Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Cult of Númenor: Part I

In his Imaginary Worlds, the indispensible yet unbearably enthusiastic Lin Carter takes Tolkien to task for having accidently left one element out of his magnum opus, namely, religion:
[T]here is no religion at all in The Lord of the Rings—no temples, shrines, priests, prayers, amulets, scriptures, ikons, idols—nothing! None of the many characters, not even the heroic warriors, so much as swears by his gods. Obviously because they have no gods. Which is simply incredible in a primitive world of wizards and warriors and walled stone cities.
The use of the word “primitive” here brings up a relevant point, for Tolkien seems not to have regarded such religion as primitive at all. We’ll let this pass for the moment, however, and turn to the substance of the criticism. Now, Carter does concede that the peoples of Middle-Earth honor the Valar, the terrestrial angels who watch over the world of Tolkien’s conception, and Eru, the One over all. But that, he says, is not what he is talking about. He means what he calls “organized religion.” Really what he wants is a phony religion, a bit of the added icing and sprinkles that he so delights in. This, however, Tolkien was apparently unwilling to concoct. For it is hard to imagine that he simply neglected to think of it. And if we suppose that his reticence to describe the religion of Middle-Earth was intentional, we may well wonder whether there is a good reason for it.

To begin with, to underscore Carter’s concession, we do find a considerable amount of worship in Middle-Earth. It is not what the theologians call latria, or adoration of the divine, but dulia, adulation, honor paid to creatures. The Elves honor Elbereth, the lady of the stars, to such a degree that we might even speak of hyperdulia. What is more, while Middle-Earth’s mortals speak little of the Valar (Tolkien does mention that some falsely suppose them to be gods), they do pay homage to the great among the Elves. Think, for instance, of Gimli the Dwarf’s courteous “worship” of Galadriel and his bold request to carry away a sacred relic of her person. Now, paying honor to blessed spirits is part of some organized religions, including that to which Tolkien belonged. The dulia of Middle-Earth is not exactly organized, but then, neither is that of Tolkien’s religion. And anyway, who would use an icon when the living, breathing reality resides in the Golden Wood of the terrestrial sphere?

All this is not what Carter is talking about, though. He wants gods and priests, mummery and mumbo-jumbo. But the mention of the stars and the angelic agencies of Middle-Earth leads to another important point. The Hebrew conception of the angel, scholars tell us, was inherited from or influenced by the astral religion of Babylon. Now, Abram was called from Ur of the Chaldees, and the Magi who followed the star to Bethlehem hailed from the same region. They may be taken as types of the good pagan, paying homage to the stars and blessed spirits as to what is preeminent in creation, but only insofar as they flow from and are oriented toward the dark and yet-unknown One. Like Thomas More’s Utopians, they do not attempt more, because they know better. They wait in darkness.

In his essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien makes some apposite remarks about the apparent absence of religion in the world of the poem, written as it was soon after the advent of the new faith:
But if the specifically Christian was suppressed, so also were the old gods. Partly because they had not really existed, and had been always, in the Christian view, only delusions or lies fabricated by the evil one… Partly because their old names (certainly not forgotten) had been potent, and were connected in memory still, not only with mythology…but with active heathendom, religion… Most of all because they were not actually essential to the theme.
Might not these three factors also be at work in LOTR? Tolkien does speak in passing of heathendom and self-immolation, and of Black Númenoreans who worship the Enemy. Be this as it may, it is worthwhile noting that, while the writer of Beowulf excludes Christianity as an anachronism, he does not simply dismiss his heroic forebears as irredeemable sinners, as so many in his time were willing to do. No, he elevates them to the role played by the patriarchs and noble pagans:
It would seem that, in his attempt to depict ancient pre-Christian days, intending to emphasize their nobility, and the desire of the good for truth, he turned naturally when delineating the great King of Heorot to the Old Testament.
It is hard not to think of the kingly line of Númenor in this connection. Moreover, Aragorn himself seems to hold a pontifical as well as a kingly office (“the hands of the King are the hands of a healer”). The conjunction of these roles is itself a widespread pre-Christian, pagan idea, but it also found its way into the Old Testament in the person of Melchizedek, the high priest and king of Salem.

It is to the heirs of Elendil that we must look if we are to make out the keynotes of religion in Middle-Earth.

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