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February 2003

Tolkien's epic rich with
Christian symbols, ideals

Commentary by Paul Tuns

J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy - or more properly, Middle Earth, the world he created as the setting for the trilogy, the children's book The Hobbit, The Silmarillion (the prequel to the trilogy) and his 12-volume History of Middle Earth - is set in a pre-Christian world and therefore it is not explicitly Christian. But it has elements of Christianity, was informed by Tolkien's faith and is easily compatible with Christian truth.

As Bradley J. Birzer notes in J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle Earth (ISI Books, $24.95 US, 219 pages), Tolkien, born in 1892, was very much influenced by his Catholic upbringing, first by his mother and later after she died, Fr. Francis Morgan. (In fact, this point is made clear in biographies, including Joseph Pearce's Tolkien: Man and Myth , Tom Shippey's J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Humphrey Carpenter's JRR Tolkien: A Biography, and Michael Coren's children's book J.R.R. Tolkien: The Man Who Created The Lord of the Rings, but this essay will focus on Birzer.) While Tolkien went out of his way to stress that the Lord of the Rings - henceforth LOTR - is not an allegory, it has themes (good and evil; the concept of grace) and symbols (archetypes such as priest, prophet and king; the bread of life; the invocation of saints) that are clearly Christian and can be used by Christians to think about reality in this world.

Tolkien wrote to a Jesuit friend, Rev. Robert Murray, that "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like 'religion,' to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism." This may be the most quoted line from any of Tolkien's writings, so much so that it almost cliche. But it is also true.

In a chapter on Tolkien's use of myth, Birzer says myths can contain fragments or representations of larger, objective truths. Echoing Tolkien, Birzer says that myths can express greater truths than history.

There is much to cover so I must touch upon some topics merely.

The symbolism is deep and rich. Aragorn is the king, returning to his throne after assuming the unlikely disguise of a ranger, is clearly a Christ-figure. But, then, so is the wizard Gandalf. There is a scene in the book, whitewashed in the movie, in which Gandalf dies after fighting a Balrog, a horrible demon. The fight in which Gandalf perishes, requires his death in order to save the rest of the fellowship - much like Jesus' sacrifice saves all of us. Gandalf the Grey dies, but rises three days later and now, as Gandalf the White, is more powerful than ever.

There is also the invocation of the name of the unseen elf Elbereth in the time of battle or pain, reminiscent of the Catholic tradition of invoking saints for particular purposes.

Another important, but often missed symbolism of LOTR (virtually ignored in the movie) is that of lembas.

As Birzer notes, lembas is the "life-bread" that the elf Galadriel gives to the Fellowship for their journey. This bread sustains the heroes throughout their separate journeys. As Tolkien writes, this bread "had a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure..." Clearly, as Tolkien admitted in a letter, lembas is "a derivation from the Eucharist." (It is to the discredit of the movies that there is just a mere mention of the lembas without an exploration of its significance.)

The most important symbol is the Ring, which represents "the weight of sin and temptation." As in our own lives, overcoming these temptations during the journey is what what saves or ruins the characters of the LOTR.

Tolkien created Middle Earth as a tribute to God. Not wanting to insult God and fiddle with His creation, Tolkien made a sub-creation. And in Middle Earth, Tolkien created a richly developed land. As Professor Ralph C. Wood has noted, "The Lord of the Rings is a massive epic fantasy of more than half a million words. It is also a hugely complex work, having its own complicated chronology, cosmogony, geography, nomenclature, and multiple languages."

Tolkien created a world, much like ours, and although pre-Christian, it dramatizes Christian reality. There is the fight between good and evil, there is the struggle against pride and the desire for power, there is death and resurrection and salvation (the second movie The Two Towers, is especially good at examining the idea of salvation, mercy and redemption through the story of Frodo, Samwise Gamgee and Gollum). Throughout LOTR there is the idea of providence - the sense that accidental things happen which are not really accidents but part of a larger plan. It is noted by Gandalf that it was intended by a higher power that the Ring came into the hands of two hobbits, Bilbo in The Hobbit and Frodo in LOTR.

Hobbits, small creatures that mind their own business and seldom venture away from their own homes in The Shire, are unlikely heroes. Aragorn is a king seeking to return to his throne and displays manly virtue and great strength. Gandalf is a wise and powerful wizard. The elves are skilled bowmen and smart. Even the dwarves are powerful and industrious. But hobbits are short, unworldly and unadventurous. They symbolize the common man.

But the common man is capable of great acts of heroism. As Leon J. Podles noted in Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, heroism as depicted in Tolkien shares "key aspects with Christ's heroic mission: bravery, pity, mercy, love, self-sacrifice and suffering." All Christians are called to live up to these examples of Jesus knowing that we will fall short.

The heroes continue in their epic journey, sometimes as a unified Fellowship but even when they are torn apart, because they realize they have no choice to do good.

While many readers consider the heroes to be Frodo, Aragorn and/or Gandalf, Birzer notes the under-appreciated heroism of Samwise Gamgee. Sam, as he is usually called, "has one great virtue, and it proves to be the virtue that sanctifies his character: loyalty." Loyalty to his friend Frodo, the fellowship and their mission of returning the Ring to the fires of Mount Doom.

Sam, Birzer notes, "demonstrates his love for and obedience to Frodo throughout the story," taking the task at hand (saving Middle Earth from evil) even though he would rather spend time in his home in The Shire and to his home and garden. But it is not to be; God has a different plan for him, which he obediently accepts. "as all good men do." When Frodo seems unable to continue, or tempted to succumb to the lure of the Ring, Sam helps his friend do what is right.

Near the end of the second movie, Sam says to Frodo, "There are things that people hold onto to keep them going." "What are we holding onto?" Frodo asks. To which Sam replies, "That there is some good in this world, and that's worth fighting for."

That is the central message of LOTR, the subtle Christianity that the movie is allowed to portray. We would do well to remember this in our own lives.

Editor's Note: For a fuller study of the themes of myth, good and evil, and Christian symbolism, read Bradley J. Birzer's J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth. As Joseph Pearce notes in the introduction, those who fail to understand this symbolism "will continue to be blind to that which is most beautiful in The Lord of the Rings." Readers would also benefit from reading The Letters of JRR Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter (Harper Collins, 1981)




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