Sunday, January 29, 2006

Again With The Tolkein

I've spent the last month reading The Battle for Middle-Earth: Tolkien's Divine Design in The Lord of the Rings by Fleming Rutledge. (Digression -- Do you have to have an unusual name to write one of these things? First it was Stratford Caldecott and now Fleming Rutledge.)

Fleming Rutledge is an Episcopal priest who is noted for her mostly conservative views and skill as a writer. In the book she confesses to coming late to the Tolkien party, but believes that this grants her some perspective. Like Caldecott she is convinced that Tolkien imbued the trilogy with his spiritual world view. Unlike Caldecott, she parses the texts by narrative chronology instead of thematically. In other words, this is more an annotation than an examination.

Rutledge's primary thesis is that the trilogy is not a simple moral tale of good versus evil. Instead, she suggests, it is a complex examination of the ways in which evil can insinuate itself into the lives of the best and worst of people and the ways in which God can use all things to his own ends. From the outset, she rejects the idea that the trilogy is a simple "good vs. evil" story. She points out that seeing it in these terms is close to the Manichean heresy. God (the force behind all that is good) is always stronger than the evil of Sauron. God is a constant, but unnamed presence in the books.

As proof she quotes parts of the text such as the following offered by Gandalf to Frodo:

"There was more than one power at work, Frodo. The Ring was trying to get back to its master... It abandoned Gollum. Only to be picked up by the most unlikely person imaginable: Bilbo from the Shire!Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker [Sauron]. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you were also meant to have it."
She goes on to note examples of passive voice in the text and times when characters are aided by an unseen presence.

At the same time, Rutledge argues that God acts through the just and can turn the actions of the unjust to his purpose. The ultimate example of this is that Gollum snatched the ring at the last moment when Frodo was no longer able to resist its power and had determined to keep it for himself.Rutledge also makes much of the transformations in the story...Theoden's dual transformation from king to corrupted and back to king again, Pippin's transformation of adolescent to young leader, Aragorn's predestined transformation into the King of Gondor. The text abounds in transformations. Indeed, even the most vile of characters are given a chance at redemption -- but those who had given themselves over to Sauron were unable to accept the grace which would grant them new lives.

The book raises and wrestles with the question of pre-destination and free will. True freedom, in her view, is the freedom to follow God's will. All other exercise of freedom is false freedom and ultimately leads to slavery. (An argument that I think Jonah would have found most persuasive.)

Rutledge also talks frequently about logizomai -- which she interprets to mean "impute" or to "call forth by naming". Often the wiser characters (Gandalf, Aragorn, etc.) would name a lesser character as being brave or noble. Rutledge argues that this "calling forth" brought out the nobility in those characters.

Another strong theme was the notion that the most dangerous temptation is the temptation to do good. Boromir wasn't tempted to evil (although evil would have been the result if he had gained the ring). He was tempted by the good he believed he could do if he possessed the ring. Similarly, the temptations which are most dangerous to us are the ones which dress themselves in the guise of righteousness.

In the final analysis, the book was good but tended to run on a bit by the end. The structure of the book lends itself to this because Rutledge builds her case by pointing out each of the narrative examples as it occurs. Still, it gave me much to think about and the time I spent with it was time well invested.