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Katie Moyes

ENG 375R

Prof. Card

March 14, 2006

Visions of Christianity in The Lord of the Rings

            J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings has long been seen as escapist literature. This is not so. Instead of allowing readers to flee the ills of the real world, the book forces its readers to confront these evils. The book teaches readers how to combat the ills of our world by “embedding the Gospel as the underlying theme of the book” (Wood 1). Ralph C. Wood, University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University, wrote the book The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-earth in order to bring out the Christian elements in the novel. Wood doesn’t present The Lord of the Rings as a Christian allegory, but uses incidents in the novel to display Christian themes. Wood believes that The Lord of the Rings reveals truth of a spiritual nature such that every reader can be edified by the examples in the novel. This edification through the novel can lead Christians to live a better life. Wood discusses the creation and introduction of evil into Middle-earth. He then discusses how the cardinal and Christian virtues can combat evil. Wood ends his book by discussing the eventual purification of Middle-earth.

Middle-earth was created by Ilúvatar, or Eru, the supreme being of Tolkien’s universe. Ilúvatar used valar to create the universe. Valar are similar to what we consider angels; they are pure spirits without mortal limits. There are fifteen named valar each endowed with special gifts and roles. Ilúvatar conducts the great symphony of creation, which is marked my unmarred goodness. The valar carry out Eru’s symphony. Ilúvatar created Middle-earth hierarchically. At the bottom of this hierarchy are the minerals of the earth, then plants, trees, animals, dwarves, men, elves, maiar, and valar, with Ilúvatar himself to reign. The dwarves were created by the valar Aulë, who was impatient for Ilúvatar’s creations of men and elves. Because dwarves were created in affirmation of Ilúvatar’s creativity, they have some worth, though less than elves and men. Elves are the first children of Eru, endowed with the supernatural and eternal elements of human life. Next Eru created men. Tom Bombadil and Goldberry do not fit into this hierarchy. Wood labels them as Adam and Eve figures because Tom is the Eldest and because they are both marked by innocence.

Wood next discusses the role of language in the creation of Middle-earth. As God created by the Word (John 1) so it is important that Ilúvatar would endow the gift of speech on his creations. Wood points out that this supreme gift can also be used for ill; speech can be a means of coercion as well as a disguise for evil purposes. Saruman is noted for the power of his voice; the reader sees how powerfully he can use language after the siege of Isengaard. Tolkien also uses harsh sounding words to show the harshness of evil, as in the word orc. Sauron’s name comes from the Greek word sauros, which means “lizard.” This use of language creates a connection between Sauron and Satan as he appeared to Eve in the form of a serpent.

Wood presents the idea that Eru has the power of unmarred goodness in the universe. Bilbo and Frodo find the Ring for a reason that is beyond Sauron. Though Gandalf tells Frodo that “Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker” (Fellowship 65). Sauron manipulates the Ring, it is still subject to Ilúvatar. I wonder that if Ilúvatar can have the influence to make sure the Ring gets to the Bagginses, why does he not do more to aid in the destruction of the Ring. It seems that it could be because Eru has created a world where he will not coerce his creations, and doing more for the Quest could limit the people of Middle-earth’s agency. If this is true, Wood should link the two ideas. It also comes to mind that Ilúvatar is putting Bilbo and Frodo in a position where they have to make a moral choice concerning the Ring, and he wants to test them to see what they do. There is nothing in the history to indicate that Eru would test his creations in such a way.

In the next section of his book, Wood discusses the role of evil in The Lord of the Rings. The valar Melkor possessed the most power and knowledge among the valar. He had no companion, and he cut himself off from everyone, including Ilúvatar. Melkor became impatient with Eru. He wanted to create on his own and was jealous of Ilúvatar’s creation of the elves and men. He pretended to admire these creations, but tried to subject them to himself. In reaching for Ilúvatar’s creative Light, Melkor sunk into Darkness. In this way, evil is a shadow because it is secondary and derivative of the Light. It is a marring and distortion of what is good. Evil can’t destroy the good, only tarnish it. In the depths of Mordor, Frodo tells Sam, “The Shadow that bred the orcs can only mock; it cannot make: not real new things of its own. I don’t think it gave life to the orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them” (Return 190). Melkor, who chose evil, cannot create, only parody the creation of Eru. He bred orcs by mutilating and twisting elves. Eventually Melkor was captured and imprisoned by the valar. He used silken words to convince the merciful valar Manwë that he was repentant. Being innocent of the knowledge of evil, Manwë freed him. When the valar realized Melkor was still evil, they recaptured him and cast him into the Void to remain until the End, when he shall lead his army in the final battle where Good will triumph. Despite Melkor’s imprisonment, he still passed evil into Middle-earth. He led the Noldor elves astray by telling them that Ilúvatar unfairly restricted them of their creative freedom. The Noldor elves didn’t follow Eru, but when they realized how evil Melkor was, they renamed him Morgoth, meaning “Dark Enemy.” Melkor was also able to seduce maiar to his side, including Sauron, who used the Noldor creativity to help forge the Ring of power.

The Ring shows evil’s self-devouring nature. When Sméagol kills Déagol for the Ring, he calls the Ring a birthday present. Sméagol justifies his evil deed by turning it into a much gentler event. This example, which Wood parallels with the story of Cain and Abel, shows that those who commit sin usually say it was done in the name of some alleged good (Wood 55). The Ring’s evil destroys its owner’s solidarity with others. When Sméagol possesses the Ring, he becomes selfish and untrustworthy; he cuts himself off from society. This solitude leads Gollum to create a community within himself; he always refers to himself in the plural form. If this plurality of nature is born of evil, how can the Christian tradition of the triune God be explained? Maybe the plurality in Gollum is the antithesis of the righteous plurality of the triune God of Christian tradition. Wood gives no account for this.

The senses of sight and hearing are discussed in their relationship to evil. Sauron is manifest as a giant eye; this gives him knowledge but not wisdom. Having only one eye, Sauron lacks perception and depth. Though Sauron sees much, he comprehends very little; he possesses “all-seeing blindness” (Wood 59). The eye of Sauron is deaf. This portrayal of evil as wholly based on seeing perfectly opposes the Biblical regard for hearing. God’s people are asked to hear and obey: “he at hath ears to hear, let him hear” (Matt. 11:15). Hearing is more important than sight; the Children of Israel were commanded not to make visual representations of God, as in the case of the Golden Calf. Wood is clever in juxtaposing good and evil on a sensory level. He doesn’t mention also that those who base life completely on what they see lack faith, an essential Christian principle.

One of evil’s abilities is to prey on virtues and turn them into vices. For example, evil can turn righteousness into self-righteousness. Galadriel is able to resist evil in her resistance of the Ring, but others don’t resist as easily. Boromir’s despair for the fate of Gondor gives him a bravado that is blind. Evil subverts his virtues, he tries to take the Ring from Frodo, and the Fellowship breaks from within. On the other hand, Wood says that if your love and life are ordered, the ring has less of an effect. Bilbo doesn’t receive hurt from using the Ring because he shows mercy to Gollum and because he thinks little of the Ring’s benefits for himself (Wood 163-4). This idea seems to contradict Wood’s idea that the Ring coerces and enslaves the mind, so the compulsion of the Ring can’t be broken by the human will (Wood 69-71). Bilbo seems to be mostly able to resist the coercion of the Ring. And if his virtues kept the Ring from affecting him, why isn’t Frodo able to cast off the Ring as easily? Frodo showed pity to Gollum; he doesn’t seem to be thinking of the Ring’s benefit for him, but the Ring is an incredible burden for him. It could be that the Ring coerces who it chooses, and as Sauron’s power grows, so too does the coercive power of the Ring grow, but this explanation of the role of evil and the Ring doesn’t seem to fit into Wood’s analogy.

Wood next introduces the idea that virtue can be used to counteract evil. This seems like an unsound idea when Wood says earlier that the Ring’s compulsion “cannot be broken with mere human strength of will” (Wood 71). Nevertheless, Wood now says the four cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude or Courage, and Temperance are essential for the moral life, which can counteract evil, though maybe not overcome it. Prudence, which is very close to wisdom, is the clear knowledge of truth with the ability to act on it. Prudence includes doing what is best for all. Aragorn acts prudently when he decides to go after Merry and Pippin when the Fellowship is broken. Conversely, Éowyn shows imprudence when she leaves her duty in Rohan to go to war because she seeks her own good over the greater good. Prudence is also linked with the willingness to receive counsel from others. The Company acts prudently by heeding Gandalf, whose dark bluntness in counsel hearkens to Old Testament prophets. When the hobbits gain prudence for themselves, Gandalf leaves them, which parallels Jesus leaving his disciples after the Resurrection.

While prudence discerns the good, Justice is the virtue which enacts it. God’s inherent justice is closely related to mercy, so to be just like God, we must show mercy to others. Wood discusses the role of justice in war. Faramir and Frodo both resist the unjust war. Faramir tells the hobbits, “War must be, while we defend our lives against the destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, not the arrow for its swiftness, not the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend” (Two Towers 280). Frodo resists war when the hobbits return to the Shire, warning the others not to kill unnecessarily.

While Prudence and Justice are virtues of the mind, Courage and Temperance are virtues of the body. Courage entails the willingness to die for what is right, the refusal to commit sin out of fear, and the preservation of integrity. Courage is not fearlessness. Mark Twain said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear” (qtd. in Wood 102). Éowyn displays the false bravery of fearlessness when she goes to battle with the “face of one that goes seeking death, having no hope” (Return 116). Aragorn’s army displays true courage when they march on the Black Gate. They are willing to sacrifice their lives for the Good, even as they go like lambs to the slaughter.

Temperance deals with discipline and produces cheerfulness in the face of stark self-denial. As Sam and Frodo travel to Mount Doom, they are denied of worldly pleasure. They have only the elvish lembas, which Wood repeatedly compares with the Eucharistic wafer; it is light and virtually tasteless, but is provides a fortification of will. The hobbits find power in their utter weakness; Wood compares this journey to Christ’s path to Golgotha. Wood also discusses temperance of the eyes, which is discipline concerning knowledge of the future. Gluttony for the desire for foreknowledge leads to despair, as displayed in the case of Denathor’s use of the Palantír.

The three divine Christian virtues of faith, hope and love are necessary in addition to the cardinal virtues. Faith is important in the sense of trust in friendship. The hobbits are required to trust Strider immediately at Bree; their trust leads to faith and friendship. Although the Fellowship is often broken, it is bound by true friendship, which always aims for the Good. The company is diverse, representing all the free creatures of Middle-earth, but the type of bond they have is described in Ephesians 4:4; “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling.” When the company reaches Lothlórien, they insist on being blindfolded if Gimli must be. “And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it” (1 Cor. 12:26).

Frodo displays friendship toward Gollum because he can feel sympathy for the creature because they shared the same burden. Like God’s love, Frodo’s love makes Gollum loveable. Because Frodo shows faith in Gollum, he is able to embrace some of the former Sméagol. Sam completely refuses to befriend Gollum, but part of the reason is because he is completely devoted to Mr. Frodo. When he carries Frodo up Mount Doom, Frodo feels light. When the most difficult task is done for the sake of Good, the work is rendered easy. “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:30). Sam and Frodo are compared to Jonathan and David. “The Soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Sam. 1:8). Sam’s love is also compared to Christ’s love because he is willing to lay down his life for his friend (John 15:13).

Pagan heroism is hopeless because the gods can’t even overcome Chaos. True Christian hope is displayed in The Lord of the Rings by the hope in the Return of the King. Aragorn’s very name signifies the hope he brings to Middle-earth. When raised in Rivendell, he was known as Estel, which means hope. Hope returns when proper political order is restored and Aragorn is crowned. Biblical metaphors are used in his kingly description. Faramir says, “Behold the King!” (Return 246) which are the same words Pontius Pilate uses to describe Christ to the Jews. “Ancient of days” (Return 246) is also a phrase used to describe the newly crowned King. This exact title is given to Adam in Daniel 7:9. When Aragorn dies, he tells Arwen, “In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory” (Return 344). This speech displays a hope for the future Good in Middle-earth.

When faith and hope pass away, the virtue of love will endure. The heart of God’s love is forgiveness because Christ atoned for us, so pity and mercy are central virtues in the novel. Gandalf tells Frodo about Bilbo’s pity for Gollum, which pity rules the fate of the quest. Gandalf teaches Frodo mercy over justice and tells Frodo not to judge. Wood identifies this as the most overtly Christian speech in the book. When Boromir sins, he can be seen as a Judas figure, but he is redeemed because he admits his crime to Aragorn, his future king, who shows him love and mercy. The king acts as a priest in hearing Boromir’s dying confession and absolving his sin. Wood notes that divine love issued through pity is unknown in the ancient warrior cultures or in our competitive culture (Wood 155). According to Wood, this gives The Lord of the Rings a distinctly Christian feel.

In the last chapter Wood discusses how to deal with the inherent sadness at the end of the trilogy. Is Middle-earth in a downward spiral after the Fourth Age of Men? Will Chaos eventually triumph? Wood cites a work by Tolkien called “The Debate of Finrod and Andreth,” in which the nature of mortality in Middle-earth is discussed. Finrod is the wisest of the Noldor elves, while Andreth is a woman steeped in lore and history of men. Finrod says that mortality is a unique gift to Men from Ilúvatar. It is a blessing to a fallen race and a natural end that wouldn’t strike terror if men hadn’t rebelled against Ilúvatar. “Death is but the name that we give to something that Melkor has tainted, and it sounds therefore evil, but untainted its name would be good” (qtd. in Wood 157).

Andreth argues that death is an enemy. She presents the Platonic view that men have a memory and longing for some other world from which they are estranged but one day will return. Behind the shadow of mortal life is true life. She says that the soul is not boxed in the body so that when men die, their soul is free. The body and mind are meant to be together; without each other they have no life, so severing the two is a dread event. Andreth favors the doctrine of resurrection when she says bodies and souls are meant to be united forever. Melkor brought death and so left the earth of Arda marred. Andreth says that the race of men was created by Ilúvatar to cure the curse of death. The only man who can cure Arda and end the curse is Ilúvatar if he takes on earthly life. Thus will “the author of the cosmic drama … become its lead actor” (Wood 161). Andreth says, “They say that the One will himself enter into Arda, and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end” (qtd. in Wood 161). When Ilúvatar comes he will be both inside and outside Middle-earth. This idea fits the traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity, and God entering the world happens exactly in Middle-earth as in truly happened. Wood conjectures that when Ilúvatar enters Middle-earth, he will come as a lowly hobbit, just as Christ entered the world as a Jewish carpenter.

Wood ends his book by saying that living the Gospel is like the Company’s call to the Quest: we must be willing to give up everything for the Good. “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36). Wood marks Sam as the ultimate hero because he is the ultimate servant. “And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant to all” (Mark 10:44). Wood calls The Lord of the Rings one of the best guides for the Christians in their task of trying to purify the world. He closes his book with the admonition that “Christians are called to be hobbit-like servants of the King and his Kingdom” (Wood 165). One the page, this idea seems cheesy, but it is true that we read so we can take in the experiences of the characters and be edified by learning what they have learned. If we love a book like The Lord of the Rings, we want to keep it with us, and Wood suggests that we can do this by gleaning the Christian themes he made evident and using the lessons learned in the story to live as better Christians and servants of God.


Works Cited

Holy Bible: King James Version. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1991.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. 2d ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967.

---. The Return of the King. 2d ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967.

---. The Two Towers. 2d ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967.

Wood, Ralph C. The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-earth. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.

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