Christianity and Middle-Earth

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Is LotR a Christian Tale? (continued)

Continued from Part One

In the Silmarillion, Tolkien’s mythology of Middle-Earth, the creation story tells us that in the beginning, Eru (God) creates powerful spirit beings called the Ainur.

A simplified comparison of these beings to spirits in the Bible runs thus (these are generalizations – I am neither a theologian nor a Tolkien scholar): the Ainur can be divided into two categories – the Valar and the Maiar. The Valar are equivalent to high-ranking archangels or seraphim and cherubim, the Maiar to the lesser or lower-ranking archangels.

These beings are created holy. They are not demons or spooks or hobgoblins.

But like the angelic creation familiar to Christians from the Bible, they have free will. Therefore, holy though they may have been at their beginnings, they are allowed by Eru to become evil if that is their choice.

The mightiest of these is Melkor, and is clearly modeled on Lucifer: good at first, as Eru created him, but soon turning to pride and the admiration of his own wisdom. Eru’s ideas don’t suit Melkor and so he taints the forming world with his newly-hatched conviction that things should go the way he prefers. Ultimately, as Lucifer became Satan, Melkor becomes Morgoth – “Black Enemy." The Valar and Maiar must oversee the newborn world while coping with Melkor/Morgoth’s mischief as best they can, for the damage to Middle-Earth is permanent.

Morgoth craves power and he doesn’t care who he destroys or corrupts to get it. And just as with Lucifer and his rebellious angels, Eru/God permits Morgoth to work his evils until ultimately they take so ugly a turn that he is cast into the Void and Middle-Earth is relieved of his presence.

But this is not the end of it. Morgoth has corrupted some among the Maiar to his ways and the power of his will still haunts the world. His prize pupil Sauron is quite happy to take up where his master left off, and so Middle-Earth is periodically beset with tragedy and ruin.

The garden-variety angels of Middle-Earth are the Elves. Elves have a degree of immortality and some capabilities that can be thought of as magic, but are actually simply innate powers granted to them by Eru himself. Men are not given these gifts, just as we are not given the powers that angels have.

The abilities that Melkor and Sauron have are the powers that God gave them, too, but in echo of Lucifer and the third part of the ‘stars of heaven,' they turn those powers to the darkness and depravity of their own barren willfulness.


At the time of the story told in The Lord of the Rings, Sauron’s power is mostly contained in the One Ring, a Ring of his own making into which he has put most of his considerable supernatural power. The Ring is wholly evil, but fortunately for Middle-Earth, it was taken from Sauron in battle millennia ago, leaving him much weakened. He’s still capable of seducing Men to wickedness, but his strength is nothing approaching what it will become if he recovers the Ring. And he’s hunting for it.

Against this peril comes a small and innocent creature named Frodo; a descendent of the last king of Gondor, Aragorn son of Arathorn; and a wizard named Gandalf.

Gandalf – the wizard – is one of the righteous Maiar. He is faithful to Eru and all that Eru wills and his existence is spent in the service of heaven.

Tolkien could have called the Maiar anything: for instance, he could have called them angels or he could have called them Magi, familar to us from the Wise Men of Scripture and a title derived from the same ancient root as the word 'magic.' His selection of the word ‘wizard’ to describe Gandalf doesn’t turn Gandalf from a servant of Heaven into a servant of Hell. According to Tolkien's own words, Gandalf is a servant of the Secret Fire, which Tolkien also himself said is the Holy Spirit.

And, yes, Gandalf possesses the traditional staff of a wise man or ‘wizard,' but so did Aaron, the brother of Moses. The power that Gandalf wields through his staff is – as is Elven ‘magic’ - a holy power originating with Eru himself. Having a staff per say no more makes Gandalf evil than did it Aaron when he used his staff at God’s bidding against the magicians of ancient Egypt. (Exodus 7:8-24, Exodus 8:5-7)

There are many manifestations of the supernatural in LotR; the same is true of the Old and New Testaments.

Not all supernatural manifestations or incidents in LotR are of Sauron, any more than are Bibical miracles workings of Satan. Angels have appeared to men, as happened to the prophets and Mary and the apostles - clear manifestations of holiness – and sometimes, they came disguised as mortals. (Hebrews 13:2)

The reason that scripture tells us to avoid sorcery and witchcraft is not because supernatural power is inherently evil. It’s because God hasn’t granted to us – mankind – any such powers. Angels do have powers that we see as supernatural – though no doubt the angels themselves think their powers rather commonplace and perfectly natural for the dimension they inhabit.

But in our dimension, the only way we humans can tap the supernatural is through either the Divine Power - through prayer and miracles - or through the darkened power of Satan/Sauron. We are told to seek the former and shun the latter.

If we try to take supernatural powers for ourselves, we will end up subject to Satan, to the aforementioned principalities and powers. If we turn to Jesus Christ for supernatural help, which is what we do every time we pray, miracles can happen. (John 14:12 “He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do…”)

The power that Sauron would wield through the Ring is a perversion, just as is the power that Satan/Lucifer still has. Like Satan’s, neither Sauron’s 'magic’ nor that of Melkor was evil in the beginning; they darkened and twisted their divinely-granted gifts of their own free will, corrupting their inherent ‘magical’ capacities to glorify themselves instead of Eru and to attempt to take to themselves the absolute mastery that they desired.

Some have objected to the “Paths of the Dead” sequence in LotR (in which Aragorn demands the allegiance of an army of ghosts) because they see it as a form of necromancy. I have two arguments against this.

The first is that Tolkien always treats necromancy as evil and something that is forbidden. For instance, one of Sauron’s titles is “The Necromancer.” It is he who enslaved and controls the Ringwraiths, the Nazgul, who were once kings of men.

Secondly, Aragorn doesn’t “call up” the Dead in any occultic sense; rather, he invades their territory, a place where they already have dominion. Any other mortal venturing there dies. Only Aragorn – the Heir of Elendil and Isildur, the Returning King – has the power to command these ghosts. In a sense, he is performing an exorcism, ridding a mountain pass of the spirits that haunt it with their restless malice.

Aragorn is a type of Christ. All power in heaven and earth is given to Christ: he alone among men has the authority to command angels, demons or the souls of other men. “Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you, that God should raise the dead?” Now, granted, that scripture is referring to a resurrection to life, but the principle is the same. Why should it be thought a thing offensive to us that a character symbolic of Christ has the authority to compel the dead to do his will?


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