Gandalf and Aragorn, Frodo and Sam, Merry and Pippin are household names now, thanks to the blockbuster film trilogy “The Lord of the Rings.” But in the 1960s, when J.R.R. Tolkien‘s masterful fantasy was first published in paperback in the United States, the books were more underground classic than mass market marvel.
Ralph Wood stumbled upon them as a ’60s-era graduate student and was immediately taken by the richness of the world Tolkien created. But he saw more in the heroic struggle between good and evil than mere skilled storytelling.
There was a profound Christian message in the text as well, he said. More than three decades later, Wood, now a theology and literature professor at Baylor University in Texas, has written a book on the subject: “The Gospel According to Tolkien.”
He’ll be in Eugene this weekend for a series of free lectures on the trilogy’s Christian underpinnings.
The “Lord of the Rings” is no simple allegory, Wood said. The characters who inhabit Middle Earth must work together to defeat an evil warlord who seeks ultimate power through use of a magic ring.
Tolkien’s genius lies in his creation of flawed characters who wrestle with themselves and who sometimes make wrong choices in their efforts to do the right thing.
“Though they’re deeply good, they sin, they betray each other at some point. … But they are bound together by a larger goodness,” Wood said.
While the books have no single Christ figure, some of the characters act in Christlike ways, Wood said.
This might come as a surprise to those who have only seen the movies and are unfamiliar with the books, Wood said. The films spend a great deal of time depicting the wars of Middle Earth, sequences that take just a few pages in a 1,000-page-plus text.
Wood found himself turning to Tolkien in the 1970s when he wanted to revitalize theology classes for students who had adopted a more secular outlook on life.
“I set about looking for a way to hook those students that would in an indirect way, reveal to them the depth of native Christianity that they thought they had surpassed,” he said.
“Students began to devour Tolkien and to say to me something quite remarkable. One student put it this way: ‘When I read Tolkien, I feel clean,’ ” Wood said.
Tolkien was a deeply religious Catholic, but unlike his contemporary C.S. Lewis, author of the “Chronicles of Narnia,” he was no evangelist, Wood said.
“He wanted his book to create such an imaginative world that his readers would enter it and be so thoroughly convinced by its reality that they would come to absorb its deeper meaning and significance,” he said.
That’s a task few authors have successfully managed.
“C.S. Lewis once said it’s impossible to make righteousness readable because good people are so saccharine sweet, but Tolkien does it,” Wood said.
Embedded in the story are Christianity’s seven traditional virtues – wisdom, justice, courage, temperance, faith, hope and love.
Wood’s book centers on how those virtues play out in the world of Middle Earth.
On Friday, he will examine the mythological background of the “Lord of the Rings,” which Tolkien explored in the companion book “The Silmarillion.” On Saturday in two separate lectures, Wood will look at how Tolkien’s “wonderfully good cosmos” is corrupted by Sauron and the creation of the ring. He’ll discuss the ways in which contemporary culture mirrors the evils of Middle Earth.
In a Sunday sermon, Wood will address a central Tolkien point: It is not the mighty and powerful who shape the world, but the humblest among us – the Hobbits – who must find the strength to do so.
In his 30 years of teaching and writing about Tolkien, Wood has never grown tired of the trilogy. “After you’ve read a text several times, you begin to grow weary of it,” Wood said. “But “Lord of the Rings” is richer with every reading. You discover it has hidden depths.”