Theology in 3D

More Providence in Middle Earth

Layton Talbert | October 26, 2018
New Testament

This week I’m exploring one example of the value of fiction, especially from a Christian worldview. You can see Part 1 here. (Tolkien nerds may wish to see the timing of these posts as a celebration of the anniversary of the Council of Elrond on October 25:)

The death of Boromir and the capture of Merry and Pippin by the orcs of Saruman seems like a tragic turn of events. But orcs move swiftly; and when they are attacked by the Riders of Rohan, Merry and Pippin escape into the Forest of Fangorn (enter Treebeard and the Ents). Yet here is Gandalf’s interpretation of those events:

They were brought to Fangorn, and their coming was like the falling of small stones that starts an avalanche in the mountains.

Brought by whom? The orcs, of course; yet it was hardly their intent to “bring them to Fangorn.” Clearly, another force or will is at work. The implication of providence is laced with the irony of human agency (well, orcan agency). Saruman’s treachery–not only against the Felowship but against Sauron because of his own lust for the Ring–counters Sauron’s purposes and unwittingly aids the cause of the Fellowship. Again,Gandalf explains:

So between them our enemies have contrived only to bring Merry and Pippin with marvelous speed, and in the nick of time, to Fangorn, where otherwise they would never have come at all.

Providence often turns evil to aid good unwittingly (Ps 76:10).

Later when Pippin gazes into the palantir, he momentarily falls under the spell of Sauron and narrowly escapes undoing the Fellowship’s mission. The average unbeliever—or even the incautious believer—often speaks of luck or fortune. But Tolkien implies that “luck” is a misnomer when Gandalf tells Pippin,

You have been saved, and all your friends too, mainly by good fortune, as it is called. You cannot count on it a second time.

Again, Tolkien adds a perceptive touch of human responsibility not to presume on such fortuitous providential intervention as a given.

Taken prisoner by Faramir, Frodo and Sam find themselves in the awkward position of saying enough to justify their innocence without either betraying the secrecy of their mission or jeopardizing it by awaking in Faramir the same desire for the Ring that overcame his brother Boromir. At one point in Faramir’s interrogation, Sam blunders in with an explicit reference to the Ring that clearly endangers their position. But Faramir consoles Sam:

If you seem to have stumbled, think that it was fated to be so . . . . For strange though it may seem, it was safe to declare this to me. It may even help the master that you love.

Facing the dreaded path of Cirith Ungol, Frodo remarks to Sam,

I don’t like anything here at all. Earth, air and water all seem accursed. But so our path is laid.

I doubt that’s a purposeful allusion to “the race that is set before us” (Heb 12:1), but an attentive Christian reader ought to hear an echo of that truth in such language.

Sam then waxes thoughtful about “the great tales” that one hears and remembers—tales in which the “heroes” didn’t go out looking for adventures.

Folk seem to have just landed in them, usually—their paths were laid that way, as you put it.

On the final ascent of Mount Doom, Sam had to carry the exhausted Frodo—a burden he expected to be nearly unbearable in his weariness. To Sam’s surprise, Frodo seemed no heavier “than if he were carrying a hobbit-child pig-a-back.” Why? Tolkien suggests the possibility that “some gift of final strength was given to him” for this last task. From where? By whom?

The climb was steep and the path rugged. Forced to take a rest, Sam put Frodo down. For a while they lay side-by-side, speechless, until “suddenly a sense of urgency which he did not understand came to Sam. It was almost as if he had been called: ‘Now, now, or it will be too late!’ Frodo also seemed to have felt the call.” Unknown to them, the timing for the decoy force before the Black Gate grew more critical by the moment.

When Gollum suddenly ambushed Frodo in a vicious attack for the Ring, the struggle energizes Frodo to go on, leaving Sam behind to deal with Gollum. “Now!” said Sam. “At last I can deal with you!” Sam has every intention, and every right, to kill Gollum for all his treachery. Indeed “it seemed the only safe thing to do. But deep in his heart there was something that restrained him.

But for that unexplained restraint, the story would have had a radically different ending. This is the way Scripture often depicts the workings of God’s providence in the real world—an otherwise inexplicable direction, or provision, or protection, often through secondary means.

My copies of Tolkien’s trilogy are marked, highlighted, and footnoted. Most of these are my own notations, though one of my sons, in his enthusiasm, apparently forgot whose books they were and entered some unauthorized (albeit interesting) notes of his own. Besides the theme of providence, I find lurking in its pages insightful illustrations of temptation, the folly of despair, the miscalculation of judging others by oneself, the presence of peace amid danger, the deceptive nature of sin, the allure of pride, and even one regarding Denethor and hyper-Calvinism! Maybe that one will show up in a future post.

2 responses to “More Providence in Middle Earth”

  1. Ethan says:

    Thinking of Gandalf’s comment: “Gollum may yet have some part to play for good or ill before this is through.” Gandalf implies that if providence is using someone, even if it is “for ill” from our perspective, that gives the person’s life significance.

    • I’ve always been a little ambivalent about all those comments regarding Gollum. E.g., “be not too eager to deal out death in judgment, for even the wise cannot see all ends.” Noble thought, but on the other hand….
      But you’re right, especially if it’s a question of providential survival; then we’re back in the realm of Ps. 76:10 or something like it.
      Good thought.

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