Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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Lord of the Sabbath: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Illustrations on the Goodness of Cultivating a Sabbath Rest

September 17, 2021

Leslie Bustard


“And with that song the hobbits stood upon the threshold, and a golden light was all about them.” Fellowship of the Ring, chapter VI


And so ends “The Old Forest,” chapter VI in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. Each time I have read these books I have found myself entering into chapter VII, “In the House of Tom Bombadil,” with great anticipation of all the good ahead for Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry.  My imagination fills with pictures of Goldberry and Tom’s table spread with plates of heartwarming food and “drinking-bowls [which] seemed to be clear cold water, yet it went to their heart like wine,” comfortable chairs and footstools, and a sweet smelling fire in front of them. And all of this before Tom Bombadil sang over the sleepy hobbits. The travelers would spend the next few days in this enchanted home where Bombadil would give them care and wisdom, which would strengthen them for the next part of their journey. 

Throughout the stories of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, starting with The Hobbit and following through the three books of Lord of the Rings (or rather six, if one is being precise), there is a pattern of rest and adventure. While guiding my 8th grade students through these books, we discovered that after each adventure—whether they were walking through perilous conditions of dark woods, trudging along snow-covered mountain paths, or battling orcs—our heroes would eventually find themselves at a place of respite and renewal. And at this point I would remind them that although Tolkien was not seeking to create an allegory, his deep Christian beliefs laid a foundation for his storytelling. One of the ways we found this theological underpinning was in the cycles of rest and adventure which mirrored the command from God to keep the Sabbath holy and make one day in a week for respite from six days of work. 

In The Hobbit, Bilbo and the dwarves found themselves in places of rest such as Rivendell with the elves, in the hall of Beorn and his animals, and in the nest of the eagles. In the Lord of the Rings stories, Frodo and his companions gained respite in Rivendell, as well as spending time in Tom Bombidil’s house, the magical Lothlorien, and the waterfall-hidden caves of Faramir. Some type of harrowing adventure usually preceded their arrival to these places of respite. And each break provided for the characters refreshment, renewal, and the ability to keep on the journey—even when they knew what lay ahead would be difficult. 

My students and I discussed what rest looked like.  We noticed that not only did they gain good sleep, they also ate delicious food, enjoyed stories and songs, made new friends, received words of wisdom and gifts, and left with provisions for the next part of their adventure. These elements were given at each place of rest.

Bilbo, the grey-wizard Gandalf, and the thirteen dwarves in The Hobbit received excellent care while in the hall of Beorn, the shapeshifter. After making Beorn laugh and raising his curiosity, the travelers were invited into his place to be served a grand meal by his ponies, dogs, and even his sheep. (This scene is fun to imagine). The travelers spend several days in his place, eating, sleeping, and learning more about their host and the country they were passing through. The time they spent with Beorn illustrates the elements of renewal Tolkien wove into the rest and adventure pattern in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  

Bilbo and his companions sat around Beorn’s table on that first night warmed and comforted by the fire. They ate a hearty supper and listened to his tales of the wild country; later the dwarves sang songs. They enjoyed cozy warm beds and a good breakfast in the morning. A few days later, Beorn gave them deeper knowledge of the land and how to travel through it, especially advising them what they were to avoid when they walked through Mirkwood Forest. At the company’s departure, he gave them gifts of ponies and packages of food. In the end, Beorn also offered them his protection and friendship while they went onward.

Each rereading of these rich books has led me to a deeper understanding of Sabbath rest and the good work of offering this rest to others. I already resonated with Tolkien on the joys of a table spread with good food, surrounded by loved ones and laughter, and I enjoyed how he detailed these sections of his stories. But the more I saw how the hosts of each resting place offered themselves to their guests through their listening ears, friendship, gifts, and strengthening wisdom to our heroes, the more I saw biblical wisdom and truth spilling over in Tolkien’s ideas.

In Exodus and Deuteronomy, God is didactically clear to keep the Sabbath holy, to work six days, and to rest on the seventh. Psalm 23 poetically brings this to life, especially when connected with Tolkien’s illustrations of rest.

The psalm begins with rest, provisions, and refreshment. Before any work or hardship occurs, the Shepherd gives his follower peace and fullness, as verses two and three say, “He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul.” As the psalm continues, the Shepherd guides in the right paths, though they include darkest valleys and shadows of death. 

These four verses are demonstrated throughout The Lord of Rings. Prior to Frodo’s adventures, there are gatherings, food, long walks, and time with friends. As Frodo enters into his quest with the ring, a fellowship comes together, and throughout their travels they are directed on good paths as well as through scary and sinister places. However, on the other side of these “darkest valleys” they arrive in friendly places and are given all they need for renewal and strength to keep going. Psalm 23:5 could be a description of these times, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.”  

The psalm finishes, “Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life . . .” Although a guiding force is never seen or heard in these stories, one is alluded to when we hear Gandalf tell Frodo, “There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides that of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, in which case you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.”  Or think of what Galadriel said to Frodo, “Do not trouble your heart overmuch with thoughts of the road ahead. Maybe the paths that you each shall tread are already laid before your feet, even though you do not see them.” Finally, the hope of true rest in God’s house finishes Psalm 23—“and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”  The end of this epic story to save Middle Earth shows characters living in or heading to new blessings. 

We are given a gift of grace in the commandment to make a day holy by resting from the six days of our work. On this day of ceasing from all that makes up our week—the creative good and the hard anxiety—we say, “I trust you God that you are taking care of me.” This ceasing from work is not meant to be a legalistic duty. As theologian Marva Dawn says, “This is what we celebrate on the Sabbath day. We join the generations of believers—going all the way back to God’s people, the Jews—who set aside a day to remember that we are precious and honored in God’s sight and loved, profoundly loved, not because of what we produce.”

By making worship, community, and rest integral parts of our Sabbath, Sundays have been our family’s day to make holy. (My husband Ned and I have jobs that no longer require us to work on Sundays; we know many who do, and they have to be purposeful in setting aside another day of the week for Sabbath keeping.)

More than a decade ago, when Ned saw that although feeding friends or new comers after church was a joy, it was also work for me and the family (no matter how I tried to simplify it). So, he made a change to our hosting plans. Even though we felt the call to hospitality and enfolding people, he decided we would not always have them at our house after church; instead we would invite folks out for lunch at Dominion, a neighborhood pizzeria. This started a fun tradition for us, which eventually grew into a church community tradition. 

Several Sundays a month (pre-COVID, of course) people from our church community—singles, teenagers, older folks, and families—headed to Dominion and gathered around long tables and booths, squeezing in next to each other, and taking up more than half of the restaurant. Here we would talk, meet new people, welcome visitors, eat delicious food, and drink soda or ale. We also got to know the people who worked there as we got to know each other better. Babies were held on laps, little ones ate together (or ran around), teenagers spent time talking with adults or with each other, and friends would get caught up with each other’s lives. 

As a result, many times the flow of my family’s Sundays had the elements of Tolkien’s illustrations of rest for his characters.  These days included words of wisdom (sermons), songs (congregational singing), gifts (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper), feasting (pizza, cheese steaks, hard cider), friendship and stories (time with people sitting around the tables), and sleep (afternoon naps). On those Sundays when we experienced being in God’s house and fellowshipping with his people—as well as the sheer fun of feasting with others at Dominion—we felt we had experienced what was the true gift of Sabbath: the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. This was our provision for the coming week.  

J. R. R. Tolkien wrote in The Hobbit, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” And how true! May we find ways to delight in making the Sabbath holy—even if it is only at a local pizzeria and with an afternoon nap. May we enter into the light of true rest, abiding in God’s steadfast and faithful love for his people. 

The featured image is courtesy of Sam Keyes and used with his kind permission for Cultivating.


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