Christian Elements in the Writings of J. R. R. Tolkien
by Jared L. Olar
A new generation was introduced to the imagination of J. R. R. Tolkien in December 2001 through Peter Jackson's motion picture adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring. As for myself, I discovered Tolkien's works of fiction as a junior high school student over twenty years ago. As a teenager I read his books, in awe of the imaginary world, languages, and detailed history he'd created. To this day I still wish his book were authentic history rather than epic fairy stories. But one thing in particular I have always deeply appreciated about Tolkien-something I appreciate more and more with the passage of time: Tolkien put a lot of his Christian faith into his books, and it shows.
Tolkien's works of fantasy are set in an imagined distant past of the Earth, long before the coming of Christ. Therefore they do not explicitly mention Christian doctrines, and very little if any properly ``religious'' practices are described in them. Indeed, though all of Tolkien's works presuppose the existence of the Judaeo-Christian God, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings do not mention Him-rather like the story of Esther in the Hebrew canon of scripture.
Despite this apparent absence of Christian religion, Tolkien himself attested to the profound influence that his Catholic Christian faith had on his works of fiction. Late in 1953 Father Robert Murray, a close friend of the Tolkien family, read The Lord of the Rings shortly before it was published, and wrote a letter to Tolkien in which he compared the image of Queen Galadriel to the Virgin Mary. Tolkien wrote back, saying that he agreed that the comparison was apt: ``I think I know exactly what you mean . . . by your references to Our Lady, upon which all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded. The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.''
From the moment I read J. R. R. Tolkien's Silmarillion, I knew the author had to be a Christian. Apart from the noticeable ``Old Testament'' feel to those tales, that the Silmarillion opens with the Ainulindale (``The Music of the Ainur'') displayed Tolkien's deep religious faith through an account of the creation of the universe by Eru, the One (also called Iluvatar, ``Father of All''). I was especially moved by the depiction of the creation as a glorious, primeval chorus in which Eru and the Ainur (angels) sang Middle-earth into existence. I immediately thought of God's words in Job 38:4, 6-7:
``Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? .... Or who laid the cornerstone thereof, When the morning stars praised me together, And all the sons of God made a joyful melody?''
One thing in particular about the tales of the Silmarillion gave me a clue about just what kind of Christian the author was. Tolkien's version of the fallen angel Lucifer, Melkor or Morgoth, was defeated by the Valar-the good angels who serve as custodians of the earth-in the War of Wrath and then expelled from Middle-earth, never to return until the end of the world. The forces of good still had to combat evil, of course, only on a much smaller scale-lesser servants of Morgoth like the Dark Lord Sauron or the dragon Smaug, wraiths and barrow wights, orcs and trolls, or the evil tendencies of the human heart. But Morgoth himself was no longer able to influence events directly.
I immediately recognised that state of affairs as a version of St. Augustine of Hippo's post-millennialist/amillennialist interpretation of the Millennium (Rev. 20:1-11). In that interpretation, the ``binding'' of Satan at the beginning of the Millennium is Christ's victory over Sin and Death some two thousand years ago. Thus, Satan is to be loosed for a short while just before the Second Coming of Christ and the Last Judgment, as Morgoth is expected to return before the final end of Middle-earth. I knew that meant Tolkien was probably a Catholic: I saw that it certainly didn't mesh very well with the pre-millennialist views that I learned as a child of the Worldwide Church of God.
Incidentally, the imagery of the binding of the Devil found in Rev. 20:1-2 and II Pet. 2:4 can also be found in the Silmarillion's tale of the Captivity of Melkor, when he was bound for a long age with the chain Angainor. However, that event occurred vast ages prior to his expulsion during the War of Wrath.
One of the most obvious Christian themes in Tolkien's writings is, of course, the resurrection of Gandalf, who had to sacrifice everything-even his years of plans, efforts, and his very hopes that the Dark Lord might be defeated-in order to secure the safety of the Fellowship. The comparison of Gandalf's death and resurrection to the death and resurrection of Christ is self-evident to any and all.
Other Christian themes found throughout Tolkien's works of fantasy include the doctrines of monotheism and divine providence, and the redemptive and penitential nature of suffering (cf. Boromir's atoning for his assault on Frodo by singlehandedly but vainly defending Merry and Pippin from orcs, or the dreadful ordeal of Sam and Frodo in Mordor).
Again, Tolkien's Valar and Maiar answer to the angels of Christian faith, with Manwe being comparable in some ways to Michael the Archangel. As mentioned above, Melkor, the great fallen Vala also called Morgoth, answers to Satan the Devil. We have already seen the influence of the traditional Christian devotion to the Virgin Mary upon the creation of the character of Queen Galadriel. Some of that same influence can be detected in the character of Manwe's ``spouse'' Varda or Elbereth.
Others have noticed the similarity of the Elvish lembas to the consecrated bread of the Eucharist. Indeed, Christians often call the Eucharist viaticum, which means bread ``for the way,'' or for the journey-``waybread,'' a word Tolkien himself uses for the Elvish lembas. The Eucharist is believed to be spiritually more effective when eaten by someone who is fasting. Tolkien gave lembas a very similar quality.
There is also the baptismal imagery of Frodo's confrontation with the Ringwraiths at the Fords of Bruinen. In that scene a fatally-wounded Frodo passed through water to the safety of Rivendell, where he would be restored to health-though he would never be completely healed in this world. As Frodo was rescued, the waters of Bruinen swept the Nazgul away, just as Israel escaped from slavery through the Red Sea, which drowned the pursuing Egyptian army. Similarly, baptism miraculously washes away sin, but leaves our tendency for sin (``concupiscence'').
Also, just as we renounce Satan at our baptisms, with the words ``By Elbereth and Luthien the Fair, you shall have neither the Ring nor me!'' Frodo bravely (albeit hopelessly) defied the Ringwraiths, who pleaded with him to come back with them to Mordor even as he was on the verge of succumbing to the evil of his enchanted wound. Another instance of baptismal imagery in The Lord of the Rings can be found in the scene of Frodo's attempt to leave for Mordor alone. Sam tried to leap into Frodo's boat but fell short, sinking completely under the water before Frodo pulled him back up out of the river and into the boat.
Christians have also noticed that both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings tell stories of a prophesied restoration of a kingdom, similar to the story that is told in the Gospels. In The Hobbit it is the Dwarvish Kingdom ``under the Mountain,'' and in The Lord of the Rings it is the dual kingdom of Arnor and Gondor, that are restored. In both stories the heir to the kingdom is naturally something of a Christ-figure. For instance, in The Hobbit Thorin Oakenshield displays petty and selfish behavior that is not at all like Jesus Christ, but he redeems himself at the end by an act of self-sacrifice during the Battle of Five Armies. When the allied forces were in danger of defeat, Thorin turned the tide of the battle by drawing the main assault onto himself, crying out, ``To me! To me! Elves and Men! To me! O my kinsfolk!''
Thus, the Dwarvish kingdom could only be restored by the heir to the kingdom laying down his life in an act that drew the allies together, enabling them to win the battle. That is very reminiscent of John 12:32-33- `` `. . . And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to myself.' Now he said this signifying by what death he was to die.''
In The Lord of the Rings, of course, Aragorn has many of the features of Christ-rightful heir to the throne, noble and honorable and yet humble and selfless, unrecognized by his people who usually mistake him for a ne'er-do-well, enduring years of pain and hardship, and gifted with a miraculous healing power through the laying on of his hands. Aragorn even experiences a combined ``Temptation in the Wilderness'' and ``Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane'' when he challenges the Dark Lord by gazing into the Seeing Stone of Orthanc. Afterwards he experiences something of a death and resurrection, walking ``the Paths of the Dead'' and thereby redeeming the souls who haunted those mountain passes-just as traditional Christian doctrine holds that Jesus died, descended into Hades, ransomed the souls of the departed righteous, and then rose again from the dead.
Lastly, Christians can hardly fail to notice the fact that it was on December 25 (Christmas) that Aragorn's broken sword was reforged and the Fellowship left Rivendell on their Quest to save Middle-earth; that the Ring was destroyed on March 25 (Annunciation-the dawning of a new age, beginning of the new creation on the legendary Christian anniversary of the creation of the world); and that Frodo and Sam awoke on Easter Sunday in a scene that is filled with resurrection imagery. In particular, when Sam awakes to see Gandalf, he gasps, ``Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What's happened to the world?''
The Christian elements that were consciously and unconsciously embedded in Tolkien's stories (the above list is by no means exhaustive) are one of the things that make his works of fantasy such a joy for me to read. The evidence of Tolkien's faith in his writings helped make them classics of literature. Tolkien wrote good books-``good'' in every sense: aesthetic, ethical, moral, spiritual, and religious.
File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.01.On 14 Jul 2002, 15:57.