A phrase uttered during one of the Conference talks triggered an almost completely unrelated epiphany for me.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is arguably the greatest fantasy work of the 20th century. I first read it at age 15, after having read The Hobbit; loved it; and was delighted to find that my English literature master at the Jedi Academy decorated her classroom with a fair amount of Tolkien artwork. However, I was disappointed to find that Tolkien was not on the syllabus for her Advanced Placement English class. At the time, I attributed this to the necessity of teaching to the test: Studying Tolkien was not going to help get me admitted to the Jedi Temple, and it wasn’t going to appear on the Advanced Placement test, so, no matter how much she personally loved Tolkien, we weren’t going to take time for him in class. No doubt there was some truth to this. I was inclined also to think that whoever made up the Advanced Placement syllabus was a snotty elitist who sneered at mere fantasy, when there was important substantive literature like The Horses’ Mouth to read. (N.B. That was a snark. This dreadful work would more properly have been named for the other end of the horse.) No doubt there was some truth to this as well.
It did not occur to me that a lengthy trilogy might simply be too long to be assigned to a high school English class. (I offer as excuse for this intellectual oversight the fact that we were assigned Pride and Prejudice, which brilliantly succeeds in packing at least a trilogy’s worth of tedium into a single volume.) I have since come to admire the genius of Tolkien, who by writing The Hobbit as a children’s book (albeit a prizewinning one embraced by critics) and The Lord of the Rings as a rather lengthy trilogy (which we sometimes forget was not as well received by critics at the time, which says more about the critics than Tolkien) ensured that neither would be assigned reading for unwilling students who would detest them for that reason alone.
However, the immense popularity of Tolkien’s writings has ensured that there is a massive scholarly literature on Tolkiana, with which I freely admit I am only slightly acquainted. And perhaps that’s as well: When Peter Jackson’s movies came out, I was given the complete boxed set of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as a birthday present (fittingly, on Someone Else’s birthday). This particular edition included a foreword by a Berkeley professor named Peter Beagle, who I had never heard of before and hope never to hear of again, whose forward was a massive exercise in completely missing the point in pursuit of his own agenda. One would never guess from the forward that Tolkien was a devout Catholic who wrote his books for the express purpose of helping elevate the moral imaginations of his readers. (Incidentally, I did the obvious thing to improve the moral character of my boxed set, with the aid of a fresh razor blade.)
The jump from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings is an easy one, even if some critics were unable to negotiate it. The jump from The Lord of the Rings to The Silmarillion is much harder. I don’t know anyone who has ever said anything substantial about The Silmarillion who has not worked the word “difficult” into his description of it. I first took on The Silmarillion at age 17, with mixed success, but I sensed that there was something rather more profound to The Silmarillion than Tolkien’s earlier and finished works, and I have revisited it many times.
Tolkien never completed The Silmarillion. He apparently had it in a form he was ready to tidy up for publication at one point, but his publisher balked, and he never quit revising it. His son put his notes together after Tolkien’s death and produced the published version, noting in the introduction that a fair amount of editing was necessary, because the later versions were inconsistent in tone, reflecting a fair amount of “theological speculations.” As if that was a bad thing.
The fact is that The Silmarillion is a profound work of Christian philosophy, albeit in disguise.
There is a creation myth, and a rather beautiful one, cast in terms of a great Music: Ainulindalie. Hidden in this myth is an answer to the problem of evil, though this thought is only fully developed in the narrative of Quenta Silmarillion, the Silmarillion proper, in the story of the rebellion of the Noldor:
… when the messengers declared to Manwe the answers of Feanor to his heralds, Manwe wept and bowed his head. But at the last word of Feanor: that at least the Noldor should do deeds to live in song for ever, he raised his head, as one that hers a voice far off, and he said: “So shall it be! Dear-bought those songs shall be accounted, and yet shall be well-bought. For the price could be no other. Thus even as Eru spoke to us shall beauty not before conceived be brought into Ea, and evil be good to have been.”
Not that Tolkien has forgotten that the problem of evil is meant to be unresolvable in this life.
But Mandos said: “And yet remain evil. To me shall Feanor come soon.”
The ties to Christian philosophy are abundant in The Silmarillion. A creation marred by a rebellion in Heaven; original sin; an evil Cosmocrator against whom the angels themselves hesitate to intervene; more than one Flood-like cosmic catastrophe; a world in which all hopes eventually come to ruin, until the final apocalyptic triumph of good. Jackson’s brilliant if imperfect film adaption of The Two Towers was particularly successful at capturing the despair of this world, in a way that, for me, on my first viewing, had a very authentic 1940-1941 feel to it.
The climax of The Silmarillion is, and was clearly meant to be, The Lay of Leithian, which Tolkien gives the alternate title Release from Bondage. This is a love story, clearly modeled on Tolkien’s own courtship of his wife, Edith, which met with considerable outside opposition. (Further evidence is that the Tokiens’ gravestones have the names Beren and Luthien engraved under their proper names.) The consummation of Beren and Luthien’s love first requires the completion of an impossible quest, which somehow miraculously succeeds. Nevertheless, the story does not seem to end well. Though Beren and Luthien succeed in recovering a Silmaril as dowry for their wedding, and Beren slays the wolf-demon unleashed during the quest, the wolf-demon in turn slays Beren:
They bore back Beren Camlost son of Barahir upon a bier of branches with Huan the wolfhound at his side; and night fell ere they returned to Menegroth. At the feet of Hirilorn the great beech Luthien met them walking slow, and some bore torches beside the bier. There she set her arms about Beren, and kissed him, bidding him await her beyond the Western Sea; and he looked upon her eyes ere the spirit left him. But the starlight was quenched and darkness had fallen even upon Luthien Tinuviel.
But then comes the most significant single sentence of the climactic tale of The Silmarillion:
Thus ended the Quest of the Silmaril; but the Lay of Leithian, Release from Bondage, does not end.
There follows a recasting of the Orpheus myth. The spirit of Beren tarries in the halls of Mandos, unwilling to leave the world, until Luthien joins him for her last farewell. But instead Luthien sings a song so powerful and so sorrowful that even Mandos is moved to pity, and Beren and Luthien are resurrected for a time, to leave their children in Middle-earth, before finally leaving the world together forever.
Tolkien’s friend, C.S. Lewis, cloaked in his orthodoxy a number of unorthodox speculations that are surprisingly at home in Mormonism. Tolkien professed to despise allegory and refused to ever be pat in his writings, but one cannot help wonder what he would have thought, privately and against Catholic orthodoxy, of the Mormon doctrine of eternal marriage. But even without that element, Tolkien has written a powerful statement that the story does not end here. And that is a very Christian message.