In today's Inside the Core, I will be focusing on my own Core III, Engaging the World, class – Fantasy and Faith: Tolkien, Lewis, and their Precursors. This week and next week, our class will be reading J. R. R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book in the trilogy The Lord of the Rings. In this book, Tolkien introduces the reader to the hobbit, Frodo Baggins, who has inherited the Ring of Power from his uncle, Bilbo Baggins, unlikely hero of Tolkien's The Hobbit. How Frodo deals with the Ring, once it has been revealed to him as an embodiment of evil by Gandalf, the wizard, is the basis of the tale of this beloved book.
Tolkien begins the story by consciously echoing the beginning of The Hobbit, in ways that offer both similarities and contrasts. Like The Hobbit, which begins with an "unexpected party," The Fellowship of the Ring also begins with a party, but this one is a "long expected party." When Frodo finally goes off on his adventure, he is in his fiftieth year, just as Bilbo was when he went off, more reluctantly, on his earlier adventure. The Fellowship also portrays the Shire, home of the hobbits, as a beautiful, natural, ecologically friendly world of simple, if at times provincial and narrow-minded, people. The Hobbit reveals the same Shire, and the hobbits similarly, as represented by the more fearful and self-contained side of Bilbo.
However, as The Fellowship progresses, we see Frodo transformed into a truly heroic and even Christ-like character. He offers to carry the Ring, no matter what it might do to him, being willing to leave the Shire and take the Ring to a safer place. Having taken it to the elven kingdom of Rivendell, Frodo, once again, rises to the call for someone to take the Ring into Mordor, home of the evil "Lord of the Rings" Sauron, and throw it into the fire in Mount Doom. The Fellowship (of the title) consists of a group that will accompany Frodo on this task – three additional Hobbits, a Dwarf, and Elf, and two Men. This group splits up by the end of the story, with only Frodo and his faithful companion, Sam, going off to Mordor together. Frodo is wounded on Weathertop Hill, but continues to hold onto the Ring, against all odds.
How does this story, a fantasy, help students to engage the world (as all Core III courses are supposed to do)? The challenge of the course is to see the variety of ways the story does, in fact, do this. The sacrificial choices of Frodo are only a few examples of choosing love over selfishness, an attitude deeply important in the Christian faith and challenging to the "me first." Aragorn, whom the Hobbits meet on their journey and who becomes their guide, is another Christ-like character, a king in exile who risks all to help Frodo with his mission. Gandalf, the wizard, sacrifices himself in the iconic battle with the Balrog, "a demon of the ancient world," protecting his friends with the supernatural power that is in him, but falling to his death in the process, truly laying down his life for his friends, an act of which Jesus said there is "no greater love."
The story also illustrates unity of varying peoples and "races," as the Elves, Dwarves, Humans, and Hobbits are called. Tolkien clearly shows that it is crucial for all of these kinds of creatures to work together to defeat evil. Though he shows natural biases between particular kinds of people (Elves and Dwarves, for example), these are overcome, as Gimli, the Dwarf, experiences in Lothlorien, home of the beautiful and gracious queen, Galadriel, who welcomes him with gentleness and kindness, despite years of prejudice between their peoples. He comes to love and value her almost worshipfully.
The Fellowship of the Ring, like the entire The Lord of the Rings, shows the importance of a love of nature, as a good and noble thing – something to be respected, not used and abused. In fact, a very clear indicator of whether or not a character is either good or evil in LOTR is how that character treats the natural world. Hobbits and Elves are particularly linked with nature, their habitats clearly integrated in a powerful way with their natural surroundings. Evil characters like Sauron and his lesser follower, the fallen wizard Saruman, use and abuse nature for their own selfish purposes, throwing trees into the fires, sometimes seeming to destroy nature just for fun and for no purpose at all. The land around Mordor is completel devastated, with nearly all natural life diminished or, for the most part, destroyed.
Finally, The Fellowship of the Ring teaches an important lesson about the correct use of power. In Tolkien's world, there are two kinds of power – good power that seeks to serve and to help others, out of love, never domination, and evil power that seeks to dominate others for selfish means and is thereby destructive. Even mostly good characters, like Boromir, can be seduced by the evil kind of power as represented by the Ring, but the deeply good and wise characters, like Gandalf and Galadriel, know how to use the power they have for good, and to reject the evil power, even when it is offered to them. In class, we discussed this topic. Gandalf, when offered the Ring by Frodo, refuses it, saying it would have a power too great through him, making it all the more dangerous. It would begin by his using it for good, but the good would not last. Galadriel also rejects the Ring when it is offered to her by Frodo. Though tempted by it, she ultimately decides to "diminish and go into the West and remain Galadriel." Both know that the use of evil power always leads to evil, even when put to a good purpose. Ultimately, it will destroy the one who uses it.
Laying down the temptations of evil power, along with offering oneself in sacrificial love, is one of the key lessons of The Lord of the Rings. A devout Catholic, Tolkien's work deeply reflected his faith, the "evangelium" as he often referred to the Gospel. Tolkien once wrote to a friend, a Jesuit priest: "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision." All of the good characters understand that to lay down power out of love is, paradoxically, more powerful than the grasping of power could ever be. Tolkien's work reflects the very ancient kenosis (the self-emptying) passage, referring to Jesus:
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Tolkien's fantasy shows readers realities in themselves and in their world that might be harder to see even in a work of realism. And it is for this reason that the fantasy works of Tolkien and Lewis offer excellent and compelling ways to consider how to let faith and love help us in "engaging the world."
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