Tolkien as Open and Relational
A Quick and Possibly Tenuous Claim
I doubt anyone would consider Tolkien and open and relational theologian. I use theologian in the broad definition of thinking about God. Yet, I wonder if all the deterministic language in Tolkien’s writing obscures a very open world. Fate is mentioned almost as if the stories being lived out have a set ending. But if we dig down, we see many decisions and cooperative actions by most characters. I think I can fairly argue that the only moves to enforce determinism come from Sauron and Morgoth before him. Forces of evil in Tolkien’s world are more interested in how fate and prophecy reinforce their power. The Witch King is defeated by an arrogant belief in a prophecy that no man would defeat him when he is struck down by Eowyn, who declares that she is no man. The One Ring even tries to control, but we see real and impactful decisions made against its designs.
Ainulindalë, the creation myth of Tolkien’s universe, is another example of openess. While Iluvatar has a vision for the universe, the dissonant music of Morgoth nee Melkor may become part of the larger music of the Ainar. Yes, Iluvatar’s purposes are achieved, but not without the new music. Melkor’s music and subsequent work in the world continue to affect the paths that many find themselves upon. The Ainar finds that decisions each makes as they shape Middle Earth depends upon cooperation and a multiplicity of voices. There is a beauty to the many paths the races and individuals within the stories could take.
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The beautiful conversation between Frodo and Sam at the end of The Two Towers illuminates the open and relational nature of Tolkien’s stories. (At least in my mind.) As the two hobbits lean on one another in an abiding love of one another they realize that the story they are currently living links back to the great stories of heroes and villians throughout the ages of Middle Earth. But there is an open truth within that conversation. Sam realizes those tales are not as fateful as they seem. “Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end.” They had lots of chances of turning back, yet continued. Their fate was not set, yet their decisions coincided with the greater story.
As with any reading of Tolkien, an open and relational one is in the reader’s mind. But in our open and relational reality, our minds are often the place we find the battles occurring, rather than the wider world. Yet we make actual decisions and choices that affect that wider world. We find ourselves in stories, many that go back many generations, and our choices still affect the trajectory of those stories. If we see how we fit in larger stories, we can make better decisions, yet those choices we make are real and make a difference. Whether Tolkien understood that consciously (which I doubt) he wrote stories that allowed choices to affect the paths those stories took.
It is only a series of choices to be merciful by several characters that allowed the One Ring to be destroyed. In the end, the only creature who could truly destroy the ring was Gollum. Several characters lament their failure to kill Gollum at various points in The Lord of the Rings. From Bilbo to Legolas to Sam, and others, each choice to spare Gollum allowed some immediate mischief, yet those choices are the only reason the ring is destroyed in the end. Our supposed hero, Frodo, cannot overcome the seduction of the ring at the end and it is only through a tragic attempt to seize the ring for himself that Gollum inadvertently destroys himself and the ring. I wonder if the actual hero, Sam Gamgee, would have been able to toss the ring without effort into the fires of Mordor.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this short essay, I doubt any Tolkien scholars would agree with me, but I truly see Tolkien’s work as open and relational. Our stories are still being written and we can make real and consequential choices as we live those stories. May your story be long and may you have the relationships that prolong that story.