Generations have been enthralled by Tolkien's epic fantasy, The Lord of The Rings. Its pages have been studied alongside the works of C.S. Lewis at Brigham Young University, a society exists dedicated to preserving it in the spirit of its author, and back in the 1970s (in England at least) it was 'unofficial' required reading to enter the more respected universities—if you wanted to be accepted by your peers! Latter-day Saints have enjoyed the book as well, and it has not escaped being quoted at least twice in the past 2-3 years by the Brethren.
Tolkien's one-thousand-page-plus work is seen in a different light to most other fantasy literature. It does not teach lust for power. It does not promote wizardry or any of those other things some Christians, and some LDS, are—perhaps justifiably—wary of. Once we are familiar with the work, the intent, and the man, it becomes clear that this is a book that uplifts and promotes triumph over evil and not a surrender to it or its devices. Let's take a look, then, at the man, the work and the symbolism.
J.R.R. Tolkien, born 1892, was both a philologist and a student of mythology; a down-to-earth man nevertheless and filled with a remarkable amount of common sense and clarity of thought. That he spent so much of his time in fiction yet had so great a grasp of reality—both of the seen and unseen—is perhaps his most intriguing quality, and one that endears me to him and to his words.
A number of documentaries and other TV shows discussing both the book and its author were screened around the release of the movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, in December 2001. None, however, looked—except perhaps briefly—into the supernal truths wrapped up in the symbolism of this high fantasy epic.
Religion and Fairy-Stories
Tolkien held to the belief that so-called “fairy-stories” were not just for children, but a powerful way of relating truth1 to the minds of adults too—indeed, that they were primarily for adults and not children.2
He considered himself a strict Roman Catholic but his writings indicate he was not a man to blindly follow (or believe) what he was taught. He thought deeply about a great many things. Concerning The Lord of the Rings he wrote that it was “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision...the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism…”3
It is not, for instance, generally well known that C.S. Lewis, one of the most oft-quoted Christian writers by LDS leaders and authors, owed much of his own conversion to Christianity to his friend and Oxford colleague, J.R.R. Tolkien.
It’s important to first understand a little about Tolkien’s world, Middle-earth, if we are to understand why he spent so much time creating it. This was no alien planet, but our world set in some fictional era and possessed of a history that paralleled our own. Tolkien built his world on the basis of language and then upon that world’s creation, its myths and history. To him, world-building (or subcreation as he called it), was as near to the divine act of creation as one might rise, in artistic matters at least.
Let’s look a little, then, into the cosmogony of Tolkien’s subcreated world. Briefly, Middle-earth began as a thought before it was created physically. During that pre-physical creation one of Ilúvatar’s4 [God’s] mighty spirits, Melkor5, rebelled. About the same time as this rebellion, Ilúvatar sent certain Valar (‘angelic powers’) down to create (physically) Middle-earth after the Vision of the One (Ilúvatar).
The similarities with LDS theology are obvious. The earth began as a spiritual creation before it was created physically.6 Melkor is quite clearly the premortal Lucifer, and the Valar we can compare with Michael and those other choice spirits7 (‘angelic powers’) that helped bring into being (physically) the spiritual creation under the direction of Jehovah.
The main inhabitants of Middle-earth, after its creation, were Men and Elves. Both were called the Children of God, the Elves representing mankind before the Fall in this Primary World. The Elves were immortal (they were not subject to the effects of age or disease) and possessed of attributes and skills above the wisdom, knowledge, and understanding of Fallen Man. And yet Tolkien does not make the mistake of thinking the Elves wholly superior to Men. Mortality was considered a blessing to Men, and immortality a peril to the Elves8, hinting at the nature and need of the Fall of Adam as spoken of in the Book of Mormon wherein we read that, among other things, “if Adam had not transgressed…all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created.”9 Such was the circumstance of the Elves.
The Agency of Man
If we look into the actual story, or plot, of The Lord of the Rings itself we can see allegories of greater relevance to us as individuals going through life’s journey. The One Ring, the central artefact of the entire epic, offers power to those who wield it. Yet it is evil and will enslave any who so try to use it—whatever their intent. Frodo, on discovering the real nature of the Ring, offers it to Gandalf whom he trusts and knows to be both wise and powerful. Gandalf’s response lends much insight into what the Ring really represents. Says Gandalf: “Do not tempt me…the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good...the wish to wield it would be too great."10
The book, as we can see from Gandalf’s words and those of others in the story, focuses then on the theme of agency, or Will as Tolkien called it. The Ring therefore represents temptation to exercise dominion over the Will of all others, to subjugate their power of choice. And it is in the hands of a pure-hearted Hobbit (the meek and lowly of heart) that the Ring has least effect, a clear affirmation that humility can defeat the greatest of evils when God’s aid is implored.
Even in Ilúvatar’s intervention we see a respect for the free will of the peoples of Middle-earth. The story takes place (as most of its history) in a time of apostasy, when worship of the One is unknown or very limited (even among the Elves) yet Ilúvatar sends five (or more) powerful Valar-like beings to Middle-earth. They are charged not to dominate the Will of the inhabitants (a great temptation because of their standing and power), and never to match their own power against the Enemy directly except in circumstances prescribed by the One. Rather, they are assigned to counsel and guide the Free Peoples of Middle-earth. Alas, all save one named Gandalf deviate from this path of duty; even the head of their Order is finally corrupted after studying too deeply into the ways of the Enemy.
To my mind, Tolkien’s writings rank among the highest of fictional Christian literature not least because of the powerful and enduring truths hidden away behind the characters, events, and artefacts of his world.