Mysteries and Paradoxes
One of my theology teachers was excited about mysteries. She said if something's a mystery, that doesn't mean we can't know anything about it (as in, "That's a mystery; don't even try to understand it."). On the contrary, a mystery is something that's infinitely knowable - no matter how much we learn about it there will always be more that we don't understand. I could memorize every book ever written on the Holy Trinity, and still be on the first page as far as actually understanding how there can be three Persons in one God. One statement from this teacher that I particularly remember is, "That's why heaven has to last forever." We'll never reach the end of the mystery of God and each other that we'll encounter there.
There's a legend about Saint Thomas Aquinas, whose multi-volume Summa Theologica is still arguably the greatest work of theology ever written. The legend says that he was walking along the seashore, reflecting on how the Holy Trinity could be explained, when he came upon a small boy who had dug a hole in the sand and was pouring water into it from his little bucket. The boy went back and forth between the sea and the sand, filling the bucket with water and then emptying it into the hole. Thomas asked the boy what he was doing, and the boy replied, "I'm putting the sea into my well." Thomas told him, of course, that this was impossible. The huge sea would never fit inside that tiny space. The boy looked at him and said, "It's not as impossible for the sea to fit into this hole as it is for you to understand the Trinity." Then the boy vanished. After experiencing this vision, Thomas said that everything he had written was "so much straw." Whether or not the legend is true, it provides a hint of what a mystery is.
The mystery that many of us are most familiar with is that of another person. Think of the person you know better than you know anyone else. Then ask yourself if you know everything about that person. Can they still surprise you at times? Sometimes the closer we grow to someone the more we come to realize how much more there is to understand about that person than we do - or that we'll ever be able to. Each human being is infinitely knowable: a mystery. If a human being, who's made in the image of God, is infinitely knowable, how much more of a mystery must God be? (A nonsensical thought, of course; there's no such thing as "more" when you're talking about infinity. But, certainly, God's mystery must be more infinite than a human's mystery - right? Hmmm... We may have just encountered a paradox.)
Paradoxes aren't the same thing as mysteries, but they're often related because a paradox is something that seems to be a contradiction but isn't: Christ being fully human and fully divine. One God in Three Persons. "One catholic, holy and apostolic Church" that's made up of us decidedly divided, self-centered, sinful, and fearful believers. Scripture that's inspired by God but composed by human beings. The theology teacher I mentioned above compared accepting a paradox to grasping two poles that are set in the ground - one to our left and one to our right - that are close enough to each other that we can hold onto both of them at the same time, but far enough apart that in order to do so we have to stretch out our arms to the point where we feel the tension. We humans often find paradoxes uncomfortable enough that we want to drop one of the seemingly incompatible beliefs, but then we lose much of the truth.
Accepting the existence of paradoxes is accepting our human limitations. A young child might think a sunny day that's also cold is a contradiction. As the child gets older and understands the world better, she realizes that this wasn't a contradiction at all but just seemed like one, which is our definition of a paradox. As finite beings, we shouldn't be surprised that there are some things that will always be beyond our ability to completely understand - things that will always look like contradictions to us even though they aren't. Some of these we - or the people of Tolkien's cosmos - believe through faith (Elbereth is physically in Valinor, but her name is "more deadly" than a sword to the Witch-king in the midst of Middle-earth). A great many of them we - and they - experience as true simply because we encounter them in the world and in our lives every day (good can be brought out of evil, but the effects of evil cannot be completely undone). The Catholic mindset is paradox-friendly, and The Lord of the Rings is full of them.
Steeped in Catholic thought since he was a young boy, Tolkien was comfortable with mysteries and paradoxes - more so, I think, than most fiction authors. We only have to read "Leaf by Niggle" to see that he considered his own subcreation to be "infinitely knowable," a mystery even to himself. He worked for over 50 years developing his subcreation, and was still discovering new things about it at the time he died in 1973. When I hear or read the statement that it's too bad Tolkien didn't have time to "figure it all out," my response is that even if he'd had the immortality of an Elf, he never would have "figured it all out." As in learning about our primary creation, finding one answer just led him to more questions. This would be a difficult position for a lot of authors. If you don't set any boundaries on what can be known about your imagined world, where do you stop? Tolkien's answer was… you don't!
Most people who become his lifelong readers are people who love that kind of a mystery, too. Many aspects of LotR have been discussed since it was published, with readers having different ways of interpreting them but no clear answer, just as is true with "real" history. I was reminded of this on a message board a few years ago, when a newbie asked one of those decades-old questions (not realizing, of course, that he wasn't the first reader to have ever thought of it). Since it was a Tolkien-related board, we did what Tolkien readers do: we started discussing it. One person gave her take on the question, a second commented on her response and added his own, a third came in with a different idea on it... and we had what became (for us, anyway) an enjoyable discussion. Then the newbie came back and effectively killed his own thread by saying, "Well, I thought someone here would know the answer!" I laughed till I cried. But then I reflected on the serious thought that in order to spend years reading and studying Tolkien's work, someone has to get at least as much satisfaction from exploring the mystery of a question as from finding "the" answer.
Because of his ability to accept paradoxes, Tolkien doesn't shy away from presenting them to his readers. Many fiction authors feel the need to pick one side of an issue, or of human nature, and write their story to fit. They avoid any seeming contradictions that they can't entirely explain. They don't want to have readers writing them letters asking, "But what about…?" I believe this is one reason much of their fiction seems, well, fictional, as opposed to the reality that so many readers find in Middle-earth. We know life has paradoxes. We've encountered, and probably struggled with, many of them. A story that somehow manages to leave them out is missing part of life as we live it. It's a little too neat. Tolkien had many readers write him letters asking, "But what about…?" Not infrequently, those questions led him to deeper insights about his own subcreation.
Just a few of the paradoxes we encounter in Middle-earth are: going to battle when called upon is admirable although war itself is not; the curse of death is also the Gift of Ilúvatar; one person is of infinite worth, but anything important is never accomplished by one person acting alone; high lineage doesn't guarantee nobility, although it can impart it. In J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century, Thomas Shippey devotes an entire chapter to the question of whether Tolkien considered the evil of the Ring to be an outside power that attacks a person, or something that arises within the person himself. The answer finally arrived at is that, of course, he considered it to be both. There's no contradiction there, although for some people it might be a paradox.
During the principal filming of the recent LotR movies in New Zealand, some of the cast visited the location of the Star Wars movie that was being shot at the same time in Australia. One of the things they noticed, and commented on afterward, was how clean the Star Wars sets were. They said that, coming from their Middle-earth locations with dirt under their fingernails, they felt rustic next to the neat and clean Star Wars actors. Even though George Lucas is very open in his acknowledgement that Tolkien was an inspiration to him in creating Star Wars, I know which world, story, and set of characters I recognize as real. Middle-earth is messy in more than the physical. People who want "neat" fiction that explains everything, ties up all the loose ends, and has no perceived contradictions will be uncomfortable there, unless they can learn to accept some dirt under their fingernails.