Christian Elements and Symbols in Tolkien
- 2010 4 Apr
If the study of literature shows nothing else, it shows that every author, consciously or subconsciously, creates his (or her) work after his (or her) own world view. Tolkien is no exception. "I am a Christian..." he writes, and his books show it. Christianity appears in The Lord of the Rings not as allegory--Tolkien despises that--nor as analogy, but as deep undergirding presuppositions, similarities of pattern, and shared symbols.
That there should be similarities between the presuppositions of of The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien's Catholic faith is to be expected given Tolkien's views on Christianity and myth. Regarding the gospel story Tolkien wrote, "The gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essences of fairy-stories." Since all myths are subordinate to the overarching "myth," it would be surprising if parallels were not found between greater and lesser. This is certainly true where the author consciously recognizes his archetype. If he has at all grasped its form and meaning, if the archetype has at all succeeded in working its way to his heart, then it must also work its way to his pen.
The essence of the gospel and of fairy-tales is, in Tolkien's own word, euchatastrophe--the surprising, hopeful turn in all man's despair and sorrow. Joy is the result, a brief glimpse springing out of the inherent evangelium of the genre. This is the dominant note of, and even the apology for, fairy-tales.
Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy is set in a pre-Christian world. Hence it cannot adopt an explicit Christianity. Nonetheless it can, and does, shadow Christianity just as the Old Testament pre-shadowed the New, although admittedly Tolkien's is a post-view set as a pre-view. The Christian types to be found in The Lord of the Rings which we will examine are of two sorts: shared world view and shared symbols.
The first category embraces such distinctly philosophical issues as good and evil, historical perspective, freewill and predestination, grace, mercy, providence, judgment and redemption. The development of these themes in The Lord of the Rings is Christian or at least Hebraic.
Shared imagery is no less important to the tenor of the whole work. An example of shared imagery is the antithesis of dark and light so evident in both John the Apostle and Tolkien. Observe the close connection between Haldir's statement, "But whereas the light perceives the very heart of darkness, its own secret has not been discovered," and John's "The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it."
Focusing on the shared world view, we see that Tolkien's work embodies a definitely Judeo-Christian view of good and evil. Evil is seen as perverted or fallen good. Perhaps the best expression of this characteristically Judeo-Christian viewpoint comes when Elrond, the high elf, says, "Nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so." Evil is also seen as self-destructive--a theme which cannot be divorced from scripture. Evil is self-blinded, too. That which it does in malice, that which seems to be its greatest victory, proves to be its own undoing. No clearer illustration of this truth is possible than Christ's resurrection which proved to be the surprising undoing of Satan's greatest triumph. The fiend underwent a devastating and unlooked for humiliation in achieving this victory. It is akin to Sauron's defeat at the moment he was gloating in the stupidity of the march of Aragorn and his meagre six thousand to the gates of Mordor.
Another aspect of evil developed in Tolkien is the insatiable hunger to possess, to rule, to dominate. The Bible captures the same idea with pictures of locusts, of the sword, of wild beasts, of striving kings, and of Satan going about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he might devour. "Devouring" is an apt symbolization of insatiable lust. It closely parallels the Trilogy's symbol "hunger." In contradistinction to evil beings, good creatures are filled and satisfied over and again. They even partake of foods which are magically sustaining--miruvor and lembas. These two elements also serve to remind us of the water and bread of life.
C. S. Lewis conceived of devils as mirthless. Since "humor involves a sense of proportion and power of seeing yourself from the outside...we must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment..."
Tolkien's view of evil beings has much in common with this of Lewis. Laughter is the domain of good; cruel mockery and joyless mirth is attributable to evil. The latter is always devoid of refreshment. One wonders how Tolkien viewed the widespread acceptance of put-downs and cruel repartee as popular forms of entertainment.
One last example will suffice to show the close similarity Tolkien's Ring sustains to the Christian dilineation of good and evil. This is desolation. With the fall came the curse, with evil barreness: foul wilderness, grimy desert, salton marsh. The Lord of the Rings presses home this point again and again: Isengard's smokes and fumes, Mordor's ash, wanton slashing by orcs, brown lands, and the vicious hewing down of the shire's trees. One catches a theme from Hosea in this: the birds and fish languish because of Israel's sin. Fruitfulness for Tolkien, as for the Christian, is the joy of the good. Even the fact that The Lord of the Rings places rational creatures as masters of nature is significant. It is not a viewpoint one would necessarily find in (for example) a Hindu myth.
We turn now to The Lord of the Ring's view of history. Willis B. Glover remarks, "Tolkien's novel is a history not only in that its form is a narrative based on documents (eg.: The Red Book) that indicates a continuity with our own time, but also in that it presents events through which a future is being created by the actions of rational creatures." Glover considers Tolkien's sense of history as more Biblical than is usual in the modern novel, because The Ring ever suggests the existence of an "unnamed authority" to whom the actors are responsible and who works in history in ways inscrutable to finite creatures. History transcends nature, is open ended, unrepetitive, and a creative interaction of God and men in nature. All modern history comes from one work: The City of God by Augustine of Hippo, which in turn found its beginning, middle, and end in Biblical creation the ages of man, and the final apocalypse. Tolkien's history is of this kind, rather than pagan cyclicism.
Because of history's open-endedness and the input of God and man, both free will and predestination intertwine. Out of respect for freedom, Gandalf, Elrond, and other good leaders consistently refuse to coerce those over whom they exercise authority (except in punishment, as with Saruman when his wand is broken) insisting instead upon the liberty each has to make choices, and directing a measure of rational persuasion wherever it seems essential. (In this way, Gandalf persuades Theoden, King of the Mark). Yet, because of his high position in Hobbit esteem, or indeed in the esteem of all free peoples, a word from Gandalf bears almost the force of a command. This insistance on free-will seems almost to contradict the story's underlying assumption of providential predestination. Frodo is told, for instance, that he is free to take or leave the great ring and yet Elrond--in almost the same breath--assures him that to take it is his fate. Thus Tolkien maintains both elements and presents choice as a crucial event.
Where evil abounds, there must grace the more abound. Grace is not a fully developed theme in this pre-Christian world; but it is present. Much has been said in the literature of the providence which finally destroys the great ring through the greed of Gollum when Hobbit frailty was unable to do so. Undoubtedly this is a key aspect of the story, especially when we recall the numbr of merciful acts on the part of goodfolk which allowed Gollum to survive to become the destroyer of the ring. Important as this development is, I think the repentance offered the fallen is no less worthy of attention.
Of all those to whom repentance was offered, only Boromir accepted it. It has always been a disappointment to me that no one else repented. Especially disappointing was the eventual loss of Gollum. At one time he stood very near redemption, but Sam's suspicion pushed him back, and he soon after attempted his most vile deed, the attempted murder of Frodo by Shelob. Not one person with whom serious persuasion was used--Saruman, Gollum, Wormtongue--was able to change course.
There are whole classes of fallen which appear unreedemable. These are the orcs, trolls, balrogs, etc. In many ways their graceless existence seems akin to that of devils or demons. In other ways, this is not so; they remind the reader of those groups of people whom Israel was told to annihilate as if none were capable of salvation, because their wickedness was full.
In Tolkien's Middle Earth, each person receives his just deserts. Justice, while tempered with mercy, is inexorable in the end. For his betrayal of Frodo, Boromir dies of orc arrows. In remembrance of his repentance, however, he dies honorably; but it is death all the same, and flows as a direct consequence of his treachery; it was he who scattered the fellowship of the ring and made them vulnerable to attack.
Sauron, after bringing desolation to much of the world, is fated to gnaw himself through endless ages. Gnawing one's tongue is a symbol also used in the Bible of eternal doom. Even Frodo is penalized for his final failure at the brink of the chasm. He has a wound which will always give him pain. The same could be said also of Bilbo. Frodo's penalty may even include self-exile from Middle Earth. Examples could be multiplied, but the list would be too long. One facet of Justice emerging from The Lord of the Rings is the incapacity of repentance to forestall just dessert.
For all that, hope is a dominant note of the trilogy: hope despite darkness, fear, or pessimism. Hope is possible only in a Christian world. It makes no sense to a non-believer; hence the despair of modern man in this post-Christian age. In any given situation neither characters in books nor their counterparts in the more complex real world know in what their choices will result. So limited is our vision and theirs, that circumstances and evil seem omnipotent. Without hope, such times would overwhelm the anxious heart. Such hope is found in the certitude of God, the Unseen Mover.
The Christian element I find among the most appealing is individual worth and responsibility. Even the smallest hobbit has great potential; indeed, only in Sauron's lands are the merits of individuality ignored. There, everyone has a number and not everyone a name. More explicitly Christian is the notion of the small thing, the weak and simple, overthrowing the wise and powerful.
Of all the elements remaining to be discussed, the most neglected among reviewers are the virtues of patience and perseverance. These two qualities, along with fidelity and humility, win the war for the free peoples. It is just the absence of these same characteristics which overthrows Sauron, despite his long years of patient brooding.
Having mentioned fidelity, perhaps I should note the stress Tolkien places on this virtue, for while he illustrates the others often enough, he indoctrinates us with this one. There are numerous examples and remarks decrying the hideous practice of oath-breaking, the need of oath-keeping, the sobriety with which oaths are to be sworn. This is biblical and in stark contrast to (say) the oathbreaking of Guthrum with Alfred the Great after swearing on his sacred bracelet. Whatever deadly price must be paid, an oath once made is sacred. We do not always remember what a nasty pincers the Israelites put themselves in when they made their treaty with Gibeon--war against the united forces of Southern Palestine. Yet, they fulfilled their pledge and it brought them their greatest victory.
Such is the message of Tolkien. When Faramir advises Frodo to break oath with Gollum, we think it wrong. This message is not to be disregarded, but one fears it too often was in the history of the church from which Tolkien draws his springs of virtue. And every war in history has been fought over the shards of a broken treaty.
One further Christian element I do not wish to neglect. This is resurrection. Every hero in the story goes toward his death and, against all hope, returns. Gandalf is the clearest picture, for we actually believe him dead for several chapters when he falls in Moria. Gimli, Aragorn, Legolas, and Pippin ride to Mordor's deadly gates while Sam and Frodo trudge helplessly to Mount Doom. With Eowyn and Faramir, Merry lies at the brink of death in the Houses of Healing. Yet each is finally plucked from death to stand greater than before and to fill a higher role, just as Christ after death ascended.
Other Messianic overtones in The Lord of the Rings may not be so obvious. Frodo patiently bears a "cross." Aragorn has titles remniscent of Christ, a bride to gain, and a kingdom to enter. The return of the heroes has eschatalogical overtones remniscent of Pauline or Johannine theology.
As we noted in the opening paragraph of this essay, Tolkien employs biblical symbols. Light and bride have already been mentioned. Others which come to mind are healing leaves, deep-rooted trees, pure water, precious jewels, ashes, redness as the color of sin, and secret sources of life. The sleeplessness of evil, so terrible in The Ring, is clearly the antithesis of blessedness. God grants to his beloved ones sleep.
So far I have dealt with The Lord of the Rings as a Christian book, but it is only fair to turn briefly to a few elements which might seem both doubtful and out of place in such a definition. The greatest lack is Christ. Despite Messianic overtones, he has no place in the trilogy. Neither is there any atonement for sins or communion with the spirit world. Worship is most nearly approximated, suggests Sandra L. Meisel, in the free-folks' delight in beauty and nature.
As we have noted, there is also a real lack of forgiveness of sin. To evade corruption, a being is furthermore cast entirely upon the resources of his nature and his friends. He has no help from the Holy Spirit. Thus it is obvious that I have used the term "Christian" most loosely. Tolkien makes no really Christian demand of his readers. At the same time it is fair to add that a Christian reader will not find the book opposed to his faith. It is at the very least decent reading--and if one looks at its literary qualities, much more than that.
Those qualities of the book which are most likely to come under heavy fire for being unchristian are warfare, magic, and sexism. Sexism I will not examine.
Warfare is an aspect of Tolkien which pacifist critics might deplore as unchristian. Against this the defense will have to argue that war is not always wrong. As long as the entire cosmos is a vast battleground between forces of good and evil, there must be a wars in the physical as well as the spiritual arena. In a moment of profound observation, Chesterton noted that there are some cultures and systems so utterly anti-thetical to one's own, that one can desire nothing but their annihilation. At any rate, warfare with unremitting slaughter was characteristic of the pre-Christian era.
Magic, the second element needing defence, seems at first sight less defensible. Has it not always been anathema in the Judeo-Christian tradition?
There are distinct differences, however, between the magic in Tolkien, and magic, even white magic, as we know it. The magic of the pure is first of all latent power. Either you have it or you do not. It is never an attempt to seize power from outside oneself: that is sorcery. Spells never, absolutely never, are applied to people. Only objects receive them. Gandalf comes closest to using his magic against persons. He fights with his wand. Magic in The Ring is benevolent when good, and is uplifting. In a sense it symbolizes the supernatural or spiritual aspect of things which otherwise is lacking.
Tolkien's good magic does not show the invidious disregard for God and man which earthly magic must. When we turn to black magic, we see that those who use the machinery of magic (such as the palantirs and rings), are injured or destroyed by that machinery. Never once--and this is to Tolkien's credit--are we allowed to see black magic close up, its rites and sorcery. Angmar is called a sorcerer; his sorcery is never shown, but like all sorcerers fell under the power of the Black Lord.
Those who peer into powers not meant for them, especially shadow powers, are snared by the shadow. Tolkien clearly illustrates this in Saruman's case. Elrond pounds the message home, saying, "It is perilous to study too deeply the arts of the enemy, for good or for ill."
All the same, the resurgence of interest in myths, the occult, and fantasy which Tolkien and C. S. Lewis (among others) engendered in the evangelical community is to be deplored. There seems to be a serious erosion of the uniqueness of Christian teaching.
This caveat aside, Tolkien's work is a monument of genius against which all other fantasies can aptly be compared. In general, The Lord of the Rings has an enduring quality lacking to much other fantasy, because it is built on permanent principles. Right and wrong do not change; Tolkien's absolutes are built on Christianity. the moral principles of tolkien justify his work. Despite casteism, sexism, sterotypes, and (sometimes) bad poetry, it remains a clear, beautiful, and moving appeal to our noblest impulses.
Could Tolkien have bettered the moral tone of the work? Probably not. More Christ would have endangered the work with sacrilege. More platitudes would have made it a bore. No, J. R. R. Tolkien has blended his multifarious elements with unparalleled wit, scholarship, and charm. The Lord of the Rings stands as a unique testimony to the power of a Christian pen.