Christian Elements and Symbols in Tolkien
- Wednesday, April 28, 2010
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.
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