One of Tolkien’s predominant characteristics was his minute attention to detail. From the Prologue to the Appendices, The Lord of the Rings is replete with scrupulous detail. Because he was so thorough in all of the particulars of his stories, a careful reader can learn a great deal of Tolkien’s mind and of his sub-creation.
In Appendix B, for instance, Tolkien provides “The Tale of Years,” a timeline of the Second and Third Ages of Middle-earth. It covers everything from births and deaths of important people to battles. Toward the end of the Third Age timeline, Tolkien delves into even more detail, reporting the dates of nearly all of the events of The Lord of the Rings. There are a couple of dates, in particular, that stand out to one who knows their significance.
The Beginning of the Fellowship
It was a cold grey day near the end of December. The East Wind was streaming through the bare branches of the trees, and seething in the dark pines on the hills. Ragged clouds were hurrying overhead, dark and low. As the cheerless shadows of the early evening began to fall the Company made ready to set out (FotR, 272).
The day the Fellowship set out from Rivendell is a significant day, both in the context of the story and in the history of Middle-earth. It is, in a sense, the beginning of the end of Sauron–and of the Third Age. The beginning of the end of the Elder Days and the pre-dawn before the Dominion of Men. Setting that event on a dreary day in late December seems an odd choice.
That is, until one learns the actual date of that day: December 25.
As a devout Catholic and a detail-oriented man, it’s safe to assume that this was not a coincidence. Without delving too deeply into the cultural and theological significance of celebrating the birth of Christ in December, there are a few things to note. Christ is the hope of the world, come to save mankind from their slavery to the darkness of sin. He comes into the world not in a blaze of light as a great warrior, as the ancient Jews expected, but rather as a helpless infant. He is born not to a king or a soldier, but to a humble carpenter. The Savior comes not in glory but in humility.
The parallels with the Fellowship are clear. They are the hoped-for saviors of Middle-earth, the ones who are trying to prevent the Free Peoples from becoming slaves to the Dark Lord. They set out on their quest, not with fanfare and cheers, but with quiet, sad good-byes. They are not a great army–few are even openly prepared for battle–but a small company. The most important of them all, the Ring-bearer, is a simple hobbit, not a royal man or an Elf. The saviors of Middle-earth set out not in glory but in humility.
The Ending of the Fellowship
While the departure of the Fellowship was an important day, the most important day in The Lord of the Rings–and probably in the Third Age–was the destruction of the One Ring on March 25.
This date also has great significance in Catholicism. In recent times, the Feast of the Annunciation occurs on March 25. In the ancient Church, Easter was celebrated on that day.
The Annunciation was when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that she was to be the mother of the Lord. She humbly accepted the task with the words, “Be it done unto me according to your word.” It was then that Jesus became an incarnate being for it was at her words that He was conceived.
Easter is when the Church celebrates the resurrection of Jesus from death. He has redeemed mankind from sin and triumphantly conquered death and corruption. Easter is the greatest celebration in the Church year, since it is the culmination of mankind’s salvation.
The parallel between the destruction of the Ring and the resurrection of Christ is fairly straight-forward. Good has triumphed over evil. The world is saved.
Comparing the destruction of the Ring to the Annunciation yields further insight. The Annunciation is the beginning of mankind’s salvation. God has stooped to become an incarnate being in order to save his creatures from their sin. On that day, the Infinite became finite–he became an embryo. As much of a miracle as that is, it is only the beginning. There is so much more for Jesus to do besides simply become incarnate. He must live His life and grow. He must preach to the people and save the lost sheep. He must be tortured and die on the cross. He must rise from the dead.
In the same way, the destruction of the One Ring is a miraculous event, a great achievement. But it is only the beginning. Aragorn must become king, if he survives the battle at the Black Gate. Middle-earth must be cleared of evil creatures. Men must forge alliances. There is so much more that the Free Peoples must achieve before their realize the hope of the Ring’s destruction.
All of this sounds like an allegorical reading of The Lord of the Rings, right? Tolkien wasn’t shy about his dislike of allegory. He said in one letter, “There is no ‘symbolism’ or conscious allegory in my story. Allegory…is wholly foreign to my way of thinking” (Letters, pg 262). this categorical statement must mean that pulling any meaning from the dates ascribed to events is to read the book in a manner its author never intended.
But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author. (Fellowship, XV).
Examining these dates is an example of applicability, not allegory. Tolkien certainly did not mean to claim that the act of the Fellowship setting out from Rivendell was representative or “the same as” Christ being born into the world. Nor did he intend to draw an equal sign between the destruction of the Ring and the resurrection of Jesus.
Rather, the knowledge of these events in the “real world” (outside of Middle-earth) can shed light on the events of the story.
Photo Credit: Dafne Cholet