A (Middle Earth) History Lesson
Let us begin with a short history lesson. (If you want the longer, nerdier version, scroll to the bottom of the article.)
If you’re familiar with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and surrounding stories, you likely know of “the one ring to rule them all” or perhaps the Silmaril jewels, which give their name to Tolkien’s Silmarillion. But the tales contain another set of objects called Palantiri. These are powerful “seeing stones,” allowing users to communicate across distances, see visions, and much more.
We can trace these stones through the three Ages of middle-earth’s history.
The First Age: The elves (probably Feanor) create the stones, then give them to a race of Men, the Numenoreans. Tolkien never says how many of these stones were originally made…
The Second Age: …but he does tell us that Elendil (one of those Numenoreans) took seven of them with him into exile when his homeland is destroyed (1). Elendil and his sons establish northern and southern kingdoms in their new home, Middle-earth. The palantiri are divided between these kingdoms and used to keep contact. The peoples of Middle-earth go to war with Sauron. Most of our main characters thus far die, and Sauron is defeated, but his Spirit is not totally destroyed.
The Third Age: According to J.R.R. Tolkien, originally, the use of the Palantiri “involved no peril.” None of the kings able to use them would have hesitated to reveal the source of his knowledge (2). The palantiri meet various fates during this age, but the three in the southern kingdom (dispersed among the major strongholds) matter for our story. One is stolen by Sauron’s servants and used to corrupt the other palantiri users.
The palantiri were originally used for communication between the exiled Numenoreans, but certain gifted individuals could “perceive in them things far off, whether in place or time,” revealing things that their enemies wished to hide (3). Sauron was one of these gifted individuals. The stones could also be used to look into the thoughts of others who used them, but this depended on the “wills of the user on either side.”(4)
By now readers are probably wondering, “What could we possibly learn from this obscure history lesson from the mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien?” I am so glad you asked!
Like the palantiri, Jesus’s parables help us to see “things far off” and to lay bare the plans of the Enemy. I am certainly not implying that parables are crystal balls, but that they are spiritual weapons with which to arm ourselves as pilgrims during the olam hazeh (Hebrew for “present age”) (5). Parables are sacramental stories that unveil the truth about reality. N.T. Wright says that this reality is that “heaven and earth are not a long way apart. They are meant to overlap and interlock and finally to be joined fully and forever. And the whole point of Jesus’s identity, all along, is that he has been a one-man walking Temple; he has been, already, the place where heaven and earth have met, where people on earth have come into contact with the life and power of heaven.” (6)
Sacramental stories are narratives in which we discover God’s space (heaven, the deepest reality) manifesting itself in the space God created for his stewards (earth, less real, but not less important). Sacramental stories are stories that show us that there is more to reality than the transient and mutable, without degrading this life. They invite us to ask, “What if this is what reality is really like?” In doing so, they challenge our worldview’s presuppositions, sometimes turning them upside-down. Indeed, Jesus’s parables, as part of scripture, are “sharper than any double-edged sword.” Like the palantiri, parables can be used to judge “the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (7) Indeed, as has been argued by biblical scholars, we must allow Jesus’s parables to interpret us. (8)
If anyone would be qualified to use a Palantir, eh, I mean, a parable, it would be Arag—I mean—Jesus, right? Just as Aragorn has mastery over the palantiri, Jesus has mastery over language and story. There is nothing like a well-told story to expose hidden, even suppressed, things in the human heart. Yet precisely how do parables accomplish this? I hope to present here a brief synopsis of a much lengthier treatment which I give in the Introduction and first chapter of my book, The Good News of the Return of the King: The Gospel in Middle earth.
Parables are sacramental stories which contain both metaphorical and allegorical elements. There is a very important difference between allegory as composition – every single element of a plot corresponds with something else, rendering the narrative a puzzle that must be decoded – and the allegorical mode – when allegorical elements are only a part of the composition. The Greek words behind our words allegory and parable signify that they are a form of indirect communication, which “involves concealing the message in some way, using a veiled or provocative form of expression instead of presenting a simple and straightforward propositional message.” (9) These words also imply that a kind of “resemblance” can be found between two things or that a comparison is being made, but the allegorical mode functions differently from metaphor.
According to Gisela Kreglinger, metaphor “is better described as speaking about one thing in terms that are seen to be suggestive of another” whereas with the allegorical mode, the “correspondence between the elements is clear and predictable” and “avoids confusion and opposition.” (10) In a good parable, argues Kreglinger, the allegorical correspondences will break down and the story will shift into the metaphorical mode. According to her, this serves to shock and surprise the reader with new meanings about the subject matter.
Aragorn and Christ
One finds this happening frequently throughout Tolkien’s works. We see correspondences between Aragorn and Jesus, for instance, but then discover that the resemblances being suggested break down at a certain point. One of the great examples of this is during Aragorn’s journey along the Paths of the Dead in The Return of the King. If Tolkien were writing The Lord of the Rings as a total allegory, we would instead see Aragorn making this journey posthumously, corresponding with 1 Peter 3:18-20’s allusion to Christ’s descent into Sheol. To be sure, there are still similarities being suggested here between Christ and Aragorn, but they are not the kind of “this-equals-that” comparisons Tolkien scholars often fret about.
Similarly, look at Luke 15:11-32’s Parable of the Prodigal Son and see how Jesus may seem to be making an explicit allegorical comparison between wandering Israel and the lost son, building towards an expectation of God’s just anger, such as we hear frequently in the prophets. We are rightly shocked to see these resemblances break down as we wonder at the father’s prodigal (meaning lavish, extravagant) behavior towards his wayward son (the father’s prodigious grace matches the son’s prodigious mistakes).
Notice how the parable nudges us to jump back and forth, back and forth, between the seemingly explicit and then implicit resemblances. We could probe this parable further, touching on the many Old Testament stories of fathers and two sons which this parable seems to hint at… and yet doesn’t at all, because the story also seems to be about the long-forgotten Davidic king making his return. We are all of us deceived if we believe we have plumbed the depths of this, or any of Jesus’s other, apparently simply stories.
The Story-Telling Human
Tolkien writes about a similar idea through his concept of Faerie, a tricky term that refers to the world of a story that takes place on the border of the visible and invisible, the ordinary and the imaginative. Faerie is reality as it ought to be, a story which assumes the invisible is more real than the visible, shot through with juxtaposition between the ordinary and the imaginatively conceived. Tolkien says that “Faerie cannot be caught in a net of words, for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable though not imperceptible.”(11)
In his great essay “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien wrote, “We make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.” (12) We are homo narrans, the story-telling human, because God is the great Storyteller. We tell stories and understand reality through stories because reality is the Story. The plotline of the story of reality has been revealed to us in the Bible, which primarily tells us the story of Israel, but it would be a mistake to think the story is bound to that one great civilization.
According to N.T. Wright in his book How God Became King, “Israel’s story is thus the microcosm and beating heart of the world’s story, but also its ultimate saving energy. What God does for Israel is what God is doing in relation to the whole world.” (13) Jesus’s parables, like Tolkien’s palantiri, are aesthetic objects meant to be enjoyed, but they are also powerful vehicles which disclose the truth about reality. Yes, they can be misused and misinterpreted, and we must guard our hearts and minds through prayer and proper study to prevent such things from happening, but as Prof. Wright has pointed out, the improper use of something does not invalidate its proper use. Parables are ultimately stories that are trying to communicate in and through their very form what they wish to communicate in content: We are all part of God’s story. (14)
1 See “Akallabeth” in The Silmarillion.
2 Tolkien, J.R.R. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. Unfinished Tales, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1980). “The Palantiri.”
3 Tolkien, J.R.R. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. The Silmarillion, “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age.” (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1977).
4 Tolkien, Unfinished Tales.
5 N.T. Wright makes frequent use of this term in his book Simply Jesus.
6 N.T. Wright, Simply Jesus (p. 195). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition
7 Hebrews 4:12
8 I gleaned this insight from the books on parables authored by Amy-Jill Levine and John Dominic Crossan.
9 Fraser, Benson P.. Hide and Seek: The Sacred Art of Indirect Communication (Veritas) (p. 39). Cascade Books. Kindle Edition.
10 Gisela Kreglinger, Storied Revelations, Chapter 2.
11 J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories.”
12 Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories.”
13 N.T. Wright, How God Became King (p. 74). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.
14 Chapter 8 of Wright’s Simply Jesus disclosed this absolutely crucial statement to me years ago when I first read it, and it is one of the insights that set me on the path to writing my book. I am deeply indebted to and grateful for Professor Wright’s scholarship in so many ways.
Bonus! A More Detailed Middle Earth History
According to J.R.R. Tolkien, originally, the use of the (seven) Palantiri—Numenorean seeing stones—“involved no peril, and no king or other person authorized to survey them would have hesitated to reveal the source of his knowledge of the deeds or opinions of distant rulers, if obtained through the Stones. Tolkien does not say how many of these seeing-stones, who were most likely made by Feanor (the same elf-lord who created the Silmarils during the First Age) were originally made, but he does tell us that Elendil (who lived during the Second Age) took seven of them with him into exile when Eru Iluvatar destroyed Numenor (which occurred in 3319 of the Second Age). After Elendil and his sons Isildur and Anarion establish the kingdoms of Arnor in the north and Gondor in the south of Middle-earth, there is war between the peoples of Middle-earth and Sauron. The Second Age ends with the destruction of Sauron, the deaths of Elendil, Gil-Galad, and Anarion, and the taking of the One Ring by Isildur. Elendil had originally allocated four of the seven palantiri in Gondor and three in Arnor, in the north. The seven palantiri meet various fates, and I will not dwell on the history of each, since, for the purposes of this essay, only three in the south matter. These three palantiri were located in Minas Anor, Minas Ithil, and eventually, Orthanc. In 2002 of the Third Age, the palantir of Minas Ithil (later known as Minas Morgul) was stolen by servants of Sauron for his use. Then, in 2050, after Earnur, king of Minas Tirith, accepted a challenge from the Witch King (who was now lord of Minas Ithil), he disappeared (gee, I wonder why?) and Mardil became the first ruling steward of Minas Anor (also called Minas Tirith, located in Gondor). The northern kingdom of Arnor was also under constant assault throughout the Third Age by servants of Sauron, and it eventually faded into obscurity, becoming the haunt of the Dunedain, the remnant of the once-proud Numenorean kingdom, whose capital of Annuminas was built on the shores of Lake Evendim. The stewards of Minas Anor in Gondor would rule until the return of Aragorn II Elessar (Strider from The Lord of the Rings). Alas, the spirit of Sauron endured into the Third Age and he began to use the Palantir as a tool for corrupting the users of the other remaining palantiri in the south located in Minas Tirith and Saruman the White’s in Orthanc. The palantiri were originally used for communication among the Numenoreans, but certain gifted individuals could “perceive in them things far off, whether in place or time,” revealing things that their enemies wished to hide. According to Tolkien, Sauron most likely acquired the Palantir of Minas Ithil after its fall in 2002 of the Third Age. Palantiri could also be used to look into the thoughts of those who used them, but this Tolkien tells us depended on the “wills of the user on either side.”