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Thy Will be Done in (Middle) Earth as in Heaven

Updated: Feb 27, 2019

In an earlier article I mentioned that Tolkien himself had described The Lord of the Rings as a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work”. As a devout daily communicant who found in the church “a solace and a ‘pax’ (i.e. peace) in times of temporal trouble”[1], Tolkien admitted that “far greater things may colour the mind in dealing with the lesser things of a fairy-story”.[2] As a result, Tolkien says,

“I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like 'religion', to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”[3]

These greater things have coloured his work not in a broad swathe of primary colours, but layer upon layer of nuance and shade. You can uncover the main layer, the Catholic structure and fabric of Tolkien’s universe on the first, maybe second reading of the Lord of the Rings. You’ll recognise in Gimli and Sam’s praise of Galadriel our own devotion to Our Lady. You’ll see in lembas viaticum and the reference to its feeding the will and being more potent when fasting, a derivation from the Eucharist. You’ll see that Gandalf’s revelation to the three hunters in Fangorn Forest as Gandalf the White harkens strongly of Christ’s Transfiguration. But maybe on the third, fourth, or fifth readings of it, you’ll peel away the layers to see that interior struggle playing out in the hearts of his characters, in tandem with the quiet and intense interior drama being played out in our own hearts—the struggle to yield our will to Christ in all things.

His characters are thus intensely catholic—not in overt religion, but in their moral choices, their mission, the struggles of their inmost soul. We witness these struggles, making these characters more real to us than some of the ‘characters’ we met in real life. In a noble character with the courage we so wish to have, we feel a rush of delight at their victory over their challenges, we begin to love as they love, and we feel the very sinews of their courage faintly begin to flex in us. In fallen characters who share with us their fatal flaw we wince and cringe in discomfort at their failings, for the blow has come too close to home. We don’t say, “there but for the grace of God go I,” but “here I am”, hoping against hope for their redemption because we then have hope for ours.

Only in reading Tolkien again as an adult could I peel back those layers to get at the inner drama, which I saw intensely manifested in Boromir, noble and heroic captain from the realm of Gondor, the last remnant of the ancient and glorious kingdom of Numenor, enemy to the Dark Lord Sauron in Middle Earth. He is the eldest son of the Steward of Gondor, Denethor, a regent who keeps the realm in order while the king is absent. And the king has been absent, hidden from his throne for many long years, and he would have inherited the office and responsibility from his father in time.

We first meet Boromir in the Council of Elrond, at the debate of the fate of the Ring. “Tall and proud”, Tolkien describes him, and when Elrond tells the tale of Gondor’s decline and weakness in helping the Ring of Power endure, Boromir is anxious to justify otherwise:

“Believe not that in the land of Gondor the blood of Númenor is spent, nor all its pride and dignity forgotten. By our valour the wild folk of the East are still restrained, and the terror of Morgul kept at bay; and thus alone are peace and freedom maintained in the lands behind us, bulwark of the West.” (emphasis mine)[4]

Change the setting and the characters, and Boromir’s cry has often been my own. Believe not that the Catholic Church is in decline, nor its traditions and teachings forgotten. By our prayers, penances and sacrifices is the world, the flesh and the devil kept at bay. By our service in the ministries, our alms, our numerous rosaries is the church defended and souls saved! Boromir thus presents what the great spiritual writer Fr Thomas Green, SJ calls the tension between working for God versus doing God’s work:

“We can ‘work for God’; that is, we can choose what we want to give him, what we want him to like, we think he needs and desires. Or we can ask him what He would like and do whatever He wishes—‘do his work’—no matter how repugnant it may be to us.”[5]

Those of us like Boromir are not bad, but zealous, well-meaning Catholics who seek to serve the Lord and (erroneously) believe that the work of salvation is our choice alone, and solely depends on our efforts. The unflinching description of Boromir by Faramir, his younger and more perceiving brother, rings true—Boromir was “ever anxious for the victory of Minas Tirith (and his own glory therein)”.[6] We choose to ‘work for God’ because in doing so we can (so we think) align the twin objectives of serving God while serving ourselves—our pride, our vainglory, our craving for recognition and success. Lord, I choose to serve you in such a place and time, to serve You, and in the meantime let everyone else around me know about it. How uneasily do I recognise the same in myself—how my defence of orthodoxy is a mere veneer for disdain of those too weak or ignorant to adhere to it, or how my severe fasts and penances reinforce my smug belief in my own holiness. In true Ignatian fashion, Fr Green warns us of how even the devil can join the Tridentine Choir and sing Gregorian chant if he can lead a soul to evil. And this begins by us saying, not Lord, what do you want? but instead Lord, this is what I want to do for You, and You had better want it too!

Thus Boromir joins the fellowship, and embarks on the quest, choosing to “work for God”. He passes doughtily through fire, darkness, ice and battle. But when they come to the eaves of Lothlorien, the Golden Wood, where the immortal and far-seeing elf-lady Galadriel dwells, and upon learning that the fellowship intends to seek passage through the wood, he falters:

[Aragorn] stepped forward; but Boromir stood irresolute and did not follow. ‘Is there no other way?’ he said.
‘What other fairer way would you desire?’ said Aragorn.
‘A plain road, though it led through a hedge of swords,’ said Boromir.[7]

Here we come to the heart of Boromir’s conflict, which is also our own. Up to now, he has trod the double path of serving the quest and serving himself, a man under two masters. But now, on the eaves of the Golden Wood, seeking passage through a land under the power of the Elves who are also enemies of the Dark Lord, he, a man who has feared no earthly evil, now fears the Good. “It is perilous”, Boromir cautions, but Aragorn counters “only evil need fear it, or those who bring some evil with them”. So too does the evil, the Old Adam in our hearts rebel— as masterful warriors, we would freely choose the “harder” task, the hedge of swords, which allows us the exercise of our skill—the missionary work, feeding the poor, preaching to the faithless, facing heretics and infidels in open debate. But Boromir reluctantly allows himself to be led through in Lothlorien, and his heart is revealed to himself by the Lady of the Wood. She wordlessly probes the motives of each member of the company, and “held them with her eyes, and in silence looked searchingly at each of them in turn”. Later we find that

“All of them, it seemed, had fared alike: each had felt that he was offered a choice between a shadow full of fear that lay ahead, and something that he greatly desired: clear before his mind it lay, and to get it he had only to turn aside from the road and leave the Quest and the war against Sauron to others.”[8]

Boromir’s heart is revealed to him, and his interior struggle intensifies between his fidelity to the quest, or his desire to have the Ring come to Gondor and be used by it in the war against Sauron, whom his people have long held out against. In our walk with God and desire to serve Him, we see a cross coming our way with our name on it, and the sight of it unmans us—for example, the painful necessity of forgiving someone who has deeply wounded us, showing us just how incapable of forgiveness we are. We know that to carry the cross will cost us dearly, cost the very heart of us. We know that to carry that very cross will unmask the evil that we bring with us into the fair land of God’s kingdom—our insecurity, our loneliness, our pride. The sight of that evil within us is more than we can bear, so accustomed we are to seeing ourselves as proud and dignified servants of God. It trembles and clamors to hide under the mask of exertion and activity, for there we can put a safe distance between ourselves and the peril that is God—God, who exposes us to our true selves.

The rest of Boromir’s story, tragically, plays out as in the gospels. Like St Peter who said as the cross loomed, heaven preserve you, Lord, this must not happen to you! (c.f. Mt 16:22) Boromir also appeals to the same, arguing that it is “folly to go without force into [the Dark Lord’s] domain”[9], and so attempt to convince Frodo to lay aside the quest to destroy the ring in the fire of Mount Doom, and instead let it be brought to Gondor and used as a weapon against the enemy.

What follows then are some of the most heart-breaking scenes in the first part of the Lord of the Rings, heart-breaking for any of us who see in them ourselves, who have also denied and betrayed Our Lord in our agonised attempt to wrestle away from the cross. When Frodo is resolute in his refusal, Boromir tries to take the ring by force, causing Frodo to flee and leading to the breaking of the fellowship. In a maddened fit of fear and anger, Boromir hurls out, you will take the ring to Sauron and sell us all. You have only waited your chance to leave us in the lurch. Curse you, and all halflings to death and darkness!

But then, in the midst of this madness, grace enters.

Then catching his foot on a stone, he fell, sprawling and lay upon his face. For a while he was as still as if his own curse had struck him down; then suddenly he wept.”[10]

How weak and inconstant our hearts—in thinking ourselves great and mighty for serving the Lord, we guard it not, and so easily does fear master us and make us see things that are not there, make us see Our Lord as an Enemy, not as a Friend. A madness catches us, deep in the grips of our fright and our anger that we have succumbed to such fear, and we too lash out, Lord, if this is the cost of knowing and loving You, I would rather not! Why have you afflicted me thus? Why must I suffer, when the wicked prosper? But in the midst of our rage, the cock crows, and we too catch ourselves, and weep.

But what must happen once we have wept bitter tears? Tolkien shows us in one of the most deeply catholic moments of his tale. Orcs issuing from Isengard, stronghold of the traitor-wizard Saruman, overcomes the company, and Boromir, repenting, dies while defending the hobbits from them. As he dies, Aragorn finds him, and grieves for him.

After a moment [Boromir] spoke again. ‘Farewell, Aragorn! Go to Minas Tirith and save my people! I have failed.’
‘No!’ said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. ‘You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace! Minas Tirith shall not fall!’[11]

You have conquered. Only in Christ can we understand what Boromir has conquered—himself. In all truth I tell you, unless a wheat grain falls into the earth and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest. (c.f. Jn 12:24) But Aragorn also says, few have gained such a victory. What is this victory but death, death of our will by submitting it to Christ, a surrender of ourselves, all our insecurities and pride, the death of the Old Adam in us? In this moment, Boromir has come upon the threshold of an even greater journey—the journey inward, when we yield up our “working for God” and truly begin to listen, to “do God’s work”. And in each case we find, “doing God’s work” always involves letting God do the work of transforming us. Boromir shows this truly, for Faramir, who encounters the body of his brother after his death, says that his face was more beautiful (in death) even than in life.[12] In more familiar terms, we know that if we have been joined to Christ by dying a death like his, so we shall be by a resurrection like his. (c.f. Rom 6:5) And it is really when by God’s grace we have conquered ourselves, then the real work begins, then we can really step aside, and let God do the work. Because really what God wants is not our deeds, but our hearts.

© 2019 Christ Centered Convo/Jessica Goh

[1] 306 Letter to Michael Tolkien, 11 Oct 1968

[2] 213 Letter to Deborah Webster 25 October 1958

[3] 142 Letter to Robert Murray, SJ, 2 Dec 1953

[4] Lord of the Rings Vol II, “The Council of Elrond”.

[5] Fr Thomas Green, Darkness in the Marketplace, 1981.

[6] Lord of the Rings Vol IV, “The Window on the West”.

[7] Lord of the Rings Vol II, “Lothlorien”.

[8] Lord of the Rings Vol II, “The Mirror of Galadriel”.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Lord of the Rings Vol II, “The Breaking of the Fellowship”.

[11] Lord of the Rings Vol III, “The Departure of Boromir”.

[12] Lord of the Rings Vol IV, “The Window on the West”.

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