Lord of the Rings' Worldview

Most of us know what we should expect to find in a dragon’s lair, but, as I said before, Eustace had read only the wrong books.  They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.”

                                                             -The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis

The release of J.R.R. Tolkien’s part one of The Lord of the Rings trilogy novel as a movie, Fellowship of the Ring, has certainly sparked some vigorous discussions within the Christian community regarding the appropriateness of Christians patronizing books or movies that are fanciful, especially when witches and wizards are prominent characters of the story.  The debate is fueled even more when some claim that the middle earth creation of Tolkien purports a Christian worldview even though wizardry is a part of normal life and it is void of obvious signs of Christian practice or Christian persons.

The debate is important and I think we do well to equip ourselves for such topics and, thus, possibly avoid sophomoric or superficial conclusions.  According to Douglas Wilson in chapter 12 of his book, Future Men, “Like Eustace in the dragon lair, we do not recognize our surroundings because we have been reading the wrong kind of books, and this in turn causes us to read the Bible in the wrong way.”

Pretty strong words coming from a Christian pastor. But he backs up his position by asserting that the one and only source of reality, the Bible, is itself a book of giant slayings (David vs. Goliath the most obvious example) and dragons (see Rev 12, 13, 16, and 20, among others in the KJV), that the God of the Bible is himself a dragon slayer (Ps 74:13,14 and Rev 20), and that “Christians are a race of dragon-fighters.  Our sons are born to this.  Someone ought to tell them.” (See Eph 6:12 for example)

“When Christians show themselves willing to lose the modern blinders which restrict our reading of the [Bible] text, we will come to see the Bible as a fantastic book, with all the connotations of that word involved.  There are many odd places beyond the few cited here in this discussion and many strange things beyond the giants and dragons.  And once this happens, we will come to see the duty of training our sons to think this way through the other books they read.”

“But if our sons are to be prepared for the world God made, then their imaginations must be fed and nourished with tales about the Red Cross Knight, Jim in the apple barrel, Sam Gamgee carrying Frodo up the mountain, Beowulf tearing off Grendel’s arm, and Trumpkin fighting for Aslan while still not believing in him.  This type of story is not allowed by Scripture; this type of story is required by Scripture.”

“Required?” one asks.  “Could you show me a chapter and verse on that?”  All too often that is the response of modern day evangelicalism.

Below is a discussion Lindsey carried on with another about the Christian foundation of The Lord of the Rings.  I post this because I think the questions and issues poised are common and because I think Lindsey’s responses are thoughtful and helpful.  I hope you will too.

We enter the discussion after a few previous exchanges:

Lindsey:  As I've thought out this issue, I've tried to identify who it was that gave me the foundation necessary to accept Tolkien's trilogy as Christian. I finally decided that it wasn't so much Rushdoony or Schaeffer as Dr. Hodges and his very memorable lectures on beauty and truth. In one of them, Dr. Hodges spoke about the compelling nature of God's beauty and truth as an evangelizing force.  He mentioned the modern pietistic idea that Christian things must say "God", or have a Bible verse written on them in order to be valid, true, or godly.  Then he laughed, reminding us of someone who never believed such a thing -- God.  Dr. Hodges quoted someone else as saying (and this is paraphrased), "When God created trees, he didn't put Bible verses on them."  You see, God created a whole beautiful world, but nowhere did he hang a WWJD bracelet, nor did he carve "made by God" across the face of the earth.  The hand of God is apparent without such drastic measures, and thus it is that the Bible assures us that all of creation attest to His authorship.  This is so, Dr. Hodges explained, because God's world is both beautiful and truthful. The earth is a powerful evangelizing force, simply because it was created by the God of Beauty and Truth (and all other divine attributes).  As God's creatures, we are drawn to these attributes because we were made in His image, and though fallen, we respond to His character revealed in creation.  Tolkien and Dr. Hodges think a great deal alike.  In a Christian journal, the author wrote, "Tolkien omitted overt references to God, worship, prayer and Christianity in the 500,000 words of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. It wasn't an effort to hide his Christian faith, he said. Rather, he believed the technique communicated Christian values more effectively precisely because they were less obvious."  This is exactly what Dr. Hodge taught us.  

Now, of course, I don't believe Dr. Hodges, simply because I like what he has to say, but because I believe it to be true.  Please don't think I've adopted a grab-bag approach to Tolkien, taking things that sound good from this article, and that article, and this person, etc.  I glean from the superior knowledge and insight of others, but these are only those things which fit together into a (hopefully!) cohesive unity with presuppositions gained from the Bible, my parents, Rushdoony, Schaeffer, etc. 

Writer:  The portrayal of admirable qualities alone does not mean a movie is specifically modeling Christian aspects or rooted in Christianity. While there are a large number of un-believers who display and possess admirable qualities do we say or can we say they are Christians? Can we even say their motivation for their behaviour is based on Christianity?

I think there is a difference between applying aspects of our Christianity to "good" characteristics displayed in movies and having movies clearly portray aspects of Christianity.

You're exactly right.  After sending off that letter and re-reading it later, I thought, "uh-oh, I didn't explain that so well."  You see, I wrote simply listing out godly characteristics that were initially apparent to me, not trying to prove anything other than that they do exist in the movie.  As you say, almost every movie embodies at least some admirable qualities, simply because it is created by creatures who were created in the image of God.

We cannot place too much critical value upon admirable qualities because they are generally man-centered, subject to the varying whims of individuals and cultures. For instance, the modern man thinks the concept of laying down one's life for a friend is a cute little childish idea left over from the unenlightened age of chivalry, utterly irrelevant to modern life and practice.  In contrast, God's world and worldview are unequivocally correct and true throughout all ages.  Thus, we do not judge the Christian nature of an object because of its admirable qualities and/or wickedness -- the Bible has many stories of both good people and wicked people, doing good and bad things. We judge the Christian nature of an item by the way it fits into the framework of God's comprehensive worldview.  

What in christianity does the ring symbolize and how is that made clear to the viewer?

Ultimately, the ring symbolizes ungodly power and the human desire to attain godhood. In Genesis 3, the serpent tempted Eve by assuring her that by eating the forbidden fruit her eyes would be uncovered and she would be able to discern good and evil.  Adam and Eve fell because they wanted to be their own god with their own absolute power and authority.  However, this desire resulted not in the life of freedom they anticipated, but in death. 

In The Silmarillioun (the genesis and early history of Middle Earth), Melkor, one of the angels created by Eru, shared the ambition of Satan: "He wished to be called LORD!"  He didn't want to wait for his creator and god, but wanted to do things in his own time and in his own way, and he sent his evil out into the world. His lieutenant and disciple, Sauron, forged the ring of power with the ambition of power and godhood in mind.  The Ring tempts its victims to take it by the promise of power over others (As Sauron tempted Frodo on the journey into Mordor). But in reality the ring does not award the power it promises.  Rather, it makes its bearer a slave, not a god, and reduces the soul to a mere shadow, as it did the Nazgul.  Even Sauron was enslaved by the ring, though it was his own creation.  All his plans depended upon it and his actions were driven by the necessity of regaining it.  Without it his plans were doomed.  The ring is death to those who give it loyalty. 

I've thought about it, and it doesn't seem necessary that this be made clear to the viewer.  You see, Tolkien was not writing a book of moral lessons, nor did he ever desire his trilogy to be an allegory.  However, the nature of the ring is clear in a Christian worldview.

Is Christ portrayed in the movie? If so, by whom and again how is it made clear to the viewer?

Tolkien disliked the genre of allegory and adamantly insisted that LOTR is not allegory by any stretch of the imagination.  However, there are a few Christ types.  This, I believe, arises naturally because Tolkien is a Christain, writing in the world of Christ. Three that first come to mind are Gandalf, Aragorn, and Frodo.  Gandalf, the company's shepherd and most wise guide, led the company through trials and tribulations, ultimately laying down his life that the "sheep" might live.  Aragorn lived upon the earth as a lowly Ranger until the time came for him to reclaim his throne.  He defeated Sauran (the Strongman), pronounced judgement upon the wicked, showed mercy upon whom he chose, and ruled in wisdom and strength, just as Christ has done and shall do until the end of the age.  Frodo's great burden of the ring is reminiscent of Christ's sojourn upon earth, and the great burden of sin he carried to the cross that His chosen might be free from its destructive rule. 
Though in danger of tiresome redundancy, I must once again deny that Tolkien is under any obligation to make Christ-like figures apparent to his audience.  In view of his dislike of allegory (and I don't think such a dislike ungodly), Tolkien's Christ-like figures were not specifically designed as such, but arose naturally from his Christian worldview.

Can you tell me what characters portray biblical christians and who they are?

I wonder what you mean by "biblical"?  Certainly, none of the characters believe in Christ, neither are they baptized, nor do they pray, take communion, read the Bible, etc.  When I speak of a Tolkien's trilogy as being "Christian", I am not saying that they *are* christian, though I've never made a thorough distinction of this previously.  There is no Christianity in Middle Earth.  It is what Tolkien would call a pre-christian work, much like  Beowulf.    

What is the motivation behind the behaviours of the characters? Is it to serve God or to simply do what is right?

Not being a historic christian work, it would be difficult to say they were serving God.  Now, of course, Gandalf was serving god, though not the "Christian" God. He was one of the Istari sent by the angels in the battle to remove all the followers of Melkor from the earth, and he was fulfilling his duty and calling.  Aside from that, all other good characters were just doing the right thing.  But it is important to note that *doing right* is a distinctly Christian concept.  All "rightness" comes from God, and without him there is none.  Rightness performed outside the realm of God's rightness is not even right, though it may masquerade as such.  Now, this is not to say that they *were* godly because they did right.  But it is to say that doing the right thing can be the same thing as serving God. 

Before I can attribute aspects of Christianity to a movie, book or story I need to clearly understand the motivation behind the writing and/or the motivation behind the behaviours of the characters.

In all due respect, I must say that I don't think one should rely to greatly upon the motivations of people when determining the Christian or anti-Christian nature of their work.  Good intentions sometimes produce anti-Christian results and evil intentions sometimes produce Christian good (Gen 50:20). However, intentions can sometimes be helpful. I hope you have no objection if I send you to a Christian journal for an explanation of Tolkien's motivations? It seems silly for me to repeat the things said by the author as he knows rather more about this subject than I do. Hopefully it will be helpful to you. www.mcjonline.com/news/01b/20011204b.shtml.

A  few weeks ago, I was searching for anti-Tolkien christian info on the net and though I didn't find any, I did find one really splendid pro-Tolkien article called, "Tolkien's Lord of the Rings: A Christian Classic Revisited", by a professor at Baylor University.  It does a good job of presenting material in a relatively objective manner.  It is, as I said, so splendid that I've been compelled to read it five times, so far. :)  Besides being excellent, it answers some of the questions you asked, so even though I tried to answer them myself, I do hope you'll read it.  It can be found at: http://www.leaderu.com/humanities/wood-classic.html

I understand that many of the things I've said will most likely be greeted with disagreement.  However, I fear that what I've said here, along with the two articles, are about all I have to argue upon the subject.  I think your disagreements might be ultimately reconciled through reading the LOTR trilogy and the Silmarillion.  Of course, priorities may say nay to the reading of four books, but if spare time (ha!)  is laying around, do try. In all events, you wouldn't regret it, they are beautiful.  

God bless,



Patrick L. Hurd
Weatherford, Texas

EST. 01/01/01