The vocation of the Christian fictional author is similar to, yet distinct from, that of the Christian theologian. The Christian theologian has a calling from God to teach us the Christian worldview, i.e. to tell what life means and how it ought to be lived. The Christian fictional author has a calling from God to write stories that embody the Christian worldview, i.e. stories that show what life means and how it ought to be lived. To fulfill his calling the Christian storywriter must have a clear understanding of the truth about life and he must become a skilled literary craftsman in order to compose well-written stories to show us that truth. That is the vocation and criterion of Christian fiction.
It is a high calling. Stories can have a profound influence on us. Stories are also ubiquitous: everyone reads stories; few read the writings of theologians. Finally, stories are important for their own sake, and not only as a vehicle for showing us truth, because, after all, life itself is a story and God is its Author. The ability to write stories is just one of the many ways in which man is "a finite analogue of God," to use the Van Tilian phrase.
Now, let us look specifically at fantasy, the genre in which The Lord of the Rings is written. In addition to creating an imaginary world having verisimilitude (truth likeness) and creating imaginary beings with whom the reader can empathize, the Christian fantasy author faces the additional challenge of appropriately expressing certain features of the Christian worldview in an indirect way by means of imaginary beings and objects that are analogies of their real-world counterparts. For example, unless the writer wants to have Satan himself as a character in the story, he will need to create a being who is an analogy of Satan. For instance, in C. S. Lewis' Narnia world the White Witch is the analogy of Satan, and in Tolkien's Middle Earth world Sauron is the analogy of Satan.1
The Basis For Inter-World Analogies
The only valid basis for drawing an analogy between the real world and a fantasy world is if both worlds function in accord with the same worldview. Since the real world — God's creation — functions in accord with the Christian worldview, this means that analogies between the real world and a fantasy world can only be validly drawn if the fantasy world also functions in accord with the Christian worldview.
Since C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien were authors who expressed the Christian worldview in their fantasies, analogies can be drawn between the real world and their fantasy worlds (Narnia and Middle Earth). That The Lord of the Rings expresses the Christian worldview is clear not only from the many studies done on Tolkien's life and thought, but also from Tolkien's own explicit statements in his essay "On Fairy Stories" (found in The Tolkien Reader), which is a seminal article on the topic of Christian fantasy.
In contrast, inter-world analogies may not be validly drawn if the fantasy world is an expression of a false worldview. Consider, for instance, the character "Lord Foul" in Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books, which express an existentialistic worldview. Donaldson's Lord Foul is similar, in some superficial respects, to Tolkien's Sauron, but is radically different because he is not a person but a mere personification of the evil part of Thomas Covenant. When, near the conclusion of Donaldson's story (at the end of Volume III of the second trilogy), Covenant's good side gains ever more victory over his evil side, Lord Foul shrinks in size. This is clearly not analogous to what happens in the real world. When a Christian gains victory over his depravity, Satan does not shrink; and when the Christian's depravity is annihilated during his glorification, Satan does not disappear.
Analogy, Not Allegory
Having established the basis for the drawing of analogies between the world of Middle Earth and the real world, namely that they both express the Christian worldview, it needs to be clearly understood that these inter-world analogies are indeed analogous, not allegorical. Analogies are simply two things that correspond in particular ways; an allegory is a literary device in which the characters or objects illustrate a moral or religious principle that is often hidden in the text. Tolkien explicitly stated in the preface that his story was not to be considered as an allegory, and the internal evidence of the work itself bears this out.
Exegesis, Not Eisegesis
The terms "exegesis" and "eisegesis" apply not only to the Bible, but to any written work. Analogies between the real world and Tolkien's world can only be drawn correctly by means of exegesis (i.e. drawing them "out of" Tolkien's world), never by means of eisegesis (i.e. reading them "into" Tolkien's world).
In short, we must use our minds to discern the analogies that are intrinsically there in Middle Earth and then draw them out. We must not put there what we might like to find there to support some idea or some cause, as, for instance, some opponents of nuclear warfare have done by interpreting The Ring as the atomic bomb. On the other hand, we must not conclude that because Tolkien did not spell out for us what these analogies are, there are none. Tolkien is too sophisticated for us to expect any such spoon feeding from him. He expects us to figure out these analogies for ourselves and to do so respecting the integrity of his world.
Analogy, Not Confusion
Since things in the fantasy world belong in the fantasy world and not in the real world, it is improper to expect to see them in the real world or to try to bring them into the real world. For example, we should not expect to see hobbits and orcs in the real world. What we see is analogies of hobbits and orcs in the real world, i.e. we see humble people following the Lord and wicked people following Satan. And we should not try to bring the fantasy world into the real world by means of fantasy role playing games.2 This principle of the separation of worlds also means that we are not supposed to try and escape from this world into the fantasy world. We are to sojourn for a while in the fantasy world and then come back to live in the real world empowered for service to God by the edification we have received from reading about the fantasy world. There are analogies between the two worlds but these worlds are also separate and must not be confused.
The Concept of a "Christ-Figure"
One of the greatest challenges of Christian fantasy concerns how Jesus Christ will be involved in the story. Unless the writer wants to restrict his story to the surface level (with Christ present only as an implicit presupposition), he will face a choice of either having Christ Himself as a character or else having an analogy of Christ as a character. Such an analogy of Christ in Christian fantasy is sometimes called a "Christ-figure." For instance, in Lewis' Narnia, the Christ-figure is Aslan. This raises the question: is there a Christ-figure in Middle Earth, and, if so, who is it?
Three Partial Christ-Figures
Those who have sought for a Christ-figure in The Lord of the Rings have done so unsuccessfully, either failing to find one or disagreeing as to the identity of the one. This is because there is no one Christ-figure there. Rather, there are three partial Christ-figures, each embodying some of the attributes of Christ, and who work together and jointly accomplish in Middle Earth the analogy of Christ's ministry. These three are Gandalf as prophet and teacher, Frodo as suffering servant and sin bearer, and Strider-Aragorn as returning King and Messiah. These three correspond to Christ's three offices of prophet, priest, and king, respectively.
Gandalf as Prophet
The Old Testament prophets were distinguished by two salient characteristics: they spoke on behalf of God, bringing guidance at crucial times in history, and they often possessed miraculous powers to authenticate their prophetic office and to help carry forward God's will. Christ was the Prophet because He embodied both of these traits fully and without blemish. Gandalf functioned as the prophet in Middle Earth because he invariably appeared at the critical times in the unfolding of the story to guide and direct the actions of the various characters. Like the Old Testament prophets and like Christ, Gandalf could and did employ miracles to authenticate his office and to help accomplish his mission.
Frodo as Priest
Frodo was the analogy of the "suffering servant" and the "bearer-destroyer of sin" aspects of the ministry of Christ. Like Christ, he was meek and lowly in outward appearance and came from an obscure rustic location, the Shire (cf. Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee). The Ring was a real burden to Frodo, which weighed him down; and his task, like Christ's, involved an intense amount of anguish, pain, suffering, and personal sacrifice. He alone could bear the Ring, just as Christ alone could bear our sins. To destroy the Ring, Frodo had to enter Sauron's (cf. Satan's) territory and be abused by his minions. By the time he neared his destination, Frodo was so weak that Sam had to carry him up Mt. Doom, just as Christ became so weak prior to the crucifixion that someone else had to carry the Cross up Mt. Calvary. The destruction of the Ring in the fires of Mt. Doom (cf. sin consumed by the fire of God's wrath on Mt. Calvary) defeated Sauron, just as Christ on the Cross defeated Satan. Like Christ's, Frodo's mission was a vicarious sacrifice, i.e. he did it on behalf of others, and his body bore the wounds incurred in his work (the shoulder wound from the Nazgul's dart, the sting in the neck from Shelob, and the finger severed by Gollum) just as Christ's body bore the stigmata. In all these ways Frodo's role was analogous to Christ's priestly office.
Aragorn as King
Strider-Aragorn was the returning King and Messiah in Middle Earth in a manner strikingly similar to the royal office of Jesus Christ. Like Jesus, Aragorn was the direct descendant in a regal lineage that had ceased to occupy the throne since a time of decadence in the nation's past. Like Israel, Gondor possessed a literature which prophesied a national deliverer who would appear at a critical time to reunite the nation, occupy the vacant throne, defeat the nation's enemies, and restore the nation's grandeur. Like Jesus, Aragorn's identity was known at first only to a few, but became more clearly discernable to more and more people as the day approached. It is very significant that one of the distinguishing characteristics of Gondor's King-Messiah, like Israel's, was the ability to heal illnesses. As soon as Aragorn began his healings in Minas Tirith, the word spread rapidly that the King had returned, just as many people in Israel believed in Jesus' Messiahship when they witnessed the healings He performed in Galilee and Judea.
Analogies of Israel
Tolkien's three partial Christ-figures typology is meshed with an imaginative analogous portrayal of what might have happened if after the resurrection the leaders and people of Israel had received Jesus Christ as King instead of spurning Him. The contrast between what actually happened in Israel and what could have happened is seen in the contrast between Gondor's stewards Denethor and Faramir. Gondor's old steward Denethor had an attitude toward Aragorn similar to that of the first century Jewish leaders toward Christ. Denethor loved his own power and detested the thought of turning it over to another. He also resisted Gandalf (cf. OT prophets and Christ), stumbled at the "foolishness" of Frodo going to Mordor to destroy the Ring (cf. the "foolishness" of the Cross), and rejected the kingship of Aragorn. His thoughts were influenced by Sauron; they proved to be suicidal. In striking contrast was the attitude of the new steward, Faramir. He had a high regard for Gandalf and later developed a high regard for Frodo when he met him, as a result of which he assisted him in his plan to enter Mordor. Later, the king healed him and the king saved his nation. In gratitude he welcomed the king. And at the coronation, he followed Aragorn's instructions of how the ceremony was to be performed. This is analogous to what we know the attitude of the repentant Jews will be in the future as they fulfill Zechariah 12:10ff.
Four traits of Jesus Christ were common to all three partial Christ-figures. Their ministries were absolutely essential for the triumph of good over evil. Each was "elected" for his role, i.e. he did not decide on his own initiative to save Middle Earth, but accepted the lot that was chosen for him. Each was motivated by a sacrificial love and duty rather than personal pleasure and expediency. They all had to pass through "death" and "Hell" emerging victorious and be raised to new heights of power. Gandalf the Grey arose and became Gandalf the White after descending into the depths of Moria to defeat the Balrog. Frodo entered Mordor to defeat Sauron and was "resurrected" by the eagle. Strider passed through The Paths of the Dead victorious over death.
The Symbolic Actions of Gandalf and Frodo at Aragorn's Coronation
All of the parallels noted above between the Gandalf-Frodo-Aragorn team and the threefold office of Christ should amply serve to demonstrate the point that each of the three is a partial Christ-figure. But there is one incident that even now dramatically depicts this point. This incident is the climactic moment of the crowning of Aragorn as king. Aragorn returns the crown to Faramir and explains that the Ring-bearer Frodo must bring the crown to him and that Gandalf must place it upon his head; and thus it was done. This beautifully and poignantly drives home the all-important truths that the path to the Crown lies through the Cross, and that both the Cross and the Crown are only attainable in accord with the wisdom and plan of God. Neither Frodo nor Aragorn could have accomplished their offices without the guidance of Gandalf. This is why Aragorn insisted that it be Gandalf who place the crown upon his head because Gandalf "has been the mover of all that has been accomplished and this is his victory."
Unlike most fantasy worlds, Middle Earth is portrayed as our Earth in an imaginary remote past.3 From this perspective, it is clear that the three partial Christ-figures — Gandalf, Frodo, Aragorn — are not only analogies of Christ, but are also types of Christ because they share common traits with Him. To be more specific and accurate, each of these three is a type of one of the offices of Christ: prophet, priest, king.
In this way, Tolkien's Christological analogy differs from that of C. S. Lewis. Narnia is not the past of Earth, but is an entirely distinct world that coexists in time with Earth. Aslan in Narnia is the analogy of Christ entoto, i.e, Aslan is an incarnation of God in a creature, and, consequently is sinless, doesn't make mistakes, provides atonement for sin and complete salvation, and wins a complete and final victory over evil. But in Middle Earth the partial Christ-figures (Gandalf, Frodo, Aragorn) are conjointly only types of Christ, i.e., they prefigure what Christ Himself will do in the future when He comes. They, like the Old Testament types of Christ, are not divine, are not sinless, can and do make mistakes, and do not provide a full and complete salvation and victory over evil, but only provide a very limited salvation and victory, which foreshadows the complete salvation and victory which Christ will provide in the future.
Everything I have said must be seen from this typological perspective. Gandalf and Frodo and Aragorn are, respectively, adumbrations of the offices of Christ: prophet, priest, and king. They do not and cannot do the work of Christ Himself because, unlike Aslan in a different world, they are in this world in a remote imaginary past and therefore can only prefigure, typologically, what Christ will do in the future. Middle Earth is a fantasy world. But it is portrayed as the remote past of our world, not as a totally different world, like Narnia
The subject of typology is enormously complex and controversial, and the subject of Christian fiction, especially Christian fantasy, needs a lot more study also. The road goes ever on. Lord willing, others can help provide further light on this matter somewhere along the road the Lord is leading them.
1. Except for a few hints to the contrary, the text of The Hobbit and The Lord of theRings appears to depict Sauron as the analogy of Satan, and so in those stories Sauron essentially functions as the Satan character, though in the corpus of Middle Earth stories as a whole, Sauron is only a minion. The Silmarillion (which Tolkien did not complete, and thus it remained unpublished until after his death) portrays a character named Morgoth as the analogy of Satan, and Sauron as one of his lieutenants. Strictly speaking, therefore, Sauron is not the analogy of Satan but of one of Satan's chief demons.
2. These games not only involve the "playing with fire" danger noted by Gary North and others, but they also trivialize the fantasy world. Serious matters are involved here; it's not a game. What we are supposed to do is apply here on this real Earth the lessons embodied in the characters and story of Middle Earth.
3. Here and there in the story we are provided with the reasons why we do not see these fantasy beings anymore, e.g., the elves sailed away to their true home or forsook their immortality and became like men.