His family and friends called him by his second given name, Ronald, but his first name was John, in honor of his patron saint, John the Evangelist. And when J. R. R. Tolkien wrote The Books that have now spawned The Movies, his work was deeply colored by the convictions of his Roman Catholic faith.
Wheaton College (IL) professor Clyde Kilby once sent Tolkien a paper by a professor in New South Wales that argued, "At every point, the human dynamics of The Lord of the Rings are drawn from the tradition ascribed to Christ's redemptive activity." Tolkien wrote back to Kilby that this was true, though not always conscious on his part. Later Tolkien wrote to a friend of his, a priest, "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first but consciously in the revision."
But when Christian History recently polled readers of our website on how "Christian" Tolkien's writing seemed to be, some just didn't see it. "Although I have no question that Tolkien was a devout Christian, and I thoroughly enjoy his works," said one, "I have no idea how anyone can suggest they are 'Christian.'" Another agreed: "I still don't really see a Christ-like figure portrayed or anything that clearly outlines the Gospel of salvation."
Some even worried aloud that attempts to read Christian meaning from Tolkien's stories might have harmful results: "Tolkien's masterpiece … should not be pored over by overly-tolerant Christians out to discover its supposed spirituality. Mythology has its place, but it is not theology, and the two should never be confused." Or again, "I just hope that parents and teachers/leaders are wise enough to teach all those who they influence, to recognize that reality and truth are not found in fantasy."
The fairest way to put the relationship between Tolkien's fictional writings and his Christianity may be this: In the characters and situations of his "new myth," Tolkien naturally reflected the Christian grace he had experienced in his own life as a devout Roman Catholic.
This grace emerges in the story not as an explicit apologetic or even an allegory, but rather in two other ways: First, in the long, legendary history of Middle-earth—a realm that had always dwelt under the threat of evil and the assurance of providential care. Second, in the trials, sins, and virtues of the characters themselves.
Tolkien's Silmarillion allows us to look inside the elaborately interwoven system of legends that provide the background for The Lord of the Rings. The former book begins with a creation story paralleling the Christian one. Iluvatar is God. Melkor (a.k.a. Morgoth) is the devil. Melkor wants to corrupt and take for his own the Men Iluvatar has created.
The Lord of the Rings tells how, in Middle-earth's Third Age, one such corrupting attempt by a lieutenant of Morgoth, the evil Sauron, is thwarted by the providence of Iluvatar and with the help of His servants. Among these angel-like characters sent from the West—a clear parallel to heaven—to watch over and finally to ensure the triumph of the land's struggling inhabitants, is Gandalf.
It is in the details of that great trilogy's plot and characters that most readers sense Tolkien's Christian conviction. Here are self-sacrifice, courage, and pity, set over against greed, vainglory, and the lust for power. The "moral compass" is never in doubt. And it is not generic—it is deeply Christian. For example:
At key moments several characters recognize that although they must do deeds of valor for the greater good, it is only through a mysterious providence, beyond their understanding, that good will triumph over evil. This reflects the gospel's saving priority of grace over free will.
Seemingly weak, insignificant Hobbits help to bear the burden of the evil One Ring until it can be destroyed. This echoes the gospel theme of the foolish confounding the wise and the weak conquering the strong.
The pity of Frodo for Gollum clears the way for the final moment when the Ring is cast into the furnace of Mount Doom. This affirms the gospel's good news of God's mercy providing salvation to an undeserving humanity.
And so on. Writing against the backdrop of two chaotic, evil World Wars, Tolkien created each of his characters, as he once said to W. H. Auden, to embody "in the garments of time and place, universal truth and everlasting life."
True, such parallels as those just listed may often have been, as Tolkien himself avowed, unconscious. But given Tolkien's beliefs about the nature of Myth, they were inevitable. In a famous lecture titled "On Fairy Stories", Tolkien argued that in mythical tales a reader may gain a "fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world." Such glimpses, said Tolkien, are reflections of the one True Myth: the coming, dying, and rising of Christ.
Whether each reader is willing to accept the echoes of that Greatest Myth in the "new myth" that came from Tolkien's pen has much to do—I am convinced—with whether they are able to perceive and receive God's grace in the stuff of culture. Do they see God present not only in the ordained elements of bread and wine at the altar but also in the "everyday sacraments" of books, conversations, music, art?
Of course the latter are sacraments only in a "small-s" sense. They have, in themselves, no saving significance. Yet they may serve as self-revelations of God, working deep transformations in those with "eyes to see" and "ears to hear." And Tolkien felt that mythical stories could work to enliven readers with the sacramental nature of all of life: "It was in fairy-stories that I first divined … the wonder of all things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine."
Bradley Birzer, a professor at Hillsdale College, Michigan, and a Roman Catholic with a deep fondness for Tolkien's work, has written a fascinating inquiry into how Tolkien's sacramental faith infused his writings. J. R. R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth argues that Tolkien believed the best of the pagan world—for example, the noble Nordic virtues of "courage and raw will"—should be welcomed and sanctified by Christians.
In this, Birzer argues, Tolkien was working in the tradition of Augustine of Hippo, who once wrote, "[If philosophers] have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it." Tolkien believed the author of the old English story of Beowulf had done just this sort of thing, melding ancient Scandinavian myths with Christian insights.
Some 50 years ago H. Richard Niebuhr pointed out, in his landmark book Christ and Culture, that this sort of affirming approach has always characterized Roman Catholic and Anglican responses to culture, much more than it has the responses of Protestant groups.
Those who responded negatively to our poll question about the "Christianity" of Tolkien's stories seem often to be acting in the spirit of the Protestant "loyal opposition." Their concerns reflect those of the Reformers, who were disturbed with how, in the high medieval church, the gospel had become encrusted with material and intellectual "traditions." Many of these traditions had started as attempts to mediate the gospel to the people, but their end result, it seemed to the Reformers, was to dilute the message of the Bible.
Christians trying to decide how to respond to Tolkien's stories must grapple with this historical divide. There is no question Tolkien intended those stories to reflect Christian truths in a deep, sacramental way. The question is whether we are willing and able to receive this intended message. Do we believe God can and does speak through the cultural productions of artists and writers who do not choose to use explicitly Christian representation, allegory, or argument in their work?
Not long ago in this column, we critiqued those would-be culture-evangelists who create cheap, even crass imitations of popular-culture forms in order to broadcast the gospel. Now I wonder whether Tolkien's sacramental approach is not too subtle for many of us. Can we no longer hear through song, story, myth, and art, the God who enfleshed himself in the person of a first-century Jew—and then communicated his grace in the man-made substances of bread and wine?
One respondent's account reassures me that, if we are willing, we can:
"I read The Hobbit and the Trilogy many times as a young teen and into my twenties. I was not born again at that time, and in fact struggled through some awful rebellion and darkness. But the stories developed in me a deep sense of the unseen reality of forces I did not understand, and a commitment to not let evil win out. … Tolkien's beautiful models of lordship, devotion, sacrifice, commitment, and the quest for truth and honor were new to me, but spoke to something inside me that responded naturally. …
"God is full of Wonder and the Bible is replete with awesome and fantastical happenings. My mind and heart can receive and lovingly accept this 'magic' because of carefully crafted fantasy literature from faithful Christian authors like Tolkien."
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In December Christianity Today presented a three-part online conversation between two authors whose books discuss the faith of J.R.R. Tolkien and the religious values underpinning The Lord of the Rings. The installments include:
Why The Lord of the Rings Is Dangerous | The authors of Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues and J. R. R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth talk about the Christian life in Faerie. (December 18, 2002)
Does The Lord of the Rings Teach Salvation By Works? | The authors of Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues and J. R. R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth talk about whether Tolkien was too ignorant of evil and other subjects. (December 19, 2002)
Hobbits Aren't Fence-Sitters | The authors of Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues and J. R. R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth discuss why Tolkien hated modernity and thinking about evil—and whether he was right to do so. (December 20, 2002)
Earlier articles on the Lord of the Rings movies include:
Film Forum: A Season of Saviors | Christian media reviewers take on The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. (Dec. 19, 2002)
Soul Wars, Episode Two | The second Lord of the Rings film raises the spiritual stakes (Dec. 18, 2002)
Books & Culture Corner: Saint Frodo and the Potter Demon | The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series spring from the same source (Feb. 18, 2002)
Film Forum: The Fellowship of the Raves | Critics grope for superlatives for The Fellowship of the Ring. (Dec. 21, 2001)
Film Forum: Gandalf and the Gamblers | As everyone talks about The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, critics also get around to reviewing Ocean's Eleven, In the Bedroom, and The Business of Strangers. (Dec. 13, 2001)
Film Forum: First Looks at a Feature Fantasy | Early reviews for Fellowship of the Ring are in. (Dec. 6, 2001)
Lord of the Megaplex | The onscreen Fellowship of the Ring launches a new wave of Tolkienmania (Nov. 11, 2001)
Earlier articles on Tolkien include:
Christian History Corner: 9/11, History, and the True Story | Wartime authors J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis help put 9/11 in perspective (Sept. 13, 2002)
Christian History Corner: Intro to the Inklings | C.S. Lewis's intellect was stimulated at one of the most fascinating extracurricular clubs ever (May 18, 2001)
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous editions include:
Iraqi Christians' Path of Persecution | Not heresy hunters, nor Islamic purges, nor even Mongol hordes could wipe Christianity from Iraq. (March 7, 2003)
Heresy, Salvation, and Jack the Ripper | Why heresy trials will have to do, until something better comes along (Feb. 28, 2003)
Hajj, Feasts, and Pilgrimage | Why Muslims, Jews, and Christians still yearn for their holy places. (Feb. 21, 2003)
Play Me That Hot Puritan Love Song | A little-read book of the Bible reminds us of the astonishing intimacy we enjoy with Christ (Feb. 14, 2003)
Iraq's Christians Caught in the Middle, Again | If the looming war breaks out, 350,000 Iraqi Christians will be caught in a West-East conflict eerily similar to 4th-century events. (Feb. 7, 2003)
Finding God in a Box | Have archaeological discoveries like the James ossuary served or obscured the quest to verify the Bible? (Jan. 31, 2003)
Sex, Politics, and the Bible | Some words just don't mean what they used to (Jan. 24, 2003)
Caveat Gyrator (Elvis Priestly, Part II) | So you've got an evangelistic pop-culture act ready for prime time. Here's a historical pause for reflection. (Jan. 17, 2003)
From Oratorios to Elvis | Pop culture has been coming to a church near you for hundreds of years (Jan. 10, 2003)
The Christian DNA of Modern Genetics | Though open to frightening ethical abuse, genetics has been a Christian vocation since Gregor Mendel did his famous pea-plant experiments in the mid-nineteenth century (Jan. 3, 2003)