Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Three Persons, One Functional Unit: The Trinity in the Lord of the Rings

In the Lord of the Rings, there are constant instances when the number three is represented. This continuity of the concept of three could make one think of this as having significance, at least for Tolkien. Why did he not choose four, two, or five as numbers that would be used continuously throughout the saga? Tolkien chose three. Obviously this is a reference to the triune nature of God in the Christian tradition. Examples are as follows: Three rings were given to the Elves, Three men established the kingdom of Gondor: Elendil, Isildur, and Anarion; There are three Elven kingdoms: Rivendell, Lothlorien, and Mirkwood; The Fellowship eventually becomes a unit of three: Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli; Frodo, Sam, and Gollum become an independent group with their own journey; Merry, Pippin, and Treebeard have their own story; Three wizards are mentioned: Gandalf, Saruman, and Radagast; Frodo turns 33 at the beginning of the story and Bilbo turns 111, which is three numbers and adds up to three, and the list goes on and on.

The importance of this theme is such that when people and/or kingdoms are involved, they act as one. This is parallel to the idea of God as three persons, but one being. In the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien seems to be putting forth the notion that something whole can still be one even if it has distinguishable parts with distinct functions. The parts or "persons" still are there to function for the existence of each other, which ultimately comprise the one. In a sense Tolkien is conveying that God is a relational being, in that His internal relationship should be the basis for how we should treat one another. The relationship between Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli is that of working together in harmony and creating a sense of interconnectedness in order to achieve the same collective goal. Intuitively, they can only do this if they act as one unit. Gandalf seems to be the only character who brings an "awakening" light to a couple of the triune groups such as Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, and Merry, Pippin, and Treebeard. This can be an allusion to how Christ brought the reality of the Trinity to humankind through his death and resurrection.


Doug Simms said...

You make a great case for trinitarianism here, Mike.

I'm including below a copy of the Athanasian Creed, a creed which arose in the early Xian church as a response to the Arian heresy. This was the Church's official stance on the nature of the trinity, and I think helps elucidate the troublesome nature of the trinity as well as its relation to representation in the LotR.

As the Athanasian Creed is the longest of Creeds, I will be continuing comments in a further section.

Athanasian Creed

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith;

Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;

Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.

For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.

But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.

Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit.

The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated.

The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible.

The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal.

And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal.

As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible.

So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty.

And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty.

So the Father is God, the Son
is God, and the Holy Spirit is God;

And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.

So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord;

And yet they are not three Lords but one Lord.

For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord;

So are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say; There are three Gods or three Lords.

The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten.

The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten.

The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.

So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits.

And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another.

But the whole three persons are coeternal, and coequal.

So that in all things, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.

He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.

Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe rightly the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

For the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man.

God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of substance of His mother, born in the world.

Perfect God and perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.

Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood.

Who, although He is God and man, yet He is not two, but one Christ.

One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God.

One altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person.

For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ;

Who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead;

He ascended into heaven, He sits on the right hand of the Father, God, Almighty;

From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies;

and shall give account of their own works.

And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.

This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.

Doug Simms said...

A couple of things need to be mentioned as well.

I think that the Athanasian Creed is a wonderful parallel for the representation of the Trinity in LotR because it reinforces the inseparability of the trinity. Similarly, we cannot necessarily identify each member of a grouping of three in the LotR as God, Son, or Holy Ghost. (Tolkien's avoidance of allegory)

However, this brings us to the problem that if the appearance of the number 3 is symbolic of the Trnitity, shouldn't there be some connection to the members of the trinity. Which of the three portions of the trinity do Saruman and Gollum represent (God, Christ, or Holy Ghost?) As they are not wholly representational of God or members of the Trinity, we ought to question whether every occurrence of three is a symbol of the trinity.

Celtic literature is replete with the number three in a non-Christian context, for example. The Three Stooges are not a trinitarian symbol (this an extreme counter-example).

Numerology can be problematic, and it's further complicated by the way in which the number three is conducive to narrative. The late 19th- early 20th-century Danish folklorist Axel Olrik published in 1908 a narrative "law" which he termed the "Epic Law of Three" (Das epische Gesetz der Dreizahl). In short it states that when characters (or events) are introduced into a narrative, the third is the most significant (think of every joke you've heard that begins "An X, a Y, and a Z walk into a bar..." -the joke is about Z).

Although Olrik's "law" doesn't clear up the numerological problems in trinitarian symbolism, it does demonstrate that the narrative occurrence of 3 is long-standing.

If one takes a functionalistic approach, three is conducive to narrative because it is the second smallest prime number. In narrative, pairing of items can establish either identity (A + A) or difference (A+A'). When one employs three, a more definite pattern is produced where we have three of a kind (A+A+A), three different items(A+A'+A''), or mixed (A+A+A'), in short, we can establish a pattern not possible with pairs.

becky said...

I am thankful for the questioning of where Gollum, etc fit into the true holy trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). I find it amazing that there can be such stretches made to link so many things to Christianity. Can it not be as simple as two characters are difficult to work with because they both struggle for the leadership position therefore a third character poses as a tie-breaker. Yes, this can be done with any odd number but who wants to keep track of so many characters constantly moving around?

Furthermore, I must say that many things seem to be misconstrued out of common beliefs about God the Father who sacrificed his only son to give life to all who accept him. I wonder where some things are pulled from when we mention Christianity. How many of us have read the Bible? A book, a chapter of the Bible?! Not only read- the real learning comes from actually interpreting the words and applying them to our lives. Admittedly, I have not read or studied the entire Bible and therefore I am happy to admit that I am still learning a great deal but it is near offensive when posts are made unbased and then read, taken for truth, and no wonder so many are confused on God's true teachings and his desires for his children.

Erica W said...

It is really interesting that the number three plays such a role in apperantly many narratives and in the lord of the rings.
I didn't even pick that up while reading, but it is really cool that some people can pick the illusionary parts of the story out.

Mike Pilato said...

Becky. I was in no way trying to offend you, but maybe I can clarify my intent. I was simply pointing out that Tolkien uses the consistent theme of three in his books and how that correlates to his Roman Catholic faith and the Orthodox view of God's being. I have read and studied the Bible in depth, and I will also add that theology also comes from the traditions handed down by the apostles to the church fathers; such as Athanasias, Origen, Justin Martyr, Eusebius, Irenaeus, Cyril of Jerusalem, Cyprian, Tertullian, etc. My post was based on the Biblical and the Orthodox Nicene understanding of the Trinity, which is ecumenically accepted, so I would not say it was unfounded or based off of nothing. There is nothing unusual about the trinity being one God consisting of three persons in Christian theology. Tolkien clearly represented this concept through numerical symbolism. I was not comparing the characters in who they are to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

theswain said...

Hello, Dr. Joy let me know about this blog a while ago. I'm teaching a course very similar to this at UIC, a freshman level course, and have shared the URL with my students.

That said, I thought I'd jump in here and add that while I agree that things occur in 3s frequently in the novel, I don't think its directly tied to the Trinity for the reasons that Dr. Simms points out.

But I will add in addition to Celtic literature that Norse literature also has its groupings of 3, and especially of 9. And of course there's the old saying about something being a "nine day wonder" that Tolkien refers to in Book I of LoTR.

Besides the Trinity, groupings of 3 are typical of the Hebrew Bible. And most notably in the gospel of Matthew, well known for 3s, (...baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, or in the genealogy in Matt 1, 3 groupings of 14 or Matt 1: 1, 3 names etc.

All of this went into the "cauldron of story" that Tolkien took out and probably entirely subconsciously wrote into LoTR.

I'll close by praising the original poster for noting this feature!

Steve Backhus said...

I end to agree that any references to the "trinity" of christianity may be a stretch here. As with any attempt to twist writings into a religious framework, numerous alternate explanations abound.

We could also view the LotR through the lens of Zoroastrianism and its focus on duality. Gandalf/Saruman, Aragorn/Boramir, Elves/Dwarves, etc...

That is one alternate religious world view that could be used. Admittedly Tolkien was in a christian society when writing the LotR, and many of the other works we have read were influenced by christianity, either during the time of their creation, or in the copying of the works by later individuals.

I'm hesitant to read too much christian influence into the LotR because I don't think that was Tolkien's intent.

Scott Smith said...

Hey, Mike! I actually wrote a blog post on LOTR and the Holy Trinity at www.thescottsmithblog.com. I make the argument that, while Eru Ilúvatar is the Godhead of the Tolkien mythos, three different characters serve as Christ figures in the LOTR, namely, Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn.
Here's the blog post, itself: http://www.thescottsmithblog.com/2010/01/lord-of-rings-and-trinity.html

Scott Smith said...

Hey, Mike! I actually wrote a blog post on LOTR and the Holy Trinity at www.thescottsmithblog.com. I make the argument that, while Eru Ilúvatar is the Godhead of the Tolkien mythos, three different characters serve as Christ figures in the LOTR, namely, Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn.
Here's the blog post, itself: http://www.thescottsmithblog.com/2010/01/lord-of-rings-and-trinity.html