Looking For God in The Lord of the Rings
By Jim Ware
For Wireless Age Magazine, August 2001
September 1931. A dark and stormy night. Windy, at any rate. On the grounds of Magdalen College, Oxford, two tweed-jacketed, pipe-puffing professors go crunching down the gravel path known as Addison’s Walk, under the deeper shadows of an ancient grove of trees — a mysterious, murky wood where, in the blustery darkness, it’s easy to imagine elves among the branches.
“Look!” says one of them, a tall, long-faced fellow with the furrowed brow and twinkling eyes of a sage or wizard. He points to a large oak. “There it stands,” he says, “its feet in the earth, its head among the stars. A majestic miracle of creation! And what do we call it? A tree.” He laughs. “The word falls absurdly short of expressing the thing itself.”
“Of course it does,” responds the other, a round-faced, slightly balding, bespectacled man in his mid-thirties. “Like any word, it’s just a verbal invention — a symbol of our own poor devising.”
“Exactly,” says the first man. “And here’s my point: just as a word is an invention about an object or an idea, so a story can be an invention about Truth.”
The other rubs his chin. “I’ve loved stories since I was a boy,” he muses. “You know that, Tollers! Especially stories about heroism and sacrifice, death and resurrection — like the Norse myth of Balder. But when it comes to Christianity well, that’s another matter. I simply don’t understand how the life and death of Someone Else (whoever he was) two thousand years ago can help me here and now.”
“But don’t you see, Jack?” persists his friend. “The Christian story is the greatest story of them all. Because it’s the Real Story. The historical event that fulfills the tales and shows us what they mean. The tree itself — not just a verbal invention”
Jack stops and turns. “Are you trying to tell me that in the story of Christ all the other stories have somehow come true?”
A week and a half later, Jack — better known to most of us as C. S. Lewis, teacher, author, defender of the Christian faith, and creator of the beloved Chronicles of Narnia — writes to his friend Arthur Greeves: “I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ — in Christianity. My long night talk with Tolkien had a great deal to do with it.”1
June 2001. A muggy, dusty afternoon at the local Renaissance Festival. I’m taking a break in the shade with my fellow festival musicians. Around us swirls a crowd of armored knights, brown-robed friars, gauzy-winged fairies, and white-whiskered wizards. It’s the closest thing to the Middle Ages — or Middle-earth — that you’re likely to find here at the beginning of the 21st century.
Tom, a fiddler in a feathered cap, asks what I’ve been up to. I tell him about the writing project I’ve taken on with my friend and collaborator, Kurt Bruner: a book of “Christian reflections” on The Lord of the Rings.
“The Lord of the Rings!” laughs Tom (who does not consider himself a believer). “Isn’t that a pretty pagan book?”
December 2001. New Line Cinema’s big-screen version of The Lord of the Rings, one of the most anticipated film events of the past several decades, hits the theaters after more than a year of hobbit-hype. Since January, fans have been waiting in line overnight outside theaters just to see the trailer. A short preview appearing on New Line’s official Web site (www.lordoftherings.net) beginning last April was downloaded by 1.7 million eager fans on the very first day (compare a mere million hits for Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace within a similar time-frame).
Meanwhile, director Peter Jackson and a crew of more than 2,500 have spent 438 days and about $270 million turning parts of New Zealand into Tolkien’s Middle Earth in an unprecedented attempt to produce all three films at once.
“Half a decade of his life, twenty-four hours a day, has been invested in these films,” says conceptual artist Alan Lee, referring to Jackson. The meticulous detail of Jackson’s vision of Middle-earth has found expression through state-of-the-art computer-generated graphics, 24,000 square feet of miniature figures, more than 100 shooting locations, and, last but not least, 900 sets of chain mail dutifully pounded out by an army of metalsmiths in India. The result is certain to be as stunning a piece of eye-candy as Hollywood has ever produced.
“Every film genre has been done well over the last 100 years,” says Jackson, “but not this type of fantasy story. No filmmaker could ask for a greater challenge.”
And now at last, the long-anticipated day is at hand. The first part of the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, is scheduled to be unveiled on December 19. So forget about Star Wars and Space Odyssey. In 2001, the place to be is Middle-earth.
And yet, hype or no hype, there are a few filmgoers who are still wondering what it’s all about. Especially serious-minded Christians. Elves, dwarves, wizards, goblins, magic rings — haven’t we been through this kind of thing before — recently? Isn’t The Lord of the Rings just another romp through the occultic world of Harry Potter?
For answers, let’s go back to Jack and “Tollers.”
“Tollers” (a nickname used by some of his closest friends) was, of course, J. R. R. Tolkien himself: creator of Middle-earth and author of The Lord of the Rings, the fantasy trilogy hailed by some as “the book of the century” (over fifty million copies sold). And yes: it was Tolkien who helped Lewis take that final decisive step toward faith in Christ.
Their “long night talk” about “symbols” and “verbal inventions” was just the beginning. Over the years, Lewis and Tolkien were to spend long hours refining their ideas and incorporating them into their literary art. In part, they did this with the help of a group of like-minded Christian friends: The Inklings.
Tuesday mornings at the “Eagle and Child” (an Oxford pub better known to patrons as the “Bird and Baby”); Thursday evenings in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen; year in and year out, the Inklings met, talked, sipped tea, and critiqued one another’s manuscripts-in-progress: books like Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, Williams’s The Place of the Lion, and, of course, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Their goal? To find ways of pouring the steaming, bubbling, heady stuff of the Real Story into the molds of their own invented stories.
Just how serious were these writers about the Christian purpose of their “verbal inventions”? Let’s ask them.
Lewis made no secret of his intentions. Among other interests and concerns, his goal was to give readers a fresh, life-giving look at the Christian message. He wanted to open a window and let the breeze of truth blow through the stuffy rooms of their conventionally orthodox minds from a new direction. To put the Good News of the Gospel into a different shape and format, and so make them see it as if for the very first time.
“Why,” he once asked himself, “did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency ?” This, he said, is exactly what he was trying to do in The Chronicles of Narnia.2
As for Tolkien, he would have been shocked and angered to hear Tom refer to his work as “pagan.” “The Lord of the Rings,” he wrote in a letter to a friend, “is of course a fundamentally religious and Christian work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”3
Humphrey Carpenter, author of Tolkien’s authorized biography, takes this claim seriously. Tolkien, he says, was possessed of a “deep and passionate” faith in God; his writings are “the work of a profoundly religious man.” According to Carpenter, God is essential to everything that happens in The Lord of the Rings. Without Him, Middle-earth couldn’t exist. “He wanted the mythological and legendary stories to express his own moral view of the universe, and as a Christian he could not place this view in a cosmos without the God that he worshipped.”4
“Tolkien could not create from nothing,” writes Joseph Pearce. “Only God can do that. But he was able to sub-create an entire world using his imagination, his beliefs, and his experiences in the world around him.” His goal, according to Pearce, was to create a myth combining a variety of different mythological elements — “a body of more or less connected legend,” as Tolkien put it — in such a fashion that the entire epic would be “illumined from within by a Trinitarian, Christian light.” Interestingly enough, the “connectedness” readers sense throughout this “body of legend” is a direct result of the author’s faith and worldview. Apart from the light of that Christian perspective, Pearce adds, “the story isn’t going to make sense anymore. It may, literally, become incoherent — a neo-pagan fantasy.”5
God, then, is the “Solid Rock” upon which the realm of Arda — the universe within which Tolkien’s Middle-earth hangs cradled like a small but infinitely significant star (see The Silmarillion) — is founded. But be forewarned: evidences of His presence are not as obvious in Tolkien’s work as in Lewis’s more allegorical style of writing. They are there, however — firmly embedded in the tales he insisted on calling “inventions about Truth.” In fact, if you know what to look for, you may find them popping up everywhere like the little flowers of elanor and niphredil that bloom even in the shadow of the Black Land itself. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you set out on the quest.
First, stay alert to the importance of story. The Lord of the Rings is actually a story of stories — a vast web of histories, legends, tales, and songs in which every character has a crucial role to play.
“What a tale we have been in, Mr. Frodo, haven’t we?” reflects Sam after a harrowing encounter with their enemies. As a Christian, Tolkien understood that we’ve been in a tale, too. Like the adventure of his hobbits, he saw the adventure of our lives as part of a story that begins “once upon a time” and moves toward its eventual “ever after” — a tale full of meaning and purpose, composed by the grandest Author of all.
The Power of Sin
You’ll also want to keep an eye on Gollum, the pitiful, wretched creature who discovered the great Ring — his “Precious” — and kept it for many years in dark places under the earth. So long has he possessed and cherished the sinister talisman that he has become the possessed. That’s because Tolkien’s Ring is an image of the unwholesome, perverting power of evil and self-serving sin — a progressive, growing, encroaching power that starts small and ends big. The apostle James described it like this: “Each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death” (James 1:14, 15, NKJV).
Good Out Of Evil
Notice, too, that Middle-earth is full of battles and conflicts — images of the spiritual war in which we are engaged as Christians: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age ” (Ephesians 6:12) . We’re not talking generic “good vs. evil” here. The evil in Tolkien’s universe is personal. It takes shape as an Enemy who relentlessly hounds and pursues his prey with ill intent: “Be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (I Peter 5:8).
That’s not the end of the story, of course. Because at its deepest level, The Lord of the Rings is also a tale about the sovereignty of God. The God whose love and power are so great that He is able to “work all things together for good” (Romans 8:28). The God who uses even the Enemy’s wicked designs to bring about the ultimate fulfillment of His perfect plan. Within that plan, even Gollum has an indispensable part to play in the saving of Middle-earth. As Tolkien wrote in The Silmarillion, “Evil may yet be good to have been and yet remain evil.” 6 This is a great mystery and a profound Christian truth.
Don’t miss the significance of the tall, dark man you’ll find smoking a pipe in a dark corner at The Prancing Pony in Bree — a stranger wrapped in a green cloak, his face hidden in the shadows of a voluminous hood, the long shanks of his legs covered in high, well-worn, mud-caked boots. Old Barliman, the innkeeper, calls him a “Ranger,” a solitary wanderer who comes and goes as he pleases and keeps his business a mystery. But there’s more to him than meets the eye. Much more.
To elaborate would be to spoil the story for the uninitiated. Suffice it to say that this “Strider” — Aragorn son of Arathorn — can be compared to Christ in a very important way: he’s a figure of overwhelming stature — as a matter of fact, it wouldn’t be going to far to call him “Messianic” — who walks the world incognito. Even his closest friends are blind to the truth of his identity until much later in the epic. But Gandalf gives them a clue: “All that is gold does not glitter,” he writes in a note, “Not all those who wander are lost …” — a proverb with an almost scriptural ring about it. Compare this oft-quoted passage from Isaiah:
“He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by man, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” (Isaiah 53:2&3)
The message seems clear enough: Look closely! Good and evil seldom come clearly labeled.
Finally, take a close look at the members of the Fellowship of the Ring as they go trekking across the movie screen. Ask yourself which one looks the most like an epic hero. Is it the handsome, mysterious, swashbuckling Aragorn? Keen-sighted, swift-footed Legolas? Hard-fisted Gimli? Strong, dauntless Boromir? Wise and aged Gandalf?
Each is a hero in his own way, of course. And yet not one of them is chosen to carry the perilous Ring into the heart of Mordor. Instead, it’s a hobbit — a boyish-looking halfling — who bears the burden of the world to its final destination.
This idea — that God uses small hands to accomplish great deeds — could almost be called the heart and soul of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It’s Moses and Pharaoh, David and Goliath, Gideon and the Midianites all over again. But the mission of Frodo and Sam isn’t just your typical “underdog” story. It’s something much more. In a way, it’s a desperately needed reminder that God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8) — that when the power of evil confronts us with overwhelming odds on its side, the answer is not to fight fire with fire, but to look for deliverance in unexpected places. Hope and salvation, Tolkien seems to say, often arise in small, unnoticed corners. Like a hobbit-hole in the Shire. Or a manger in a Palestinian stable.
A late night in the spring of the year. Lewis’s sitting room is strewn with papers, books, and empty teacups. The other Inklings have gone. Jack yawns and stretches.
“Tollers,” he says as Tolkien gets up to leave, “there is too little of what we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to try and write some ourselves.”7 And so they did.
But with what results? When we drink from the cup of their “verbal inventions” is it really the Living Water we imbibe? Or did my friend Tom get it right? Are their tales merely exercises in “pagan” imaginative art?
You’ve seen what they had to say. Now you’ll have to decide for yourself when you go looking for God in The Lord of the Rings this winter.
1 Carpenter, Humphrey, Tolkien: A Biography, Ballantine Books, New York, 1977; pp. 163-165
2 From “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s To Be Said,” in Of Other Worlds; ed. Walter Hooper, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1966.
3 Carpenter, Humphrey, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1981; p. 172.
4 See Carpenter, Tolkien: A Biography; pp. 102-103.
5 Pearce, Joseph, Tolkien: Man and Myth.
6 Tolkien, The Silmarillion, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1977; p. 98.
7 Carpenter, Tolkien: A Biography; p. 190.
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