An Excerpt from HARP Beyond the Veil

Copyright Jonathan Cassie and Guild Companion Publications Ltd © 2019

Edited by Peter Mork for The Guild Companion

"We meet the original creator spirit, Eru Iluvatar, God, essentially, who brings the universe into existence."

There is no legendarium in fantasy literature more developed than Tolkien’s. He began his work in the decade of the 1910s and continued at work on his creations until his death in 1973. The content published during Tolkien’s life, namely The Hobbit and the three volumes that comprise “The Lord of the Rings,” takes place in the third age of the world of Ea, “the world that is,” which is supposed to stand as an analogue to Earth in its most distant past. Re-reading The Hobbit and “The Lord of the Rings” novels reveals a world most notable for its emptiness. With the exception of the lively Shire and the occasional pocket of human (Bree, Minas Tirith) or elvish (Rivendell, Lorien) activity, Middle-Earth in the Third Age has moved on from its greatness. It’s a world that even its most storied residents, the elves, know is in irrevocable decline (at least for them). Perhaps even more striking than the land’s emptiness is the virtually total absence of a spiritual and religious dimension to the characters we get a chance to interact with in Tolkien’s telling of his stories. In The Hobbit, for instance, we are introduced to a number of different peoples, namely, the hobbits, dwarves, men, elves and of course Gandalf. What do we learn of the spiritual lives of these (in most other respects) fully fleshed-out races? In fairness, not all that much. Bilbo’s life revolves entirely around the social dynamics of his high-status life in the Shire, his earthly pleasures and his attention to his personal comforts. All very clear expressions of hobbit social dynamics, but not especially spiritual in nature. At no point do we discover the presence of a priestly class amongst the hobbits. We don’t see churches. They don’t pray. They seem to be entirely without religion in their lives. If it’s there somewhere in the Shire, Tolkien doesn’t go out of his way to call our attention to it. We also don’t get a sense of the inner spiritual life of the hobbits, other than their love of the creature comforts of life. What causes a hobbit to have an existential crisis? If elevenses is served late, one suspects. This is not much upon which to base an assessment of the spiritual life of hobbits, however. About the closest we get with the hobbits from a spiritual perspective is the way in which they offer reverence and admiration to the elves. This isn’t the same as offering worship, however. They don’t see them as gods, at least in the way we might understand gods in a Western European pre-Christian polytheism. The dwarves are also without a spiritual dimension. Their leader, Thorin Oakenshield, is not a priest/king. He’s just a king. In the conversations the dwarves have with themselves and with others we get no sense of a broader religious system amongst the dwarves. We don’t see them engage in spiritual or religious practice. With regards to the humans of Lake-town and the elves of the Mirkwood, it’s really a matter of lather-rinse-repeat. No religious systems. No spiritual practices. Mind you, the elves may be lacking that spiritual/religious orientation or public expression by virtue of the fact that they are not all that far removed from the gods themselves.

And yet this belies the extraordinary creation myth that Tolkien’s work begins with and is founded upon. In his posthumously published The Silmarillion, we are offered a view of Tolkien’s earliest vision of what Eš, the universe, is and how it came to be. We meet the original creator spirit, Eru Iluvatar, God, essentially, who brings the universe into existence. He alone possesses the ability to bestow what Tolkien called the “Flame Imperishable,” essentially the Christian Holy Spirit, which can bring life into independent existence. This is the “secret fire” to which Gandalf refers in “The Lord of the Rings.” After meeting Eru Iluvatar we meet his heavenly chorus of angles, the Ainur, and are told of how he and the Ainur sang a beautiful song which, despite dissonance introduced into the heavenly chorus by the Lucifer-like Melkor, ultimately brought about the creation of the Earth, called Arda. In Tolkien’s mythology, nothing began its existence in evil or wickedness. All was good. Corruption, malice and evil were introduced and then nurtured by forces that wanted to seize control of the creative forces in the universe from Eru Iluvatar. We learn that some Ainur chose to enter into Arda when its material form was made and to complete its development under their tutelage. Those Ainur became known as the Valar and the Valar function in the Tolkien legendarium much like the ancient gods of Western European cultures did, having areas of influence and specific concern which they brought to their work. By the time of the Tolkien’s Third Age, the age of the direct influence of the Valar was long since past. During this time when their influence was at its most distant they created and sent forth agents into Middle-Earth. It is amongst these agents, the Istari, that we find Gandalf. He is not a god, but rather, a kind of powerful emissary and agent. In the core works of Tolkien, that is as close as we get to a spiritual agent, but at no point does he function like a Cleric or priest. It should probably be no surprise that fantasy role playing based on Tolkien is going to struggle to know what to do with Clerics.