Meeting God in Middle-earth
How I Teach Theology with Tolkien
ABSTRACT: Reason and imagination are partners in the task of theology. If reason helps us speak precisely, distinguish carefully, and penetrate reality down to its principles, imagination embodies reason’s abstract formulations in order to press reality into our bones. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion is one such story that images theological concepts in stunningly fresh modes. As readers escape to Middle-earth, they encounter the distinction between God and creatures, the nature of evil, and the glory of God’s providence and grace in ways that complement the exactness of theological prose and make familiar truths feel new again.
Teaching undergraduates Christian doctrine is a joy. It is a joy because I get to spend time, year after year, thinking on and discussing our God, his gospel, and his world with his children — my brothers and sisters. It is also a joy because I get to be a witness to their fresh discovery of the truth, goodness, and beauty of this or that doctrine. This discovery is often rediscovery, or seeing the familiar anew. Many of my students were raised in Christian families and likely could pass an exam covering the basics of Christian theology. But knowing an answer to a test question is one thing; knowing reality down in one’s bones — joyfully resting in it — is quite another. For students to come to that sort of fresh knowledge, they often need to see familiar reality from a different angle. As C.S. Lewis knew so well, deep joy shows up by surprise, and I’ve learned that joy and its attendant surprise and delight aid one in learning Christian doctrine in this latter, deeper way.1
“Knowing an answer to a test question is one thing; knowing reality down in one’s bones is quite another.”
Those moments of real discovery, even if infrequent, occur by God’s grace as he instructs his people. One of the means God has often used in our courses to do that teaching has been reading outside the genre of theological prose. Specifically, I have for years assigned first semester students a section of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion in the course of our study of the doctrines of God and creation.
What’s my rationale here? My overall answer is that it is my job to teach students how to read. Primarily, this means teaching how to read well the Bible, specifically with an eye toward its theological logic, concepts, and coherence. It also means teaching how to read well a human life in light of what God says in Scripture. Accomplishing this requires, I have found, a combination of delight and embodiment.
First, I attempt this mode of teaching theology because it pleases me. Of course, this is simply another instance of the truth that unless the teacher enjoys what he teaches, his students will not enjoy it either. The world of Middle-earth feels like another home to me (I know its maps and geography almost as well as my native Oklahoma). Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, Galadriel, Aragorn, and Eowyn are my friends and counselors and heroes with whom I wish I could sit at table. The longings and failures of the elves, dwarves, and men across the ages of Arda are ones I have felt keenly here. When the Ring is destroyed in Mount Doom, when Samwise hears the minstrels begin telling his own tale, when Aragorn is crowned king and Frodo sails away into the Undying Lands, I experience in my mind and heart the delight of that “sudden, joyous turn” that Tolkien labeled eucatastrophe.2 Reading Tolkien is reading the best of humanity’s fairy-stories, a genre Tolkien described like this:
It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium [“gospel”], giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.3
In a story such as The Lord of the Rings, I receive this sort of joy because in it I experience a story so much like the Christian gospel, the “true Myth.”4 Tolkien’s stories are often said to be tales readers wish were really true. For Tolkien, that simply echoes our longing — our hope — that the gospel of Jesus Christ is true as well: “There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true” than that of Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Son.5 So by reading Tolkien as a class, I and my students are delighted, and then by investigation come to see that our delight in it is actually delight for the True Myth that it reflects so imaginatively.
Second, I attempt this mode of theological instruction because our theology is by necessity, to use an unexpected term, embodied. This is the more important of the two rationales.
“Stories can concretely embody or enact the realities of God and his rule in ways theological prose often cannot.”
We read works of fiction in these doctrine courses not because they aim to teach us theology just as a book of dogmatics does. We do so because certain stories can concretely embody or enact the realities of God and his rule in ways theological prose often cannot. Note carefully the verbs embody and enact; I did not say explain. Since systematic theology has earned a bad reputation with some for its use of concepts — some of which are very abstract and seem quite different from or even contrary to the way the Bible speaks about God’s actions for us in time — it serves us when literature can make some of those concepts concrete and particular.
One of reason’s capacities is to penetrate the surface of things in the world and discover their natures and thus their causes (or “principles”).6 For example, when we read the story of the life of Jesus, doing so with good reading skills within the canon of Scripture, we come to understand that he is not simply human but is simultaneously, somehow, God the uncreated and infinite. We then find ways of describing this. We borrow the term “nature,” which has been used to describe the metaphysical reality of what makes a particular thing that kind of thing, and we say that in Jesus there are “two natures.” A nature or essence is an abstract concept, a bit removed from the seeable, hearable, touchable, smellable world in which Jesus lived and walked. We theologians then say that in the singular “person” of Jesus these two natures — the divine nature and our human nature — are “hypostatically united.”7 We claim that the principle of this Word becoming flesh is in God alone; we call it a “divine mission.” We then give this whole complex of claims a new Latinate name and say it is the “incarnation.” Every step toward precision seems to take another step away from the real world, from the concrete lives that we and our Lord Jesus have led.
Good theologians know that this “reduction to” or “analysis by” principles is not the goal. To summarize a claim from Oliver O’Donovan, reduction is meant to give us knowledge of natures and principles, but then we are to return to the concrete world with this knowledge and know the thing afresh.8 Theology’s concepts are there so that we can return to the world of things and know them better. In literature, Reason’s partner Imagination can then “body forth” in vivid characters, plot, settings, and narration those things that we strive to describe with our theological concepts and doctrinal statements.
The above explanation is part of a growing conviction I have about the practice of theology. I have a strong hunch that one generally cannot be intellectually affected — that is, grow in mind and heart — by a descriptive theological statement until one imagines a human person being concretely implicated in its truth. In other words, the movement from exegesis of Scripture can indeed yield true theological claims — a conceptual description of the resurrection at Christ’s second coming, say. Yet I believe that Christians who read that abstract, conceptual theological description will be moved to faith and worship by it only if they can picture themselves, their mothers, their children, their friends having a share in that bodily resurrection. Likewise for the precious, true, revealed abstract concepts like justification and sanctification. The abstractions and the living things are not in competition: they are complementary for us who are living things with complementary human capacities, reason and imagination.
Literature, whether Jesus’s parables, Nathan the prophet’s tale, or a modern fantasy novel like Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, presents us with an occasion for this sort of discovery of truth and meaning. Our efforts at reading (not reading into) the “theology” embedded in the author’s fictional world demand that we interpret a life lived, asking, for example, “What is the case in Frodo Baggins’s or Hannah Coulter’s or Ivan Ilych’s life? What is good there? How do we see God’s hand in how they make their ways through the days they are given?” This exercise then gives us as readers more skills in asking the same questions of our own lives: we learn to see how God is actually working in our lives, what are the real goods he has placed around us, what is really the case about our world — all tasks that good theology aids. Our personal lives do not have a prose explanation given with them, there legible on the surface of our daily events. Maturity and wisdom include growing in one’s ability to interpret life well, and the reading of literature can develop that maturity.
Theology in Middle-earth
I offer the following examples from Middle-earth with this qualification or caution: in reading Tolkien’s works this way, we must respect his own basic convictions about them. These were not allegorical or didactic stories, written expressly to “teach a lesson” or direct one’s attention to the primary thing that is outside the story itself.9 These works are “fairy-stories” in Tolkien’s robust sense of the term, and so meant not to teach a heavy-handed moral lesson, but to delight, draw in, and offer a way of “escape.”10
“Tolkien’s stories have a sympathetic resonance with, or have a family resemblance to, the gospel story.”
Nevertheless, they do indeed teach; they are indeed “about something” that good readers can come to see.11 Tolkien’s tales are the best of what he called “sub-creation,” a work of human hands that imitates our Lord as best as one can, imaging God in the delightful creation of a coherent, persuasive, compelling “other” world. In multiple letters, Tolkien makes clear that The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion are religious works despite religion’s near-total exclusion from them.12 He knew that we are to see the world in which we live through the lens of the grace of God in Christ, learning about God its Maker and Redeemer through it. His stories have a sympathetic resonance with, or have a family resemblance to, the gospel story. When we read them, our imagination works to connect the two worlds, but this is exactly the activity by which we come to find meaning in things (more generally?). That sort of discovery, with that work entailed, is sweeter and deeper than many other types of learning. By reading his stories in a theology course, we aim to experience just this.
God & Creatures
In The Silmarillion’s first two chapters, we are presented with a story about the creation of Middle-earth. While our minds are usually drawn first to the “music of the Ainur,” it is important to attend to their Maker. Here, we see that the Ainur — angelic beings — “were the offspring of his thought” and are “kindled . . . with the flame Imperishable.”13 These beings come to realize that they are singing a world into form. Though they do this, they themselves have their being from the thought of “Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar.”14 Following some of the most exquisite and even moving writing from the twentieth century, in which the Ainur’s song is lovingly described — a music in which they begin actually to see a vision of a world and its history — Ilúvatar fulfills the Ainur’s desires and speaks the cosmos into existence: “Therefore I say: Eä! Let these things Be!”15 Eä is the Quenya word (one of the languages of the Elves in Tolkien’s mythology) for both “the entire universe that is” and the verb “to be.” With this word, the world comes to exist.
The beauty of this brief narrative arrests the reader, drawing one’s attention to this New World as if it’s the most intricate miniature one could hope to find. Notice what has been built into this world, though: there is a Cause and Source for everything that is, except for one. Eru/Ilúvatar is simply there, without beginning or cause; everything else that exists (the powerful Ainu Melkor included) has been made, and made by him. They are creatures. His making of things — the Ainur or the world — seems effortless and immediate, having no raw material at hand for things to be. This is akin to what Christian theology has long confessed about God: that he is simple, eternal, causeless, whose life is well described as a se, meaning that it is “of or from himself.” Christian theology has also confessed that God would be himself even if he had not made the creation. Similarly, these characteristics, when set beside those of created beings, show us that one of the most fundamental realities of our existence is the Creator-creature distinction: God is qualitatively different from everything else.16 These unique characteristics of divinity play a role in much of the rest of this first part of The Silmarillion.
Nature of Evil
Immediately, Tolkien’s myth of creation turns to the rebellion of some of the creatures, portrayed luminously as one particular angelic being sings his own melody that breaks the harmony of the whole music of creation:
But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar; for he sought to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself. . . . Some of these [selfish] thoughts he now wove into his music, and straightway discord arose about him, and many that sang nigh him grew despondent.17
Tolkien’s language soars here, giving us readers a vivid picture of a crashing storm of sound, a braying cacophony that tries “in an endless wrath”18 to overpower the most beautiful polyphonic motet one could imagine. In about three pages, Tolkien portrays the nature of evil with more subtlety and insight than many theological writers have in hundreds.
What is evil? Evil is a departure from or perversion of the good of being as God has created it to be, in all its ordered justice. It is here not the freedom of agency and creativity per se that is evil, but using that capacity to act in a way that is “not in accord with the theme.”19 One expansive definition of sin as seen in Scripture is that of “lawlessness” (1 John 3:4).20 Melkor’s music is evil because it is contrary to or a perversion of the “law” of the music of the creation from Ilúvatar. It misses the mark of what the music is supposed to be.
Further, evil can include isolation, impatience, and sloth:
Melkor had gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own, and it seemed to him that Ilúvatar took no thought for the Void, and he was impatient of its emptiness. Being alone, he had begun to conceive thoughts of his own unlike those of his brethren.21
Notice two parts to Melkor’s evil: he isolated himself and he was impatient. He did not think the other creatures were essential to his life, nor that he had to trust the wise timing of God. Evil always isolates: Gollum lives alone for five hundred years; Sauron brooks no rivals; Frodo is tempted toward leaving Sam behind. The converse is important: for a creature to act in harmony with the world God has created, the creature must be and act in relation to other creatures as well. The Ten Commandments contain two tables: the vertical by which we are to obey the law related to God; the horizontal by which we are to obey the law related to others. Such is the biblical nature of justice.
Further, Melkor wanted no span of time and output of effort to exist between his thoughts and their accomplishment: he wanted instantaneous and effortless results. The One Ring of the later tales is one more instance of this creaturely lust to have no gap, no loss, between a thought and its perfect effect in the real world. But such power is only God’s; only God is thus sovereign, because only God is thus perfect, simple Being. For Tolkien, magic and modern machinery are man’s attempt to wield this sort of power in an un-creaturely way in order to satisfy man’s sinful hastiness. By portraying a wicked power casting about for God’s own secret power, or the forging of a Ring that seeks to give Godlike power (invisibility, domination of the wills of others by one’s mere thoughts), these vivid tales help our imaginations to see not only biblical truth embodied in stunningly fresh modes, but also the meaning of our own desires, actions, and techniques.
Providence & Grace
Finally, this story teaches us about God’s providence and eternal plan for salvation. See how Ilúvatar responds to this cacophonous discord:
Ilúvatar arose, . . . and a third theme grew amid the confusion and it was unlike the others. For it seemed at first soft and sweet, a mere rippling of gentle sounds in delicate melodies; but it could not be quenched and it took to itself power and profundity. . . . [It was) deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came. . . . Melkor’s music tried to drown the other music by the violence of its voice, but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken in by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern.22
The history of the world that God sovereignly ordained “takes in” the imaginations of evil and weaves them into its own music. The plan for history is not defeated by evil’s attempts to thwart it, but evil actually defeats itself. Note how Ilúvatar’s response at this point is a music that is as delicate as the skin of a newborn child, but one that grows and wins the victory not by sheer strength but through “immeasurable sorrow.” Few descriptions of the eternal plan for the gospel of Jesus Christ do more to move our hearts.
Finally, Ilúvatar explains the interplay like this:
Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined. . . . And thou, Melkor, wilt discover all the secret thoughts of thy mind and wilt perceive that they are but a part of the whole and tributary to its glory.23
What an insightful and powerful description of divine providence. Surely, the devil fooled himself into thinking that he could cause things that God does not foresee and intend, as if he were omniscient. Tolkien here masterfully contrasts the infinite wisdom, goodness, and power of God with the quite limited knowledge, desires, and power of even the mightiest of creatures.
Making sense of this scene in Tolkien’s masterpiece demands that readers think theologically, of course. But having briefly visited the beginnings of Arda or the road from Hobbiton to Mount Doom, the big payoff is in students’ ability to imagine God’s sovereignty, omniscience, providence, or even the nature of evil, however variably they might be manifested, in their own world. For this world itself was indeed spoken into existence to the delight of its Maker, and itself is the place where that Maker trod in human feet.
See C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (London: Harper Collins, 2012). ↩
J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in Tree and Leaf (London: HarperCollins, 2001), 68. ↩
Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 69. ↩
Joseph Pearce, Tolkien: Man and Myth (London: HarperCollins, 1998), 57–58. ↩
Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 72. ↩
This method has a long and venerable tradition in Christian theology. John Webster here summarizes, positively, Bonaventure: “‘Reduction’ is the formal or procedural correspondent of a conviction, at once scriptural and metaphysical, that God precedes, encloses and wholly exceeds all things, and that theology — as Bonaventure puts it — is ‘the only perfect science, for it begins at the beginning, which is the first principle’” (The Domain of the Word [London: T&T Clark, 2012], 151). See also Alasdair MacIntyre, “First Principles, Final Ends, and Contemporary Philosophical Issues,” in The Tasks of Philosophy, vol. 1, Selected Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Kenneth Schmitz, “Analysis by Principles and Analysis by Elements,” in The Texture of Being (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2007); Etienne Gilson, “The Intelligence in the Service of Christ the King,” in A Gilson Reader, ed. Anton C. Pegis (New York: Image Books, 1957). ↩
This is merely restating some of the Christological metaphysical claims of both the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Symbol. ↩
I have here restated a comment O’Donovan made during a Q&A following one of his recent 2021 Gifford Lectures at the University of St. Andrews, the series of which was titled The Disappearance of Ethics. ↩
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 220. For a discussion of Tolkien’s motives for this, and for “concealing” any Christian content behind the veil of his mythology, see Fleming Rutledge, The Battle for Middle-earth: Tolkien’s Divine Design in The Lord of the Rings (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004). ↩
Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 56–70. ↩
For an example of this type of an excellent reading of Tolkien’s legendarium, to which much of my own thinking on Tolkien is indebted, see Jonathan S. McIntosh, The Flame Imperishable: Tolkien, St. Thomas, and the Metaphysics of Faërie (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2017). ↩
Tolkien, Letters, 172. There he calls The Lord of the Rings a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work” that deals with “the order of Grace.” ↩
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, ed. Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 3. In a letter to Sir Stanley Unwin, Tolkien describes the Ainur who are in the world as “meant to provide beings of the same order of beauty, power, and majesty as the ‘gods’ of higher mythology, which can yet be accepted — well, shall we say baldly, by a mind that believes in the Blessed Trinity” (Letters, 146). ↩
Tolkien, Silmarillion, 3. ↩
Tolkien, 8. ↩
These elements of the doctrine of God are described by much of the Christian tradition: Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, Ia.2–12; Augustine, On Christian Teaching, I.32; John Calvin, Institutes, I.2.2; John Calvin, The Gospel According to St John 1–10 (Edinburgh: St Andrew Press, 1959), 131; Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, God and Creation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 152; John Webster, God without Measure, vol. 1, God and the Works of God (London: T & T Clark, 2016), 13–28; Robert Sokolowski, The God of Faith and Reason: Foundations of Christian Theology (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1995). ↩
Tolkien, Silmarillion, 4. ↩
Tolkien, 4. ↩
Tolkien, 4. ↩
Cf. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3, Sin and Salvation in Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 58. ↩
Tolkien, Silmarillion, 4. ↩
Tolkien, 4–5. ↩
Tolkien, 5. ↩