Times and Seasons


LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"    

Times and Seasons

Throughout LotR, there are significant dates. At least two of these must have been consciously chosen by Tolkien, because he would have known their significance before pencil hit paper: the Ring is destroyed on March 25, the same date the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar celebrates the Incarnation of Christ (nine months before Christmas), and the date on which some early European societies believed Christ was crucified or resurrected (depending on the particular local tradition); the Fellowship leaves Rivendell on December 25, the date used for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. I picked up the March 25 link to the Incarnation on my own, but it wasn't until I was reading someone else's research results that I learned that some early Europeans had linked that specific date with Christ's death or resurrection, rather than using our modern custom of making Easter a movable feast. I'd certainly be willing to bet that Tolkien knew all about it, though. In fact, the use of these two dates - especially March 25 for the destruction of the Ring - could be the closest we get to an intentional allegory in LotR.  (When Elenor is born on another March 25, we're told that Sam notes the date but we're not told what his thoughts are about it. I think we're meant to supply our own.)

October is a fine and dangerous season in America, a wonderful time to begin anything at all.
- Thomas Merton
But there are also significant dates in the story that don't have any apparent link to the Church calendar. The most obvious, carrying LotR literally from its first chapter to its last, is September 22. It's a day to set out on journeys. Bilbo leaves Bag End and passes the Ring on to Frodo on September 22, and Frodo leaves with Pippin and Sam exactly 17 years later. It's also when the two Ring-bearers meet and travel to the Havens. Tolkien seemed to consider autumn a restless time of year; it's when Elves are most likely to be passing through the Shire, and in "Shadow of the Past" we learn that Frodo "...found himself wondering, especially in the autumn, about the wild lands, and strange visions of mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams." There may be another reason Tolkien set the Ring-bearers' birthday at the autumnal equinox, but the idea of it being a time of wandering is the only connection I've been able to make.

In the last part of the book, Frodo's bouts of illness occur on the dates he was wounded "by knife, sting, and tooth." Why this happens isn't made clear, and it probably isn't all that important to know whether the cause is psychosomatic, spiritual, or physical - it's the annual cycle that's significant. In fact, this seems to be one aspect of LotR that is so universally human we tend to react to it, at least initially, from our subconscious. When Frodo has his first recurrence of the October 6 pain, in "Many Partings," not very many people will stop immediately and say, "Now, wait a minute! Why would the date have an actual physical effect on him? That's totally ridiculous!" We might have that reaction after thinking about it a bit, but at the first moment we find out that Frodo had been stabbed by the Witch-King on the same date he's now suffering from the wound, our human reaction is more likely to be "Ah, yes."   

Annual cycles aren't specifically religious; humans have paid attention to them since prehistoric times. Along with daily cycles, they're so deeply ingrained in us that we even have physical, bodily responses to them. It's not surprising religion (Christian and otherwise) has become linked to them. There's a broad spectrum of this linking, from some Christian groups that avoid celebrating birthdays and holidays because St. Paul said one day is no more special than another, to Catholics and Orthodox who pattern the entire year on liturgical cycles. The Catholic liturgical year takes us through reflection on all of salvation history. It begins with the season of Advent (starting four Sundays before Christmas), that recalls the faithful hope of those waiting for the Messiah, and ends on the Sunday prior to Advent with the Feast of Christ the King, which celebrates the end of our earthly creation when Christ will reign over all. With such things as Frodo's recurring illnesses, The Birthday and autumn wanderings, we're reminded that Tolkien's secondary creation reveals to us our own primary creation as he perceived it, and he spent his life perceiving it through the annual cycles of nature and the Church. If some of these occurrences seem to have a spiritual or even religious air about them, it's probably because for Tolkien they did. Frodo's illnesses are a good example of LotR's sacramentality: what Frodo experiences is physical, but it points to the deeper reality of what's happening in his spirit. The fact that it follows an annual cycle would reinforce that sacramentality for someone with a liturgical mindset such as Tolkien's.


The Liturgy, then, is common worship, corporate worship, worship with one mind and with one heart, and with one mouth.
- Dorothy Day


So what does "liturgical" mean, anyway? The Catholic definition of "liturgy" is very clear-cut: it includes the Mass, the seven capital "S" Sacraments, and the Liturgy of the Hours (sometimes called the Divine Office - prayers and Scripture readings for different times during the day). It doesn't include anything else. Other types of prayer gatherings and services are sometimes called "paraliturgical" but they're not liturgy. The original Greek that the word came from means "work of the people," and the liturgy is the prayer of the people of God who make up the Church. When a local group of Catholics celebrates liturgy, its prayer is part of the "work of the people" being carried out by all Catholics all over the world - a very strong-group concept (oh, the angels and saints are in on it, too, by the way).  Some non-liturgical Christians don't understand why Catholics need specific prayers,  rituals and Scripture readings to celebrate liturgy, but, put very simply, when there are so many people in so many places praying all at once, we need something to keep us together.  

That's put very simply, of course, and there's more to it than that, but unity in prayer and worship is the primary reason for ritualized prayer, including liturgical cycles. It takes an understanding of the  strong-group perspective to see the importance of this; in the quote from Dorothy Day given above, she seems to have no need to convince anyone that worshipping with one mind, one heart, and one mouth is a good thing - that's a given. Some Catholics who did a lot of traveling experienced a sense of disconnection in the 1960's when the use of Latin in the liturgy was changed to the use of the local language. Until then, it had been possible to walk into a Catholic church anywhere in the world on a given Sunday and participate in exactly the same liturgy as in any other Catholic church anywhere in the world. (That's still true, except for the language used.)

In addition, if we recall, again, that for more than 75% of the Church's history most people couldn't read, ritual worship makes even more sense. That tradition remains strong even now, with the emphasis for Catholics being on hearing the Word during liturgical worship rather than reading it. When the Church started, the Word was delivered orally; the Gospels, especially, are set up in verbal patterns that would have helped the hearers to remember them, and documents such as Paul's letters would have been read aloud to the Christians gathered for worship. Some Catholic parishes today go so far as to have only a few copies of the Sunday Scripture readings available, at the door of the church, specifically for those who are hearing impaired. Everyone else is supposed to be listening. Even when the rest of the Mass was in Latin, the Scripture readings were repeated in the local language (at least in every parish I belonged to), and the sermon was given in the local language. And, odd as it might seem now, the reason Mass was in Latin in the first place was precisely because it was the "language of the people." The intelligentsia of the first century spoke Greek, which was also the language in which the New Testament was written. The first translation of Scripture into Latin was called the Vulgate, because Latin was the "vulgar" language of the time. When the early Church decided that the Mass should be in Latin, it was bucking the elite class, many of whom thought it would be more "proper" to use Greek*. As isn't unusual in history, the world changed so that Latin was no longer the common language of the people, but it took a millennium or so for that to happen, and another millennium for the Church to recognize the fact. (Since the Catholic Church is catholic, it sometimes has the need for a common language. When that need comes up, Latin is still the Church's equivalent of Westron.)   

[More on one special day] 



Besides the idea of daily and annual liturgical cycles, I think Tolkien's liturgical mindset impacts LotR through what might be called Biblical imagery. As with other aspects of the book, it's difficult to know how much of this was unconscious on Tolkien's part and how much was conscious. In one online discussion a few years ago, I casually mentioned the similarities between the events at the Ford of Bruinen and the crossing of the Red Sea as related in Exodus (more specifically, what happens to the Egyptians after the Israelites cross the Red Sea - "Horse and rider he has cast into the sea!"), which I assumed was pretty commonly recognized. I was surprised when this turned out to be a completely new thought to one of the other people in the discussion, who's a recognized - and even published - authority on Tolkien; at that point in the story my now-disintegrating "purple emu" copy of FotR has the notation "Exodus 12" penciled in the margin, where I wrote it at age 14 or 15. I can't say with certainty that I noticed the similarities because I was Catholic and the Tolkien expert didn't because he wasn't, but I do think there's some kind of a connection there. When I was 15, I assumed that the parallel was intentional on Tolkien's part, but having learned more about both Tolkien and fiction writing since then, now I'm not so sure. Not that it matters; either way, there are no other parallels suggesting that it's meant to be in any way allegorical (for one thing, the Egyptians couldn't come back again riding different steeds).  

That's just one example; you've probably recognized others. Compare the description of Gandalf's appearance when he's met by the Three Hunters with that of Jesus' Transfiguration as seen by Peter, James, and John. As a Catholic, Tolkien would also have been familiar with the very similar description of the "Ancient of Days" in the section of the book of Daniel that's in the Apochrypha (that is, accepted as part of Scripture by Catholics but not by Protestants). Again, this doesn't mean the similarities are planned. As someone familiar with Scripture, Tolkien would have been likely to use its imagery, even unconsciously, to describe an appearance that provoked awe. (There's no doubt that Tolkien was familiar with Scripture; he was one of the people who worked on the English translation of the Jerusalem Bible.)

Much of what's proclaimed at the Field of Cormallen strikes me as not only being reminiscent of the Psalms but also as sounding very liturgical (of course, those two things go together, since the Psalms were originally songs used in Jewish liturgy). Ever wondered how that many people could be shouting the same words all at the same time? It reminds me of something I miss from the "old days" (which I personally can't say about many things). Part of Benediction, a paraliturgical worship service that's been around for a very long time, is the congregation reciting the "Divine Praises." Because the service has been around for so long - that is, since before many people were literate - in the old days each of the Divine Praises was first said by the priest, then repeated by the people. Into my young adulthood, I loved this, because it felt like cheering on a team, or cheering for a king:

Blessed be God.

Blessed be God!

Blessed be His Holy Name.

Blessed be His Holy Name!

...and on for about a dozen more lines. (BTW, because Benediction is paraliturgical rather than officially liturgical, this was done in the local language while the Mass was still in Latin.)

I think of this when I read:

Long live the Halflings!

Praise them with great praise!

And perhaps even more when the king, presiding over the celebration, cries out:

...so that his voice rang over all the host:

'Praise them with great praise!'

And when the glad shout had swelled up and died away again...

Now, in recognition of widespread literacy, at most Benediction services the congregation simply recites the Divine Praises along with the priest. I kind of miss the old dynamic.



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*If you want good odds of winning a liturgical trivia contest with a Catholic, ask him or her which part of the Mass was never in Latin. The correct answer is the "Kyrie" (Kee' ree ae, in case you don't speak Greek), or "Lord have mercy". It shows how tenaciously that early intelligentsia hung onto their preferred language: the Kyrie remained in Greek until the Second Vatican Council finally put it into the language of the people - which, by then, was no longer Latin. If the Catholic tries to fudge an answer by saying "the sermon," remind him or her that when Latin was the common language of the people, the sermon was, indeed, in Latin.

This is a very good example of the geeky knowledge discussed in the previous essay. The reason the question would stump a lot of Catholics in a trivia contest is that most Catholics aren't liturgy geeks. The Greek Kyrie is part of what Catholics know as "the Latin Mass," so most assume it's in Latin and don't think much about it. This is certainly nothing relevant to the faith commitment of Catholics - it's just one bit of the historical trivia accumulated over two millennia which, IMHO, is fun to know.