I’m re-reading The Lord of the Rings after many years.
It’s prequel, The Silmarillion, is a great favourite of mine, one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read outside of Scripture and Shakespeare. And I’m reading The Hobbit to my 8- and 6-year-olds – so I thought it was time to revisit LOTR.
Tolkein expressed distaste for allegory, and the way that genre seeks to hound the reader into truth. He preferred the truths that come sideways through myth. Nevertheless, last night I read something which opened up a truth I’ll jot here, for those interested. (If mythic/fantasy literature doesn’t do it for you, feel free to stop here. See you next post if I haven’t put you off for good.)
So: The Lord of the Rings. I’ve arrived at that part in the story in which we meet Denathor, steward of Gondor. For those not familiar with Tolkein’s epic, Denathor has long ruled over that embattled country and its besieged capital, Minas Tirith. He rules in the absence of a king, just barely holding off the might and horror of neighbouring Mordor, the land of shadow.
Denathor is a man in despair – a despair that, a few chapters after we meet him, descends into madness. Convinced that all is lost and hope is gone, he tries to burn himself alive, together with his wounded son and heir.
The source of his despair, it transpires has come from having seen into a palantír (non-Tolkein readers, think crystal ball; Tolkein readers, forgive the comparison) in which he has wrestled with the will of the evil Lord of the Rings, Sauron. Through what he has permitted Denathor to see in the palantír, Sauron has deceived the steward into the crushing hopelessness which defeats him.
But it is what Sauron permits Denathor to see that struck me: he lets him see the truth.
Nothing that Denathor sees (or is permitted to see) in the palantír is untrue. He sees enemy armies amassing in great might and power, he sees the sparseness of his own and his allies’ strength. They cannot win. All hope is lost.
Yet Denethor is deceived by the truth. (In the end, it is two highly improbable heroes, two little half-size hobbits, that will bring triumph against Sauron’s might. But these Denathor did not see – nor did Sauron.)
When Satan, ‘the father of lies’, wishes to deceive, to wear out the saints, to sow discouragement and despair, he does not always lie outright. His most compelling lies can be those that are true. Lies that show truth – but not the whole truth.
“You’re not growing.” “That didn’t work.” “And you – you’re a sinner.” “Masses of people in the UK couldn’t care less about God.” “Sometimes, you couldn’t care less either.” “No-one’s listening.” “You make so little difference.”
And then, the whispered suggestion comes, so quiet, it seems to come from your own thought: “Why not just give up?”
But it’s a deceit. God delights to perform his greatest acts through the little people. He works in the small, the hidden, the ordinary, the overlooked. Watch out for mangers – they’ve been know to hold Messiahs. Watch out for executed criminals – they’ve been known to save the world. Watch out for that ragtag, disregarded, often odd, usually confused, rather-behind-the-times bunch called the Christian Church: they’re the firstfruits of God’s glorious new creation.
Let me learn the lesson of Denathor. I want to avoid listening to lies – especially when they’re true.
The kingdom is coming. Come, O Lord!