A Conclusion to a Lent of the Lord of the Rings

Three years.

It is incredible for me to reflect on all that has passed and transpired since I first put (digital) ink to (digital) paper on this reflection series back in the spring of 2015. The Lenten read of The Lord of the Rings dates back even earlier: to 2014 on paper, to years beyond that in my mind. I read over the sentences and thoughts I transcribed back at the start of 2015, of 2016, even this year, and it is strange how things have changed. In 2015, I was a young unmarried teaching in San Jose in a world reeling from economic crisis with political strife building. In 2017, I am an older, married research in Washington DC in a world struggling with political chaos and an uncertain future.

Yet, for all these, much has remained the same: the desire for pilgrimage; the longing for the good, true, and beautiful; the recognition of the value of tradition, ritual, and the wisdom of path times; the long defeat. At the core, the most foundational and lasting fact is my appreciation for The Lord of the Rings and my conviction that reading it – especially during Lent – can bring out meaningful insight and deep reflection. Three years in, we have traveled with Frodo and the Fellowship through all three gospel cycles; we have gone there and back again with over 180 reflections; and on over 6,000 instances has a fellow traveler paused to consider the quest for Mt. Doom here.

What, then, is the ultimate message of “A Lent of the Lord of the Rings” this year? The same message it has always been: that there are good things in this world, and they are worth fighting for, and though the victory has already been won for us, sometimes we must sacrifice the things we love so that others may have them in due time. In is the gospel, the eucatastrophe, the mingling of Cross and Ring, Mt. Doom and Calvary. But, as I scan over the individual reflections of the past year, I think there is something slightly different, for in topic and in word there has been a heavy emphasis on strongholds. Woven through this year’s journey was a growing sense that things were growing more tenuous and more dangerous, and that though the world could not be abandoned, fortified places – Rivendell, Lothlorien, Helm’s Deep, Minas Tirith – were needed where we could find rest, succor, and wisdom for the long roads ahead. We recognized that we could not linger forever in these islands amidst the storm, but nevertheless we treasured them.

I do not know what that rightly means for the days ahead. Nevertheless, I hope that you, dear reader, dear companion, dear fellow pilgrim, have enjoys these past days of stories and musings. I especially wish to thank those who contributed their own reflections, as well as my wife, who had to put up with my early risings and audiobook listenings. This is an annual journey, and I encourage you to download the reading plan for 2018 so you have it ready to go for next February 5th. May the blessings of elves, men, and all free folk go with you, until our next meeting.

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On Majesty and Sharpness

Ainulindalë

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“Amid all the splendors of the World, its vast halls and spaces, and its wheeling fires, Iluvatar chose a place.” (Source)

One of the most beneficial results of the study of science is an appreciation for the details and nuances of things. One can look outwards and consider the infinite number of stars, worlds, and galaxies in their incredible diversity, and such a sense of majestic creation can leave one overwhelmed and breathless. Yet one can also look inwards and consider the impressive complexity and finesse of a single cell, compound, or even atom, and such a sense of majestic intentionality can leave one dazed and humbled.

And yet, as the Christian faith (and many other religions) teaches, amidst all the majesty of the universe large and small, this particular world of Earth, and this particular species of man, holds a particular focus of the Creator. For some, this is irrational and unnerving: why should we consider ourselves so important in the grand scheme of the universe?

Tolkien addresses this understanding in his creation myth, the Ainulindalë, in a line which my eyes ever before this most recent read had glazed over:

“This habitation might seem a little thing to those who consider only the majesty of the Ainur, and not their terrible sharpness; as who should take the whole field of Arda for the foundation of a pillar and so raise it until the cone of its summit were more bitter than a needle; or who would consider only the immeasurable vastness of the World, which still the Ainur are shaping, and not the minute precision to which they shape all things therein.”

Alongside awe and wonder is sharpness: an appreciation on the particular, the specific, precision. For the incredible beauty of creation lays not only in the large but in the small, not only in the majesty but also in the focus. While a viewer may gaze upon a painting and take in the incredible sum of all the parts, a connoisseur can comprehend each brush stroke, each choice of paint and style, each subtle gesture. Yet the artist carries something more beyond that: a history, a memory, a connection to each of those individual components, drafted over time, that come together into the majesty of the whole. The audacity of Christianity is not that so great a Creator could exist that could bring the world into being, but instead the claim that the Creator could know and love a single part of that world so intimately as to intervene on its behalf, be born into it, die for it.

In that way, it is the sharpness, even more so than the majesty, that leaves us with awe and wonder. Science helps us see the details of the field and the expanses of the immeasurable vastness so that we understand how small and little a thing our world and our people are in the grandeur of God. Faith helps us to then recognize how nevertheless the small and the little is so significant in the eyes of a loving God, shaping still the world we live in.


2016’s Reflection: “On the Splendor of Ilúvatar
2015’s Reflection: “On Music

On the Holding of Grudges

“The Book of Jonah”

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Jonah under the gourd (Source)

Jonah is not a particularly admirable man. He flees from God; he is recklessly sarcastic; he is fairly half-hearted in his work; he is extremely judgement. Towards the end of the short Book of Jonah, however, one of his major character faults make itself quite evidently displayed: his bitter attitude to holding on to grudges.

Jonah is angry with God, resentful that, having made Jonah go through all the troubles of getting to Nineveh and calling down fire and brimstone, instead at the first moment of repentance the Lord would call off his punishment. By the accounts of Jewish history these people are not friends of God, and even the Lord in the wit of this account subtly makes fun of the Ninevites, suggesting they might be less than animals though still worthy of love. Jonah is excited that this proud people are going to get their come-up-ins, and that he is going to tell it to them straight: and then God changes the plan on him, and offers them mercy!

There is a simple and obvious reaction to this moral tale, a reflection on mercy and God’s love and the need for forgiveness. There is perhaps also a more subtle and contextually relevant interpretation, about God’s love for our perceived enemies and the need to announce a message of conversation, not destruction, upon the “others” of our day. But then there is a deeper, more complicated, and less clear lesson that comes forth from the Book of Jonah: about our role to play in the unfolding of God’s plan, and our reaction when we only see part of the whole picture.

For how often do we find ourselves in a similar place as Jonah: committed after long wrestling with God to serve some greater purpose – enter into some community, travel to some distant land, take up some new mission or work – and then, seemingly in the most unexpected moment, the plans change. Perhaps the opportunity is closed off to us; perhaps the sense of consolation and fervor dwindles; however it happens, often times having nothing to do with us at all, God’s purpose seems to change on us, and we feel betrayed and led along. We hold a grudge against the Lord, not for withholding some good from us, but for reorienting some road we thought He had set us down.

Yet, God’s purpose does not change, and God’s plan has been set forth from the beginning of the world. It is our understanding, or misunderstanding, or lack thereof, that drives our sense of resentment and bitterness. We are not privy to the full comprehension of the mind of God, and our curvy path from mission to cause to opportunity, while fruitless from our humble position, reflects the grace and love of God in the world. Had Jonah not come to Nineveh, the people would not have repented, and not have been saved from destruction. God’s plan was not modified; Jonah’s heart was the thing that need a change and renewal.


2016’s Reflection: “On Translations
2015’s Reflection: “On This fish, of which the Author is Fond

On Stories Suited for Children

“On Fairy-stories”

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Wisdom and humility, a traditional rendention (Source)

The genre of fantasy has made many strides into the popular culture since the time Tolkien penned his essay, “On Fairy-stories.” Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, and the movie adaptations of Tolkien’s work itself have become cultural touchstones; the tabletop gaming renaissance and comic book movie universe juggernauts only aid in making the appreciation of fantasy stories in adulthood no longer a quiet and hidden affair, but a visible and featured phenomenon. After all, for many a year, fantasy was a genre deemed suited for children, a world which provides wonder in childhood and escape during teenage years but that one “grew out of” into more mature forms of media and writing.

This, as a whole, in a welcomed change of perspective, as it has made the joys of experiencing fantasy appropriately accessible to men and women of all ages, and has reopen the paths to kernels of knowledge or discovery hidden in the crafted worlds of the sub-creator to those long passed their youth. Yet, as with much, not all is wholesome and worthy of emulation, for as fantasy has grown popular, it has also lost some of that which makes it fantasy. It has conformed and incorporated new aspects to broaden its appeal or smooth its sharp edges. The counter-reaction by those concerned with the “watering down” of fantasy has been starkly wrapped in social discourse and identity politics. What’s missing is that wondrous place that fantasy began: with fairy-stories, with the tales suited for children.

As Tolkien notes in his essay, the association of fairy-stories with children is not explicit to their content but instead to their context, that is to say, stories vaguely remembered but not considered important for adult affairs: nursery stories for nanny and others of less-educated backgrounds to entertain the minds of little ones. Yet, as many in Middle-earth will note, it is dangerous to disregard the old wives tales and little legends, as what the old women remember and ancient men noted may be truth lost to the complexity and passing of the times. Even though children are not a different class and species and therefore have no greater need for fairy-stories than any other group, there is still a sense that they are suited for children: perhaps because they have a moral situated only somewhat subtly near the surface of the story, or perhaps because they end happily ever after, or perhaps because children’s imaginations are better than their parents.

All are arguments made about fairy-stories, but nevertheless Tolkien rejects each in turn. Only the simplest stories have simple morals: the fairy-stories of epic size and scale may hide little details and nuances that require multiple listenings to discover. And most fairy-stories are both happy and sad: the heroes win, and good things come again, but things are lost, and not everything is the same again. And the things that fairy-stories offers a child – “Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation” – are “all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people.”

Fairy-stories, in truth, are suited for children because they are suited for all of us. I suspect, however, the reason we maintain this notion about fairy-stories even as fantasy abounds is for the same concern that hinders faith in our times: we who are old are unease at what such things might mean for us, while children can embrace them more willingly. Fairy-stories and faith challenge in strange and uncomfortable ways, suggesting that progress might not be all the good that we think, that the loss and fading of magical things might be a necessity of the world, that the story we are in is larger and more important than we who live in, because there is something greater just around the next page. We cannot pretend to be children, but we must learn from the little ones on this matter, as Christ suggested: to possess the humility set aside the fantasy idols we craft in our image, and return to the fairy-stories that point us to that greater end.


2016’s Reflection: “On the Defense of Fantasy
2015’s Reflection: “On Eucatastrophe

An Overture to “A Lent of the Lord of the Rings”

Well, here we are.

Ten months ago when I put into temporary hibernation “A Lent of the Lord of the Rings,” I noted the darkness and the sense of powerlessness that seemed to be encroaching on all fronts. I admitted that I wished that these times were not mind to endure, and worried that many a land would be marred by gloom. Alas that the intervening months have not lessened these concerns; instead, in my life both at home and in the community, I am weighed by burdens, sorrows, anxieties. I suspect I am not the only one to have such cares, as I look out onto a broken world more and more showing its scars and hostile to itself.

Fitting, then, that we return yet again here: to Lent, to The Lord of the Rings, to the literary and spiritual journey to the mountain, to the end of all things. For in The Lord of the Rings there is an escape, but an escape that reaffirms our commitments. In this Lenten season there is a taking up of one burdens, ultimately to lay them at the foot of the cross. Perhaps more than in the years that have passed are we, reader and writer, present in this quest, this fool’s errand, this fellowship. Perhaps this season has arrived precisely when it needs to.

This will be my third year reflecting on The Lord of the Rings over Lent, and as such I should note two small changes for the days ahead.

First, in the inter-Lenten period I have made my way through the twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth, the collection of Tolkien’s drafts, early attempts, and alterations made to the Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and many of his other works. It is an exhaustive and exhausting collection, but it has offered me further glimpses into the proto-hobbit’s mind. More than anything, the volumes make clear the reflection and iteration it took through most of the story to craft the beautiful, poignant, and thought-provoking lines that have inspired so many of my posts these past three years. Rarely did a scene spring forth perfectly formed; therefore, the few that did are even more awe-inspiring. Throughout this year I hope to use the revelations surfaced from this collection to help dive even deeper into the text.

Second, this year I will try a new approach: I am going to listen to the entirety of The Lord of the Rings via audiobook. Tolkien’s epic is probably both my favorite book and the one I have re-read the most. As such, I quite familiar with it, and know many parts by heart. Consequently, I know there are passages upon which I linger and through which I speed. I am cognizant of lines which I savor and lines which I skim. And I am comfortable, though a bit embarrassed, to admit that I have a tendency to overlook the poetry and the long descriptions. Therefore, it is my hope that listening to the book will shake things up, forcing me to approach the story with a new perspective and comprehend new details that I can no longer overlook, whether intentionally or not.

The audiobooks are daunting (the unabridged Fellowship of the Rings is over 19 hours long), and so unless from personal experience you greatly prefer listening over reading, I still recommend picking up a physical copy. That said, if you do join with your ears instead of your eyes, I encourage downloading the version narrated by Rob Inglis, which can be found on sites such as Audible.

So, wherever you are – whether living in fear or cautiously hopeful, whether frustrated or impassioned, whether bitter or broken, whether done with it all or just getting started – grab your copy, and let’s set out. Over the days ahead, we’ll wander the forests and mountains of both Middle-earth and our own lives, and we may find green things and a hope for spring. But even in the dead leaves that we take up in our hands and hearts we will take comfort, for as Hilaire Belloc once wrote, “Year after year have I picked up the dead leaves, until all the leaves of my life were dead, and year after year I have found between my hands gold and more gold.”

On February 20th, I hope you will join me in a Lenten read of The Lord of the Rings.

A Postlude to “A Lent of the Lord of the Rings”

And so ends another year of a Lent of the Lord of the Rings, and over the course of the last sixty-odd days, I hope you have enjoyed taking up J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. As I hope my reflections have shown, it is a tale with depth, a story that forces one to ponder the good, the true, and the beautiful. And though I have not shied away from Christian considerations and Catholic contexts in these posts (hopefully honoring therefore the memory of Tolkien, himself a lifelong Catholic), nevertheless, they are musings meant for everyone, provocations and thoughts I hope helped enriched the book at hand and that will linger with you over the days to come.

To that end, I also impart my humble and sincere gratitude for another year of support and encouragement. It is truly my honor to be able to share my passion and joy for Tolkien’s tale with such a diverse audience, and your reading, comments, and sharing are ever appreciated. Particular thanks belongs to my wife, Laura, for suffering my early hours and audible brainstorming needed to complete this daily task. If you have enjoyed these posts or have stumble upon this site in later days, please consider taking the time to download a copy of the LOTR Lent Schedule 2017 and sharing it with friends and family you think might be interested. I do not know what next year will have in store, but if you “like” the A Lent of the Lord of the Rings page on Facebook or follow @lotrlent on Twitter, you will be the first to learn.

Many days ago before we began this journey, I reflected in my post “On the Return of the Lent” on the “growing darkness” and the “cracks beginning to show.” Alas, the view from the end of these wanderings through Middle-earth seems little brighter or more secure. Time and time again as I read through this beloved volume and penned words upon the digital page I found myself returning to a few lines spoken by Tolkien at a party held in his honor in 1958:

“I look East, West, North, South, and I do not see Sauron. But I see that Saruman has many descendants. We Hobbits have against them no magic weapons. Yet, my gentle hobbits, I give you this toast: To the Hobbits. May they outlast the Sarumans and see spring again in the trees.”

I too look out: East to politics; West to economics; North to culture; South to technology; and neither do I see the menace of Sauron, pure and overwhelming evil unbridled. Instead, I see the descendents of Saruman, also possessing minds of metal and wheels, who speak well and offer tempting opportunity but would betray us to our ruin. As they gather power all about me, I too feel powerless to stop them from uprooting and destroying many of the things I love the most. And though powerless in these times, wishing that they were not mine to endure, nevertheless do Gandalf’s words return to my heart: “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.”

For me at least, that will be the challenge of the comings months: discerning what to do with these days that you and I have been given. And though many lands have and may yet be touched by darkness, there still endures a light which we should harken to. To quote (film-version) Samwise Gamgee, “There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”

The road goes ever on and on….


2015’s Conclusion: “An Epilogue of a Lenten Lord of the Rings

On the Splendor of Ilúvatar

Ainulindalë

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Dante gazes upon the choirs of heaven (Source)

When reading a book, there lingers a temptation to flip through the pages to the concluding chapter and the final words of the tale. When watching a show, there exists a subconscious desire to fast-forward through certain scenes – whether because they are frightening, dull, anxious or suggestive – to the ending and preview the ultimate curtain fall. This desire to know the end, to comprehend a vision of the future, appears in life as well: divination and fortune-telling, academic theories and prophecies, cyclical calendars and countless other mechanisms. Yet there always remains in regards to the future a mystery, a lack of information, an uncertainty, a surprise. The unfolding of the splendor of Ilúvatar is beyond our expectation.

As Tolkien writes in his creation myth, “For to none but himself has Ilúvatar revealed all that he has in store, and in every age there come forth things that are new and have no foretelling.” We can glean patterns and trends, and though as Christians we have faith and hope in the ultimate triumph of God, nevertheless for man “eye has not seen, and ear has not heard” of the full measure of the plans of the Divine. “Though the Music is over all, the Valar have not seen as with sight the Later Ages or the ending of the World,” as Tolkien notes. We are restrained from knowing the end pages and end scenes of creation in their detail and splendor.

Such a limitation challenges a mortal being, and gives one pause at one’s place in the saga of existence. As Dennis Quinn suggests in his volume Iris Exiled: A Synoptic History of Wonder:

“Happiness for individual persons or for a people is something given rather than something pursued. We really do not know what we want or what is good for us. It may be that the worst things – the loss of the best things, the loss of everything – are for the best. Had not Troy fallen, there could have been no Rome.”

Women and men cannot fully comprehend the full splendor of the divine, and remain unable to comprehend how every moment, every choice, every unfolding of everything that lives is but “a part of the whole and tributary to its glory.” Our limited and seemingly insignificant role in great theme of the divine can leave us musing as T.S. Elliot’s Simeon, “Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer, not for me the ultimate vision, grant me thy peace.” We have but a little passage in the daylight, as Hilaire Belloc mused. Yet whatever times in which we dwell, whatever call to which we harken, whatever rambling road to the final tavern to which we travel, still we prepare ourselves to participated in the music sung “before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days.” No surprise, no unforetold unfolding undermines our ultimate desire and fate.

And so we remain only able to leaf through the pages of our past and present, and like Belloc find between our hands “gold and more gold.” We cannot fully comprehend how the loss of Troy can let rise Rome, or how, as Macaulay offered, the theme of the divine music can remain and resonate amidst the “broken arch of London Bridge” or “the ruins of St. Paul’s.” The splendor of Ilúvatar, the unfolding song of God, remains a mystery, a surprise in which we have our existence. And though we do not know all that is to come before the final resolution, nevertheless we a part of it.

Gratitude. Awe. Wonder.


2015’s Reflection: “On Music