The curse of the land: dragon-sickness in Tolkien and in the Book of Mormon.

There’s a handful of books that I return to again and again. Among that handful are the Book of Mormon, the New Testament, and Tolkien’s works. And a recurring theme that I find winding through both the Book of Mormon and in Tolkien’s stories is that of cursed, elusive treasure.

The prophet Samuel, the Lamanite, pronounces this curse on the Nephites in his day, prophesying that “whoso shall hide up treasures in the earth shall find them again no more, because of the great curse of the land.” Helaman 13:18. Samuel goes on at length: “[Y]e are cursed because of your riches,” he says. “And also your riches are cursed because ye have set your hearts upon them.” Helaman 13:21. To put in concrete terms the elusiveness of the riches, Samuel uses the highly evocative adjective “slippery.” God “curseth your riches, that they become slippery, that ye cannot hold them; and in the days of your poverty ye cannot retain them,” he says. Helaman 18:31.

And then he shifts from second person to first person, chanting a prophetic lament in the voice of the cursed:

“O that we had remembered the Lord our God in the day that he gave us our riches, and then they would not have become slippery that we should lose them. . . . Behold, we lay a tool here and on the morrow it is gone; and behold our swords are taken from us in the day we have sought them for battle. Yea, we have hid up our treasures and they have slipped away from us, because of the curse of the land.” Helaman 18:33.

Mormon tells us that Samuel’s curse reached its full effect about three centuries later when the robbers of Gadianton “did infest the land, insomuch that the inhabitants began to hide their treasures in the earth; and they became slippery, because the Lord had cursed the land, that they could not hold them, nor retain them again.” Mormon 1:18.

But when Moroni gets to translating the record of Ether, we find that this curse of Samuel was nothing new, but was the same curse that had already been pronounced many centuries before (in a time so long ago that its connection to Moroni’s time has become so obscured that, unlike the rest of the Book of Mormon, we can’t even estimate from the text how many years before Moroni’s time it happened). Abridging Ether, Moroni tells us, in words that, after reading Samuel’s curse and its fulfillment, should now be familiar:

“And now there began to be a great curse upon all the land because of the iniquity of the people, in which, if a man should lay his tool or his sword upon his shelf, or upon the place whither he would keep it, behold, upon the morrow, he could not find it, so great was the curse upon the land.” Ether 14:1.

When I read about this slippery, cursed treasure, I can’t help but think of Tolkien’s Isildur, of the moment when he put on the magic ring of gold to become invisible and escape from his enemies, only to have it slip treacherously from his finger and leave him exposed, to his death. I can’t help but think of how it slipped from Gollum’s watchful keeping for Bilbo to find it, or of Bilbo’s observation that the ring would mysteriously change shape and size from time to time.

And in Samuel’s diagnosis that the curse came because people had “set their hearts upon” the gold, Helaman 13:21, I can’t help but hear also an indictment of Isuldur’s claim on the gold ring “as a weregild for my father, and my brother,” or of Gollum’s claim that the gold was his “birthday present,” or of Bilbo’s claim that he won the gold in a game, not stole it, from Gollum. I hear an indictment of the treasure-lust of Thorin, Bard, and the Elvenking, a lust so strong that it drove them nearly to war with each other over ownership of a dragon-hoard of gold, so that only the threat of annihilation by other enemies was enough to shake them out of it (though, ironically, the threat of mutual annihilation by themselves wasn’t enough), a lust, a “dragon-sickness,” so deep and strong that Thorin was prepared to make a stand with only a dozen warriors against whole armies of angry elves and men.

And again, I can’t read of these three with their armies, prepared to kill each other over what they each perceived to be their rightful property, without thinking at least a little bit of Moroni’s description of the effect of the curse on the Jaredites: Because of this curse, Moroni says, “every man did cleave unto that which was his own, with his hands, and would not borrow neither would he lend; and every man kept the hilt of his sword in his right hand, in the defence of his property and his own life and of his wives and children.” Ether 14:2. To some extreme far-right second amendment fetishists, that probably sounds like a dream: a society where everyone self-reliantly keeps his right hand on his holster in defense of his property, life, and family. But not to Moroni. To Moroni, a man who actually lived through war and didn’t just fetishize it, who actually fought for his state’s collective liberty and in its collective defense, this is his hell: an anarchic, every-man-for-himself state of perpetual war and chaos induced by each person “cleav[ing] unto that which was his own, with his hands.” Moroni’s description of the Jaredites isn’t positive; it’s a hellscape.

And its not just Tolkien’s legendarium, either, than has this theme. His translation of the legend of Sigurd and Gudrun also hits it heavily, with the curse of the dragon Fafnir on the gold of his hoard, gold that would ultimately become the cause of so much death–because people sought the gold, and it was always there, always out of reach, but just barely, so that they were sure that one more attempt, one more raid, one more murder, would finally bring it within reach. But when they finally get it, they can’t hold onto it. It has become slippery. Eventually, the fueds set in motion by the gold-lust culminate in a horrific hellscape of murder, blood-drinking, and complete slaughter, as Atli burns alive in his torched hall.

Tolkien’s work is too complex to be reduced to a single theme. But I can’t help but wonder at times whether a major design of his stories isn’t a long working out in narrative form of Jesus’ warning to “[l]ay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal.” Matthew 6:19. I find it hard to believe that a Catholic as devout as Tolkien would not have at least chanced to reflect on that warning while writing and translating stories such as these. It’s perhaps for this reason that one of the most moving parts of The Hobbit for me is Thorin’s repentance and clear-headed recognition on his deathbed that we could escape the curse of dragon-sickness if only we learned to value fellowship and the simple pleasures of life instead of treasure. “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold,” prophesies Thorin, with the clarity of a dying declaration, “it would be a merrier world.” And again in The Lord of the Rings, with examples such Boromir’s repentance, the fellowship’s loyalty, and of Bombadil’s startling immunity to the curse, Tolkien’s answer seems to be again that we escape the curse by valuing fellowship and joy in the givenness of creation more than we value owning substance.

The Book of Mormon’s answer is not too different. In the Book of Mormon, the only escape from Samuel’s curse is to hide up treasure “unto the Lord.” Helaman 13:18. Samuel doesn’t really explain what that means, but the Book of Mormon–and the Book of Mormon’s origin story–contain some examples of men who hide up a treasure unto the Lord: Ether (Ether 15:33), Ammaron (4 Nephi vv. 48-49), and perhaps most prominently, Moroni himself, as he hides up the plates of gold, along with other heirlooms of Nephi’s house, for them to be kept safe for over 1200 years.

And if Moroni’s example (and Ether’s and Ammaron’s) illustrates what it means to hide up a treasure unto the Lord, then I think it illustrates a paradox: To hide it up unto the Lord means to renounce all claim on it, to let go of it, to stop grasping and searching and digging, to simply entrust it to God, to commend it to him, and to trust that he will put it where he wants it. It’s paradoxical, but the only way to counteract the slipperiness is to stop grasping. “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it,” Jesus says, while “whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.” Luke 9:24. Maybe that’s why Moroni was so hard on Joseph Smith for harboring secret thoughts of becoming enriched by the gold, and only relinquished the treasure to him when he had fully relinquished any expectation of pecuniary gain from the hoard. See, e.g., Joseph Smith-History v. 46. To get the treasure of great worth, the young, poverty-stricken, money-digging seer had to first make it worthless to himself.

I don’t know what it is about cursed slippery gold that appeals to me so much. Actually that’s not quite right. It doesn’t exactly appeal to me. It fascinates me. It horrifies me. It transfixes me. Not because it is pleasant, but because it is so true to life. Such an old and universal story. The world really is fallen and cursed. Teeming with moth, rust, and thieves.

And maybe that’s the point, at least in part: The curse of slipperiness is not just something that’s imposed on this world when people get really bad; it’s the curse that’s been baked into the very substance of this world since the fall. A pervasive theme in Tolkien is that all things on the earth and in earth decay and fail. It’s not just the tragically fated Turin that is doomed to miserable death after a fall from such greatness. The pride and splendor of Numenor, though it lasted an age, was only an illusion of endurance and was drowned in a day. The men of Westernesse, once the sea-kings of old, are reduced to ruins, relics, and wraith-haunted barrows. Even the immortal Lady of Caras Galadhon, whose power in preserving things is so great that her city exists almost outside of time, knows that even if her people manage to avoid being defeated and destroyed by evil, if they remain in middle earth they will eventually be “diminished.” Their stronghold against time in the Golden Wood “will fade,” and “the tides of Time will sweep it away.” And they will eventually “dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and be forgotten.”

No matter what, all things decay and fail in middle earth. Not just the bad, but even the noble. All things shall fail. And in this theme, I can’t help but be reminded of Paul and his conviction that even heavenly gifts will eventually fail. Even prophecies “shall fail,” even the gift of tongues “shall cease,” and even knowledge “shall vanish away.” Paul’s only exception is charity: the love that allows us to value each other over hoarded gold.

So the curse of Samuel is not some new curse, it’s the same  curse that was the Jaredites’s curse, and even that was the same as Adam’s curse–the curse that defines what it is to be mortal. Treasure is slippery because everything in mortality is slippery. Even if we manage to keep back the thieves that break through and steal, we can’t hold back the moth and the rust, not forever. The curse is woven into the very fiber of the world. Maybe it’s no coincidence that it is in the middle of the Book of Ether, when Moroni is describing the horror of an entire people driven mad by the curse into a perpetual state of grasping for gold with the left hand, while gripping a weapon in the right, that he breaks off into a rhapsody on faith, which he describes a thing that allows us to “hope for a better world.” Ether 12:4. And maybe it’s no coincidence that after translating the sad tale of the Jaredites, one of the last things that Moroni felt compelled to include was his father’s teaching, echoing Paul, that “all things must fail—” But, like Paul, Mormon holds out one exception: “charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever.” Moroni 7:47.

And here’s the thing about this curse: it’s still with us. Middle-earth is not a different planet. It’s the same earth we walk on. The middle place between heaven and hell. Mortality. The world in which we now live. And Samuel’s curse lives on. Invest money today and behold, on the morrow you cannot find it. Put your trust in a good job with a reliable income today, and it may vanish overnight. The curse is not just in the past. There’s a golden thread that weaves Cain together with Akish the Jaredite, Kishkumen and Gadianton, Glaurung, Smaug, Isildur, and Gollum, and its a thread that runs through our own time as well. A slippery, cursed, golden thread.

There are few truths more universal, and more horrifying in their almost total power, than the seductiveness of the call of wealth. And part of what makes it so seductive is that there are reasons–good reasons–why legitimately we need it. We have to feed and clothe our families. And wealth can be a mighty tool to relieve suffering. Even Jacob says that if we seek wealth, after first becoming converted to Christ, we will have it, if we seek it for the purpose of doing good. Jacob 2:19. Feeding the hungry. Clothing the naked. Liberating the captive. Relieving the sick. Righting wrongs. That’s how it begins. But that’s rarely where it ends. As we begin grasping, sooner or later, we begin to grasp more and more, if not with our hands, then in our hearts. We tell ourselves lies about how our affluence is not affecting us. Not really. Not down in our core. We could give it all up if we had to, but it’s just not required of us at this time. Maybe someday God will ask us to consecrate our wealth. But not now. We can stop any time we want to.

But the truth is, in that mortal part of our dual nature, that part that was conceived in sin, and in which sin conceived as we grew, see Moses 6:55, we are addicted to the gold. And that’s why the slipperiness is such a curse. We yearn for the thing, crave it, obsess over it, sacrifice what we love most for it, only to find that it is always just out of reach, or that it is within reach only for a fleeting moment before it slips away. It is the call that seduced Cain, Akish, and Kishkumen. The call that came so compellingly to Sméagol that “he caught Déagol by the throat and strangled him, because the gold looked so bright and beautiful.”

There is no cure for dragon-sickness. At best, it goes into remission. We can quit grasping, with help, but the withdrawals are harrowing, and even then, the addiction never really goes away. Even if we think we’ve changed, we can fall off the wagon at any moment. It’s a wound that, despite the virtue of athelas and even the healing skill of the half-elven, will never fully heal, at least not in these mortal lands. But, if we can begin to learn charity, if we can begin to learn to value each other over hoarded gold, then perhaps we can, even as we walk under this world’s tree-tangled stars, glimpse a vision of a straight road leading to undying lands beyond the veils of this world, “a far green country under a swift sunrise,” where, though all “former things have passed away,” Revelation 21:4, charity still endures forever.

And with the faith born of that vision, then maybe we can at least hope for a better world, and love each other, and die.

Comments

  1. Clark Goble says:
  2. This is good stuff. Thanks for sharing.

  3. anitawells says:

    As I read this, I thought of retirement and investment accounts in the stock market, and how those values change daily and by no fault of our own, sometimes riches slip away. I think the only way to really “hide up treasure unto the Lord” is by consecrating ourselves through temple covenants, and purifying our motives in earning and saving so that the Lord knows our desire is to build up his kingdom and people with whatever riches he grants us.

  4. I love this.

  5. In fact, I’m bookmarking it for future reference.

  6. J. Stapley says:

    This really is great.

  7. “There’s a golden thread that weaves Cain together with Akish the Jaredite, Kishkumen and Gadianton, Glaurung, Smaug, Isildur, and Gollum, and its a thread that runs through our own time as well. A slippery, cursed, golden thread.”

    This is perfect. And so true. Are you familiar with the Pardoner’s Tale in the Canterbury Tales? It is also a variation on this theme (and it is my favorite of all things by Chaucer).

  8. Spot on, and that makes me uncomfortable, which I believe was the whole point.

  9. Fantastic!

  10. anitawells, I think consecration is tightly bound up in hiding up unto the Lord.

    Michael, I read the Pardoner’s Tale last night. Hadn’t read it before. Fantastic.

  11. There’s a thread of this sentiment in C.S. Lewis, too. See, for instance, Roonwit’s last words to Tirian, the last king of Narnia, in The Last Battle: “Remember that all worlds draw to an end and that noble death is a treasure which no one is too poor to buy.”

  12. Very nice!

    I think it is important to note that in LOTR the story does not simply dwell on the perils of ambition and greed, but offers the solution of humility. Hobbits are largely resistant to the Ring because they lack ambition; Tom Bombadil is immune to the Ring because he is content with what he has.

    There is also an element of condescension (in the religious sense). Gandalf, of course, humbles himself by taking mortal form. Fangorn sets aside his native dignity while helping the hobbits.

    Anyway, just some random thoughts.

  13. Hobbits are largely resistant to the Ring because they lack ambition

    I’ll have to keep that in mind next time I get down about my career path!

  14. Tolkien, charity, and Mormon scripture all in one place: this is what I’m here for! Thank you so much for weaving this thoughtful piece together, I absolutely love this.

  15. Nice parallel, MH. Of course, Narnia, as great as it is, is just a cheap imitation of middle earth. :)

    Nepos, humility is definitely part of the triumph of Tolkien’s heros. My point here is that that humility is, at least in part, born out of charity. Hobbits lack ambition to acquire wealth or power not just because they are feckless, but because they care more for “food and cheer and song” with good company than they do about wealth or dominion. Even Bombadil is content with what he has because he is too filled with a love of living things (chiefly Goldberry, of course) to care for wealth or power.

    Of course, humility is a big part of charity as well. In my experience, if I’m unable to have charity for another person, it’s usually because I am judging their sins. The truly humble, though, know that they are no better than any other, and rather than judge others for their sins, they simply plead for mercy for their own, and for those of others.

  16. Simply great and very powerful. Tolkien is I think obsessed with the greatness of years gone by, with the fleeting nature of things. You’ve done a great job bringing that out.

  17. This is incredible. I love it. Book of Mormon and Tolkien together in a lovely amalgam! I will have to read Chaucer now.

  18. Yep. He’s obsessed with the past, both in a general sense, sic transit gloria, and especially with respect to languages, etymologies, and stories. I think there’s a bit of autobiography in Smeagol’s description as being drawn to digging and discovering the roots of things.

  19. Very interesting and an excellent interpretation good job JKC!

  20. Eloquent, moving, and best of all, true. Makes me want to reread Approaching Zion by Nibley.

  21. JKC–personally I feel that humility is at the root of charity–but that’s like arguing over angels dancing on pin. Humility and charity are so closely intertwined that they might be considered a single virtue.

    Tolkien illustrates this beautifully in the relationship between Frodo and Gollum. Frodo shows charity to Gollum partly out of humility (“there but for the grace of God”), but his charity teaches him greater humility (Frodo is only saved through Gollum’s intervention.)

  22. I agree with that, Nepos. We have to remember that when we come up with words like “humility” and “charity,” and make lists of virtues like Paul, or Peter, or Joseph Smith did, we’re not really describing separate things as much as we are describing the single character of what it means to be saint. Humility and charity are very closely intertwined in that description.

    One passage that comes to mind is Sam’s “test” where he carries the ring when he thinks Frodo is dead, and is tempted to claim it as his own. The narrator comes right out and says that the thing that chiefly helped him pass the test was love for his master, but that not far behind was his “hobbit-sense,” his sense of his own inadequacy and a self-deprecating willingness to laugh at such grandiose ideas when they entered his head.

  23. This is so wonderful. You’ve accessed Truth here, as expressed in both scripture and fiction.

    Like you, I return to Tolkien often. As a lover of literature, including many classics of different nations’ literatures, Tolkien feels the most similar to Mormon scripture to me. In fact, every time I reread The Silmarillion, I am impressed with its uncanny similarities to The Book of Mormon, in particular its narration of the downfall of several different civilizations as a result of something that can loosely be described by the Sunday-School term “the pride cycle.” They both detail the downfall of our societies as genetically encoded in our DNA, an inevitability. Only the Atonement of Jesus Christ offers a way out, as The Book of Mormon tries to explain.

  24. “[E]very time I reread The Silmarillion, I am impressed with its uncanny similarities to The Book of Mormon, in particular its narration of the downfall of several different civilizations as a result of something that can loosely be described by the Sunday-School term “the pride cycle.” They both detail the downfall of our societies as genetically encoded in our DNA, an inevitability. Only the Atonement of Jesus Christ offers a way out, as The Book of Mormon tries to explain.

    Not surprisingly, John, I agree. The whole notion of the Book of Mormon as “the voice of one crying from the dust,” and as “the record of a fallen people” is very much akin with the Silmarillion.

    Well, if David O. McKay reportedly considered Shakespeare to be “scripture,” as Greg Prince’s book says, then we can consider Tolkien’s tales to be the same. Besides, after Elder Uchtdorf quoted The Hobbit in a talk a few years ago, I’ll never again be embarrassed to quote Tolkien in gospel discussions.

  25. One of the little ironies is that The Lord of the Rings is, to my mind, a far better elucidation of Christian thought than the fiction of Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis, even though the latter was actively trying to write Christian allegory.

    Whether this is because Tolkien was a better writer, or because (as Tolkien believed) allegory is an abomination, or a bit of both, is open to debate.

  26. I agree, Nepos. And not only do I think that the legendarium captures Christianity better than Lewis’s expressly allegorical Christian fiction, I think it captures it better even than Lewis’s theological writings, too. (And I still like Lewis!) Tolkien famously abhorred allegory, but he had no problem with “applicability”–meaning that a not overtly Christian story could still elucidate Christian principles because those principles and ways of thinking are applicable to the story. And it’s not just that he thought that such applicability should be an accident. He had no problem revising The Lord of the Rings, for example, to make it, in his words, “a fundamentally religious and catholic work.”

  27. Mark Ashurst-McGee says:

    Tolkien writes of Smaug:
    “His rage passes description–the sort of rage that is only seen when rich folk that have more than they can enjoy suddenly lose something that they have long had but have never before used or wanted.”

  28. That’s a gem, isn’t it, Mark? Tolkien is full of those little incisive observations tucked in alongside the main story.

  29. JKC-heh, I almost wrote “better than any of Lewis’ writing”, but I was worried that might come on a bit strongly. I certainly agree with you, though.

    The truly amazing thing is that the Christianity in LoTR is simultaneously omnipresent and invisible. That is, there is almost nothing that stands out as overtly Christian, and the story can be fully enjoyed without any knowledge of Christianity. And yet, if you analyze LoTR from a Christian perspective, Tolkien is clearly engaging with Christian themes throughout the book. It is a testament to his skill that he was able to pull off that seeming paradox.

  30. “It is a testament to his skill that he was able to pull off that seeming paradox.” I think I agree with you. But on the other hand, it could also simply be a reflection of the fact that Christian themes are also universal themes. Tolkien loved finding Christian themes in old pre-Christian European culture. Or, perhaps more precisely, he loved finding that the themes of that culture happened to be applicable to a Christian view of the world in deeply meaningful ways. And if, like many Mormons and Catholics, you take the view that Christianity is basically baked into the substance of the world itself from the beginning, it’s not hard to see such universal themes as related to Christianity.

  31. JKC–good point. And Tolkien certainly would have agreed!

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