Middle-Earth Midrash (part 2)

December 18, 2013 at 2:00 am, by

(continued from part one here)

“Over You Gold Shall Have No Dominion”: Greed, Goodness, and Learning to Grow

thror and gold

Easy with the gold there, Thror.

The Dwarvish love of gold was not necessarily an inherent curse: the Dwarves were lovers of stones and gems, but “they are not evil by nature, and few ever served the Enemy of free will, whatever the tales of Men may have alleged” (The Return of the King, Appendix F). Sauron gave seven Rings of Power to the Dwarves, and although the rings kindled “wrath and an overmastering greed of gold” in their hearts, they proved ultimately resistant to Sauron’s evil (The Silmarillion, Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age), unlike Men, who were corrupted by power and became Ringwraiths, subservient to Sauron’s will. But the Dwarvish love of gold is nonetheless troubling. This theme runs throughout Tolkien’s writing: a warning not to be led astray by our desire for personal gain, and not to value wealth over relationships — a trap not only for Dwarves, but dragons, goblins, Men, and even Elves: the wars sparked by greed for the Silmarils brought an end to the First Age of Arda. In explaining the ancient conflict at the heart of the hostility between the dwarves and the Wood-Elves in The Hobbit, Tolkien does not blame the dwarves, but rather that the Elvenking had a weakness for treasure, “especially silver and white gems; and though his hoard was rich, he was ever eager for more” (pg. 157).

The rabbis, too, emphasize that greed is a basic impulse that we must all learn to overcome. A story in the Babylonian Talmud tells of the great ruler Alexander, who found himself at the gates of Heaven. Asking for a token to recognize his accomplishments, he was given an eyeball. He weighed it, and discovered that it was heavier than all his wealth, no matter how much silver and gold he put on the other side of the scale. “It is a human eye,” the rabbis tell him. “It will never be satisfied until it returns to the dust from whence it came.” They covered the eyeball with dust, and it was immediately outweighed (BT Tamid 32b). No matter how much we acquire, it is futile, because we will never be satisfied; we can always want more money, more wealth, more possessions.

At the beginning of The Hobbit, Thorin indicates that as much as his quest is about returning to his lost homeland, it is also motivated by his desire for their lost treasure; “we have never forgotten our stolen treasure,” he tells Bilbo, “and even now, when I will allow we have a good bit laid by and are not so badly off… we still mean to get it back” (The Hobbit, pg. 24). When they do find their way back into the Mountain, seeing the treasure “rekindled all the fire of their dwarvish hearts” (The Hobbit, pg. 231); they become even more fiercely protective of Dwarvish interests and they harden themselves to the prospect of reaching out to help those who helped them. As they sing, “The heart is bold that looks on gold/ the dwarves no more shall suffer wrong” (pg. 243). For Thorin and company, the success at regaining sovereignty under the Mountain is tied to their racial pride; the gold is bound up with “old memories of the labours and the sorrows of his race” (pg. 244). But Thorin, rejecting the offered friendship of Men and Elves, learns that treasure is not enough: “We leave you to your gold,” Bard’s herald cries; “you may eat that, if you will!” (pg. 246). And indeed, as he lays dying, Thorin repairs his friendship with Bilbo, who reminds Thorin that “this is a bitter adventure, if it must end so, and not a mountain of gold can amend it” (pg. 265).

thorin and bilbo

If you’ve read the books, you know what’s coming! Spoiler alert: bring tissues.

But Thorin has learnt his lesson, and naming Bilbo “child of the kindly West” he tells him (and us) that “if more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world” (pg. 266). And while this realization may have come too late for Thorin and the old Master of Lake-town (who also falls to the “dragon-sickness”, pg. 280), it is not too late for us. “Who is rich?” the rabbis ask. “The one who is happy with what they have” (Pirqei Avot 4:1). Happiness comes from living a good life, being satisfied with what we have, reaching out to others, enjoying good food and cheer and song. As Thorin learns, for all our gold and silver, we leave it to “go where it is of little worth” (The Hobbit, pg. 265). The rabbis quote one of Aesop’s fables to make this point: there was once a fox who saw a beautiful vineyard surrounded by a fence, except for one small hole. The fox fasted for three days, until he was thin enough to slip through the hole. Entering the vineyard, he ate his fill of grapes; but upon attempting to leave, he found he could not fit through the hole. “What use are your fruits, O vineyard?” he cried. “As one enters, so they must leave.” Kakh hu din ‘alma, the rabbis say: such is the way of the world (Qohelet Rabba 5:14). And indeed, Bilbo gives away the Arkenstone to Bard for the sake of peace (pg. 251), he gives a necklace of silver and pearls (a gift from Dain) to the Elvenking (pg. 270), and when he gets back to the Shire, he spends his gold and silver “in presents, both useful and extravagant” (pg. 278). Even Sting, and his mithril coat, are given to Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring (book 2, chapter 3).

And so there is hope that we can learn to place our friendships above our possessions, and to value goodness over gold. In The Lord of the Rings, the dwarf Gimli son of Gloin is honoured by the elf Galadriel, Lady of Lothlorien; after refusing a gift, he asks simply for one of her hairs, to be treasured as a sign of “good will between the Mountain and the Wood until the end of days.” She gives him three, with her blessing that “your hands shall flow with gold, and yet over you gold shall have no dominion” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 2, chapter 8). Gimli is devoted to Galadriel, whom he calls fairer “above all the jewels that lie beneath the earth” (The Fellowship of the Ring, book 2, chapter 6), and the wood-elf Legolas, saying to him, in an echoing of Ruth 1:16, “You comfort me. Where you go I will go” (The Two Towers, book 3, chapter 5). Indeed, Gimli goes with him over the Sea after Aragorn’s death.

This may perhaps be Tolkien’s demonstration that these races are not bound to eternal animosity. Edwards writes that “Legolas and Gimli were [Tolkien’s] reply to Gentile anti-Semitism and Jewish exclusiveness” (Edwards, 2007, pg. 459). Alternatively, Brackmann suggests that this may be part of Tolkien’s attempt “to undo the negative qualities ascribed to the Dwarves in the earlier book and [show] them as no longer marginal to the heroic culture of the other characters” (Brackmann, 2010, pg. 93). But I would like to think that Tolkien believed that it is in honest encounter and loyal friendship, especially across the lines of race and religion, that we redeem the brokenness of our world.

An anecdote: during the Second World War, Tolkien was on air raid duty in a bomb shelter with a fellow Oxford scholar, the famed Jewish historian Cecil Roth. He writes that “I found him charming, full of gentleness (in every sense); and we sat up till after 12 talking.” But what impressed Tolkien the most was that Roth “himself came and called me at 10 to 7: so that I could go to Communion!” He was so touched that his Jewish friend cared so deeply about Tolkien’s own commitment to faith to do such a thing; “it seemed,” he writes, “like a fleeting glimpse of an unfallen world” (1995, pg. 67). We cannot save ourselves with money or possessions; neither gold nor jewels will protect us from hurt. But the community we build around us, and the courageous steps we take in reaching out to those different than us, can indeed show us the way to a better world.

legolas and gimli

Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish, anyone?

Parts 3 and 4 coming soon!


Brackmann, Rebecca. “‘Dwarves are Not Heroes’: Antisemitism and the Dwarves in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Writing.” Mythlore: A Journal of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Mythopoeic Literature, 109/110, Vol. 28, No. 3/4 (2010), pp. 85-106.

Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. The Hobbit. Ballantine, 1996 (original ed. 1937).

–. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter. Harper Collins, 1995.

–. The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994 (3 vols., original ed. 1954).

–. The Silmarillion. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Random House, 2002 (original ed. 1977).

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