Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Tolkien's Burning Bush

The study of imagery in stories is one that fascinates me, because it can be so difficult for a reader to see, but so easy for the author to include in his works. For example, if you'd never read Planet Narnia and didn't know its publication date, you wouldn't realise that the Voyage of the Dawn Treader movie--unlike the first two Narnia movies--was affected by the discoveries recorded in that book. But, since the filmmakers now knew that the sun and the colour gold was a major theme in that book, they were able to provide sun-soaked, golden imagery for the movie. Lewis, for example, never tells us what colour the dragon was in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; but the filmmakers made it a gold dragon, living in a valley of gold and of yellow rocks.

Not all of us make literary discoveries that stun the world. But the other morning, while thinking about it, I stumbled over a theme in Tolkien's writings that I'd never suspected before.

I was thinking of the burning bush as a symbol of the Presbyterian Church.

In the Bible, the episode of the Burning Bush seems one of those surreal little events that were always happening in the Old Testament. God appears to Moses--only, unlike all the other theophanies we hear about, there are no four-headed beasts, no thunder, no cloud, no wheels within wheels. Just a bush on the mountain, burning but not consumed, and a voice coming out of the bush.

What the Menorah may have looked like
But make a few connections, and a theme begins to emerge. A few years on, Moses is now leading the children of Israel through the desert, and God tells them to stop for a while and build a Tabernacle for worship, containing various symbolic furnishings. One of the most iconic of these furnishings is a seven-branched lampstand, the Menorah. Exodus 25 makes it clear that the lampstand was, in fact, a stylised almond tree. It was intended to burn night and day in the Tabernacle--burning but not consumed.

Then, in the early chapters of Revelation, lampstands appear again: seven lampstands, representing the seven churches to whom John wrote, together with seven stars, representing the "angels", the messengers (most likely the pastors) of the seven churches.

As scholars like James Jordan (in Through New Eyes) and David Chilton (in Paradise Restored) have argued, in the Bible, trees and bushes represent God's people: for example, in Psalm 1, the righteous man is seen like a tree planted by living waters. Stars represent rulers and also God's people on earth--witness the passage in Genesis where God promises Abraham that his people will be like the stars of the firmament in multitude. This fits together nicely with the fact that God's people are called a "royal priesthood".

And quite likely, the trees-on-fire imagery of the burning bush, the Menorah, and the lampstands of Revelation represent the partnership of the God and his people: God-with-us (thus explaining why the Presbyterian Church would adopt the burning bush as its symbol). In fact the Kingdom of God is likened in one parable to a mustard tree that grows to fill the whole earth. Meanwhile, Christ is called the "True Lamp" and God promises not to quench the smouldering reed. According to James Jordan, the wooden Tabernacle, covered with the glory-cloud of God, is another burning-bush symbol.

So much for the Biblical symbolism. Now for Tolkien. As I said, I was thinking about the burning bush symbol of the Presbyterian church, when in my mind I called it, without thinking, "the Burning Briar." Let Tolkien's own words, in the Lay of Leithien, explain:
And over all the silver fire,
that once Men called the Burning Briar,
the Seven Stars that Varda set
about the North, were burning yet.
A light in darkness, hope in woe,
the symbol vast of Morgoth's foe.
The Seven Stars
Varda, one of the Valar and a symbol in Tolkien's mythos similar to the virgin Mary, set the seven stars in the north above Morgoth's stronghold in Angband as a warning that his days were numbered. The constellation--known to us today as the Big Dipper, of course (and to the prophet Amos as the Seven Stars)--was properly called Valacirca, the Sickle of the Valar, by the Elves, who saw it as a symbol of Morgoth's defeat--a prophecy fulfilled at the end of the First Age. However, interestingly, the Men of Middle-Earth called it the Burning Briar.

The word for "bush" used to refer to the burning bush in Exodus is seneh, which Wikipedia informs me literally means "bramble".

From these earliest times of Middle Earth forward, stars and trees will form an important symbol for the faithful Men of Middle-Earth, who acknowledge the power of the Valar in "Elvenhome that is" and "that which is beyond Elvenhome and ever will be." Most importantly, the standard of Gondor displays the White Tree surrounded by seven stars--a "burning bush", a tree surrounded by symbolic fire.

The standard of Gondor
Meanwhile, the original of the White Tree of Gondor was Telperion, one of the Two Trees of Valinor. These trees gave light to Valinor before the making of the stars, sun, and moon--twin burning bushes/lampstands. After they were destroyed, a fruit from Laurelin was set in the sky as the sun, while a flower from Telperion became the Moon. Also, the light from the Two Trees was captured by the artisan Feanor and made into the Silmarils, the three star-like gems--one of which did become a star, borne across the heavens on Earendil's brow.

Additionally, stars and trees appear together even in the way the characters look at Tolkien's world. Sam sings:

In western lands beneath the Sun
the flowers may rise in Spring,
the trees may bud, the waters run,
the merry finches sing.
Or there maybe 'tis cloudless night,
and swaying beeches bear
the Elven-stars as jewels white
amid their branching hair.

Thus, in Tolkien's legendarium, trees are closely associated with stars, especially as a sign of hope and redemption to a fallen world. For Sam's song continues:

Though here at journey's end I lie,
in darkness buried deep,
beyond all towers strong and high,
beyond all mountains steep,
above all shadows rides the Sun
and Stars forever dwell;
I will not say the Day is done,
nor bid the Stars farewell.

Here's the interesting thing: while Tolkien's Elves are big on both stars and trees, there's a fine thread of a theme that makes them especially important to Men. Remember, the Elves call the Big Dipper, The Sickle of the Valar, as a sign of the defeat of Morgoth which happened at the end of the First Age. Men call those seven stars The Burning Briar. Unlike the Elves, the Human symbolism of the Sickle of the Valar is tied to the burning bramble of Exodus 3. In Tolkien's legendarium, the fate of the Elves is tied to the walls of the world, while the fate of humans is unknown. In Tolkien's scheme, the Elves decrease and fade, but humans remain, grow stronger, and eventually are given special revelation...first recorded through Moses, whose original encounter with God came at the Burning Bush. So for the Elves, the Sickle of the Valar symbolises something that, by the time of The Lord of the Rings, has already occurred. But for the Men, the same seven stars symbolise something that they are still waiting for. That's why, as late as The Lord of the Rings, the Seven Stars symbol is still so important to them.

In Scripture, the Burning Bush symbolises the Holy Spirit at work in the world through His church. In Tolkien, the relationship between stars and trees symbolises the past origin of light and stars, the present race of obedient humanity, and the future redemption of humanity. Fascinating!

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