'...that good which only the Wise can see.'


LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"    

'...that good which only the Wise can see.'

Back in early 2001, before the LotR movies were released, which now seems like a very long time ago, I had an online conversation with a couple of teen-aged Tolkien readers about the "old days." One of them had asked about the "Frodo lives" graffiti back in the 1960's and the other replied that the main purpose behind it was that people who understood it could feel "in the know" compared to those who didn't. As you might guess, I told them that, as someone who lived through the "old days,"  I disagreed with this. What most Tolkien readers wanted then was for as many people as possible to understand what the phrase meant. Tolkien readers used the phrase for more than one reason; for the person who wrote it on a wall (or wore the button or used the bumper sticker), it could be a statement of faith in what Frodo stood for (in the 1960's, I'd say the primary thing he stood for was the belief that evil could be truly defeated only without resorting to evil), a way to remind others with the same faith that they weren't alone, and hopefully something that would get people who hadn't encountered Middle-earth curious enough to find out about it. Then as now, using Tolkien's subcreation for the purpose of feeling superior to someone else seems to me to be the opposite of what he intended. This was affirmed for me by his daughter, Priscilla, when I heard her speak in 2006. She said that her father never treated his writing, or his subcreation, as something meant to exclude anyone, or to give a feeling of "I know something you don't know." Are there "Tolkien gnostics" who treat their collection of facts about Tolkien's subcreation as secret knowledge? Sure: I've talked with some of them. But I see them as being an example of people who "don't get" Tolkien, because in his cosmos gnosticism is not a force for good.
 
By definition, a gnostic is someone who knows (or claims to know) something that most people don't - usually about God/religion/spirituality/salvation. A gnostic is the opposite of an agnostic (a-gnostic), who believes that it's impossible for human beings to know anything about God. The early Church encountered gnostics in its first centuries, when many people no longer accepted the old Roman gods and were searching for something to take their place. This situation isn't completely unlike today, with many of the people who find religion to be irrelevant searching for something else, so it's not surprising that there are gnostics today. Most, although not all, of today's gnostics can be found in the New Age movement; there's even a magazine titled Gnosis published for the New Age audience. (I have, however, met both Catholics and evangelical Christians who would fit the definition of gnostic: believing that they have information about salvation that others don't have access to.)

In the early days of Christianity, the reach of the Roman Empire had a part in the formation of gnostic cults. Those who were establishing the cults chose bits and pieces of any and every culture the empire had engulfed, often combining ideas from different religions within the same sect. Since they were borrowing from all religions, they saw Christianity as just one more source. Christians felt otherwise. Dealing with gnosticism was one of the early Church's first theological challenges. If someone is baptized (using the Christian baptismal rite, which was attractive to cults that wanted a clear-cut initiation ceremony) into a cult that uses Christian writings (in which they could find "hidden" messages, and to which they could add their own writings), is that person part of the Christian community? Is that cult itself part of the Church? What does it mean to be Christian? And which writings should be recognized as Christian? Those kinds of questions were one force behind the writing of creeds and other statements of belief, as well as the codifying of the New Testament.


Besides its misuse of aspects of Christianity, gnosticism was seen as incompatible with faith in Christ because of the belief that defines it: that knowledge necessary for salvation (or eternal life, or enlightenment, or fulfillment, or...) is to be kept secret from everyone but a small elite - possibly even that no one but that small elite is capable of understanding it. Two millennia later, instead of a single Christian community there are multitudes of them; even so, I can't think of a single "brand" of Christianity that would accept that gnostic belief as compatible with a life lived in the name of Jesus, who invited all people to come to him. Tolkien clearly didn't. Elrond's remark at the end of the Council gives us the antidote to gnosticism, which is humility: 'Who of all the Wise could have foreseen it? Or, if they are wise, why should they expect to know it, until the hour has struck.' To be wise doesn't always mean having special knowledge; sometimes it means realizing there are things you don't know.

In that quote from Elrond, there's an example of Tolkien's precise word usage: being a member of "the Wise," as a group of people, isn't the same thing as being wise. Saruman was counted among "the Wise," but, as Gandalf tells him, he had "left the path of wisdom." Saruman is also the character in The Lord of the Rings that I see as the most blatantly gnostic. He shows this openly in his early conversation with Gandalf at Isengard, probably because Gandalf is the only other person in Middle-earth Saruman might consider "wise" enough to listen to his ideas. Part of Gandalf's report at the Council reads:

He drew himself up then and began to declaim, as if he were making a speech long rehearsed. 'The Elder Days are gone. The Middle Days are passing. The Younger Days are beginning. The time of the Elves is over, but our time is at hand: the world of Men, which We must rule. But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see.

'...As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it... Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends.'

As I understand it, knowledge, rule and order - as defined by Saruman or otherwise - were not what the wizards had been sent to Middle-earth to accomplish. The Valar had sent them to Middle-earth specifically to deal with Sauron (and not to make deals with him, as Saruman is proposing). Saruman's schemes not only accept that the end justifies the means, but turn his true mission in Middle-earth backwards. He has broken the power with which the Valar entrusted him into many pieces, and is attempting to use those pieces for the ends he considers important. And those who are not among "the Wise," including 'our weak or idle friends' are on the outside.

I'm not going to write out the quotes here, but to see Saruman in full gnostic attire, read his exchanges with Gandalf, Théoden and company in "The Voice of Saruman." Théoden replies with what I believe is Tolkien's attitude about wisdom and power and free will: '...were you ten times as wise you would have no right to rule me and mine for your own profit as you desired...'

Also at the Council, Gandalf speaks of Sauron's dependence on his own "wisdom," as opposed to the "folly" of attempting to destroy the Ring:

It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope. Well, let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy! For he is very wise, and weighs all things to a nicety in the scales of his malice. But the only measure he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts.

A line that was put into the thoughts of a New Age-ish character in a novel I've read was "We thank You O Lord... that You have concealed these things from the simple, and revealed them to the wise."* But Tolkien gives us Samwise Gamgee as a mystic, and hobbits as heroes and saints.


The opposition to gnosticism seen in LotR, especially in how Saruman is portrayed, is unquestionably a Christian attitude. But isn't LotR itself, and Tolkien's entire cosmos, a gnostic construct? Secret languages, knowledge held only by "the faithful," hidden truths...?** I've often said that even after 40 years of reading LotR I'm still discovering new treasures; could an author who makes his treasures so difficult to find really be acting as a Christian?

To answer that, I believe we have to look at the nature of Story itself.

Ever since it came into existence around mankind's early campfires, Story has had the purpose of saying things through images that we can't say directly through words - because those words are insufficient. Even though he was a philologist and had been "inside language" enough to create his own, Tolkien didn't put all his faith in the words themselves. In response to a statement that mythology is a disease of language, Tolkien replied that language is a disease of mythology. Story comes first. Then we try to find language to tell the story, but can never do so completely. Our finite human words can't explain the infinite mysteries we face as humans.

As Tolkien says so beautifully and forcefully in the epilogue to his essay "On Fairy-stories," calling something a story, or even a fairy-story, doesn't mean it isn't true in our primary creation. In that epilogue, he shows how the characteristics of fairy-stories that he's explained in the rest of the essay apply to the greatest Story of all: the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus, all the more wonderful because it's true. If this Story fulfills all of the human hopes we try to communicate through our own stories, why should we need any stories except that one?

Because that Story, above all others, is a mystery. We can never completely comprehend it, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to understand it as much as we can, in our hearts as well as in our heads. As humans always have, when our "factual" words aren't adequate we turn to Story. This is what Jesus did in His parables. Even Jesus faced the limitations of human language, and Story goes beyond those limitations. Does the story of the Good Shepherd, or of the Prodigal Son, touch you in a way that you don't quite have the words to describe? If so, I believe you're experiencing the power of Story to move beyond those verbal limits, a power Jesus certainly used. Can you say that, possibly, some of the parables touch you now in a way they didn't five or ten - or 40 - years ago? If so, I don't think that means Jesus was hiding anything; it simply means that you've taken a step further into the mystery since you first heard the story. Many people reread LotR regularly because they've found that each time they read it they're touched in a way they hadn't been before, not because Tolkien was holding anything back but because their own understanding has grown. I often find that my reading of Scripture, other spiritual reading, and LotR shed light on each other. Sometimes a turn of phrase from a non-Biblical source will shed new light on a Scripture passage I'd thought I already understood.

In one of his reviews of LotR, I believe C.S. Lewis touches upon one reason that the book can be an aid to our reading of Scripture rather than in competition with it. In response to those who had a low opinion of LotR because it was written as a fantasy, he says:

'But why,' (some ask), 'why, if you have a serious comment to make on the real life of men, must you do it by talking about a phantasmagoric never-never land of your own?' Because, I take it, one of the main things the author wants to say is that the real life of men is of that mythical and heroic quality.

While the Bible shows us how people throughout history have looked at God, LotR can give us an idea of how God looks at us - that is, how Tolkien as a faith-filled Catholic believed that God sees us: as fallible, imperfect creatures who are capable of heroic deeds that come from great love.

When talking about Tolkien's writing, especially LotR, we have a layer of mystery that we could say wasn't a factor in the parables of Jesus: much of the writing was a mystery to the author himself. The statement from which this collection of essays takes it title tells us that, at first, the religious elements evolved without Tolkien's conscious effort. He didn't realize he'd put them there until he was revising the story. Of course, he says that after that realization he did use them consciously, but when you're a human being dealing with a mystery you can never consciously understand all of it. In some of his letters to readers after LotR was published, Tolkien makes it clear that he hadn't thought of some of the insights they offered in regard to the book, and that includes some of the religious ones. And the book affected people in ways Tolkien had never dreamed of.

Some of the things people discover on multiple re-readings (which some very astute readers might pick up on a first reading) were put there purposefully by Tolkien, but he didn't hide them. He just made sure we had to pay attention in order to see them. These often involve his precise use of words and language. An example mentioned in this essay is Elrond's use of "the Wise" and "wise" with different meanings. I don't remember if, when I first read that passage at the age of 14 or 15, I even noticed that one use was capitalized and one wasn't. I certainly notice it now, and it says something to me of what Tolkien believes about wisdom: the label of "Wise" doesn't always have the reality of wisdom behind it. But Tolkien's word usage isn't hidden; it's just precise. Like any good teacher, he wants us to think for ourselves rather than spoonfeeding us. As I've said in an essay I wrote specifically for fantasy writers, if an author wants to leave nuggets of treasure for readers to find on rereadings of a book, that author has to take the risk that some of the treasure might not be found. Not every first-time reader of LotR will notice that Frodo's "I do not now choose to do..." at the Sammath Naur has a vastly different meaning than if he would have said "I choose now not to do...", but it isn't necessary to have secret knowledge to catch the significance - just close attention.  

But the most important "hidden meanings" in LotR, I believe, are ones that Tolkien wrote into the story because he was attempting to make it real, and his view of reality was so guided by his Catholic Christian spirituality that simply telling the story said much more about his faith than he consciously put into it. Any truly Christian elements that we encounter anywhere, of course, will involve mystery, and so will continue unfolding no matter how often we encounter them; after 40 years, those are the treasures I still find myself uncovering, that is, ones that come simply from the author's view of Truth.  

And Tolkien readers who don't want others to find and understand Middle-earth are a rare breed. Much more common are those who share their discovery, trying to spread the knowledge rather than keeping it a secret. The only valid use of "I know something you don't know" connected with Tolkien's writings is in a trivia contest which, of course, is something far removed from the basic Truth of his writing.


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*Aegypt by John Crowley. The full line reads, "We thank You O Lord (he blasphemed, exulting) that You have concealed these things from the simple, and revealed them to the wise."

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**I have, of course, read some absurd interpretations of Tolkien's writing by people who put their own agendas into it. One, for example, decided that Tolkien had "secret knowledge" about the advanced aliens (Elves?) who used humans for labor while building the pyramids. Uh, yeah...