Tuesday, December 21, 2004


Someone pointed out that the theme of The Lord of the Rings is death. Tolkien throws mortality into stark relief through the presence of immortals. Galadriel, who is older than the sun itself, and Elrond, younger but still immortal, preserve their way of life through the power of the Elven Rings. But these rings also hold the threat of their destruction, because they are bound to the One Ring. Faced with this choice, they surrender their way of life, and their civilization fades from Middle Earth. In order to save life itself, they submit to mortality. Though they do not die, they are forced to return to the Undying Lands. Their life in Middle Earth ends.

Tolkien has hit on something essential here; the tragedy, and necessity, of mortality. Immortality brings a certain inflexibility, an attachment to old ways whose time has past. If these ways are preserved for too long, they become brittle, and snap with disastrous consequences. Death is necessary for renewal. Change is a continuous process of death and rebirth, and change is the only constant.

Against change we raise the bulwark of tradition, of continuity that defies change. "The King is dead; Long live the King!" In the very same breath, we accept change and deny it. We fear change and attempt to tame it; we measure and keep time, even serve it, in the hope of controlling it, parcelling it, make it march to a drum of our making. We form into social groups whose identites precede and survive us. By investing ourselves in these, we hope to participate in their immortality. Our most cherished institutions are housed in buildings whose architecture is reminiscent of ancient or medieval architecture. Banks are constructed to resemble classical architecture to provide the impression that they will weather time and economic vicissitudes. In rituals and ceremony we enact 'magic time', in which we occupy the same moment as generations who have practiced them before and generations to come who will perform them after us.

And yet, life itself is in revolt, by tearing down the old order through death and replacing it with a new order. Mortality is not a biological necessity. There are species that do not age, birds that can live for hundreds of years, crocodiles and turtles that simply continue to grow for decades or even centuries. But for a species as complex and adaptive as humans, immortality could prove disastrous. Each generation arises to question anew the assumptions of the old, sometimes only to reaffirm them, sometimes to modfy or throw them out altogether. It has been argued that scientific revolutions are generational, that it requires the old guard to die out in order for newer, better ideas to take hold. The same is true for ideas of social justice. Old prejudices linger, sometimes unspoken, but nevertheless entrenched and making themselves felt indirectly. And sometimes people will take full flight into a real or imagined past, clinging to ways and traditions disastrous in a modern world, hoping to deny time altogether. Usually this is done in the name of God, eternal, unchanging, and the Lord of Heaven, a realm untouched by time.

And yet, if you believe God is the Architect of this world, you must concede that He is the ultimate Rebel, who might answer, like Marlon Brando's character in The Wild One when asked what he is against: "What have you got?" To return to Tolkien, and one of Gollum's riddles to Bilbo:

This thing all things devours
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers
Gnaws iron, bites steel,
Grinds hard stones to meal,
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down!

The answer is Time. How likely is it that the Creator of time and the Architect of perpetual change would inhabit a realm as still and stagnant as a tomb, or desire anything like it on earth?