I was thinking the other day that you could make a fantastic series of Advent readings purely from J.R.R. Tolkien’s poems in The Lord of the Rings.
So I decided to do it.
Whether or not you believe the claims of the Gospel writers about the nativity story or Jesus, there’s a story here that’s just as good as the best work of any fantasy writer.
Here beginneth the lesson.
In the “Fellowship of the Ring”, we meet Aragorn, the heir of the thrones of Arnor and Gondor – two of the greatest (but fallen or falling) kingdoms of men in Middle Earth. Long backstory short, he’s the last of a line of rulers who have repeatedly failed to rule well or resist evil. All of his life he’s been hounded by evil that seeks to corrupt or kill him.
Aragorn has no crown, and he certainly has no kingdom. But he has roamed Middle Earth for 40+ years fighting big baddie lidless eye guy Sauron, and as the books of LoTR reveal, he’s the only human really strong enough to 1) resist the temptation to power and the Ring and 2) face Sauron head on and unite men against Mordor.
Of course, Tolkien’s hobbit heroes don’t know this when they meet Strider (this is kind of like Aragorn’s gang name). He’s just another shady dude in a bar. The books don’t mention it, but he probably smells awful.
And he’s carrying a weird broken sword around.
Not much of a king at first appearance.
Hobbit adventurer-turned poet Bilbo Baggins (whom we meet later at a POSITIVELY STIMULATING elvish beat poetry reading *snap snap snap*) sees Strider differently:
“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.”
This subversion of the normal concepts of greatness/heroism is a common theme in Tolkien’s writing. There are too many cases to count, really, but we’ll give it a try.
*BEGIN SPOILER ALERT*
Old bushy-eyebrowed grandpa fireworks-making, pipeweed-indulging Gandalf turns out to be one of the most powerful spiritual beings in Middle Earth. Child-height, naive Frodo ends up carrying the evil Ring of Power all the way to Mordor. Schizophrenic evil guy Gollum ends up finishing the job and destroying REALLY EVIL guy Sauron.
And in the end, scruffy, crownless, broken-blade-bearing Strider becomes king of a renewed Gondor and Arnor. Then he marries the *hella fine* elven princess Arwen, and they all live happily ever after – at least until the author decides to write “The New Shadow” and screw everything up and not even finish writing that and, well, I digress into Tolkien fan forum talk.
*END SPOILER ALERT*
(BTW, were those spoiler alerts REALLY necessary? Have you really not read these books or seen these movies yet?)
Anyway, here’s your Advent connection: there’s a striking parallel between Aragorn’s crownless kingship and how the Christian idea of Incarnation – the Source and Sustainer of all becoming a fragile little human – happens in the Christmas nativity story.
In the face of the most powerful empire on earth, under the nose of a spectacularly violent and corrupt client-tyrant, a rightful ruler is born – the only one capable of inaugurating a kingdom based on truth and love in one of the bloodier, more dehumanizing times in human history.
But this ruler?
He’s a newborn Jewish baby in an animal feeding trough, recently emerged from the womb of an unwed teenage mother during a humiliating tax census in one of the most widely written-off, backwater provinces of the Roman Empire.
This province, once a great kingdom, has been subject to at least four different (and uniquely awful) empires over the course of some 600 years. The guys who have tried to lead their people out of this less-than-ideal political and religious situation have been brutally executed on torture stakes that suffocate them slowly while exposing them to public shame.
Back to our manger-born hero.
His family has to flee an infanticidal king while he’s still in the cradle. His own parents and siblings don’t believe in him or know what to do with him. He spends much of his early life as a carpenter and/or stonemason building projects for the occupying armies and the Greco-Roman culture that is colonizing his country. He apparently keeps his head down and doesn’t do much for the greater part of his early life.
And yet it’s still THIS guy – Jesus, in case you didn’t know – who ends up pulling an Aragorn on the world.
After his own bit of wilderness wandering, Jesus starts out on his own quest – citing the words of ancient prophecy – to “proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.”
He casts out demons, he heals lepers, and he is the best wedding party guest. He calls out the murderous ruler of his country as a “fox” (a challenge, not a pickup line), he turns both corrupt oppressors and corrupted victims to ways of justice and love, and he declares the coming of the kingdom of God in power.
He cruises into the capital city on a baby donkey, challenges the very religious authority and religious tradition that any would-be king would need behind him, and gets betrayed by one of his best friends. He’s summarily executed on one of those torture stakes, wearing a crown of thorns – the only coronation ceremony he ever gets.
A few days later, people say he is alive again. People say the world has changed. People say the power of death and darkness is broken. People say there is a new Emperor in town – and he doesn’t wear a toga. A bunch of women, fishermen, and other nobodies proceed to do the very same things that Jesus did, starting a revolutionary way of life and thinking that eventually breaks the power of the Roman empire.
Who would have thought it would have started with this guy born in a feeding trough?
“All that is gold does not glitter.” This is a theme of Christmas.
“A light from the shadows shall spring.” This is a hope of Christmas.
“The crownless again shall be king.” This is a yearly reality of the celebration of Christmas.
Seen this way, Christmas is (among other things) an opportunity to recognize and remember the upside-down nature of real power in this world – especially as shown in crownless figures like Jesus and Aragorn.
Aragorn and Jesus succeed because they refuse power as the world sees it. They realize that real world-changing power does not rest on violence or lies or manipulation. It comes from truth (or, if you will, from Truth) and from living truth out with the courage and drive that comes from loving creation, life, and the people in it.
Say what you will about what Christianity was/is/will be, but insofar as it had this kind of real power, it became a force which eventually dismantled the most violent, misogynistic, cruel, and unjust parts of the dominant pagan culture. It also redeemed many of the most humanistic, fun, and beautiful parts of it (hence why we have great fantasy and mythology – and the holiday of Christmas/Saturnalia – today). It had a hand in bringing down the cult of the Caesars, the “virgin-born sons of god” who claimed to bring peace but only brought bread and circuses and taxes and death.
Yep, the church of Jesus had a major hand in all of these incredible changes. At least until it gained political “power” itself. But that’s another story.
My point with all of this? We clearly still don’t know what real power is or where it lies, or else we might stop seeking it from politicians, coercion, position, credentials, etc. We seek a crown when we should content ourselves with doing what we can with our broken blades.
Take time during the Christmas season to look at examples of upside-down power like Aragorn and Jesus. Remind yourself of how you’re supposed to do your life’s work.
While everyone is still recovering from their Christmas comas, read some Tolkien. Or break out your Bibles and find gems like this:
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”