Why can I adore Arthur, but root for Belvedere?
As a child I wanted Arthur to be best at everything and was frustrated when he (obviously) was not the greatest knight in his kingdom. He certainly could not defeat Lancelot or any number of other knights of the Round Table. One day it dawned on me: Arthur was the King, not a mere knight. He fought well, but at his best was not a man of action, but a living icon of Britain. Arthur was king, truly king, and so came to be incarnate Britain.
This is beyond the hero to the archetype: an image so accurate we can only bow our heads and venerate. The perfect Icon need do nothing (though often he or she will) to earn our praise.
As a result, King Arthur can be venerated and adored, but cannot be a chum. In the versions of his myth where he is good, Arthur is beyond our friendship and judgment. His burden is to be king and because he is really king, not just in the power, but the responsibilities, Arthur is beyond us. He is not our hero, Arthur is the hero of the Britains and even my British great-greats could not claim to be Britain. Of course, the great man was humble and so would serve any person. He was not too good to do so, he was so good he had to do so. Yet, even if he cloaked his glory, his power, his magnificence, there would come a moment when you realized the strange knight aiding you was . . . Arthur, king and founder of the Round Table.
Galahad was even greater, if that is possible. He was born for The Grail and a vision that was beyond mere heroism and bordered on divinity. Galahad was, so far as a human can be, without stain or blemish. He won fights, did great deeds, but Galahad is so far beyond us that he cannot be our hero.
I thought of this because a former graduate student of some brilliance sent me some trenchant thoughts about Tolkien as his hero:
A quick question for you, good professor, for whenever you’re sitting on the loo and looking for something to think about – I mentioned earlier that Tolkien is my ‘personal hero’. Some Christians in the peanut gallery might chide and say ‘Your hero should be Jesus’. I wonder about that. Jesus is The Hero, but he’s also My King. I don’t relate as well to Aragorn as I do to Bilbo. Am I supposed to relate to Jesus, or does he occupy an elevated status wherein its acceptable to worship the king but venerate a more grounded figure, like Tolkien, as one’s hero? Whaddya think?
Much good reading and thinking takes place, if we are honest, on the loo, though this also reminds us of the nature of most of our thoughts: some good, mostly flushable. Perhaps in that tradition, I consider Jesus as hero and think that, in the end, He transcends the category. If Jesus applied for the job of “our hero,” He would be over qualified. When we think “my hero” Jesus, we are are on the road to being right, but too limited.When we think, our Hero, then we have found the Truth. Jesus passes our judgments, but then transcends them.
Once I was at a Rochester Lancers soccer game, with my high school coach, enjoying a professional match. One player kept being fouled by the Lancers and finally drew a yellow card. “Ha!” I said in judgment until my coach explained just who Pele was and how far beyond my ability, my comprehension of the game, and the skill of the Lancer’s players. He had been fouled the entire game and had finally lost his cool. My coach said that this was wrong, but that in general Pele was a player so sublime as to be beyond my judgement.
And so he was.
Pele came closer to being soccer than to being a soccer hero . . . At least to North American fans of football. The rest of the game as I watched him play (even as an older man), I saw that he was beyond my judgment. I could root, root, root for the Lancers, but I respected Pele.
There must have come a time for Peter, John, and the other apostles when their friend because the very Son of God. They would love Him enough to die for him (by the end of their lives), but He finally was revealed to be King of Kings and Lord of Lords. You can be the King’s Friend, but that is not at all the same as being pals with your neighbor. The King remains the King, even when he is in your power as David discovered with Saul.
God is not our hero, God is our beginning and our end. God need merely be to be worthy of worship: all Good, all Truth, all Beauty. We cannot cheer God on, because God cannot lose. We merely bow the knee and acknowledge the lordship of goodness, truth, and beauty.
God is not my hero: God is God.
So my former student is (as is often the case) quite right: one wishes to have tea and seed cake with Bilbo, but hopes to be rescued by Aragorn son of Arathorn.
Tolkien is a m0st excellent image of the Image of God. As a result, he is not as intensely good, true, and beautiful as the Lord Jesus Christ. We must come to Jesus, but Tolkien can help. We are not the Apostles and so do not have the ability to share wine with Jesus. We cannot see Him as the interesting carpenter from Nazareth. We know too much now.
We see Him as the Carpenter of Galilee and so much more this side of Pascha.
Tolkien, veteran, married man, academic, normalperson can be venerated. Jesus must be worshipped. Heroes are objects of veneration.
Our hero must be twice removed from God. Jesus is God and man: fully God, fully man. Arthur, Aragorn are imagines so close to the Divine they move beyond us: fully man, fully like God. Bilbo or blessed Samwise are good, images of God, but images of the best images. Thank God.
We can see JRR Tolkien and know he is smarter, braver, better at life than we are, but not so much better as to become an icon. Tolkien is a very good choice for hero of this age!