Christian Elements and Symbols in Tolkien
- Wednesday, April 28, 2010
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.
Recently on Tolkien / The Hobbit
Have something to say about this article? Leave your comment via Facebook below!
Listen to Your Favorite Pastors
Add Crosswalk.com content to your siteBrowse available content