How to Shake That Denethor Feeling
"My sons are spent. My line has ended. Rohan has deserted us. Theoden's betrayed me. Abandon your posts! Flee, flee for your lives!"
I was telling some new evangelical friends the other day why they should be reading Tolkien. Apart from that writer’s vast imagination and rich human wisdom, he played a key role in Christian history. According to C.S. Lewis, it was a long talk with his close friend Tolkien that first convinced him that God might exist.
Thus started Lewis’ journey, which culminated in him becoming the most powerful Christian apologist in a hundred years. How many millions have been won or kept for Christ by Lewis’ books? Yet it was Tolkien’s rich, subtle, steadfast influence that God used to make that possible.
The exquisite care with which Tolkien “sub-created” his world gives it the richness and depth of real-world history. (Indeed, Stream contributor Tim Furnish argues that the author meant us to read his books the way we do ancient chronicles, rather than novels.)
That craftsmanship allows us to assimilate and benefit from the author’s own worldview, which is profoundly Christian. Tolkien’s works are set in the imaginary pre-history of man, before the rise of China, Sumer, or Egypt. But they look back to what scripture tells us of the Creation, and forward to the full truth about God Himself that Jesus would reveal in His own person, and teachings.
Glimpses of Grace
There are everywhere in Tolkien’s stories little hints or glimpses of grace. Turning points in the story where inexplicable mercy — Frodo sparing Gollum’s life, for instance — later prove decisive in the victory over evil. Unlike the first histories man actually would produce, in Babylon or Egypt, humility and simplicity can triumph over pride.
Why else make hobbits, such simple and honest folk, the bearers of a cross as heavy as the Ring? What culture without Revelation would ever think that the meek could inherit the earth? These stories are set in that long twilight period between man’s fall and God’s outreach to Abraham, among gentiles we might think of as the ancestors of Job and Melchizedek. But Tolkien lets the eternal truths of God’s own nature, unveiled in Christ, infuse the stories at crucial moments.
That’s why they exert such a subtle, sustaining power over so many of us, who read them in our formative years, and return to them in tough times. Times like these. They’re not quite as brutal, of course, as the First World War where Tolkien fought in the trenches. Or the siege of Britain in World War II, which went on while Tolkien was writing The Lord of the Rings.
The Enemy Controls What We See
But our times are painful in different ways. Bombs aren’t falling on our cities, but a million unborn children die each year in our suburbs. Veterans and grandparents are dying needlessly by the thousands in the quiet despair of locked-down nursing homes, seeded with deadly virus by hypocrites in government.
These same petty tyrants lock down our churches and ban our livelihoods. They stoke a famine that’s set to kill millions of helpless strangers who depend on America for their food. A lying, fawning, faux-moralistic media holds up a thousand fun house mirrors to make the Cuomos, the Whitmers, the Wolfs and Newsomes look like heroes, “saving lives.” Was the propaganda imposed on conquered Frenchmen, Danes, Greeks, or Poles any more outrageous? It was much less subtle or effective. The Enemy sharpens his tools, and learns from his errors.
Self-Reliance Leads to Suicide
And I’m getting worn down, I’ll admit. It’s my job to stare into the Palantir of the media each day. If you’ve read The Lord of the Rings or watched the movies, you know what I mean. The Palantiri were seeing stones made by the Elves that allowed men to see far off. To watch the movements of enemies and friends, and share thoughts from thousands of miles away. It was Tolkien’s Internet.
But in his world only the wise, experienced, and duly authorized were supposed to use the stones. That’s because they were dangerous. They could easily mislead you, and make you the dupe of an enemy who also held such a stone. The partial picture he’d provide you might drive you to despair. In The Return of the King, we learn that Denethor, Steward of Gondor, has picked up the seeing-stone in his city, Minas Tirith. He uses it, he thinks, for good — to keep track of the dark lord Sauron’s military movements.
Like the Heathen Kings
But Denethor’s not strong enough to contend with Sauron, who also holds one of the stones. Sauron carefully edits what Denethor can see. He shows him pictures distorted and exaggerated. He slants the “news” to make himself seem even more powerful than he is. To drive Denethor to desperation and despair. And if you remember the story, Denethor succumbs. He comes to believe that the fight for goodness depends solely on him and his city. And that the fight is doomed, since evil is too powerful. He might as well abandon the last shreds of dignity, and end his life “like the heathen kings of old” by self-immolation, along with his wounded son Faramir.
That could be the fate of any of us, if we stare into the Palantir which the Enemy controls for long enough. At least if we think that the fight depends on us alone, and our feeble powers. The vast, kaleidoscopic panorama of betrayal, deception, and hunger for power we see can easily crush us.
That Palantir in Your Pocket
Most of us can’t avoid the Palantirs these days. They’re everywhere. They buzz in our pockets, with incessant “notifications” of still more wickedness, more news of men who switched sides and now oppose us — or have simply given up.
Let’s each of us pray for the strength and hope that comes with knowing that the fight doesn’t hinge on us. That each of us is at the very best a humble hobbit tasked with trudging under our burden. The One who created the world and redeemed it is the final, decisive power. He hasn’t abandoned us. We must not abandon Him.
Meanwhile, those of us whose job it is to scan the Palantir and try to respond to it? We could sure use your prayers.