The Higher Gifts
From the first stirrings of the liturgical movement after World War II to the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960's, the Catholic Church's primary image of herself was as “the Mystical Body of Christ.” Vatican II brought the image of “the People of God” to the fore. Both of these ways of looking at the Church emphasize the same thing: We're not isolated individuals but part of a larger whole. And both models are fundamentally egalitarian. No one who is united to Christ belongs to the Mystical Body more than anyone else does.
The basis of the image is from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, a local group of Christians who were falling into the very human trap of ranking themselves according to what gifts each one brought to the group. No, said Paul, that's not how it works. Think of the Christian community as a body. In order to function correctly, the body needs all of its parts. Each part has its own role, and none of them can do the entire job on its own. Someone with the gift of speaking in tongues can't say to someone with the gift of teaching, “I don't need you,” any more than the eye can say to the ear, “I don't need you.” Paul put Christ in the role of the head of the body, and that's continued in the way the Church has developed the image. Other than that head, no one's more important than anyone else. (Sometimes various people need to be reminded of this fact, just as they did in the first century.)
But being equal doesn't mean being identical. Paul addresses that, too: “If all the body were an ear, how could it smell?” Each of us has unique gifts that we bring to the community, so each of us plays a different - if equally important - role. Exactly how to interpret that concept in regard to such issues as women in the priesthood is being hotly debated at this point in history. But, since we're not dealing with this point in history, we can leave that aside for now and look at its effect on how Tolkien tells the story of the distinct, and distinctly different, roles that characters play in LotR.
Tolkien was an avowed monarchist, which isn't too surprising given such statements as “the hands of the king are the hands of a healer.” But that doesn't mean he saw royalty as intrinsically better than everyone else. As I understand it, he considered the role of a monarch to be just that: a role. As is true with many important roles, that of monarch isn't one that's chosen by an individual. The person is given the role and needs to work to prepare for it and fulfill it. Tolkien considered someone who had been prepared for the role of leader his or her entire life to be better equipped for it than someone who independently decided at some point to try to obtain it. (I've long said we in the United States need to go back to the idea of drafting people for President who don't want the job. The very fact that someone would want to be President of the United States - and want it badly enough to focus his or her entire life, fortune, and sacred honor on it - is evidence that there's something a bit off.) But that doesn't mean a king can do anything important without other people fulfilling their own particular roles.
Aragorn's ultimate role is that of king, but what of the generations before him? Their role was to
wait, and to keep the knowledge of the lineage alive, so that when the time was right the king could return; since it was a strong-group society, who that individual would be was of lesser importance. There are several ways in which LotR is a story about the triumph of hope, and the hope carried all those generations by the heirs of Isildur, and nurtured by Elrond, triumphed in the end (“I gave Hope to the Dúnedain, I have kept no hope for myself”). That triumph depended just as much on the unseen lives of the preceding generations as it did on Aragorn's visible kingship. The stewards played an important part by keeping Gondor ready for the return of the king - until the role of steward was overstepped (or hope in the king's return was lost). The triumph also depended very much on Aragorn's “hidden” life before the War of the Ring. From guarding the Shire to tracking Gollum to leading the hobbits to Rivendell, his role and gifts dovetailed with everyone else's; and I think that's really the point. No one could achieve the goal of keeping Middle-earth free acting alone, any more than one part of a body could keep it functioning without the others.
And what of the Shire and those hobbits? Gandalf's role weaves itself through everyone else's, which is fitting for a character who very much fills the role of a prophet. He knew Bilbo was the right person to recruit as the fourteenth member of the dwarves' party, which was the decision that gave hobbits a role in the story in the first place. Tolkien warns against seeing Bilbo and Frodo as representative of hobbits. He says Gandalf chose Bilbo precisely because he was different from other hobbits, although sharing some of their common characteristics. Besides providing him the opportunity to bring the Ring back to the Shire, Bilbo's adventures introduced him to the wider world and its history and to Elves in particular, which gave him a broader understanding than most hobbits had. One of Bilbo's most important roles (second possibly to being the Ring-finder) was as mentor to Frodo, training him in ways that no other hobbit could have, preparing him for his ultimate role which neither of them could have guessed while the training was going on. He protected Frodo by teaching him to call on the name of Elbereth more surely than he did by giving him the mithril shirt. Even though Bilbo's offer to undertake the Quest himself was turned down, he was essential to its completion.
Sam comes to the realization that he “can't be their Ring-bearer,” but the Ring-bearer couldn't have made it to Mount Doom without Sam. Although Merry's attention to planning and Pippin's ability to seize the moment made them a good team, they couldn't have destroyed Isengard; but they served as the pebble causing the ripples that led the Ents to do just that. Neither Éowyn nor Merry could have destroyed the Witch-king, but together they did, both fulfilling the prophecy that “no man” would kill him.
This has been a disorganized smattering of considerations when looking at how different characters' roles affected everyone else's, and how the seemingly "more important" roles couldn't have been carried out without the less obvious ones. The interconnections spread throughout the entire history of Tolkien's subcreation, far beyond LotR, back to the roles fulfilled by those whose history Frodo saw in Galadriel's mirror. Rather than discussing all of that here, which would be (at least) a book in itself, giving these examples might give ideas of what to look for in the “many parts but one body” of Tolkien's characters.
The most important thing about Paul's discourse to the Corinthians about their identity as the body of Christ (which makes up I Corinthians 12) may be that it leads into his description of what should really be important to them (which makes up I Corinthians 13). After giving the Corinthians some fatherly correction about their desire to lord it over each other by claiming higher gifts, Paul continues: “But let me show you a better way. If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal.” No matter how gifted I may be, if I don't use those gifts with love, their good to the community will be severely limited. “In the end, there are but three things that last: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.” If I had to pick one section of Scripture that best expresses what we find in The Lord of the Rings, it would be I Corinthians 12-13. Although no one of us can accomplish anything alone, we each have the gifts to carry out our own unique role for the good of all, when we use them with love and unite them with the gifts of others.