Thinking on Pentecost, which comes up this weekend, I was struck in my reading of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers by a scene strangely reminiscent of what happened in the Upper Room. It is an event of power, of gifts, of spontaneity, and even of tongues.
In the middle chapter of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo the Ring-Bearer and his companion Samwise Gamgee have been led by the conflicted, often-conniving creature Gollum into the lair of a monster spider, Shelob. Frodo lies defeated, stung by Shelob’s needle. Sam must come to his defense. For their protectors are gone. They’re counselors are gone to other parts of Middle-Earth. For the moment, Frodo and Sam are alone—and facing death.
But Sam stands his ground. The last of his courage is summoned and he lifts the gift of the elves of Mirkwood, the Phial of Galadriel, which brings forth unspeakable light.
And then his tongue was loosed and his voice cried in a language which he did not know.
“A Elbereth Gilthoniel
o menel palan-diriel,
le nallon sí di’nguruthos!
A tiro nin, Fanuilos!”
And with that he staggered to his feet and was Samwise the hobbit, Hamfast’s son, again.
“Now come, you filth!” he cried. “You’ve hurt my master, you brute, and you’ll pay for it. We’re going on; but we’ll settle with you first. Come on, and taste it again!”
As if his indomitable spirit had set its potency in motion, the glass blazed suddenly like a white torch in his hand. It flamed like a star that leaping from the firmament sears the dark air with intolerable light. No such terror out of heaven had ever burned in Shelob’s face before. The beams of it entered into her wounded head and scored it with unbearable pain, and the dreadful infection of light spread from eye to eye. She fell back beating the air with her forelegs, her sight blasted by inner lightnings, her mind in agony. Then turning her maimed head away, she rolled aside and began to crawl, claw by claw, towards the opening in the dark cliff behind.
Sam came on. He was reeling like a drunken man, but he came on. And Shelob cowed at last, shrunken in defeat, jerked and quivered as she tried to hasten from him. She reached the hole, and squeezing down, leaving a trail of green-yellow slime, she slipped in, even as Sam hewed a last stroke at her dragging legs. Then he fell to the ground.
Tolkien was a Roman Catholic, not a Pentecostal. Not that one needs to be Pentecostal to enjoy and live in the light of Pentecost. Far from it! But it is worth noting that even in his fantastical world, Tolkien rarely made use of such magic as glossalia (speaking in tongues).
The scene also differs starkly from Pentecost in its purpose. For the Holy Spirit was already promised to the new Christians; they were awaiting his coming. And when the Spirit came, it was in a moment of joy and comfort—not as a weapon against monsters, not at first (though we do have the Sword of the Spirit).
Still, the tongues of fire, the speaking in unknown languages, the “indomitable spirit,” and the appearance of drunkenness. Is it too much to call coincidence?
But Sam is not the only recipient of this strange power, this gift, this charisma. Frodo also receives it. Unveiling the light-giving gift of the elves, long forgotten on his road to the Morgul Vale, Frodo speaks. “Aiya Earendil Elenion Ancalima! he cried, and knew not what he had spoken; for it seemed that another voice spoke through his, clear, untroubled by the foul air of the pit.”
It is beautiful and perhaps reflective of the true Pentecost that such gifts were given not to the high and mighty, but to halflings. And they really do come as gifts—from Galadriel, the queen of the elves. And in reality, from the Spirit of God.
We can see it ourselves. Here is the story of Pentecost, from Acts 2.
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
The gifts given to the apostles, as to the hobbits, are light in darkness. They are markers of fire and power. While Peter and the other disciples did not use their gifts to slay spiders, they used them for the glory of God—to preach his name in darkness greater than that of Shelob’s cave. To reveal God’s person, his grace, his justice, his truth.
Frodo and Sam’s work in Shelob’s lair—or, rather, the work within Frodo and Sam in Shelob’s lair—is not a retelling of Pentecost. Not by a long shot. But it may be a reminder of Pentecost. It’s a story of lowly people entrusted with special gifts, practicing abundant power in dark places.