The Window on the West
This, the long conversation at Henneth Annûn, the Window of the Sunset, is my favorite single chapter of The Lord of the Rings. The detailed richness, the philosophical depths, the heart-stirring beauty of the characters: here woven together during a seeming pause in the story. Long could we linger, yet instead with Faramir we take the chance to briefly muse upon an essential question of Tolkien’s epic: whether within it exists any religion or faith.
The saga of The Lord of the Rings takes place in a pre-Christian world, almost seemingly religion-less. Neither Elves nor Men nor Hobbits enter any places of worship, or offer up any prayers, or perform any rituals traditionally associated with the divine. Without pause, one might argue that The Lord of the Rings is a secular tale, yet one would do so wrongly, for as Tolkien himself explained, Middle earth “is a monotheistic world of ‘natural theology’.” Tolkien’s world is charged with the grandeur of God, but the faith is subtle and deep.
For example, there is much to discover in the words of Faramir as he pauses before a meal:
“Before they ate, Faramir and all his men turned and faced west in a moment of silence. Faramir signed to Frodo and Sam that they should do likewise.
‘So we always do,’ he said, as they sat down: ‘we look towards Númenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be.’”
A moment of gratitude and remembrance that encompasses the past, present and the future: echoes of the familiar Christian “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end” certainly one hears. Yet, the strand delves deeper. Faramir is a descendent of Númenor – it is his fair ancestral home, lost due to the sins of his forebearers, to which he and his men look in memory. Just beyond sunken Númenor across the sea is Elvenhome, the ultimate resting place of the Elves which, as we recall from Frodo’s conversation with Gildor still in the Shire, many Elves are now leaving Middle earth to reach. Beyond Elvenhome is Valinor, the home of the angelic powers of the world; but beyond even there, mysteriously outside of the confines of space and time, is the ultimate home of men – that which shall await them after death, of which not even the great Valar have knowledge.
Here we have faith: fashioned deep into the foundations of the land and the lives of its inhabitants. Faramir’s words reveal all of the components: the pause for something (or someone) greater than oneself, the remembrance of past mistakes, the realization of the fleeting nature of the world, the desire for restoration and the hope for life beyond. It is Christianity without Christ, because it predates His coming. Yet it recalls in some ways C.S. Lewis’s notion, that “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” The Catholic essence, while yet unnamed and unknown, nevertheless shines forth through every part of Middle earth. The sub-creator’s faith endures through his sub-creation.
The Lord of the Rings is a Catholic story: yet because Middle earth is a different land with it’s own history, so the way religion is expressed differs. That does not take away the faith it present. Faith permeates each aspect of being, and the greatness of the divine seeps everywhere in both creation and sub-creation. That we can discover Christian faith in an non-Christian world only helps open our eyes to the light that shines forth through all things. When we gaze out from the Window on the West, no matter through what we look, nevertheless we can see that which only faith can show.