EVERY GOOD GIFT
The gift-giving ceremonies in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
By Mark Worthing
Gift, in the history of Christian thought, is a seminal theme. In the religious context out of which Christianity arose, peace with God or the gods was something to be earned, through following the rules, and making sacrifices (giving gifts) to the deity whose favour one sought. The idea of a God who asks for no sacrifices or gifts, but gave them instead, was a radical concept that turned the religious landscape of the first century on its head. In this new economy of divine-human relationships, Jesus Christ is given freely for us (John 3:16); God’s grace, given in and through Christ, is a free gift (Ephesians 2:8); and those who follow Christ are given various ‘gifts’ of the Spirit (Romans 12:6-8: 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesian 4:11; 1 Peter 4:10). So foundational is this concept of gift that it has continued to shape Christian thinking in ways that we do not always fully appreciate. Sometimes, however, the role of gift is so striking as it appears in the Christian imagination, that we are forced to pause and consider its significance. Two such instances are to be found in the fantasy works of two of the twentieth-centuries best known Christian writers: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Both The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings contain key episodes of gift-giving that not only parallel one another, but also subtly reflect the theology of the Christian tradition out of which each author wrote.
The two episodes, of course, are the giving of gifts to the Pevensie children by Father Christmas in The Chronicles of Narnia, and the giving of gifts to the remaining members of the fellowship of the ring by Galadriel as they prepare to depart Lothlôrien.
In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first book written in the Narnia chronicles, Lewis includes a controversial scene in which Father Christmas appears. The scene is controversial because, as critics rightly pointed out, Father Christmas arises out of the legend of Christian Saints, whereas the other non-human characters in his books are drawn from either Northern European or classical mythology.(1) The two just don’t go together.(2) But no one, not even Tolkien, could persuade Lewis to leave Father Christmas episode out of his story. His insistence on its inclusion points to its importance in the larger narrative. The complaint in Narnia that it was ‘always winter but never Christmas’ made a point, but it could have been written out of the tale if there were no Father Christmas. However, Peter, Susan and Lucy Pevensie could not have completed their ‘quest’ without the aid of the gifts given to them by Father Christmas.
In this episode, found in Chapter Ten of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the gift-giver is Father Christmas, who is the embodiment of the tradition of gift-giving within Christian legend and hagiography. He is a figure the children thought they understood from their own world. But as they encounter him he is not jolly, but glad; not funny, but solemn. He is a figure who transcends both their own world and the world of Narnia. Furthermore, he represents Aslan, the true king and creator.
When Father Christmas appears to the children, and Mr. and Mrs Beaver as well, the first words he speaks are these: ‘I have come at last. She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move.’ The words point to his role. He is not there to promote Christmas, though Christmas becomes a symbol of hope in a world of unending winter. He has come to announce the imminent return of Aslan. In this way, Father Christmas takes on an almost John the Baptist or Elijah role in the story.
Once the children know with whom they are dealing, and who he ultimately represents, Father Christmas gets down to the very serious business of gift-giving. After very practical gifts for Mr and Mrs Beaver (as no one is to be left out of the gift-giving ceremony) he turns to the children, giving them their gifts in order of their age, from oldest to youngest. And he begins with the instruction that the gifts he is giving them ‘are tools, not toys.’ This is an important proviso for a children’s story, and indicates that the author wishes to challenge the thinking of his young readers concerning the nature and purpose of gifts.
Peter is given a sword and a shield, and the shield bears the crest of Aslan. To succeed in saving themselves, and Narnia, Peter will have to fight. A sword and shield are important tools/symbols for a medieval style king. The gifts say something not only about what Peter must do, but about who is to become.
Susan, likewise, is given a weapon, a bow that ‘does not easily miss’, and a quiver of arrows to match. She is also given an ivory horn with the promise that if she blows it, ‘help of some kind will come to you.’ Both gifts come with a promise. And again, both are tools. Useful gifts.
Finally, the youngest, Lucy, is given a small phial of cordial with great healing power so she may be able to help anyone injured on the field of battle. She is also given a small dagger, just in case she should need to defend herself. And it is Lucy, the youngest, who needs to be reminded of her gift later in the story when it is most needed. In the aftermath of the battle, Aslan calls out: ‘‘Quick, Lucy!’” ‘And then, almost for the first time, Lucy remembered the precious cordial that had been given her…’(3) This forms a parallel, as we will see, with the account in Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring in which Frodo, the member of the group who is seemingly the most vulnerable and inexperienced,(4) is also given something special in a phial, and also needs to be reminded that he is carrying it when the time comes for its use.
Perhaps the message, especially for the young and less experienced, is that simple possession of a gift means little if one forgets one has the gift, or neglects to use it at the right time and in the right way.
Finally, Father Christmas cries out not only the customary ‘Merry Christmas!’ but also, ‘Long live the true King!’ before taking off through the snow with his sleigh and reindeer. The gift-giving ceremony thus concludes with the departure of the gift-giver, which is just the opposite of what occurs in the parallel scene from The Fellowship of the Ring in which it is the gift-recipients who depart at the conclusion of the ceremony.
Edmund, of course, receives no gift as he is not present, having been seduced by the promises of Jadis, the evil Ice Queen, and having become her captive. But he does eventually receive a needed gift, and it is given by Aslan himself. It is not a sword or bow or magic potion. It is forgiveness, and a chance of a new beginning, purchased for him at great cost.(5)
As the story reaches its dénouement, the gifts of each of the three children become decisive for the role they each play in the great battle. Their own strength and abilities are not enough. They need to make use of the gifts they have been given in order to succeed.
The episode of gift-giving in Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings has striking parallels to that of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Whether one author was inspired by the other is unclear. Tolkien would have known well the episode from Lewis’ earlier published work. For his part, Lewis may well have known the story of the gifts of Galadriel from manuscript versions that may have been written and shared with him before the appearance of his first Narnia book. We know that Lewis read and was influenced by yet unpublished sections of LotR, such as the use of trees as active characters, or the singing of the world into existence (seen in the Magician’s Nephew and clearly inspired by the yet unpublished Silmarillion).
So a crossover of influences could explain the occurrence of the two similar episodes. At the very least, both authors were inspired and influenced by the same Christian theological understanding of the importance of gift, and perhaps the parallel episodes are attributable to nothing more than this.
In The Lord of the Rings the narrative of the gift-giving ceremony is much fuller and appears near the end of the first book of the trilogy.(6) A fellowship of nine companions has been formed and has set off on their quest. But their original leader, the wizard Gandalf, appears to have been lost in battle with a creature of darkness in the mines of Moria. Uncertain how to proceed, the remaining members of the fellowship, now led by Aragorn, find their way into the forest of Lothlórien. Here, it was said, lived a powerful witch queen. What they encounter there is the legendary Elf-queen Galadriel, one of the three Elves who had been recipients of a ring of power in the previous age. Galadriel has great power, and in her origins is almost akin to an angelic being, having been one of the Eldar, born in the Age of the Stars. But she is fallen, having disobeyed the Valar and pursued Morgoth into Middle-earth, refusing to return upon his defeat, hoping to establish her own kingdom and rule in Middle-earth.(7) But now she is desperate to make amends.(8) Her reputation, nonetheless, remains fearsome. When the remnant of the fellowship encounter Galadriel and her husband, the Grey Elf prince Celeborn, they soon discover they are among friends.(9) But the quest to destroy the ring remains their own. Galadriel and Celeborn cannot do this for them.
As the time comes for the fellowship to leave the protected land of Lôrien, they have a final meal together and prepare to board boats on the Anduin River that will take them to Minas Tirith and the borders of Mordor. The Elves give the company specially woven cloaks that are also good camouflage, boats for the river, and Elven lembas bread for the journey. But these gifts are quite general and, while generous, are not beyond what might be expected of parting gifts. However, there is yet to come an exceptional gift-giving ceremony in which the gifts given, and the words spoken, take on an almost sacramental quality.
‘We have drunk the cup of parting,’ Galadriel says, ‘and the shadows fall between us. But before you go, I have brought in my ship gifts which the Lord and Lady of the Galadhrim now offer you in memory of Lothlórien.’
As the ceremony of gift-giving commences, it is the new leader of the fellowship, Aragorn, who is first. The gifts, as in the parallel scene from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, are for the most part practical and suited to the individual recipients. Aragorn is given an elaborately decorated sheath to fit his sword, and it comes with the promise that ‘the blade that is drawn from this sheath shall not be stained or broken, even in defeat.’ This, of course, is a reminder of his ancestor’s sword, broken in battle with Sauron, a sword that will soon be reforged and given to him (yet another vital gift) by Elrond. When Galadriel asks if there is anything else she might give him, Aragorn responds that what he desires is not hers to give. He is referring to his love for Elrond’s daughter Arwen Evenstar. But Galadriel, who is revealed to be the girl’s grandmother, has been given a brooch, the Elfstone of the house of Elendil, that she had once given to her own daughter, Celebrían, mother of Arwen. She has been asked to pass it on to Aragorn should he pass that way. So Aragorn receives not only a sword-sheath endowed with Elven power, but the Elfstone brooch that symbolises his love for Arwen and the hope that she might not yet be lost to him. Both gifts are decisive for the narrative’s final resolution.
Boromir, the other human member of the fellowship, is given a belt of gold without comment. Then Merry and Pippin are each given silver belts with clasps that look like golden flowers. These clasps play a role in the coming narrative as their companions seek to track and rescue them from the Uruk-hai.
Legolas, the archer, is given a bow of the type used by Galadriel’s people. It is strung with Elf-hair and is longer and stouter than the bows of his native Mirkwood. Along with the bow he is given a quiver of arrows, for it is well-known that the best arrows must be made to suit the bow. So, as with Susan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the gift of a bow and a quiver of arrows to match, naturally go together. And their origin, as with Susan’s bow, suggests that the weapon will not often miss its target.
Sam, Frodo’s erstwhile gardener, is next. He receives what would seem the most impractical gift of all, a plain wooden box with some soil from Galadriel’s own garden. She freely admits to Sam that this gift ‘will not keep you on your road, nor defend you against any peril.’ ‘But,’ she adds, ‘if you keep it and see your home again at last, then perhaps it may reward you.’ It is a gift for a gardener to take home and remind him of Galadriel and Lothlórien. It is a gift of hope, to help him not lose sight of seeing home again. The box of soil is added to the more practical gift of Elven rope that Sam had been given earlier when he admired it. So Sam, too, is not without a practical gift necessary for the trials to come.
Next to receive a gift in this ceremony is Gimli. This is an awkward moment as Dwarves are not in the habit of asking for gifts, and especially not from Elves. And it seems that, in any event, Galadriel has nothing prepared to give to Gimli. She asks simply: ‘What gift would a Dwarf ask of the Elves?’ To which she receives the expected answer, ‘None, Lady.’ Gimli asks not for a gift of gold or silver, nor for any magic weapon or some tool useful for the journey. He states that it is enough to have seen her and heard her words. She then says to all the Elves present to take note that it should not be ever said again that Dwarves are ungracious. But there is something Gimli would have. He asks, as a token of remembrance of the Lady Galadriel, for a single strand of her golden hair, which he would hold of more value than gold. The other Elves are astonished at this request. Galadriel wonders what he would even do with such a gift. He answers that he would treasure it, and if he survives to return home, it would be set in imperishable crystal as an heirloom of his house.(10) Galadriel then gives him not one but three strands of her hair(11) and speaks to him these words to go with the gift: ‘I do not foretell, for all foretelling is now vain… but if hope should not fail, then I say to you, Gimli son of Glóin, that your hands shall flow with gold, and yet over you gold shall have no dominion.’ It is a huge wish and prediction for a Dwarf, that he might have gold aplenty, yet not be overcome by the love of it. It is the hope of a new way of being for a Dwarf.
Finally, Galadriel turns to Frodo, the ring-bearer, last to receive his gift, but not last in her thoughts. He receives a small crystal phial in which has been caught the light of Eäendil’s star. ‘May it be a light to you in dark places,’ she says, ‘when all other lights go out.’ It is a practical gift that shall play its role later in the story. But it also comes with words that are recognisable in any culture as a blessing. The significance of the light of Eäendil’s star is not to be overlooked. In Tolkien’s world, shadow is symbolic of evil and light of good. The light from the stars at the time of creation have great power, as seen in the story of the Silmarils, of the light of Gandalf’s staff, and here in the light of Eäendil’s star. In fact, Tolkien scholar David Day explains, concerning the creation of the stars, that ‘the creatures of Melkor were so unused to light that they screamed in pain when these shafts of starlight pierced their dark souls.’(12) So it is not then surprising that this light not only illumines, but also serves to repel creatures of evil, as witnessed in the later encounter with Shelob. And, like Lucy in LWW, Frodo needs to be reminded of his gift (by Sam). And when he is, and he uses it, we see its power.
‘Slowly [Frodo’s] hand went to his bosom, and slowly he held aloft the Phial of Galadriel. For a moment it glimmered, faint as a rising star struggling in heavy earthward mists, and then as its power waxed, and hope grew in Frodo’s mind, it began to burn, and kindled to a silver flame, a minute heart of dazzling light, as though Eärendil had himself some down from the high sunset paths with the last Silmaril upon his brow. The darkness receded from it, until it seemed to shine in the centre of a globe of airy crystal, and the hand that held it sparkled with fire. (13)
Significant here also are the words of James 1:17, which certainly must have come to Tolkien’s mind: ‘Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights’ (NEV). These words connect the theme of gifts with their ultimate origin and with the image and symbol of light.
As with the Narnia account of gift-giving, there is one significant member of the fellowship who is missing from the ceremony: Gandalf. He receives no gift from Galadriel to assist him in the quest, but like Edmund, neither does he go without gift. And as with Edmund, the gift seems to come from an even higher source than the gift-giver in the narrative. Through his battle with evil, in the form of the Balrog, Gandalf is transformed, even transfigured. He becomes Gandalf the White, and is now on an equal footing to challenge his former superior, Saruman.
In each of the two gift-giving scenes from the respective works of Lewis and Tolkien there is a gift-giver who comes, or has powers, from beyond the present realm, and is able to give gifts of both promise and power. In each case the gifts are for the most part practical and go on to play a key role in the quest or struggle that is yet to come. The gifts are not only physical, but they come with words: they come with a promise and with hope. In both accounts, and especially in the gifts of Galadriel, they have a quasi-sacramental quality.
It is also of worthy of note that in each account there is a parting of the gift-giver and the recipients at the end of the ceremony, one key member of each ‘quest group’ is absent from the ceremony, but receives their own ‘gift’ from a higher source, and the most vulnerable/inexperienced member of each group is given a phial which they forget they have until they are reminded that the time has come to use it.
But there is something else about these two episodes and the role they play within their respective narratives that must be noted. In neither case are the accounts simple narrative filler, padding out the story; they are essential. In the case of Lewis this is made all the more obvious in the very awkwardness of the use of the character of Father Christmas as the gift-giver. In both stories, the gift-giving ceremonies need to occur. Someone from a world beyond that of the protagonists needs to give gifts necessary to the completion of their tasks and the fulfilment of their destinies. In both stories the protagonists are fighting an evil that goes back to the very foundation/creation of their respective worlds. As was revealed in The Magician’s Nephew, Jadis, the ice queen of Narnia, is from the fallen world of Charn, and was present at the creation of Narnia, seeking to corrupt its goodness. Likewise, Sauron and his one ring hark back to an evil that was present already at the creation of Middle-earth.(14) Such ancient and ingrained evil cannot be overcome by mere mortal willpower. The protagonists in each story are shown that it is not by their own strength alone that they can overcome. Rather, they require assistance from a realm that transcends their own, and they get this in each case, practically and symbolically, in the giving and receiving of key gifts.
It is in these two accounts that the Christian theology of gift is perhaps most visibly on display in the thought of both authors. In Christian thought, God calls us to resist and overcome evil. But we are unable to do this on our own, even in the battles for control over our own actions (Romans 7:15-25). We need the gift of God in Christ to overcome. It is only with this gift, and the gifts Christ gives us, that we may overcome. The gift-giving episodes in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and in The Fellowship of the Ring, constitute loose but nonetheless unmistakable analogies of this greater Christian truth that lies at the heart of the Christian theology of gift.
We are called to fight, to resist, to overcome evil. But we cannot achieve victory on our own. We need help. And this help comes often unexpectedly, even to those who have not asked for it. And with this help, comes the hope of victory. And where there is the hope of victory, evil is already overcome.
‘For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God’ (Ephesians 2:8). All good gifts do indeed come down from the Father of lights (James 1:17).
Cf. M. Worthing, Narnia, Middle-Earth and the Kingdom of God: A History of Fantasy Literature and the Christian Tradition (Melbourne: Morning Star, 2016), 79f.
As, for example, Michael Ward explained: ‘The appearance of Father Christmas in this story has become a lightning rod for criticism of the Narnia Chronicles. It is taken as evidence of Lewis’s slapdash compositional style. Tolkien thought that Lewis had carelessly assembled figures from incompatible mythological traditions: children fresh from E. Nesbit, a Snow Queen out of Hans Andersen, dryads and naiads from classical tradition, and—forsooth!—Santa Claus from popularized hagiography.’ ‘Narnia’s Secret: The Seven Heavens of the Chronicles of Narnia’ in: Touchstone: A journal of Mere Christianity (December 2007).
C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, ‘The Hunting of the White Stag.’
But not the youngest of the group. Frodo is the oldest of the three Hobbits, but less practical than Sam, who is the one who reminds him of his gift at the right time, and less worldly-wise than Merry and Pippin.
In fact, it is not clear to what extent Edmund ever realised the cost of his own reconciliation. At the end of the great battle, Lucy asks her sister concerning Edmund, “Does he know what Aslan did for him? Does he know what the arrangement with the Witch was?” “Hush! No, of course not,” said Susan. “Oughtn’t he be told?” said Lucy. “Oh, surely not,” said Susan. “It would be too awful for him.”(‘The Hunting of the White Stag’)
The Fellowship of the Ring, book two, chapter seven, ‘Farewell to Lórien’.
In the Silmarillion we read: ‘… the words of Fëanor concerning Middle-earth had kindled a fire in her [Galadriel’s] heart , for she longed to see the wide unguarded lands and to rule there a realm at her own will.’ (from the account of the rebellion in Noldor’ p. 84)
J.R.R. Tolkien, Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, ed. by Christopher Tolkien (London: Allen & Unwin, 1982), 228ff.
This issue is resolved definitively when Galadriel, who once disobeyed the Valar and sought herself to rule Middle-earth, rejects the proffered ‘gift’ of the one ring by Frodo.
We see here that Gimli ‘devotes himself to Galadriel in much the way a medieval knight devotes himself to his lady (an image of courtly dedication which in its highest form is transferred to the Lady, to Mary, the mother of Christ).’ See Marjorie Burns, Perilous Realms: Celtic and Norse in Tolkien’s Middle-earth (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2005), p. 152.
In ‘The History of Galadriel and Celeborn’ in Unfinished Tales we learn that Fëanor, one of the Eldar, who desired a lock of Galadriel’s beautiful hair and begged three times for one, was rebuffed each time (p. 230). This might explain the dismay of the other Elves at Gimli’s request. It is perhaps not so simple and trivial a gift as it might first appear.
David Day, Tolkien: The Illustrated Encyclopedia (London: Mitchell Beazley, 1992), p. 28.
Tolkien, The Two Towers, ‘Shelob’s lair’
Sauron was the lieutenant of Morgoth, who was the disciple or Melkor, who had opposed the creator of Middle-earth and sought to corrupt it with a discordant tune. CF. M. Worthing, Narnia, Middle-Earth and the Kingdom of God, pp. 65ff., and also W.H. Auden, ‘Good and Evil in the Lord of the Rings,’ in Critical Quarterly v. 10, issue 1-2, (1968), p. 139.
Reverend Dr. Mark Worthing is pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, North Adelaide, adjunct lecturer at Flinders University and University of Divinity, and a fellow of ISCAST. He is the author of numerous books and articles and is active as a conference speaker in the fields of science and religion and of literature and faith.