A Journey of Virtues: Reflections of Advent Ideas in The Lord of the Rings
Quite a lot has been written on the symbolism of the duration of Frodo’s journey from Rivendell to Mount Doom taking place between December 25 and March 25 – dates which in Christian liturgy mark the birth and death of Jesus Christ. But now I want to have a look at the liturgical period which precedes these events – Advent – and discuss how the ideas tied with it are reflected in Tolkien’s work.
But first, a brief note on the history and development of the concept of Advent. Nowadays, it is a well-known fact that, as Christianity was spreading over the world, it often took up, transformed, and adapted to its own purposes many pagan traditions. In this way, the date of Jesus’ birth, Christmas, was set on the date of one of the greatest pagan feasts, Winter Solstice or Saturnalia. And Advent very likely originated in a similar way, though just like with Christmas, there are several theories about its development.
One of them considers as its basis the custom of old Germanic and Scandinavian tribes to light up candles placed in a circle or on a wreath during the cold, dark December days while praying to the gods of light to bring the Sun and warmth back. This custom was eventually integrated into Christian tradition in the form of the Advent wreath and was used already in the Middle Ages. To justify the use of this pagan tradition, Christianity highlighted the parallel between Christ and light. Just like the pagans prayed for the light (they meant simple daylight, sunlight) to come back and destroy the long winter darkness, so Jesus is said to be the spiritual Light that was sent to this world to destroy the darkness of sin troubling our souls.
The first mention of Advent being celebrated as a pre-Christmas Christian feast time comes from 5th century Rome. The Macon Council in 582, France, established the starting date of Advent on the first Sunday after St. Martin’s day (November 11), making it six weeks long. Pope Gregory I later shortened it to the current four Sunday time. Advent gained its final form and purpose as a time of preparation for Christ’s coming somewhere during the turn of the 8th to 9th century. However, in the Eastern Church it has a fixed duration of 40 days and is also a time of fasting like Lent. (Unlike in the west where in recent decades the pre-Christmas preparations and feasts have been commercialized under the influence of media. And in the countries of central Europe there is a tradition to gift children with sweets on St Nicholas Day, December 6, so they spend the rest of Advent eating them.)
Another theory claims that the Advent wreath was invented only in the 19th century by German pastor Johan Heinrich Wichernom. He was a teacher at Rauhes Haus School in Hamburg and since his students were very impatient and asked him every day how much time was left to Christmas, in 1839 he built them a big wooden circle with 19 small red and 4 big white candles. Every December day he lit up another one of the red candles and every Sunday another one of the white candles. In time the number of candles was reduced only to 4 that are lit on Sundays, for practical reasons.
And now back to the original purpose of this paper. Surely, everyone has heard the story of the symbolism of the Advent candles: hope, love, joy, and peace (different sources may state a slightly alternated combination of virtues). These virtues are also reflected in The Lord of the Rings as well as other Tolkien’s works. Though, of course, as Tolkien deliberately removed all direct Christian references, his understanding of virtues in his book is less religious; it is rather secularly philosophical. Nonetheless, they still present strong moral guidelines.
A character in whom the first two virtues, hope and love, are the strongest, and who can thus stand as a role model in this aspect, is Samwise Gamgee. In Christian theology, both hope and love belong to theological virtues, along with faith. Virtues are consciously and willingly developed habits which help us live in an orderly manner and direct us to good—the ultimate good being God. In short, virtues represent a disposition of man to goodness and a reasonable mean between opposing vices of excess and deficiency. According to what human faculty they perfect, they are divided into intellectual, moral, and theological. Theological virtues are infused into man by God’s grace and cannot be acquired any other way.
The virtue of hope is then understood as a desire for the eternal happiness of life in Heaven, God’s kingdom. In hope, man trusts God and his promises; we trust that God knows what is going on and that in the end He will eventually turn everything to good. However, in Tolkien’s story hope is understood in its secondary, more general meaning, as a “mean between presumption, which is an immoderate belief in one’s own power, and despair. It stands for a belief in achieving something which is not possessed yet but possible to obtain.” (Juričková, 2016, p. 18). Its object is “a future good, difficult but possible to obtain.” (Aquinas, 1999, p. 2974). This definition, as most of his teaching, Aquinas adopted from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, so it is rather non-religious.
As I have already mentioned, in The Lord of the Rings hope is best manifested in Sam. It is true that almost every character on the “good side” reflects a certain amount of desperate hope that they could overcome the Dark Lord—be it Merry and Pippin hoping that someone might have been following after the orc company that captured them, or Aragorn and the Lords of the West in their last stand trying to challenge the Black Gate—but in none other is it so virtuous as in the humble hobbit gardener. He was the one always cheering Frodo up, never thinking negatively about what may await them, reluctant to give up even at the very end of their quest at the foot of the exploding Mount Doom volcano.
Were it not for his support and stubbornness, they would never reach the Fiery Chasms, as Frodo gave up all his hope almost as soon as he entered Mordor, which he openly admitted. While it is true that hobbits are by nature rather positively thinking even in the tightest corner, like Merry and Pippin cheerfully chatting about the orc capture being just an expedition to downplay the situation, in Sam it seems to be exceptionally strong. He not only ignores and attempts to silence the voice in his head that tries to break his optimism by pointing out their troubles with lack of food and water, physical strength or impossibility of a return journey, but his hope arises anew and stronger in times of greatest desperation, such as when he starts singing the old hobbit song in the orc tower at Cirith Ungol. And we should be like him—always trusting that no matter how bad our current situation is, it may and will get better. Sometimes (very exceptionally) things may change miraculously, other times (most often) they resolve naturally, but we must always do all we can to help them, and as Christians trust God in everything.
Love in this context does not mean a romantic love, but rather the love of one’s neighbour, charity. It is based on the love of God, whom we should love with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength (Mark, 12:30). Consequently, we should nurse a healthy, reasonable love for ourselves, because we are God’s children created in His image, given life by His Spirit, and thus a part of Him lives in us and we are in Him; and we should love our neighbours as ourselves for the same reason. That means we should will and do them good as we would to ourselves. Love is the greatest of all virtues and a root of all other virtues as it is perfected in self-sacrifice for our fellows. For, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John, 15:13). In Tolkien’s book, interpretation of this virtue is its basic principle; love for God, is, of course, omitted.
The Lord of the Rings displays many different kinds and degrees of love, from romantic, such as Aragorn and Arwen’s, through the friendly love of Merry and Pippin or Legolas and Gimli, to Frodo’s love for his country and its inhabitants whom he wants to save. But here again Sam’s love for Frodo serves as the role model of love, as he achieves its perfection in his willingness to sacrifice himself for Frodo’s well-being. That his relationship with Frodo is not just an ordinary master-servant relationship is evident from the very beginning of the story. It is love that makes him go all the way with Frodo, even though he has several chances to return or just discontinue the perilous journey and stay in some more comfortable place. Sam loved Frodo for his own sake, not for any good he could gain from him. He cared about him and tended his needs even before the journey, but during it his love was revealed in its fullest. He loved him above all else, even above the love of his heart, Rosie Cotton, and also above the duty to continue the quest and destroy the Ring on his own when Frodo was captured by the orcs. He could not leave Frodo and let him suffer or die, even if it meant a risk of being captured himself and the Ring found and returned to Sauron who would then destroy the whole world.
Apart from giving up a safe, comfortable life with a beloved woman, Sam’s sacrifice also included sitting at his bed all the time while Frodo was recovering in Rivendell, omitting sleep in order to keep watch over Frodo, giving up his share of water and food for his master. And all the time he was ready to give up even his life for Frodo if there was a need, like when he insisted on climbing down a cliff first so that he would not kill Frodo if he fell on top of him, or tasting water first to find out if it was not poisoned. “[H]is sacrifice [during the journey] reached its peak when he resolved to carry Frodo up himself, even if it had to break his back or heart.” (Juričková, 2014, p. 41). But the greatest sacrifice awaited him only at the very end of the story, when by Frodo’s departure he had to give up that which he loved the most, his master himself. That meant Sam would bear the sorrow of their separation till the end of his life, with just a little chance of ever getting to see him again in Valinor.
And what lesson does Sam’s love teach us? That our love for our neighbours should be like his; we should put their good about our own comfort and do them good deeds, even if they are unable or just do not reciprocate it. For, as Christians, we do believe that all the good we do somebody else will be rewarded by God, if not in this life, then in heaven. Also we should not try to hinder our beloved one from pursuing something which we know is good and helpful for them, even if it means we would have to live our lives without them.
Joy and peace are moral virtues which present the interior effects of charity. Besides, joy is one of the principal passions in which other passions have their completion. Spiritual joy can be twofold: either we can “rejoice in the Divine good considered in itself; secondly, when we rejoice in the Divine good as participated by us.” But in general, joy is a delight caused either by “the presence of the thing loved, or because the proper good of the thing loved exists and endures in it.” (Aquinas, 1999, p. 2958).
From all the characters in The Lord of the Rings, joy is best reflected in hobbits and their ability to enjoy the ordinary pleasures of everyday life—be it food, bath, singing, parties and gifting, gardening, or walks in the countryside. They have funny, lighthearted songs for almost all of these events that express how much they appreciate these things. Even their preference for bright-coloured clothing or painting of front doors implies their enjoyment of being alive and leading simple, comfortable lives. Some people consider the hobbitish delight in food a vice, gluttony. But Correy Olsen in one of his streams proposed the idea that it should better be considered in the wider context of their lifestyle. He cites Thorin’s last words: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold…” (Tolkien, 2011, p. 263), according to which, the hobbit’s lifestyle is then viewed rather as virtuous precisely because of their ability to rejoice in the simple things.
A good example of this is (again) Sam’s happiness (which can be deemed almost disproportionate) about his little daring wishes that were fulfilled, such as when he and Frodo found a stream of water in the desert of Mordor, or when a star showed up over the dark Mordor clouds, or when the bard sang a song about him and Frodo of the Nine Fingers at the Cormallen Field. Yet another example of virtuous joy provides the merry Elves Bilbo meets in Rivendell, in The Hobbit, singing funny songs. So also we should enjoy the little blessings of our everyday lives. We should learn to be more observant of them. We should not take the good of ordinary life for granted, but realize it is a divine gift, often undeserved, and be grateful for it.
The virtue of peace, just like joy, is an act of charity and an effect of the combined operation of all the three former virtues (along with some others). According to Aquinas (1999, p. 2969) it implies a twofold union: “The first is the result of one’s own appetites being directed to one object; while the other results from one’s own appetite being united with the appetite of another.” The first stands for the inner wellbeing and calmness of spirit and countenance of mind, the other one arises from it and represents the global concord among people as brothers and sisters. This should not be understood just as the peace of arms, which is a very limited civil interpretation. It is “…rather, the God-given peace that our creator desires for us, and…is built on justice, where everything and everyone in the created order is in right relationship with each other and can reach their God-given potential.”
In The Lord of the Rings, the first form of peace is strongest in the person of Gandalf the Wizard. He seems to be the only one who never lets himself be distracted or thrown out of equilibrium. He does not freak out, but always acts reasonably. But while this is true, it must be admitted that his peace of mind is imperfect, as these are only outward signs of his psychical stability and determination. For we often see him grave and nervous about many things, while the person possessing a perfect virtue of peacefulness would stay content and calm because he would know that everything goes according to God’s plans. Of perfect peace Aquinas (1999, p. 2968) says: “It consists in the perfect enjoyment of the sovereign good, and unites all one’s desires by giving them rest in one object. This is the last end of the rational creature”, that being the perfect good of God.
As for the general form of peace, this is desired and worked for by all the “good” nations of Middle-earth—Men, Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits, Ents. They fight not only to end the wars with orcs and destroy their ultimate enemy and oppressor of Sauron, but also for the right of every single one of them to lead an undisturbed life of their own with respect to their unique need, but in harmony and equality. They are not vicious, but show a great deal of sympathy even for those who were fighting against them out of fear, for instance, when letting the wild people from East, South or Dunland return freely home, or when Frodo mercifully offered Saruman and Gríma to go free or stay if they change to good. Under Aragorn’s reign was to come a new order of the world in which all the nations would forget their past quarrels, and all would cooperate in peace—not only Gondor and Rohan, but also Dwarves and Elves working together on the renovations of Minas Tirith and other places, or trading with men from all the different parts of Middle-earth, or even hobbits.
Thus, even we should work on gaining peace of mind and not let ourselves be distracted or worried by unimportant things. Not get angered about oddments, but think positively in hope of reaching ultimate blessing in eternal heavenly life, while treating everybody, including ourselves, with love and charity, and enjoy our everyday life and its little pleasures. And in relation to others, especially nowadays, we should try to work and provide everybody with what belongs to them according to our possibilities. Not to see ourselves as superior to others, but acknowledge their equality in rights as well as obligations.
There is one more parallel between Advent and the events in Tolkien’s book. Advent, as the name itself denotes – the Latin word adventus meaning coming – is supposed to be a time during which we should forget about the worldly things and prepare ourselves not only for the coming of Baby Jesus at Christmas, but also direct our minds to the expectation of Christ’s second coming at the end of time. In The Lord of the Rings we see something similar. Before Frodo sets on his quest with the Fellowship at the symbolic date December 25, he spends some time in Rivendell during which he prepares for this task. For him it is a time dedicated to both physical and psychical healing, collecting news, studying books and maps, and learning lore what might be useful for him—simply getting ready for what is to come. And since he stayed in Rivendell, it was also a time of feasting, which resembles the aforementioned tradition of children feasting on sweets and fruits they get on St Nicholas Day. The only difference is in its duration. In Frodo’s case the period of preparation lasts for 2 whole months, from October 25 (Elrond’s Council) to December 25. That is obviously a lot more than just the Advent four weeks. On the contrary, it is closer to the length of Advent as celebrated by the early medieval Christians, though it still exceeds it.
Though we should anticipate Christ’s coming all the year, or more accurately, all our life, Advent is the time during which we put a special emphasis on it. In this time we should, just like Frodo, concentrate on and get ready for our role in the world. We should calm ourselves down; focus on our souls and spirituality; evaluate our lives, relationships and behavior; get rid of all the worldly troubles and unimportant trifles that distract us in developing our relationship with God; try to regain inner peace; exercise virtues and diminish vices; and find the forgotten joy of everyday life.
Catechism of the Catholic Church
Juričková, M., The Motif of Friendship as a Major Structural Principle in Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings: bachelor thesis, 2014
Juričková, M., The Concept of False Friendship in Tolkien’s novel The Lord of the Rings: diploma thesis, 2016
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McInerny, R.; O’Callaghan, J. Saint Thomas Aquinas. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [online]. Spring 2015
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Tolkien, J.R.R., The Lord of the Rings, 2011
By Juričková Martina