Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Answering Yuri Maximov on Tolkien, on the Lord of the Rings

Here we have a Russian who somehow has gotten into his head that Silmarillion has a Gnostic view of Creation (an error of Russia which has been seen later too and in more Catholic and Western contexts), but who nevertheless has obviously read Lord of the Rings, or if not himself, relied in a fairly good informer.

"The Lord of the Rings" and Christianity

It is well known that Tolkien as a thinker and as a writer had a number of ideas doubtful from the point of view of Christianity. The Gnostic concept of the Creation presented in "Silmarrilion" is one of the examples.

I don't think Yuri Maximov has read Silmarillion at first hand, or he does not know what Gnostic means.

If an angelic being had sovereignly created even a blade of grass, that would be Gnostic. But they don't do that in Ainulindale. It is more like one of them sings what she - Yavanna being a female angelic being by character - would like blades of grass to be, and Eru sovereignly grants the angels their wishes.

What St Thomas Aquinas says about "ministerial creation" is not that it cannot happen, not that it is Gnostic to say it happened, but that the creature would be God's creature and that the minister would be ministerial only in chosing what God creates, not in the act of creation itself.

In Ainulindalë Tolkien never says angels (ainur) are creating, they are only going to take care of creation once it is created, and God (Eru) is allowing them to modify exact shapes of less than human and less than elvish creatures, and some about human and elvish too, by the variations they make on His theme. The material creation itself comes after that. It is an act of God alone.

This is a very far cry from Gnostic or Manichaean ideas that God created only a spiritual world and that making it material was the Devil's or the Imperfect Demiurge's idea.

To a Gnostic, material creation as such is the fall, the most essential one at least. To Tolkien, deviating from the intentions of the Creator was the fall.

Melkor had been singing variations which were not in tune with the theme given. I e, he had rebelled. He was not able to create matter then, and was not able to create matter later. He was not able to create biology then, and he was not able to create biology later.

So, saying Silarillion presents a Gnostic view of Creation is simply wrong, and if Yuri thinks, as I interpret his two sentences, that Silmarillion doing so is one of the examples that are "well known" of Tolkien having "a number of ideas which are doubtful from the point of view of Christianity", then Yuri is repeating a mistake which had already been made, perhaps elsewhere too, but at least in Russia, before 27 / 01 / 2003, when Yuri Maximov wrote his essay.

Well, on the one hand it would be very strange if in the work meticulously being created during years by a person who sincerely considered himself a Christian there would be nothing Christian. On the other hand neither it is worth expecting hundred percent pure dogmatic views from a secular western writer of XX century.

It is a problem that Yuri is Orthodox, rather than Catholic.

If by secular he means not a monk, I think both Tolkien and Chesterton have proven very good. Or perhaps they are silver, with Hilaire Belloc as possible gold (though he was not a very attractive novelist, unlike the other two).

Nevertheless, when he admits that Tolkien sincerely considered himself as a Christian (which is probably as far as Yuri will go for a Catholic, whom he would consider Latin heretics), that is better than the smudge which is being spread later on pravdareport by Nicolas Bonnal (2012).

Thus in the work of Tolkien there are views close to as well as remote from Christianity. Let us start with the latter.

I'll start with what I consider incorrect : possibly and probably at least from a scholastic point of view, incarnate angels. St Raphaël in book of Tobit would be analysed differently by St Thomas Aquinas than by the man who wrote about Gandalf.

But this could be a poetic liberty.

Further, Tolkien did believe the modern geologists claiming that earth has been around much longer than the last two millennia added to either 5199 or 5508 years of Roman or Byzantine liturgic chronologies.

This said, if one were to defend either a day age theory or a gap theory, it would more probably do to do it with the Silmarillion scenario than with the evolutionist scenario most Christians subscribe to when doing either.

Related is a kind of relation between Atlantis and Northern European, more Scandinavian or French or British than Slavic traits with an Atlantis story.

While Atlantis can have existed, it was destroyed either in a minor deluge before that of Noah or in a minor deluge after that of Noah - and in the latter case, there would hardly have been time for a race to develop on Atlantis. As to a pre-Flood race, it would not have survived in purity the deluge of Noah.

The Atlantis theme has been expressed in detail in Akallabêth in Silmarillion and hinted at in Lord of the Rings.

That said, while the Atlantis theme has appealed to mystagogues and to National Socialists, in very bad ways, Tolkien treats it in a very good way, if you look away from its historical impossibility on that extent.

Mystagogues would have Atlantis being a part of human "development" and would have man raising himself above his origins in development. None of that in Tolkien.

National Socialist mystagogues thought that being Atlantean gave Germans special rights against other peoples, and only special duties against each other. They even hypothesised in one novel (I am glad not to have read it) that Atlanteans came to Atlantis from outer space, not very unlike the gods of von Däniken, except they came as a seed, not as fullfledged beings and astronauts and scientists and engineers. In other words, they would be superhuman.

In Tolkien, they are the same human race as any other, metaphysically, and different only in variety of talents and in history. Being Atlanteans and having superior resources of tradition and biological equipement of their bodies (Aragorn fighting at age 80 reminds of Abraham who fought battles after 75, if you check Genesis 12 and 14) give them special duties. Übermensch, nein. White man's burden, in a certain sense, yes.

Being better equipped is making the good ones of them nobler - but also helps the bad ones of them fall deeper.

The main crooks after Sauron, who has some traits of Koschei, are nine other Koschei like figures, all of them Numenoreans, that is Atlanteans. They turned to the purely demonic Koschei in order to be human versions of Koschei, and got it.

Also, Akallabêth is one of the best meditations I have read on the theme of the rise of Antichrist and the persecution of Christians in his time.

Along with The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis and That Hideous Strength, also by C. S. Lewis, and along with Brothers Lionheart, by Astrid Lindgren, which however is marred by the heroes giving themselves death in a truly pagan fashion, something which Tolkien clearly condemns.

Now, I have stated what I see as problematic in Tolkien; let's got to Yuri's point of view.

One problem with old age is that it means suffering before Adam, and one solution which Inklings embraced, if not as a doctrine, at least as a possible solution, that animals suffered due to the fall of Satan before there was a fall of Adam is half Gnostic. But the problem is not worse with them than with people claiming that cannibal Neanderthals (aas they were in Belgium, but not Spain) or non-agricultural Cro-Magnon were non-human pre-Adamites, which I have found (for the latter explicitly) in an ex-Seminarian of Flavigny (SSPX).

The first problem is that emotionally in the book evil is presented much more vividly than good and therefore more attractive.

I think that is rather a problem with Dostoeyvski than with Tolkien!

I had to put down Crime and Punishment after half the reading, because I was obliged to take a break, but I never resumed reading, because pain and indignation and rebellion and pains or remorse and so were too emotionally exasperating.

In essence, evil in the book looks and is much more significant power.

More significant visible power.

In the last days, the Church will look defeated. God will still be mightier than the Devil and Antichrist, but the Antichrist will look much more powerful to those seing only with their eyes.

The ultimaterly most significant power is the Providence of God.

And we see from the novel that in the hands of providcence, a good and merciful act of the very weakest is good enough to defeat the most powerful of the evil ones, or at least to contribute.

But it is also true that evil persons are more passionate than good ones. Perhaps it is a question of temperament, perhaps to a Slav the good ones are not passionate enough, they are too sober?

It is almost all-mighty, it can not be escaped from, there is no shelter from it.


There are shelters, which while not capable of holding out on their own, are nobler and emotionally more appealing than Sauron.

There is Providence, very present all through the work.

There is the bungling and quarreling of so self aggrandising powers as Sauron and Saruman and the Orcs of the one and the Orcs of the other.

There is the constant seeking of spying, interrogation and if that fails empathy, and a constant failure of getting empathy right with the good ones. Sauron and Saruman are as "bad psychologists" as psychiatrists, as they have been since at least and on top of that there is a community of states not subjected to them.

They say that Tolkien's friend C.Lewis, having finished reading half of "The Lord of the Rings" threw it off with the words: "You can't write so long about evil!"

Since he had been reading chapters of different versions of Lord of the Rings to the Inklings over the years it took him from 1937 to 1954 to finish the book, I can't see how C. S. Lewis could possibly have been coming to the novel as a new reader.

(However, we heard another version, according to which Tolkien himself having read half of "The Screwtape Letters" by Lewis threw it off with the same words).

Also unlikely, since The Screwtape Letters are actually Tolkien's favourite work by C. S. Lewis, along with Space Trilogy part II, Perelandra.

By power and greatness there is no alternative to the personality of Sauron in the world of "The Lord of the Rings".

Did Nimrod have a rival? Was Christ born back in his day? Do not all the stories about Abraham and Nimrod meeting (probably untrue, since Nimrod would probably have died before Abraham was born, but they are even so considered pious stories) depict Nimrod as having the most visible and obvious omnipotence in the world of his day?

A mighty hunter before the Lord? It means against the Lord : and it means a slave hunter. Hebrews not wanting to participate in his Tower of Babel project whatever it was were hunted men, surviving by keeping discrete.

And one day he had trouble giving orders, he spoke one language, those he spoke to spoke another. A bit like the troubles Sauron ultimately had. Though not identic.

And it is difficult to consider such world-outlook as Christian.

In the Christian view, there has been such a situation, there will be a similar situation. In the Middle Ages of Austria, a hermit could save a very unwise and passionate knight who had sold his soul to the devil, and did not even need to do it for anything looking like survival. In the future, which perhaps is near, people will be selling their souls to the devil even just to survive, to buy and sell, to not be regarded as fools. They will do so in a way probably involving their physical hands and foreheads, unless the manner of speaking is metaphoric, in which case the horror is perhaps already here.

And Christ will not be as near as in that hermit whose soul was filled with Christ and with wisdom. Getting shelter from the devil may be impossible.

Except that for God nothing is possible.

Is this a Christian outlook to you?

Well, there have been Orthodox monks who were careful enough to make a statement on video and the video was not published until they had died and gone buried, the burial also being on video.

Does this look like a man who is afraid even Athos may not shield all the way to Doomsday from Antichrist?

To me, that attitude is a very Tolkien attitude. Perhaps to you it is not a Christian attitude.

If anything, the end of Lord of the Rings, a time of peace and prosperity after defeating Sauron, may be less than perfectly Orthodox : it may be the Millennial or Chiliastic error.

The next problem is that in general life of all Tolkien's creatures (elves, dwarves, humans, hobbits etc.) looks rather senseless.

I start to wonder whether the problem with a Christian world view is on Tolkien's or on Yuri's side.

They struggle heroicly, it is described very vividly and breathtakingly but all of them dream of peaceful life, they struggle for it and die.

Both the Old and the New Covenant describe the good life as a peaceful one.

In their struggle there is sense. But the peaceful life as their purpose looks extremely wan and senseless as an old faded picture stuck onto the wall.

I don't see how a struggle can have sense if the purpose of it is senseless.

I think Yuri's aesthetics about old faded pictures stuck onto walls is stuck, senselessly, in contemplating their fadedness, not in the things they show.

I think Yuri might do very well, if he can still be redeemed, to learn to look past the fadedness and to look instead on the picture what it is writing.

A picture of peace is a picture of the good life, a picture of how man should live.

If you find a faded icon, do you throw it away? Do you note the saint and resolve never to honour him? Don't you try instead either to restore the icon with new paint, or write a new icon before honourably burying the old one?

Creating his world "before Christ", Tolkien created the world "without Christ"

Like another Yuri, namely Gagarin, this Yuri has come to a place where he could find God if he knew how to look, and has not known how to look.

On the contrary, Christ is very present in so far as He could be present in a pre-Christian world, here deliberately not a pre-Christian world of the Covenants, but one which had ethnics who nevertheless refused to be idolaters.

Tolkien had a predeliction for virtuous Pagans. He loved reading of them in Beowulf. He wanted to recreate the same atmosphere.

And I think another Anglo-Saxon loved the virtuous Geats too, after hearing Beowulf recited. His name was Sigfrid, he was first bishop among Geats, in Wexioe. He was martyred and is a Saint.

But Tolkien was also holding up a model of humanity for those who are Pagans anyway. A Pagan who is humane Tolkien style is far better than a Secular Humanist. And Tolkien has contributed to Pagans changing that direction.

and for a Christian it is rather onerous to plunge oneself in this world

If Christianity has affected your imagination that way, you are perhaps not well advised to read Tolkien.

Lots of other Christians have made another experience.

though not to the extent as other fantasy authors are concerned, for example, Tad Williams, with his open parody for Christianity.

I do not know Tad Williams. I checked, it seems he is a Pagan, who explores religious themes for fantasy. I don't think he meant it as parody.

I also do not think Yuri knows all there is to know about fantasy outside Tolkien and Williams.

GRRM would be genuinely painful for me. He seems to be an evolutionist, not just when believing seriously in his life what he believes about the real world, but also when inventing a world which, like Sweden has a Westeros.

I haven't tried Williams.

Ursula LeGuin describes a genuinely Pagan world view, because she is a Pagan. She is not an apostate. Her family had apostasised before her.

While Tolkien writes about "good Pagans" as people who lack certain Christian assets, like Christ being born and them knowing it, Ursula Le Guin writes about Pagans practising some kind of Paganism. Idolatry or not? Certainly superstition. The proper thing for an exorcist to do is not to give his own name to a demon who is plaguing him. Yet that is what Ged does ... as if demons were redeemable. Nevertheless, she is worth reading. But not to all.

I don't think Shamanism is the correct religion, but it is closer to it then certain more elaborate Paganisms - and the Paganism of Earthsea is actual Shamanism.

Her father, no longer a Christian, probably even born himself in an already un-Christian family, studied the religion of people who were simpler than the Christians of the civilised world, as an ethnologist, and Ursula grew up with Pagans Shamans of Amerindian type, or at least one of them. She also married a non-Christian.

If you want genuine Paganism, to study or for worse purposes, Ursula is more than John Ronald.

I stuck with John Ronald and found Ursula at times too painful to read. I don't think I reread a Wizard from Earthsea, while I did return to Tombs of Atuan.

Now passing over to detecting Christian thoughts in "The Lord of the Rings" we will make a remark that we will not consider in general good and positive moments but only those which can be clearly specified as Christian and not "humanistic".

And you found too few.

What did Scipio and what did Caesar defending Gaul from Druids or still Pagan and already Prussian style expansive Germans know of Christ? Humanism, they were unfamiliar with the Jewish Scriptures.

And yet, there is far more specifically Christian and incompatible with the Humanism of a Scipio and a Caesar in Tolkien than you chose to enumerate.

Melchisedec was a figure of the Blessed Eucharist.

If there had been a similarly enigmatic figure about Baptism, what would he look like?

Hey ring ding a doll ... yes, Tom Bombadil is really an exorcist (in a much more Christian fashion than Ged of Earthsea!) and he and his wife look a bit like Adam and Even unfallen still in paradise. If they have no children yet, it is probably because they are not mortal, not having bitten into the forbidden fruit, and can keep on discussing a few centuries more what to name their children.

Or, because Tolkien, having grown up among also non-Catholics, had an un-Christian aversion against the idea of making children "all the time".

Of course, one shouldn't make them Friday nights or during Lent ideally, nor on Sunday or on Christmas day ... but one should not usually marry and spend years or decades before actually making some either. For Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, it is another matter, because they are clearly not quite human. Therefore also not subject to human passions.

And though they cannot shelter themselves from Sauron should Sauron win, providentially he doesn't and they are sheltered from him, and provide shelter to Frodo.

The not last or least of Christian themes in Tolkien is : "what would mankind look like if Adam and Eve had not fallen?"

This seems to have passed Yuri totally by.

And, no, he is not denying the fallenness of man in doing so either, he is explicitly contrasting man, as tempted, as greedy (true of the dwarves as well, a race fallen and redeemed before even making it to life), as weak, sick and subject to mortality and as having shorter traditions and knowledge than if unfallen.

But, as he grew up in Victorian times, he was probably underestimating the real span of human tradition too. And I mean even of Pagan ones. If the story of Hercules contains elements which no Christian can accept as true, it was probably not in very many cases due to bad memory of tradition, but due to misconceptions in his own lifetime, sometimes fannned by his megalomania.

But, all the examples you do give, do count.

Only, "Orcs, invisible to all, are elves who used to be the most wonderful of all creatures in Tolkien's world, but mutilated by evil." There is nothing invisible about them, and Tolkien teaches love of enemies in a more perfect way in his Letters, where he says "in the real world, there are no Orcs, no beings biologically programmed for evil".

Some comments made me wonder if you really read the book yourself, or if you left the task to someone whom you are starets of, and who may have expressed opinions more according to what he hoped you would like than according to his real experience, and who may have been inattentive. On the other hand, the inattentiveness might be that of yourself, if you are a monk. Or did you think "invisible" (Невидимый according to google) means "inimical" (Враждебный)?

Hans Georg Lundahl
Nanterre UL
Wednesday after
II Lord's Day of Lent

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