Providence in Middle Earth
Attentive readers can find flickering reflections of truth in most things written by those who bear God’s image. But sometimes they blaze like the beacons of Gondor.
The Bible’s premiere story of providence is the book of Esther. Tolkien’s premiere story is, in many respects, also a tale of providence. Evidences of providence in Esther are well-known, and I’ve written of them elsewhere. But the theme is worth tracing in Tolkien, too. [Note: If you’ve read The Lord of the Rings you’ll enjoy this week’s posts; if you haven’t, I can only urge you to do so. The movie gets you only half-credit. At most.]
there is nothing overtly theological about The Lord of the Rings. The hobbits do not speak of Illuvatar, offer sacrifices to him, or worship him in any other way. Yet … there are unmistakable parables and analogues of Christian faith present throughout Tolkien’s masterpiece (Ralph Wood, The Gospel According to Tolkien).
In his biography of Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter similarly notes,
Some have puzzled over the relation between Tolkien’s stories and his Christianity, and have found it difficult to understand how a devout Roman Catholic could write with such conviction about a world where God is not worshiped. But there is no mystery. . . . It does not contradict Christianity but complements it. . . .
Tolkien cast his mythology in this form because he wanted it to be remote and strange, and yet at the same time not a lie. He wanted the mythological and legendary stories to express his own moral view of the universe; and as a Christian he could not place this view in a cosmos without the God that he worshiped. . . . So while God is present in Tolkien’s universe, He remains unseen.
In that respect, the resemblance of Tolkien’s historical fantasy to Esther’s factual history is striking. In both stories the silence and non-mention of God accentuates the presence of a providence at work.
The clearest example in The Hobbit appears in the book’s penultimate paragraph. When Bilbo observes that the “old prophecies” have proven true after all, Gandalf replies,
Of course! And why should they not prove true? Surely you do not disbelieve the prophecies simply because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You do not suppose, do you, that all your escapes and adventures were managed by pure 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 has merely been caught up in something much bigger and older than himself. You find the same kind of tension between divine activity and human responsibility in the fulfillment of prophetic Scripture.
In the more serious-toned The Lord of the Rings, sometimes the footprints of providence are as deep as Treebeard’s, sometimes as subtle as Legolas’s in the snow. But alert Christian readers can track the path of providence amid all the crisscross tramplings of orcs and riders of Rohan.
Gandalf helps Frodo find a degree of reassurance in Bilbo’s utterly unlikely and seemingly chance discovery of the Enemy’s Ring:
Behind that [discovery] there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.
Still, what Frodo learns of the Ring unnerves him. What he thought was a rare treasure in his pocket turns out to be an albatross about his neck.
I wish I had never seen the Ring! Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?
Gandalf replies (quite biblically),
Such questions cannot be answered. You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess…. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.
At the Council of Elrond the case is made for destroying the Ring. But one question remains unanswered: who will take upon himself this responsibility?
Frodo glanced at all the faces, but they were not turned to him. All the Council sat with downcast eyes, as if in deep thought. A great dread fell on him, as if he was awaiting the pronouncement of some doom that he had long foreseen . . . . An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo’s side in Rivendell filled all his heart. At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice. ‘I will take the Ring,’ he said, ‘though I do not know the way.’
This profound sense of “calling” transcends personal desire, and defies the perfectly sensible assumption that Frodo could not possibly be the one to undertake this great task—so much so that Elrond concludes,
If I understand aright all that I have heard, I think this task is appointed for you, Frodo…. But it is a heavy burden. So heavy that none could lay it on another. I do not lay it on you. But if you take it freely, I will say that your choice is right.
Good fiction mimics and illustrates and, in a way, helps to explain reality. The providence at work in Tolkien’s story mirrors its operation — and the alert Christian’s awareness of it — in the real world.
But there’s more. Next post.