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|
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|
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|
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!