With St. Thomas Aquinas and the Christian theological tradition, Tolkien sees the universe both as intrinsically hierarchical and intrinsically good. Some created beings are nobler than others, but all are good: wizards, high-elves, dwarves, hobbits. A hobbit is not a failed or faulty creation because he is not an elf or a man, and Tolkien’s wiser characters know this. Even lowly inanimate things are good: the hobbits’ love of eating and drinking together is not despicable but healthy. Cakes, ale, and pipeweed are even magical, in their own way. Indeed, as Wood points out, one of the chief virtues of fantasy is its power to make us see the ordinary things of the world, and the world itself, as new, strange, and wonderful.
For Tolkien, as for St. Augustine, evil is not a positive reality, but a falling-away from the reality the creator planned for the creature. He speaks of evil as a marring of what was made, and as a shadow. All beings have been created good, even Sauron and his orcs. They fall away from their intended goodness by rejecting what their maker intended for them. In the Silmarillion, the demonic Melkor first sins by inventing his own dissonance instead of singing the part God gave him in the angelic harmony. Rejecting one’s own created nature is the original sin. Lesser beings also sin by trying to re-create themselves. Part of why the Ring tempts mortals so strongly is its promise to let them escape the physical mortality God has intended for them. The sinner seeks a more independent existence, but he ends up losing his individuality. The Ring-wraiths fade to shadows and puppets of Sauron. Gollum falls so far that he loses his true name and even his nature, scarcely remaining a hobbit.
Tolkien’s heroes use ancient weapons against evil: they strive for and often exemplify the cardinal virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance. In this, Tolkien is no more Christian than all the philosophers who have followed Plato in praising these virtues, or than the pagans whose folklore he himself studied. However, in Tolkien’s world, these natural virtues take on a Christian character. Here a simple-minded hobbit can make a wiser choice than a sophisticated aristocrat of Gondor because of his humility. Justice is tempered with a mercy that a pagan would not comprehend. Again and again, Gollum is spared his just punishment because of pity. At first the hobbits are as shocked by this pity as pagans would be, but in the end it saves the quest when Gollum de-stroys the Ring.
Courage, too, becomes Christian in this story. The quest to destroy the Ring has almost no chance of success, but the fellowship does not set out in pagan fatalism. Rather, they have an almost Christian hope in what is not seen. Hope is what makes some characters persevere more courageously than others: it is what makes Gandalf a better general than Denethor, and Sam more constant than Frodo.
Anna Mathie - 'First Things' (January 2004)
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