The whole face of the land was changed

February 9, 2005 | 8 comments

I’ve just finished reading Tolkien’s Silmarillion. Its plot is the Book of Mormon’s plot: the pride cycle. Great civilizations rise, grow over-proud, and ruin themselves in quarrels and strange oaths. The Silmarillion even has the land be broken and changed, several times in fact, just like the Book of Mormon does. Plus it has dispensations called Ages.

I’ve never heard a good explanation of what dispensations are or a good justification for having them. The Silmarillion certainly doesn’t fill that gap. But in the Silmarillion the dispensations feel right, they feel natural. If that’s true, if they’re right aesthetically, must there not be some deep logic behind them? Must they not correspond to some part of our experience that we have simply failed to consciously apply? I reckon so. If dispensations are beautiful I’d be surprised if they were without truth.

If dispensations are primarily an aesthetic concept, the breaking and remaking of the land is doubly so. It is essentially a metaphor. When wickedness grows too great, men need their hearts and spirits broken so they can be remade by Christ. So the land is physically broken as a symbol of it. Or, men have broken the order of creation and brought spiritual ruin on themselves. So the natural order of creation also breaks. Either way, like all metaphors do, the metaphor tends to bind men to nature. If nature is encompassed in our ruin it must pertain to us. Why and how I do not know. When Christ sits as a lawgiver, the mountains having been cast down and the vallies filled up, perhaps I will understand better.

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8 Responses to The whole face of the land was changed

  1. Steve Evans on February 9, 2005 at 5:51 pm

    Adam, I’m not sure that the comparison of Tolkien’s Ages to LDS dispensations is a valid one. In Tolkien, an Age represents a distinctive step away from divine creation, whereas dispensations represent a renewed relationship with God.

    Dispensations act as a reset button of sorts in the ongoing search for God; new prophets are called, divine missions undertaken, and scriptures written. Although it’s tempting to draw parallels to Ages of the Earth (thus the Thousand Years series of books), dispensations are not equally spread out in time, nor do they represent a consistent occurrence of events — some dispensations are greater than others, and the distinction is not chronological.

    Anyhoo, love tolkien, don’t love the analogy.

  2. Jonathan Max Wilson on February 9, 2005 at 7:01 pm

    I love the Silmarillion. My favorite is the tragic tale of Turin. I’ve wondered if it could be adapted to the stage.

    Dispensation means the act of dispensing, something dispensed, or a specific arrangement or system by which something is dispensed.

    In the New Testament the word dispensation is a translation of the Greek word “Oikonomia“ which means “the management of a household or of household affairs, specifically, the management, oversight, administration, of other’s property; the office of a manager or overseer, stewardship; administration, dispensation .

    So dispensation implies authority and bestowed stewardship. A dispensation of the Gospel implies a bestowal of authority to preach the Gospel, administer ordinances, and organize the church. In each dispensation God sets out to dispense anew his Gospel and restores his church organization. We usually associate Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus Christ, Joseph Smith with new gospel dispensations. When the Lord organizes a dispensation, the gospel is revealed anew so that the people of that dispensation do not have to depend on past dispensations for knowledge of the plan of salvation.

  3. Mike Parker on February 10, 2005 at 12:29 pm

    I think this is conclusive proof that Joseph Smith wrote the book of Mormon based on ideas he picked up from reading Tolkien.

  4. Jim Richins on February 10, 2005 at 12:54 pm

    Mike Parker:


    I’m not sure if Adam is specifically trying to make this connection, but I don’t believe that dispensations have been punctuated by periods when the land was broken up.

    I also think it’s a whole lot easier for an author like Tolkien to arbitrarily create Ages that are more aesthetic, or fit together according to some underlying principle. Dispensations are a conceptual abstraction based on history, and so there would be less expectation that their chronological (or other underlying organizing principle) placement should be aesthetic.

    But, the metaphor of the ground being broken up is certainly a good pedagological device, and one that has been used effectively by the Lord, as well as His duly-appointed SS teachers.

  5. john fowles on February 10, 2005 at 5:06 pm

    Hugh Nibley talks about purpose in dispensations in the introduction to his paper on Abraham’s Creation Drama.

    P.S.: don’t read the paper while wearing Egyptian ceremonial dress, particularly if any of your children might see you.

  6. Adam Greenwood on February 11, 2005 at 5:48 pm

    “Dispensations are a conceptual abstraction based on history”

    Not true. It’s not like colors, where’s there a gradual change in spectrum and for cultural reasons we group the spectrum into ‘colors.’ We’re not the ones talking about dispensations, God is. So it must be more than just a convenient way of breaking history into chunks.

  7. Adam Greenwood on February 11, 2005 at 5:49 pm

    Also, though I do not contend that changes in dispensations are marked by the earth breaking, clearly some changes are marked that way. I cite two examples in my post.

  8. Weston C on February 13, 2005 at 5:37 pm

    “I think this is conclusive proof that Joseph Smith wrote the book of Mormon based on ideas he picked up from reading Tolkien. ”

    Well, if you believe in the time cube. ;)

    But actually, I’ve often thought that Tolkein was a good counterexample to the saw that because the Book of Mormon was such a detailed description of an old civilization, it couldn’t have been made up. Tolkein did just that, probably detailed beyond what the BoM has in many ways.

    There is still, of course, the issue of the amount of time it was done in.


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