished the creation, it was more wonderful than the vision which the gods had seen in their songs or imagined as they sung.
What The Silmarillion shows then is the absolute powerless of even the high elves, in the created order nearly the equal of the Maia (Gandalf was a Maia, and so too was Sauron) who were just below the Valar, the lesser gods, to overcome the hate and viciousness of Morgoth. Indeed, this is what made Sauron, Morgoth’s great servant, so powerful was his vicious bending of his will to domination and hatred. Only self-renouncing love, as seen in Beren and Luthien, and then in Frodo and Sam, could hope to overcome it. That is, when one stands not in their own strength, or for their own purposes, but for others. Yet even this has its limits, for despite Beren and Luthien’s seeming triumph, Beren did not recover the Silmaril he had pried from Morgoth’s crown – - but you will have to read the tale to know why – - and Frodo’s will was insufficient at the end to carry out his task. No, in all of this the strength of the enemy could not be defeated but by a Providence and a submission. Tolkien’s world was to be a world of many songs and few books: Bilbo wrote one, and there were books in Minas Tirith, but books have only a slender place in Tolkien’s world, but instead it is song (poems to the ancients were sung). It was also a world that was supposed to be ours, or at least what a world could have been prior to the rise of men and the leaving of the elves for the Western World where no man nor dwarf could ever go (though Gimli was allowed entrance, and of course Bilbo, Frodo and Sam). It was a world, in short, without Christ Incarnate (though of course, not a world without Christ). The themes of the Church’s teaching are woven throughout Tolkien’s corpus, but most people don’t see them, and here one theme especially, and that is that man apart from Christ is powerless before the strength of the enemy. But, man with Christ, or better, Christ now one with us by nature, has given us power over the enemy. What is more, not only is Christ one with our nature forever, but he mediates the divine life to us (the divine nature to our human nature via His Person as the Logos), and thus He has given us power over Satan to crush him under our feet. This is why we can seek the aid of the Saints, but especially Our Lady Mary, who with her Son now exists embodied but beyond passion. Luthien (and also Galadriel) become figures of Mary, though I would not say Marian allegories (Tolkien did not like allegory) in that they set aside their own wills for a greater purpose. Our Lady set aside her own will in her “let it be to me according to thy word,” and in this overcomes Satan’s designs, and thus sets her whole future before her.
The tragedy of The Silmarillion is both universal and specific: it comprehends our fate when we cast ourselves as the masters of our fate, but it also sets out how powerless we were before the dawn of our Redemption. It is not for nothing that Tolkien dated Frodo’s and Sam’s triumph on the cracks of Mount Doom to 25 March.