Miriam Marston, a freelance writer and musician, has been based in the Archdiocese of Boston since 2006, serving most recently as the Assistant Director of Theology Programs at the Theological Institute at St. John’s Seminary. She has released two albums of original music, and is currently working on a third.
Other columns in series:
The Beacons Are Lit Of Myths and Maps
Inside the Song A Word on Wonder
A Word on Tooks Secondary Worlds and Primary Truths
Escape and the Good Catastrophe Treebeard and the Language of Reality
The Valor of Bilbo Laughter and the Logos
Our Lady and the Elves Puddleglum’s Dark Night of the Soul
Francis and the Houses of Healing
“It was a cold grey day near the end of December. The East Wind was streaming through the bare branches of the trees, and seething in the dark pines on the hills. Ragged clouds were hurrying past, dark and low. As the cheerless shadows of the early evening began to fall the Company made ready to set out.” ~ Fellowship of the Ring
When it came to writing his legendarium, Tolkien was meticulous, almost to a fault. It was one of his greatest fears that he would never finish his story because it was taking so long to write, and part of that was due to his getting entangled in the details (for example, he discovered “his moons were doing impossible things”, and had to rewrite entire chapters to make sure the moon phases were accurate). If Tolkien was so careful about the moon phases, then he would have hardly been clumsy when it came to choosing the dates for the landmark moments in his plot. One such date is the 25th of December, which marks when the Fellowship officially began the long trek towards Mordor, that miserable land where the terrible Sauron had taken up residence.
The pleasure that comes with detecting such intentionality in the plot is especially significant at this time of year, as we prepare for and celebrate the birth of Christ. While Christmas often feels like the culmination of a season, it is actually just the beginning of a story. It is a story that we have been telling ever since, and building upon as we compose countless subplots and characters, within this saga of salvation history. It started almost immediately: can you imagine the stories the shepherds told their family and friends? (“You will not believe what I just saw!!”) Already, the person of Christ was leaving a deep impression on the imagination and waking up those senses and longings that had perhaps lain dormant for many years. And as Mary, Joseph, and their newborn Son—a perfect fellowship, if ever there was one—stood at the turning point of history, and the angels’ Gloria filled the night sky, could the shepherds have guessed that we would still feel that “thrill of hope”, even two thousand years later?
A few Tolkien scholars have noted that the Lord of the Rings departs from the classic formula of the fairy story, which normally sees the characters on a quest to save or collect something or someone; for example, the dramatic rescue of a princess in distress, or the successful discovery of some long-sought-after treasure. By contrast, Frodo Baggins is entrusted with the task of destroying a piece of treasure. It is an “anti-quest”, by which the story reaches its climax in an act of obliteration. In keeping with this theme, Tom Shippey, in his book J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, notes that “the main action of the Lord of the Rings takes place…in the mythic space between Christmas…and the crucifixion.” When Christ stepped into human history, he did not seek riches, power, or praise. His coming into the world was only ever leading up to one thing: His Death and Resurrection. As the road from Bethlehem led to Calvary, the road from Rivendell eventually led to Mordor.
And just as Tolkien turns the idea of the quest on its head, he puts a clever twist on the familiar legend of the Star of Bethlehem. In the days leading up to the Fellowship’s departure, Tolkien notes that one star in particular stood out in the sky:
“…but low in the South one star shone red…Frodo could see it from his window, deep in the heavens, burning like a watchful eye that glared above the trees on the brink of the valley.” ~ Fellowship of the Ring
The star which drew the Magi to Emmanuel was a thing of resplendent beauty, inviting them to come closer and pay homage to the true King. Frodo, however, observed a star “glaring” at him from afar—more a warning than an invitation. But Frodo would follow that star—and his task—to the bitter end, thus fulfilling his role in helping to usher in a new era that would no longer see Middle Earth held captive under the reign of an evil power.
So what can we draw from Tolkien’s unusual quest, which had its conspicuous start on December 25th? Perhaps it is telling us that this season is an opportunity to consider the summons to embark on our own “anti-quest”. The stage has been set: the voyage began at our birth, and the shape of our days took on an even sharper focus in our re-birth at baptism. Now the pace is picking up and the excuses are running thin. On this December 25th, we can put ourselves in Frodo’s place: what things are keeping Christ away from the center of our lives? What is holding Him at arm’s length, at a safe distance, “over there” on the margins of our daily life? In short: what will we throw into the fires of Mt. Doom this year?
As we commit to this task of flinging away our respective rings of power, it will help us greatly to let the Lord shine his merciful light on our imperfections and sins. That light is strong enough to reduce even the worst habit or obstinate anger to harmless ash. But we have to stop shoving all of our problematic baggage under the rug or in the closet. Apart from making for a bland story, the option of simply throwing the One Ring into the deepest part of the ocean, where it would be nearly impossible to find, would have never been a satisfactory resolution. The thing needed to be destroyed. And it is no different with our sins. No use shuffling them away to some dark and deep corner where we think that no one will find them. And it’s also no use blaming our repeated failures on “just being human”; the Incarnation ruined our chances of that choice lament. Just being human, as it turns out, is a pretty remarkable thing. Christ, as the Word made flesh, has shown us the way to sanctity, and that way normally involves the serious, yet joyful, business of dying to self.
May this season of anticipation and celebration draw us closer than ever into the life-giving fellowship offered to us through Christ. And may our journeys in this coming year take us a little closer to Home, where everything that is not truly us is destroyed, and everything that is truly us is brought to perfection.