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J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle Earth by Bradley J. Birzer

 

Rating: (Recommended)

 

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Holy Hobbits

When I first read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in the late 1960s, I certainly noticed and paid attention to the Christian humanist themes throughout the three books. Many years later, when I read the trilogy aloud to my younger son, those themes seemed more prevalent than I recalled. When I watched the first Peter Jackson film, the Christian themes seemed even stronger than I recalled from reading the books (twice). Thanks to a new book by Bradley Birzer, I’ve come to understand that the themes I kept seeing are the ones that Tolkien spent his life pondering. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, readers are presented with a brief life of Tolkien, and lots of explication of themes from his writing. The 140 pages of this book illuminate what Middle Earth meant to Tolkien, and helps readers understand how the author thought about myth and its value to all of us.

Here’s an excerpt from the chapter on Heroism (pp. 70-71):

At first glance, Frodo seems the hero in The Lord of the Rings. Fulfilling the role of priest, he carries the Ring—the cross of Christ, the sins of the world—into the heart of hell (Mordor). Frodo does this out of profound love for his friends and for life itself. And, perhaps equally important, he understands and accepts that this is his duty alone, Iluvatar chose him, though Frodo does not know that name.

Frodo survives the journey, but the experience of carrying the Ring, and ultimately succumbing to its temptation, transforms him profoundly He knows the experience of mortal sin firsthand, and he repents by embracing mercy In the "Scouring of the Shire," Tolklien shows Frodo asking his fellow hobbits not to kill, even for defensive purposes. He even allows Saruman to escape, unpunished, only to have Grima Wormtongue betray and rail on the defrocked wizard, killing him. Frodo seems to have so embraced mercy that he has become a thoroughgoing pacifist.'"

In accepting and carrying the burden of the Ring, Frodo has poured his spiritual as well as his physical being into the task, taxing both to the breaking point. Though he served in politics briefly as the mayor of Michael Delving and wrote the history of the ‘War of the Ring,’ he remains restless and, ultimately, without his pre-quest physical constitution. Mentally, he seems to have slipped as well. In Tolkien's poem, "The Sea Bell," Frodo appears to be slowly descending into madness. "For a year and a day there mist I stay: beetles were tapping in the rotten trees, spiders were weaving, in the mould heaving puffballs loomed about my knees," says Frodo. "Never again, as in sad lane, in blind alley and in long street ragged I walk. To myself I talk; for still they speak not, men that I meet.” To heal, Frodo crosses the sea to Tol Eressea with Gandalf and many of the leaders of the Third Age. Frodo's final journey, Tolkien explained, was a purgatorial one, but one of healing, not suffering.

Yet, although he appears to be the hero of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo lacks the depth and nuanced personality possessed by several of he other characters in the legendarium. "Frodo is not so interesting because he has to be highminded, and has (as it were) a vocation," Tolkien explained. He "will naturally become too ennobled and rarefied by the achievement of the Quest. " Though Frodo develops a deep appreciation of pity and mercy, he remains throughout the story "a fixed point." Other characters around him change, such as Sam, but Frodo continues in the role of "suffering servant," heading toward Mordor to fulfill his specific purpose. And though he grows weary, he remains faithful to his task to almost the very end. Only in the last moments of his quest does he falter, as the burden of the Ring—representing the weight of sin and temptation—becomes too great for him. Even at the Cracks of Doom, he has merely played out God's role for him. Carrying the cross changes him permanently, and he fails to reenter normal existence with any real degree of success). Until he departs for the Grey Havens, he remains somewhat alienated from the hobbitic life, which now seem; too quaint. The purpose of his quest was for others to live normal, productive, and happy lives. When he leaves for Tol Eressea, he departs the world he preserved for them but cannot now enjoy himself.

 

It is the hobbit in Frodo's shadow. Samwise, who proves to be the true hero of The Lord of the Rings. The unsupecting reader expects little from Sam. At the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, he appears merely the ignoramus and the fool. The reader first encounters him in a pointless and frustrating argument with Ted Sandyman. In a Bywater bar, Sam speaks openly about rumors of Trolls and walking trees and of darknesses spreading outside the Shire and possibly even penetrating the Shire itself. Others in the bae, all provincials who have never traveled outside the boundaries of the Shire, led by the cynical Ted Sandyman, poke fun at Sam's ideas. Sam, tellingly, refuses to back down, but his evidence does seem shaky. Even his first name, Samwise, does not portend great things, meaning merely "half wise."                                         I

Yet Sam has one great virtue, and it proves the virtue that sanctifies his character: loyalty Sam's is the loyalty, for Tolkien, that characterized the common man in he trenches of World War I.

According to Birzer, Tolkien hated the modern world, and wanted to restore England to its pre-World War I bucolic life. Through the pages of this interesting book, readers can understand how Tolkien accomplished what he wanted through myth.

Steve Hopkins, January 14, 2003

 

ă 2003 Hopkins and Company, LLC

 

The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the February 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth.htm

 

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