Christ’s Harrowing of Hell in “Fog on the Barrow-Downs”

Tom Bombadil’s rescue of the hobbits from the Barrow-wights contains a great image (and somewhat humorous interpretation) of a classic scene in Christian history and theology, Christ’s “harrowing of hell” of his saints (as well as of the future resurrection of the dead):

There was a loud rumbling sound, as of stones rolling and falling, and suddenly light streamed in, real light, the plain light of day. A low door-like opening appeared at the end of the chamber beyond Frodo’s feet; and there was Tom’s head (hat, feather, and all) framed against the light of the sun rising red behind him. The light fell upon the floor, and upon the faces of the three hobbits lying beside Frodo. They did not stir, but the sickly hue had left them. They looked now as if they were only very deeply asleep.

Get out, you old Wight! Vanish in the sunlight!

Shrivel like the cold mist, like the winds go wailing,

Out into the barren lands far beyond the mountains!

Come never here again! Leave your barrow empty!

Lost and forgotten be, darker than the darkness,

Where gates stand for ever shut, till the world is mended.

At these words there was a cry and part of the inner end of the chamber fell in with a crash. Then there was a long trailing shriek, fading away into an unguessable distance; and after that silence.

‘Come, friend Frodo!’ said Tom. ‘Let us get out on to clean grass! You must help me bear them.’

Gandalf’s Anarchism

“Indeed he [Sauron] is in great fear, not knowing what mighty one may suddenly appear, wielding the Ring, and assailing him with war, seeking to cast him down and take his place. That we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind.” (The Two Towers, ch. 5, “The White Rider”)

Gríma as Mask, “Bogey”

In his commentary on Beowulf Tolkien gives the following meaning of the word gríma:

The gríma was a mask or vizor (partly) covering the face. That the helmets of this company [of Beowulf] had such gríman is assured, since Wulfgar at the door of Heorot says so: grímhelmas *334, heregríman *396; ‘your masked helms’ 271, 320. That these were or might be of fierce or horrifying shape, designed (like more primitive war-paint) to frighten off assailants (and so act as life-guards) is shown by the frequent use of gríma for a bogey, or terrifying apparition…. But the gríma or mask probably more or less represented a face, human or animal… (Beowulf 203-4)

Rohirrim and the Danes

I’ve been reading through Tolkien’s translation of and commentary on Beowulf. Here’s the first of some random notes and observations, for what they’re worth.

In “The King of the Golden Hall,” Theoden’s door-warden, Háma, says to Gandalf: “The staff in the hand of a wizard may be more than a proper for age… Yet in doubt a man of worth will trust to his own wisdom. I believe you are friends and folk worthy of honour, who have no evil purpose. You may go in.” The scene, as someone has doubtlessly recognized before, was lifted by Tolkien from Beowulf. When the eponymous hero arrives on the Danish shores and tells the coast guard that he has come to “give counsel to Hrothgar how he, wise and good, will overcome his enemy,” the guard replies: “A man of keen wit who takes good heed will discern the truth in both words and deeds: my ears assure me that here is a company of friendly mind toward the Lord of the Scyldings. Go ye forward bearing your weapons and your armour!” (ll. 225-36, Tolkien’s trans.). (Beowulf and company will later lay aside their weapons and armor before entering Hrothgar’s actual hall, and of whose door warden Tolkien says that “It was his duty to assess the merit of strangers at the door and to advise whether they should be admitted.”) In his commentary on this passage, Tolkien observes how “The exchange of what we should call ‘platitudes’, received opinions about the way things go in the world, was more honoured in heroic circles than in (say) modern academic ones,” and interprets this particular platitude by the coast guard to mean: “a man of discernment will naturally be able to recognize a liar when he meets him” (“Commentary,” p. 200-1). It is much the same sentiment that Tolkien had placed earlier in Eomer’s mouth in his encounter with the “three hunters.” As he had told Aragorn, “All that you say is strange… Yet you speak the truth, that is plain: the Men of the Mark do not lie, and therefore they are not easily deceived…”

The Naming and Narrative of Treebeard and Yahweh

In a well-known passage, Treebeard explains to Merry and Pippin the Entish philosophy of naming:

For I am not going to tell you my name, not yet at any rate.’ A queer half-knowing, half-humorous look came with a green flicker into his eyes. ‘For one thing it would take a long while: my name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish as you might say. It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.

In other words, the name of a thing is its narrative: things are identified by their temporal eventfulness. According to Robert Jenson (Systematic Theology, Vol. 1: The Triune God), what is true of Treebeard is likewise true of the God of the Old and New Testaments.

God… is uniquely described by the narrative of the Exodus-event, and the one so described has a personal proper name, JHWH. The description and the name in their interplay determine Israel’s relationship to her God. Asked who God is, Israel’s answer is, “Whoever rescued us from Egypt.” Asked about her access to this God, Israel’s answer is, “We are permitted to call on him by name”… In [the Decalogue], the name and the narrative description are side by side, to make one identification: “I am JHWH your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt.”…

To the question “Who is God?” the New Testament has one new descriptively identifying answer: “Whoever raised Jesus from the dead.” Identification by the Resurrection neither replaces nor is simply added to identification by the Exodus; the new identifying description verifies its paradigmatic predecessor…. Thus the phrase “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is simultaneously a very compressed telling of the total narrative by which Scripture identifies God and a personal name for the God so specified; in it, name and narrative description only appear together, as at the beginning of the Ten Commandments, but are identical.

In Treebeard’s terms, accordingly, Yahweh’s name is a “real name” first, because it “tells you the story of the thing” it names, and secondly, because like any other living thing, it is “growing all the time.”

What Does the Time of Night Smell Like?

“[Gollum] listened and sniffed, which seemed, as they had noticed before, his usual method of discovering the time of night.” (“Journey to the Cross-roads,” The Two Towers)

Salt Lake City vs. Treebeard’s Eyes: Tolkien and Descartes on Tradition

J.R.R. Tolkien and René Descartes give us two powerful, yet as one might expect, contradictory images of tradition and its relevance for human wisdom. In his Discourse on Method, a work that could justly be characterized as the intellectual charter of the modern era, Descartes contrasts those human enterprises which have the benefit of the planning and oversight of a single, “master craftsman,” with those comparatively haphazard achievements which are the result of many different planners over the course of a long period of time. As Descartes writes,

it occurred to me to consider that there is often not so much perfection in works composed of many pieces and made by the hands of various master craftsmen as there is in those works on which but a single individual has worked. Thus one sees that buildings undertaken and completed by a single architect are usually more attractive and better ordered than those which many architects have tried to patch up by using old walls that had been built for other purposes. Thus those ancient cities that were once mere villages and in the course of time have become large towns are usually so poorly laid out, compared to those well-ordered places that an engineer traces out on a vacant plain as it suits his fancy… (Discourse on Method, AT 11)

In short: Paris vs. Salt Lake City.

What Descartes is contrasting in his image of these two different kinds of city (the centrally planned vs. the non-planned), of course, are two different and (for him) conflicting ways of looking at the world, one that is rooted (if not “cemented”) in custom, authority, received wisdom, in a word, tradition, and another that is critical, analytical, methodological, inquisitive, exploratory, enlightened, self-conscious, independent, autonomous, in a word, rational.

In opposition to this characterization of the alleged haphazardness and, to that extent, irrationality of “tradition” is Tolkien’s image of Treebeard’s eyes, something I’ve commented on before in connection with the historical character of theology in comparison with philosophy. As Pippen reflects on Treebeard’s eyes in The Two Towers,

“One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present: like sun shimmering on the outer leaves of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake. I don’t know, but it felt as if something that grew in the ground – asleep, you might say, or just feeling itself as something between root-tip and leaf-tip, between deep earth and sky had suddenly waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years.”

Joseph Pearce has suggested that in this extended description of Treebeard’s eyes Tolkien is showing his agreement with Chesterton’s account of “traditionalism,” or what Chesterton described as the “philosophy of the Tree.” As G.K. wrote in one article,

I mean that a tree goes on growing, and therefore goes on changing; but always in the fringes surrounding something unchangeable. The innermost rings of the tree are still the same as when it was a sapling; they have ceased to be seen, but they have not ceased to be\central. When the tree grows a branch at the top, it does not break away from the roots at the bottom; on the contrary, it needs to hold more strongly by its roots the higher it rises with its branches. That is the true image of the vigorous and healthy progress of a man, a city, or a whole species. (Church Socialist Quarterly, January 1909, as quoted in Pearce, ed., Tolkien: A Celebration)

To bring the contradiction between Tolkien and Descartes to as sharp a point as possible, we might say that they both see tradition in semi-arborial terms: what Descartes sees as a bewildering, unintelligible, even idiotic network of subterranean (and hence sub-rational) influences and commitments, Tolkien sees as (potentially) a life-giving root system, reaching across time and space to provide society with much needed nourishment, strength, and stability.