Commentary by Paul Tuns
Tolkien's epic rich with
Christian symbols, ideals
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
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
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
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
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
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)