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Heroism and the Journey of Sanctification – Bradley J. Birzer

July 11, 2012

J.R.R. Tolkien in a photograph by Billett Potter

As philosopher Eric Voegelin has argued, great thinkers have often provided their communities with an anamnesis, or the recovery of past encounters with transcendence. Aristotle, Cicero, and St. Augustine, for example, all served their contemporaries in this way.

Much as St. Augustine had, Tolkien confronted a world and culture that seemed to many on the verge of collapse. And, as with St. Augustine, Tolkien hoped that his myth would serve as an anamnesis, a return to right reason. Both Augustine and Tolkien viewed this world and its history as irredeemable through sheer human will or reason. In Tolkien’s mythology, as he stated in writings published posthumously, all of earth has been corrupted by Morgoth.

In the end, though, evil will fail to corrupt the good, which to Tolkien meant those saved and sanctified through Christ. Paraphrasing and baptizing the words of Cicero, St. Augustine wrote: “For the good man is neither uplifted with the good things of time, nor broken by its ills; but the wicked man, because he is corrupted by this world’s happiness, feels himself punished by its unhappiness.”

Aragorn speaks in a similar fashion when encountering the Riders of Rohan in The Two Towers. When one of the riders asks Aragorn how to discern right from wrong in complicated times, Aragorn responds: “As he ever has judged,” for “[g]ood and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.” To discern good and evil, and to suffer the ills of this world, serves to make one better, more sanctified, and more able to serve as a fire that “causes gold to glow brightly.”

For neither Tolkien nor St. Augustine does this fact mean that it despair one should simply abandon this world to the enemy and his allies or isolate oneself from society. To the contrary, one of the most prevalent and important themes in all of Tolkien’s work — whether; academic or fictional — is the importance of heroism, not as an act of will, but as a result of grace. Through his mystery, majesty, and grace, God allows evil to happen so that the good may do good. “Evil labors with vast power and perpetual success,” Tolkien wrote. Ultimately, though, evil works “in vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in.”‘ St. Augustine contended that the world ultimately destroyed the wicked, as they could not suffer reverses in the world they revered with too much pride.’

Tolkien believed that as a part of one’s preparation for heaven, or. one’s sanctification, one should perform acts of Christian heroism. For Tolkien, that meant doing God’s will and being a part of Christ’s army. As the great medieval theologian Hugh of St. Victor described, it:

For the Incarnate Word is our King, who came into this world to war with the devil; and all the saints who were before His coming are soldiers as it were, going before their King, and those who have come after and will come, even to the end of the world, are soldiers following their King. And the King himself is in the midst of His army and proceeds protected and surrounded on all sides by His columns. And although in a multitude as vast as this the kind of arms different in the sacraments and the observance of the peoples preceding and following, yet all are really serving the one king and following the one banner; all are pursuing the one enemy and are being crowned by the one victory.

Christ’s army is “the church” traversing time and space, the continuance of Christ incarnate. James Patrick claims that Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring is the mythological equivalent of the church, “moving across the dark landscape, enduring every privation, frightened but full of courage, fulfilling the providence of God.” The church’s many parts, the unique gifts and the bearers of those gifts, collectively form the body of Christ.

While God may not be directly visible at all times, he is always and intimately involved in the formation and guidance of his Church and his creation. As we saw in the previous chapter, Tolkien firmly believed that God intervenes directly and indirectly in the real world, as well as in Tolkien’s subcreated world. The Silmarillion, for example, provides a mythical account of God’s creation and intervention in the affairs of men. Iluvatar works through his agents, specifically the loyal Valar and Maiar. Iluvatar, though, distributes his gifts of grace to all his servants — Valar, Maiar, Elves, men, Dwarves, and hobbits. And he distributes them in surprising ways, ways known only to him, which makes life endlessly complex and fascinating.

The “great policies of world history,” Tolkien wrote, “are often turned not by the Lords and the Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak — owing to the secret life in creation, and the part unknowable to all wisdom but One, that resides in the intrusions of the Children of God into the Drama.” Thus, within Morgoth’s ring — that is, Arda itself — Iluvatar depends on his army to do his will. He aids them directly at times, relying on the “Flame Imperishable,” Tolkien’s mythological equivalent of the Holy Spirit, to spark creativity and the moral imagination in his creation. But ultimately, whether through his gifts of grace or direct intervention, all good activities come from Iluvatar alone.

All this Tolkien thought clear enough, which is why he was frustrated by readers who failed to find God in his mythology. The “religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism,” Tolkien explained to a Jesuit friend. One may find God in the plot itself. Indeed, the elements of true Christian heroism are severally represented in the four major characters of The Lord of the Rings: Gandalf, the prophet; Aragorn, the king; Frodo, the priest; and Sam, the common man and servant. 

An Australian academic, Barry Gordon, was the first critic to demonstrate the presence of the Christian offices of priest, prophet, and king in Tolkien’s work. Tolkien forwarded Gordon’s article, “Kingship, Priesthood and Prophecy in The Lord of the Rings” to Clyde Kilby. Tolkien admitted in the letter to Kilby that the Gordon thesis was true, but that such a scheme had been unconscious on Tolkien’s part.”

In his own notes expounding on the Gordon thesis, Kilby wrote: “M-e.[Middle-earth] is saved through the priestly self-sacrifice of the hobbit Frodo, thru wisdom and guidance of Gandalf and mastery of Aragorn, heir of kings. Also forces beyond these. As each agent responds to his `calling’ he grows in power and grace. Each  becomes increasingly `Christian.” In other words, Tolkien echoes Christian teaching in that once one accepts one’s specific calling or vocation and employs one’s gifts for the good of the Body of Christ, the journey of sanctification begins.

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