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Memory and Commemoration in The Lord of the Rings: An Orthodox Christian Perspective

Published on: October 12, 2022
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Map of Middle Earth

Late in J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic The Lord of the Rings, Samwise Gamgee finds himself in darkness and likely near death. Enemies have captured his dearest friend, and Sam lies alone, shivering and impossibly far from home. He tries to make sense of the situation, but “even of the days he had quite lost count. He was in a land of darkness where the days of the world seemed forgotten, and where all who entered were forgotten too. ‘I wonder if they think of us at all,’ he said” (The Lord of the Rings, HarperCollins, 2021, p. 987).

Forgetfulness is a key tool of evil in The Lord of the Rings. Cowardice, despair, and exhaustion tempt characters throughout the book, but forgetfulness—of home and friends, of beauty, of causes worth fighting for—is the fog in which treachery grows most threatening. Memory, in turn, has a distinct power in The Lord of the Rings. It rouses characters to hope in the face of staggering odds, hardening them against fear and doubt. Beyond this strengthening effect, Orthodox Christian writers also recognize memory’s role in enriching and beautifying a man’s life, even uniting him with God. Memory in The Lord of the Rings bears striking similarities to this idea as well. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov sets out both conceptions of memory—as a source of strength and as a redeeming force—and illuminates the centrality of memory to The Lord of the Rings.

Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov presents memory as a source of strength through the character of Dmitri. Imprisoned and falsely accused of murder, Dmitri declares at one point,

I seem to have such strength in me now, that I think I could stand anything, any suffering, only to be able to say and to repeat to myself every moment, “I exist.” In thousands of agonies—I exist. I’m tormented on the rack—but I exist . . . I see the sun, and if I don’t see the sun, I know it’s there. And there’s a whole life in that, in knowing that the sun is there [emphasis added].

(The Brothers Karamazov, Simon & Brown, 2011, p. 695)

Dmitri’s words immediately call to mind Sam and Frodo’s journey through the dark land of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. The companions’ surroundings grow bleaker and more lifeless as they inch towards Mount Doom, with little food left and their chances of destroying the Ring dwindling. But one night, as Sam gazes into the western sky,

There, peeping among the cloudwrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him [emphasis added]. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach (922).

The western star restores hope to Sam’s heart as the sun does for Dmitri. The remembrance of “high beauty for ever beyond” the walls of a cell or the shadows of Mordor heartens the characters, lifting them out of the enveloping darkness. Memory equips Sam and Dmitri with fresh hope—a balm for their sorrow and a validation of their purpose.

Memory in The Lord of the Rings does more than bring its characters hope and solace, however: it often hurls them into courageous acts. Early in the book, Frodo and the other hobbits lie captive in the cold lair of a deadly Barrow-wight. But despite his fear,

[Frodo] found himself as he lay thinking about Bilbo Baggins and his stories, of their jogging along together in the lanes of the Shire and talking about roads and adventures [emphasis added] . . . . [Frodo] thought he had come to the end of his adventure, and a terrible end, but the thought hardened him. He found himself stiffening, as if for a final spring; he no longer felt limp like a helpless prey [141, emphasis added].

Suddenly remembering the Shire, Frodo finds himself armed, like Dmitri, with “such strength” to “stand anything.” And as the Barrow-wight closes in on Sam, Frodo “seize[s] a short sword that lay beside him” and “hew[s] at the crawling arm near the wrist” (143), breaking the hand off clean and saving his friends’ lives. Later, when Merry asks Frodo what happened, Frodo replies, “I thought I was lost” (144). One may say that Frodo found himself, and his courage, when he remembered home.

Orthodox Christian writers also explore a second power of memory: to enrich and even redeem. In the final chapter of The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha stresses the saving power of memory to a group of boys mourning a friend’s death:

You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger . . . than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home . . . . If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one’s heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving us (904)

Dostoevsky demonstrates exactly how memory and commemoration might “save” a man when Alyosha kneels by the coffin of his departed mentor, Elder Zossima, in another passage. In a vision Alyosha sees Zossima at the Wedding at Cana, the site of Christ’s first miracle: turning water into wine. The vision leaves Alyosha weeping, and in his soul he hears the words, “Water the earth with the tears of your joy” (415). As Alyosha weeps,

There seemed to be threads from all those innumerable worlds of God, linking his soul to them, and it was trembling all over “in contact with other worlds” . . . . [Alyosha] had fallen on the earth a weak boy, but he rose up a resolute champion, and he knew and felt it suddenly at the very moment of his ecstasy. And never, never, all his life long, could Alyosha forget that minute (415).

Literary scholar Donald Sheehan’s work (“Dostoevsky and Memory Eternal: An Eastern Approach to The Brothers Karamazov”) unearths this passage’s Orthodox Christian character. Sheehan argues that this is “a moment of theosis” for Alyosha, “one in which he participates fully in divine aliveness, a moment, that is, of Memory Eternal,” as he commemorates his elder. To Sheehan, memory is central to man’s unification with God. Sheehan explains that the concept of “eternal memory,” captured in song during Eastern Orthodox memorial services, consists of both God and man keeping each other “strongly” and “brightly present in [each other’s] love.” In the ongoing memory of the Church, God and man “converge”—a process for which Orthodox Christians use the term theosis. And while man achieves theosis by obeying Christ’s command to love God and his neighbor, a key feature of this convergence once achieved is a mutual remembering: man and God “holding [one] another in love” for eternity. Thus, in Sheehan’s view, memory has a mystical significance and serves as an indicator of a spiritual journey’s success. Alyosha experiences theosis, at least momentarily, through the memory and commemoration of his beloved elder.

The climactic scene of The Lord of the Rings at the Field of Cormallen is remarkably similar to Alyosha’s vision. Frodo and Sam destroy the Ring, escaping with their lives and delivering Middle-earth from disaster. When the hobbits awake two weeks later, Gandalf leads them to a field filled with a great host of Men, Elves, and Dwarves, all bowing to honor them. There, the King of Gondor sets Frodo and Sam upon thrones and a minstrel steps forth to sing of “Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom”—a grand commemoration of the hobbits’ trials in song Sam “laugh[s] aloud for sheer delight” and exclaims, “O great glory and splendour! All my wishes have come true!” As the minstrel sings of all that has passed,

[A]ll the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness (955).

The resemblance to Alyosha’s vision jumps off the page. Both passages present tears as joyous rather than sorrowful—watering the earth or “the very wine of blessedness.” This redemptive image of tears turned to joyous ends symbolically answers Sam’s question, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” (953) in the affirmative. Similarly, both scenes see humble individuals rise to triumph, either as a “resolute champion” or honored before “all free folk of the West” (955). The “glory and splendour” overwhelm both characters as the memories they carry are met with proper commemoration; in the Field and at the funeral, the weight of the past on Sam and Alyosha is received in ceremony, and their wounds are not erased but ennobled. Both events show how memory and commemoration might reap man’s redemption out of his sorrow.

Finally, both scenes tell of encounters with the supernatural. Alyosha is “in contact with other worlds,” his soul linked by “threads from all those innumerable worlds of God.” The host at Cormallen “pass[] in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together.” By accepting the quest to destroy the Ring, Frodo and Sam obeyed a kind of command to love—the key to achieving redemption or theosis in Orthodox teaching. And at Cormallen, during the grand remembering of their deeds, all in attendance come in contact with another world, one of a redeemed character. Placing this event side by side with Alyosha’s vision, an Orthodox Christian reader of The Lord of the Rings might find the host at Cormallen experiencing something approaching a communal “moment of theosis” as understood by Sheehan—an instance of encounter with the divine or transcendent. Where else but a redeemed and heavenly kingdom could pain and delight flow together, or joy be wielded like a sword?

Such is the impact of memory in The Lord of the Rings. It restores hope to the lost, sparks courage in the desperate, and crowns with joy and wonder those who have suffered most. For all its wrangling with evil, memory in both The Brothers Karamazov and The Lord of the Rings finds its completion in joy. It is a wedding that Alyosha sees in his vision, with Christ ensuring there is enough wine for the celebration; in their merriment the host at Cormallen glimpse a land where tears are not mournful but rather “the very wine of blessedness.” C.S. Lewis writes, “Joy is the serious business of Heaven” (Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer, HarperOne, 2017, p. 125). Tolkien and Dostoevsky find this worth remembering.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

About author

  • Stavros Piperis

    Stavros Piperis

    Creighton Scholar at the Creighton University School of Law and Youth Director at St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Omaha, Nebraska.

    Stavros Piperis graduated from Boston College as a Dean’s Scholar with a B.A. in Political Science with departmental honors. Stavros is a Creighton Scholar at the Creighton University School of Law and serves as a Youth Director at St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Omaha, Nebraska.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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