The Gospel According to J.R.R. Tolkien
A Special Comment from William D. Brehm,
who is a long term "Lord of the Rings" fan.
Just for purposes of conversation: Suppose that Medieval folklore and New Testament theology were metals. Suppose that someone took a large piece of each metal and melted them together in a crucible to make an alloy. Then the molten alloy was poured into molds to make three ingots.
Q. What would you call the three ingots?
A. The Lord of the Rings
The point is this: Everyone knows that J.R.R. Tolkien employed quite a bit of Medieval folklore in writing the Lord of the Rings. There is no question about that.
However, it appears that few have realized how much New Testament theology is embedded in the novels. It shows in both the characters and the overall story. However, if a person is not looking for it, is very easy to overlook it. Some of the Christian imagery is in fact subtle, but some is anything but.
It is well known that C. S. Lewis put a lot of Christianity into his "Chronicles of Narnia" novels, especially in the character of Aslan, the noble lion, who is really Jesus Christ. J. R. R. Tolkien was also a Christian. He and C. S. Lewis were friends; in fact it was Tolkien who led Lewis to Christ, and they shared ideas for their stories. Lewis tended to be more obvious with his Christian ideas. This is clearly visible in his acclaimed science fiction trilogy. Tolkien chose not to be so obvious, but the Christian ideas are absolutely there.
For example, have you noticed that Gandalf effectively rises from the dead? Not only does he do that; he comes back more powerful than he was before. Gandalf, you see, is a Christ figure. His fall into "Shadow" is Christ's descent into Hell. Did you notice that the Balrog- a figure of Satan - catches Gandalf by the heal with its whip? That incident is an allusion to Genesis 3:15, a verse widely recognized as the first prophecy of the coming of Jesus Christ:
"And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel."
(The word "seed" is singular in the Hebrew, and thus refers to one particular descendant.)
Gandalf's defeat of the Balrog is Christ's defeat of Satan, and of course it is followed by resurrection. Gandalf the White, therefore, is the Risen Christ. His voyage into the west at the end, along with the elves, is a figure of the Ascension. "Numinor, the True West" (as in the book) symbolizes Heaven.
What is interesting in the Lord of the Rings is that there is more than one Christ figure - in fact there are four- and each personifies Christ in a different way. There is also more than one Satan figure - actually, there are three. Each also personifies Satan in a different way. In the story, all the Christ figures survive, and all the Satan figures are destroyed. This tells us, symbolically, the Christ and His people will triumph in the end, and that Satan and his minions will be destroyed. It also tells us that good and evil are real, not relative, and that there are conscious personalities behind both. That message comes through when people read the books or watch the movies. That alone has led to at least one person that the author knows getting saved.
There are other personifications of other Christian characters too. Unfortunately, we have Galadriel as a stand-in for the Virgin Mary, in the words of the Beatles, "speaking words of wisdom". Did you notice that her husband Celeborn, ostensibly a king, is an insignificant character? It is not a coincidence. He of course represents Joseph. Tolkien, you see, was a Catholic. We have the other two main female characters - Arwen and Eowyn - personifying the Church, but in different ways. We have elves doing duty as angels. The orcs personify - what else? - demons. Did you notice the line in "The Fellowship of the Ring" in which Saruman tells them that orcs were once elves? Many people believe that demons are fallen angels.
Saruman, by the way, is a figure of the type of person who intentionally does evil, thinking to profit thereby, but ultimately precipitates his own destruction. He is the quintessential hardened sinner.
Boromir is the tragic figure who thinks he can fight evil with evil, deceived into thinking that he can control the evil, and he too precipitates his own death thereby. In the end, the evil he wishes to use controls him. He thus indirectly demonstrates the truth that evil can be overcome only with good. In the story, it is the people who do what they know is right that win.
There are characters that personify other aspects of the Gospel, too, both good and bad. Gollum, for example, is a figure of mankind enslaved by sin, still passionately seeking and coveting the very thing that has destroyed him.
Can't see it yet?
Let me explain further by introducing the other Christ figures:
Samwise Gamgee is Christ the servant. He is the "friend that sticks closer than a brother". He makes himself a living sacrifice as he aids Frodo. He is the meek one who inherits the earth (in this case, the Shire).
Frodo, the Ring Bearer, is Christ the Sin Bearer. He carries the burden of the Ring as Christ carried the burden of sin. He too is a living sacrifice. Frodo's wound on Weathertop is a figurative of Christ's spear wound on the Cross. Note that the wound on Weathertop is inflicted by the Witch King, another Satan figure. Frodo's voyage to the west, like Gandalf's, is also symbolic of the Ascension.
Aragorn is the Christ of the Second Coming. He is the King who shall reign in righteousness. Therefore, the third novel, and of course the third move, are "The Return of the King". Notice that Aragorn's return to Minas Tirith augurs defeat for the forces of Sauron, who happens to be the biggest Satan figure. It is no coincidence that Aragorn brings the dead with him when he returns. That idea is right out of the New Testament. So is the idea of his entering the realm of the dead to get them. The details, of course, are quite different, but the ideas are there. At the end, He is Christ reigning over a world cleansed from evil and at peace. Finally , though it wasn't shown in movies; in the book, Aragorn has supernatural healing powers. He heals Merry and Eowyn of the magical illness they caught when they killed the Witch King.
And while we're on the subject, Minas Tirith is a stand-in for Jerusalem. The Battle of Pelennor Fields is Armageddon. The battle at the Black Gate is the "little season" at the end of the Millennium, which is followed by the Final Judgment
The One Ring is a symbol of sin. It is the Forbidden Fruit that everyone wants; the "Precious" thing that no one who has it wants to give up, yet it enslaves and destroys anyone who has it. It is no coincidence that the Ring was made by Sauron, the main Satan figure. The Bible tells us that sin began in Satan. The Hebrew word usually translated "found" in Ezekiel 28:15, "Thou wast perfect in thy ways from the day that thou wast created, till iniquity was found in thee", can mean "began" or "was made". Though Sauron made the Ring, he himself lost control it, and in the end, it indirectly destroys him, just as sin will indirectly destroy Satan.
As stated, Arwen and Eowyn are both figures of the Church. Arwen, obviously, is the Church as the Bride of Christ. Eowyn is the Church of this age, the Church Militant. When she slays the Witch King and his flying beast, she symbolizes the Church victorious over Satan. As has been noted by others, Eowyn wants to fight, not because she is bloodthirsty - she isn't - but because she cares about her people. In the same way, the Church is at war with the forces of evil, because the Church cares. The Witch King, by the way, is Satan attacking men as individuals.
It is well known that the story of the Lord of the Rings is a fight between good and evil. By now you should be able to see that it is based on the fight between Christ and Satan, howbeit Christ in four persons and Satan in three.
Now check this out about the Third Age of Middle Earth: Some, though not all, Christians, and also some Jews believe that all history will be divided into seven one thousand year days. This is based on two passages of Scripture, Psalm 90:4, and II Peter 3:8, both of which say that in God's sight a thousand years is equal to a day, and the fact that Genesis 1 describes the earth as being created in seven days, including God's rest. According to this theory, there will be two days of chaos or anarchy (from Creation to Abraham), two days of the Law (from Abraham to Christ) and two days of the Messiah (from the First to the Second Comings). Then there will be a seventh day, the Millennium, when Christ reigns on earth. In the Lord of the Rings, we see the coronation of Aragorn ushering in the "Millennium" of Middle Earth as the Third Age of Middle Earth comes to an end. Again, Tolkien drew the idea of the Third Age from the Bible. We are living in the Third Age of Earth!
Now you may ask, why did Tolkien do that?
The answer is that he did it to communicate the Christian Faith in a subtle, indirect way, but in such manner that the reader or, in the case of the movies, the viewer, gets the message unconsciously.
Tolkien is not the only person who has ever done this kind of thing.
One More Thing:
Gandalf, we have said, is the Christ of the Resurrection. He also happens to be Christ the Teacher and Counselor. This is shown no more clearly in the movies than in his conversation with Frodo in the Mines of Moria, which can be considered to be a sort of "valley of the shadow of death". So, by the way, is the land of Mordor. In the scene in Moria, Frodo is bemoaning the fact that he has the One Ring, and wishing that everything in the story up to that point in time had not happened. Gandalf informs him that that is not his to decide. Then, in the best line in the entire trilogy, a line that was often quoted in the movie trailers, Gandalf gives Frodo some counsel that every one of us can heed and take to heart; counsel that is almost Scripture:
"The only thing that we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us."
That's right. That's what we have to decide in the real world. We have to decide what we are going to do with the time that God has given us.
You know what Moses said about this in Psalm 90:12;
"So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom."
In Ephesians 5:16, Paul tells us we should be "redeeming the time, for the day is evil".
And above all, in Joshua 24:15, we find these words:
"Choose you this day whom you will serve...but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."
So you can see where Gandalf's advice comes from.
Again, Gandalf (that is, Tolkien) was right. For Christians, being conscious of this is the most important lesson that they can learn from the Lord of the Rings. There is a battle between good and evil going on in the real world. The real world issues, and the outcome of the battle, are just as critical to the future of humanity as the fantasy issues in the Lord of the Rings. So the questions stands:
What are you going to do with your time?
Contact author, William D. Brehm