The Lord of the Rings

by J. R. R. Tolkien

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Christian Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 572

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 pagan values: Tolkien’s solution was to explore those virtues common to pre-Christian and Christian cultures and allow them to shine through in the characters without comment.

Thus, for example, the moral contrast between Denethor, steward of Gondor, and Théoden, king of Rohan, not only illustrates the Christian virtue of hope (which for the Catholic Tolkien is a “theological virtue”) but also a Germanic pagan virtue that Tolkien dubbed the “Northern theory of courage.” Denethor (his name being almost an anagram of Théoden emphasizes the complementarity of the characters) sees no point in fighting impossible odds and seeks suicide. Théoden, on the contrary, relishes the battle precisely because of the impossible odds: It allows him to show his undaunted courage. Yet higher than both is Sam’s transcendent hope in the face of the same impossible odds: He realizes, in singing an old song, that though Sauron has blotted out the sun, the sun is still there, if unseen (a clear image of transcendence). When the happy ending comes unlooked for, Sam feels the movement of what Christian theology calls grace (and Tolkien called “eucatastrophe”).

Another spiritual theme of Tolkien’s fiction that is strikingly Christian (and perhaps particularly Catholic) is what theologians call the “sacramental” view of nature. In many non-Western spiritual traditions and in some Christian denominations, nature presents a spiritual danger: The world we perceive through the senses and the sensual, the flesh, drag the spirit down. It is clear that for Tolkien, nature instead lifts the spirit up. This phenomenon is called “sacramental” because, like the sacraments, nature is a physical reality that points to a spiritual reality.

Perhaps the most striking result of Tolkien’s faith informing his fiction is a favorite attack of hostile critics against The Lord of the Rings: the unabashed clarity of good versus evil in the book. The twentieth century mind, critics like Edwin Muir and Edmund Wilson asserted, rejects a moral vision that sees only black and white and instead demands shades of grey. The immense popularity of Tolkien’s fiction would suggest otherwise.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 962

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....

(This entire section contains 962 words.)

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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.

Providence 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. Nevertheless, the far greater, unthinkable evil is averted.

Mercy and Pity Pity in the Lord of the Rings presupposes understanding, sympathy, and a recognition of a moral imperative to alleviate rather than cause pain. In action, it seems to be closer to empathy than to the common modern use of the word pity, which in common usage, has now overtones of contempt. Acts of mercy born of sympathetic pity are clearly subsumed into the providential purpose. Gollum is spared again and again by the pity of others, notably Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam. In the end, this mercy saves not Gollum, who cannot reject the addiction of evil, but those who have been merciful.

Death and Deathlessness While most readers and critics concentrate on the absolute corruption of power, Tolkien wrote that Lord of the Rings was about death and deathlessness. The importance of the theme often comes as a surprise to even the most assiduous readers of the trilogy, although in the context of the larger history of Middle Earth, it emerges with greater clarity. Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of the effectively immortal elves with mortal men, (not to mention dwarves and hobbits) confront the reader at every turn. Sauron's initial temptation to men was based on the fear of the unknown and an unspoken jealousy of the elves. It is the attempt to seize immortality that destroys the island kingdom in the western sea Númenor, the preoccupation with death and ancestors that leaves Minas Tirith under-populated. Tolkien has the inhabitants of Middle Earth call death a "gift" and insinuates death is a welcome natural movement from earth to the presence of earth's creator. It is probably only in the context of the larger body of Tolkien's writings—notably the Silmarrillion and The Book of Lost Tales—that its ubiquity and centrality becomes apparent. Even more than men, the landscape of Middle Earth itself is again and again described in terms of loss, change, and decay. The juxtaposition of the immortal and changeless elves with a flawed and transitory environment indicates the elves are in an uncertain and ambiguous position. Perhaps the false mutable world is more surely the "long defeat" of which Galadriel speaks.

Moral Absolutes Tolkien has been accused of seeing events in black and white, but throughout the trilogy, it is clear that while moral absolutes are the touchstone of actions, they do not prescribe specific and unvarying action. They are the weights against which the characters must balance competing 'right actions.' Merry and Pippin both swear oaths of allegiance. Both of them consciously break those oaths in pursuit of a higher good, "but," as Rosebury wrote, "it is precisely these kinds of departure from a facile and predictable structuring of ethical action which exemplify the work's moral subtlety and openness to contingency." Tolkien drew his characters in terms of moral imperfection and intellectual limitation. Even Gandalf's character reflects a strong sense of the imperfections of humanity. Tolkien's wisest characters in the stories maintain this wisdom with a balance of restricted knowledge. Frodo demonstrates this when he quotes the proverb, "Go not to the elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes." The elf Gildor replies, "Elves seldom give unguarded advice for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill."


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 209

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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