Any manner of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance without their knowing it.
– C.S. Lewis, Collected Letters, 1939
Reader and commenter “My New Handle” pointed me towards an excellent YouTube lecture series on Lewis and Tolkien after I made some comments on the religiosity of The Lord of the Rings. The series is excellent and I cannot recommend it highly enough, especially if you are interested in literature, literary analysis, religion, fantasy, or some combination of these.
I was amused to hear the professor at one point complain about Christian readers who became convinced that Lewis and Tolkien were, through their stories of Narnia and Middle Earth, attempting to smuggle paganism into the Christian world. The professor — Dr. Ryan Reeves of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary — argues that this is actually backwards, and we can know that it is backwards both by Lewis’ and Tolkien’s letters and by the effects of their writing, which Dr. Reeves describes in his lecture on “Lewis, Tolkien, and Myth”:
[Tolkein and Lewis] purposely set out to write and create in a way that smuggled in ideas, that at least got the current pagan in the 20th century to say ‘there’s something here.’ I don’t know about you, but if you ask a number of people in a broad audience, ‘have you read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?’, a lot of people have. And a lot of people can tell you that they read them as pagan. And they were just enthralled by the idea of this self-sacrificial lion and all these kinds of things. They didn’t pick up on the cross element, necessarily. And then later on, they keep pursuing things… That’s the goal of the Inklings.
The goal was to tell a story that appeared pagan, but which planted Christian seeds in the mind of the reader which would germinate and grow later.
I pointed out in my recent short post about Tolkien the way in which the ancient Germanic custom of ring-giving was attacked by Tolkien in his epic series by depicting it as a corrupting and dark act — Sauron rules people by giving them rings, turning them into wraiths, and Saruman’s corruption is confirmed when he calls himself a “ring-maker.”
But I had overlooked a much larger, more obvious example, one which was literally looking right at me.
Most people who are basically familiar with the Norse/Germanic pantheon know that Odin — the Chief of the Germanic gods — has one eye. He gave up his other eye for knowledge of the runes. But like many other Gods, Odin has many names. One of his other names is Báleyger, “flaming-eyed.”
In short, Odin is actually depicted in The Lord of the Rings. But not as Gandalf, as everyone thinks.
Odin is the character who prepares for war; who sacrifices his physical form for spiritual strength. The character with one, flaming eye.
Odin is Sauron.
Tolkien was not just a regular Joe with a vivid imagination. He was a scholar who studied and taught Anglo-Saxon literature and was a specialist in the language. He was familiar with the symbology of what he was depicting. People often talk of Gandalf as an Odinic figure, but this association is merely skin-deep. Gandalf wears a wide-brim hat and a robe, and wanders. These are all very obvious associations, but they are superficial. A little closer to than his wide-brim hat or his wandering is his status as the leader of both Thorin’s expedition in The Hobbit and of the fellowship in The Fellowship of the Ring. Here, Gandalf actually appears to plays Odin’s role as the leader of the ‘mannerbünd’ (a warrior brotherhood), which is a more meaningful facet of Odin’s nature than merely wandering around in a cloak.
But the Fellowship of the Ring is not real mannerbünds of the kind Odin championed — in spirit, they are more like Christ’s twelve disciples. Thorin’s band comes closer… and perhaps this is why it Tolkien has it fail in humiliation and ignonimity, its leader consumed with greed and power. This greed turns Thorin away from the chance at glory that spurned the expedition from the start. The message is clear: glory is bad. Power is bad. The way to get these is by shunning them. To pursue them is to lose them.
At his core, Gandalf is primarily a Christ-figure, and not an Odinic one. His self-sacrifice in the Mines of Moria was not for personal growth, as was the case for Odin, but for the sake of others. He died and — after descending into a cold and dark underworld and doing battle with a demon of fire and shadow — was resurrected, by some mysterious benevolent force. Now cloaked in white, he returns to (Middle) Earth more powerful than before, at the head of the army of the Good.
Once you see what Tolkien is doing here with Gandalf-as-Jesus, you can’t unsee it. But it isn’t as obvious as it appears in hindsight, because he is so subtle in his initial visual associations of Gandalf with Odin.
Historically, the true mannerbünd led by Odin was not just any group of men on a mission, but a particular kind of group of particular kinds of men. Odin was the leader of the dead — warriors valorous in battle whose concept of heaven was not song and blissful rest, but action — striving against and alongside each other.
The depiction of these “Einheriar” also exists in The Lord of the Rings.
The ringwraiths are Tolkien’s twist on the real mannerbünd: undead riders haunting the forests and the roads at night, on demonic horses. They serve the real Odin, the one-eyed, flaming-eyed God of the hunt. Odin, the sacrificer of self-to-self, instigator of action, God of ecstasy and motion and exchange — eye for knowledge; ring for loyalty. The Nazgûl are the “Wild Hunt” — the procession of the dead so in love with life that their ideal is not “resting in peace,” but eternal return to the struggle and chase that constitute living:
You who spurn the rest of
heaven and the grave,
who seeks the burden of the
eternal walking staff
Call upon me in storm and night,
up to give you retinue,
on the wild hunt of our life,
through all eternity…
– Wilde Jagd, Arthur Fitger
The false Odin, the Christ-in-disguise, turns out to be the deceiver — not of the other characters, but of the reader. Wearing Odin’s skin-suit, he shuns power despite being quite powerful himself; power is, in the world of Christian literature, always both an implicit good and an explicit evil.
The mythical Odin was always pursuing power, accumulating strength in preparation for his battle against the great wolf Fenrir, killer of men and gods, and devourer of the sun. Nor does he sacrifice himself for others, but rewards those who die gloriously, as he himself will die in battle with the wolf.
Instead, what we see in The Lord of the Rings is a kind of pathologizing of power itself. There is no conception as to why someone might want power, other than to abuse others. Dr. Reeves claims that both Tolkien and Lewis were heavily influenced by the tyrannical authority imposed in the English schooling systems, and this may have something to do with their attitudes toward power. They agree with Lord Acton: power corrupts.
That attitude is an essentially Christian one.
But one could also say that weakness corrupts. Weakness generates excuses, and leads to attacks on strengths. Humans were created by nature with certain powers, and the inborn ability to increase in their power — in body, in mind, and in spirit. When something is “corrupted,” that means it has changed or altered in some way so that it no longer fulfills its original purpose, or no longer functioned as designed. If humans were designed to be powerful, than weakness is the greater source of corruption.
Power is necessary to achieve glory. For people who see power as inherently evil, glory evades recognition, at least as a motivation. It can be depicted, but always as a kind of incidental by-product of selflessness, rather than an aim in its own right.
Both sides want ownership of the feeling we get when we see glory. The question is this: does this feeling come from selflessness? Or does it come from something else? Perhaps from individual power, and therefore, from the self?
One can always spin a glorious death as sacrificial, or self-sacrifice as glorious. Boromir’s death in The Fellowship of the Ring seems to really capture both aspects — going down fighting, and swinging with every ounce of remaining strength, yet doing so for the sake of hobbits. There is some degree of subjectivity in gauging this. Is Odin’s death in the jaws of Fenrir self-sacrificial? Is Jesus’ death on the cross glorious?
Ultimately, I think it comes down to which is emphasized in each world-view. If Jesus’ death is glorious, it is because it was self-sacrificial. Dying on the world’s behalf is what makes it great in the eyes of God, and any glory is merely incidental. At most, it is a reflection of God’s glory.
But for Odin, sacrifice for others is the incidental part. There is nothing inherently good or admirable in dying for the sake of others; that’s just death, and death is a hateful thing. The glory — not the selflessness — is the aim, and it is for this glory that the warrior-dead ride with Odin into battle and doom against the great wolf.
If we are to die — as we all must — then let us die while living as completely as imaginable: ecstatic, furious, driving forward into the fight.
But from the pen of a subtle Christian, this aim is depicted as a striving for tyrannical power and an enslavement to forces of darkness: the eye of fire, looking for power, and the black-riders, slavishly doing the bidding of their master.
Naturally, C.S. Lewis does a number of similar things with the Narniad. It was from Dr. Reeves that I learned that the reason the Narnia books are so different from each other is that each one depicts — in its character, content, and general aesthetic — the different medieval interpretations of the characters of the planets:
- Jupiter: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
- Mars: Prince Caspian
- Sol: The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader“
- Luna: The Silver Chair
- Mercury: The Horse and his Boy
- Venus: The Magician’s Nephew
- Saturn: The Last Battle
Naturally, this somewhat esoteric architecture is pagan in origin.
Lewis, however, is uniquely honest in his world-creation. Despite sometimes using some pagan imagery (and despite a familiarity with the pagan world matching or even exceeding that of Tolkien), Lewis models his main antagonist — Jadis, the White Witch — from a Christian story: The Snow Queen, by Hans Christian Andersen. Some people have suggested that Jadis may also have a relation to Lilith, Adam’s non-canonical first wife.
The lion Aslan is also more symbolically Christian than it is Germanic-pagan. His identification with the Christian God is not hidden under the superficial guise of another deity.
But this does not mean that Lewis did not attempt the subtlety of Tolkein’s Christian evangelism. Lewis’ efforts in this direction were through his lesser-known space-trilogy, in which he did try to smuggle theology into people’s minds under cover of romance. It is perhaps to Lewis’ credit that he is too honest and direct a man by nature to do so successfully.
All of this talk of sneaking Christianity in through art relates to a particular section of my recent book, Holy Nihilism: The Moral and Spiritual Case Against Christianity, describing the subversive relationship between the faith and beauty:
One could imagine a Christian argument that God is the source of all beauty, and so a devotion to God not only makes beautiful art possible, but encourages it. But this argument undoes itself. If God is the source of all beauty, then no other source is necessary for the experience of beauty… and in fact, other beauty may even become a distraction from the beauty of God the creator. All art and worldly beauty, after all, is of the world. While modern cultural-Christians who are heavily invested in the world may try to make these two masters work together, the example of the earliest and most dedicated disciples of the faith depict a much different attitude:
Legend recounts that after hearing the voice of God, the Christian hermit Alexandra sold her house, shut herself in a tomb and never looked at the outside world again, while her fellow hermit Paul of Scete slept on the floor of a windowless mud hut and recited 300 prayers a day, suffering only when he heard of another holy man who had managed 700 and slept in a coffin.
Such austerity has been a historical constant. In the spring of 1137 the Cistercian monk St Bernard of Clairvaux travelled all the way around Lake Geneva without noticing it was even there. Likewise, after four years in his monastery, St Bernard could not report whether the dining area had a vaulted ceiling (it does) or how many windows there were in the sanctuary of his church (three). On a visit to the Charterhouse of Dauphiné, St Bernard astonished his hosts by arriving on a magnificent white horse diametrically opposed to the ascetic values he professed, but he explained that he had borrowed the animal from a wealthy uncle and had simply failed to register its appearance on a four-day journey across France.
– Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness
If Christianity were suspicious of the distracting power of beauty, then why would it create objects of such great beauty, along with such ugliness?
For the same reason that Christian rappers make their music: to proselytize.
The beauty of European art and architecture is not the result of Christianity, any more than the “lyrical theology” of Shai Linne is mandated by the gospel. Both were influenced by Christianity, but left to its own devices, Christianity never have created these things. It would have us contemplating the beauty of God, with no need or desire to create representative material beauty, as the early hermitic monks held. Beauty of the world and of the flesh is antithetical to the beauty of the spirit, which is all that matters in Christianity. Even beauty of the body is to be shunned:
Daniel said, ‘If the body is strong, the soul weakens. If the body weakens, the soul is strong.’
— Benedicta Ward, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks
Of course, many monks did create beautiful artwork, as well as scientific research (and perhaps most importantly, brewing alcohol). But this brings us back to the incredible beauty of Christian artwork and architecture. Both Notre Dame and the best tracks in Christian hip-hop are the product of the mandate to evangelize. They are the product of “Christianity-plus.” In Europe, Christianity, plus the values and aesthetics of the culture being evangelized to. In urban America, Christianity, plus the values and aesthetics there. The local culture serves as a vector through which Christianity can be delivered to the population. But the creations of Christian evangelists are not the product of Christianity. Rather, they are the product of Christianity’s attempt to subvert and take hold of the target culture.
Had Europeans not already valued the kinds of art and architecture that they did, we can be sure that the creations of Christian evangelists in Europe would look quite different, just as we could be sure that Black-American evangelists would not use hip-hop as a theological medium if American blacks were not invested in that genre of music.
This is not a simple tautology: ‘if they had been different, they would have been different.’ Merging aesthetics and blending of styles happens all the time. What makes Christianity unique is that it brings nothing to the table. In its platonic ideal of pure spirit, it cannot contribute any unique aesthetic of its own. It may model art in the fashion of its own stories, but it has no style of its own, as the Egyptian or Greek Pagans did, or as the Chinese Daoists did. It can only seize what others have created, either by crediting God with all creation or by attempting to out-do everyone else within their own domain.
This second method — we can call this “out-doing the locals” — is where all of the magnificent Christian artwork comes from. For the purpose of proselytizing, the Christian artist composes their work for an audience seeking beautiful artwork. But at the critical moment, the purpose of the performance is to say: “this work is nothing. What really matters is the love of Jesus.”
Christian artwork is, at its core, an emotional bait-and-switch. In this way, it is an attack on earthly beauty itself. It attempts to out-shine all other beauty, and then denigrate itself relative to the overwhelming power and beauty of God, and the effect is a denigration of all earthly beauty as worthless.
Christianity is theologically and historically opposed to beauty. When it does pursue beauty, it does so to redirect attention from real objects of beauty and instead towards God. It attacks the relevance and value of earthly beauty, and at the same time, tries to give God credit for all earthly beauty, even as it condemns it as the property of Satan — material of the flesh and of this world.
Here, on the subject of beauty, Christian apathy, shamelessness, and dishonesty merge into something truly ugly: an eschatology of nothingness — a hermit’s cell; a coffin; a mud hut — masquerading as all that is beautiful in the very world they are condemning.
A mud hut or — as the case may be — a hobbit-hole.
But I do not wish to tear down a contemporary epic and leave the reader with nothing to replace it with. As it so happens, there is a contemporary pagan piece of literature, one which does justice to the core of the pagan world-view, with every bit of the depth of a Tolkein or a Lewis, and which does so without sneaking in some world-undermining alternative narrative, hidden within the very world it is pretending to market.
That contemporary literature is…
Or for more serious reading on this kind of subject matter, you can check out Holy Nihilism: