Many surprises await a reader of The Silmarillion. One finds romance, adventure, revenge quests, and even vampires. Morgoth, the evil one, devised many creative creatures and wicked schemes to spread lies, cause oaths, and spring traps on the heroes of the tale. Oaths are the “doom” of many a hero, and the clever means by which Morgoth and his followers trap the heroes into making them bring to mind the admonition by our Lord not to swear. Let your yes be yes and your no, no. This admonition seems strange to modern ears, to whom swearing simply means using obscene language. Practically no one takes “oaths” anymore, at least not the kind that Tolkien portrayed and Jesus warned against. Our Lord's teaching to avoid them makes perfect sense when you see to what end they often lead the characters in The Silmarillion.
Turin, the noble protagonist of much of the story, is strong, smart and well nigh fearless. He even faces the mighty dragon Glaurung and attacks it. Eventually he does kill the worm. But in a previous adventure, he faces the dragon and fearlessly stares into its eyes. This proves to be ofermod, as Turin is then enchanted by a spell from the dragon. This leads to many kinds of sad and doomed results, and the resulting chapters are full of the results of this enchanting.
The aspect of the story that was the most profound, however, was the description of what Turin experienced when he looked into the dragon's eyes. “Evil have been all thy ways, son of Hurin,” says the dragon. “And Turin, being under the spell of the dragon, hearkened to his words, and he saw himself as in a mirror misshapen by malice, and loathed that which he saw.”
These words leap off the page. They portray in startling clarity and powerful lucidity what happens in our lives on a regular basis. It is obvious that Tolkien, a devout Christian, was well aware of the schemes of our old enemy when he wrote these words.
Throughout our lives, we commit the same mistake. We try to live our lives fearlessly and to be strong and smart. These are good goals. The Bible tells us 365 times “Do not be afraid.” It tells us to be filled with love, which casts out fear. It says that if anyone lacks wisdom, let him ask, and God will give it to him. So being strong, smart, and fearless are all worthy pursuits.
But when it comes to our old enemy, we are often tempted to ofermod. Because we serve One who is infinitely stronger and wiser than our enemy, we can easily commit the mistake of thinking that we have nothing to worry about from the enemy. We sometimes look into his eyes, and listen to his words, and forget the unlikely wisdom from Nietzsche, who said that often times, when we look into the abyss, it looks back into us.
When the old enemy looks into us, he takes things. He steals the true bits of our lives, and twists them. He pays attention to what scares us most, what we worry about, and what we care about more than anything. Then he takes those things, and reflects them back to us in a mirror misshapen by malice. If we are foolish enough, as Turin was, to continue looking into this mirror (and who among us is wise enough not to?), we loathe what we see.
Because what we see is not ourselves, but a grotesque parody of who we are. The good things that God has made in us are either hidden entirely or twisted into ugly and frightening shapes. The fears that we have about ourselves are front and center, and seem to make up the majority of our selves. The things we worry most about losing are the things that, in the mirror, appear surely lost. And what we hate most about ourselves is what we have entirely become in this evil mirror.
In The Silmarillion, Turin leaves the dragon and goes on several quests, still in the thralls of this spell. He does things that he would not in his right mind do. Because he has forgotten who he really is. So much so that he even changes his name, and becomes Turambar, which means “Master of Doom.” After much folly, he finally is put in his right mind again because a friend speaks truth to him, and he listens. He listens hard, staring into the eyes of the person who speaks truth to him for some time, before coming to his senses again.
This happens in our lives time and again. We make the ofermod mistake of listening to the enemy. He takes truths and half truths and twists them, reflecting back to ourselves images that make us seem like ogres. If we listen long enough, we begin to believe that the image is what we are really like, and even begin to start acting like the image would, emulating the ogre the enemy told us we had become.
There are several ways to break this enchantment. One is to see our true reflections, to remember who we really are. We do this by spending time with friends who remember what we are truly like, who reflect our real selves back to us. We do this even more powerfully by spending time in the Bible, which shows us not only what we are truly like, but what the One who made us is like. What He is like is what we are becoming, so this shows us not only where we came from, but what image we are growing towards, what true selves we will eventually become. And finally, we do this most profoundly by actually spending time talking to Him. We can hear in our own words when we pray the lies that have crept in and the thoughts of the misshapen ogre that the enemy has convinced us that we are. By talking with Him, we begin to remember who we were, and let go of our own title of Master of Doom.
There are several things to take away from this insight. One is to not listen when the enemy tries to convince us that we are something misshapen and evil. When you start thinking of yourself in a way that you loathe, you know that you are being lied to. Spending time in prayer, and spending time reading the truth, will remind us of who we are.
But perhaps the biggest take home thought from this story is the friend who spoke the truth into Turin's life. Sometimes it is hard to be that friend. When you see someone you care about going down the wrong path, believing lies and becoming the ogre they loathe, it is tempting to turn our backs and distance ourselves, lest we become more ogre like along with them. May we have the courage to say the words that help them remember who they really are.