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Matthew Dickerson: Advent, waiting and origins of Middle Earth

Today — the day this column is published — is the final day of Advent 2020. If the world doesn’t end tonight, tomorrow morning it will be Christmas.
In the Narnia stories of C.S. Lewis, Father Christmas makes an important appearance, delivering gifts to the four Pevensie children in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” By contrast, there is no explicit reference to Christmas in the famous Middle-earth writings of Lewis’s close friend J.R.R. Tolkien — not in “The Hobbit,” “The Lord of the Rings” or any other posthumously published Middle-earth stories. Nonetheless, Advent and Christmas played an important role inspiring Tolkien’s creation.
Christmas, as readers know, is an important part of many cultures around the world. It has particular significance to Christians as the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, believed to be the creator God of the whole universe who takes human form and enters into his own creation in order to save the world. Some current Christmas traditions in our country also draw from Yule (winter solstice) celebrations of ancient Celtic religions. And of course many modern folk who practice neither Christianity nor the religions of druids still celebrate Christmas through decorating trees and exchanging gifts (and rewatching old holiday films, and drinking eggnog, and roasting chestnuts over open fires).
For many of us, the Christmas season hits like a sledgehammer the day after Thanksgiving when Black Friday pleads with us to start spending our money in a frantic consumerist orgy, and when radio stations trudge out all the old and new seasonal songs. Many Christians also recognize the season of Advent starting the fourth Sunday before Christmas and leading up to Christmas day. As a more explicitly religious season, Advent is less well-known in our culture. Advent is a time of waiting. It is a time of hope and expectation, but that hope must be held onto in the midst of hardship, loss, pain and suffering. Advent is a time when we look forward to a light, the coming of dawn, but we do so while waiting in darkness. I actually sit writing this column a few days before you will be reading it, as we approach the longest night of the year when we must wait in darkness an especially long time before dawn breaks. (As such, Advent might be the perfect season to capture the whole 2020 year.)
As a passionate angler, and less passionate but still frequent hunter, I have experience with waiting. Early in the annual whitetail season, I am likely to arise at least two hours before dawn, and walk out into the woods in pitch darkness. I then climb up into a tree stand and wait for the light to dawn, hoping for the appearance not of Santa and some reindeer to drop down out of the sky, but for an ordinary native whitetail to emerge from the darkness of the thick brush at the edge of the clearing. Every November I spend hours up in trees, or sitting on the ground leaning against a tree, shivering in the cold, waiting.
Hope and anticipation is central to that time of waiting. I’ve often heard people say that catching fish is not important to the joy of angling. That’s only partly true. I take great joy standing in a river in a beautiful place casting flies in hopes of enticing a trout. I enjoy that experience whether I currently have a fish on my line or not. But only if I have some expectation that I might actually catch a fish. I’m willing to endure all sorts of discomfort as an angler — rain, snow, sleet, bitter wind, cold feet, wet socks, sore arms, long drives and in the pursuit of steelhead getting up hours before dawn to wait by a river on a cold winter day — as long as I have some expectation of actually catching something.
Tolkien was also inspired by something related to Advent (and thus also to Christmas), the Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey pointed this out in his book “J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century.” An Old English poem titled “Crist,” written in the 10th century by the poet Cynewulf, contains a line about a star named Éarendel that shines in the darkest night as a promise of the coming dawn. In the poem, Éarendel is a star, but also an angel, and also a metaphor for John the Baptist, who showed up in Israel shortly before the time of Jesus in order to prepare the way for him. Éarendel is therefore simultaneously a human, an angel, a star and a promise of hope for those waiting in darkness. What an intriguing concept! Or at least it was to Tolkien, who proceeded to spend much of his life writing a mythology and a series of stories and heroic legends centered around a character named Eärendil, who is the descendent of human and elf, and also of an angelic being, and who eventually rides a ship through the skis carrying on his brow a gem that shines as a star in the night sky. (For those readers familiar with Tolkien’s stories and characters, Eärendil is also the father of Elrond.)
Eärendil first appears in the sky as a beacon during one of the darkness moments in the history of Middle-earth, when all the great elven and human kingdoms have fallen to the powerful demonic character Morgoth, superior of Sauron, who has therefore enslaved nearly all of Middle-earth — not unlike the appearance of John the Baptist in ancient Israel at a time when the Jews were enslaved by Rome, in a generation when the puppet king of Israel had ordered all the male children to be killed in order to prevent the Christ from appearing. Or, from a broader perspective, it was a time when all the world was suffering from human sin and its consequences, in need of a savior to reconcile us to God and to one another.
OK. So my metaphor of waiting in darkness as a hopeful hunter or angler actually completely fails to capture the more somber reality. My waiting in darkness is always by choice, and always with the option of climbing down out of my stand and heading home for a hot cup of coffee by the fire. Not so the ancient Israelites at the time of John the Baptist, or the peoples of Middle-earth at the time of Eärendil.
I also said earlier that Tolkien (unlike C.S. Lewis) did not portray Christmas in his stories. That, also, is only partly true. When you realize how central a poem named “Crist” and a character representing John the Baptist were in inspiring Tolkien’s stories, it would be rather surprising if Christmas was not at least hinted at. And it is. In one of his posthumously published stories, but one he indicated was canonical to the myths of Middle-earth, Tolkien writes of a wise human woman named Andreth conversing with an elven king named Finrod (the wiser older brother of Galadriel). The conversation happens at the start of that really dark time before the appearance of Eärendil. The two characters discuss whether there is any hope for the peoples of Middle-earth. Andreth shares an old prophecy among humans that one day the Creator himself will enter into Middle-earth in order to save it. After pondering this for a moment, Finrod concedes that it’s a hard concept to understand, how an eternal infinite God could become a finite character within his own creation. However he goes to suggest that such a prophecy must after all be true, and worth placing hope in. For that powerful loving God will surely not allow Morgoth to win in the end, totally destroying the Creator’s beloved creation. And as strange as the concept seems, Finrod cannot conceive of another other way salvation can be accomplished other than the creator entering into creation and remaining simultaneously both the creator without and a creature within.
And so, like Finrod, I walk through this season of Advent — this time of waiting in darkness — still clinging to hope. Even on this, the darkness night of the year, I believe dawn will break. There will be a Christmas morning.

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