The classic trilogy written by J.R.R. Tolkien has been dissected countless times as people have sought to plumb its philosophical and theological depths. There have been volumes written on the world view presented by Tolkien, on the nature of good and evil, on the place of sacrifice and honor, on courage and fear, and a host of other things. What strikes me is that I have never seen anything that deals with the nature of community or what the Bible calls fellowship. What surprises me about this is that the first book in the trilogy is called, “The Fellowship of the Ring”. So that got me thinking, “What can we learn about fellowship or community from the writings of Tolkien?”
One of the most striking things that I get from the book when it comes to community is that real community requires forgiveness. It requires forgiveness even in the face of the most painful of trespasses. There are two instances where this truth is revealed. One is in the betrayal and death of Boromir and the other is the friendship that develops over time between Gimli the Dwarf and Legolas the Elf.
Nine very diverse characters set out on a journey that will seal the fate of the world. They must take a magic ring to a distant volcano and throw it in so that it, and the evil that inhabits it, will be destroyed. Failure to do so will mean that evil will, in all likelihood, dominate the world and destroy all men. The evil of the ring is alive and it tempts people to make use of it. It deceives people into thinking that they can use the power of the ring for good when in fact the power of the ring will use them for evil. The warrior Boromir falls to this temptation. He thinks that if he can take the ring from Frodo, the bearer of the ring, then he can use its power to save his people. His attempt to take the ring fractures the fellowship. When Boromir quickly realizes his error, his sin against the others, he repents to the point of his own death while protecting the two Halflings, Merry and Pippin. The surviving members of the fellowship could have easily remained bitter towards the dying Boromir. As a result of his attempt to take the ring it looks as if their mission will fail. But instead they give him compassion and forgiveness and honor him in death.
For Gimli and Legolas the issue runs far deeper. Their two races have been suspicious of one another for generations. Past clashes and betrayals and misunderstandings have built a huge wall of division between two peoples who once were allies. During the course of their journey and their life and death struggles together, these two mismatched characters become the closest of friends, willing and ready to die for one another. It is truly a demonstration of the words of Jesus, “greater love has no man than this, that he lays down his life for his friends”. Gimli and Legolas become that kind of friend to one another because they learn to forgive and to trust.
In both cases forgiveness does not come easy or cheap. In order to forgive Boromir the group had to recognize that they could have just as easily come under the tempting spell of the ring. They understood the truth of the proverb, “There but for the grace of God, go I”. Looking deep into your own soul and seeing your own short-comings and even brokenness is not a pleasant exercise. But it must be done if we are to have the strength and motivation to forgive others. In the case of Legolas and Gimli they both had to admit their own sin and repent of it. They both had to acknowledge that they were wrong about the other and that their actions and attitudes were wrong. They had to in some way reject generations of heritage that they were raised in, rejecting the things taught them by their own people. Any one of those things is a painful task. To have to do all of it seems nearly impossible.
There is a part of me that wonders if some measure of the popularity of Lord of the Rings isn’t to be found in our unexpressed longing for community and fellowship like that of Tolkien’s characters. Somehow there is a recognition that we are far too alone and isolated, our relationships are too shallow. We long for a world of relationships where people do forgive one another and they do sacrifice for one another and the do love one another to the point of ultimate sacrifice. Ever since Adam and Eve and the division that sin brought into human/divine relationships, we have had this ache in our souls for real community. How wonderful is it that Jesus promises to restore those relationships through the cross and by faith. The Cross opens the door for them, but we must be willing to do the hard work of forgiving others because we too have been forgiven. The Holy Spirit gives us the true power that we need in order to face our own sin and forgive the sin of others.