The Lord of the Rings

A Reader’s Guide to a Christian Classic

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Professor, Houston Christian University

“I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass.” Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings first heard the wizard Gandalf utter these words in 1954, bravely standing against the balrog on the bridge of Khazad-Dûm. Gandalf’s declaration now rings out in the memories of millions of those who have never read the original text, thanks to Sir Ian McKellen’s portrayal in Peter Jackson’s films.

But there is more to this line than an epic oration. In the creation myth of Middle-earth, not divulged to eager readers until four years after Tolkien’s death, we learn that the Secret Fire, or Flame Imperishable, is a gift bestowed only by God — the very gift of Being. And all the way back before 1920, Tolkien had penned a short entry in a lexicon focusing on Elvish linguistics and phonology that is the key to understanding this fire. Tucked away on page 81, the entry reads, “Sā: Fire, especially in temples. etc. A mystic name identified with Holy Ghost.”

That pattern of discovery perfectly encapsulates most people’s experience with The Lord of the Rings. A rousing story draws us in, but it takes deeper delving to unearth the rich veins of Christian theology that spread like mithril through Tolkien’s constructed world.

Perhaps you’ve been put off from reading The Lord of the Rings because Elves and Dwarves seem frivolous. Perhaps you feel content to watch the film adaptations instead. Perhaps it was simply something you read as a child, without ever considering that it might contain hidden depths. Whatever your reason, I’d like to invite you into Middle-earth to see how Tolkien approached his storytelling with an attitude of praise. We see in The Lord of the Rings a stellar example of the way a worldview can affect every facet of life.

The Open Secret of Middle-earth

Tolkien was not a professional theologian. He was not even a professional novelist. He was perhaps the greatest living authority on the history of the English language, a full professor at Oxford who mumbled his way through lectures on obscure Anglo-Saxon grammar. But when the stories he told his children gained attention and were published as The Hobbit, Tolkien became an immediate sensation. He spent the remainder of his life letting the public into the secret world he had been building in his imagination since he was a soldier in the trenches of World War I.

The basic plot of his magnum opus is now so well-known as to barely need a summary. Frodo Baggins, a diminutive Hobbit of the Shire, finds himself in possession of the One Ring, a thoroughly evil artifact that shares the essence of the Dark Lord Sauron (who was long thought destroyed). But Sauron (the eponymous Lord of the Rings) is rising again, and he wants his most powerful weapon back. Frodo, along with a small Fellowship, must undertake a mission to travel into the very heart of Sauron’s impenetrable kingdom without being discovered, and destroy the Ring in the very fires in which it was forged.

“That is the purpose for which you are called hither,” Elrond explains to the Fellowship.

Called, I say, though I have not called you to me, strangers from distant lands. You have come and are here met, in this very nick of time, by chance as it may seem. Yet it is not so. Believe rather that it is so ordered that we, who sit here, and none others, must now find counsel for the peril of the world. (The Lord of the Rings, 242)

Not chance, but a hidden ordering, orchestrated the assembly of the Fellowship at Rivendell. This sort of subtle providence appears everywhere throughout the tale, and yet it remains hidden until and unless the reader asks the next (and necessary) question: “Ordered by whom?”

Divine Design

Once the question is posed, the answer seems inevitable. The very nature of the narrative drives it. Who keeps this seemingly impossible mission from devolving into chaos? Why does chance always seem to favor the side of the good? Gandalf, again, shows us more than is immediately obvious.

There was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought. (56)

This is the divine design of Middle-earth.

The Lord of the Rings keeps its Christian metaphysic under the surface. Tolkien deliberately set the story in the mythical past of our own world, before the special revelation to Abraham or the incarnation of the God-man. Yet, aside from its strong portrayal of providence, it also models the life of common grace.

“We see in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ a stellar example of the way a worldview can affect every facet of life.”

Frodo refuses to kill Gollum (who deserves it) because he insists that Gollum still possesses an inherent dignity and the possibility of redemption. Aragorn’s kingship manifests not in his seizure of military power, but in his works of healing and righteousness. Sam Gamgee, the blue-collar gardener, not Boromir, the realpolitiker captain, is the highest model of heroism. In all these ways, Tolkien is seeding the ground for spiritual harvest, creating art that has its own integrity while organically illustrating truth.

The World as Art

A staunch Roman Catholic who recited his prayers loudly in Latin even after Vatican II allowed for Mass in English, Tolkien didn’t set out to write “Christian fiction,” whatever that term may mean. He has no Aslan-allegory waiting to pounce upon us. “I was primarily writing an exciting story in an atmosphere and background such as I find personally attractive. But in such a process inevitably one’s own taste, ideas, and beliefs get taken up,” he explains (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 267).

Tolkien’s art is, first and foremost, just that: art, made by a professing Christian. Not a hidden sermon, not an evangelistic allegory, not a work of imaginative apologetics — at least, not directly. But Tolkien had an incredibly robust doctrine of creation, which makes the category of “art” something much more than mere entertainment. For him, the whole world is a work of Art that the Creator has made real, giving it what Tolkien calls “secondary reality” (Letters, 279).

And if the world is art, then it all must mean something. God, the true Being, gives other beings their existence, and because God is their source, they point back to him. All creation is sacramental: God reveals his own Being through the gift of being and his own invisible nature through visible nature. This is what creation means. It’s designed to lead us to glorify its Creator.

Stories Can Elevate the Heart

If the world really is art, then not just the sacramental, imaginative, aesthetic experience of creation, but also our instinct for poetic vision, reveal the divine Poet. If creation is art, then all art mirrors creation in some way.

Tolkien ties this vision of a universe teeming with unique, wonder-full creatures to his theory of sub-creation. We make because we are made in the image of a Maker, and we extend and enrich God’s creation through our own derivative creative efforts. Tolkien’s “exciting story,” in which a Christian mind imitates its Creator, doesn’t have to be a gospel allegory. It glorifies God by being itself, just as trees glorify God by being trees and the rocks cry out before Christ. All art imitates creation to a greater or lesser degree. God’s character is more translucent in some works than others (more evident, for instance, in The Brothers Karamazov than Iron Man 2).

The Lord of the Rings is not just popcorn fare. It is deeply theological, meditating on themes of death, fall, mercy, and idolatry. Its atmosphere strikes even non-Christians as redolent of a certain sanctity, of a high, clear nobility that elevates the heart. Here, Tolkien’s fantasy environment allows for such elements to be magnified beyond their ordinary scale and contemplated more directly. He invented this genre for a profound reason.

Joy as Poignant as Grief

In his magisterial essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien articulates the threefold theological movement of fantasy. First, it helps us to escape from the claustrophobic realm of materialism and all our quotidian burdens. Escaping into a new perspective then helps us to recover our view of the truth. Our eyes have been clouded by sin and possessiveness, and packaging the old familiar goods in unfamiliar forms helps us to see them afresh. But the key characteristic of all good fantasy is consolation, the joy of the happy ending.

Tolkien terms this specific sort of joy eucatastrophe, “a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur.” While acknowledging that we live in the midst of much sorrow, failure, and pain, eucatastrophe instead “denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief” (Tolkien On Fairy-Stories, 75).

Fantasy echoes the story of redemption. Lost in our sin and with no hope of escape, we are alienated from God the Creator, but in an astonishing grace he himself becomes one of us in order to do what only he can. And when things seem darkest — when we reject, violate, and murder God himself — that is the exact moment at which God’s greatest triumph occurs. It leads our hearts to exult in immeasurable joy. The fairy tale has come true. “Legend and History have met and fused” (Fairy-Stories, 78).

As such, Tolkien believes that fantasy can train our hearts for truth. He writes of the gospel as a form of fairy tale:

This story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. (Fairy-Stories, 78)

A Classic for Christians?

If all good art reflects the divine artist, and all good fantasy foreshadows the gospel, what might we gain from reading a work like The Lord of the Rings, crafted by a Christian who self-consciously leaned into this state of affairs, seeking to make excellent art that goes with the grain of creation?

The Lord of the Rings offers a picture of a good and beautiful cosmos. It refuses to glamorize evil. It pictures heroes who are actually heroic in the biblical sense, not just glory-driven killing machines. Tolkien doesn’t need to make his fantasy Christian; instead, he can simply recognize and cultivate a narrative process that God has already designed to lead us to himself.

The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. (Fairy-Stories, 78–79)

Tolkien’s great text models for us what it might mean to redeem this aspect of God’s good creation, to participate in the work of making all things new. In this way, he too is a servant of the Secret Fire.