Reading the Tradition with Morgoth

“He had gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own, and it seemed to him that Ilúvatar took no thought for the Void, and he was impatient of its emptiness. Yet he found not the Fire, for it is with Ilúvatar. But being alone he had begun to conceive thoughts of his own unlike those of his brethren (Tolkien, Ainulindale, 16).”

I am reading through Tolkien once again. JRRT’s friend C. S. Lewis once remarked that he loved rereading his favorite books, to find once again familiar friends and gladsome experiences around each bend (to paraphrase CSL). This time, however, as I read Tolkien, now having read most of his letters, and realizing what pains Tolkien took to be a precise theologian, the work unfolds in a whole new manner. Certainly all the old, wonderful vistas are still there, but something else has also arisen. Tolkien’s earliest days were involved in the Birmingham Oratory, whose influence can be traced in the lines of his works on multiple levels. As a young adult, he faced the horrors of World War I, wherein he lost most of his childhood friends, and with it the world both he and his world had known. Books have been written, and many of them need to be read, on how World War I was the great turn in western society. World War II looms large, but the second would not have occurred without the first, and the changes it wrought in society were but a horrible icing on an already vile cake.

(This brings to mind one of my favorite jokes: Timecop to Sergeant: “Sir, I know you sent me back in time to kill baby Hitler, but I killed Woodrow Wilson instead”
Sergeant to Timecop: “Who’s Hitler?”)

WWI gave Tolkien a deep sense of the tragic nature of life and reality, what the historian Geoffrey Parker would put as a book title, that Victory is Never Final. Tolkien made the persistence of the tragic an important aspect of his work, one that is not hard to find. But one mixed with this, from the songs of Ainulindale to the awakening of the Elves, through the curses of Fëanor, to the Lay of Leithien, from the voyage of Eärendil, to the alliance of Gil-Galad and Isildur, down to Sam and Frodo pondering their fate on the slopes of Mount Doom, is that they were all part of a great story, but one which they entered into, participated in, helped write, and tried to understand. One could easily just call the story Providence, for had not Gandalf said that Bilbo was meant to find the ring? True enough, but were this all that was going on, it would impoverish Tolkien’s stories. Sam, as his and Bilbo’s fates seemed to play out on the sides of Mt. Doom, actually links his and Frodo’s quests to those before, and indeed the often-heard snatches of song that saturated Tolkien’s books (so absent from those abortions Peter Jackson called movies) detail that the Hobbits had been caught up into a great drama, and it is the songs and memories that set the context for the virtues accomplished in LOTR. Sam’s quoting of the lay of Gil-Galad when Strider and the Hobbits were on Amon Sûl links the last great alliance of Elves and Men against Sauron with the adventure that they were then on, that is, that those four, scared Hobbits were part of the same great story. In short, an epic had begun with the song of the Valar sung before Ilúvatar in the Ainulindale, and it had fallen to the virtuous Elves, Men, and Dwarves to take up the song, continue, and be faithful to it. The song, of course, was the harmony of creation, a reflection shone forth from the mind of God that the Valar (the angelic powers) used to create a vision of the world, that Ilúvatar then gave existence by a power which Tolkien calls, the secret fire.

The secret fire, the ability to live and to enter into life, was Ilúvatar’s great gift. To the Valar was as well given the ability to create things of great beauty themselves, as long as they were done within the confines of the music’s theme. This is the origin of the two trees of Valinor, and of Fëanor’s silmarils, the light of which was in the vial that Galadriel gave to Frodo in Lothlorien (another aspect of the continuity of LOTR with earlier stories). Two instances exist that sit astride and outside of this thematic creation. The one is Aulë’s creation of the dwarves, which ultimately Ilúvatar allowed, and the other occurs in the repeated attempts of Melkor to create apart from the theme, all of which ended in disasters and abortions. There were also misshapen spirits that sought to live apart from the themes, the most notable was Ungoliant, the mother to Shelob in LOTR, who had incarnated herself as a spider of the darkness of the void. Discord marked these horrors for what they were, not mere dissonances in the great theme, but willful articulations in spite of and against the theme, that is anti-harmonies, contemnors of beauty, and thus athwart to the truth. And so it was that Melkor (Morgoth was the name given him by Fëanor) sought to twist the beauty of the theme, as Orcs were corrupted elves, the Balrogs corrupted Maiar. But it was not only in this way that Morgoth sought to “create” for he actively “discreated” what the other Valar did, bringing in only chaos and ugliness. In short, his discord and chaos spoke of his declension from the Good, the True, and the Beautiful; and since he no longer lived for these things, living outside the music, he could only live in fear.

Tolkien’s letters show the pains he exerted to make his legendarium conform with Catholic thought and doctrine. A strongly devout Catholic, for all intents and purposes Tolkien was reared and catechized in Newman’s Birmingham Oratory. And how does all of this preceding information from The Silmarillion hold with his Faith, what does it illumine? It pertains to God’s graces and gifts to us mortals, which include the basic structures (moral and spiritual) of the created order, that creation itself is an act of God’s grace to us, a revelation of His love for his creatures. What Tolkien also sought, and this was pointed out to me in Stratford Caldecott’s wonderful little book The Secret Fire, was to present a world whose thought operated according to the dictates of the myths that would have arisen in the world, one that was not inconsistent with natural theology, but one that was not available without special revelation. There is much, much to write here, but the key thought is his notion of myth as the carrier of truth (both he and Lewis wrote much on this), that myth was not merely fantastic tales, adventures that were but vehicles for lies, but ways in which the ancients took received knowledge and constructed it as story to make sense of the world, and then passed it along as songs/poems (in the ancient world, poetry was sung, e.g., “Sing O Muse of the wrath of Achilles,” “Of weapons I sing, and the man who born by fate . . .”). In Tolkien’s world, written records were the domain of humans, but song that of the Elves, and by song they wove the past into their present, giving the past a living part of the present.

In creation God gave the world over to us, but it was not merely some nice sphere parked in the Milky Way within the vast universe. In fact what God gave over first was the Incarnation, for it was by His Word that the cosmos was formed, and not merely as agent, but also as archetype, thus the heavens were formed according to that Word. At the Incarnation within the economy of history, the Father gives the Son in order to bring creation to its completion by both healing it, rectifying it, and by bringing it to its own true telos. This is what Schmemann is talking about in For the Life of the World, that God has given the whole world as a sacrament that is the medium of His Sacrament, namely our Lord Jesus Christ. God thus hands Christ over to us for our life, and the first recipient of His gift is the Blessed Virgin Mary, followed by the Apostles. They in turn now pass Him over to the Church, and the Church down through the ages to us. In Greek the word for handing over is παραδοσις, and in Latin the word is transdare or tradare, and that which is handed over, transditus of traditus, from which we get the word tradition. A plethora of items exist under tradition’s aegis: the regula fidei, unwritten customs and mores – both doctrinal and disciplinary (fasting and when), and the sensus fidelium, inter alia. But all of these exist within a grand chorus with many themes and within the themes variations and fantasias that go back into the Old Testament. It is common to hear scholars speak of the “metanarrative” of the Old Testament as Exodus, but this is to mistake an expression of a theme for the substance itself, which is “that God was in Christ reconciling the world.” St. Irenaeus lays this out in his doctrine of recapitulation, that the story of Christ in the Gospels is but the true telling of the stories of the Patriarchs in the OT.

– for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, “As kingfishers catch fire.”


Thus, Christ as the Sacrament of the Father, as the Logos through which and by which He created the world, is both the principle (arche) and goal (telos) of the content of Christianity, the substance and essence of the Christian depositum. That Christ then penetrates the myths of the ancients should hardly surprise, and this was not something invented by Lewis and Tolkien to justify their respective attempts at story, but is found throughout the Fathers. Beginning with St. Justin Martyr and moving forward, we find the Church arguing not only for Christ as the one who spoke in the Old Testament, but that he also spoke in the myths of the pagans, that the pagans, though in grave error and obviously wrong about so much, all the same could not help but present seeds of the truth in their texts. Excellent reads on this include Hugo Rahner’s Greek Myths and Christian Mystery, and Louis Bouyer’s The Christian Mystery: From Pagan Myth to Christian Mysticism. For the Fathers, as well as for Lewis and Tokien, God speaks from Sinai and Parnassus.

This arises necessarily from the Logos, the Word of the Father, as the express revelation of God, and which gives meaning and significance to even the groping of the pagans, both ancient and modern, and forms the lens through which the OT alone makes sense. The glorified Christ on Tabor, who spoke with Elijah and Moses to whom he had appeared on Horeb, makes dulcet and harmonious the true themes that seem disjointed and dissonant, recreating the symphony through the lives of the saints, through the mysteries of the Church, through the hymnography of her services, and the catechesis of her priests. Christ in the Psalms, Christ in the Old Testament saints, the Church lovely like Jerusalem should stand to the fore whenever one reads the OT, for the harmony and unity of creation, revelation, reason, and imagination rests in the Logos. Long before I had ever opened St. Maximus the Confessor I had heard him referred to as “St. Maximalist the Confessor.” St. Maximus anticipated Hopkins wonderful turn of phrase, that “Christ plays in ten thousand places,” seeing unity in what looks like chaos, and that even in the most debased creatures grace appears. For St. Maximus the whole world, the inner essence of every created thing, was based upon a word of God that drew its reality from the Word of God, the Logos. Thus, every creature can never be bereft of God, nor wholly and completely evil. Another item that angered me (and angers still) about Jackson’s monstrosities was his portrayal of Sam, who is the real hero of the books. In the text, even as they climbed Mt. Doom, Sam pitied Gollum, and would not strike him dead. Tolkien’s Sam is a far cry for the blood-lusting portrayal contrived by Jackson, for Sam recognized in Gollum the agony of Frodo, and with it, that something united him to Gollum. It could be said that Christ “played” in both Sam and Gollum for Tolkien, even if Gollum was a very poor voice in the choir. This stands directly opposite Jackson’s one-dimensional telling of the tale, which could have spent more time paying attention to the text then creating amorous subplots. But Jackson’s take is also part of our reductionist world, that on the one hand disdains labels, but at the same time seeks to make everyone at bottom creatures of our Nietzschean fears and desires. Because there was no unity in Jackson’s movies that harkened back to the old stories and that did not rest in them, the whole affair became a freefloating chronicle of events.

This magnifies the failure of reductionist thought, for it misses the symphony while concentrating on the fourth cello. All too often those who seek to attack tradition (and it is, of course, tradition I have been writing about) do so asserting that it does not exist, that the Fathers spoke with too many voices about too many things, that they weren’t unified, etc. The Gnostikoi did this, and in modern times it first occurs in the Reformation, seen clearly in the polemical writings of John Jewel who sought to show that the Fathers were discordant and inchoate, and that the medieval church stood in stark contrast to whatever little they did affirm. Aside from marvelously niggling items he picked upon, his Catholic detractors showed how little he understood either Catholic theology or the Fathers. Jewel’s barbs were repeated, and actually brought to a rarified if often dishonest culmination by Voltaire (cf. his “Sermon of the Fifty” and “Epistle to the Romans”). For Voltaire the ancient world held no Catholic church, for he had so overdefined the past, that the past ceased to exist (that, and with a great deal of venomous mockery). Lewis describes the sort of detached examination as intrinsically nonsensical, for how, after all, with the reductionist position not also be reduced by the next set of reductionists? All the same, this tactic was picked up in the German higher critics and in German liberal theology, that there was no early church, just early churches; no Christian theology, just theologies. There was of course no such thing as Orthodoxy or Catholicism except in a few bigoted minds such as St. Ignatius or St. Irenaeus (Elaine Pagels’s great bête noire), who eventually (for whatever reason, as nothing historical could be claimed) won the day.

Hopefully this fad is now spent, though there are still many who hold to it, and seeming last of all, it has come to Orthodoxy, trumpeted by those who claim to be Orthodox, namely reductionists of what it is that Scripture says, or what it is the Fathers have taught, that there really wasn’t the unanimity in the early church on a variety of issues. One such unnamed person recently even posted that the Fathers weren’t agreed on marriage and the uses of conjugal unions. The dishonesty of such a statement is galling, but predictable. Predictable because typical of the reductionist mind of academic theology: no Church, just congregations, no Orthodoxy, just discreet thinkers (what has Ignatius to do with Basiliades?). The particular academic’s admission has the color of truth, the Fathers do say different things about marriage and the value and place of sex, but these are variations on a theme, and not another whole genre of music, let alone another symphony — and one that would amuse Igor Stravinsky at that. I find such reductionism in history tiring (no Reformation, but lots of reformations; no Renaissance, but many renaissances) for building on the truth that variety obtains within the thought of the period, Lewis’s statement in “On the Reading of Old Books” holds, that it was not Hitler against FDR, but the whole of the present against the past that is the real drama, since more united Hitler and FDR as mid-twentieth century men against the past than divided them from each other.

When the Fathers did speak about sex, there was not only uniformity about the constraints on it and the “where” of it (I’ll clue you in, only in marriage), but that sex was not essentially a human activity, and was not part of the Kingdom of God (though marriage as a sacrament could be thought of as such): you didn’t need to have sex (let alone the modern contrivance of a sexual identity) to be human. This was the impetus behind monasticism, the desert becoming a city; but also that the family served as both a little church, and the image of the Trinity: namely that families lived lives of self-sacrifice and were outward facing. The New Testament presents a clear trajectory – a word employed by liberal scholars, but which I am taking from Fr. Aidan Nichols, who once himself subscribed to liberal nostrums about the canon and its formation, but who has since thrown over the whole edifice – of the expectations of the sexual life and the life of community, both of consecration to chastity and virginity and within the family. Fr. Aidan in his book, What is the Religious Life sets out that what becomes the monasticism of Sts. Anthony and Pachomius, Cassian and Benedict, was all right there in the NT all along, just waiting for its explication in other instances. One must remember that the NT books were written for people living in larger towns, and not for monks per se; and thus when people left for the desert, they took with them the evangelical commands, already lived in the cities, into the wastes.

And so when someone wants to question the unity of the Fathers on any question, the real question should be does the answer emerge from within the unity that is Christ (are we talking about divergences between those practicing the evangelical commands in the town, or in the desert), variations on a theme, or are we seeking to invent a theme like Melkor, not merely a variation, but a whole new song, one producing Ungoliant and balrogs, one that contemns the good, the true, and the beautiful within Jerusalem, within the Church. To think within the tradition means first that one must learn, patiently and quietly, what the tradition thinks; but more importantly realize that we are not here to change the tradition, but rather it should change us. If we wish to assert our prerogative to sing off-key, then we will neither find the secret fire, nor escape the fate of Morgoth.


About Gary Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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2 Responses to Reading the Tradition with Morgoth

  1. marcus josephus says:

    Gary, I LOVE your Tolkien piece. I have completed a first “read through” and will do deep a “read into” soon. I strongly believe the work needs to see a larger audience if possible. Wonderful, encouraging, inspiring and all together thought provoking. It makes connections and teaches others to see other associations yearning to be cherished.

  2. Cyril Jenkins says:

    Thank you Marcus. Greatly appreciated.

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