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.
By 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.
As 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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