The Wordsmith's Forge
My newsletter column for February
The book that most deeply affected my life from its youth was undoubtedly J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
I was not quite fourteen when I began to read a copy borrowed from my elder sister. I devoured it and immediately began reading it again. And again. I read it so many times that now when I read it, I can hear it in my head at the same time my eyes are taking it up off the page.
This was of great help to me when I needed to brush up my German to pass a language proficiency test in graduate school: I obtained the German version of Der Herr der Ringe
from the publisher in Stuttgart and plunged into reading it. Unfamiliar words didn’t detain me, because I could hear the English version in my head as I read the German sentences and could guess at the meaning. Unfortunately, having read The Lord of the Rings
so many times in my youth, I now find this over-familiarity a handicap to enjoying the book today, and I re-read in it very rarely.
Anyway, one of the common criticisms of The Lord of the Rings
by those who look down on it is that it is too easy on the characters. Everyone makes it home safely, they say. Nobody is scarred by the supposedly horrific things they have faced. But this is not true. The central character, Frodo, is certainly scarred by what he has experienced. He suffers not only physical pain but a kind of PTSD for several years after the victory of the West over the Dark Lord Sauron. In fact, the only way he can be truly healed is to leave Middle-earth entirely and pass into the West with the Elves.
At their parting, his servant Sam says, “I thought you were going to enjoy the Shire too, for years and years, after all you have done.” But Frodo replies, “So I thought too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”
Not only does Frodo pay a great personal price to effect the overthrow of Sauron, so do the Elves. For a great deal of their magic has been rendered ineffectual by the destruction of Sauron’s Ring, and in order to avoid fading away, they must leave Middle-earth. So not only do the Elves lose Middle-earth, but Middle-earth (and all its remaining peoples) lose the Elves. And that is not a negligible cost on either side.
Evil can be resisted, but there is a price to pay. And while ultimate victory may be promised, there may be many defeats along the way. There are no guarantees for the here-and-now. That is a serious message, and it is near the center of The Lord of the Rings.
As Lent begins this month, it is something to bear in mind. The Church faces many challenges. Our society faces many dangers. And evil must be resisted, which means, ultimately, by you and me. (Who else is there?) This is part of our membership vows:
Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? I do.
Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? I do.
Lent is a time to remind ourselves that we will pay a price for doing that. Evil will not go quietly, and we will be marked by our experiences in resisting it. Certainly, Jesus paid a price for his faithfulness: he was beaten and he was tortured to death on a cross. People mocked him as he hung there, dying. Yet the price he paid was not merely a cost to him personally. He paid for us all, that we might have the light of life.
Which means, in the end, that we will be able to look on the price we have paid to follow him and say, “It’s been worth it.”
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.