Does The Lord of the Rings Have Christian Themes?
- G. Connor Salter SEO Editor
- 2022 11 Jan
This year marked J.R.R. Tolkien’s 130th birthday, and his work is even more popular than during his lifetime. Many people have read his epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings, and especially in the last 20 years, many have wondered whether Christian themes or symbols are hiding in his work.
Was J.R.R. Tolkien a Christian?
J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) came from an English family that initially followed Anglican Christianity. His father died when Tolkien was three, and shortly afterward, his family converted to Roman Catholicism. His mother died from diabetes in 1904, and Tolkien partly blamed her death on Baptist relatives deserting her after she joined the Roman Catholic church. In a 1941 letter to his son Michael, Tolkien wrote that his mother died young from a disease “hastened by persecution of her faith.”
After his mother died, Tolkien and his brother were raised by a Roman Catholic priest, Francis Xavier Morgan. He continued to practice Catholicism until he died, which sometimes clashed with others’ denominational beliefs. His friend C.S. Lewis came from an Irish Protestant background and had to unlearn some anti-Catholic stereotypes after befriending Tolkien and other Catholics. Tolkien and Lewis held opposing views about whether Christians should be cremated and whether “lay people” should interpret Scripture and write about spiritual matters. Tolkien also disapproved of divorce, which meant that he disapproved of Lewis’ marriage to divorced writer Joy Davidman.
Despite these differences, Tolkien and Lewis maintained a strong friendship. Tolkien said in a 1965 letter that he owed Lewis “un unpayable debt” for constantly encouraging him to finish The Lord of the Rings. Lewis’s stepson Douglas recalled that after his mother died and Lewis’ health took a downturn, Tolkien let Douglas know he had a place to stay if anything happened to Lewis. Tolkien’s faith also informed his writing, although not how you might think.
Is The Lord of the Rings an Allegory?
Discussion about Tolkien and Lewis’ books often starts by asking questions like, “Isn’t Aslan an allegory of Jesus dying on the cross?” or “Isn’t Gandalf’s death and resurrection make him an allegorical Christ figure?” What most people don’t realize is that allegory means something specific.
In literature studies, an allegory is a story where almost everything (the characters, the location) stands for something else. Sebastian D. G. Knowles and other scholars have argued that Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle” is an allegory. The story follows Niggle, a perfectionist painter trying to paint a tree based on images in his head. Before he can finish, Niggle is taken away to an institution. After the institution authorities conclude that Niggle is better, they send him to a new land where he finds the tree that he was trying to paint the whole time.
As an allegory, “Leaf by Niggle” is about how artistic people relate to God. Niggle’s need to paint a perfect tree represents artists trying to capture beauty perfectly. Niggle’s time in the institution represents dying and going to purgatory, which some Catholics see not as punishment but as a final time of sin being purged. Niggle’s release to a land where he finds the real tree represents artists entering heaven and realizing that their work was just a glimpse of God’s glorious work.
In The Road to Middle-Earth, Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey says that allegories are designed for readers to “start making equations.” Each element in the story must connect to an idea. An author must also set up the allegory so that readers are thinking about the ideas, not the story, by the time they finish the book. This means, as Devin Brown observes in The Christian World of the Hobbit, that most allegories have boring plots.
Tolkien and Lewis both read classic allegories like A Pilgrim’s Progress but were more interested in doing something else. Lewis explained in a 1958 letter that he created Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia not as an allegorical figure, but as “a supposal,” imagining what it would look like if Jesus appeared in another world. Lewis added moments throughout the Narnia books that intentionally echo the Bible (Eustace losing his dragon skin after being baptized in a lake, etc.) but don’t make the story an allegory.
“Leaf by Niggle” is the only thing Tolkien wrote that qualifies as an allegory, and he wrote in the foreword to the second edition of The Fellowship of the Ring that he didn’t like the allegory format. So, while some have seen the story as an allegory about World War II or nuclear war (the ring is the atomic bomb, etc.), Tolkien explicitly denied these claims when fans or interviewers asked him. However, he did state in a 1958 letter, “I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories).” In a 1955 letter to Jesuit priest Robert Murray, Tolkien went further and said, “The Lord of the Rings is of course fundamentally a religious and Catholic work.”
Tolkien knew that his faith informed his stories, but he preferred to subtly communicate the ideas.
Is God in The Lord of the Rings?
The Lord of the Rings is set in Middle-Earth, which Tolkien described as our world at some point in the distant past, before recorded history. While God doesn’t show up as a character like Aslan does in Narnia, there are hints that someone is working behind the scenes.
The Hobbit, which sets up the events within The Lord of the Rings, ends with Gandalf and Bilbo talking about the adventures that they have had. Gandalf comments that with the dragon Smaug dead, residents by the dragon’s cave live in peace and prosperity. Bilbo observes that old prophecies about rivers running with gold after the monster’s death came true. Gandalf affirms that the prophecies were correct and that Bilbo “had a hand in” bringing them about. He asks Bilbo if he thinks all his escapes were “mere luck.” Something was helping Bilbo survive his travels.
Prophecies come up again in The Fellowship of the Ring. When Gandalf explains how Bilbo found Sauron’s ring in Gollum’s cave, he calls it shocking that Bilbo found it “at just that time… there was more than one power at work.” Gandalf concludes that something other than the ring’s maker intended for Bilbo and late Frodo to have the ring. Elrond echoes this idea during the council at Rivendell, claiming that he didn’t bring them to the meeting, but they were called.
The idea that something (or someone) is calling Frodo and his friends together is also evident in Aragorn’s role. When Frodo first meets Aragorn, he notices a broken sword that the man carries. At Rivendell, Boromir says he has come after being told in a dream to “seek for the sword that was broken.” Aragorn shows his broken sword and reveals that he’s descended from Gondor’s kings, which is why he carries King Isildur’s shattered sword. In The Return of the King, Aragorn asserts his kingly heritage to get help from soldiers whose souls cannot rest because they betrayed the King of Gondor. Aragorn explains his actions by citing a prophecy by Malbeth the Seer about the king’s heir claiming help from “oathbreakers.”
Each of these passages speaks to the idea that someone has been giving prophecies and dreams to people. Someone outside the story, someone with a plan to see evil vanquished, has called Frodo and Aragorn for a purpose. As Os Guinness puts it in The Call, “calling means that seekers themselves are sought.”
Are There Other Christian Themes in The Lord of the Rings?
A complete list of all the Christian ideas in The Lord of the Rings would take several books. Here are three of the clearest Christian themes in Tolkien’s story:
Sin tempts and destroys. Sauron’s ring doesn’t seem too dangerous, but it draws almost everyone with its beauty and power. Those who succumb to it, like Gollum, become degraded by its influence. Sin proves to be self-destructive. The battle Frodo ends up waging the most during his travels is not with other people as within. He has to learn to reject evil’s attacks or suffer the consequences. The idea that evil could appeal to something within us, not just the product of some big outside force, is particularly Christian. It takes us back to the Garden of Eden, where the attractive offer of power apart from God led Adam and Eve into degradation.
Sin cannot be ignored. Some Christians have noted how Frodo still suffers from wounds in his shoulder after his journey is finished and interpret that as Tolkien missing that redemption is available. This misses the fact that the Bible promises we can find peace in Christ, but not that the effects of sin entirely stop. Sometimes, suffering continues because God wants to show us that his grace is sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9). Total healing occurs in heaven, where we will be glorified (Philippians 3:20). Until that time, we keep fighting the good fight (even when it seems hopeless), knowing that ultimately the war is not our own.
Mercy matters. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf tells Frodo that Sauron has gotten his name from Gollum, and Frodo says it’s a shame Bilbo didn’t kill Gollum years ago. Gandalf replies that pity was precisely what motivated Bilbo to let Gollum live, and that attitude is key to why the ring didn’t consume Bilbo. Furthermore, Gollum’s part is not yet done: “my heart tells me that he has some part to play yet…” Frodo remembers these words when he and Sam catch Gollum in The Two Towers and decides to let Gollum live. While Gollum betrays them, in The Return of the King, Gollum destroys the ring. As Sam and Frodo watch Mount Doom explode, Frodo recalls Gandalf’s words and says, “But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the ring.”
This emphasis on mercy conquering evil differs from classical fantasy and mythology stories. As C.S. Lewis points out in “The Necessity of Chivalry,” heroes in stories like The Iliad weren’t expected to be kind. In pagan societies like ancient Greece or Rome, weakness was frowned upon, and enemies were to be crushed. Pagan leaders like Julian the Apostate complained that Christians made pagans look bad by caring for everyone. As a Christian, Tolkien believed that mercy, charity, and love could deliver the fatal blow against evil.
What Other Christian Themes are in Tolkien's Work?
This article has only scratched the surface of the Christian themes in The Lord of the Rings, as well as The Hobbit and Tolkien's other writings. To dive more into this topic, here's what Tolkien experts Dr. Ralph Wood, Dr. Michael Ward, and Rick Trumbo have to say.
Photo Credit: Ergo Zakki/Unsplash
G. Connor Salter is a writer and editor, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. In 2020, he won First Prize for Best Feature Story in a regional contest by the Colorado Press Association Network. He has contributed over 1,000 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.