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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

07 March 2007

Scripture and The Lord of the Rings

Q: Was The Lord of the Rings based on the Scripture?

TolkienA: Not many college professors write critically acclaimed novels. Even fewer do so in the genre of fantasy. J. R. R. Tolkien taught Anglo-Saxon and then English language and literature at Oxford University and began his fantastic stories of the place and time called Middle Earth as tales for his own children. When he finally published The Hobbit in 1937, he discovered that it not only spoke to older children but also to many adults who shared some of his sense of wonder.

He built The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) on the fantasy world of Middle Earth that he’d been developing even before The Hobbit took its final form. This world and the writings that grew from it certainly owed much to his strong Christian faith. However, he resisted slavish imitation of Scripture even as he also refused to fully follow the mythic tales of Germany, Scandinavia, Great Britain, or the Greco-Roman world. Each of these apparently provided ideas; none of them dictated exactly how he would use the source material.

Tolkien resisted simple allegory and LOTR is much more than a sophisticated Pilgrim’s Progress dressed in the clothing of a medieval fairy tale. However, as he related in the essay “On Fairy-Stories,” he considered the realm of the fantastic a suitable vehicle for conveying the true essence of both earthly life and of Christianity. He felt rewarded when readers grasped the Christian meaning of lessons of sin and redemption, of salvation won through heroic struggle. He similarly thrilled when the worlds he created led his audience to fuller appreciation of their own world and its simple majesty expressed in the simplicity of green grass, blue sky, or cool water.

Good and EvilHe also believed that a good tale of Faerie can (and likely should) bring emotional consolation or moral healing through the sudden upward turn of fortune for its protagonists. He termed this attitude or concept eucatastrophe, a word he coined as an opposite to the catastrophe of classic tragedy. Therefore, through this “good catastrophe,” no matter whether his heroes have their own fatal flaws or whether they suffer from external evil, his stories point to restoration and even greater good once wickedness is banished.

This sense of eucatastrophe led him to his fullest borrowing most from the Christian Church and the Bible. Tolkein considered Christ’s own Incarnation to be the eucatastrophe of all human history. Likewise, the Resurrection was the greater eucatastrophe of Jesus’ incarnation, life, suffering, and death. In the fortunate events following the great evils of LOTR, Tolkien hoped not only to provide a sense of escape or refreshment but also to connect the reader to the ultimate blessing of human life redeemed, restored, and finally resurrected through faith in Jesus Christ.

Since Tolkien didn’t desire to slavishly imitate or allegorize Scripture or the Faith, he refused to bring “salvation” to the LOTR’s various embattled races through only one “Christ figure.” A number of his heroes great and small model parts of what only Jesus could do in entirety. The wizard Gandalf could thus represent heavenly wisdom and reveal some of the hidden battle between angelic goodness and demonic evil. Aragorn could serve as the warrior hero who placed the needs of others above his own comfort or safety. Finally, Frodo most resembled the Suffering Servant of whom Isaiah wrote (52:13-53:12).

Christ TriumphantAnother parallel that only came to my mind as I sat answering your question is that each of these three main heroes can help to illustrate Christ’s so-called Three-Fold Office of Prophet, Priest, and King. The prophetic role is most seen in the wisdom and teaching of Gandalf. Aragorn, of course, is the one who conquers and then is crowned as the great King. And while all three also offered intercession and made sacrifice of self (the primary responsibilities of a priest), the fullest giving of self as sacrifice for the good of others belonged to Frodo. He also provided intercession for others — even Gollum, a most unworthy beneficiary. In so doing, he probably best modeled the priestly office.

Of course, the parallels with our Lord remain only partial. Gandalf could be wrong or unsure in a manner we don’t imagine happening with any angel. Aragorn, although strong and noble, lacked the absolute rule that belongs to the Son of God. And Frodo, for all his sacrifice on behalf of others, still needed to battle his own weak flesh, for at the climax of the tale, he found himself too weak even to save himself, let alone others.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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Anonymous Jay D said...

Orcs are wretched creatures. They are twisted, bent, evil shadows of the elves from which their kind originated.

Any elf, dwarf, human, or hobbit is 100% justified in running a sword through the belly of any orc they happen to meet on the road, just for being an orc. Such is lowly condition of the orc's moral depravity and utter lack of inherent redeeming value.

In short--orcs are a literary caricature of fallen Man (albeit unintentional).

If "Lord of the Rings" was Christian, I have no doubt that Gandalf would have came to Middle Earth as an Orc. It is the sick that are in need of a physician, and none in Middle Earth are more sick than the Orcs.

I am a former fan of LOTR and know both the trilogy and the back-story very well. I have to respectfully disagree with you that it is a Christian work. I believe it is almost thoroughly pagan.

He felt rewarded when readers grasped the Christian meaning of lessons of sin and redemption, of salvation won through heroic struggle.

I don't know what you mean by this. I think of our salvation as being won through a very heroic non-struggle. "He's the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him."

Jesus did not struggle as the "orcs" passed unjust judgment on him and nailed him to a tree.

I think the heroic struggles depicted in LOTR more resemble the works of the earthly messiah the Jews like Judas were waiting for. Someone to come and pave the way for a glorious political kingdom.

LOTR has a very powerful and appealing message. As I said, I was a huge fan. The message is appealing because it is, in its essence, old wine.

LOTR does not deal with anything overtly religious often, but when Samwise is deep trouble in Shelob's lair he cries for divine intervention, which sounds quite pagan to me.

A Elbereth Gilthoniel!
O menel palan-díriel,
Le nallon sí di’nguruthos!
A tíro nin, Fanuilos!

O Elbereth Starkindler
from firmanent gazing afar,
to thee I cry here beneath death-horror!
O look towards me, Everwhite!

Titles for Elbereth are "Queen of Stars" and, as we see here, "Everwhite". Roman Catholic titles for Mary are Queen of Heaven and ever-virgin. It might be a coincidence that a hero calls for Elbereth to look towards him where a Roman Catholic might call for Mary to look towards him.

Maybe, except Tolkien wrote in a letter: "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision."

I, for one, take his word for it.

14 March, 2007 16:30  

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