This post contains spoilers for both the film and book versions of The Lord of the Rings.
Some of you may recall that back in September I declared my intent to begin re-reading J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings that month for the first time in many years (since the Peter Jackson films came out, in fact). I’m happy to say that I’ve kept with it, and by October 24th I had actually come to the very chapter in the beginning of which Gandalf says to Frodo: “It is the morning of October the twenty-fourth, if you want to know.” But as I continued reading that chapter and the ones following, it struck me that I had forgotten how much time Frodo and company would end up spending in Rivendell. If you’d only seen the movie version of The Fellowship of the Ring, it would be understandable if you thought the Nine Companions had set out promptly; perhaps at most a few days after the Council of Elrond. But in fact they lingered in the Last Homely House East of the Sea for two whole months before embarking on their long journey south.
Of course, Tolkien doesn’t furnish us with their day-to-day doings during those two months, and as a matter of fact I’m pretty sure that he only spends a paragraph or two explaining how, while the Fellowship bided their time, others ranged far and wide in order to ensure that their way would be as safe as could be from the spies of the Enemy and any stray creatures of evil, and especially the Ringwraiths, just in case any had managed to maintain their shapes after the river Bruinen swept them away; and that in the meantime the Sword That Was Broken was re-forged. The transition from autumn to winter was also briefly described, and then by the time the Nine Walkers finally did set out from Rivendell, it was December the twenty-fifth. Christmas Day! And yet there was no such holiday in Middle-earth in those days, because Jesus hadn’t even been born yet.
Now while some few hesitate to call Tolkien’s fantasy epic a Christian work, despite the insistence of the author himself that it is, there is a theme that can be discerned amongst the book’s “pagan” trappings that is illuminated by a knowledge of the complex relationship between Christianity and the pre-Christian religions it supplanted or absorbed. Of all the pre-Christian holidays, the Vernal Equinox and the ancient traditions connected with it are most closely associated with Easter, around that time of year when, north of the equator, the days and nights are of equal length but the days are about to begin growing longer and longer, throughout the spring and into the summer unto the longest day which is of course the Summer Solstice–also known as Midsummer because it’s the middle of the summery or “bright half” of the year, just as the Winter Solstice or Midwinter is the middle of the wintry or “dark half”.
But the opposite of the Vernal Equinox is the Autumnal Equinox, which falls on or around September 22nd, the date on which Bilbo and Frodo share a birthday, and also not coincidentally the day before Frodo flees the Shire pursued by the agents of darkness and thus begins his adventure. While on this day, like its opposite, light and dark stand equal, the dark is rising (which phrase brings to mind another great fantasy series, by the way) as the nights will begin to grow longer until the longest night which is the Winter Solstice, or Midwinter, also known as Yule in parts of our world as well as in Middle-earth itself, and which falls on or around December 21st, just a few days before Christmas.
Though the exact date of the birth of Jesus is not actually known, it is fitting for symbolic reasons that Christian tradition should have eventually adopted a date so close to the Winter Solstice, when in the depths of that season of death the dark is at the peak of its power, and yet by the same token, about to give way to light and life as the sun is “reborn”. So it seems significant that the Fellowship should set out on this day, and not at all an arbitrary choice on the part of the author, a devout Catholic. And their journey thenceforth is a long and by no means easy one, for though the light begins to grow after the Yuletide, it is not something that will directly affect our lives until spring, still some months away.
But it is the initial act of setting out–the willingness to arm oneself against the dark and sally forth, to take those first small but essential steps toward the goal of defeating evil that is symbolic of the birth of divine light, even as it is only now a barely perceptible glimmer in the vast reaches of the night, like the light of Eärendil, or the Star of Bethlehem. And it seems likewise significant that the Enemy should finally be defeated and his mighty Dark Tower laid low once his supreme instrument of evil, the One Ring, is destroyed on March 25th–the day in which the Feast of the Annunciation is usually celebrated–not coincidentally nine months before Christmas, and also only a few days after the Vernal Equinox, just as Christmas is only a few days after the Winter Solstice.
Yet all that, of course, is still a long way away in my current reading, and at the rate I’m going at this point I might not actually get there until March. For now I’m still in the deeps of Moria, surrounded by the vast emptiness and loneliness of Khazad-dûm. This is one of my favourite parts of the book, and now as we northerners begin our own long journey in the dark, when the nights steadily grow longer and colder as we head into the holiday season with all of its magic and beauty–the solemn beauty of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, of the Winter Solstice and Yule, of Christmas, of Kwanzaa, and all such celebrations in this time of gathering together for an all too brief period of peace and good will, feasting and rejoicing, remembrance and reflection–well, I think old Bilbo put it best back in Rivendell…
I sit beside the fire and think
of all that I have seen
of meadow-flowers and butterflies
in summers that have been;
Of yellow leaves and gossamer
in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun
and wind upon my hair.
I sit beside the fire and think
of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
that I shall ever see.
For still there are so many things
that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring
there is a different green.
I sit beside the fire and think
of people long ago
and people who will see a world
that I shall never know.
But all the while I sit and think
of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet
and voices at the door.