How Tolkien Can Save Your Soul
The Lord of the Rings meditates on death, and the One who conquers death.
Last weekend at New York’s Lincoln Center, I got some idea of what the Last Judgment will be like. You know, the Day that each of us is looking forward to, when all the sins of all the world will be exposed, including our own.
There were angelic choirs, infernal screams, brash trumpets, kettle drums — and amidst all the murk and evil, some powerful glimpses of Christ. Mercy, pity and forgiveness crept in among the terrors and dismantled them. They fell like a tall, dark tower.
I expected no less from a two-day Tolkien extravaganza, featuring all three Peter Jackson films of The Lord of the Rings, complete with choir and orchestra. They performed the magnificent score by composer Howard Shore, who mounted the stage at the end to thunderous, well-earned applause. The sheer artistry of the soloists, the choir, the flutists, the violinists and the overworked percussionists (they banged a lot of metal over in Mordor), reminded me how critical the music was to the movies. (In fact, the music holds up without the movies pretty well. I have a Pandora station set to play it, and the score sustains me through many a busy day.)
As David Goldman writes, architecture and painting mold how we see space, but music changes the way we experience time. It can train us to cherish eternity during the moments we spend on earth — as the best Western music does. Consider Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Mozart’s Requiem or sonorous Negro spirituals.
Or music can do the opposite. Music can trap us in our day to day existence, pull taut the chains of our passions, even teach us to seek a fake eternity in an intense, fleeting experience — be it rage, revenge or lust.
That was Richard Wagner’s project. He hated the Jewish Creator for, as Wagner imagined, draining earthly life of its freedom and ferocity. And he hated Jews for crabbing life with introspection and scruples. He decided that Jesus was really an Aryan hero who’d come to free the world from the Jews and the Jewish God. So Wagner created grand, passionate operas that sanctified the instincts, made self-restraint seem cowardly and self-indulgence seem heroic. Wagner helped to poison the imagination of two generations in Europe, preparing the way in the arts for the nationalistic butchery of World War I, and the genocidal frenzy of World War II. To speak in Tolkien’s terms, no matter how grand the passions of Wagner’s heroes, none of them ended up any better off than Denethor.
Tolkien was the anti-Wagner. He used the same materials, the pre-Christian legends of Northern Europe. He worked on a similar scale, writing thousands of years of history, inventing entire languages and alphabets. But he swam against the tide of neo-paganism. With a far better mastery than Wagner of these same myths, Tolkien explored what it feels like to live with the certainty of death, to look for hope not in deeds of gaudy glory, but in the practice of simple virtues and gentleness toward the weak.
In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote the greatest Christian novel of the twentieth century, perhaps the only such novel anyone but scholars will bother to read in a hundred years. This despite the fact that his fictional world is not just pre-Christian, but even pre-Judaic.
That isn’t to say The Lord of the Rings isn’t also a novel of its author’s time. A veteran of the Battle of the Somme who saw his best friends butchered around him, Tolkien spent the rest of his life meditating on mortality. In that sense, The Lord of the Rings is a novel of World War I.
Tolkien shows us the raw core of human life, the craving for something enduring and good in a world of sin and death. His work, more than any other, helps us to feel in our guts why the world needs Christ, and how shadowy, sad and trivial life really is without Him.
— For more on Tolkien’s theology, see “The Generosity of Tolkien”—which includes, as a bonus, the story of how reading Tolkien nerved me to face down my heresy-peddling high school religion teachers.
To purchase Howard Shore’s magnificent Lord of the Rings Symphony, click here.