A thousand years from now, literary critics will likely recognize J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings as the only English language classic to emerge from the twentieth century. Fragments of Hemingway and Faulkner may survive in literature texts, and T. S. Eliot will be a must for those who wish to study the mindset of the age. C. S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters will probably endure as a devotional classic, and children will continue to read the Narnia series, though perhaps in somewhat edited versions.1 But critics, scholars, and children will still read The Lord of the Rings simply because it's a good story. And the words "good story" need some explanation.
Of Stories and Story-Telling
Before the world began, the Persons of the Trinity communicated to one another the nature of the history They would create (cf. Tit. 1:2; 2 Tim. 1:9; Rev. 13:8). This is where story-telling began. But God carried the art further. Within history God revealed Himself to His people in a book that contains the heart of His story and many subsidiary stories as well. With the exception of a few parables and allegories, these stories are true — that is, they accurately describe real events within history — but they are stories nonetheless.
Man is the image of God. He necessarily creates stories and enjoys them. Because he is fallen, he does not always tell stories well. He may fail to follow God's pattern for what stories must be and fail in technique and effectiveness; or he may communicate a theme, a message, a worldview, that simply is not true.
Failure in technique can generally be measured by audience response. If a writer's audience reaches the end of the story and says, "So?", the author has probably written a poor story or failed to write a story at all. Like God's archetypal story of sin and redemption, every human story must function in terms of character, conflict, and plot. Plot begins in conflict, works its way by means of complication through suspense and tension, and arrives eventually at climax and resolution. The author who fails to observe this pattern may give us a charming narrative, but he has not given us a story, let alone a good one.2 And no amount of Christian jargon or devotional trappings will alter that fact.
On the other hand, it is possible for a writer to tell us a technically good story and at the same time to tell us lies. The problem is not that the story is fiction, or even fantasy; the problem lies in the message or worldview the story communicates. We need to be clear about this.
Fiction and Fantasy
God does not forbid us to write fiction or fantasy. Fiction uses God's universe as a setting, but introduces situations and events that are not real. That is, ordinary fiction portrays as real certain things that God has not ordained or brought to pass. But the fiction writer is not lying, at least in these inventions, because he does not claim to be telling us the truth.
Fantasy does fiction one better. It radically alters history and creation and gives us a world or a history very unlike the one God has actually made. The fantasy writer, to use Tolkien's word, becomes a "sub-creator." He invents new civilizations, new timelines, new races, and even new universes. And while he may easily do this for very wrong reasons, his act of sub-creating is not itself evil.
Proof? In Judges 9:7-15, Jotham, the son of Gideon, tells a story: the trees set about to anoint a king. The trees in this story talk, have a sense of calling, and recognize God as God. The story is fantastic. Trees don't really talk, and certainly care nothing for politics. But the story tells the truth about human nature, human politics, and God's overriding sovereignty. While we are not told that Jotham spoke by divine inspiration, we are told that God honored his curse, which was framed in terms of this story (Jud. 9:57).
God grants the fantasy writer great freedom, then. The writer may grant intelligence to non-human creatures; he may invent histories that never happened; he may even (in some measure) involve God Himself in the story without blasphemy. This is what we mean by sub-creation. C. S. Lewis coined the word "supposal." Suppose Venus were a second Eden. Suppose there was another world where Christ incarnated Himself as a talking Lion. Or put more generally, suppose God had done things differently. What if trees talked? Or what if man shared Middle Earth with other rational beings? What if hobbits really did live in holes in the ground? But in order to make such supposals fruitful, some things may not change. Divine morality and human nature must be constants, or the story will not touch us. This brings us back to the issue of worldview.
Worldviews in Literature
Every writer has a worldview, a world-and-life philosophy. Even when an author does not mean to give his story a moral or a message, he cannot help expressing his worldview in some measure. The longer and more involved his story, the more clearly his worldview will come through. The Christian author writes from a Biblical worldview; at least, he should. Even when he supposes a radically different world, he should not suppose a radically different God. 3 His stories should reflect the true God and His ways with men. This does not mean that the Christian writer has to show us all of Christian theology; Jotham didn't. It does mean that his stories should be consistent with the holiness and integrity of God.
"Good story," then, can mean either a technically good story, one that is told well according to God's own standards of story-telling; or it can mean a story that tells us truth very clearly and powerfully. On both counts, The Lord of the Rings scores well.
The Lord of the Rings as Story
As far as technique is concerned, The Lord of the Rings is a most excellent story. Tolkien is a master of words, and his adherence to the Biblical pattern has led some to call The Lord of the Rings a Christian allegory. They are mistaken; but the mistake is a natural one. The story begins in the Silmarillion with the self-revelation of God, His creation of the universe, and the fall of Melkor, a powerful angel. In The Lord of the Rings, we see the temporal salvation of Middle Earth worked out by three Christ-like heroes, Gandalf, Aragorn, and Frodo, each of whom passes through death or hell and returns to glory. Furthermore, Biblical images and allusions are woven into the warp and woof of the text. As an arbitrary example, consider this description of Aragorn in the Houses of Healing:
Then taking two leaves, he laid them on his hands and breathed on them, and then he crushed them, and straightway a living freshness filled the room, as if the air itself awoke and tingled, sparkling with joy.4
"The hands of the king are the hands of a healer."5 Here are echoes of Genesis, the Holy Place in the Tabernacle, the Song of Songs, and the resurrected Christ breathing on His disciples. Clearly, Tolkien's mind was saturated with the images and language of Scripture.
But the use of Biblical patterns and images does not guarantee a Biblical message. For example, the late science-fiction series Babylon 5 borrowed heavily from Scripture and Tolkien, and even presented Christian clergymen in a favorable light. But in the end, its worldview lay somewhere between Hegel and New Age mysticism. We must ask, what does The Lord of the Rings tell us about God and His ways with men?
God and Man in The Lord of the Rings
Tolkien names God Ilúvatar, the All-Father, and Eru, the One. Ilúvatar is the self-existent, personal Creator of the universe. He may seem to some an aloof god of the Unitarian sort, but Tolkien has said that the Secret Fire, which was "with Ilúvatar," is, in fact, the Holy Spirit.6 And Ilúvatar sent the Secret Fire, the Flame Imperishable, to burn at the heart of the world.7 Middle Earth is a theistic world in the Trinitarian sense. God is immanent and immediately involved with His creation. He is sovereign in His eternal decree and His providence.
Gandalf makes this very plain from the beginning. In telling Frodo about Bilbo's discovery of the Ring, he says, "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 meant to find the Ring, and not by its owner. In which case you were also meant to have it."8
In a similar vein, Elrond tells the members of the Council:
That is the purpose for which you are called hither. 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. Believe rather that it is ordered that we who sit here, and none other, must now find counsel for the perils of the world.9
The Silmarillion gives us an even clearer testimony; for Ilúvatar, speaking of the celestial music that forecasts the future of the world, says this:
And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.10
But this divine sovereignty does not do away with human responsibility or cause and effect within history. Each man, each elf, each hobbit, is responsible to discern good from evil, and to choose the good. For good and evil are absolutes in Middle Earth. Aragorn tells us, "Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man's part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house."11
Choices matter. Bilbo's decision to spare Gollum, a decision born of pity, had profound effects, as did Frodo's decision to take up the Ring. But choice is not always easy. Evil may come disguised as the opportunity to do great good (the Ring). It may present itself as an angel of light (Saruman). Or it may threaten brutal and horrific violence (Sauron). The good man may well feel the force of these temptations, but in the end he will not give in to them.
For Tolkien, then, the true hero is the man (or hobbit) who shuns the ease of evil and, out of selfless love, lays down his life for his friends . . . or for his world. There is no existentialism here, but much of absolutes, much of integrity, and much of self-sacrifice.
Magic in Tolkien
The worldview of The Lord of the Rings is overwhelmingly Christian. But no book is without its faults, and some have pointed to Tolkien's use of magic and the occult as a fatal one. Given the Biblical prohibitions against sorcery, should we really look up to heroes who use magic?
Magic, though, is an ambiguous word. Daniel was master of the magicians (Dan. 5:11), and the wise men who visited the baby Jesus were Magi. Magic in its broadest sense means something wonderful and mysterious. If I produce a voice out of thin air, we call it technology. If a demon produces it, we call it sorcery. If God, we call it a miracle. But the Stone Age tribesman who is standing nearby might well call all of these acts "magic."
Tolkien does little with magic in the abstract. In fact, he rarely uses the word. When Pippin asks if the cloaks he and the others have received are magic, one of the Elves responds, "I do not know what you mean by that. . . They are elvish robes certainly, if that is what you mean."12 Not magic, but personal skill and prowess are in view. An elven blade might be called "magic," but so might a Stradivarius violin or a concerto by Bach.
And what of Gandalf? Isn't he a sorcerer? No, he is Valar of a lesser sort: in Biblical language, an angel. He does not channel magic energies or consort with demons. His power is his own. Saruman has a like power, but he chooses to use that power in his own selfish interests.
Yes, there are certainly demons in Middle Earth: the Balrog was one, and Sauron was chief of them all. Saruman was well on his way to becoming one. And, yes, there are sorcerers, necromancers, and witches. They are all the enemy. Their presence in The Lord of the Rings no more makes it an evil book series than their presence in Holy Scripture makes it a piece of occult literature.
Formal Religion in Tolkien
A more serious question involves the worship of God. Tolkien shows us little of it. Of course, he is not obligated to. Aragorn's ancestors, the men of Numenor, trusted and hoped in Ilúvatar. His sacred mountain stood in the middle of their island. They had concourse with the Valar, who revealed to them His will.13But only the vaguest hints of this appear in The Lord of the Rings.
We do, however, find our heroes invoking the aid of Elbereth, the queen of the Valar. The Valar are not quite the angels of Scripture. They have gender. They performed demiurgic labors in the shaping of Middle Earth. They have greater freedom of action than real angels seem to have and a greater ability to interact with men. And Elbereth, at least, answers prayers and is addressed in hymns. We can see Tolkien's Roman Catholicism at work here. We might well wish he had supposed angels of a different sort, but we should remember that they are supposals. The Valar are story elements, not objects for primary belief.
No story is perfect, save one: that is God's. But some stories are a lot better than all the rest. When Calvinists learn to write epic fantasy, maybe Tolkien will have some competition. Maybe. In the meantime, let us enjoy his gifts for what they are and recognize a good story as a good story.
1. Most episodic story lines have at least one episode that never happened: Star Trek V and Aliens III, for example. Lewis's The Last Battle never happened. Its Platonic dismissal of Narnia and its salvation of a non-Christian heathen through natural theology ruin an already weak story line, even though there are a few gems scattered along the narrative.
2. Short short stories work a little differently. They tend to turn on a clever ending, much like a joke. God, of course, is the Author of comedy as well, but that's a discussion for another time.
3. Does this mean that Christians may not write stories that exclude God from their universe? Generally, yes, but there may be some exceptions. Paul very briefly offers supposals in which Christ was not crucified and did not rise from the dead (1 Cor. 2:8; 15:13-19). Lewis's Till We Have Faces treats the pagan gods as real, but those gods function as symbols for the true God. Still, these examples all have as their end the proclamation of an explicitly Biblical message.
4. Return of the King (Ballantine edition), 173.
5. ibid., 169.
6. Clyde S. Kilby, Tolkien and the Silmarillion (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1976), 59. Gandalf called himself a servant of the Secret Fire (Fellowship of the Ring, 429).
7. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), 20.
8. Fellowship of the Ring, 88.
9. ibid., 318.
10. Silmarillion, 17.
11. The Two Towers, 41.
12. Fellowship of the Ring, 479.
13. See the "Akallabeth" in the Silmarillion.
- Greg Uttinger
Greg Uttinger teaches theology, history, and literature at Cornerstone Christian School in Roseville, California. He lives nearby in Sacramento County with his wife, Kate, and their three children.