I was introduced to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien when I was a freshman in high school. This was decades before the movie version came out and even before the books had become popular in the United States. I found a great beauty in Tolkien’s books and for many years after I read the whole series each year during the holidays.
Tolkien’s works are fantasy and I don’t think fantasy should be taken too seriously. I do, however, think that The Lord of the Rings is deeper than many literary people give it credit for being. The depth of the work, I would suggest, comes in part from the spirituality that underlies it — a spirituality that is certainly influenced by Christianity, but is also quite universal in its essentials.
Temptation and Will
One aspect of the spirituality in The Lord of the Rings has to do with temptation and the will to battle it. The ring, with its irresistible pull, is like the mother of all compulsions, bad habits and addictions. Frodo’s struggles with the ring is front and center to this theme. As an example, in The Two Towers, in the chapter titled “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol,” there is a scene where one of the dark riders is passing Frodo. The ring seeks to betray its presence to this “ringwraith.” Tolkien writes: “as Frodo watched with his mind, not willing it but in suspense…it moved the hand inch by inch toward the chain upon his neck [which holds the ring]. Then his own will stirred; slowly it moved the hand back and set it to find another thing, a thing lying hidden near his breast…the phial of Galadriel.” Allegorically the ring can substitute for any of our addictions and habits, and this scene seems to me a good description of a successful battle with temptation.
The characters of Sauron and Gandalf bring to the forefront another aspect of this theme. One of Sauron’s powers is to create a feeling of despair; Gandalf has the reverse power of helping people resist the temptation to despair and rekindling hope and courage. That Tolkien was conceiving these works during England’s darkest days of World War II, gives a special context to this power to resist fear and despair, but it is also pertinent to any age.
Sauron, of course, is akin to the devil or demons common to various religions, and Gandalf is akin to the angels. I grew up Catholic and attended eight years of Catholic grade school. I was indoctrinated with the notion of sin, temptation, will power, and the saving grace of prayer. Behind all this was the mythology (though we were told it was reality) of devils and angels. We were encouraged to wear scapulars or religious medals close to our heart, and much like Frodo clutching the vial of Galadriel, we were to clutch our medal or scapular to remind us our resolution to fight sin. While the mythology of Christianity currently has little resonance with me, the training in self-governance that I received from those years has kept me in good stead. And while I do not believe in angels, I do find that there is a kind of hidden power in our soul that can be called upon to give us strength when we feel like giving up.
Before leaving the theme of temptation, there is one more example I would like to briefly explore. For people who have only seen the movie version of The Lord of the Rings, the scene in Lorien where Galadriel holds counsel with Frodo and Sam must seem rather strange. The movie provides little context for Galadriel’s actions and words. Even the book version does not provide the full context. But in the appendices at the end of The Return of the King and in The Silmarillion we learn that Galadriel’s character flaw is the desire for power. This flaw she shares with her ancestors who were exiled from the Far West due largely to their pride and aggression. Though sharing in this exile, Galadriel was always torn by her love of the world and its beauty and her desire for power. Through the ages of Middle Earth she steadfastly pitted her will against the will of Sauron, and thus served in the protection of beauty and harmony against chaos and destruction.
With this background, we can better understand the scene where Galadriel finally is offered the ring of power by Frodo. A part of her had obviously long desired such an opportunity, yet she is able to resist this temptation and in doing so to finally relinquish her desire for power. Having done so, she knows that the condition of her exile has been lifted and that she can return to the Far West.
Along with strength of will, the value of wisdom is also integral to the underlying spirituality of The Lord of the Rings. In his depiction of the elves, Tolkien presents one aspect of that wisdom. Although I’m sure Tolkien never intended it this way, I find the elves to be the embodiment of Taoist wisdom. Like the Taoist sage, the elves, for the most part, are free of the discontent that so affects humans. They love the natural world and govern their lives in harmony with it. They dedicate their creative powers to fashioning things of beauty that enhance the natural world without damaging it. Their dwellings bring to mind the dwellings in the great Taoist landscapes — habitations in harmony with their environment. All of this, like the ideal government of the Tao Te Ching, is so at odds with our actual world that “fantasy” is an apt term for it. But it does bring to mind the kind of world beings who were born with inner contentment might create. And in doing so reminds us of the degree that the world we have in fact created is borne of our discontentment.
While the elves present a certain possibility of a wiser form of being, it is in the character of the wizards that the theme of wisdom plays out most clearly. In the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien tells us that there were five “wizards” sent to Middle Earth to help its inhabitants battle Sauron. We only meet three of these in any Tolkien text, so what happened to the other two is one of those interesting questions that Tolkien enthusiasts can speculate about endlessly. Of the three wizards we do meet, only Gandalf stays true to his mission, which is to provide guidance, resolution, and encouragement in the battle with Sauron.
In relation to the question of wisdom, the contrast between Gandalf and Saruman is especially relevant. Gandalf the Gray genuinely cares for the inhabitants of Middle Earth, particularly the hobbits and elves. This love, it would seem, is what keeps him true to his mission. Saruman, on the other hand, has no real affection for the humble beings of Middle Earth. He takes up his dwelling in a high tower. Without contact or affection with the beings he was sent to aid, he becomes susceptible to the corrupting influence of power, and ultimately is crushed by it.
Gandalf represents a kind of ideal of wisdom, love and willful resolution. Without love, willfulness can become the pursuit of worldly power, and wisdom can degenerate into the pursuit of strategies to obtain that power, as happens with Saruman. Gandalf is humble and humbleness is universally a virtue in spiritual traditions. Indeed, a spiritual life is the alternative to the pursuit of power. Gandalf is not tempted by the ring and its power.
Before leaving the topic of the wizards, just a short note on the third wizard, Radagast. His failure is not a failure of love, for he deeply loves the animals, particularly the birds of Middle Earth. But that love makes him forget that he was sent to Middle Earth to aid the Children of Iluvatar, the men and elves. I find it easy to sympathize with Radagast’s failure, as I often find it easier to love animals than to love people. But I also recognize this as something of a failing in myself, one that I need to resist.
There is a great deal more that can be said about the spirituality underpinning The Lord of the Rings, but the themes of self-governance under the aspect of love and a humble wisdom are central to it. One might wonder why I don’t include the conflict between good and evil that underlies the work, but I feel that theme is treated too simplistically to provide any new insights to our understanding of the topic.
Spirituality of any kind is largely absent from our popular entertainments, so the nuanced spiritual vision in the books and even the movie version of The Lord of the Rings is a rare and welcome gift. It is not easy to teach young people about such things as battling temptation, especially outside of a religious context. If nothing else, The Lord of the Rings provides an opportunity for parents to introduce and discuss moral and spiritual issues with their children without the trappings of a traditional religion.
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