Orcrist the Philistine-Cleaver

One of the difficulties in reading the Old Testament is an unconscious assumption of uniformity between their time and ours. Modern readers often assume that they shared the same doctrinal understandings, worldview/Weltanschauung,assumptions, or culture as we do today. This is not the case, and often contributes to difficulties of interpretation and understanding.1

The Old Testament worldview and cultural setting turns out to have much in common with Lord of the Rings.2 If you want to get a general feel for the world of the Old Testament, watching or reading Lord of the Rings approximates that foreignness in general, if not always in specific.

  • There are highly charismatic priestly/prophetic figures, who play various roles vis-à-vis the established governing powers. (Gandalf; various)
  • A king wandering from his kingdom, while someone else reigns in his place (Strider; David in Philistia)
  • More focus on extended family and genealogy (Can’t remember where this is in Lord of the Rings; general Old Testament, but see Josh 7:16-18 in particular for the family-clan-tribe structure.)
  • Related but conflicting kingdoms, which sometimes unite under pressure for military reasons. (Rohan/Gondor; Israel/Judah)
  • Ritual singing of funeral and other songs (Eowyn in The Two Towers; 2Sa 1:17, Eze 32:16, 2Chr 35:25)
  • Oral tradition- history, legend, stories passed on orally and in song. (Lord of the Rings in general; Deu 32, Exo 15, Judges 5)
  • Literacy was not widespread, but reading generally had little place in the day-to-day life of the average person. There were others, however, who were specialists, who kept or consulted records, often in multiple languages. (Gandalf in the white city; Old Testament scribes in general, 2Ki 18:26)
  • Kingship as the dominant political structure, along with its respectful 3rd person terminology of “my lord” and referring to oneself as “your servant.” (2Sa 9:11)
  • A “legendary” race of ancients with exceptionally long life (Numenor; Antediluvians, Sumerian king-list)
  • “Cross-breeding” among “species” with destructive results ( Orcs/Uruk-Hai; sons of God with daughters of men See Note 1 below)
  • Unusual or special objects which were particularly powerful, regarded as atypical, supernatural or talismanic in some ways, sometimes with particular military usage. (Ring, daggers, Elvish rope, palantirs; The Ark of the Covenant, Urim/Thummim)
  • Non-modern cosmology (this isn’t obvious from the films or the books, but there are entries on it on Lord of the Rings Nerdsites. As to the Old Testament, their cosmology was geocentric and varied in other ways as well. This post has a diagram.)
  • Non-modern weaponry necessitating close-range combat, with cavalry, melee and short-range weapons (bow/arrow, sling), siege machines (“Grond!”), etc.

My very limited understanding of Tolkien is that he read and drew many of his themes from Old English epic literature, Anglo-Saxon and Norse myths. Many of these list items may simply be tropes of ancient or epic literature or just a function of being non-technological in nature (as with the warfare), so it’s not the Old Testament they’re specifically related to.  Nevertheless, I think it’s fun to point these out and I suspect there are more. Are some of these comparisons overplayed due to misreading Tolkien on my part? Are there more to add to the list? What say ye?

Fn1With regards to interpreting Genesis 6, for example, “Initially interpreters did not balk at a mythological interpretation of the Bible because it coincided with their own worldview. Today interpreters do not balk at a mythological interpretation of biblical passages because they believe Israel’s worldview was little different from its neighbors. In the intervening period interpreters neither had a mythological worldview themselves, nor did they believe that the Bible represented such a worldview. Lacking correlation to either world, they rejected the identification.”- From “Sons of God, Daughters of Men” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch.

Fn2 Lots of low-hanging Photoshop fruit there. The gauntlet is hereby cast down.

7 comments for “Orcrist the Philistine-Cleaver

  1. August 28, 2011 at 9:43 pm

    I should go read LOTR. And the OT. I’d probably understand both a lot more!

  2. August 28, 2011 at 10:52 pm

    If you’re going to mention Orcrist in the title, you probably ought to add Glamdring and Sting, with a comparison to the Sword of Laban.

  3. Michael H.
    August 29, 2011 at 7:50 am

    In terms of non-typical cosmology, the interesting thing Tolkien pulls there is that Middle Earth (which is supposed to be the distant past of *our* world*) was originally *flat* – and not only that, but connected geographically with the “Undying Lands” of Valinor, where the Valar and the Maiar (basically angels/archangels that exercise their own or Eru/Iluvatar’s will in Middle Earth). However, the hubris of men who dared to invade the Undying Lands (the gift to men, as compared to elves, was to die – thinking of this as a gift has peculiar Mormon resonances) meant that Eru/Iluvatar/the one God intervened and unmade the world, physically removing Valinor and stretching the world into a ball! (All paths are bent, they say.) Men are the *cause* of the spherical earth.

    In addition, here you would get a sort of henotheism that might resemble the OT – there is the One God, but he rarely, RARELY acts himself; more often, he uses a messenger from the Valar and the Maiar (Melkor/Morgoth/the Great Enemy is of the former; Gandalf, Saruman, Radagast, and Sauron are of the latter) or even armies thereof to do his will.

    For ancestry you need look no farther than the Appendices (or certain parts of the Silmarillion). In fact, I think your comment comparing Aragorn or David might be a little skewed – certainly, in the context of Denethor refusing to give up his Steward’s throne to Aragorn, there is a more solid comparison to David/Saul, but perhaps more accurate a comparison would be various Messianic beliefs, that would predict the “return of the king” (of the true royal line, and who is righteous) after centuries of exile and decay.

    The point about interbreeding is a little inaccurate, too. While there are possible examples of half-orcs in Tolkien (The Scouring of the Shire), the origin of the orcs is reputed to lie in the deep past, when Morgoth captured, tortured and twisted elves until they formed the race of orcs.

    Most of the other comparisons, in my estimation, are just fine. Tolkien certainly gained a good bit of his mythic worldview from Northern European myth, but it must also be considered that he was a devout Catholic, and that worldview also pervaded (see Joseph Pearce’s book “J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth” for more).

    Another interesting bit of trivia is that the Numenorean and Dwarvish languages (Adunaic and Khuzdul, respectively) were both based on systems of triconsonantal roots, much like the Semitic languages – including Hebrew and Aramaic ;)

  4. Alan H.
    August 29, 2011 at 11:22 am

    Ben, I think that the LotR/Old Testament connection is a bit more complicated than that. On the one hand, Tolkien acknowledged to his friends that he conceived of LotR as a myth about a righteous pre-Christian people with some divine guidance but not the fulness of Christian revelation. As a result, there’s certainly nothing in LotR resembling an institutional church, or even organized religion.

    On the other hand, as you acknowledged, Tolkien’s expertise was in northern Europe, not the ancient near East, and his personal commitments and concerns were those of a very conservative Catholic deeply critical of modernity and all it entailed: industrialization, world wars, democracy, liberalized Catholic theology and liturgy, etc. (One small window into his personality: after Vatican II permitted mass in the vernacular, Tolkien would still loudly recite the lines in Latin while the people around him did it in English.)

    As a result, the worldview at work in LotR probably owes more to the medieval Catholic Europe than to the Old Testament. The political system is feudal, not tribal or imperial–the king of Rohan wasn’t just pressed into alliance with Gondor out of military need; rather, he was obligated as a vassal to come to Gondor’s aid as a condition of Gondor’s permission for his people, many generations back, to settle on Gondor’s land.
    Further, the lifestyle Tolkien portrays in the most positive light, that of hobbits in the shire, resembles nothing so much as an idealized free peasantry, still governed by the laws of a king whose dynasty they recognize as legitimate even though it has ceased asserting sovereignty over them and then ceased to exist. Think of Dante Alighieri’s yearning for the early days of the Holy Roman Empire and you’ve captured the basic flavor of the hobbits’ attitude toward the old kingdom.

    But despite all that, I think you’ve found a good starting point for helping people realize that, say, reading the Isaac/Rebekah story with modern ideas of courtship in mind makes about as much sense as asking what baseball team Merry and Pippin cheered for. The big stuff that people need to remember about people in the OT–they had no science or modern conveniences; they believed in magic; they lived (by modern standards) extremely close to the land, growing their own food and killing their own meat; they couldn’t have imagined modern liberal democracy, sexual equality, etc.–is definitely true of LotR characters as well. So the comparison is well worth making. :)

  5. August 29, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    Dave, ok, that was excellent as a comment.

  6. August 29, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    Alan, what about the fact that the manuscript basically arose in the back room of a bar?* Or that Tolkien is the person who converted C. S. Lewis to Christianity.

    *Ok, a pub, where he and C.S. Lewis and others went to compare and discuss their manuscripts. He never intended to publish LoTR, but he needed to have a book of his own to share and discuss.

  7. Alan H.
    August 30, 2011 at 9:23 am

    Stephen M, Tolkien spent his entire life working on his “legendarium,” as he called it: the set of invented languages, poems, stories, and other writings that comprise Middle Earth, which he began creating in 1917, long before he met C.S. Lewis or started reading his work to the Inklings at the pub. The Hobbit was written without publication in mind, but once it found its way to a publisher and got into print, it was a hit, and The Lord of the Rings was written when the publisher requested a sequel and (wisely) didn’t want to publish the mythological writings that Tolkien’s son Christopher would later turn into The Silmarillion.

    In any case, Tolkien was an extremely intelligent and religious man who reflected deeply on what it meant to create an imaginary world and what sort of moral and philosophical lessons he wanted his artificial mythology to embody. And those lessons reflect his antipathy toward the modern world, a world he described as run by orcs no matter where you looked–WWII Germany, the Soviet Union, the United States, and even his own beloved Shire, England.

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