Dagger in hand

A man of prodigious fortune, coming to add his opinion to some light discussion that was going on casually at his table, began precisely thus: "It can only be a liar or an ignoramus who will say otherwise than," and so on. Pursue that philosophical point, dagger in hand.

--Michel de Montaigne, Of the art of discussion.

Stab back: cmnewman99-at-yahoo.com


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Friday, December 27, 2002
Her Pinkness has posted some incisive (as is her wont) and non-geekly impressions of Two Towers, and raised some interesting questions about Tolkien and Christianity. I'd respond, but I'm going to be working late tonight as it is. Hopefully soon.

UPDATE: Okay, here goes.

I can well imagine that reading The Hobbit for the first time as an adolescent would turn one off to Tolkien, and in fact know of a few other people for whom that was the case. I was introduced to it by my second grade teacher. It’s a kid’s book, and even though LoTR is a continuation of the “same” story, the two books are on very different planes. (I must say that I look forward to reading about Diane’s hippie phase--even if the weed was insufficient to engender a love of all creatures small and furry-footed.)

I agree that Gollum is the most compelling character in the film. I’m not sure what you mean by “Spielbergian overtones,” though. Are you saying he reminded you of E.T. or something? “Smeagol phone home. Need precious. Ouch.” Not something that had occurred to me. The character as portrayed in the film is pure Tolkien, at least insofar as his personalit(ies) and speech patterns are concerned. I don’t know that I necessarily imagined his voice sounding quite that high pitched. I always thought he was more guttural, more hissing, and that the onomatopoeic “gollum” sound was more of an uncomfortable swallow than the expectoration Serkis went for. I think he did a fantastic job bringing the character to life, though, and found his interpretation believable and compelling.

I learned long ago that if I don’t allow myself to enjoy anything by a musician or actor unless they have sensible political views, I’ll have a pretty sterile life. So I don’t really care about Viggo’s comments either. Apparently he’s just back from filming on location in some Muslim country where he went very native just like he did during LoTR. Only instead of sleeping in the woods with his sword he was drinking up anti-American conspiracy theory. Whatever. I have to say, though, that while I have qualms about the way the part is written, I disagree with you about Viggo’s performance. I think that the way he delivers most of his lines projects inner depth in spades. Now it may be that I’m merely projecting the depth I already associate with the character, but I don’t think just any performance would enable me to do that. Look at his scene with Eowyn. “I do not think that will be your fate.” His demeanor is understated, respectful, courtly--he speaks without a trace of a leer or a smirk (as any contemporary action hero would have), and yet this brief exchange is charged with erotic appreciation. (Or am I projecting again?) Aragorn is a guy walking around with the weight of the world on his shoulders, who has spent decades like an itinerant sword-slinging Thoreau, and I think Viggo has it down. The only thing that sometimes strikes me as out of character is the slight swagger in his step, those moments (like that lingering shot of him pushing open the doors to the keep) where he’s just a bit too aware how cool (and hot) he looks. But he keeps it under control, so I don’t mind. He allows just enough swagger to leaven what might otherwise be a case of terminal earnestness, yet he delivers the lines with utter seriousness and conviction. I really can't ask too much more of him.

Now for the more interesting question. I must preface by saying that I am far from the most qualified to talk about Tolkien’s Christianity, a topic on which I have no doubt that numerous master’s theses have been written. During the period when I was immersed in these books I was myself a practicing (perhaps even believing) Catholic, but I never really linked the two. I do have a few initial musings on the topic however, which I will share for whatever they may be worth. [Warning: what follows will have some spoilers, though I’ll try not to give away the farm.]

LoTR clearly is not a Christian story in any express sense. Christ does not exist in the cosmology of Middle Earth, nor is there any analogous character in whom the heroes are asked to have faith. Gandalf undergoes a resurrection of sorts, but he is hardly a Christ-figure. He is merely a servant of the powers that be--a powerful one, but certainly not part of the godhead, and not able to save anyone’s soul except through good advice. He’s more like a souped-up prophet than a messiah. Aragorn is probably a closer analogy, and he definitely has Christ-like qualities. He is the royal son of a long lost ancestor (father) of legendary power. Yet he comes without trappings of power, a mere woodsman of humble mien. He is also a healer of near miraculous skill. In the last book he essentially raises an army from the dead, and his ultimate strategy in fighting Sauron is a huge act of self-sacrifice. If you look at the way Jackson has set up his story, the parallel is even more obvious, as Aragorn has been saddled with the task of redeeming the race of men from the Original Sin of his ancestor Isildur. So the overtones are definitely there. But Aragorn is not a god in human form, and there’s no suggestion that faith in him personally is a road to personal salvation. If by Christian, then, you mean something that suggests the “flickering possibility of redemption through belief in Christ,” I don’t think LoTR is a Christian book. (There are others who may disagree, such as this guy.)

Leaving aside faith and turning to morality, one can certainly find Christian themes present. Probably the most significant moral admonition contained in the book is Gandalf’s rebuke of Frodo when he wishes that Bilbo had killed Gollum. “Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many live who deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.” (I’m quoting from memory here, so it may not be exact.) Frodo’s choice to forgive and trust Gollum is the most significant and fateful one in the book. It is Frodo’s faith in the possibility of Gollum’s redemption that ultimately saves the day. (The wonderful twist, of course, is that it saves the day even though it proves to be ill-founded.) To the extent that this is regarded as a characteristically Christian ethic (I know Christians don’t really have a cornered market on forgiveness), one might say that this is a Christian book.

I note, however, that Gandalf’s admonition is actually a subtle inversion of Christ’s message, and to my mind a telling one. Christ says, “Do not judge, lest ye be judged.” “He who is without sin may cast the first stone.” The emphasis is on knowledge of one’s own guilt, which robs one of any moral authority to judge others. But Gandalf doesn’t tell Frodo not to judge Gollum because Frodo is a sinner himself. In fact, he doesn’t tell Frodo not to judge at all--he doesn’t even tell him not to deal out death in judgment. He merely tells him not to do so without thinking long and hard about the limits on his ability to foresee what role a person may have yet to play, and the impossibility of rectifying a mistake once death has been dealt. Even the wise cannot foresee all ends. I think the difference is important, because Gandalf’s version avoids the moral debilitation that so often follows from the “judge not” ethos when it’s taken seriously. What, after all, is the crux of the non-constructive antiwar position Viggo and others have been spouting if not a reflexive application of Christ’s admonition. All one needs to do is show some people that the U.S.’s slate is not clean, and they immediately conclude that we cannot possibly have any right to cast stones. It takes a more subtle thinker like Gandalf to point out the perils of judgment without pretending that judgment is a responsibility we can shirk.

The other big Christian theme I see in Tolkien is the idea of a world in which evil exists and acts as a free agent, yet serves despite itself to help fulfill a divinely preordained end. I alluded to this above with regard to the role played by Gollum, and it’s quite explicit in Tolkien’s invented mythology. Next time you’re in Borders, Diane, pick up and read the beginning of The Silmarillion. This is where Tolkien gives his version of the creation myth. It’s quite beautiful, and will probably appeal to someone who loves music as much as you do. In Tolkien’s cosmos, there is ultimately only one God (Iluvatar), but he creates a series of lesser god-like creatures (Ainur, or Valar), who are like a cross between archangels and Greco-Roman gods. In the beginning, the main purpose of these lesser gods is to act as the musicians who will play the divine music Iluvatar has in his head. The Lucifer of this tale, named Melkor (Morgoth), is kind of like a jazz musician caught in a philharmonic. Like Milton’s Lucifer, he’s not an entirely unsympathetic fellow despite the fact that he’s the source and embodiment of all evil. But try as Melkor might to make his own music, Iluvatar keeps coming up with deeper musical themes that co-opt and integrate his improvisations into a larger whole. And the world of Middle Earth comes into being as a physical embodiment of this struggle that has already been expressed and played out in the music. I actually think it would be quite interesting to compare the Silmarillion with Paradise Lost as a way of getting at Tolkien’s theological ideas. (And I am pleased to discover that a greater literary mind than mine thought such a comparison not inappropriate. Thanks to Spleenville for the link.) But that's not something I'm about to attempt tonight, or any time soon.

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