Monday, April 1, 2013

Tolkien and the religious significance of water

We talked in class before about the special place of water in Tolkien's world. "And it is said by the Eldar that in water there lives yet the echo of the Music of the Ainur more than in any substance else that is in this Earth; and many of the Children of Ilúvatar hearken still unsated to the voices of the Sea, and yet know not for what they listen."

I was reminded of this during the Easter Vigil mass, in the prayer of blessing for the baptismal water: 

"O God, whose Spirit
in the first moments of the world's creation hovered over the waters,
so that the very substance of water
would even then take to itself the power to sanctify;

"O God, who by the outpouring of the flood
foreshadowed regeneration,
that from the mystery of one and the same element of water
would come an end to vice and a beginning of virtue..."

I was confused by the water stuff before, so this was helpful to me, especially the part about the flood, and flooding's connection with sanctification. We've got some flooding in Tolkien, after all. I thought of  Númenor, of course, and Isengard, and the river Bruinen with the Ringwraiths.

These are all washings away of evil. Are there others like them? Even more I'm interested in any places where water is not helpful for the good guys.The Watcher in the Water is maybe problematic. What is that thing about?

3 comments:

Ashley Cauley said...

I think it depends on the inherent goodness of the water. Not all water in Tolkien's world is good or helpful. Frodo and Sam are warned not to drink any water coming from the Morgul Vale, and in "The Hobbit" the dwarves are warned to not drink from the river in Mirkwood. I think the water that is described in "The Silmarillion" is good because it is untainted and pure. All the instances where water is a hindrance to the forces of good have water that is somehow tainted by evil therefore it is no longer pure.

Lorin said...

This is interesting, Richard! It really helps me understand where Tolkien as a Catholic was coming from with all the water imagery. I think Ashley makes a good point - it depends on the inherent goodness of the water, or whether or not evil has somehow tainted it. To take that idea of tainting to a larger level, it seems to me that almost anything in Middle-earth can be taken and corrupted in some way: water, Elves into orcs, Men, of course, into Ringwraiths, even Melkor into a fallen Vala - and probably a whole lot more than I can't think of right now. I know this is a bit off topic for this post, but Middle-earth seems to have a sort of Christian, fallen world worldview, where almost anything can be used for evil - even something that was originally meant to do something so good, such as water echoing the Music of the Ainur.

sworland said...

Richard, you have no idea how much help you just gave me for my paper. Haha. And I think the point about the "bad" water is valid. But I was looking into it, and oftentimes this evil water is described and portrayed differently. For example, the pool that contains the Watcher in the Water is described as a "dark still lake" that has a "sullen surface" and an "ominous" feel (Fellowship p. 338). In the Dead Marshes, "mists curled and smoked from dark and noisome pools" (Towers p. 258). The stream in the Morgul Vale is silent and gives off poisonous vapors (Towers p. 353). The Enchanted River in Mirkwood is described as black, as well.

So Lorin, I totally agree with you! Even the way Tolkien describes these "evil" waters portrays their corruption: they are silent, muted from the Song of Iluvatar, and they are dark, devoid of his light.