J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is a profoundly Christian book. Like the anonymous seventh-century author of Beowulf whose work he had mastered, Tolkien infuses his pre-Christian epic fantasy with Christian convictions and concerns.

He also confronts evils altogether as great as the horrors of our own time. Rather than fleeing oppressive evil, Tolkien enables his readers to escape into the freeing reality of Good.

The inhabitants of Middle-earth do not know God as triune, but they do know him as the One. In The Silmarillion, he is called Ilúvatar, the All-Father, and he has imbued the entire cosmos with his Spirit. There is nothing that does not bear Ilúvatar's creative imprint.

Just as in Genesis, Yahweh creates in concert with his heavenly court ("Let us make man in our image"), so does Ilúvatar employ his 15 valar in making the music of the cosmos. The valar are not polytheistic divinities but subordinate beings that Ilúvatar has created with the Flame Imperishable of his own Spirit.

The angels of Middle-earth

As patrons over the various creative qualities and natural powers resident in the cosmos, the valar are pure spirits, having no natural bodily existence and thus no mortal limits. Yet they assume shape and gender, both masculine and feminine, in order that the Children of Ilúvatar might know and love them.

Beneath the valar are somewhat less powerful beings called the maiar. Lower still are the elves and perhaps the ents, then men and hobbits, and finally dwarves.

Yet this descending chain of being is neither static nor imprisoning: it is wondrously free and life-giving. Within every rank, there is immense room for movement—either up or down, toward life or toward death, toward good or toward evil. The lower creatures are meant to serve the higher, yet without being demeaned or diminished. So are the higher beings meant to care for the lower, yet without condescension or contempt. All the creatures of Ilúvatar are meant to dwell in lasting regard for each other. Everywhere in Tolkien's work, authentic existence is always communal. Fellowship and friendship, companionship and mutuality, lie at the heart of Tolkien's Christian vision.

Disobedience and rebellion—whether among valar or hobbits—are the main motives for sin in Tolkien's world. These evils are prompted by pride, the deadliest of the sins. And they usually entail a denial of the interdependence that the All-Father has made intrinsic to his universe.

One of the valar, named Melkor, like Lucifer in biblical tradition, comes to relish his solitude and to despise everything that he can not bring under his control. He refuses all communal reliance, even upon Ilúvatar. Resentful that Ilúvatar alone possesses the Light of creative action, Melkor seeks to make creatures that will serve only himself.

Wraiths, trolls, and orcs

Melkor is most like Satan in forging for himself a crown of iron and according to himself a grandiose title, "King of the World."

Yet because Melkor rejects Ilúvatar's goodness, his iniquity has no real substance, no proper being. Though frighteningly actual, the demonic always remains shadowy and derivative; in the deepest sense, it is unreal.

Repeatedly Tolkien demonstrates that sin is a distortion and perversion of the Good. As their name indicates, the Ringwraiths—the nine men who have come totally under Sauron's sway—are ghostly figures who have been hideously twisted by their hatred.

Yet because evil has only a parasitic existence, it can never completely destroy or undo—though it can certainly mar and tarnish—the Good. The demonic Melkor is unable to create any original or free creatures. He can manufacture only parodies and counterfeits. In addition to the carnivorous trolls that he breeds in scorn for the tree-herding ents, he also makes the brutal orcs in mockery of the graceful elves.

Melkor also corrupts Sauron, one of the maiar. He is called the Lord of the Rings because he has forged the gemstone Rings of Power: nine for men and seven for dwarves. Far from being evil, these rings enable their owners to accomplish considerable good.

Treacherously, however, Sauron also forms the plain gold band of the Ruling Ring in order to control all the other rings. Into it he builds much of his own guile, and with it he purposes to dominate Middle-earth.

That "Precious" power

The power of the Ruling Ring is so fatally tempting that it usually overwhelms the wills of those who possess it, addicting them to its use.

A hobbit named Sméagol, for example, becomes so obsessed with the Ring that he breaks off relations with his fellow hobbits. He becomes "Gollum," living in self-absorbed solitude, talking only to himself, communing with none but his "Precious," as he calls the Ring. Gollum is himself possessed by Sauron's seductive instrument.

Evil, Tolkien reveals, is never freeing, always enslaving. To sin is not to set the will at liberty but to put it into captivity.

To do the Good, by contrast, is to enable the will, to enlarge its freedom. As in Romans 7, so in Tolkien's world: the imprisoning power of evil can be broken only by the transcendent power of Good.

In a pre-Christian epic such as The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien cannot have recourse to Israel and Christ and the church as the means of deliverance from evil, but he can and does create remarkable parables of divine redemption. The chief of these Gospel echoes concerns the surrender of coercive power by means of radical self-sacrifice, even death.

Good Fellowship

For reasons beyond his fathoming, a middle-aged hobbit named Frodo Baggins has been chosen to perform such a drastic act of self-surrender. He has been summoned to cast Sauron's Ring back into the Cracks of Mount Doom, the volcanic flames where it was originally forged. If the Ring is not destroyed, Middle-earth will fall under the Dark Lord's control, and all the Free Peoples of the world will be enslaved. Only with the destruction of the Ring can Sauron's power be broken and he himself consumed.

Frodo can succeed in his Quest—his vocation not to find a treasure but to be rid of one—only through companionship, not by solitary endeavor. Frodo's closest hobbit friends—Sam and Merry and Pippin—will not let him undertake his perilous journey alone. The four of them are joined by the wizard Gandalf, the elf Legolas, the dwarf Gimli, plus two men—the kingly Aragorn and the brave Boromir. Together, they become the Company of Nine Walkers, "set against the Nine Riders that are evil."

Small hands, great deeds

Frodo and his companions constitute a radical community of the Good, whose character often resembles a true church. They are not a company of mighty and outsized conquerors but a band of small and frail mortals.

As in the Gospel, however, their weakness becomes their strength. Elrond the elflord articulates this central truth: "Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere."

Like the early Christians, the Company dwells in remarkable solidarity. When one of the Company suffers, they all suffer. When one enjoys a momentary triumph, they all rejoice. To restore their failing strength, they eat lembas, the airy elven-bread that possesses unmistakably eucharistic qualities.

The Company also has a Christ-like master in Gandalf. In battle with a demonic creature called the Balrog, Gandalf saves his companions from sure death. To do so, the wizard himself dies and descends into a hellish abyss. Yet Gandalf is miraculously resuscitated and thus enabled again to lead the Nine Walkers on their Quest.

The hobbits also find themselves offering prayers of deliverance to one of the valar named Elbereth, the Mary-like queen of the stars. Their Quest finally succeeds because they possess the three theological virtues—unyielding faith in their master and their mission, undespairing hope that their cause will ultimately be vindicated beyond the walls of the world and, not least of all, undying love for each other and for those who intervene for them.

As a Roman Catholic, Tolkien believed that divine grace does not destroy but completes and fulfills the natural virtues: Christians are meant to realize these virtues even more fully than the pagans did. As a scholar of ancient Germanic and Scandinavian cultures, he also admired the valor of pagan warriors who died in defense of their companions and communities.

Tolkien's twin convictions are united in the sterling courage of Frodo and his friends. Like sheep led to the slaughter, they repeatedly offer to lay down their lives for their friends, having no hope of victory, yet inspired by the conviction that their love for each other requires them to resist Sauron's evil, even unto death.

While non-Christians can display heroic courage, they cannot exhibit the uniquely Christian virtue of heroic forgiveness. In most ancient pagan cultures—the Greeks, for example—mercy could be given only to the pathetic, the helpless, those who were unable to relieve their own plight. To forgive the strong or undeserving was to commit serious injustice.

Grace even to Gollum …

The entire outcome of The Lord of the Rings hinges, by contrast, on Bilbo Baggins's mercy for the murderous Gollum. On first learning that his kinsman pitied the despicable creature when he could have killed him, Frodo is incensed. Bilbo should have slain Gollum, Frodo protests, giving him the death that he deserves. Gandalf's trenchant reply is the Christian core of Tolkien's massive work:

"Deserves [death]! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. … I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many—yours not least."

If Gollum—like many other characters in the novel—had not been given repeated chances of redemption, the Quest would not have succeeded. The Lord of the Rings is indeed a grace-abounding book.

Yet it is not a falsely cheering work. In the end, alas, Frodo is utterly overwhelmed by the power of the Ring: the heroic hobbit is prevented from fulfilling his mission. But because Tolkien's universe is providential rather than accidental, Frodo's defeat does not mean ultimate failure. Sauron's evil finally destroys itself—but only because the Company has fought it valiantly to the end. Frodo is so exhausted by his arduous Quest that he is unable to relish the fruits of the victory over Sauron.

Tolkien is unblinkingly honest about the effects of the self-surrendering life. The joy won at the end of the book is tearfully muted, for the triumph over Sauron also brings an end to the wondrous Fellowship of the Ring. Nor can Tolkien—in a pre-Christian world such as Middle-earth—translate his faithful heroes into Heaven. But he does have Frodo and Gandalf set sail for the Undying Lands, a paradise that Ilúvatar has created for the valar and other immortals.

Above the darkness

Even before this foreshadowing of glory divine, Tolkien's world is revealed to be neither an unsponsored nor an undirected universe.

Samwise Gamgee, the least articulate of the hobbits, discerns this truth in the unlikeliest place—in the heart of Sauron's sinister realm, where their efforts seem finally to have failed. Even if he and Frodo were somehow to succeed in destroying the Ring, there is no likelihood that they will themselves survive, or that anyone will ever hear of their valiant deed. They seem doomed to oblivion.

Yet, amid such hopelessness, Sam beholds a single star shimmering above the dark clouds of Mordor:

"The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of that forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach."

Sam sees that, in the ultimate reach of things, Life remains more powerful than death; Good conquers evil. Light, he discerns, is the primal, final reality—not the night that seeks to quench it. The single flickering star penetrates and defines the gargantuan gloom.

The immense accomplishment of Tolkien's work is to have given convincing fictional life to this profoundest truth, the reality made full and final in the Incarnation: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5).

Ralph C. Wood is University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University.