Christian Themes, Tolkien, and Lord of the Rings
Dinner Topics for Thursday
The world Tolkien constructed is a world of providence, with purpose for life, and it mirrors our Christian world.
Classic Tolkien fiction conveys Christian faith
By Stacy Long
On December 14, a long-awaited event comes to pass, as Americans fill theaters on the opening night of The Hobbit, the first installment of another movie trilogy based on the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973). For those who are neither moviegoers nor Tolkien fans, discussing his work means exploring the Christian worldview Tolkien articulated in his stories. With that discussion comes a reminder of how worldviews are expressed in film and literature. It also reminds Christians of the need to be aware and discerning in their entertainment choices.
Built on a Christian worldview
One may ask how Tolkien’s books are Christian, since they never mention Christ, God or religion. Quite simply, it is because the author was a Christian and wrote from a Christian understanding. As Tolkien said, “I am a Christian and what I write will come from that essential viewpoint.”
Dr. Devin Brown, Tolkien scholar and literature professor at Kentucky’s Asbury University, described Tolkien’s works as indirectly Christian.
“They were written by a Christian author with a Christian worldview,” Brown explained in an interview with AFA Journal. “Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are not evangelistic books. People don’t read those and decide to become Christians, but they work as pre-evangelism for people who were pre-disposed to be anti-Christian. When they read those books, they say, ‘I love this story; I love this world that has purpose and meaning and morality.’ The world Tolkien constructed is a world of providence, with purpose for life, and it mirrors our Christian world.”
Brown said that Tolkien’s books mirror the Christian world by exhibiting two central Christian truths: God is a Creator, and man is created in His image and reflects that creativity.
“As we function in God’s image, we will also be creators,” Brown said. “Tolkien as a writer created a world of his own, and he called Middle-earth [the setting for the books] the ‘sub-creation.’”
Even while he set his story in pre-Christian times, Tolkien filled it with Christian truth. Yet, Tolkien intentionally distanced readers from Christianity, and in doing so makes them see it anew.
Brown explained, “Tolkien was influenced by G.K. Chesterton, who said, ‘The best way to understand Christianity is from being inside it; the second best way is to be very far away from it so you can really see it for what it is.’ And so Tolkien created an earlier version of our world. Middle-earth is really our earth, ages and ages ago.”
Also, Tolkien demonstrated the coherence of Christian truth, which transcends time in light of the eternal existence of the triune God. As Brown pointed out, “[Christian truth] didn’t just start in the first century when Jesus came, but it has been a part of this world since the Creation of the world.”
Full of Christian truth
Another Tolkien scholar, Dr. Louis Markos of Houston Baptist University in Texas, joined Brown in pointing out Christian themes in Tolkien’s work.
The most obvious evidence of Christian worldview in the books is in the providence and purpose ascribed to Middle-earth and the lives of the characters.
Markos told AFAJ, “There is a trusting to providence, trusting that there is an overarching plan to history and you’re a part of it. One line from the book says, ‘The great stories never end.’ There is this idea that the characters are part of a story that started thousands of years ago and is slowly working its way out.”
Another noticeably Christian theme in Tolkien’s fiction is a strongly defined morality.
“Although moral decisions are often complex and difficult, there is always a choice that is right – in a universal sense – and a choice that is wrong. In his portrait of absolute truth, Tolkien presents a world that will feel familiar to Christian readers,” Brown wrote in an article titled “Five faith lessons from The Hobbit.”
A third predominant theme in the books is that ultimately, good always prevails over evil. In fact, Tolkien coined a word to express the idea that disasters can bring about the accomplishment of good.
“Tolkien coins this wonderful term, ‘eucatastrophe,’ which literally means ‘good catastrophe,’ meaning it looks like everything is going to collapse and then good comes out of it,” Markos explained. “The eucatastrophe of the Fall of Man is the birth of Christ and the resurrection. Of course, there are lots of little eucatastrophes in Tolkien’s stories, where a terrible event, when viewed in terms of overall providence, turns out to be a good event.”
For example, in The Hobbit, the main character, Bilbo, gives up what is most precious to him and receives little in return. However, in the end, he finds that the sacrifice was the making of him.
“Bilbo’s living a narrow, confined, fearful life, and then he’s called to save Middle-earth, and in doing so he saves himself,” Brown said. “The Hobbit shows that if you want to find yourself, the real way is to be a servant, to lose yourself.”
“The Hobbit tells us a central truth: happiness does not come through material wealth,” Brown added. “There is a line where Bilbo is told, ‘The adventure will be very good and profitable for you.’ In the end, Bilbo does profit, but it is the kind of treasure Jesus talks about that rust and thieves will not corrupt.”
And in the ultimate losing of self – in death – Tolkien describes another eucatastrophe for the Christian.
“In Middle-earth, death is described as the gift of God to man. Tolkien has this incredible vision of understanding that death is good,” Markos said. “Death is still in a way a part of the fall, but death also releases us from our fallen state to heaven.”
Looking at our world
Tolkien’s stories point to the truth of the Christian worldview that they were constructed upon. When a person enters the world of Tolkien’s fantasy, there is an encounter with purpose, Providence, morality, hope – made startlingly and beautifully real.
“There is something insightful about human nature in these books, but Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit also have this underlying spiritual element that believers quickly latch onto,” Brown concluded. “One man described it as ‘a light from an unseen lamp.’ There is a light shining there, and you can’t quite see its source, but the story tells us about what’s important in life, what should be valued, where happiness lies. And that draws non-believers also. Tolkien takes us to Middle-earth and holds a mirror up to us, and what he shows us gains a poignancy in his imaginary world that it might not have had in our world.”
Finally, the popularity of these books, even among nonbelievers, suggests that the truth of Christianity they present is something that the world desires, despite its deep, desperate denial.
Christian Fiction Literature: The Hobbit Party
What are parents to do?
Movies and books are powerful vehicles for presenting worldviews. Christian parents can train themselves and their children to recognize and analyze the worldviews presented in film and literature:
• Be well acquainted with the Christian worldview and with Scripture.
• Monitor what children read and watch.
• Don’t trust movie ratings. A PG or PG-13 movie may still have an anti-Christian worldview.
• Discuss the ideas presented through entertainment choices.
Sources used for this story:
The Christian World of The Hobbit, Devin Brown
On the Shoulders of Hobbits, Louis Markos
Philosophy of Tolkien, Peter Kreeft
From AFA Journal