THE SYMBOLIC LIFE (Winter 2002)
When his oldest child was three years old, J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings, began to send his children letters—complete with pictures—from Father Christmas at the North Pole. (Beautifully illustrated in Letters from Father Christmas, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.) These letters, eventually sent to all four of his children, continued over a period of twenty years. Penned by Father Christmas himself, they often contained added notes from Polar Bear, his chief assistant, who also had a knack for getting into mischief.
Tolkien’s imagination carried the legends of Christmas further and enlivened those of his children. In his later work, The Lord of the Rings, one can recognize aspects of Father Christmas in the wizard Gandalf, especially when one considers the mythological roots of Father Christmas or Santa Claus. From the Christian perspective Santa Claus is often seen as tied in with the legend of St. Nicholas, an early bishop, who was the patron saint of giving in secret. His feast day was celebrated on December 5th.
However, Santa Claus is also symbolically connected with ancient Northern European mythology dating back to the time of the shamans. As we approach the winter solstice season that culminates in the New Year, we will have another opportunity to experience amplifications of Father Christmas in films that brought us some of the mystery of this figure last year at this time as well. While the new movie The Santa Claus 2 will present us another lighthearted depiction of this figure, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings will once more bring to this season more deeply mythological motifs.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets will once again introduce us to the elderly wizard, Albus Dumbledore, and his role in helping to mediate the emergence of the special “gifts” of the maturing Harry Potter. Each Harry Potter story takes place during one school year, and the nadir is often the winter solstice time when Harry chooses to stay at Hogwarts rather than return to the Dursleys. Dumbledore is the figure who most facilitates each of Harry’s years of transition, usually by indirect involvement.
The same is true in the Lord of the Rings and the role played by Gandalf. While occasionally Gandalf does act in important ways, his larger role is shepherding the unfolding of the other key figures, especially the various Hobbits and Aragorn. Yet each of these figures, like Harry Potter, must make their own choices. Gandalf and Dumbledore function more like shamanic intermediaries in worlds that must overcome darkness, much as Father Christmas mediates the passage through the darkness of the winter solstice and brings us forward again into a new year and a renewed light.
Father Christmas flies through the air with the assistance of his reindeer and descends into our homes through our chimneys. His journey of mediation is quite well known and accepted. In Harry Potter we see similar flights in the air, whether it is on broomsticks in the wizard game of Quidditch, with the aid of some mythic beasts, or through the magic by which Harry arrives by car at Hogwart’s for his second year of study. Through the unusual enchanting power of flue powder, we also see the special passage through chimney’s that carry any wizard from one place to another.
Chimneys allow the smoke and residue of fires to pass into the air so that the fire is contained and it can serve human needs. In the Lord of the Rings the one ring must be returned to the fire that forged it, and the greatest facilitator of this task is Gandalf. The wizard is a master of the mysteries of fire, whether it’s through the delightful fireworks he brings to the celebrations of the Hobbits, or facing the evil Balrog in the depths of the mines of Moria. Through his wisdom in matters of fire Gandalf effects transformation within Middle Earth, including his own.
The images that unfold from these stories bear witness to the power of the archetypes that lay behind them and the need in our world for transformation of its darker and more threatening energies.
Editor: Steve Galipeau