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Lance Nixon on the Pentecostalism of Tolkien’s Inspired Heroes
An odd thing happens to Samwise Gamgee on the journey toward Mordor. Defending his wounded master, Frodo, from the attack of the giant spider Shelob, Sam is all but certain that he is going to die. Then a thought comes to him “as if some remote voice had spoken,” and Sam takes up the Phial of Galadriel, the gift of the elf queen, and speaks her name out loud. J. R. R. Tolkien goes on to say in The Two Towers:
And then his tongue was loosed and his voice cried in a language which he did not know:
“A Elbereth Gilthoniel
o menel palan-diriel,
le nallon sí di’nguruthos!
A tiro nin, Fanuilos!”
At that point, Sam finds the resolve he so desperately needs. It’s the second such incident that Tolkien puts into The Two Towers. Only a few pages earlier, Frodo also cries out in what is for him an unknown tongue at the moment when he also needs courage to face Shelob. As Tolkien tells it: “‘Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima!’ he cried, and knew not what he had spoken; for it seemed that another voice spoke through his, clear, untroubled by the foul air of the pit.”
Here Frodo Baggins, a rather well-to-do hobbit, and Sam Gamgee, a simple gardener, have both experienced in Middle-earth something like the Pentecostal/charismatic spirituality that is familiar to perhaps a quarter of the world’s Christians. To put it another way: During the first decade of the twenty-first century, the number of Pentecostals in the world stood at somewhere between 400 million and 525 million people—and two hobbits. And odd as it may seem, a close reading of Tolkien can reveal something about this kind of Christianity.
The Mystical Torch
Pentecostalism emphasizes the New Testament charisms that the Apostle Paul believed the Holy Spirit distributed to build up the body of Christ, including speaking in tongues, interpretation of tongues, a word of wisdom, a word of knowledge, gifts of faith, healing, and miracles.
Defying attempts to define it doctrinally, Pentecostalism is a movement primarily concerned with the experience of the Holy Spirit and the practice of spiritual gifts within a vast range of Christian denominations and doctrinal persuasions. Although it might not be readily apparent, it is also concerned with a theological and philosophical issue: Who hears from God? Who speaks for God? How does this take place? And what language, as we know it, could possibly contain God, who is revealed as the Word, yet who remains in some way utterly Other?
Harvey Cox places Pentecostals within an old tradition of writers and mystics who understand the inadequacy of language. Cox cites Susan Sontag’s observation in an essay some decades ago about “something like a perennial discontent with language” in major civilizations both East and West, and her assessment that “the antecedents of art’s dilemmas and strategies are to be found in the radical wing of the mystical tradition.” Sontag blasts her religious contemporaries for being too timid to take up this fight, suggesting that in our day, it is artists, not religious mystics, who carry on this grappling with language. But Cox points out that Sontag has overlooked Pentecostals:
[I]t is not surprising that she did not think of tongue speaking as a possible exception. Pentecostalism was not as widespread or visible when she wrote the essay in 1967, and in any case, because of the social crevasse that separates them, few high-culture writers ever come in contact with Pentecostals. But the case could be made that it is precisely this ragtag religion from across the tracks that is now bearing the mystical torch with the most vigor and carrying on the insights of the very same mystics Sontag discusses.
Let God Speak
The episodes of tongue-speaking hobbits in Middle-earth correlate with Pentecostal experiences. Frodo and Sam Gamgee find the courage and strength they need to confront evil after speaking in Elvish, a tongue they’ve never learned. In a similar way, Pentecostals and charismatics feel they are strengthened by praying in tongues.
This is not merely Pentecostal experience dictating theology. Rather, Pentecostals cite Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14:2–4: “For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit. . . . He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself.” Pentecostals also read Jude’s advice to be “building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost,” as an exhortation to pray in tongues. From tongues comes spiritual strength.
Tolkien scholar Ralph Wood notes that Frodo and Sam seem especially devoted to the angelic, mercy-bearing figure of Elbereth, also known to the elves as Gilthoniel. “This queen of the valar seems to be praying through them as much as they are praying to her,” Wood writes. “To use the language of the New Testament, it is as if—the Hobbits being unable to pray as they ought—the Spirit were interceding for them.” Indeed, as Tolkien himself says of Frodo, “it seemed that another voice spoke through his.”
Yet Tolkien writes that Frodo also “knew not what he had spoken,” which means more than mere ignorance of the language. University of Pennsylvania researchers reported in late 2006 that, in a fashion similar to what the hobbits experience, praying with glossolalia is a different kind of activity than speaking with conventional language. Brain scans of five Pentecostal women in the act of speaking in tongues showed that their frontal lobes, or that part of the brain through which people control what they do, were relatively quiet, and so were the language centers. Yet the regions involved in maintaining self-consciousness were active—that is, the women were not in trances, but they were not processing language in the same way as usual.
Frodo is not in a trance, either; yet it is as though someone else, not he, is speaking through him to confront the evil that he faces—similar to what the Pennsylvania researchers describe as “perceived loss of intentional control” in glossolalia.
Dr. Andrew B. Newberg, leader of the study team that did the research, was quoted in the New York Times (November 7, 2006) as noting that brain images supported the study participants’ interpretation of what was happening: “The way they describe it, and what they believe, is that God is talking through them.”
Crisis & Worship
Sam and Frodo are in dire circumstances when their tongue-talking episodes occur. However this happened to fit Tolkien’s story line, it also fits with what sociologists have found about glossolalia. The scholars H. Newton Malony and A. Adams Lovekin cite a number of studies from the 1960s and 1970s in which there is broad agreement that those who experience glossolalia are often in crisis at the time the experience first occurs. Just as with Frodo and Sam, it is at those times that the inability of language to manage the complexity of life is fully revealed and the believer finds he must reach outside of language.
Perhaps there is a similar crisis of communication that goes on routinely when believers approach the ineffable God to offer praise and worship. In his 1994 book Word and Spirit at Play: Towards a Charismatic Theology, the Dutch theologian Jean-Jacques Suurmond alludes to the nineteenth-century enthusiast Edward Irving’s overlooked observation that the gift of tongues is an implicit criticism of any language that tries to “capture” God.
Here might be an explanation for some Pentecostal practices such as dancing and lying face down, and such expressions as lifting, waving, and clapping of hands. The believer may simply be grappling with the inadequacy of language to convey all he wants to say to God. A Pentecostal who jumps or dances or lifts his hands to God or falls face down is using his body in the same way that he uses glossolalia—as an instrument to play notes that do not exist on the verbal keyboard that he’s been given.
In a letter in October 1958, Tolkien notes that “Sam’s invocation” is in the style and meter of an Elvish hymn fragment the epic includes earlier, although Sam’s speech is “composed or inspired for his particular situation” and, in the crisis of the moment, the meter and style of what he is saying are probably the very least of his concerns.
Sam’s unawareness of using an ancient meter is also an echo of Pentecostal practice. For though Pentecostals are blissfully unaware of having liturgies, the dean of Pentecostal studies, W. J. Hollenweger, finds that they do. Pentecostals are simply unaware that their “services” often follow a historical pattern of Invocation, Kyrie, Confession, Gloria, Eucharistic Canon, and Benediction. God might be aware of it, but Pentecostals are not, when they meet to appeal for aid and offer worship.
In Tolkien’s epic, glossolalia is a phenomenon that befalls hobbits—not mighty leaders of men such as Boromir and Aragorn, nor even the learned and powerful wizard, Gandalf—but hobbits. They are “halflings,” who at first glance do not seem likely to make a great difference in Middle-earth.
In socio-economic terms, hobbits have their counterparts in the make-up of early twentieth-century Pentecostals. Suurmond might as easily have been speaking of hobbits when he described those who became part of the Pentecostal revival that spread outward from the Azusa Street meetings in 1906 in Los Angeles:
It was above all the “little folk” of this kind, in Scripture called the anawim, who seem to have been receptive to this movement of the Spirit. They belonged to the oppressed and those without possessions. They included many descendants of slaves, illiterate women and workers without a voice in society. In the revival they heard that at the heart of the universe there was a God who was concerned for them, concerned for the “little folk.” Often the playthings of impenetrable power structures, not noticed by anyone, here they encountered a God who “saw” them.
What would Tolkien have thought of the suggestion of historian Philip Jenkins that the most successful social movement of the twentieth century was not one of those headline-making movements like National Socialism or Communism, but Pentecostal Christianity with its wrong-side-of-the-tracks beginnings?
If Jenkins is right, then twentieth-century history corroborates the thought Tolkien expresses in an undated letter from about 1951. He remarks on “the motive (to become dominant in Hobbits) that the great policies of world history, ‘the wheels of the world’, are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak.” This is reminiscent of the Virgin Mary acclaiming, “He hath exalted those of low degree” (Luke 1:52), as she reflects on becoming the bearer of God the Word.
While the Elvish prayers give Sam and Frodo strength, the weapon that helps Sam survive and triumph is a gift, the Phial of Galadriel. Galadriel is, of course, female, but one of the most powerful figures in Tolkien’s epic.
Pentecostalism, similarly, recognizes and makes good use of women’s gifts. Harvey Cox is probably correct when he says that Pentecostalism is “unthinkable” without women. Starting with figures such as Lucy Farrow, a black woman who was in at the ground floor of the Azusa Street revival in 1906, and Aimee Semple McPherson, the outrageous and colorful founder of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, women have had a powerful prophetic voice in Pentecostalism.
In Tolkienesque terms, Pentecostalism sees in every woman an elf queen. As a Roman Catholic, Tolkien might have been sympathetic to the idea that in the prophetic activities at the heart of Pentecostalism, there are echoes of Mary’s piety. For what is the prophetic element that is so powerful in the Bible, if not the ability to conceive and give birth to the words God would say? Sam and Frodo would understand. •
• The University of Pennsylvania study, by Andrew B. Newberg, Nancy A. Wintering, Donna Morgana, and Mark R. Waldman, was published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging 148 (2006) 67–71.
• Harvey Gallagher Cox, Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the 21st Century (Da Capo Press, 2001).
• Walter J. Hollenweger, The Pentecostals (Hendrickson Publishers, 1988).
• Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford Univ. Press, rev. & updated, 2007).
• H. Newton Malony and A. Adams Lovekin, Glossolalia: Behavioral Science Perspectives on Speaking in Tongues (Oxford Univ. Press, 1985).
• David Martin, Pentecostalism: The World Their Parish (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008).
• Jean-Jacques Suurmond, Word and Spirit at Play: Towards a Charismatic Theology (Eerdmans, 1995).
Lance Nixon is an information editor at South Dakota State University in Brookings, where he and his wife Ruth homeschool their five children.