Monday 19 September 2011

Hierarchy, reverance and worship in Tolkien's work and life

The only evidence of religious ritual in The Lord of the Rings is when Faramir and his men stand and face West in silence before eating, as an act of reverence to Numenor.

Elsewhere Tolkien makes clear that the Numenoreans in exile (in Arnor and Gondor) have ceased to practice their religion due to the destruction of the Holy Mountain Meneltarma which was the site of communal annual worship, led by the King (everyone else being silent).

The presumption is that until 'The Temple' is (somehow) restored, or a replacement divinely ordained - then the Numenoreans can do more than reiterate their reverence for lost Numenor and via this, the Valar and the One above all.


This is of a piece with the way in which religion works within the pre-incarnational world of the Lord of the Rings - by reverence of that which is higher - usually only a step or two higher - rather than direct reverence of God.

The Good characters among Men (including hobbits) are distinguished by their love of - or at least respect for - elves; which are a higher form of humans, and of The Wise (Wizards, High Elves and the half-Elven).


It is goes down the scale. The non-Numenorean 'Middle' Men of Rohan are ennobled by their treaty with Gondor - apart from that they are 'merely' courageous and loyal barbarians: it is their treaty with Gondor, and via Gondor (but not directly) with reverence of the Valar and the One, that Rohan is lifted above the wild men such as the Easterlings and Dunlanders.

Rohan is above the hunter gatherers - Druidain - but at the time of the War of the Ring this relationship has been broken and is restored during the course of the book. The reverence the Druidain ought to have for the Men of Rohan has been broken precisely because the Rohirrim have come to regard the Druidian as sub-human and denied their duty of care towards them (apparently hunting them as if they were beasts) - similarly Gondor seems to have neglected their duty of care (their noblesse oblige) toward Rohan - allowing them to become corrupted by Saruman.


It seems that Rohan's Goodness is almost wholly mediated by their relationship with Gonder - in and of themselves, the Men of Rohan do not know about elves and the Wise, do not seem to know about the valar or the One. Their Goodness is therefore a function of their reverence for Gondor.

Similarly, Hobbits are corrupted by a selfish and short sighted complacency at the start of the tale, as they have lost knowledge and reverence for 'higher things' - especially elves.

It is precisely those hobbits who are unusual in their respect for elves which save the Shire at the end of the story - left to themselves the insular and comfort loving hobbits have let themselves be taken over by 'ruffians' and lack the psychological resources to resist evil.


Goodness in LotR is substantially about recognizing and reverencing that which is higher than oneself; and this applies all the way up and down the scale - it is equally vital that Elrond (who is acknowledged by all the good characters as leader of the Good forces in Middle Earth) reverence and is humble towards the Valar and The One - as that hobbits respect and are humble towards elves (like Frodo and Sam, and in contrast with Gollum).

The responses to Galadriel are likewise an index of the goodness of characters - even Eomer, who initially makes some rather paranoid and insulting comments about the Lady of the Woods, swiftly backs down and defers to those who know better; Faramir regards elvish contact as too perilous for modern men, but his profound respect for and deference toward the High elves is implict.


Equally the more-noble must have responsibility and care for those below them; as Gandalf does and Saruman does not; as Theoden lost and then regained, as Denethor lost and never regained.

Without this paternalism, Theoden and Denethor were unworthy to lead, and needed to be removed from responsibility - whether temporarily (Theoden) or permanently (Denethor).


Tolkien's point is a characteristically Catholic one: that simple folk can only have a right relationship with the highest things by means of intermediate things - and that we are all of us (or almost all of us) in this respect simple folk - we can only comprehend that which is a step or two above us.

In his personal devoutness it seems that Tolkien's reverence for God was primarily via 'intermediaries' such as priests, saints, angels and the Blessed Virgin Mary - and only indirectly by Jesus Christ who he perhaps saw as far above him - too far above him to have the direct and personal relationship he felt with the Queen of Heaven?

I sense that Tolkien was disturbed and perplexed by the 'Protestant' direct approach to Jesus, which struck him as arrogant and over-familiar - and seemed to grate quite badly on Tolkien in the Christian works of C.S Lewis.

(Although it needs to be noted Lewis himself steered-clear of many subjects he felt were 'above' him - such as the nature of differences between Christian communions and the re-unification of Christendom.)


In sum, Tolkien's view of the nature of the world was profoundly hierarchical, non-symmetrical and incremental. It was therefore each person's primary duty to reverence that which was above him; and to accept that most people, most of the time, could neither understand nor relate to the ultimate nature of reality.



Valkea said...

What is the relationship of men with God?

Say, if a man loves a woman, it can't be love alone. Love must be connected to and be supported by compassion (e.g. to facilitate helping the woman when she is in need of help), forgiveness (e.g. overlooking small mistakes the woman makes), patience (e.g. to listen serenely the long stories when the woman tells what is in her heart), ... etc., all the way to the outer rims where such things as hate and anger might sometimes be necessary to protect the woman. Love then must be an interconnected, fairly harmonious network of such things, where such things finds their proper outlets in the woman and his actions, and these are reciprocated by the woman but not exactly symmetrically and identically, corresponding to the different tasks, qualities and roles of the man and the woman.

But God is so much higher being and in certain sense (not in all senses) so distant that our communication with Him becomes thin, asking and doing symbolic things. God can of course do what He wishes and His communication and/or influence towards us is as rich and powerful (which we are aware of or not) or non-existent as He wishes.

Could it then be that if we orient everything in earthly life in Christian community/ congregation towards God and build a consummate Christian network of interconnected things, this then becomes from our perspective a powerful prayer and communication with God, which then gives power and substance to our symbolic gestures and prayers; symbolic gestures and prayers being a "phone connection" to God and Cristian community/ congregation the substantive and powerful message relayed by the "phone connection"? It is meager to God, of course, but we would then do much more than humming, asking and waving our hands in the air, which is a good and necessary start, but not enough. Our whole being and almost everything we do would become a prayer, imperfect and lacking, perhaps, and sometimes we would make mistakes, but this is the best and the most meaningful thing we can offer to God.

Valkea said...


And it must be said, that if man's love for the woman is love alone and unconnected to other things, it would not take long before the love would turn to hate and anger towards the woman because of all kinds of stresses in the relationship, much like the unconnected and unsupported simple principles of secular ideologies, like communism.

Kristor said...

The hierarchically mediated approach - not so much Catholic as catholic, for it was universal prior to the Reformation (outside of enthusiasts like John of the Cross and Francis, who were regarded with deep suspicion by ... the hierarchy) - is more doable. The Protestant and the hesychast ask themselves to discern the voice of the Holy One himself. They try to answer the question, "What is the perfect one, and where is he to be found, and how shall I find him?" It's not impossible to do, or no one would ever have been able to do it, and there would be no such thing as revealed religion. But it's difficult, and time-consuming; life-consuming. It takes simply everything you've got, even to make the attempt.

The hierarchical approach asks a question that is easy for almost anyone to answer. It asks us to find someone who is better than we are, and to order our lives toward them, thereby to order our lives more as they order their own.

It's like the difference between deciding one morning that one is going to teach oneself to be the best tennis player out there, without any help, and deciding on the other hand to take some lessons from a pro.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kristor - The difficulty is that at present it seems to be more difficult to find a spiritual advisor than a tennis pro.

In a properly operating catholic Christian society the hard thing was not finding valid spiritual advice, but following it - now it is hard to get beyond the first step.

That is why I feel we (most of us) need both the orthodox catholic and orthodox protestant sides of the Church - i.e. Lewis's 'mere' Christianity.

To the extent that we are 'on our own' and require individual discernment we need the protestant tradition, to the extent that we find what we need, we should become catholic.

Troels said...

This is very good!

A single addition — just to get it out of my system :-)

The Drúedain, though this is, as far as I remember, only developed after Tolkien finished writing The Lord of the Rings, were actually associated with the People of Haleth and thus among the Fathers of Men that helped the Eldar in their wars against the Black Enemy towards the end of the First Age. Some of the Drúedain went to Númenor under Elros, but they had all or mostly (I don't remember which) left the island before the drowning. The Drúedain that lived in the woods of Gondor seems, however, to have been of a different branch. Thus, while I agree with your placement of the Drúedain below the Rohirrim in the hierarchy of peoples in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien also did occasionally open a door for some interesting discussions of his hierarchies.

I agree that Tolkien's world is deeply hierarchical, but it is not so in an immutable fashion: the hierarchy is fluid (and at some times more fluid than at others). However, even when the hierarchy is fluid, the concept of the hierarchy might help us understand what is going on. One example of this is the slow passage out of public attention that Frodo sees after the Scouring of the Shire, as well as the rise to prominence of Meriadoc, Peregrin and Samwise: the latter three have been elevated above the ordinary hobbits of the Shire, and so they can now appear as models for them to emulate, but Frodo, while also ennobled by his experiences, is now too far above the ordinary folks, being able to serve as a role model for the three other Travellers only.

Thank you for this post -- the hierarchical mediation seems to me a useful concept, a good framework upon which I may build my understanding of Tolkien even further.

George Goerlich said...

Excellent post Troels! I would just like to say that your idea of a "fluid hierarchy" in no way contradicts the blogpost. I think a true hierarchy must be a "natural hierarchy" and the statuses should be apparent. Someone may be born to a role (e.g. Steward of Gondor), but should he fail to hold up what is required of the duty he will naturally fall. It is perhaps today where our top-down structure is entirely imposed via material and selfish wills that we get confused about what should occur almost spontaneously in better times.