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I wrote a dystopic fantasy for this blog, but then I decided it was too dark. So I’m starting again.
We have just begun on our annual reading of The Lord of the Rings. We always start again around the time of Bilbo and Frodo’s birthday, 22nd September. Actually we were reading something else—John Garth’s wonderful book Tolkien and the Great War, the best biography of Tolkien there is—but our daughter and our new grandson came to stay and she said ‘are you reading The Lord of the Rings yet?’ and we said ‘No, but we can start.’ So we did.
This evening we were reading the last part of the chapter called ‘The Shadow of the Past’. In it Gandalf tells Frodo the full and very bad news about the Ring; and very humanly (of course he is a hobbit, but he stands for the ordinary person) Frodo bemoans the situation: ‘why do we have to live in times such as these?’, and later on, ‘why did the Ring have to come to me?’
We can just imagine the deep well in Tolkien’s heart from which he drew these anguished pleas. In the summer of 1914 everything was going his way. He had gained top results in his examinations and could count on a glittering academic career; he had finally won the hand of his beloved Edith; he had the support of his four close schoolfriends (the group that called themselves the TCBS). Out of the blue, European war in all its horror engulfed him and his generation. They too must have thought ‘why did this happen to us and why do we have the task of dealing with this dreadful threat to our country?’
I find this chapter—which I have read, along with the rest of the book, countless times—immensely comforting. And I don’t mean comfort only in the sense of ‘consolation’, although I include it. I also mean that it is strengthening. The shadow of our collective past has caught up with us, and this generation is facing darkness unlike anything we knew when we were young. Admittedly there is not a physical Mordor or Land of Shadow, literally ruled by a Dark Lord who plans to enslave the world. But we see everywhere armies equipped with terrible weapons inflicting merciless cruelty and destruction; and, as bad, we see lying, treachery, callousness, self-righteousness, and blame taking over the public discourse and behaviour of our world. These are the methods and morals of Mordor.
Tolkien's chapter comforts me because it and the whole book are suffused by a deep and subtle Christian ethic that runs deeply counter to this Mordor ethic. When Frodo says ‘I wish it need not have happened in my time’, Gandalf replies ‘So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given us’. And later when he cries, ‘Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?’, Gandalf tells him ‘Such questions cannot be answered. You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom at any rate’. A subtle but clear echo of what St Paul says to the Corinthians. Tolkien’s mind and imagination was shot through with biblical principles.
When Frodo questions the acquisition of the Ring by Bilbo he is told that, while the power of evil was working in the Ring to get back to its maker, another power was secretly at work: Gandalf says, ‘I can put it no plainer than to say that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it’. Evil seems to have everything going for it; but in darkness another force is quietly making a way for small people to turn it to good.
That is my comfort in Dark Times.