Lecture 5: The Lord of the Rings
An initial Christian understanding of The Lord of the Rings should be structured around certain key concepts in the Christian faith.
Part of the problem that Tolkien had with the Arthurian stories is that they were explicitly set within the Christian era, and this made the “remoteness” he wanted for dramatic reasons impossible. The long-a-go-ness and far-away-ness would not have been long enough ago, or far enough away. But God was not excluded because of any embarrassment.
At the ultimate level in the mythology (in the Silmarillion), God necessarily fills the place that only He can fill – Illuvatar. He is the Creator. But even here, He hands off the details of creation to the Valar. But notice how Tolkien solves another problem with this – the problem of having God occupy the role of a character in a fictional world created by . . . one of us.
Lewis solved this problem (with Aslan) by having the connotative images different enough.
Man (without using the language) clearly bears the imago Dei. Illuvatar has given man the gift of death, one which the Elves envy. Something special is occurring between God and men, and what that might be is never expressly stated. And speaking of Elves, this shows how complex Tolkien’s view of mankind is.
The only “children” of middle earth who are not men in some way are the dwarves. The hobbits are men. “The Hobbits are, of course, really meant to be a branch of the specifically human race” (Letters, p. 158). This is why they can dwell with the Big Folk at Bree. They represent the sturdy heroism of ordinary men.
Elves: “they represent really Men with greatly enhanced aesthetic and creative faculties, great beauty and longer life, and nobility – the Elder Children” (p. 176.). They are biologically one with men, and can intermarry – and do.
Orcs must be corruptions (p. 178), and, as Tolkien put it, “Elves may turn into orcs” (p. 287, cf. 191. This means of course (given what elves are, see above) that orcs are representations of man’s potential for sin. Tolkien goes so far as to say that many men “to be met today” are as horribly corrupted as the orcs are (p. 190)..
And, of course, men are men. No need for argumentation here, I suppose.
Remember that this is mythology, not allegory.
The portrayal of sin is one of Tolkien’s great strengths. Below Illuvatar, sin is possible at every level, and does occur at every level. Among the Valar, Morgoth sins. The Elves seek after forbidden knowledge, and their presence in Middle Earth is the result of their “fall.” The complete corruption of orcs shows how far the process can go. Even Galadriel is a penitent. Men of course sin. Hobbits fall in with Saruman to corrupt the Shire.
On the flip side, I would have to say that this is Tolkien’s weakest point. Salvation appears to be accepted on all hands as a matter of simple repentance. There appears to be no sense of a need for atonement. Morgoth sins up a storm, and then gets off the hook by feigning repentance. Sauron feigns repentance. Gollum comes within a step of repentance. But suppose true repentance. Then what? What about the millions of murders?
Tolkien could defend his position by saying the repentance was feigned, but this presupposes a basis among the good for accepting it.
Revelation is not necessarily missing. People just know things. And the bad guys don’t challenge – “Yea, hath God said?” This is a story, and the carrier of truth within this story are “tales.”