The Boston Sunday Globe had an essay in its “Ideas” section on The Lord of the Rings and how Christians have “appropriated” the story. The essay contends that while Tolkien was devoutly Catholic, he didn’t necessarily write LOTR as a Christian novel. The problem is that the essayist misunderstands what most Christian commentators mean by a Christian novel. If by a Christian novel, he means a book with explicit references to Christ or the Bible or even God, then he’s wrong. In this case, an implicitly Christian novel is one with Christian archetypes and themes that point to universal truths without having to name it as such.
The essayist seems to go to great lengths to attribute false meanings to every Christian commentator. “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.” That’s not what Kreeft means. He’s not saying it’s inspired in the same way that the Bible was inspired, but in the way that works of truth and beauty, inasmuch as they reflect the paradigms of Truth and Beauty as found in God, can be said to be inspired by God.
The essayist even dismisses Tolkien’s own pronouncements on the subject: “In a 1953 letter Tolkien described The Lord of the Rings as a ‘fundamentally religious and Catholic work.’” Seems pretty clear on the face of it to me. The writer is correct that Tolkien refused to entertain any suggestions that LOTR is an allegory. He would bristle at the idea that Aragorn, say, was supposed to represent Christ and that the Fellowship was an analog of the Apostles. Such direct connections do not exist. But throughout his own self-commentary, Tolkien acknowledges that the themes are timeless and spring from his own Catholic worldview.
- 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.’‘)
Of course, since Christianity did not arrive in England until the middle of the first millennium; any mythology would have to be much older than that. And to make it explicitly Christian would dilute the effect. But even so, all that is true in myth comes from the Ever-present Truth.
Obviously, secularists bristle at the thought that Christians would appropriate to their own religion what they see as universal qualities.
“‘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.”
But isn’t mercy so very typically Christian and Jewish? In what ancient culture was mercy, not to mention meekness and other qualities found in the beatitudes, held up as a virtue and mandated as an imperative?
- 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.”
Not concerned with the afterlife? Christians are not Manicheans who view the life of the body as inherently corrupt and evil. Gandalf’s phrase could just as easily come from the Pope or Mother Teresa or Jesus Christ himself. We will be judged after death based on what we do in the time that is given us. (Matt 25:31-42) It is not refutation of the afterlife to say that we cannot extend our lives by one day beyond that alloted to us so we must instead do as best we can with the life given us. In fact, it seems to be an endorsement of the idea of an afterlife.
Some of what the essayist proposes is just straight misreading, intentional or not.
- 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.”
For one thing, the Grey Havens is not over the sea, but is the jumping off point for the journey. For another, the destination is not a sort of “Elvish retirement home,” but the abode of the gods, the closest thing to the afterlife that Elves experience in Middle Earth. And how does the idea that there is no everlasting victory in this world contradict a Christian interpretation? This is one of the fundamental principles of Christianity. We are told in the Bible that the world is a “valley of tears” ruled by “powers and principalities.” The only sure victory will come at the end of time when Christ returns to bring a new Earth and a new Jerusalem.
I have to write off the essay as another attempt by secularists to turn a blind eye to the fact that something they value is explicitly Christian in origin. For them to acknowledge the truth would be to challenge their worldview. And that’s another difference between Christians and secularists: Christians have always “baptized” non-Christian art, works, customs, and ideas, incorporating their truth into the One Truth, but secularists can’t without introducing a “poison” into their own world system. Or should I call it a “cure”?