T-Minus 17 Days - The High and the Perilous: Beauty and Virtue in Middle-Earth

Feast of Sts Cosmas & Damian the Holy Unmercenaries

Frodo_Square.jpgGREAT LITERATURE is great precisely because it does something great to us. After we have read a great book, we set it down changed, somehow, for the better. The works of Tolkien, in particular The Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion, but even his shorter and lesser-known works such as The Smith of Wootton Major, fall squarely into the class of great literature. To one like myself, whose childhood and adolescence coincided with the last two decades of the twentieth century and whose formative influences were the moral and intellectual wastelands of its pop milieu, these works, though read initially for the sake of pleasure, have become a wellspring of meaning and inspiration which have helped to steer my life to a better end. It was in Tokien’s Middle-Earth that I first encountered and then began to understand the significance of Virtue and Beauty.      

In its best examples, fantasy brings us into contact with the world of the High and the Perilous. Or rather, it makes us aware of the High and the Perilous. For, in truth, we live in that world all of the time, though the fact be largely hidden to us. Good fantasy shows us Reality in a way that the ‘real’ world cannot; it presents us a world, very much like our own, but one where the sublime and noble can be experienced in forms more concrete, more visible, and more overtly potent (the same is also true of the wicked and the deadly). Through just the right combination of the familiar and the exotic, fantasy creates a remove that allows us to look at old things anew. When successfully written and successfully read, it can give the reader an expanded awareness of Reality.


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Such a setting is characterized by heightened opposites. The night, for instance, is darker than any we have likely known. This is not simply the result of an absence of light. There are shadows so much blacker that they can walk undispelled, even in the light of day. They are able to enter the mind and strangle the very memory of light. But we also meet a light brighter and purer than any we have yet seen. Even the deep of night becomes both luminous and fearless. In such a world, the reader is able to perceive Beauty more clearly, for he meets it in things and persons through which it seems to shine as something palpable. There is no lack of examples of beauty in Middle-Earth; it is suffused throughout in forms many and varied. But perhaps it is seen most purely and concretely in the Elves—in their loveliness, their wisdom, their artistry, their heroic exploits, and their sadness.

Beauty is a word much abused, or at least greatly misunderstood. In the popular mind it is often simply identified with what is physically attractive or ‘sexy’. But Beauty, properly understood, is that quality in things which elicits within us a twofold response of wonder and longing. Wonder, in turn, is an experience that dispels our complacency by a sudden awareness of and fascination by something other and higher than ourselves, which wholly possesses our attention. And longing is both a recognition of this thing’s absence in us hitherto and a desire to have it, yet not as a possession but as a participation. Beauty, then, gives birth to wonder. And wonder opens us up to the perception of truth. It is truth that imparts meaning, and meaning gives man purpose. And it is such purpose—born ultimately of the perception of beauty—that inspires man to hope and motivates him to virtue.

Its presence in Middle-Earth is even more pronounced because it is seen opposite its stark contrary, the Hideous. To the Enemy, beauty and wonder are of no interest whatsoever. The Hideous and the Horrific, and their product Terror, are far more useful. Like wonder, terror produces a fascination, but one characterized by fear and revulsion. It is an encounter with something ‘other’ that is loathsome and repelling. And terror leads to despair, the deadliest weapon of the Enemy. Whatever work he does—the tortured earth and reeking slag outside the Black Gate that moved Frodo and Sam to disgust or the living death and shadow-mantled emptiness of the Ringwraiths that drives men mad with terror—the Enemy always produces revulsion.

Terror is the chief means employed by the Enemy to coerce the will of others. His motivation is sheer Domination, and for such an end fear is an apt tool because it effectively reduces the number of our possible choices to two: submit or perish. But while there were many who did submit, there were others who resisted, despite the risk of death. The Elves, Men, Dwarves, Hobbits and others, who together oppose Sauron and are referred to collectively as the Free Peoples, fought for freedom, that is, freedom from his domination.

Freedom, however, requires virtue. And virtue necessitates another quality found in fantasy: the power of choice. A world of heightened opposites presents the dilemma of choice. It so often succeeds in moral instruction because where contrasts are starker, distinctions are clearer. Evil is seen as evil, not only because its manifestation is more intense, bereft of any ambiguity, but also because its consequences are played out fully.

But terror is not the only weapon employed to limit choice. Desire can be just as potent, only it takes longer to work. The corrupting influence of evil is meant to disorder desire. And when desire is inordinate, sooner or later, depending upon the object of our desire, it overpowers us. Eventually, the thing we first desired to possess comes to possess us. So consuming can our desire become that we essentially lose our personhood, the very foundation of free choice. Sméagol’s lust for the Ring “burned his mind away to a single, glowing cinder of meaningless desire” (Peter Beagle, Introduction to The Tolkien Reader, xiii). And we see the result of this, namely his fractured and ebbing personality, in the pitiful debate he holds with himself outside the Black Gate.

But while Sméagol is still in the process of losing his personhood, he is not there yet. The Ringwraiths, however, are the end product of this process. Their personhood has vanished, burned up by their lust for power, fame, or whatever it was they had used their ring to attain. They become nothing more than nameless extensions of Sauron’s will. What greater and more terrifying an instance of domination can be imagined?

Frodo, in carrying and wielding the Ring, has opened himself up to the same peril. In the end, even at the final moment of the Quest, Frodo succumbs. But he is saved—by friendship, by previous choices of right over wrong, and by the self-destructive nature of corrupt desire itself.

Yet Frodo is not left unchanged. He grows in wisdom, and in the bright regret that accompanies it. Great beauty stirs us and inspires us, but in this world it is always followed by a farewell; “to find and to lose,” as Legolas observed. In the end, he moved beyond the Shire, beyond indeed all of Middle-Earth, for his pain was such that only a greater Good and a more poignant Beauty could heal it. As a result, he was drawn to things higher and better. It is a reminder to us that we too are made such that we can find no rest in this world.

Good Fantasy is a gift that re-introduces us to things both old and already known, yet in a mode that allows us to see them as new and strange. In doing so, we are able to rediscover them and are drawn to them in new ways. Included among these things are Beauty and Virtue. For those of us who have grown up in a culture that largely ignores these things and so finds itself empty of meaning and of inspiration, such a story can be life-changing. It can even be life-saving.


Fr. Benedict Armitage is a member of the Monastic Brotherhood of St Silouan and an ordained deacon in the Orthodox Church. He presently serves as the headmaster of Christ the Savior Academy, an Orthodox Christian classical school in Wichita, KS.

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