'He lived alone...'


LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"    

'He lived alone...'


There's a "capital S" sacrament for Catholics entering marriage. There's also one for those being ordained priests or deacons. There isn't one for those entering a religious order. There are rituals, certainly, but no Sacrament. I've heard some religious sisters say (kind of as a joke) that this is because their commitment to God isn't a sign pointing to something deeper: It's the real thing.

Well, could be. But in a strong-group consciousness, where each person plays a specific role in the community, each life is a sign to others. If a loving Christian married couple is a sign of how much God loves us, we might say that the life of someone who has taken vows in a religious order is a sign of what our relationship with God is worth: everything. In the essay on "Creating Family," I mentioned this Gospel passage:

"...there is no one who has given up home, brothers or sisters, mother or father, children or property, for me and for the Gospel who will not receive in this present age a hundred times as many homes, brothers and sisters, mothers, children and property - and persecution besides - and in the age to come, everlasting life."

This could seem like a "plant" in favor of members of religious orders - except for the fact that the New Testament was assembled a long time before religious orders existed. In fact, this is a more plausible reason for the lack of a "capital S" Sacrament for that life than is its being "the real thing" instead of a sign pointing to something else. Religious communities developed gradually and didn't formally exist until centuries after the time of Christ. So it can't be said that they were "instituted by Christ" during His earthly life - something that's necessary for a Sacrament, although not for a sacrament. Religious communities grew organically from individuals who were attempting to live a Christ-centered life. Monasteries first developed from the early Christian hermits in the desert who would seek out an older hermit as a mentor and guide. "Active" religious communities (those who teach, care for the poor and the ill, and minister in other ways) can be formed from two directions: from Christians living a hermit or monastic life who find themselves called to be more active in the world - Mother Teresa of Calcutta is an example of this development - and Christians attempting to minister individually who are drawn to joining with others who are attempting the same thing. (I first wrote that last sentence in past tense, but changed it to present because the same dynamic is still happening every day. Although it's not as common, even the monastic life can have new sources; the Carmelites may see the prophet Elijah as their spiritual father, but their historic conception was among Crusaders who stayed in the Holy Land to become hermits on Mount Carmel instead of returning to their homes in Europe.)

All of the people mentioned in the preceding paragraph have one thing in common: they're not married. And they believe that it's God's will for them not to be married. Of course, not everyone with that belief is part of a formal religious community. Many single Catholics find their "religious community" in the broader Church and don't feel they have a vocation to join a religious order. One difference is that joining a formal religious community takes an active step (actually, many active steps - the process takes years), while remaining single can be seen as a decision against something - or not a decision at all. The Church does have an option for single people who want to make a commitment to remain celibate without joining a formal community; it's called "private vows," and it's very rare. I've personally known only one person who's taken that route. As a 50-something always-single Catholic, I think it's right and proper that taking private vows is a rare decision, because I believe that, like any vocation, the single life is a sign of something deeper and a reminder to all Christians of a calling we have in common. And in the case of the single life, that "something" is an openness to God's will wherever it may lead (even - you never know - into marriage).

As a 50-something always-single Catholic, who believes that it's (at least currently) God's will for me to be single, I probably have a different view than a lot of people of what it means to be 50-something and never married. That is, it's not necessarily a negative thing. Although it took religious communities a while to develop, the Church has from the very beginning considered the single life to be as valid a calling as marriage. (For those who skipped the "Core Concepts" page, I'll just repeat that in Catholic vocabulary "celibacy" refers to not getting married; not having sex is a separate issue.) This is part of "capital T" Tradition - that is, something believed from the very beginnings of Christianity, traceable back to the earthly teachings of Jesus. We see the acceptance of the unmarried life as a valid Christian choice in the writings of Paul, as well as in the accounts of many of the early martyrs. Lifelong Catholic that I am, I was honestly taken aback when I once unintentionally started a heated argument by suggesting that Frodo's celibacy wasn't necessarily a bad thing - for Frodo.

This is one of those places where I think it's necessary to understand Tolkien's Catholic view of things, even if not accepting it.  Looked at from a Catholic point of view, JRRT wasn't doing anything mean or even sad by sending Frodo into the West without having a wife and/or children. His leaving was sad, because of the anguish he was going through at the time and because we experience the event from Sam's point of view. Frodo has been wounded by the Ring, but that wounding has very little - if any -  effect on his marital status. Frodo wasn't unmarried because of the Ring, any more than Bilbo was. One of the effects of Tolkien's decision to use middle-aged heroes is to have heroes who are already settled into their lifestyle before their "adventures" begin. When they reached 50 - past the normal age for even hobbits to get married - Bilbo and Frodo had already chosen for years to remain single (we'll go on the assumption that each of them could have found someone to accept their proposal).

I'd be willing to bet that (at least) 99 out of 100 Catholics with Tolkien's traditional outlook would read the following paragraph and agree that Frodo was meant to be single - long before the Quest (I've omitted only a couple of sentences about specific friends):

He lived alone, as Bilbo had done; but he had a good many friends, especially among the younger hobbits (mostly descendants of the Old Took) who had as children been fond of Bilbo and often in and out of Bag End... Frodo went tramping all over the Shire with them; but more often he wandered by himself, and to the amazement of sensible folk he was sometimes seen far from home walking in the hills and woods under the starlight. Merry and Pippin suspected that he visited the Elves at times, as Bilbo had done.

What spouse would put up with that? Or, maybe more to the point, why should a spouse put up with it?

From a different direction, looking at vocation/calling through the lens of the Eternal Now, it could be said that the Ring had a lot to do with both Bilbo and Frodo remaining bachelors. The parts they were to play in the saving of Middle-earth would require the freedom to change life direction at the drop of a hat - or a pocket handkerchief.  But, also viewed through the Eternal Now, their vocations were present to God before they were conceived, and (according to the Catholic way of looking at things) people are "fitted" from the beginning for their calling. So was it a coincidence that the two Bagginses in question hadn't married by the time most hobbits their age had, in order to make it possible for them to play their respective parts? No, but they didn't know that. They just knew - evidently - that they found single life to come more naturally to them than married life would have. As we get to know them, they both have qualities that most orthodox, traditional Catholics would consider indications that they were "fitted" for celibacy. And, given that it's an orthodox, traditional Catholic who's in essence playing God for them by giving them their personalities as well as deciding their callings, it all fits together quite happily: for orthodox, traditional Catholics.

If someone other than an orthodox, traditional Catholic had been playing God - that is, if someone other than J.R.R. Tolkien had been writing The Lord of the Rings - things would almost certainly have happened differently.  One useful thing I find in the recent movies is a look at precisely that possibility. PJ and Co. didn't marry Frodo off (Yikes! Can you imagine the outcry that would have caused?). But by turning him into a very young hobbit, wounded by the Quest and leaving Middle-earth before he has a chance to marry and have a family, this lack becomes part of the tragedy of the Ring. That wistful look at Sam's wedding says it all. This keeps the filmmakers from having to deal with something a lot of people find awkward: someone who has chosen to remain single. As with so many other elements of the story, Tolkien seems to carefully make room for free will in this matter; I don't know if that was a conscious part of his choice to write things the way he did, or if it was simply what seemed intrinsically fitting to him.  

For people who think there's something wrong with those who remain single, or that they somehow don't have a full life, this may not ring true. But I can't emphasize enough that Tolkien would not have been one of those people! One of his three sons was a priest, and his one daughter (still living at the time I'm writing this) has always been single. Their father wouldn't have considered their lives any less full than he considered the lives of his two sons who married and gave him grandchildren. (I've had the opportunity to listen to his daughter Priscilla speak and respond to questions - and ask some questions of her own - and she's definitely a full, complete person, whose incisive thought process reminds me a lot of her father's.) I think JRRT would have been surprised by the idea that he was doing something negative to either Bilbo or Frodo by not ultimately having them marry. In fact, from an orthodox, traditional Catholic point of view, allowing them to remain celibate while they travel their spiritual Roads says something positive about them.

Marriage is a fine thing for those who are afraid to sleep alone at night.
- St. Jerome
We can see this positive "something" in Paul's statement that an unmarried person is concerned with things of the Lord, instead of needing to be concerned about other matters. In weak group America, this might not be as true as it would have been in Paul's culture; in fact, sometimes it seems that being single brings more concerns, because one person has to take care of everything. But if you look at the entire package together, I think his statement is still true - if not to the same degree. There are things I don't have to consider when making decisions that Christians with a spouse and/or children would need to include in their discernment process. And that goes beyond the practicalities of where to live and what kind of income you need to support a family. The difference involves lifestyle. We see it in Frodo wandering alone under the starlight - and in the continuing openness of Bag End to visitors coming and going. Because a single person doesn't have a spouse and children to be the primary focus and obligation in life, that life has room for both a privacy and an openness not possible in marriage. That's not to say anything negative about marriage; for people who are called to marriage as a vocation, that primary focus and obligation is their way of building the Kingdom and growing in their own union with God. In a strong-group society, different members of the community have different callings that are equally valid and equally important; in fact, that's the community's very basis for existence. This would have been Tolkien's primary worldview, and it's shown beautifully among the varied callings of various characters throughout LotR.   



I think it's important that the paragraph quoted above both begins and ends with references to "as Bilbo had done." As discussed in an earlier essay, Bilbo was Frodo's mentor and Frodo was Bilbo's disciple. Bilbo had to go there and back again in order to reach the state he passes on to Frodo: a state in which he wanders alone under the starlight and converses with Elves. A state in which - although he wouldn't recognize the term - he's developing a spiritual life. And it's primarily a contemplative spiritual life, based not on what he does but on who he is - perfectly fitting for our "undifferentiated hobbit."

Frodo's will always be an interior focus - necessary ultimately to confront the Ring, but present in his personality from the beginning. As Thomas Shippey has said, in Tolkien's cosmos "The line between good and evil runs through the human heart," and Frodo's own heart will be his battleground. Instead of developing the skills of a warrior, a mage, a scholar, or a good businessman - or a good husband and father - he develops a keen sense of discernment regarding other people as well as himself, a spiritual strength we first see when he's the only hobbit to waken during the barrow-wight's spell, an awareness of mystery shown by his dreams of the Sea, and a knowledge of the Valar that allows him to spontaneously call upon Elbereth. It's not a coincidence that in Catholic history the people who've grown the most through this particular kind of spirituality are usually celibate. It demands a lot of time for solitary reflection that someone caring for a family simply can't give it. In the nature of a strong-group perspective, in which each person's calling is for the sake of the community, Frodo's celibacy not only provides the personal freedom that allows him to give up everything and leave home at an age when almost all of his neighbors are in the midst of raising families; it also allows him to be spiritually prepared when he's called to play his part. And, importantly, Frodo makes good use of the opportunity. If he'd spent all his pre-Quest time with his buddies at the Green Dragon or working to increase his real estate holdings, rather than welcoming visitors and wandering alone in the starlight, I'd have grave doubts that he was really called to celibacy. His twelve years of discipleship under Bilbo and the following seventeen years of personal spiritual growth are essential to his role as Ring-bearer. As much as I love movie-Frodo, a hobbit so young that he simply hasn't gotten around to getting married just isn't going to have the ability of a middle-aged one when it comes to the qualities needed for the Quest.

From a traditional Catholic perspective, Frodo's celibacy isn't only a practical necessity of the Quest. When someone follows the vocation he or she has been prepared for from their mother's womb, they not only serve the community but also find their own deepest fulfillment and closest relationship with God. As we followed Frodo's spiritual development using the model given by John of the Cross, we saw that those things often come through brokenness and pain. But if Frodo's a hobbit "who has been broken down," he's also one who's "made into something quite different." John talked very specifically about how brokenness can lead to spiritual transformation. Even though he may not experience it at the time, Frodo's 'Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same,' includes not only his wounding but his transformation. By the end of LotR, the other Travelers have in some ways grown beyond the Shire. Frodo has grown beyond Middle-earth.

John's way of looking at the process of developing a relationship with God fits Frodo well in other ways, not least of which is that John was a celibate contemplative writing primarily for other celibate contemplatives - a category of people in which I'd place Frodo without a second thought. Based on the evidence within Frodo's life in LotR as well as on what Tolkien has said about him in his letters, I believe Tolkien would have placed him there, too. One instance of this is in a letter, where Tolkien is saying that Sam is more interesting than Frodo because Frodo is too "high-minded." The reason Frodo has to be like this? Because he "has a vocation (as it were)." Using one definition, Catholic teaching says that everyone has a vocation - but that would include Sam. So I believe that here Tolkien is using another definition of vocation commonly understood among Catholics: a calling to the priesthood or religious life, that is, to a life that includes celibacy. It's a vocation "(as it were)" because neither the priesthood nor the religious life actually exist at the time.  

Many readers consider a wife and family to be part of what Frodo 'had and might have had' that he passes on to Sam as his heir. But Frodo doesn't seem to understand it this way. The emphasis is mine in the following quote: 'But you are my heir: all that I had and might have had I leave to you. And also you have Rose, and Elanor; and Frodo-lad will come, and Rosie-lass...' Frodo seems to separate 'all that I had and might have had' from the 'And also' of a family. This is admittedly putting a fine point on the way the quote is worded. I think the reason it doesn't spell out this distinction clearly is that for Tolkien (and, therefore, for Frodo) it simply wouldn't have been an issue. It was very possibly not even something dealt with consciously in the writing of the quote, with the wording coming about as a natural result of the mindset from which Tolkien was writing. Although in early drafts of LotR Bilbo is married, I haven't seen any evidence that this was ever planned for Frodo, even while he was still named Bingo. It's interesting that, with all the changes that occurred in the story over the sixteen years it took Tolkien to write it, the author had decided quite early in the process that, at the end of the story, Frodo would remain single and Sam would have a family - showing that two very different paths can be traveled on the Road. This difference between the outcomes for these two characters would be anything but unexpected in Tolkien's understanding of vocation. In fact many Catholics would feel (consciously or not) as if something important were left out if everyone was married at the end of the story. For Catholics, especially ones as traditional as JRRT, there's nothing odd or esoteric about people who are celibate; they're as normal a part of life as are married couples. Including them in a story is simply showing life as it is.

[More on following a different path.]

In early plans for the book, Frodo is honored and happy after he returns to the Shire. Between his return to the Shire and his sailing, he was originally going to live - alone and happy - on the Tower Hills in sight of the Sea. It would seem from this that Tolkien didn't see either Frodo's living alone or his sailing West to be - of necessity - a result of his brokenness. But from the beginning, Tolkien did see Frodo as someone who would become so "rarified" by the Quest that he would no longer belong in Middle-earth. Looking at that fact through the lens of Catholic history, such a person would almost certainly be celibate.

At some point in these essays, I admitted to having written a piece of fanfic. (Hey, don't look at me like that - it was over 20 years ago!) My own version of a satisfying ending for Frodo's story after he sails West was that under the influence of the Valar - who have known Eru since before the creation of Arda - Frodo comes to experience a personal relationship with Ilúvatar, and to begin to understand what that means both for himself and for those he left in Middle-earth. If you held my toes to the fire, I'd say that's still what I consider the most likely outcome of his spiritual development as a mortal, the eucatastrophe awaiting him on the other side of his final dark night of the spirit. Then, looking back over everything that brought him to that point, he can truly say with John:

O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
The Lover with His beloved,
Transforming the beloved in her Lover.