Victory over Death

This essay is about the writing of J.R.R.Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings, with reference to the time of year: Easter. This is of course the season when the central feature of Christianity, the resurrection of Christ, is celebrated. As a Christian himself, J.R.R.Tolkien saw this as highly important and it's therefore interesting to see how he presents it again and again in various guises in his writing. After becoming familiar with his work it's possible to see how the theme of victory over death runs through all the story, like a subterranean stream threading its way through the "deep places" of his world.

Take, for example, the ways that death is repeatedly confronted and its power denied. Frodo does this in the Barrow Downs. Sealed inside a barrow with his unconscious friends, he is assailed by the cruel statement of final death: "Cold be hand and heart and bone, and cold be sleep under stone: never more to wake on stony bed, never, till the Sun fails and the Moon is dead." He considers desperate flight, and despair, but finally calls on the one who has already once delivered him from the "tomb" of the willow tree and who is unaffected by darkness and cold. Tom Bombadil comes swiftly to his rescue, letting in sunlight and banishing the wight.

Similarly, Aragorn faces a similar test in the Paths of the Dead. Circumstances combine to compel him to take those paths: "no other road will serve". But will he be lost in them as others have been, or pass through in triumph? In the event he emerges again, simply because of who he is: "I am Elessar, Isildur's heir of Gondor". He has the right, the authority to tread those paths. Unfurling his standard, he compels even the dead to do his bidding and rides to the rescue of the city of Minas Tirith. Later we are given the scene of him returning as rightful king to the city which he has already defended and laboured in healing.

But the most obvious example is clearly Gandalf, at the bridge of Khazad-Dum. The parallel has been pointed out many times: in the gospel narratives Christ dies to redeem mankind and later returns triumphantly to life. In The Lord of the Rings Gandalf the Grey stands alone on the bridge, facing the balrog. He falls into the abyss so that the rest of the company can escape, and later returns unexpectedly as the glorious Gandalf the White.

Gandalf enters Moria in spite of his own misgivings and the warnings of others. Aragorn tells him, "It is not of the Ring, nor of us others that I am thinking now, but of you, Gandalf. And I say to you: if you pass the doors of Moria, beware!". He comes as if inevitably to that place on the bridge where only his death can give the rest of the company their lives. The reference is direct and, within The Lord of the Rings, unique.

However, Tolkien doesn't quite leave it there. The self-sacrifice of Gandalf impresses us as it is meant to do. But then Tolkien takes up the theme and seems to disassemble it for us, breaking it down into components and reassembling the whole, showing different characters making parts of the sacrifice rather than the whole. It's as if we are being asked, 'Which part of this sacrifice impresses you? The intention? The danger? The cost?'

Think again of Frodo. Throughout the quest he's almost as determined as Gandalf to put others before himself, but he's not quite called on to make the ultimate sacrifice and give his life. He says himself, on the way to Mount Doom, that he's willing to; that he's already despaired of coming through alive. But ultimately he returns with the others to The Shire. And yet, he has also given it up: "I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me." 'Does this impress you?' Tolkien asks. Is the willingness to die for others enough, or is the actual death an essential feature of what Gandalf achieved?

Then consider Boromir. His own foolishness places the whole company in mortal danger, but in making amends he defends the two hobbits Merry and Pippin with his own life. "I have failed", is the last thing he says to Aragorn as he dies. "No! You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory", asserts Aragorn. Is that true? Do we agree with Aragorn or with Boromir as we read? Was the giving of his life enough to impress us, or does it have to be done by a morally blameless person?

A little further down the scale, as a last example, we can find Gollum. He never intends to die at all, certainly not for the benefit of anyone else. He only has one objective all the time: to regain his "Precious". But at the moment of seizing it he slips, falls, and takes the Ring with him into the destructive fire of Mount Doom. Frodo admits that, without Gollum's intervention, he would himself have been unable to muster the strength of will to destroy the precious Ring. In dying, Gollum has saved everyone even though he didn't mean to. "'Yes,' said Frodo. 'But do you remember Gandalf's words: Even Gollum may have something yet to do? But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring.'" Does this manner of death impress us, or must the fixed intention to make the sacrifice for the good of others be a part of it?

Well, let's return to Easter. One thing among myriads that Tolkien has done in his tale is to show us Christ, dying for the deliverance of others. By means of the examples we are able to see that it's not just the death that's important, but also the foresight, the determination to go through with it and the moral authority of being blameless and so not actually deserving it. Finally, there's the return to life in glory and triumph, to the astonishment and acclaim of those who are redeemed.

Notice how Tolkien has singled out this feature of Christianity. We don't find a lot of Christian imagery in The Lord of the Rings, (and perhaps it wouldn't be so popular if we did); this sacrificial death and resurrection is the only really obvious example. Why is that? The obvious answer would be that, to Tolkien, it's the most important feature of Christianity. And so it should be. Christianity is founded on the central claim that, after Jesus was crucified, the tomb where his body was placed was found to be empty and he returned to his followers, alive. The movement started in Jerusalem where these things were common knowledge, before spreading all over the world for 2000 years. By selecting this theme for special treatment, Tolkien is showing us that he's fully aware that of its centrality, and inviting us to give attention to it ourselves.

In these confused days, we need to notice what kind of statement this is. It is often asserted today that "Science is based on evidence whereas religion is just based on faith". There are many problems with this statement: the setting up of a false dichotomy between what we know through science and in other ways; the fact that the word "faith" isn't being used in the sense that believers use it. But the import of Easter is that the statement is straightforwardly false as well. Christianity is founded on the sacrificial death and resurrection of Christ, and those are events located at a specific time and place by written eyewitness accounts. That's evidence. It may be that sceptical people will say it's not strong enough evidence to convince them: that the claimed resurrection is just too amazing. But it's either ignorant or dishonest to say, "there is no evidence". Religion is based on faith, but faith can and should be based on facts. That's why the death and resurrection of Christ is central to Christianity and, presumably, that's one of the reasons why Tolkien chooses to carefully show us so many facets of it in the course of The Lord of the Rings.