The ring and the cross
The Boston Globe, Dec. 29, 2002
By Chris Mooney
From their mastery Middle-earth geography to their occasional fluency in Elvish, fans of the “Lord of the Rings” books tend to be a pretty knowledgeable bunch. But many would be surprised to learn that J.R.R. Tolkien’s great medievalist epic had a co-author: God. According to Peter Kreeft, a Catholic philosopher at Boston College, Tolkien was under the divine spell when he composed his sprawling trilogy. “Of course it’s inspired; it’s got His fingerprints all over it,” wrote Kreeft in an article on Tolkien and evil that was reprinted this spring in a special all-Tolkien issue of the Catholic-leaning Chesterton Review.
Kreeft isn’t alone in his analysis. Though Tolkien’s epic romance remains a lodestar for fantasy geeks worldwide, it has also been adopted by myriad Christian commentators. Books on Tolkien’s religiosity are everywhere. For evangelical Protestants, there’s “Finding God in ‘The Lord of the Rings,'” written by two authors affiliated with the organization Focus on the Family. For Catholics, there’s Hillsdale College historian Bradley Birzer’s “J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth,” which was just released to coincide with Peter Jackson’s latest “Lord of the Rings” film, “The Two Towers.”
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When “The Lord of the Rings,” a novel in three volumes, was first published in 1954-55, the Anglican poet W.H. Auden called it a “masterpiece,” and even suggested that Tolkien had “succeeded where Milton failed” when it came to the question of reconciling free will with the notion of a God whose power is absolute. The current emphasis on Tolkien’s religiosity has its more immediate origins in Joseph Pearce’s 1999 book “Tolkien: Man and Myth,” which underscores Tolkien’s deeply Catholic views. Since Pearce’s writing — and, of course, the news that the “Lord of the Rings” books were coming to movie theaters — the theological ferment has been considerable. In April of 2000, Christianity Today ranked Tolkien’s epic among the top 10 Christian books of the 20th century; the first slot went to C.S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity,” which might not even have been written had Tolkien not helped Lewis to find God in 1931. More religiously-infused books on Tolkien are on the way, including Kreeft’s “The Philosophy of Tolkien” and Baylor University theology and literature professor Ralph Wood’s “The Gospel According to ‘The Lord of the Rings.'”
In the 1960s and early ’70s, Tolkien was often associated with the counterculture — in particular, with the Green movement. After all, he once wrote that “in all my works I take the part of the trees as against all their enemies.” “Gandalf for President” buttons were common, and Led Zeppelin lyrics abounded with Tolkien references — consider “Ramble On,” for example: “‘Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair / but Gollum, and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her, yeah.” (The less said about Leonard Nimoy’s 1967 song-poem “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins,” the better.) But Tolkien’s Christian interpreters, many of them conservatives, have tried to wrest him away from hippies, tree-huggers, and other assorted left-wingers. Birzer, for example, wrote in the New Oxford Review last year that the new Christian interpretation makes it “impossible” to see Tolkien as the poster boy for the “libertine drug culture” of the ’60s. Will the real J.R.R. Tolkien please stand up?
No one disputes that Tolkien’s Catholicism influenced his writing. Indeed, he held his conservative Catholic views rather fiercely — due in part to his conviction that his mother Mabel had been persecuted by her family for her conversion to Catholicism in 1900 (she died shortly afterward of diabetes). After serving on the Western Front in World War I, Tolkien returned to his studies of medieval literature; after becoming a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford in 1925, he helped found an influential group of Christian philosopher-writers called “the Inklings,” which included C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams. In a 1953 letter Tolkien described “The Lord of the Rings” as a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work.”
But Tolkien’s views — on both religion and fiction — were complex. In another letter, Tolkien outlined his aspiration to create a new mythology for England, describing the existing body of Arthurian legend as inadequate for the role because it “explicitly contains the Christian religion.” (He added, “That seems to me fatal.”) References to real-world belief systems, Tolkien thought, would detract from the beguiling timelessness he hoped to convey. Tolkien’s characters inhabit a pre-Christian version of our own world; they don’t worship, carry on religious rituals, or talk about faith. Commentators have noted similarities between Tolkien’s trilogy and Wagner’s “Ring Cycle,’ which also put Europe’s pagan heritage in the service of national myth-making.
Some fundamentalist Christians — the same folks who bash the “Harry Potter” books — have denounced the prevalence of magic in the “The Lord of the Rings.” Tolkien’s Christian champions, however, argue that the Oxford don — like the Beowulf poet whose work he knew so well — breathed his own devout sensibility into pagan tales and archetypes, thus creating what Birzer calls a “Christ-inspired and God-centered mythology.” Indeed, some of Tolkien’s Christian interpreters see three of the novel’s main characters — the wizard Gandalf, the hobbit Frodo, and the heroic human Aragorn — as Christ figures. “Each offers his life for others, each passes through darkness and even a kind of death, to a kind of resurrection,” writes Stratford Caldecott, a Catholic reader of Tolkien who is writing a book on the subject.
Christian Tolkienists also point to the central role of the virtue of pity — a word Tolkien tends to capitalize — in the book’s plot. When the hobbit Bilbo Baggins first discovers the dark lord Sauron’s lost Ring of Power (an event which occurs in Tolkien’s 1937 children’s book “The Hobbit”), he makes a conscious decision to spare the life of its previous owner, the wretched creature Gollum. In “The Lord of the Rings,” Bilbo’s heir Frodo and his companions continue to spare Gollum from death; these acts of mercy end up inadvertently saving the world. “‘The pity of Bilbo will rule the fate of many’ gradually becomes the motto of Tolkien’s epic,” writes Ralph Wood. “The unrestrained quality of mercy is what, I suggest, makes ‘The Lord of the Rings’ an enduring Christian classic despite its pagan setting.”
For more secular Tolkienists, though, this sort of talk rankles. “I don’t see pity as exclusively Christian,” notes University of Maryland English professor Verlyn Flieger, author of “Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World.” Flieger doesn’t consider the specifically Christian reading of Tolkien’s novel to be entirely wrong-headed, but she does find it reductionist. Some critics further observe that the novel’s characters tend to be deeply invested in their middle-earthly lives, rather than in any afterlife. Consider Gandalf’s carpe-diem advice to Frodo: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Also, where Christian Tolkienists see intimations of redemption in “The Lord of the Rings,” their secularist rivals contend that Tolkien did not create a divine comedy. Take Frodo’s parting words to Sam when Frodo leaves for the Grey Havens, a kind of overseas Elvish retirement home: “It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.” For Peter Kreeft, this smacks of a Christ-like sacrifice. But the sacrifice and loss isn’t suffered by Frodo alone; it’s suffered by all the denizens of Middle-earth: In Tolkien’s scheme, the destruction of the one ring necessitates the departure of the Elves from Middle-earth — and with their parting, much that is beautiful and cherished disappears from the world forever. Evil, meanwhile, will doubtlessly reconstitute itself in yet another form. “That’s a very Norse outlook: Even the winners lose,” says Stephen Morillo, a Wabash College medieval historian who’s teaching a course this January that covers Tolkien. ‘That’s really what lies behind the morality of ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ and that’s just incompatible with a Christian interpretation.”
Tolkienian Christians have a marked tendency to gush about the books: “I have no doubt that Tolkien’s great tale will be one of those we will hear told, or sung, by the golden fireside in that longed-for Kingdom,” writes Caldecott. Some also want to use the popularity of “The Lord of the Rings” to win converts. In a recent interview, David Mills, an editor of the conservative Christian magazine Touchstone, called Tolkien’s work “stealth evangelization”; in regard to its appearance on the big screen, he suggests that Catholics “use the movie to raise questions for their unbelieving friends. . . help them begin to see that the great story depends upon its moral and spiritual depth, and then you can ask them where they find this morality and spirituality today. We know that the only place you find them in their full strength is the Catholic church, but your unbelieving friends don’t know that yet.”
Of course, taking “The Lord of the Rings” this way would turn it into something closer to C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia” series, with its far more overt Christian exhortation. Tolkien and Lewis shared a distrust of the modern world, but they disagreed over the value of conveying direct religious messages through allegorical fiction. Tolkien disliked the Narnia books, and when it came to Lewis’s popular apologetics, he snidely dubbed his friend “Everyman’s theologian.”
Sure enough, today Tolkien retains his status as a big-church fantasist whose work inspires multiple interpretations, while Lewis tends to be more narrowly championed by conservative Christians. Speaking of the breadth of Tolkien’s appeal, Bradley Birzer admits that “I think the beauty of Tolkien is that he’s not explicitly Christian. I think I would be turned off if we had Jesus running around the story.” Tolkien avoided that, but quite a few devout Christians are nevertheless claiming his story as their own. The question is whether this could be a turn-off to everybody else.
Chris Mooney is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.