1. The Sacred Warp of Tolkien's Tapestry
Tolkien’s friend and colleague C. S. Lewis described this feeling as, “…an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction,” and he called it Joy, but a joy different from both happiness and pleasure, indeed he doubted, “…whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.” (Surprised by Joy, 25). Lewis describes his experience of this Joy from a literary work; “…the experience was one of intense desire. And one went back to the book, not to gratify the desire…but to reawake it,” (Surprised by Joy, 23). What Tolkien fan can not relate to such a feeling? Our ancient paperback copies of The Lord of the Rings, dog-eared and tattered, which have been lovingly re-read time and again, bear testimony to that intense desire. Every trip through Middle Earth rekindles the longing within us.
It is no accident that The Lord of the Rings affects us in this way. Tolkien’s work touches our souls because he poured into it the sacred principles which guided his own life. Like the warp threads of a tapestry which, though hidden once the work is finished, are integral to the fabric itself, images and themes from the New Testament are woven throughout The Lord of the Rings. By examining them, we can better understand Tolkien’s vision and his message.
Some readers take a Deistic interpretation of Lord of the Rings, mistakenly concluding that Middle Earth is a world where the people have been left to struggle against the forces of evil with no hope of divine aid from outside. In this view, Sauron is a potent and palpable force for evil with no clear counterpart to whom the people may turn for deliverance. Instead, I believe Tolkien shows us a world in which divine aid and providence are ever present, but concealed in the common place. Those who look below the surface can recognize that help from beyond the world is as close as their elbows, but because the agents of divine providence are familiar, they are often unrecognized, overlooked, or taken for granted.
This principle of the divine in the commonplace is the essence of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. The prophet Isaiah had foretold that a child would be born to us, “…and the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9: 6-7) Nobody really expected that Immanuel, “God with us,” (Is 7:14) would be born into a family of Nazarene peasants in a barn, with nothing but a feeding trough for a cradle. In a similar way, Tolkien uses unremarkable events and unlikely people as the means of divine grace.
Certain events that would appear on the surface to be coincidental or random, are in fact, providentially directed. The most obvious of these is Bilbo’s discovery of the Ring. Though at the time it seemed to Bilbo a chance stroke of luck, Gandalf attaches much more significance to this apparent coincidence, “Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meantto find the Ring, and not by its maker.” (Fellowship of the Ring, 88) The forces of good are at work, though they don’t draw attention to themselves, directing and shaping the chance acts of Hobbits.
Rescue by eagles is a favorite deus ex machina in Tolkien’s work, yet many readers fail to see that it is quite literally just that. In The Silmarillion the eagles are described as “the Eagles of the Lords of the West,” (44) divine messengers who fly in to deliver Sam and Frodo, and Gandalf, on many different occasions. This is reminiscent of the imagery in Isaiah 40:31, “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles.” Tolkien doesn’t draw attention to the fact that these creatures are supernatural messengers, yet according to his mythology he clearly intended them as such. This is an example of divine aid close at hand for those who are willing to recognize it.
Gandalf the Grey is renowned among the Hobbits only as a maker of fireworks. They consider him merely a strange old man with a huge hat and very bushy eyebrows, yet he is one of the Istari, messengers sent from Valinor to fight against the evil of Sauron. He himself is a divine envoy, yet his very homeliness keeps most people from recognizing the power concealed within him. His halo is masked by the smoke rings.
Although Gandalf is not an allegorical Christ figure, Tolkien employs a great deal of messianic imagery in his depiction of this sacred “secret agent.” One of the most obvious examples is when Gandalf holds the bridge of Khazad Dum, making a way of escape for the rest of the Fellowship, but sacrificing himself in the process. Having broken the bridge and sent the Balrog plummeting into the abyss, Gandalf is caught by the backward lash of its whip and dragged down as well. This victory which exacts a personal price is reminiscent of that promised in Gen 3:15, the Bible’s earliest messianic prophecy: “And I will put enmity between you (the serpent) and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.” In recounting his battle with the Balrog, Gandalf compares his enemy to a snake, “…I came at last, to the uttermost foundations of stone. He was with me still. His fire was quenched, but now he was a thing of slime, stronger than the strangling snake…. I threw down my enemy, and he fell from the high place and broke the mountain-side where he smote it in his ruin. Then darkness took me and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell. Naked I was sent back—for a brief time, until my task was done. And naked I lay upon the mountain-top.” (Two Towers, 134-5) Gandalf’s victory does cost him his life, but he returns from the dead to finish the task appointed to him.
Resurrection from the dead is only the first of numerous parallels between Gandalf the White and Jesus Christ. Gandalf is not recognizable to his friends when they first encounter him, just as the resurrected Christ was not initially recognized by Cleopas and his companion as he traveled with them to Emmaus (Luke 24: 13-35). Gandalf’s appearance is profoundly different from his previous guise, “His hair was white as snow in the sunshine; and gleaming white was his robe; the eyes under his deep brows were bright, piercing as the rays of the sun; power was in his hand,” (Two Towers, 125). This imagery is very similar to that of the Son of Man in Revelation, who was, “…clothed in a robe reaching to the feet….And His head and His hair were white like white wool, like snow; and His eyes were like a flame of fire… and His voice was like the sound of many waters…. And His face was like the sun shining in its strength,” (Revelation 1:13-16). In addition, the resurrected Gandalf is also “the White Rider,” going forth to war on a magnificent white horse, not unlike the King of Kings in Revelation 19: 11, “And I saw heaven opened; and behold, a white horse, and He who sat upon it is called Faithful and True; and in righteousness He judges and wages war.”
Gandalf is a supernatural being, while Aragorn is human, but Tolkien employs a great deal of messianic imagery in his depiction of the returning king, as well. As God incarnate, Jesus embodied the principle of majesty concealed by a coarse exterior. Many of Christ’s contemporaries found it impossible to believe that a poor, homeless carpenter from a disreputable town (“Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”), who associated with tax-collectors and prostitutes, could really be the King of kings. In a similar way, the heir of Elendil, and coming king of all the Numenorians is introduced to us in a tavern as an unsavory, weather-beaten Ranger in a tattered cloak called “Strider.”
Like Gandalf, Aragorn makes his own descent into the underworld when he takes the Paths of the Dead, and leads out an army of dead warriors. The imagery here is drawn from the Harrowing of Hell when Christ, before he rose from the dead, descended into Hell, and, “…He led captive a host of captives…” (Eph 4:8), taking all the believing dead to Paradise with Him.
One of the most striking characteristics which Aragorn and Christ have in common is the power to heal. When Faramir falls victim to the black breath and the healers are unable to aid him, Ioreth remarks, “Would that there were kings in Gondor…. For it is said in old lore: The hands of the king are the hands of a healer. And so the rightful king could ever be known.”( Return of the King, 166). By healing Faramir, and the other victims of the Nazgul, Aragorn proves himself a king with healing hands, just like Christ, who went everywhere, “… proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of sickness among the people.” (Matt 4:23)
Because Christ defied people’s expectations, not everyone recognized the majesty hidden within Him. He was rejected by the religious establishment as a dangerous radical who needed to be eliminated. As one messianic prophecy had foretold, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief corner stone.”(Psalm 118:22). In a similar way, Tolkien’s Elfstone is despised and rejected by the established leadership, even as he is welcomed by any who see with the eyes of faith.
Denethor sees Aragorn as an upstart from a house of vagabonds whose glory is spent. He sees him not as his rightful lord, but as a supplanter. Faramir, on the other hand, recognizes Aragorn’s true identity immediately. Tolkien draws heavily on the New Testament imagery of faithful and unfaithful stewards here. Christ, in a parable warning his followers to always be prepared for his return, says this:
“Who then is the faithful and sensible steward, whom his master will put in charge of his servants, to give them their rations at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom the master finds so doing when he comes. Truly I say to you, that he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But if that slave says in his heart, ‘My master will be a long time in coming,’ and begins to beat the slaves, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk; the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and assign him a place with the unbelievers.” (Luke 12:42-46)
Faramir is the steward who is ready. Even before he meets Aragorn, he tells Frodo he longs for the days when there was a king in Gondor. In the Houses of Healing, when Aragorn delivers him from the black breath, Faramir recognizes him at once: “…he looked on Aragorn who bent over him; and a light of knowledge and love was kindled in his eyes, and he spoke softly. ‘My lord, you called me. I come. What does the king command?’” (Return of the King, 173). Unlike his father, this Steward sees with the eyes of faith and submits to the true king. Like the faithful steward in the parable, Faramir is rewarded with increased responsibilities and lands.
Denethor is the steward who is unready for the king’s return. He devolves into despair and madness and perishes in flames. The cruel irony of Denethor’s suicide is that he sees the ships with black sails in his Palantir, but instead of recognizing that they are bringing Gondor’s salvation, and its king, he sees them as bringing certain destruction and gives in to despair. Denethor’s confidence in his own strength led to his demise. Because he thought himself strong enough to wrestle with the Enemy in thought, Sauron was able to deceive him, making Gondor’s hope appear to be her downfall.
In contrast to Denethor, Samwise knows he is neither strong nor wise, yet in his weakness he is indomitable. Tolkien uses Samwise and the other Hobbits to illustrate the New Testament principle that, “…God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong…” (I Corinthians 1:27). Sam’s very name means “half-wise, simple” (Return of the King, Appendix F). He knows that the task before them is impossible, and yet he perseveres, putting one foot in front of the other, until the job is done. Though he expects that this quest will cost him his life, he never gives in to despair.
Like Sam, we think of ourselves as unlikely heroes. We feel weak and small compared to the obstacles we have to overcome. But Tolkien’s message to us is that our very weakness is what can make us useful for God’s service. We feel alone in a frightening world, but Tolkien wants us to see that we are not alone. God is at work all around us, but our own preconceptions and prejudices prevent us from seeing it. It is time we opened our eyes.
We find Joy in Tolkien’s work, that intense desire which is as poignant as grief, but which we would not exchange for all the pleasures in this world (Lewis, 25). His words pierce our hearts because in them we hear the echoed voice of the One in whose “presence there is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11) calling to us from beyond the world’s end. How will we respond to that call? Will we stop our ears and stubbornly deny that there is Anybody trying to get our attention? Or will we say with Faramir, “What does the king command?” As the wise professor with the halo of pipe smoke might have said, it may be that you were meant to read this article. And that is an encouraging thought.
The Bible, New American Standard Version. La Habra, California: The Lockman Foundation, 1977.
Lewis, C.S. Surprised by Joy. New York: Walker and Company, 1955.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Ballantine Books, 1965.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Return of the King. New York: Ballantine Books, 1965.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion. Christopher Tolkien, ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 1977.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Two Towers. New York: Ballantine Books, 1965.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.