Center for the American Idea

Back to Birzer

156                To Robert Murray, S.J. (draft)

[An answer to further comments on The Lord of the Rings.]

4 November 1954                 76 Sandfield Road, Headington, Oxford

My dear Rob,

It is remarkably kind of you to write at such length amid, I fear, weariness. I am answering at once, because I am grateful, and because only letters that I do treat so ever get answered, and most of all because your parcel has arrived when having done all my ‘prep’- ordering all the minutes and resolutions of a long and argumentative College-meeting yesterday (there being no fellow of ill-will, and only 24 persons of the usual human absurdity. I felt rather like an observer at the meeting of Hobbit-notables to advise the Mayor on the precedence and choice of dishes at a Shire-banquet) - I have half an hour to spare before going down hill for a session with the College secretary. That is the kind of sentence I naturally write.....

       No, ‘Sméagol’ was not, of course, fully envisaged at first, but I believe his character was implicit, and merely needed attention. As for Gandalf: surely it is not to join P. H.1 to voice any criticism! I could be much more destructive myself. ‘Mere are, I suppose, always defects in any large-scale work of art; and especially in those of literary form that are founded on an earlier matter which is put to hew uses - like Homer, or Beowulf, or Virgil, or Greek or Shakespearean tragedy! In which class, as a class not as a competitor, The Lord of the Rings really falls though it is only founded on the author’s own first draft! I think the way in which Gandalf’s return is presented is a defect, and one other critic, as much under the spell as yourself, curiously used the same expression: ‘cheating’. That is partly due to the ever-present compulsions of narrative technique. He must return at that point, and such explanations of his survival as are explicitly set out must be given there - but the narrative is urgent, and must not be held up for elaborate discussions involving the whole ‘mythological’ setting. It is a little impeded even so, though I have severely cut G’s account of himself. I might perhaps have made more clear the later remarks in Vol. II (and Vol. III) which refer to or are made by Gandalf, but I have purposely kept all allusions to the highest matters down to mere hints, perceptible only by the most attentive, or kept them under unexplained symbolic forms. So God and the ‘angelic’ gods, the Lords or Powers of the West, only peep through in such places as Gandalf's conversation with Frodo: ‘behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker’s’; or in Faramir’s Numenórean grace at dinner.

    Gandalf really ‘died’, and was changed: for that seems to me the only real cheating, to represent anything that can be called ‘death’ as making no difference. ‘I am G. the White, who has returned from death’. Probably he should rather have said to Wormtongue: ‘I have not passed through death (not ‘fire and flood’) to bandy crooked words with a serving-man’. And so on. I might say much more, but it would only be in (perhaps tedious) elucidation of the ‘mythological’ ideas in my mind; it would not, I fear, get rid of the fact that the return of G. is as presented in this book a ‘defect’, and one I was aware of, and probably did not work hard enough to mend. But G. is not, of course, a human being (Man or Hobbit). There are naturally no precise modern terms to say what he was. I wd. venture to say that be was an incarnate ‘angel’- strictly an aggeloz2 that is, with the other Istati, wizards, ‘those Who know'’ an emissary from the Lords of the West, sent to Middle-earth, as the great crisis of Sauron loomed on the horizon. By ‘incarnate’ I mean they were embodied in physical bodies capable of pain, and weariness, and of afflicting the spirit with physical fear, and of being 'killed’ though supported by the angelic spirit they might endure long, and only show slowly the wearing of care and labour.

   Why they should take such a form is bound up with the ‘mythology’ of the ‘angelic’ Powers of the world of this fable. At this point in the fabulous history the purpose was precisely to limit and hinder their exhibition of ‘power’ on the physical plane, and so that they should do what they were primarily sent for: train, advise, instruct, arouse the hearts and minds of those threatened by Sauron to a resistance with their own strengths; and not just to do the job for them. They thus appeared as ‘old’ sage figures. But in this ‘mythology’ all the ‘angelic’ powers concerned with this world were capable of many degrees of error and failing between the absolute Satanic rebellion and evil of Morgoth and his satellite Sauron, and the fainéance of some of the other higher powers or ‘gods’. The ‘wizards’ were not exempt, indeed being incarnate were more likely to stray, or err. Gandalf alone fully passes the tests, on a moral plane anyway (he makes mistakes of judgement). For in his condition it was for him a sacrifice to perish on the Bridge in defence of his companions, less perhaps than for a mortal Man or Hobbit, since he had a far greater inner power than they; but also more, since it was a humbling and abnegation of himself in conformity to ‘the Rules’: for all he could know at that moment he was the only person who could direct the resistance to Sauron successfully, and all his mission was vain. He was handing over to the Authority that ordained the Rules, and giving up personal hope of success.

   That I should say is what the Authority wished, as a set-off to Saruman. The ‘wizards’, as such, had failed; or if you like: the crisis had become too grave and needed an enhancement of power. So Gandalf sacrificed himself, was accepted, and enhanced, and returned. ‘Yes, that was the name. I was Gandalf.’ Of course he remains similar in personality and idiosyncrasy, but both his wisdom and power are much greater. When he speaks he commands attention; the old Gandalf could not have dealt so with Théoden, nor with Saruman. He is still under the obligation of concealing his power and of teaching rather than forcing or dominating wills, but where the physical powers of the Enemy are too great for the good will of the opposers to be effective he can act in emergency as an ‘angel’- no more violently than the release of St Peter from prison. He seldom does so, operating rather through others, but in one or two cases in the War (in Vol. III) he does reveal a sudden power: he twice rescues Faramir. He alone is left to forbid the entrance of the Lord of Nazgfil to Minas Tirith, when the City has been overthrown and its Gates destroyed - and yet so powerful is the whole train of human resistance, that he himself has kindled and organized, that in fact no battle between the two occurs: it passes to other mortal hands. In the end before he departs for ever he sums himself up: ‘I was the enemy of Sauron’. He might have added: ‘for that purpose I was sent to Middle-earth’. But by that he would at the end have meant more than at the beginning. He was sent by a mere prudent plan of the angelic Valar or governors; but Authority had taken up this plan and enlarged it, at the moment of its failure. ‘Naked I was sent back - for a brief time, until my task is done’. Sent back by whom, and whence? Not by the ‘gods’ whose business is only with this embodied world and its time; for he passed ‘out of thought and time’. Naked is alas! unclear. It was meant just literally, ‘unclothed like a child’ (not discarnate), and so ready to receive the white robes of the highest. Galadriel’s power is not divine, and his healing in Lorien is meant to be no more than physical healing and refreshment.

   But if it is ‘cheating’ to treat ‘death’ as making no difference, embodiment must not be ignored. Gandalf may be enhanced in power (that is, under the forms of this fable, in sanctity), but if still embodied he must still suffer care and anxiety, and the needs of flesh. He has no more (if no less) certitudes, or freedoms, than say a living theologian. In any case none of my ‘angelic’ persons are represented as knowing the future completely, or indeed at all where other wills are concerned. Hence their constant temptation to do, or try to do, what is for them wrong (and disastrous): to force lesser wills by power: by awe if not by actual fear, or physical constraint. But the nature of the gods’ knowledge of the history of the World, and their part in making it (before it was embodied or made ‘real’) -whence they drew their knowledge of the future, such as they had, is part of the major mythology. It is at least there represented that the intrusion of Elves and Men into that story was not any part of theirs at all, but reserved: hence Elves and Men were called the Children of God; and hence the gods either loved (or hated) them specially: as having a relation to the Creator equal to their own, if of different stature. This is the mythological-theological situation at this moment in History, which has been made explicit but has not yet been published.

   Men have ‘fallen’- any legends put in the form of supposed ancient history of this actual world of ours must accept that - but the peoples of the West, the good side are Re-formed. That is they are the descendants of Men that tried to repent and fled Westward from the domination of the Prime Dark Lord, and his false worship, and by contrast with the Elves renewed (and enlarged) their knowledge of the truth and the nature of the World. They thus escaped from ‘religion’ in a pagan sense, into a pure monotheist world, in which all things and beings and powers that might seem worshipful were not to be worshipped, not even the gods (the Valar), being only creatures of the One. And He was immensely remote.

    The High Elves were exiles from the Blessed Realm of the Gods (after their own particular Elvish fall) and they had no ‘religion’ (or religious practices, rather) for those had been in the hands of the gods, praising and adoring Eru ‘the One’, Ilúvatar the Father of All on the Mt. of Aman. The highest kind of Men, those of the Three Houses, who aided the Elves in the primal War against the Dark Lord, were rewarded by the gift of the Land of the Star, or Westernesse (= Númenor) which was most westerly of all mortal lands, and almost in sight of Elvenhome (Eldamar) on the shores of the Blessed Realm. There they became the Númenóreans, the Kings of Men. They were given a triple span of life - but not elvish ‘immortality’ (which is not eternal, but measured by the duration in time of Earth); for the point of view of this mythology is that ‘mortality’ or a short span, and ‘immortality’ or an indefinite span was part of what we might call the biological and spiritual nature of the Children of God, Men and Elves (the firstborn) respectively, and could not be altered by anyone (even a Power or god), and would not be altered by the One, except perhaps by one of those strange exceptions to all rules and ordinances which seem to crop up in the history of the Universe, and show the Finger of God, as the one wholly free Will and Agent.*

   The Númenóreans thus began a great new good, and as monotheists; but like the Jews (only more so) with only one physical centre of ‘worship’: the summit of the mountain Meneltarma ‘Pillar of Heaven’- literally, for they did not conceive of the sky as a divine residence-in the centre of Númenor; but it had no building and no temple, as all such things had evil associations. But they ‘fell’ again - because of a Ban or prohibition, inevitably. They were forbidden to sail west beyond their own land because they were not allowed to be or try to be ‘immortal’; and in this myth the Blessed Realm is represented as still having an actual physical existence as a region of the real world, one which they could have reached by ship, being very great mariners. While obedient, people

   * The story of Beren and Lúthien is the one great exception, as it is the way by which ‘Elvishness’ becomes wound in as a thread in human history.

from the Blessed Realm often visited them, and so their knowledge and arts reached almost an Elvish height. But the proximity of the Blessed Realm, the very length of their life-span given as a reward, and the increasing delight of life, made them begin to hanker after ‘immortality’. They did not break the ban but they begrudged it. And forced east they turned from beneficence in their appearances on the coasts of Middle-earth, to pride, desire of power and wealth. So they came into conflict with Sauron, the lieutenant of the Prime Dark Lord, who had fallen back into evil and was claiming both kingship and godship over Men of Middle-earth. It was on the kingship question that

Ar-pharazón the 13th3 and mightiest King of Númenor challenged him primarily. His armada that took haven at Umbar was so great, and the Númenóreans at their height so terrible and resplendent, that Sauron’s servants deserted him.

    So Sauron had recourse to guile. He submitted, and was carried off to Númenor as a prisoner-hostage. But he was of course a ‘divine’ person (in the terms of this mythology; a lesser member of the race of Valar) and thus far too powerful to be controlled in this way. He steadily got Arpharazón’s mind under his own control, and in the event corrupted many of the Númenóreans, destroyed the conception of Eru, now represented as a mere figment of the Valar or Lords of the West (a fictitious sanction to which they appealed if anyone questioned their rulings), and substituted a Satanist religion with a large temple, the worship of the dispossessed eldest of the Valar (the rebellious Dark Lord of the First Age).

   * He finally induces Arpharazón, frightened by the approach of old age, to make the greatest of all armadas, and go up with war against the Blessed Realm itself, and wrest it and its ‘immortality’ into his own hands.

   * There is only one ‘god’: God, Eru Ilúvatar. ‘Mere are the first creations, angelic beings, of which those most concerned in the Cosmogony reside (of love and choice) inside the World, as Valar or gods, or governors; and there are incarnate rational creatures, Elves and Men, of similar but different status and natures.  This was a delusion of course, a Satanic lie. For as emissaries from the Valar clearly inform him, the Blessed Realm does not confer immortality.  The land is blessed because the Blessed dwell there, not vice versa, and the Valar are immortal by right and nature, while Men are mortal by right and nature. But cozened by Sauron he dismisses all this as a diplomatic argument to ward off the power of the King of Kings. It might or might not be ‘heretical’, if these myths were regarded as statements about the actual nature of Man in the real world: I do not know. But the view of the myth is that Death - the mere shortness of human life-span - is not a punishment for the Fall, but a biologically (and therefore also spiritually, since body and spirit are integrated) inherent part of Man's nature. The attempt to escape it is wicked because ‘unnatural’, and silly because Death in that sense is the Gift of God (envied by the Elves), release from the weariness of Time. Death, in the penal sense, is viewed as a change in attitude to it: fear, reluctance. A good Númenórean died of free will when he felt it to be time to do so.

    The Valar had no real answer to this monstrous rebellion - for the Children of God were not under their ultimate jurisdiction: they were owed to destroy them, or coerce them with any ‘divine’ display of the powers they held over the physical world. They appealed to God; catastrophic ‘change of plan’ occurred. At the moment that Arpharazón set foot on the forbidden shore, a rift appeared: Númenor foundered and was utterly overwhelmed; the armada was swallowed up; and the Blessed Realm removed for ever from the circles of the real world. Thereafter one could sail right round the world and find it.

    So ended Namenor-Atiantis and all its glory. But in a kind of Noachian situation the small party of the Faithful in Númenor, who had refused to take part in the rebellion (though many of them had been sacrificed in the Temple by the Sauronians) escaped in Nine Ships (Vol. I. 379, II. 202) under the leadership of Elendil (=AElfwine, Elf-friend) and his  sons Isildur and Anárion, and established a kind of diminished memory of Númenor in Exile on the coasts of Middle-earth - inheriting the hatred of Sauron, the friendship of the Elves, the knowledge of the True God, and (less happily) the yearning for longevity, and the habit of embalming and the building of splendid tombs - their only ‘hallows’: or almost so. But the ‘hallow’ of God and the Mountain had perished, and there was no real substitute. Also when the ‘Kings’ came to an end was no equivalent to a ‘priesthood’: the two being identical númenórean ideas. So while God (Eru) was a datum of good* Númenórean philosophy, and a prime fact in their conception of history, He had at the time of the War of the Ring no worship and no hallowed place. And that kind of negative truth was characteristic of the west and all the area under Númenórean influence: the refusal to worship any ‘creature’, and above all no ‘dark lord’ or satanic demon, Sauron, or any other, was almost as far as they got. They had (I imagine) no petitionary prayers to God; but preserved the vestige of thanksgiving. (Those under special Elvish influence might call on the angelic powers for the help in immediate peril or fear of evil enemies.+) It later appears that there had been a ‘hallow’ on Mindolluin, only approachable by the where he had anciently offered thanks and praise on behalf of his people; but it had been forgotten. It was re-entered by Aragorn, and there he had found a sapling of the White Tree, and replanted it in the Court of the Fountain. It is to be presumed that with the reemergence of the lineal priest kings (of whom Lúthien the Blessed Elf-maiden was a

* There were evil Númenóreans: Sauronians, but they do not come into this story, except remotely; as the wicked Kings who had become Nazgúl or Ringwraiths.

   + The Elves often called on Varda-Elbereth, the Queen of the Blessed Realm, their especial friend;  and so does Frodo.

foremother) the worship of God would be renewed, and His Name (or title) be again more often heard. But there would be no temple of the True God while Númenórean influence lasted. But they were still living on the borders of myth - or rather this story exhibits ‘myth’ passing into History or the Dominion of Men; for of course the Shadow will arise again in a sense (as is clearly foretold by Gandalo, but never again (unless it be before the great End) will an evil daemon be incarnate as a physical enemy; he will direct Men and all the complications of half-evils, and defective-goods, and the twilights of doubt as to sides, such situations as he most loves (you can see them already arising in the War of the Ring, which is by no means so clear cut an issue as some critics have averred): those will be and are our more difficult fate. But if you imagine people in such a mythical state, in which Evil is largely incarnate, and in which physical resistance to it is a major act of loyalty to God, I think you would have the ‘good people’ in just such a state: concentrated on the negative: the resistance to the false, while ‘truth’ remained more historical and philosophical than religious.

    But ‘wizards’ are not in any sense or degree ‘shady’. Not mine. I am under the difficulty of finding English names for mythological creatures with other names, since people would not ‘take’ a string of Elvish names, and I would rather they took my legendary creatures even with the false associations of the ‘translation’ than not at all.

   Even the dwarfs are not really Gennanic ‘dwarfs’ (Zwerge, dweorgas, dvergar), and I call them ‘dwarves’ to mark that. They are not naturally evil, not necessarily hostile, and not a kind of maggot-folk bred in stone; but a variety of incarnate rational creature. The istari are translated ‘wizards’ because of the connexion of ‘wizard’ with wise and so with ‘witting’ and knowing. They are actually emissaries from the True West, and so mediately from God, sent precisely to strengthen the resistance of the ‘good’, when the Valar become aware that the shadow of Sauron is taking shape again. 

   

   [The draft ends with a discussion of the nature of the istari and the death and reincarnation of Gandalf which resembles the passage on this subject earlier in the letter.]

Back to Birzer