Death and Endings

In September 1973, Father John Tolkien celebrated a Requiem Mass for his father at the Church of St. Anthony of Padua, in Oxford. JRR Tolkien was buried next to his wife Edith in a Catholic cemetery just outside Oxford at Wolvercote. He may have penned his own epitaph in 1956, shortly after The Lord of the Rings was published, when he wrote: “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a long defeat — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”

This sense of exile was present in The Lord of the Rings. At the end of the story many of the heroes travel, quietly and alone, to the Grey Havens, a harbour containing ships to take passengers on a one-way voyage away from Middle-Earth. Against all odds good has triumphed, but at a cost. Some of the travellers are scarred by evil, others by sorrow. The boat slips anchor and fades into the darkness, leaving in its wake a glimmer of light, which in turn disappears. A sense of melancholy prevails.

A Garden

A garden...teems with life. It glows with colour and smells like heaven and puts forward at every hour of a summer day beauties which man could never have created and could not even, on his own resources, have imagined...when the garden is in its full glory the gardener's contributions to that glory will still have been in a sense paltry compared with those of nature. Without life springing from the earth, without rain, light and heat descending from the sky, he could do nothing. When he has done all, he has merely encouraged here and discouraged there, powers and beauties that have a different source.

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (1960)


“He is only a wretched gangrel creature, but I have him under my care for a while.” (Frodo, speaking of Gollum to Faramir : LotR iv. iv)

The choice of this unusual word is doubly appropriate. The first sense in the OED is 'a vagabond' and, when used as an adjective, ‘vagrant': Was it a light thing that gangrel thieves should burn and waste in Mid-mark and depart unhurt, that ye stand here with clean blades and cold bodies?
(William Morris The House of the Wolfings, chapter xxii)

The second sense is 'a lanky loose-jointed person', which may seem equally apt for the agile Gollum. The word is a Middle English formation which adds a disparaging suffix (also seen in mongrel and wastrel) to a stem apparently meaning 'go or walk'.

Tolkien also used the word (but only in the first sense) in Feanor's dismissal of Melkor: “Get thee from my gate, thou gangrel” ('Annals of Anian' 97)

The Ring of Words ~
Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary
Oxford University Press (2006)

Gladden (Oxford English Dictionary)

“They took a boat and went down to the Gladden Fields, where there were great beds of iris and flowering reeds.” (LotR - i. ii)

Gladden is Tolkien's updating of the Old English word glaedene 'iris'. This is recorded in an Old English document from the 9th (or possibly the 8th) century. In the names Gladden River and Gladden fields in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien intended the word to refer to the 'yellow flag' (Irispseudacorus), which grows by streams and in marshes (Lett. 297). The Old English word in fact continued in later use in the slightly different form gladdon, though, as Tolkien went on to explain, the name is now usually applied to a different species, the purple-flowered Irisfoetidissima (or 'stinking iris'). The word is now rarely found outside regional dialects.

The OED entry (gladdon) quotes a line from the Middle English Romance The Wars of Alexander, evoking an image reminiscent of the Gladden Fields: a dryi meere was full of gladen & of gale & of grete redis (a dry lake was full of gladdon and bog-myrtle and great reeds).

The Ring of Words ~
Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary
Oxford University Press (2006)

'Light of Light'

[Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis in the garden of ‘The Kilns’]

"Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, -and with all thy sou/, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets". Matt. xxii. 37-40.

The telephone rings. It would ring, of course, just when your typewriter is at last clacking happily; an article that has been agonizingly slow to start is finally under way. Muttering something censorable, you break off in the middle of a sentence and go to answer the ring. Perhaps, at least, the interruption will be a pleasant one?

No such luck. The caller is a neighbour who is well established as the neighbourhood nuisance; a bitter, malicious old woman who has divorced her husband, driven away her children, quarrelled with her friends, and walked out of her church—and who is now eating her unrepentant soul out in loneliness and self-pity. You're the only one for miles who still speaks to her, and you don't enjoy doing it. Today she says, with a consciously pathetic catch in her voice, that she's absolutely desperate, and won't you come over and cheer her up?

Rebellion surges in your mind. Oh, no, not again! You think in a flash of all the times you've tried in vain to tell her of God and repentance and grace, only to be jeered at as a credulous fool. You think of the good practical advice scorned, the attempts at reassurance sneered at. You know very well that this time too all you will get from her will be a denunciation of other people, an assertion of her own perfect virtue, and a series of small nasty digs at yourself. But not this time, not just as you've finally managed to get started writing—it's too much. After all, one can't help those who don't really want to be helped.

Joy Davidman
Smoke on the Mountain (Hodder & Stoughton) 1955
Chapter 11 (extract)

[If you can obtain this book, do. It is a really original interpretation of the Ten Commandments by the lady who was to become, a very short time later, the love of C.S. Lewis’ life]

The Gospel According to Tolkien:

Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-Earth

With St. Thomas Aquinas and the Christian theological tradition, Tolkien sees the universe both as intrinsically hierarchical and intrinsically good. Some created beings are nobler than others, but all are good: wizards, high-elves, dwarves, hobbits. A hobbit is not a failed or faulty creation because he is not an elf or a man, and Tolkien’s wiser characters know this. Even lowly inanimate things are good: the hobbits’ love of eating and drinking together is not despicable but healthy. Cakes, ale, and pipeweed are even magical, in their own way. Indeed, as Wood points out, one of the chief virtues of fantasy is its power to make us see the ordinary things of the world, and the world itself, as new, strange, and wonderful.

For Tolkien, as for St. Augustine, evil is not a positive reality, but a falling-away from the reality the creator planned for the creature. He speaks of evil as a marring of what was made, and as a shadow. All beings have been created good, even Sauron and his orcs. They fall away from their intended goodness by rejecting what their maker intended for them. In the Silmarillion, the demonic Melkor first sins by inventing his own dissonance instead of singing the part God gave him in the angelic harmony. Rejecting one’s own created nature is the original sin. Lesser beings also sin by trying to re-create themselves. Part of why the Ring tempts mortals so strongly is its promise to let them escape the physical mortality God has intended for them. The sinner seeks a more independent existence, but he ends up losing his individuality. The Ring-wraiths fade to shadows and puppets of Sauron. Gollum falls so far that he loses his true name and even his nature, scarcely remaining a hobbit.

Tolkien’s heroes use ancient weapons against evil: they strive for and often exemplify the cardinal virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance. In this, Tolkien is no more Christian than all the philosophers who have followed Plato in praising these virtues, or than the pagans whose folklore he himself studied. However, in Tolkien’s world, these natural virtues take on a Christian character. Here a simple-minded hobbit can make a wiser choice than a sophisticated aristocrat of Gondor because of his humility. Justice is tempered with a mercy that a pagan would not comprehend. Again and again, Gollum is spared his just punishment because of pity. At first the hobbits are as shocked by this pity as pagans would be, but in the end it saves the quest when Gollum de-stroys the Ring.

Courage, too, becomes Christian in this story. The quest to destroy the Ring has almost no chance of success, but the fellowship does not set out in pagan fatalism. Rather, they have an almost Christian hope in what is not seen. Hope is what makes some characters persevere more courageously than others: it is what makes Gandalf a better general than Denethor, and Sam more constant than Frodo.

Anna Mathie - 'First Things' (January 2004)
[Click on the title above for the full article]

The Death of Death

The first thing he did was to lower himself and be born as one of "them." We almost got him killed when he was a baby. But he eluded us then. He grew up to be a man. He taught those poor humans about himself, all the while not really spreading around who he was. Then one day he gave himself up to be killed by a bunch of jealous religious leaders. We figured it was a big bluff. Just an excuse to perform a public miracle and escape at the last minute. But he actually went through with it. He let them nail him to a cross and he died. We all thought, "Aha, you're beaten now! You've just made your big mistake!"

All of us were feeling, for a few hours, a big relief from that constant fear we had always felt toward the Enemy. Maybe all those prophecies about our last judgement would never happen after all. Death had claimed the Creator of life. Finally our Lord Satan would be undisputed ruler of all.

Then Sunday morning came. The Enemy reappeared. Suddenly, he was alive. Death could not hold him. But it was even worse than that. He had become an innocent sacrifice for the sins of all those humans. He had paid their penalty. He had died in their place. Now death could not hold them either. They could be forgiven and reunited with the Enemy. They can now live forever. For all practical purposes, death has died. There has never been a more disastrous day in the history of the universe.

That, my dear Wormwood, is the whole sad truth.

The Screwtape Letters – C.S. Lewis