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For Christmas last year, friends bought me the super-duper, fiftieth-anniversary, single-volume, beautifully-bound, complete Lord of the Rings. So during Lent, I finally took it out of its box and began to read. It was my fourth time through the epic, and like all great books, it improved with age. This time, I took it slowly and savored each page. I didn’t skip over the psalm-like paeans of praise or the pleasantly peasanty folk songs of the hobbits nor the leaping, greeny earth songs of Tom Bombadil.

I took my time, and I admit, my imagination was colored by Peter Jackson’s film trilogy. I like the otherworldly, New Zealand Middle Earth, and Sean Astin’s Sam Gamgee is pretty well perfect, as are the other cast members. Only Galadriel seems more spooky than holy in the film, and sometimes the orcs are too comical, but these are small grumbles. I like the visual help to my imagination, and forgive Peter Jackson and his team their small stumbles.

samwise cryingBy reading more slowly, I paid more attention to the language. I understood more deeply the emotional impact of the echoes of Anglo-Saxon alliteration. I appreciated the intentionally archaic, almost liturgical language J.R.R. Tolkien uses to evoke the royal dignity of the Court of Gondor. I caught at a deeper level the characterization caught in the voices of Gollum—so slimy and slippery—or Sam, so simple and true. I also slowed down and took time with Tolkien’s long passages of geographical and scenic description. He saw the contours of Middle Earth. Instead of racing over them for the plot as I had done before, I took time and allowed my imagination to see the landscape and thus feel the mood. The effect of the language and the descriptions is to evoke emotion, and the philologist Tolkien did not fail. At several points I was caught up in the emotion and wept real tears.

At the Grey Havens, when Merry, Pippin, and Sam say their farewells to Frodo, Gandalf consoles them saying, “I will not say: Do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.” The Eastern Orthodox have an acceptance of their priests weeping in the liturgy for the beauty of it all, and call this innocence and vulnerability “the gift of tears.” So it was with me in this last reading of Tolkien’s great work. I wept when Sam carried Frodo those last few steps up Mount Doom. I wept with terrible joy when Theoden King perished, and Eowyn and Merry slew the Witch-king of Angmar. I wept for the innocent and noble beauty of Eowyn and Faramir’s love and the dignified majesty of the return of Elessar the Suffering King. Finally, I wept at the Grey Havens for the resolution and justice of it all. It was right that Frodo should continue to carry his wound, and just that his sacrifice to save the Shire was for others and not for himself.

lord of the ringsAs our own society seems plunged into ever darker decadence and despair, the beauty, truth and goodness of Tolkien’s classic is an astringent balm. It is the bright clear air of a spring morning in the midst of the contemporary atmosphere of the Dead Marshes. Confronted with a Shelob or Shagrat for President, reading Tolkien shines the clear light of the Phial of Galadriel in the gloom. Faced with the orcs of ISIS, reading Lord of the Rings sparks hope that a fellowship armed with faith and noble courage will rise up to face the foe. Reading Lord of the Rings was a deep pleasure because it was a purgation, and the tears were not an evil, but a soul cleansing.

The purgation of which I speak is, of course, Aristotle’s catharsis. It is that identification with the hero through which we accompany him on the journey, and as we go on the hero’s outer quest we also share his soul’s pilgrimage. Not only through his cleverly woven plot lines of providence, but also through his use of language, description and characterization, Tolkien masters that most elusive art that captures the heart, takes captive the emotions and by gently releasing them, opens the human soul for at least a moment of redemption.

I once met Tolkien’s daughter after Mass in North Oxford. I remarked on her father’s work, saying that in my opinion he was the supreme Catholic evangelist of the modern age. She gave me a quizzical look and asked why. “Because in his art he reminds millions that ‘there is some good in this world Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.'” She smiled at the quotation and the conversation moved on.

I’m convinced of my opinion, for when the heart opens by the chemistry of catharsis, the soul also opens to the possibility of providence and the apprehension of light.

So read it again, and “I will not say: Do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”

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10 replies to this post
  1. Fr. Longenecker, you have summed up perfectly what I am presently feeling on my re-read of my friend’s journey through Middle Earth (3rd or 4th read through). The world grows darker by the day, not unlike the journey into the East, and it is easy to be discouraged by traveling through the burned out wastes of the Brown Lands of our times, but there is indeed still some good in this world, and it is worth fighting for.

  2. I have the Hobbit, as well as Lord of the Rings on CD. I listen to it several times a year, as it is easier with my job. They are all read by Rob Inglis, who is quite fantastic as a reader and has a most excellent singing voice. He does honor to Tolkien. He brings the story to life, as it were. I also have the Silmarillion in book, as well as audio form. I never tire of them.

  3. Perhaps one of the most beautiful passages in the work (to me) is the telling of the last words of Aragorn to Arwen in the appendices.

    “I speak no comfort to you, for there is no comfort for such pain within the circles of the world. The uttermost choice is before you: to repent and go to the Havens and bear away into the West the memory of our days together that shall there be evergreen but never more than a memory; or else to abide the Doom of Men.”

    “Nay, dear lord,” she said, “that choice is long over. There is now no ship to bear me hence, and I must indeed abide the Doom of Men, whether I will or nill: the loss and the silence. But I say to you, King of the Númenoreans, not till now have I understood the tale of your people and their fall. As wicked fools I scorned them, but I pity them at last. For if this is indeed, as the Eldar say, the gift of the One to Men, it is bitter to receive.”

    “So it seems,” he said. “But let us not be overthrown at the final test, who of old renounced the Shadow and the Ring. In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound forever in the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory, Farewell!”

    –Jonathan

  4. Father Longenecker… I first read Mr. Tolkein’s masterpiece at the age of 16 while bedridden with that teen-aged vexation of mononucleosis or kissing disease. I don’t recall being that popular at the time so I likely contracted it off a water fountain. I’ve read the work some 18 times in the 44 years hence and both enjoy and learn something new with each reading. In that crafty way in which the Paraclete operates, it may have helped lead me to “cross the Tiber” and come home to the faith. That faith has deepened and matured over the years and I, along with my lady wife, find myself attending a FSSP parish and immensely enjoying the Tridentine Mass.

    I chuckle at the thought (reported by his grandson) of Mr. Tolkein responding loudly and obstinately in the post Conciliar Mass in Latin. I think he was my kind of Catholic.

    I will share my favorite quote by a not particularly well known author, Roderick MacLeish: “There is order and meaning only in the great truths believed by everybody in that older and wiser time when things were less well known but better understood.”

    -Peter

  5. Father Longenecker: Thanks so much for this beautiful essay about a real literary treasure. Ironically, like Mr. Bynum above I also first read the Lord of the Rings at age 16, probably in the same year. In my case I had knee surgery that had me in the hospital for nearly a week. I’ve re-read it on numerous occasions during the same 44 years since, and as you described I have changed my focus in reading it from time to time; for example really engaging Tolkein’s remarkably vivid descriptions.

    Just as an example, consider the palpably deteriorating effect of the Ring on the people who lusted for it, or rather the power it conferred: Gollum is the most obvious, but the Ring also claimed Saruman (who Treebeard describes as having “a mind of metal and wheels”), and by extension his servant Wormtongue, the Nazgul who were devoured, Boromir, whose noble death defending the hobbits was so redemptive, his father Denethor II who in his prideful folly believed he was strong enough to possess the Ring without in return being possessed, and finally Frodo himself, for whom the burden was finally too great and was saved only by the unlikely interventions of Gollum and then Sam. We also saw that the Ring could tempt, however briefly, even Gandalf and Galadriel; no one is exempt from the false lure of evil or the duty to resist it.

    The speech Gandalf makes to Frodo in the second chapter (aptly moved to Moria in the movie) on the virtue of pity provides the foundation for both the climax of the plot as well as a very profound theme for those inclined to perceive it. One can find in that speech a well-nigh complete answer to the question of capital punishment: no soul is beyond redemption, and we should be very hesitant to use our power or “authority” to deny life even to those who may be deemed not to “deserve” it.

    In the ever-widening abyss of the culture of death these include the preborn or anyone living with a claim to set against our own self-satisfaction. The dependent, the elderly, the decrepit, and even the seriously mentally ill are now “empowered”, by laws which burlesque the word “mercy”, to remove themselves from our midst lest we be too terribly inconvenienced. It is a very short distance from “optional” to “obligatory”, and under the present administration we have ceded unprecedented power over life and death to the state.

    By the way I live in Charleston and really enjoy your radio program when I can catch it. Thanks very much for your priestly ministry as well as your often pithy and very readable blogs.

  6. To my surprise I also cried when I read the final parting at the Grey Havens. The last sentence of the book is deceptively simple, like Sam who recites it, “Well, I’m home.”

  7. Thanks for this, Father. I, too, read LOTR again this year. I like it more and more every time through! As you pointed out, the book contains many parallels to contemporary events — what Tolkien called “applicability” — and therefore we can find consolation in the hope that our story will also end well.

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