Friday, October 8, 2010

Bilbo's Nunc Dimittis

"Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him" (Luke 2:25).

Consolation.  Tolkien writes of consolation in his epic work, On Fairy Stories.  "But the “consolation” of fairy-tales has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy story.  Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function." (Tolkien, On Fairy Stories).

Failure to understand this work of Tolkien results in failure to understand the majority, if not the corpus, of his life's work.  Recovery, Escape and Consolation.  It is consolation that unites the Song of Simeon - the Nunc Dimittis for all you Latin and/or liturgical experts out there - and Bilbo's Last SongBilbo's Last Song has been called the epilogue to the great Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Perhaps that is a fitting description.  However, Bilbo's song is much more than an epilogue haphazardly tacked on in a posthumously published book.  It summarizes the sum and substance of the hope of middle-earth, namely, the Undying Lands and the journey that leads one there.  Therein lies the correlation between the Song of Simeon and Bilbo's song: hope, consolation.  In this harmony of song, however, one must distinguish tale from history, story from reality, fantasy from non-fiction.  To accomplish such is to read Tolkien's work as he intended.  That is to say, to read the fairy story knowing that it is based in the world of "primary art" (the real world) as he says in Fairy Stories.  And yet, there are not only literary, but theological crossroads between these two songs.  Perhaps Tolkien had the Nunc Dimittis in mind when he wrote this, perhaps not.  Either way, the former helps you understand the latter.  

It had been revealed to Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Lord's Christ, the Messiah, the Promised One.  And when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple on the 8th day (no coincidence by the way), Simeon took the Christ child in his arms and sang a song of faith.  A song that we too sing as we hold Christ in our own hands, as He comes to us in His own flesh and blood of the supper.  For Simeon, it is safe to die.  Here is consolation incarnate.  Here is Jesus in the flesh and blood of His own humanity. for you.  Now, we - like Simeon of old - may depart in peace according to His Word as we await the consolation of the Last Day and the hope of the new creation, God's truly Undying Lands.  Which is why we join Simeon in this song of faith.

"Lord now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my own eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of Your people Israel" (Luke 2:29-32).

In Bilbo's song, he sings a sorrowful farewell to middle-earth and yet a joyful anticipation of reaching the shores of the West.  This is where the elves are headed in LOTR and in the Return of the King this is where the book draws to an end, as Bilbo boards the ship.  Bilbo is departing in peace; his eyes will soon see the salvation of the Undying Lands.  There is nothing left for him but to die in peace and yet he dies to live for the road goes ever on.  Here is Bilbo's Last Song:

Day is ended,
dim my eyes,
but journey long
before me lies.
Farewell, friends!
I hear the call.
The ship beside
the stony wall.
Foam is white
and waves are grey;
beyond the sunset
leads my way.
Foam is salt,
the wind is free;
I hear the rising of the sea.
Farewell, friends!
The sails are set,
the wind is east,
the moorings fret.
Shadows long
before me lie
beneath the
ever-bending sky.
But islands lie
behind the Sun
that I shall raise
ere all is done;
Lands there are to west of West,
where night is quiet and sleep is rest.
Guided by the Lonely Star,
beyond the utmost harbour-bar.
I'll find the havens fare and free,
and beaches of
the Starlit Sea.
Ship, my ship!
I seek the West
and fields
and mountains
ever blest.
Farewell to Middle-earth at last,
I see the Star
above your mast!

(J.R.R. Tolkien, Bilbo's Last Song, London: Hutchison Book, 1990)

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