In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World, written by Jake Meador, points to a way to help us recognize common, good qualities in J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterworks. One might read Tolkien and find this communal quality throughout. We especially see the connection through his affection and satirical treatment of certain aspects of small rural communities. One might begin with the Shire where he starts his epic quest, The Lord of the Rings, yet there are other such places, with their own distinctions, in other areas of Middle-earth; we find them also in Tolkien’s short stories.
Before reading Meador’s book, I asked if I might receive a reading copy after learning that he had hoped to make more connections to The Lord of the Rings than his editors thought wise (as editors are wont from time-to-time). I began wondering if I might make these connections in an essay. Throughout my reading of In Search of the Common Good, I sought an entry beyond what was given (portentously) above. Then came the moment of his work’s culmination, where Meador goes deeply and with explication into the Judeo-Christian prophetic climax of our own epic story. He was laying out the pattern, but I was seeing it not only in our divinely told narrative; I was seeing it in Tolkien’s legendarium through its exploratory presentation.
Meador’s own search in narrative form begins with his family and town in Nebraska. It begins locally with personal history and personal community upheld against a larger background of collapsing local American life. Now passing are seasons of church and common traditions, previously enfolding friendship and family life. Meador writes of the ancient and prophetic “biblical pattern of God’s people entering a season of unrepentant sin,” only to awaken from that season of spiritual sleep in severe judgment. “There is ample reason to believe that the American church is entering such a season.” He tells us that we may look good, even great, but have “been hollowed out by decades of poor catechesis and an alarming tendency to choose worldly fads instead of Christian discipline.” In connection, he references Revelation 3:17, “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” In The Hobbit, with the attack of the dragon, Smaug, we find a reshaping of small town community in Lake Town (Esgaroth). We find how this community is dealt by, and deals with, this catastrophe. Esgaroth’s master soon flees, leaving those willing to defend it. “‘He may have had a good head for business — especially his own business,’ some murmured, ‘but he is no good when anything serious happens!’” In the aftermath of the dragon’s destruction, petty corruption itself is corrected.
As members in the community of Christ’s body, we each have our part to play in redemption of communal life. Individuals may be called into politics, while being members of His body, and that is where they serve God according to conscience enlivened by the Holy Spirit. Christian legislators would not agree to craft usury laws for enrichment of a few at the expense of the common person. Further on in his book, Meador gives an example of payday loans which ought to be fully confronted by legislative conscience. In my own State of Maine, the law requires people to lose their homes for nonpayment of taxes, and this has led to a form of sanctioned cronyism causing the elderly to lose their homes without due process. Since this came to light, legislation has been modified with merciful qualifiers.
Meador’s book is also filled with homelike qualities embodied in everyday acts such as eating, place-making, and telling good, plain familial stories connecting us to our shared values. We find this in depictions of Shire communities and in Bree, a travelers’ hub at the intersection of the Greenway and the East Road. Through concepts like meaning, wonder, good work, membership, Sabbath, civic virtue, and “The Eternal City,” Meador references many good books that contributed to his thoughts in this search for communal good. Meador tells us a bit of his history — amazing and enlivened by his salty and surprising family. This book’s relational episodes show redemption by the very filial qualities of common good, and he invokes Middle-earth’s tales in support of these stories.
As a reader and writer of fantasy, I was glad to see, among the many practical and theological works referenced, a paragraph on the climax of The Lord of the Rings. Just prior to the relief we feel at quest’s end above the molten fire on a mountainside, we receive a felt “taste” of the common good in Sam Gamgee’s endeavor to rouse Frodo, the exhausted Ring-bearer. No viewer of the epic films can forget what happens on the quaking sides of Mount Doom. Frodo is asked “if he remembers the taste of strawberries and cream, the sound of water, the beauties of spring in their part of home, the Shire.”
The common good is expressed in various ways in Tolkien’s fashioned insights, lands, characters, rural communities, people-groups, and his own labors: works that the master sub-creator and world-builder was able to lay at the feet of his Lord. Being long familiar with Tolkien’s stories, I had not seen the biblical patterns and applicability, allusive biblical fan fiction if you will, in Tolkien’s great body of work as clearly as I do now. I did, however, have an inkling previously that I might be able to outfit a connection for the Shire in a response. But even then, I was not thinking of the cleansing of the Shire, as alluded to in Meador’s book, but solely of the homely and commonplace Shire itself. Cleansing the Shire, however, rooted out corruption inspired by greed and an alien influence.
In Tolkien’s masterworks we see corrupt lands under moral judgment being destroyed by fire and flood; mainly great oceanic floods of Arda. But, where anthropomorphic Powers related to fire are concerned, volcanic eruption is the telling and appropriate response consuming the locus or token of power — as when the Ring is destroyed in Third Age Mordor. In the First Age, Morgoth’s volcanic Angband is broken and destroyed, though it too came under The Wave. One of Fëanor’s stolen Silmarils went into the fire, a token formerly burnishing Morgoth’s power.
Sometimes, in his stories, “The Wave” is referenced by characters, as when Men or Elves recall lands “under The Wave.” The first such coming to mind is Beleriand, and lands to north and south, in the First Age of Middle-earth portrayed in The Silmarillion. Referencing Al Wolters’ Creation Regained, Meador points out the verse in 2 Peter 3:10 where such judgment is like that “visited on the earth in the Genesis flood.” It is also noted that Peter says the earth was destroyed in the flood, but, relating to the common good, destroyed does not mean what we might think in applying it to our own coming judgment.
Neither did The Wave destroy in that manner. The lands were submerged. In Noah’s flood the waters receded, revealing destruction, but waters do not recede in the stories of Middle-earth, where the island kingdom of Númenor, in the Second Age, is also a legendary land long under The Wave. Two separate judgments, both inspired by earth’s legendary Atlantis, but also Genesis in a swift turn of biblical fan fiction (my references are to allusive, not straightforward, fan fiction). Tolkien is not straightforwardly copying biblical people, places and events. Rather, he has been immersed in medieval, classical, and mythic literature. He creatively refreshes, or shapes and sub-creates, his legendarium — settings both within and without Middle-earth — because of his grateful and learned saturation in these literary worlds, including the testaments of scripture.
As the Christian believes, if there is to be a passage through fire and flood in our epic story, its purpose — Meador assures us — is a purification of individual and place. It is purification of culture, institutions, and manner-of-life — not a destruction to nothing. An onslaught of dragons, as found throughout Tolkien’s works, is meant for our good. We are not going back to the void. Our works meant to glorify God will survive in a redeemed and redemptive form. We, as a nation, will be judged, as all nations are judged, by the way we have treated His earth and others made in the image of God. Death will bring us to the judgment seat but the destruction and material — not spiritual — disintegration of death plays out before we get there. Make no mistake: “We hope for the world because we know God loves it.”
Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle” tells the story of an artist named Niggle deeply engaged with Creation. He sees, studies nature, is immersed, and is elated that such a thing as a Tree exists. Niggle wants to express his response through a sub-creation — a painting of a single leaf. His absorption and participation in this act take him deeper into God’s creation and have him expanding his own artistic expressions in an extravagant and detailed ongoing painting of an entire tree. Along the exhilarating chase, he is called away by various duties in the local parish and especially to his lame neighbor who happens to be named Parish. The artist is very disheartened when he hears his neighbor imply that Parish’s own leaking, storm-damaged roof might be patched with Niggle’s canvas!
It should be mentioned that one of this artist’s distractions from his working passion is the niggling sense that he should prepare for a journey he does not necessarily want to take. Reread this story to understand better subconscious pressures of one’s inevitable death coupled with the needs of the community in a refreshing way. Then relate it our coming judgment and to the cleansing of the Shire. Surprisingly, it also reveals the ways in which stewards, local town officials, fail in their duties to neighbors and to the Glory of God. Local stewardship fails in its lack of obedience to conscience when a town councilor schemes to get the rest left behind. God’s glory — which alone saves — has no pleasure in the death of the unrepentant fallen and is indeed glorified even in our sin.
Tolkien refreshes our understanding of community in stories, even the little, great stories such as “Leaf by Niggle,” “Farmer Giles of Ham,” or Smith of Wooton Major. Reading Jake Meador’s In Search of the Common Good makes me realize again the value of little and local in these stories. Some of us are wondering about our own metaphoric journey preparations and apprehensive over passing on our magic stars. Meador writes, “This is why in Revelation the eternal city is described as descending to the earth. We are not taken out of creation and brought into heaven,” but God’s dwelling place “comes down to earth as God comes to dwell with his people.” In a reversal of C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, we will know those who have helped us in a way that is heavenly and holy in their descent to us with a shout from the mouth of our Lord — and the sounding trumpet of a revelatory age and life. The community of His body will be there, entire.
Meador provides a reminder that the gifts of creative persons may be set at God’s feet, knowing that it was He Himself helping us create, breathing into us always the breath of life and then removing this breath from its initial frame of weakness, moral fallenness, and dissolution. He restores it to us through his redemptive sacrifice and resurrection in which we share.
You might read Meador’s In Search of the Common Good. He began this search while crafting the story of his close ancestry with its astonishing hopes and strength of victory over desolation and familial harm. The culmination is filled, for me, with the tree of life. And I think of Niggle’s own tree in Tolkien’s story, “Leaf by Niggle,” and of the King’s Tree in the novella, Smith of Wooton Major. We are fortunate to be readers empathetic to his life story through his willingness to tell it and tell it well.
S. Dorman, “The Common Good in Tolkien’s Rural Communities,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 1. (Spring 2020), 129-140.
“Senate unanimously passes bill to protect seniors from foreclosure,” Maine Senate Democrats, September 17, 2018, accessed February 9, 2020, http://www.mainesenate.org/senate-unanimously-passes-bill-to-protect-seniors-from-foreclosure/.