This post-modern generation of the industrialized West has lost sight of the power of the Oath. That is why there is so little understanding of the covenant terminology which establishes the context of humanity’s relationship with our Creator. An oath sworn in good faith is something far more powerful than a legal procedure. It is a spiritual transaction which makes an indelible mark on the parties who take part in it. That is why one’s conscience is troubled when even the least significant promises are broken. Something as simple as committing to be at a certain place at a specified time is a type of oath or covenant. Failing to keep that promise fosters disappointment, anger, and bitterness in the heart of the one who is expecting the appointment to be kept. Hopefully the one who broke the promise will make amends and resolve to keep such commitments in the future. However, if the promise-breaker develops a habit of showing up late, or not showing up at all, then eventually his or her conscience will no longer serve as a reminder about the transgression. And then the promise-breaker becomes something worse: an untrustworthy person.
If this is the case with something as simple as a promise to be on time, what can we say about more serious promises? There is an illustration which may help. J.R.R. Tolkien delved deeply into the subject of oaths and covenants in his epic works about Middle Earth. Perhaps his most memorable account is the oath made by the Men of the Mountains to fight against Sauron, an oath they did not keep. In The Return of the King, Aragorn explains the circumstances of this broken oath:
But the oath that they broke was to fight against Sauron, and they must fight therefore, if they are to fulfill it. For at Erech there stands yet a black stone that was brought, it was said, from Nümenor by Isildur; and it was set upon a hill, and upon it the King of the Mountains swore allegiance to him in the beginning of the realm of Gondor. But when Sauron returned and grew in might again, Isildur summoned the Men of the Mountains to fulfil their oath, and they would not: for they had worshipped Sauron in the Dark Years.
Then Isildur said to their king, “Thou shalt be the last king. And if the West prove mightier than thy Black Master, this curse I lay upon thee and thy folk: to rest never until your oath is fulfilled. For this war will last through years uncounted, and you shall be summoned once again ere the end.”
In Tolkien’s novel, Aragorn leads his companions to the realm of these dead oathbreakers, and as Isildur’s heir calls them to fulfil their oath by following him into battle against Sauron’s armies. They answer the call, and upon winning the victory are released at last to depart in the peaceful sleep of death.
In Tolkien’s story the oathbreakers are redeemed by the descendant of the king whom they had betrayed. Their answer to his call brings an end to the curse and the blessed peace they have sought through the ages. As is so often the case with Tolkien, he illustrates a profound principle first explained in the Scripture. Yet what we learn from Moses differs from Tolkien in one critical point: redemption from the curse of broken oaths, or vows, results not the peace of death, but in the promise of life.
Professor J.R.R. Tolkien insisted that there was no hidden meaning behind his works on Middle Earth. Such was his assertion in his Foreword to The Lord of the Rings:
I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
– J.R.R. Tolkien, Foreword to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings
Yet there are allegorical elements throughout his writings, however unintended. Tolkien’s Catholic world view infused his work with well-known Christian concepts such as atonement, salvation, redemption, and fulfillment of prophecy. A consistent story line appears throughout his writing, repeated on several levels. It is the story of paradise defiled, of blessed people tempted by evil into betrayal of their calling, of their exile and dissolution, and their restoration at last after the struggles of their exile produce the required degree of contrition and of resolve to live up to their destiny. In The Silmarillion the tale plays out in the long defeat of the Noldor in their forlorn quest to regain the Silmarils from Morgoth the defiler of Middle Earth. The cycle ends and begins anew in their redemption beyond all hope by the Valar, the powers over the earth who had exiled the Noldor from the blessed realm of Valinor because of their rebellion. In The Hobbit it is the restoration of the House of Durin as the Dwarves under the leadership of Thorin Oakenshield set in motion the events that bring the death of the great dragon Smaug and the coronation of a new Dwarf King Under the Mountain. And in The Lord of the Rings it is the return of Aragorn as King Elessar of Gondor, restoring the long lost (and nearly forgotten) kingdom of the Númenóreans after the defeat of Sauron, Morgoth’s chief lieutenant.
Among the many things we learn from Tolkien is that things happen in cycles. Life is cyclical, not linear. What happens to the fathers happens to the sons, and what has come before will come again. Whether he realized it or not, that is the Hebraic way of looking at the world. And it is quite biblical. As Solomon, the son of David, teaches us:
That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9 NASB)
No one remembers the kings of Arnor. Why should they? After all, they existed only in the imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien. Yet if they had never existed there, the world would never have become acquainted with Aragorn, or with the Hobbits who helped him reestablish his kingdom. The great drama of Middle Earth is now etched in popular culture thanks to the cinematic artistry of Peter Jackson. It is a great credit to Jackson and his team that they drew from the deep wells of Tolkien’s works to portray the indispensable back-story of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but that story probably escaped the notice of most of the audience.
In Tolkien’s world, the noblest people among the Men of Middle Earth were the Númenóreans, a people whose kingdom in the midst of the sea was destroyed by a great flood like that which inundated the legendary Atlantis. Under the leadership of Elendil and his sons Isildur and Anárion, the survivors of Númenor established a new kingdom in the western part of Middle Earth. Elendil divided his realm, placing Anárion on the throne of the Southern Kingdom of Gondor, and retaining for himself the title of High King as he ruled over the Northern Kingdom, Arnor. When Elendil died, Isildur took his place as High King, ruling from Arnor. Over time Arnor declined and failed, but the line of Isildur continued through the Dúnedain, or Men of the West, a diminished and scattered people known more popularly as Rangers. Gondor continued on in great strength, but the line of kings descended from Anárion ceased when the last king, Eärnur, died childless. Tolkien thus created a great irony in his literary world: a king with no kingdom, and a kingdom with no king.
This is the setting for The Lord of the Rings. Those who have seen the movies know that Aragorn the Ranger eventually became king of Gondor, but few realize that his coronation was the culmination of the long-awaited rebirth of the Númenorean realm and reunification of the Northern and Southern kingdoms. Those events could never have happened if the Dúnedain had ceased to exist. According to Tolkien’s work, they remained few in number after the destruction of Arnor, but their vigilant watch ensured a measure of peace in the lands of the North. Although all but forgotten by the people of Gondor, the Dúnedain worked quietly behind the scenes to strengthen the Southern Kingdom’s stand against the growing evil of Sauron. Then, when all hope seemed lost, the heir of Elendil appeared in the greatest hour of need, bringing new life to long-dead hopes and dreams.
A major component of Tolkien’s works is identity: as long as the Dúnedain and the people of Gondor remember who they are, no enemy can defeat them. They may be overwhelmed and diminished, but a remnant will remain and will in time prosper anew. And whether Professor Tolkien realized it or not, his literary works depict something very real in the works of God: the identity, redemption, and restoration of all Israel.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s works had secured for him a lasting place among the giants of English literature long before Peter Jackson ever brought The Lord of the Rings to the big screen. Middle Earth, with its Elves, Men, Dwarves, Hobbits, Orcs, and Wizards, serves as the backdrop for a profound tale about our humanness – what it means, and what we would like it to mean. We would like to see ourselves, for example, as high and noble, like the Elves or the Men of Gondor. Tolkien expresses this nobility in many subplots, not the least being the saga of the Stewards of Gondor. We learn about them from Faramir, son of Denethor, the current Steward:
We of my house are not of the line of [King] Elendil, though the blood of Númenor is in us. For we reckon back our line to Mardil, the good steward, who ruled in the king’s stead when he went away to war. And that was King Eärnur, last of the line of Anárion, and childless, and he came never back. And the stewards have governed the city since that day, though it was many generations of Men ago. (The Two Towers, Book IV, “The Window On the West”)
Faramir relates how his older brother, Boromir, could not understand why his father had not claimed the throne. He had asked, “How many hundreds of years needs it to make a steward a king, if the king returns not?” To this his father replied, “Few years, maybe, in other places of less royalty . . . In Gondor ten thousand years would not suffice.”
It is here that we must question Tolkien’s grasp on reality. He describes a degree of nobility and selfless honor that transcends generations. It is remarkable for one person to lay aside his or her own interests to guard a place of higher power, wealth, and prestige for someone else. How could such selflessness be passed down from one generation to the next, knowing that at some point the supreme authority would have to be handed over to someone else?
And yet that is exactly what our God expects His people to do.