August 25, 2014
Near the end of The Return of the King movie, while Frodo and Sam are making the arduous climb up Mount Doom to destroy the ring once and for all, their strength fails and they stop climbing. Sam claws himself over to Frodo, takes him in his arms, and asks him this poignant question:
Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo? It’ll be spring soon, and the orchards will be in blossom; and the birds will be nesting in the hazel thicket; and they’ll be sowing the summer barley in the lower fields; and eating the first of the strawberries with cream. Do you remember the taste of strawberries?
Frodo weakly replies that he can’t, but Sam’s recollection of the Shire’s goodness and beauty gives him new determination, and he puts Frodo on his back and begins once more to climb the steep slope.
“Do you remember the taste of strawberries?”
Sam’s vivid memories of the Shire hearten him and give him hope even during the darkest moment of their journey. This vibrant image of the goodness that the hobbits are fighting for demonstrates, I think, the power of Tolkien’s vision. One of the reasons that Tolkien’s stories continue to inspire us is that he does something few authors are able to do: he makes goodness compelling and desirable.
Certainly, the evil of Sauron throughout the Lord of the Rings is breathtaking, and Tolkien’s portrayal of the ring’s corrupting power proves his insight into the workings of evil. But this isn’t as remarkable an achievement as is his compelling depiction of good. Fallen humans seem to be able to imagine interesting, emotionally gripping evil characters more easily that we can imagine interesting good characters. In many of our movies and stories, the good characters are rather insipid, while the evil ones are much more fascinating. Think about the character of the Joker in The Dark Knight, Walter White in Breaking Bad, or Darth Vader in the Star Wars series. These characters are complex and compelling—they draw us into their struggle. All too often, overtly Christian attempts to portray good characters fall into sappy Hallmark blah-blah-ville. For the most part, Fireproof is yawn-worthy, and God is Not Dead is reductive and predictable. Other Christian art isn’t much better, as readers of the angelic Elsie Dinsmore series can attest. Why is goodness so damnably boring?
Writing about Paradise Lost, a poem whose most interesting character, according to some readers at any rate, is Satan, C. S. Lewis comments on why it might be that we find it easier to make evil interesting:
It remains, of course, true that Satan is the best drawn of Milton’s characters. The reason is not hard to find. Of the major characters whom Milton attempted he is incomparably the easiest to draw. . . . In all but a few writers the ‘good’ characters are the least successful, and everyone who has ever tried to make even the humblest story ought to know why. To make a character worse than oneself it is only necessary to release imaginatively from control some of the bad passions which, in real life, are always straining at the leash; the Satan, the Iago, the Becky Sharp, [the Joker, the Darth Vader] within each of us, is always there and only too ready, the moment the leash is slipped, to come out and have in our books that holiday we try to deny them in our lives. But if you try to draw a character better than yourself, all you can do is to take the best moments you have had and to imagine them prolonged and more consistently embodied in action. But the real high virtues which we do not possess at all, we cannot depict except in a purely external fashion. We do not really know what it feels like to be a man much better than ourselves. . . . To project ourselves into a wicked character, we have only to stop doing something, and something that we are already tired of doing; to project ourselves into a good one we have to do what we cannot and become what we are not. (Preface toParadise Lost, 100-101)
I think Lewis is right, and his observation poses a serious problem for any imaginative work that seeks to offer us visions of the kind of life to which we should aspire. How do you make goodness exciting and attractive and not bland and boring?
What I find fascinating is the means Tolkien uses to address this problem of imagining goodness. Rather than portraying an exceptionally good character, he instead portrays rather ordinary characters who are drawn by exceptionally beautiful visions of goodness or shalom. We long for the rich life experienced by the hobbits in the Shire, the elves in Rivendell, the dwarves in Moria and their kingdom under the Lonely Mountain, and the men in Rohan and Gondor. These places are not perfect, but their vibrant communities offer rich visions of shalom, of beautiful, harmonious ways of life.
The task of imagining the good life in a way that is exciting and satisfying may be easier than imagining a good character, but it is still challenging. Tolkien himself acknowledges its difficulties in The Hobbit when the narrator offers an apology for why, despite the glories of Rivendell, so few pages are given to this portion of the quest: “Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway” (The Hobbit 51). Yet despite these challenges, Tolkien succeeds in portraying the goodness of the Shire, of Rivendell, of Gondor, of Rohan in compelling, tangible ways. The most remarkable aspect of Tolkien’s vision is his ability to make the good desirable. The shire is a delightful place, with its hills, its round doors leading into snug holes, its greenness; Rivendell is truly magical with its waterfalls, its sheer cliffs, and the rites of its elven inhabitants; the White City shimmers with life and glory in the morning sun. They are good, but they are not boring.
Thus near the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, the movie shifts abruptly from the dark history of the ring, Sauron, and the failure of men to destroy the ring, to the idyllic beauty of the Shire. Harmonious music begins to play, and we see Frodo, reading under a tree in a green, vibrant forest. He appears to have the leisure to read for pleasure, and when he runs to welcome Gandalf, he displays a sharp, well-developed wit, chastising him before telling Gandalf seriously: “Gandalf, I’m glad you’re back.” “So am I dear boy, so am I,” Gandalf replies. For all his exciting travels, Gandalf finds the pastoral life of the Shire deeply satisfying. He takes great joy in the flourishing life of the Shire, even if most of his time must be spent elsewhere, defending the possibility of its existence. And it’s easy to see why: the jollity of the pub, the good wine and tobacco that Bilbo enjoys, the mischievous escapades of Merry and Pippin. Even though the Shire seems to be a backwater, far from the center of power, it supports a thriving community and seems never to know a dull moment.
The true vigor of the Shire, offering Gandalf and the hobbits a glimpse of shalom, is revealed by the way it acts as a lodestar that guides the hobbits on their long, arduous journey. Although the rigors of the road force them to relinquish their Shire habits—the hobbits no longer get second breakfast, and only after the fall of Isengard can they replenish their supply of good tobacco—they continue to be motivated and strengthened by their love for the good life of the Shire. For instance, when Frodo looks into Galadriel’s mirror, he sees the Shire being burned and looted, and the hobbits led away in chains (in the books, this vision actually comes true when Saruman and Wormtongue slink off to the Shire and corrupt it until the four victorious hobbits return and set things to rights). Frodo’s vision of the Shire being turned into an industrial wasteland demonstrates to him the stakes for which he is fighting. When Galadriel tells him this vision will be realized if his quest fails, Frodo gains a desperate determination to continue his journey no matter the cost; this vision girds his loins and drives him on.
In a parallel way, Boromir and Aragorn are led by their vision of Gondor. Even when Boromir is tempted to wield the illicit power of the ring, he would do so to bring hope to his beloved, beleaguered city. As he explains to Aragorn in a moment of vulnerability:
My father is a noble man, but his rule is failing and our people lose faith. He looks to me to make things right, and I would do it, I would see the glory of Gondor restored. Have you ever seen it, Aragorn? The White Tower of Ecthelion, glimmering like a spike of pearl and silver, its banners caught high in the morning breeze…have you ever been called home by the clear ringing of silver trumpets?
Like Sam’s memory of the taste of strawberries, Boromir’s memory of Minas Tirith focuses on specific images—the white tower, the clear ringing of trumpets. Their guiding visions of shalom are vivid and particular; they are imaginable, and it is their tangible clarity that makes them so powerful.
What all these vision of shalom share—and what sets them in sharp contrast to the ugliness of Mordor and Isengard—is their preservation of organic harmonies. These beautiful communities participate in shared life rather than seizing technologies that enable their leaders to take life and consolidate power. The Fellowship of the Ring movie conveys this contrast powerfully in one of its best sequences. While Gandalf is imprisoned on the pinnacle of Saruman’s tower, a moth comes along and flutters beside him. Gandalf reaches out and holds the moth while speaking to it; as we discover later, he is asking it to bring an eagle to rescue him. When the moth flies away, the camera follows it past the edge of the tower, and then turns and plunges straight down into Saruman’s furnaces deep beneath the surface of the earth. Here we see Saruman welcoming a newborn uruk-hai amid burning trees and the forging of weapons.
This sequence contrasts the two wizards and their methods. Gandalf continues to work through organic, natural means, hopeless though these appear in the face of the immense power being gathered by Saruman. Mordor likewise lives by coercive power, by using technology to warp the world toward Sauron’s selfish desires instead of bending his desires toward shalom. Such power seems invincible, which is why Saruman joins with Sauron; as he tells Gandalf, “Against the power of Mordor there can be no victory. We must join him.” So Saruman takes part in the coercive power of Sauron: he instructs his orcs to rip the trees out of the ground and burn them to fuel his armories. All too often, we succumb to this same temptation. It is easier to extract oil from the ground and burn it to get what we want quickly and easily than it is to do the difficult work of imagining more harmonious ways of living. The fire that turns the Ent’s trees into Sauron’s weapons epitomizes the kind of power that destroys life quickly to achieve its desires. Why do we want this power? Because we are impatient, we lack faith that the slow growth of trees will suffice, so we burn them. We think that the slow flight of the moth will not bring help in time, so we turn to seeing stones.
Such coercive power defines the ring’s attraction, and it is why Gandalf refuses to wield it; power of this kind can’t be used for good, it is the power of centralization, of ever-expanding technology, and we turn to this power when we lose hope in the slow, organic cycles of life. When, during their next confrontation, Gandalf leaps from Saruman’s tower and flies away on the back of the eagle, Saruman looks after him and says, “So you have chosen death.” According to all appearances, the odds are indeed stacked against Gandalf and the fellowship; if you calculate victory by statistical chances, Saruman is right. But Gandalf doesn’t take hope in statistics or calculated odds; he takes hope in the beauty of the shalom lived by the hobbits in the Shire or the men of Gondor in Minas Tirith. So he chooses to continue hoping and working within the slow cycles of this shalom. Saruman is more right than he knows; Gandalf has chosen the organic cycles of death that slowly, painfully bring life, whether the life of a tree from the decaying matter around its roots, or the life of a community from the sacrificial death of its members. This is what it means to take hope in the resurrection rather than in the coercive power of technology.
As Frodo and Sam leave the Shire at the beginning of their long journey, Frodo recalls the words of Bilbo: “It’s a dangerous business Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” As we have seen, the hobbits do keep their feet planted firmly on the hope embodied in the good life of the Shire. And even when Frodo’s burden causes him to forget the Shire and lose his feet, Sam remains grounded, treasuring the memory of the Shire and the taste of strawberries. Thus Sam retains the strength to carry Frodo to Mount Doom where, after the struggle with Gollum, the ring is finally destroyed. Frodo and Sam stumble outside and collapse on the rocks, watching the mountain convulse in volcanic spasms. Now, finally, both Frodo and Sam can see the goodness of the shire: “I can see the Shire … The Brandywine River, Bag End, Gandalf’s fireworks . . . the lights in the Party Tree.” Frodo trails off and Sam continues the litany of the Shire’s beauty: “Rosie Cotton dancing … she had ribbons in her hair . . . if ever I was to marry someone . . . it would have been her . . . it would have been her.
Of course Frodo and Sam are rescued by the eagles, and they return to the Shire where Sam does indeed marry Rosie Cotton. What I want to emphasize, though, is the vivid desirability of the good life the Shire embodies. This image of the good grounds the hobbits on their long journey and gives them the strength to endure great hardships. Perhaps Tolkien’s rich imagination of shalom can inspire us to cultivate our own imaginations of goodness: What is our vision of goodness? What is our imagination of the good life that we desire? What image of shalom grounds us on our pilgrimage through life? I’m afraid that if it’s just being married, having 2.5 kids, and owning a home with a two-car garage, this vision won’t be sufficient to hold us on the road.
Even the dream of soundly defeating an atheist college professor in a debate about the existence of God isn’t rich enough. Marriage, children, and evangelism are all part of the good to which we are called, but to make this good beautiful and desirable, we need to see it imagined in particular, vibrant communities. We need to be able to taste the first strawberries of spring, we need a fully-incarnate imagination of the shalom that we seek. Our task, then, is to cultivate places and communities and art in which the Kingdom of God becomes imaginable. For if we keep our feet under us, if we hold in our memories the shalom toward which we aim, then in all our journeyings, we may yet, as Sam tells Frodo, see our friends and our home again. We may yet.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of Christ and Pop Culture.