Fragments of Light
Therefore he willed that the hearts of Men should seek beyond the world and should find no rest therein…
I think the reason I find the parallels between Christianity and Lord of the Rings so fascinating is because of a deeply-rooted hunger I have inside that LotR be somehow true, a yearning that I suspect many share. It's as though I'm watching the shadows move, playing the parts against the screen, thrilling me with their story, and yet hurting so terribly because they are shadows, ephemeral as time. Detecting a real player behind the shadows, a character who is Frodo, Sam and Aragorn distilled into one, and as human and intense and romantic and honorable as any, eases a desperate sorrow that nothing else will.
But why does that particular story move me and so many other people so deeply? After all, there are other good fantasy novels in existence, other epic adventures to read and watch and enjoy. Is it just that Tolkien was a master-storyteller, providing us an unusually pleasant escape from the ordinariness of our lives? Or is there more to it?
A great deal has been written about the depth of Tolkien’s world, the back-stories that give Middle-Earth layer upon layer upon layer of archaeological/legendary/mythical/historical/folk memory-like reality, and this is an accurate observation. The Lord of the Rings gave birth to the fantasy genre as we know it and many other writers have emulated JRRT in attempting to create their own fictional universes. But I think a more important reason for the love affair with LotR is that there is a real story there, our story, one that echoes through eternity and foreshadows our place in it. To C.S. Lewis, Tolkien himself spoke of mythology thusly: We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God.
That Tolkien’s own mythology, written out of the Catholic faith that framed his life, should even more so reflect the Christian truths behind mankind’s myths is eminently reasonable. I should point out that by Christianity, I don't mean specific religious traditions of men. I mean Christ, a Once and Future king in the best tradition of an Arthur, an Aragorn, and yet at the same time, their life-source. I mean Christ in innocent and unbearable beauty slain to save the world of men (and if Elijah-Frodo doesn’t pay tribute to that description, I don’t know what does). I mean the core story of life and death, of surrender and sacrifice and victory that has come down to us from ancient days, the story that points to the return of the high king and to the restoration of a long-ago throne - the stuff of legend come unalterably and unstoppably true.
As a friend put it to me: The mythic king is spread all through the myths and religions of the world…I wonder what ancient truth lies at the core of it--for Jesus came later than the original stories, I think. I suppose God seeded the original idea--or do you think he used it because it already existed in the collective unconscious of his Creation?
My opinion – certainly not unique – is that the original idea was stamped into our primal beings, so that someday we would recognize the truth. We react strongly because our deepest selves were made to respond to that truth and to lies and to light and shadow. We recognize Sauron, we recognize Elf-lords; we recognize a king claiming his birthright and we recognize a small mortal embracing what will surely be his own destruction to save a world. Battle and fire and honor and love, treachery and faithfulness, selflessness and brooding darkness, innocence and bitterness, courage and weakness; these story-elements make up Tolkien's tale, and we see them and recognize them and know them for our own.
For those of you who are turned off at mental images culled from dimly remembered Sunday Bible lessons - or possibly in these post-Christian times, your parents' memories of Bible school - I would suggest to you that imagining Christ in Middle-Earth, in Aragorn’s footsteps or Frodo’s, might make this whole idea a bit more palatable. The human life of Christ is in a particular setting, yes, but there’s no commandment I’m aware of that requires us to set our mental or emotional impressions of him in traditional Sunday-School visual concepts. The eternal doesn’t have to look like the ephemeral. There is only one Christ, but we can look for and find representations of him in the differing heroes of The Lord of the Rings.
Imagine him, therefore, as an Aragorn riding to the Black Gate to face the armies Sauron has readied for the conquest of Middle-Earth.
The sword was shattered and the crown forsaken,
The scion hid in secret from the world.
From distant age now comes the throne unshaken,
The ensign covered to the wind unfurled.
Or as Sam, unselfishly giving and giving and giving with a dogged compassion, love and faithfulness of which, I, for one, know that I am not capable.
It’ll be all right, he says to me,
Again, again he says the same;
And reaches to keep my fingers free,
With nothing in his voice of blame.
Or as Frodo, finally comprehending and accepting the certain death that waited for him in Mordor, that it was his life or his friends’ lives, his existence or that of his beloved Shire.
When did you understand?
Which breath drew knowing harshly in
And gave it flesh and bone and skin,
And sped your heart to beat in sudden dread on ebon wings?
This story touches us so powerfully, fastens its death-grip claws so unrelentingly to our hearts and souls because it is a tale fitted to a far older template, the same template to which those hearts and souls were patterned in the beginning. Christianity is in the warp and the woof of the whole long adventure of Hobbits and Men and Elves, the weave of its fabric. To muddle my metaphors even further, Christianity is embedded into its DNA - and ours.
The suggestion that LotR is a Christian epic can trigger negative and intense opposition from posters on message-boards, a great many of whom I suspect know next to nothing about Christianity and feel that someone is trying to smother their favorite book or movie with treacley sermons and syrupy music. (Another reaction is to bring up Tolkien’s use of paganism, i.e., Nordic mythology in his world-building – valid, literarily-speaking, but beside the point.) But Christianity isn’t about syrup. Man wasn't made to be "nice" or “goody-goody”. Man was made for high things, for noble things, for gentle things, for honorable things, for compassionate things. To become what we can be in imitation of Christ and to desire it of our own free will, to become as much like Aragorn and Frodo and Sam as we possibly can requires that we experience our story, that we be subject to the passions of living and dying in our own Middle-Earth, knowing both bitter sorrow and sweet joy; that we shatter ourselves on our pride and rise in Christ’s humility; that we endure the dark and bear its scars and bleeding wounds, and out of it learn to see the true light whence the splintered fragments come.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was J.R.R. Tolkien. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.
All photographs the property of New Line Cinema.
C. Baillie / '03
Christianity and Middle-Earth