Tolkien grew and became a formidable rugby player, and also a linguist of first class. He was so gifted in languages that he began to form his own language. His intellectual interests increased even more when he started the Tea Club and Barovian Society.a And they would meet frequently for tea and discuss their particular interests. For Tolkien, it was Northern European Languages and Legends.b
He recited for them the Norse Volsunga Saga, in which a dwarf is featured with a treasure horde and a magic ring. The Norse myths Tolkien found so fascinating even featured dwarves as underground metalworkers.
Tolkien’s gifts were conspicuous, and this eventually led him to change the literary world. It was his background as an orphan, home-schooled by a faithful and sacrificial mother, the influence by his local priest who cared for them and watched over his soul, and his affinity for strange languages that propelled Tolkien to be more than just another writer, but a writer who cherished his faith and heritage, and who did not abandon all hope when life seemed to crush him, but persevered in his gifts.
The Legacy of J.R.R. Tolkienc
“Our world would be poorer without two other worlds: Narnia and Middle-earth,” said Christopher Wright.d Tolkien produced a mythology that was internalized. He produced a world that others could imagine. The casual reader, or even the casual Christian reader will look at The Lord of the Rings and admire its poetic brilliance and the protagonists’ perseverance, but you need a good set of Christian eyes. The way you gain these eyes is by training them to see the world not just as a mechanical production of God, but as a witness and a testimony to the glory of God; to see the world through the story of God, and then to judge every other world (“sub-creation,” to quote Tolkien) by the story of God’s world. In other words, the story of God is the model for every other world. This is why we can watch or read anything decent in this world and immediately see facts that reflect the wisdom of God.
The Lord of the Rings is unique, because Tolkien himself wrote the following in a letter to a friend:
The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work;…e
You may think this is strange because there is no Church, no acts of prayer, or worship in the Trilogy. This is where I think Tolkien offers probably one of the best observations on how to interpret his books, and also how to look at different works as a Christian. He continues his quote:
…it is fundamentally religious and Catholic, unconsciously at first…this is why I have not put in anything like “religion” in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”f
If we come to The Lord of the Rings trying to find “religion by counting how many times they pray or go to church, we will be soberly disappointed…we need to look hard at the shape of the story itself, not at discreet acts of religion.”g This is a rich application to our witness in our culture. The Word of God is more than a set of propositions we recite, it is a story we believe. While quoting Bible-verses is fruitful, establishing the story of redemption can be even more fruitful. I tend to believe that the medium of literature is a great way of preaching the gospel story. The subtlety of Tolkien’s words is that when an unbeliever reads or watches Tolkien’s art he is first captivated by the brilliance of it, then he is confronted with a series of questions about good and evil, the depravity of man, the wise counsel of Gandalf, the courage of Sam and Frodo, and the determination of Aragorn. All these have the effect of confronting unbelief with a world they are not familiar.
The genre of fantasy carries the ability to communicate divine ideas. Tolkien wrote:
Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode. Because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.h
Tolkien is echoing the orthdodox understanding of mankind created in the image of God (Imago Dei). The reason we create stories is because we are imitators of the true Story-Maker. The best worlds are the ones that reflect and communicate our world. Good fantasy reflects our ability to create things after the likeness of God’s creation. Middle-Earth is a reflection of this world.i This is why it is so realistic. The narrative of Middle-Earth itself is the religious element of the story. It contains hints of the Christian message, while refusing just to repeat it. C.S. Lewis in the Chronicles of Narnia was explicit in writing a Christian allegory for children. Tolkien wrote a mythology. Just because a mythology did not happen doesn’t mean it cannot relate to the truth.j And this is what Tolkien did. At the end of the Rings trilogy, there is a happy ending to this world. The world at the end is made new. Evil is destroyed. There is lasting peace in the kingdom. There are many sacrifices made, indicating that to achieve the world we believe the Gospel seeks will demand sacrifices from God’s people. It means we may have to abandon the Shire and speak against Mordor. It means we may lose the things we most cherish like Aragorn going into exile for the sake of what he loves most. But in the end, Tolkien is establishing a story built on a heroic community of people, from all sorts of different backgrounds, imperfect, but loyal to the mission of defeating evil.
What then does the life of Tolkien teach us?
First, Tolkien was not a product of solitary imagination. He studied, learned, read vociferously. Tolkien’s mother believed in a good education. Not just a random education, but a particularly holistic education. Mabel wanted her priest involved in the training of her children. That little Catholic parish was acting biblically in providing for the widow and the orphan. Education matters. Why do we take such a strong stand on Christian education? Because a Christian mind needs to be shaped by the knowledge of the world God created, not the world created by chance.
Second, let me encourage you to read The Lord of the Rings trilogy if you have not. It is never too late to begin reading good literature.
Third, appreciate not just the explicit Christian writings, but also the classics. Build a library of good literature. This is a great legacy to leave your children and family members.
Fourth, understand that all literature is religious in nature. The author is always trying to communicate some worldview, whether good or bad. There is no literary neutrality.
Fifth, parents: read, read, read! Do you want to capture your children’s heart and mind? Read to them. Ralph Smith is a CREC pastor in Tokyo, Japan. He has three very brilliant children. I asked him last year in Minneapolis what he did to cultivate a love of learning in his children. He said: “We read the Bible, Shakespeare, and everything else out loud at home. I wanted them to hear the Word before they could fall in love with it.” This is a good application for children in worship. Why do we insist that our little ones remain with us during Covenant Renewal? It is because we believe that the Word – even before they are reading – is effective to their hearing. It builds in them a vocabulary that expresses joy and knowledge, and truth.
Finally, and by far, one of my favorite features of The Lord of the Rings is their incessant love of food. There is constant feasting! In Tolkien’s world, food is communal. It is to be shared. It brings people together and accentuates joy. The importance of what happens around these meals makes the sacrifice of war worthwhile and that let’s the reader know there is something worth fighting about. This is the beauty of Tolkien’s writings. He turns every situation into an act of preparation for war. This is the language we use of the Lord’s Supper. It is food given to prepare us for war.
I hope Tolkien provides you some inspiration to look deeper at literature and realize again and again that this world is given for us, and that the worlds we create need to reflect and pay homage to the Creator of the World, namely Christ Himself.
- A sort of prequel to The Inklings. (back)
- Mark Horne, J.R.R. Tolkien, a Biography. (back)
- Using many notes and inspiration from Mark Horne’s final chapter on the Legacy of Tolkien. (back)
- http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/news/2003/aug29.html (back)
- Quote found in Brian Nolder’s paper God and Hobbit. (back)
- Brian Nolder, God and Hobbit. (back)
- Ibid. (back)
- Quoted in Nolder’s paper from Tolkien’s Fairy-Stories (back)
- Tolkien does write that Middle Earth is this earth (back)
- Horne, Legacy of Tolkien. (back)