The Theology of Middle Earth

Some works that attempt a Christian interpretation of popular art and entertainment are often on shaky ground. Fortunately J. R. R. Tolkien has left plenty of evidence of his personal convictions. In The Gospel According to Tolkien Ralph C. Wood notes that Middle Earth is not meant to be overtly Christian, yet it is full of religious meaning. It presents a world akin to the Anglo-Saxon culture of Beowulf in which natural virtues are celebrated and “the pagan conception of fate [is modified] to imply its providential direction.” Thus the Lord of the Rings is a modern mythology rather than an allegory like C. S. Lewis’ Narnia. In Lewis’ tale, Aslan the lion stands for Christ. By contrast in Middle Earth a number of characters, from the ageless wizard Gandalf to the lowly hobbits Frodo and Sam, evince “Christ-like” qualities.

I have often thought that Tolkien’s idealization of rural life and his corresponding dislike of technology and cities verged at times on the eccentric. It is nevertheless easy to feel outrage where the abuse of technology is concerned. Fortunately Tolkien is no pantheist. He admires natural creation, but he does not deify it.  He also rejects any sort of dualism. The struggle for Middle Earth is not “a contest between equally malign and benign forces—with mortal creatures serving as mere pawns in a great cosmic warfare.” Nor is it a question of the “spiritual” being good and the “material” being bad. After all, Sauron, as a fallen angel, has no body. As Tolkien put it, all our interests and abilities, no matter how lowly, “have a purpose, which can be redeemed.”

Bad metaphysics are also fatalistic. They hold that man’s individual choices or destiny are unimportant in the grand scheme of things. By contrast, The Lord of the Rings assumes that salvation is personal. Hence real victory it not a question of outward allegiance or superficial success. Otherwise the ends would justify the means, which is the root of Saruman’s error and betrayal. On the contrary, true spirituality is linked to the practice of all the virtues, including prudence, patience, courage and temperance.

“In the antique pagan world,” Wood explains, “evil could be resisted but not overcome, either in this life or the next.”  Yet Tolkien’s heroes transcend not only their own imperfections but those of the world around them. The Gospel According to Tolkien recalls the wisdom of the traditional theologians for whom evil is a negative element. Its power lies not in itself but in falsehood and the distortion of creation.

One of Tolkien’s most important teachings is that we are never meant to take evil with the same seriousness that we accord to the Good, lest we become perversely fascinated with the things we allegedly abominate. Such enthrallment would mark the ultimate triumph of evil.

Wood says that the Fellowship’s war against Sauron is not the sole focus of the story. It is really the beginning of something much greater.

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