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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy -- Christian?

Great literature will be important long after today's news is forgotten.

I have recently posted on the three books of J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. The post on The Fellowship of the Ring is here, on The Two Towers here, and on The Return of the King here. The books are wonderful, and everyone who likes, or can even tolerate, fantastic literature should read them.

I have, in the past, attempted to set forth a diagnostic description of what makes a novel Christian. I, perhaps arbitrarily, concluded that such a work should have at least the following characteristics. (I quote the previous post):
First, some sort of important choice between good and evil. There should also be evidence that a character has hope, beyond despair. Such a work should also contain at least one of the following, as a significant part of the plot, or the theme, or as an attribute of an important character: 1) A Christ-figure 2) Belief in important orthodox Christian doctrine, on the part of a narrator or character 3) Practicing prayer to a monotheistic divine being 4) Having a relationship with such a monotheistic divine being in other significant ways, including receiving guidance from him, or being placed in his presence.

Now, to evaluate the trilogy.

Clearly, there are important choices between good and evil. Bilbo decides to give up the ring, Frodo decides to take it, and the other characters of the Fellowship decide to follow him. Saruman decides that he wants the ring for himself. Galadriel decides that she does not. Théoden chooses to throw off the ministrations of Saruman. Faramir decides to trust Gandalf and Frodo, rather than his own father. Sam decides to be loyal to Frodo, no matter what. There are others, but the books are full of such choices, and they make up their main feature.

There are a number of instances where a character demonstrates hope beyond despair. The whole attempt to destroy the ring is one such. Gandalf, Galadriel, Théoden, Faramir, Éomer and Éowyn all show such hope, as do Sam and Frodo, and others.

I'm not as confident about the last criterion, even though there could be alternate ways of fulfilling it. I don't know of any explicit expression of an important Christian doctrine, by any of the characters. The only episode which is even close to prayer is described in a quote from The Two Towers, in this post, but it is not clear that it's prayer at all, and, even if it were, it's not necessarily to a monotheistic god. There is no evidence of a relationship with a monotheistic god, either. So that leaves the matter of a Christ-figure. There are at least two possible legitimate candidates, I believe. One of them is Gandalf, who put himself in grave danger, and, seemingly, died, near the end of Fellowship. Then, in Towers, he seems to have been resurrected. Frodo also could serve as a Christ-figure. He willingly offered himself to a task that seemed difficult, and to offer only death at the end. He didn't die, but did lose a finger, and also was not able to live with the rest of the hobbits, in peace and safety, at the end of the trilogy.

Rather to my surprise, since there is no evidence of anything close to communal worship, priests, or scripture in Middle-Earth, I am forced to decide that Tolkien's trilogy can, indeed, be described as Christian.

Thanks for reading. Read Tolkien!

5 comments:

Tif, The Innocent Felon said...

Great post! I'm a huge fan of the fantasy genre. While I have read that Tolkien was a Christian (and friends with C.S. Lewis maybe? I seem to recall that from somewhere) I had never thought to think about TLOTR that way. Bravo!

Martin LaBar said...

As I indicated in my last paragraph, it's not obvious. But Tolkien was not writing a "Christian book." (I understand that he wanted it to be a single book, not three.) He was writing the book he needed to write, and his Christianity showed through.

Thanks, Tif.

Martin LaBar said...

Tolkien was influential in the conversion of Lewis.

Tulsa said...

Tolkien was influential in the conversion of Lewis.

Martin LaBar said...

Yes, he was. Thanks.