Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Beyond the Circles of the World

“We are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.” These are the last words of Aragorn, spoken to his wife Arwen. (From The Lord of the Rings, appendix A, a part of the tale of Aragorn and Arwen, by J. R. R. Tolkien)

J. R. R. Tolkien died just a little more than 35 years ago. I remember reading a brief obituary at the time in a national magazine whose title I have forgotten. A short time after that I received a note from a friend that closed, “P.S. Sorry about Tolkien.”

I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when the latter was in its second wave of popularity—the mid-1960s. As C. S. Lewis’ imagination had been “baptized” when in 1915 he first read Phantastes by George MacDonald, these works of Tolkien transfigured my imagination and more. I still recall purchasing The Silmarillion when it was first published, and opening the cover over lunch at a restaurant near the church where I was working at the time. I smiled grandly, though I was alone, as I began to read.

A few years ago, taking advantage of the Prayer Book’s permission to add commemorations to the calendar, I placed Tolkien, Lewis, and Charles Williams into our cycle of annual observations. (Subsequently, Lewis was officially added to the Episcopal calendar.) I had to come up with psalms, other readings, and a collect (suitable prayer) for each entry. I recall that the selections and compositions I made for Tolkien were easy. The day I chose for his commemoration was September 3, the day after the date of his death on September 2, 1973. (September 2 was already taken; on that day we commemorate the martyrs of New Guinea.)

As I celebrated the Mass today and preached on the lessons, it came to mind why I am so affected by the writings of Tolkien. He himself, as far as I can conclude from various writings about him, could be rather a curmudgeon—maybe more easily hurt than most, bothered by grudges, a bit of a complainer. He had a difficult life—his father died far away while his sons were still quite young, his mother was cast out of her family when she became a Roman Catholic. She also died while her sons were still small. Tolkien was raised in straitened circumstances, and even when he became a professor he was not well paid and often had to pinch pennies. He was traumatized, as were many young men of his generation, by the trench warfare of World War I.

With this background, where did his astonishing vision come from? Tolkien himself, an ardent Christian and daily communicant at Mass (which he experienced for most of his life in Latin), did not live a life often given to adventure, quest, peril, or heroism. He described himself once as “a hobbit”—preferring simple things like good food, fellowship, and the out of doors, and studiously avoiding adventure. Yet his vision—which he also described as intentionally “Christian and Catholic”—sets forth in incomparably rich and diverse myth the Gospel story of great events taking millennia to come to fruition, small heroes, gods and demons, goodness and evil, light and darkness, despair in which valiant action is still chosen, death and destiny, song and poetry, gold and silver and iron, magic and mystery, prophecy and choice and chance, rebellion and repentance, oath and power, battle (with many casualties and much cruelty) and serenity, fire and still water, sun and moon, dance and smoke rings, beauty and horror… but always, always the achievement of the will of Iluvatar (the “All-Father”) who is God.

In short, Tolkien opened my innermost heart to the saga of salvation, the elements by which our world was saved. He transformed for me, for ever, ordinary things like stars, shadows, moonlight, chill evening breezes, trees and leaves, the seasons of the year, gray clouds, firelight and brass and dark wood, so that they became portals into wonder, and therefore means by which I perceive the presence and activity of God.

Everything except mushrooms. Tolkien hasn’t made me like mushrooms.

Here is the prayer I wrote for the commemoration of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien:
Father of all, who inspired the heart and mind of your servant John Ronald Reuel Tolkien with visions of eternal goodness, truth, and beauty both on Earth and beyond the circles of this world: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be bold to resist evil and obedient to your call to humble service, knowing that in your plan it is most often by small things that the great events of salvation are brought about; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God in everlasting splendor.


Aristocles said...

Father David,

I, too, echo your sentiments, and want to thank you deeply for your prayer. Tolkien not only made the world at once mysterious and illuminating, but he made me appreciate history and names, nobility and peasantry, beer and tobacco, and certainly, as time has over and over confirmed, the love of mushrooms.


Joe King said...

Thank you Brother Father. It seems to me only yesterday,though more than a quarter century has passed, that the All Father used you in a simple way as my own portal to these eternal truths. And though some of us journey "beyond the circles of the world" sooner than others, I believe in the communion of saints.
~That Joe Guy