Finding God in the Lord of the Ringsby Kurt Bruner, Jim Ware
Recently named the number-one piece of twentieth century literature, The Lord of the Rings trilogy is more than a great story. It's a much-needed reminder that, like J. R. R. Tolkien's hobbits, we Christians are all on an epic quest. In examining the Christian themes in the trilogy, authors Kurt Bruner and Jim Ware find that truth and fiction are not as far apart as… See more details below
Recently named the number-one piece of twentieth century literature, The Lord of the Rings trilogy is more than a great story. It's a much-needed reminder that, like J. R. R. Tolkien's hobbits, we Christians are all on an epic quest. In examining the Christian themes in the trilogy, authors Kurt Bruner and Jim Ware find that truth and fiction are not as far apart as they seem. And that although Tolkien never intended for these books to present the gospel, when read in the light of Scripture they offer a rich tapestry of redemption, values, and faith against all odds from which we may learn much.
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Finding God in the Lord of the Rings
By Kurt Bruner Jim Ware
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2001 Kurt Bruner
All right reserved.
The world was fair, the mountains tall In Elder Days before the fall. (Gimli's song-Book II, Chapter 4)
There is a deep yearning among the Fellowship of the Ring, an unspoken longing for something long lost. None have known it in their lifetimes. Few can recite the tales of its splendor. But all desire its discovery and hope to play a part in its restoration.
Throughout their adventure, characters from Bilbo to Treebeard recite verses of what they sense is an epic tale being told, a tale in which their lives somehow play a part. Each song seems to be merely a fragment of a majestic symphony being written and conducted by an all-knowing composer. But, as the chorus of Gimli reveals, something is wrong. Part of the harmony isn't right, like a dissonant chord invading the sweet melody of life, refusing resolution.
Middle-earth is in its third age as the adventures of the Fellowship begin. There is considerable history to this world, as revealed in the legends of Elder Days. Elves, dwarves, men, and hobbits alike know that theirs is a story that predates the present scene, preserved and passed in tales of ancient lore. Gimli's chorus tells of life "before the fall" when the beloved homeland of his dwarf ancestors was full of splendor and light, not dark and foreboding as they find it now. Gimli's heart pines for glories long past when his people knew better days, before the fall of their blessed domain. A yearning heart is fitting. The wise know that before time was counted a rebellion occurred that brought evil into their world and introduced discord to the music of life. This rebellion was the driving force behind the song of the Dark Lord now heard in the march of orcs and the movements of the Black Riders. Awakened by the diminished sounds of beauty, honor, and goodness stubbornly pushing their way through the noisy clatter of evil, the inhabitants of Middle-earth hope for the day when all will again be set right.
You and I, like Gimli and others of Tolkien's world, long for better days. We somehow know that our world is less than it was made to be. And we hope that it will one day be set right again. In short, we yearn for the goodness that was "before the fall."
Why do we find it so difficult to accept the world as it is? Are we merely discontent, or is something more profound at work in our hearts? C. S. Lewis believed that our desire for something better is a gift, a way of reminding us of what it is we lost and what it is we hope to regain. "Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists," Lewis explains. "A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world."
What is the real thing our yearnings suggest? Put simply, it is goodness. We desire the kind of all-consuming goodness that we've never known but that once existed and will someday be restored.
We live in a broken world. Death, pain, sickness, and suffering were not part of life's original melody. These dissonant chords were first introduced when our race took the bait of temptation and fell from its former glory. Once upon a time, mankind was offered a choice. We could sing the good song of the great composer or follow the opposing melody of his enemy. We chose the latter. And when we rejected the good that God is, we embraced the bad that he isn't.
Evil entered Tolkien's world before the dawn of time. That story, told in the opening pages of The Silmarillion, sets the stage for choices later made by those who would inhabit Middle-earth. It starts with Ilúvatar, maker of all that would be. His first creations were Ainur, angelic beings described as "the offspring of his thought." To each Ainur, Ilúvatar assigned themes of music that would be sung for his honor and pleasure.
Then Ilúvatar said to them: "Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music ... ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song."
The beauty of their music is that for which all creation yearns. It is the original chorus which "the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy" as revealed to a suffering Job (Job 38:7). It is the true melody, the "good" that once was. It is the world as it was intended before the birth of evil. The story continues:
But now Ilúvatar sat and hearkened, and for a great while it seemed good to him, for in the music there were no flaws. But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.
Sadly, the sound of Melkor's evil theme increased as some "began to attune their music to his rather than to the thought which they had at first."
Seldom have more graceful words been penned to reflect a Christian understanding of Satan's revolt and its eventual impact upon God's creation. Tolkien's world, like ours, knows the dissonance of an opposing melody. It knows the insatiable appetite of a rebellion that seeks to destroy the good that should rightfully rule.
Tolkien saw our world as neither completely right nor completely wrong, but rather as a good that has been violated, a beauty marred. He realized that the only way we can understand that which occurs within time is to view it within the context of that which occurred before and beyond time.
Though our world is broken, there is good news. It will not always be so. The story of history, like that of Middle-earth, is progressing toward eventual redemption. Even that which seeks to undermine good will one day play a part in its restoration. As Ilúvatar foretold,
And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.
And so Ilúvatar, after the pattern of the biblical Jehovah, produces a drama performed in the theater of time. Its story will become the visible expression of the Ainur's chorus, including the song of a simple hobbit and the discord of an evil rebel. And somehow, the former will resolve the latter.
Reflection Our hearts yearn for the good that God is.
"I might find somewhere where I can finish my book. I have thought of a nice ending for it: and he lived happily ever after to the end of his days." (Bilbo to Gandalf-Book I, Chapter 1)
It was time. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End needed to leave the Shire. But it wasn't his style to slip away unnoticed under cover of darkness. After all, Bilbo was famous in these parts. A quiet departure just wouldn't do. A party was the thing, a celebration of Bilbo's life on the eve of his disappearance. And what better occasion than his 111th birthday? So, invitations sent and accepted, Bilbo hosted the biggest gala ever seen among the simple folk of Hobbiton.
There was much to celebrate. After all, it was quite unusual for a hobbit to live such a long and healthy life as Bilbo Baggins had. For some mysterious reason, he hadn't seemed to age a day since turning fifty. Though time had left its unkind mark on everyone else, an unexplained youthful vigor had remained with Bilbo ever since his return to Hobbiton. Perhaps the adventure of his younger days had brought with it more than mere wealth.
His quest had certainly given Bilbo Baggins a wonderful story to tell, a story he had been writing in his book. Whether many would ever read the book was of little concern to Bilbo. He simply felt the need to put it down so that future generations could know what happened to and through him. Sent off on a grand adventure at the bidding of Gandalf the wizard, Bilbo had acquired a magic ring. Though he didn't understand all of its powers, he knew that the ring was of great significance. When worn, it made him invisible, a very useful trick when fighting giant spiders or freeing jailed warriors. And it would be useful again as Bilbo planned to vanish from the Shire in style. Which he does, literally. At the end of his speech thanking those in attendance and bidding them good-bye, Bilbo Baggins disappears. He slips the magic ring on his finger and simply vanishes. He quite enjoys the trick and the animated talk it inspires.
With the fun over and Gandalf present to advise and guide, Bilbo knows that the final pages of his chapter are being turned. After he entrusts the Baggins fortune and magic ring to the keeping of his young nephew Frodo, it's time to leave.
He looks forward to the time he might now have to complete his book, a tale that Bilbo hopes will go on "happily ever after to the end of his days." But there's no way to know. Past adventures have taught him that the scenes of his life are serving a much bigger story than his could ever express. And while Bilbo may be the star of his tale, he is not its author.
Once upon a time, we understood our lives to be part of a grand story being written by the divine author of history. But a dark yearning for autonomy and a nihilistic nudge from Nietzsche pushed us over the edge of sanity. God, the omniscient playwright, was declared dead. Now no one knows the plot to the epic drama in which we find ourselves, leaving us with competing small stories but no overarching narrative that frames and explains the seemingly random experiences of life.
Let's face it, we all wish we could write the scenes of our own stories. Like Bilbo Baggins, we want them to read "and he lived happily ever after to the end of his days." But deep down we know that we are not the authors of the events that shape our lives. Bilbo did not seek, and only reluctantly accepted, the invitation to adventure that launched his extraordinary tale of risk and reward. As Gandalf expressed to Bilbo in the closing conversation of The Hobbit, his quest had been orchestrated by another for a greater purpose.
Surely you don't disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!
Bilbo's adventure was part of a much bigger story that began long before his first breath and would continue well beyond his last. This realization elevated rather than minimized the importance of his part. But this could only happen if Mr. Baggins was honest and humble enough to embrace an important truth: that the big part he played in his small story was only a small part in the big story.
"My tongue is the pen of a skillful writer," writes the psalmist in Psalm 45:1, beautifully expressing a reality Bilbo learned and we would do well to recover. Bilbo knew he was not the author but the instrument. The pen does not become arrogant or proud over what is written on the page. It is honored to have played any part at all in the creative act. It is when we struggle to take control and resist the author's intentions that we mar the story being told. Pride is not satisfied with anything less than the starring role. It grasps for more, seeking to write its own tale. But the humble heart has a very different view of life. It considers the warning "God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble" (James 4:6, NKJV).
It heeds the admonition "Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand...."
And it reaps the benefits: "... that he may lift you up in due time" (1 Peter 5:6).
So, for hobbit and human alike, recognizing that our small stories serve a much larger purpose can turn ordinary details of the daily grind into scenes of an extraordinary adventure! And what better way for your "once upon a time" to discover its ultimate "happily ever after"?
The scenes of your life serve a story much bigger than your own.
"This ring! ... How, how on earth did it come to me?" (Frodo to Gandalf-Book I, Chapter 2)
It had happened in just this same way to his uncle Bilbo, Frodo reflected. Well, perhaps not exactly the same way; but the similarities were striking. He had heard the story many times from the old hobbit himself: Bilbo had been standing outside the round green door to his hobbit hole one fine morning, contentedly smoking a pipe and minding his own business, when along came Gandalf. The result? Staid, stolid, stay-at-home Bilbo had ended up doing unthinkable things, things that no sensible, respectable Baggins would ever have dreamed of doing. A Took, perhaps. But a Baggins? Never.
And now this same Gandalf was back at Bag End again. Sitting there before the fire in Frodo's study, puffing out smoke rings, watching him out of thin-slitted, heavy-lidded, bushy-browed eyes, waiting. Waiting for Frodo's answer.
Frodo fingered the Ring where it lay in his pocket on the end of its chain. It felt heavy, heavier than a small ring of gold had any right to be. Far heavier than it had felt just half an hour earlier. He stared into the fire's dying embers and shivered, thinking over everything Gandalf had just told him about this terrible ring. The One Ring. The Ring of Power. Long believed lost, now earnestly and desperately sought by its maker, the dreaded Dark Lord. The Ring that threatened to overpower everyone and everything, to change Middle-earth forever. The Ring that had somehow landed in Frodo's pocket.
There is only one way, he heard Gandalf saying again. One way to save the Shire. One way to destroy the Ring before Sauron can seize it and use it for his own ends: Frodo must find Mount Orodruin in the dark land of Mordor and cast the cursed thing into the Cracks of Doom. And how was he-a simple hobbit of the Shire-supposed to do that?
Not that Frodo was a stay-at-home.
Excerpted from Finding God in the Lord of the Rings by Kurt Bruner Jim Ware Copyright ©2001 by Kurt Bruner. Excerpted by permission.
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