A Long-expected Party & The Shadow of the Past
In his book In Tune with the World, the philosopher Josef Pieper reflected that “the true existential poverty of man consists in his having lost the power to celebrate a festival festively.” Without a doubt, the hobbits of the Shire are not cursed with such a paucity.
Pieper defined celebrating a festival as “to live out, for some special occasion and in an uncommon manner, the universal assent to the world as a whole.” Bilbo’s eleventy-one birthday gathering embodies the beauty and wonder of the world in its completeness: the natural inclination for good food and drink, for dancing and singing, for entertainment and conversation, for sweet-smelling and finely decorated spaces. Even the prolonged description of Gandalf’s fireworks drips with an acceptance of the awe of the world:
“There were rockets like a flight of scintillating birds sing with sweet voices. There were green trees with trunks of dark smoke: their leaves opened like a whole spring unfolding in a moment, and their shining branches dropped glowing flowers down upon the astonished hobbits, disappearing with a sweet scent just before they touched their upturned faces. There were fountains of butterflies that flew glittering into the trees; there were pillars of coloured fires that rose and turned into eagles, or sailing ships, or a phalanx of flying swans; there was a red thunderstorm and a shower of yellow rain; there was a forest of silver spears that sprang suddenly into the air with a yell like an embattled army, and came down again into the Water with a hiss like a hundred hot snakes.”
There is such power in these images and sounds because of their reality, and the hobbits’ celebration appeals to us because it is so removed from the stale artificiality and conformity of many modern gatherings and occasions. Yet even more so, this long-expected party becomes festival in its recognition of the imperfection of the world: consent to its passing, its frailty, its rugged unfinishedness. The petty squabbles, drunken uproars, and ridiculous and “gross” complements of speech augment the festive spirit in their own hue. Man (or hobbit) is accepted as who they are, and joins the celebration in spite of his or her flaws.
The Ring, then, serves as a possible motif for sin, but not merely a command for evil. Note the effects of the Ring: invisibility (the rejection of space), immortality (the rejection of time), and control (the rejection of will). The Ring embodies the rejection of the imperfection of the world, brought about original by a good-intentioned but misplaced desire of the elves to preserve the good, fair, and beautiful from fading at all. Elves, men, hobbits, and even wizards are all tempted by the Ring out of a ultimate desire, well-intentioned or not, for control over those things beyond the telos of created beings. The Ring stands in contrast to festivity: they are two possible reactions to the turning of the world.
So, as we approach Lent, let us be people of celebration. Let us regain the riches of festive festivity: let us assent to a beautiful world, a world of wonder and imperfection. In uncommonly praising our world of joy and sorrow, we even more prepare ourselves to turn away from the Rings of our lives. With food and drink and dancing, let us again agree that this world, however passing, is good.