Myth, Worldview, and Identity in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Books—Part II

Through the image of the Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien gives us a beautiful picture of both the incarnation of Jesus and the missional church. Just before the Fellowship departs Rivendell, Elrond proclaims: “The Company of the Ring shall be Nine; and the Nine Walkers shall be set against the Nine Riders that are evil. With you and your faithful servant, Gandalf will go; for this shall be his great task, and maybe the end of his labors.”1 While reflecting on writing The Lord of the Rings in a letter to his Jesuit friend Robert Murray, Tolkien wrote, “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion,’ to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”2 As I argue in my book, this indirect, allusive way in which Tolkien communicates the Christian myth in his books reflects Jesus’s “art of the parable,” a phrase which comes from Murray’s later 1992 centennial essay on Tolkien’s art of storytelling.3 The Lord of the Rings communicates the Christian myth in the same way that Jesus does through his parables.4 It is thus unsurprising that we learn Tolkien includes the detail about the Fellowship departing from Rivendell at dusk on December 25 in Appendix B of the story. Like every other instance when Tolkien communicates the Christian myth to us in his books, this hidden but extremely significant detail says as much about what we should say in our apologetic, as well as how we ought to say it. It also says quite a bit about what Tolkien believed about the worldview question of identity.5

The Lord of the Rings communicates the Christian myth in the same way that Jesus does through his parables.

Every worldview must have “five landmarks on the idea map that form five questions every human must grapple with,” according to Jeff Myers.6 Of the five questions—Creation, Identity, Meaning, Morality, and Destiny—I will focus on the second of these. Who are we? Why are we? The first of these questions is answered in Genesis 1:26–27, which teaches us that every human being has been made in the “image of God.” According to Michael Heiser, “The image is not an ability we have, but a status. We are God’s representatives on earth. To be human is to image God.”7 V. 28, which contains what scholars call the “Dominion Mandate,” then answers the second question: we are to “be fruitful and multiply” “in order to oversee the earth by stewarding its resources and harnessing them for the benefit of all human imagers.”8 What does this say about God? First, it says that God is love: he did not need us, but he created us because the Triune God is relational and constantly wills the good of the other (which is what love means). God’s creative act shows that he is communal and relational. Second, God is the very standard for love and goodness, meaning that they have objective grounding. The slogan “Love is Love,” for example, grounds and defines love in the subjective, self-legislating authority of the self (and does not actually offer a definition, but a tautology). From a Christian perspective, goodness is who God is, and so every word and act which flows from God is good. Finally, in God’s creation of humankind as male and female imagers—who are different shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and colors—we can see that God values unity and diversity. When we turn from Scripture to Tolkien’s Christian novel, can we see anywhere this definition of identity?

From a Christian perspective, goodness is who God is, and so every word and act which flows from God is good

Think first of the diversity of the Fellowship: man, elf, dwarf, wizard, and hobbit, united in one purpose: the destruction of the One Ring of Sauron which threatens to dominate all races and places in Middle-earth. What can help us appreciate their coming together is knowledge of the backstory between these races. We know from The Silmarillion that Eru Iluvatar (Tolkien’s name for his monotheistic creator-deity) predicts from the premature creation of the dwarves that there will be enmity between the “children of my choice” (elves and men) and the “children of my adoption” (the dwarves).9 Aule, who is one of a group of divine contingent beings called the Valar, creates the dwarves out of impatience, for he desires “to have learners to whom he could teach his lore and his crafts.” He does this because “he was unwilling to await the fulfillment of the designs of Ilúvatar.”10 I am not sure many Christians appreciate how biblical this is. The Valar are one of two groups of divine beings (the other being the Maiar) that comprise Iluvatar’s divine family—quite like the other elohim that Scripture speaks of frequently.11 Just as God has two families in Scripture (angelic and human), Iluvatar has the Ainur (the term for the Valar and Maiar together) and the races of man, elf, and dwarf. The other “gods” that are mentioned in Scripture are not deities in the way we think of the Greek gods, but created, contingent, spiritual non-human beings who are in no way equal to Yahweh. Thus, we learn from The Silmarillion that there is enmity between the races in Middle-earth in the same way that Scripture speaks of the conflicts between God’s “firstborn son,” Israel.12 And yet, in the Fellowship—a sacramental symbol of both Christ and the church—those that were divided are called (one thinks of the Greek word ekklesia here) together for a common purpose.

In one sense, the Fellowship is a symbol of the Incarnation himself. As I argue elsewhere, the incarnation is best understood as the return of God as king. In Tolkien’s novel, Iluvatar is becoming king in and through Aragorn, whose reign will usher in his kingdom. In Rivendell, we finally begin to learn more about the true identity of Strider, who is really the rightful exiled king of the ancient Numenorean kingdom destined to usher in the long-awaited restoration of the world.13 Unlike in Peter Jackson’s films, Aragorn’s sword, Anduril, is actually reforged before the Fellowship leaves Rivendell: “But now the world is changing once again. A new hour comes. Isildur’s Bane is found. Battle is at hand. The Sword shall be reforged. I will come to Minas Tirith.”14 Despite the fact that this Scripture primarily refers to Jesus’s second coming, one is reminded here of Revelation 19:15: “Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” Aragorn, like Jesus, is a warrior-king whose coming means the end of the rebellious and evil nations set against God and his kingdom. Tolkien practically spells this out in one of his letters, saying The Lord of the Rings is a story about “tyranny against kingship” and God’s “sole right to divine honor.”15 That is why I believe it is quite significant that Aragorn and company set out from Rivendell with the reforged sword against the tyrannical Sauron on December 25. As to how this addresses the worldview question of identity, there can be no mistake: Tolkien imagined God in monarchical terms, as the reigning King, because Scripture did it first!16 God is the cosmic ruler, not us.

Aragorn, like Jesus, is a warrior-king whose coming means the end of the rebellious and evil nations set against God and his kingdom

In Aragorn, Gandalf, and Frodo, we see more of the incarnation of Jesus illustrated. In particular, the threefold office of Christ (King, Prophet, and Priest) which is found throughout Scripture, but most beautifully in Hebrews 7–10. In Aragorn specifically, we see a biblical type of Christ as the “head of the church” from Ephesians 5:23. As the story progresses, Aragorn becomes the leader of the Fellowship, and at the conclusion of the journey, when the Fellowship is reunited, he is crowned king. We can also see Gandalf as a type of prophet, warning of the evils to come, and Frodo as a priest and victim, bearing the weight of the Ring.

Additional themes of identity are seen in the friendship between Legolas and Gimli, where we can see Paul’s words from Galatians 3:28 reflected: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” One could make the case that their friendship is due partly to the presence and encouragement of Aragorn, who, like Jesus, brings together the scattered nations and repairs the rifts between them. In Matthew 8:11, Jesus says, “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven,” and in Matthew 25:32, Jesus predicts the day when the ingathering of nations will be complete telling us that before him “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”

Finally, throughout the novel we see Aragorn reflect the character of Christ as the second Adam, fully instantiating the imago Dei. In chapter 3 of my book, I review several examples of moments throughout the novel where Aragorn’s appearance is described in transfiguration-like terms.17 Aragorn, too, is no ordinary man, for his ancestry includes one of the Maiar. What does all this have to do with the Christian teaching on identity? Romans 5:19 says “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” Aragorn is, like Jesus, the second Adam. Although I believe it was quite unconscious, Tolkien may have been trying to show through Aragorn the brokenness and enmity between the children of Iluvatar which was ultimately instigated by the first dark lord, Melkor—who was also responsible for Tolkien’s version of the fall from Genesis 3—was being undone in a way similar to that which is taught in Scripture. Like Jesus, Aragorn is a healer and restorer.18 All these examples also reflect Scripture’s teaching of human beings being imagers of God: In Jesus/Aragorn, we see the Archetype of who we must be like. Neither Jesus nor Aragorn try to “find themselves,” for their identity is conferred, not invented.

In Jesus/Aragorn, we see the Archetype of who we must be like. Neither Jesus nor Aragorn try to “find themselves,” for their identity is conferred, not invented

I would like to close by unpacking further what it means for our identity to be conferred rather than invented. We can no more “find ourselves” than we can “follow our own truth.” In a world where we are told we can be anything we want to be, no one really knows who they are, for if every definition of who we are is valid, then none of them are. We need something—no, someone—objective and outside of ourselves to tell us who we are. We live in a culture where young children are told to follow their hearts, but what standard are these children given to measure against what they find in their hearts? How can I know I’m doing it right if I am my own master? In the character of Elrond, who convenes the council that leads to the formation of the Fellowship, those “most attentive” will discern an allusion to the “highest matters,” such as Isaiah 53:1’s providential “arm of the Lord,” working when he says to those gathered, “Called, I say, though I have not called you to me, strangers from distant lands. You have come and are here met, in this very nick of time, by chance as it may seem. Yet it is not so.”19 No, not by chance, but by God, who Tolkien said The Lord of the Rings is really about.20 God is the main character of the novel, but Tolkien says he is “never absent and never named.”21 Yet if we are paying careful attention, we can see him present in the ingathering of the nations that is sacramentally signified in the “called-out ones” (church!) of the Fellowship of the Ring.

Michael T. Jahosky is an assistant professor of humanities at St. Petersburg College in Florida. He routinely incorporates the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien into his humanities classes’ curriculums and has written The Good News of the Return of the King: The Gospel in Middle-earth.