The Lord of the Rings – A Book Review – Part 2 – Tolkien’s Creation Story

The Lord of the Rings – A Book Review – Part 1

 

J. R. R. Tolkien was a devout Christian. He was a member of an informal Christian writer’s society called The Inklings that also included the likes of his old friend C. S. Lewis. In fact, Lewis and Tolkien had planned to divide between them a project to write fantasy and science fiction stories with a Christian world view.  Tolkien decided his story would go back to an earlier time and Lewis decided to go into outer space.

Getting back to Tolkien, when he started writing the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, he was able to set it in a world for which he had long ago written the Genesis story.  All of this background was finally published after his death by his son Christopher as the Silmarillion.  In this pre-history we are told that God (or as Tolkien called him Eru (The One) or Illuvatar (Father of All)) created the angels (the Ainur which are divided between the archangels (Valar) and the lesser angels (Maiar)).  Then He created the Universe (Ea) and particularly our world (Arda) and allowed the Ainur to build out the place where His children, the Elves and Men, would live.  Some of those Ainur were loyal to Illuvatar and some were corrupted with the idea of power over lesser beings.  The chief of these renegades was Melkor, originally the most powerful Valar, the equivalent of Lucifer.  He leads the fallen Ainur against the Valar and is defeated.  Later on, he is thought rehabilitated and brought back into the fold by the leader of the Valar, Manwe.

The Valar are supposed to teach the children of Illuvatar about Him and help them reach their potential in goodness.  And they attempt to do this with the Elves, the firstborn of the two races.  They bring them into the Blessed Realm where the Valar live and teach them the knowledge that they possess.  But even in this Blessed Realm, Melkor plots to destroy the happiness of the Elves and Valar.  He destroys the Trees that give light to Arda and steals the jewels, the Silmarils of Feanor, that contain the light of the trees.  Feanor, who is the most powerful and proudest of the Elves, disobeys the command of Manwe and sails from the Blessed Realm back to Middle Earth to defeat Melkor (or as he now names him Morgoth, Black Enemy of the World) and regain the Silmarils.  For this rebellion all of the Elves and Men in Middle Earth are left to the nonexistent mercy of Morgoth.  Essentially, they fight without the help of the Valar.

And in this rebellion of the Elves against the Valar is the start of the downfall of the world of Elves and Men.  For when Men appear, they too are drawn into wars against Morgoth and in these wars they all are thoroughly defeated and immiserated by the powers of evil beings.  Finally, a representative of Elves and Men, Earendil sails back to the Blessed Realm and successfully begs the Valar to defeat Morgoth and allow the peoples of Middle Earth to reclaim their lives.  And this is done.  Morgoth is defeated and cast out of Arda forever.

But in time evil reappears in the person of Morgoth’s lieutenant, Sauron.  He pretends to mend his ways but instead corrupts some of the Elves with the lure of knowledge and power and teaches them to forge rings of power.  Then he creates the One Ring to rule all of these lesser rings and makes war on Men and Elves for the mastery of Middle Earth.  But he is defeated by the Numenoreans.  These are the descendants of the Men who fought against Morgoth in that earlier war and were rewarded with a great island home, Numenor, halfway between Middle Earth and the Blessed Realm.  They were also rewarded with a lifespan three times that of mortal men.  They come to Middle Earth with a great army and defeat Sauron and take him captive.  But Sauron corrupts his captors too.  Fear of death was always the weakness of the Numenoreans.  They were friends of the Elves but they envied their virtually endless lifespan.  When the King of Numenor began to feel the end of his life approaching he gave heed to Sauron who told him he could wrest eternal life from the Valar by conquering the Blessed Realm.  When he attempts this war, the Valar, rather than be forced to kill Illuvatar’s children themselves, call on Him to act directly.  Illuvatar alters the world to remove the Blessed Realm from the physical plane of the world.  In fact, instead of a flat plane, the Earth now becomes a spherical globe from which only ships with special dispensation can any longer sail to the blessed Realm.  But this power is still reserved to the Elves in Middle Earth.  When they grow weary of the mortal lands, they can sail off the western shore of Middle Earth and find their way to the Blessed Realm which is now considered the proper home for the Elves.

As part of this reshaping and as a direct punishment for their sin, Numenor sinks below the sea.  Only the Numenoreans that had settled in Middle Earth and a few ships of the faithful who were not party to the King’s blasphemy were able to escape the downfall.  It is this remnant along with the remaining Elves in Middle Earth who now have to deal with Sauron.  Because when Numenor sank he lost his material form but his spirit returned to Middle Earth and joining to the One Ring which he had left in Middle Earth he was able to reform his body and then renew his war against Elves and Men.  And once again Elves and Men were victorious against him, though at a terrible cost.  The Kings of the Elves and Men, Gil-galad and Elendil are slain by Sauron along with the remaining strength of the Elves.  But Elendil’s son Isildur cuts the One Ring from Sauron’s hand, causing him to lose form again.  But Isildur refused to destroy the One Ring and it was lost in the Great River, Anduin.  And because it was not destroyed Sauron retuned and plagued Middle Earth until the time of the War of the Ring which is the subject matter of The Lord of the Rings.  And all down their long history the descendants of Elendil recreated the sins of their ancestors in Numenor and sought power and long life rather than wisdom and happiness.

Wow, that’s a long prologue.

If you look over that history what you’ll notice is that it parallels the Old Testament.  Of course, there are differences.  Fantasy elements like elves, and silmarils don’t occur in the Bible.  But you can find analogs for both types of angels, good and evil.  There is a flood sent to wipe out transgressors.  And the majority of the text describes a chosen people who forget their responsibilities and choose power and lust for earthly possession over wisdom and love.  And behind all of the misery stands Lucifer and his successful temptation of Adam and Eve.  And that is the basis for the story of Morgoth and Feanor and also the story of Sauron and the elven ringsmiths.  They were tempted by the lure of forbidden knowledge to trust the devil.

Tolkien wanted a fantasy history of the world that would allow him to incorporate the elves, goblins, dwarves and other creatures that inhabit European folklore.  But he wanted it to be a Christian universe.  And that is what he built.  In this world men must contend with a world in which evil is always present but can be defeated by the good people if they stand up against it and don’t allow the evil within themselves to corrupt their intentions.

And in the Lord of the Rings this can be seen in the fact that all of the greatest of the leaders of the good are afraid to even touch the Ring lest it corrupt them too.  It is only the simplest and least sophisticated of creatures, the hobbits, that can resist the ring the longest.

Casting this worldview behind the story allowed Tolkien the direction he needed to expand the Lord of the Rings into the epic length story it is.  In each of the chapters it is the challenge to ignite in each of the allies they meet, the determination to fight the evil no matter how impossible the odds may seem.  Often it is the simple hobbits declaring their simple-minded faith in doing the right thing that shames the sophisticated and jaded leaders who up until that point are almost relieved to surrender and allow evil to win the day.

And having the Christian framework behind the story also gives a sense of the familiar world that most of us have grown up with.  And also allows it to act as a contrast to the monstrous evil that Frodo and the other hobbits encounter.  So, although Tolkien’s story may resemble other fantasy worlds with respect to the creatures that inhabit it and the magic that exists, he has added a spiritual dimension that he believed would render the stories valid in a deeper sense.  From his point of view, they were in a sense true stories because they conveyed his understanding of how God interacted with mortals and angels in the actual world.  Interesting idea.

 

The Lord of the Rings – A Book Review – Part 3 – The Various Races or Peoples of Middle Earth

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