Christian Themes (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The Lord of the Rings is virtually a test case for a definition of Christian Literature, since it contains not a single reference to religion in general, much less Christ or Christianity in particular—yet many critics (and Tolkien himself) have asserted that it is centrally Christian in conception and execution. Tolkien went even farther: in a December 2, 1953, letter to Father Robert Murray, he asserted that the Catholicism of The Lord of the Rings was unconscious at first, but then conscious in revision. As the setting of The Lord of the Rings preceded Christianity by several thousand years, Christian references would be anachronisms, and pagan references contrary to spiritual truth would also run counter to the vital truths Tolkien was trying to articulate in his novel.

In many ways this dilemma was exactly the one faced by Tolkien’s favorite Old English writer, the Beowulf poet. Critics before Tolkien had seen that heroic classic as a clumsy and anachronistic mishmash of Christian and pagan ideas, or as a pagan masterpiece spoiled with Christian excrescences. Tolkien, in his famous monograph “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” (1936), instead suggested that the Christian poet knew he was conveying pagan legend and that Beowulf’s heroic morality resonated more with Christianity than later critics would think. The Beowulf poet’s solution to the tension was Christian commentary on...

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The Lord of the Rings Themes

The Ring: Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely
Lord Acton in the 1880s wrote, "Power Corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely." When Sam urges Galadriel, "I think my master was right. I wish you'd take his ring. You'd put things to rights. You'd make some folk pay for their dirty work," Galadriel answers, "I would—That is how it would begin, but it would not stop at that, alas!" While many earlier philosophers and writers would have agreed, such a clear and unequivocal vision of the intrinsic dangers of power could only come with the sharply increasing ability of humans to control and destroy not only themselves, but the earth itself. The Ring is the embodiment of the will to power. It exists only to dominate. It corrupts, driving a wedge between the wearer and his own nature, let alone every other being, no matter how dear. Tolkien expresses this corruption in the language of addiction where everything is sacrificed to the insatiable desire for the Ring/Power.

Near the beginning of Lord of the Rings when Gandalf tries to explain the Ring to Frodo he says: "It was the strangest event in the whole history of the Ring so far: Bilbo's arrival, just at that time, and putting his hand on it, blindly, in the dark...There was more than one power at work...The Ring was trying to get back to its master. When its master was awake once more and sending out his dark thought...Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring and not its maker." Critics have often remarked that there is nothing which amounts to religion in Lord of the Rings and no mention of God. A providence, however, hovers over the narrative, a beneficent power working through events and through individual willed actions, good and (ironically) bad, to bring about the destruction of the Ring and the end of Sauron. This providence does not give happily ever after, as it relies on the speaking people, it leaves them with the cumulative results of their choices, but it does not leave them alone. Elves, men, dwarves, Ents and Hobbits must act, but providence ensures that their actions are not without results. The victory of the good cannot restore what was lost nor even preserve all that was saved....

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The Lord of the Rings Themes

The need to come to terms with the power of evil is clearly the central theme of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien shows here that no one is safe from its influence. Everyone is corruptible — not merely the weak, but the strong as well. One after another, characters who have been powerful exponents of good in Middle-earth are seen to have been corrupted — Saruman, Boromir, Theoden. Even Gandalf, although he may be the best and strongest of the fellowship, refuses to take the ring because he fears it will corrupt him. Frodo also comes near to disaster and, in the end, is saved from failure only by something outside himself. Gollum, who throughout the book has acted for evil, accidentally (or perhaps fortuitously) saves the situation by biting off Frodo's ring finger and falling with it into the Cracks of Doom. Gollum's action and its positive result may be interpreted as either chance or divine providence; Tolkien gives no definitive statement of his intent. In either case, however, the reader must come to terms with the fact that Frodo, despite his epic heroism, and he is one of the most heroic characters in modern literature, was unable to deal successfully with true evil. Ultimately it did corrupt him.

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