Discovering the "Lord" in "The Lord of the Rings": Gandalf, Frodo and Aragorn as Sacrificial Heroes
Some of the most obvious manifestations of religion in The Lord of the Rings are the Christ-like qualities that inhabit several of the characters. There is no one distinct Christ figure, but many characters have certain qualities of Jesus Christ, and, according to Peter Kreeft, “Christ is really, though invisibly, present in the whole of The Lord of the Rings” (222). The presence of Christ figures in Tolkien and other authors should not be a surprise, because “there are Christ figures everywhere in literature and life … For Christ was not an emergency afterthought or a freak from outer space, but the central point of the whole human story from the beginning in the Mind of its Author” (Kreeft 54). Christ shows up in Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn throughout the novels, and even though Tolkien has explicitly stated that he does not like allegory, it is a good idea to look at his “body of beliefs” in order to bring to light the Christian elements in the books (Rogers 72).
In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien does a remarkable job of creating characters that not only fill distinct archetypal roles from mythology and religion, but that also have the ability to encompass aspects from more than one role. Along the same lines, many of Tolkien’s characters blend together to fill a greater role than they would standing alone. Probably the most obvious religious archetypal role in The Lord of the Rings would be the Christ figure. While Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn all display certain elements of Christ in their actions and characterizations, together they are able to fulfill the archetypal role of Christ as a whole – Christ as priest, prophet, and king, as well as Christ as the sacrificial lamb. Although their filling of these roles is not absolute in that The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory and should not be treated as such, there are obvious connections between these three characters and many aspects of Christ in the Bible.
Not an Allegory
Although there are many parallels between The Lord of the Rings and biblical events, characters, and ideas, J.R.R. Tolkien himself says that his books are not allegory. In his “Forward to the Second Edition” of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien states, “But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence … I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’” (Lord xxiv). This does not mean that the author has not applied his religious beliefs to his work, however, for Tolkien also says, “…I have deliberately written a tale, which is built on or out of certain ‘religious’ ideas, but is not an allegory of them” (Letters 283). Certainly the influence of Tolkien’s faith can be seen within the pages of his books.
There are several ways that characters in Tolkien show aspects of Christ. Perhaps the most obvious is the idea of “sacrificial situations,” which Tolkien describes as, “positions in which the ‘good’ of the world depends on the behaviour of an individual in circumstances which demand of him suffering and endurance far beyond the normal – even, it may happen (or seem, humanly speaking), demand a strength of body and mind which he does not possess” (Letters 233). Christ himself was the ultimate sacrifice; he went so far as to give up his life so that his people might be saved. Not only did Christ die for the world “so that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life,” (John 3:16), but he was also resurrected. Gandalf and Frodo certainly sacrifice their lives for the good of Middle-earth, and even Aragorn fits this criteria, if to a lesser extent.
Other manifestations of Christ’s characteristics in The Lord of the Rings are that of Jesus’ ministry, healing, and life on earth, as well as the second coming of Christ and the millennial reign. The idea of Jesus as the lord of the living and of the dead also comes into play, and “the ancient Adamite unity of [Christ as] Prophet, Priest, and King seems to hold” in these characters (Lobdell 52). Peter Kreeft supplies a good summary of the Christ figure in Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn:
He [Christ] is more clearly present in Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn, the three Christ figures. First of all, all three undergo different forms of death and resurrection. Second, all three are saviors: through their self-sacrifice they help save all of Middle-earth from the demonic sway of Sauron. Third, they exemplify the Old Testament three-fold Messianic symbolism of prophet … priest … and king... (222-223)
Although the three characters are able to fill the criteria for these roles, they are not able to do so exclusively. In different ways, Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn are Christ figures, but they in no way fill a single role by themselves. Even the prophet, priest, and king symbolism is not exclusive; some scholars believe that Frodo is closer to the prophet because of his dreams and intuition and that Gandalf is closer to the priest because of his rationality (Garbowski 121-122).
Gandalf as a Sacrificial Hero
Sacrifices are integral facets of the Christ figure that is present in Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn, although Gandalf and Frodo fill this role to a greater extent than Aragorn. Christ’s sacrifice is essential to his ministry, and is what makes his story so great. Jesus “hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4-5). In the same way that Jesus Christ willingly took on the sins of the world and died for the very same people who had wronged him, the Christ figures in The Lord of the Rings act out of the same kind of self-sacrifice in order to save the people of Middle-earth from the corruption and power of Sauron and the Ring. Additionally, in order for a true sacrifice to be made, it must be “invariably and freely given. Circumstances may urge and undertaking or a renunciation, but the choice must always remain one’s own” (Burns 112-113). Although each of these three characters make sacrifices for their cause, they all do so in different ways, but in every case, they willingly give up something important to them for their cause.
Gandalf exhibits sacrifice “in [his] … facing the Balrog” and in his “falling and rising from death” (Burns 112). In the Mines of Moria, as the Fellowship is being chased by the ancient, terrible Balrog, Gandalf sacrifices himself defending his friends, and by extension, the greater mission, from the fire demon: “With a terrible cry the Balrog fell forward, and its shadow plunged down and vanished. But even as it fell it swung its whip, and the thongs lashed and curled about the wizard’s knees, dragging him to the brink. He staggered and fell, grasped vainly at the stone, and slid into the abyss. ‘Fly, you fools!’ he cried, and was gone” (Lord 331). Because of Gandalf’s willingness to lay down his life for his friends, the rest of the Fellowship is able to escape from the mines and continue on with the quest. This is certainly a sacrificial act, and Sean McGrath argues that Gandalf knew from the moment he set foot in Moria that he would be forced to make a choice of this nature. Aragorn somehow knows that Gandalf will be in grave danger in Moria, and he warns Gandalf: “It is not of the Ring, nor of us others that I am thinking now, but of you, Gandalf. And I say to you: if you pass the doors of Moria, beware” (Lord 297). McGrath says that “the ensuing stand-off reminds us of Peter trying to dissuade Christ from taking his Cross” (178-179).
Not only did Jesus sacrifice himself and die on the cross, but he rose from the grave three days later. Gandalf “goes through something like a death and resurrection in his fight with the Balrog” (Gunton 124), further strengthening the argument that he is a principal Christ figure in The Lord of the Rings. In describing his battle with the Balrog, Gandalf says, “I threw down my enemy, and he fell from the high place and broke the mountain-side where he smote it in his ruin. Then darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell” (Lord 502). This is the sacrifice: his death or “near death” (Gunton 124). Gandalf continues with his tale: “Naked I was sent back – for a brief time, until my task is done” (Lord 502). Here Gandalf recounts his “resurrection” or his “transfiguration” (Gunton 124).
Like Jesus after his resurrection, Gandalf goes to find his friends, who at first do not recognize him. Gandalf returns more powerful than before as Gandalf the White, and Joe R. Christopher suggests that “Jesus’ association with light and his light clothes may suggest … Gandalf the White; but most of the details are unlike Tolkien” (123). While small parallels such as this can be spotted all throughout the novels, it is important not to look too deeply into them, because The Lord of the Rings is not so consistent with biblical events and is not an allegory. We cannot assume that every detail in the books are symbolic of something in the bible just because Tolkien’s Christian faith – specifically Catholic – has influenced the text (Garbowski 111).
Frodo as a Sacrificial Hero
Frodo, while he does not die physically, makes great sacrifices in his journey to destroy the Ring, which is an embodiment of “unlimited power” (Hill and Perkins 55). Frodo’s harrowing journey to Mordor, and the ensuing climb up Mount Doom mark the brave hobbit as “a savior who travels the paths of the dead” in a “story of self-sacrifice” (Roberts 65). Colin Gunton states that “Frodo’s quest is to destroy the power of the Dark Lord by taking the ring from the Shire and casting it down the furnace of where it was forged … Again and again we are reminded of biblical texts about the way the power of God works not through the great forces of history but through the cross” (131-133). As with Gandalf, there are too many parallels between Frodo’s actions as a sacrificial hero and Christ’s to be mere coincidence.
The "Last Supper" and Sam as Simon of Cyrene
There are several other instances during Frodo’s journey that echo Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Before Frodo and Sam journey down “into the Nameless Land,” they have a meal together. Tolkien often refers to this meal as a “last meal,” and “it consists of … the ‘wafers of the waybread of the Elves’” and water. This last meal is very reminiscent of the Last Supper that Jesus had with his disciples before his death: “Now the feast of unleavened bread drew nigh, which is called the Passover … And when the hour was come, he [Jesus] sat down, and the twelve apostles with him. And he said unto them, With desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer: I will not any more eat thereof, until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:1, 14-17). Just as Jesus had a last meal with his disciples, Frodo has one with Sam, who is Frodo’s most loyal companion and “disciple.” The “unleavened bread” eaten at the Passover is strikingly familiar in Frodo and Sam’s meal as “the elven lembas” which Burns claims “has symbolic meaning … and in the elvish language, Quenya, means ‘bread of life’” (112). The similarities between these two situations are impossible to ignore.
In the final stretch of his journey, Frodo is weary and helpless, and Sam begins to play a bigger role in their mission to destroy the Ring. When Frodo is too exhausted to go on, Sam decides that “I’ll get there, if I leave everything but my bones behind … And I’ll carry Mr. Frodo up myself, if it breaks my back and heart” (Lord 939). Peter Kreeft likens “Frodo’s journey up Mount Doom” to “Christ’s Way of the Cross. Sam is his Simon of Cyrene, but he carries the cross bearer as well as the cross” (222). This is yet another parallel between Christ and Frodo, who both become so broken and tortured that they are unable to go any farther without help. In both cases, they have someone who takes up their cross and helps them to the finish when they can no longer help themselves.
The Journey to His Death
The landscape of Mordor and the imagery of the climb are hellish, for “If the West is Heaven (or Paradise), then the East in some sense approaches Hell … and Middle-earth is middle because betwixt West and East” (Lobdell 54). In “Journey to the Cross-Roads,” Frodo, Sam, and Gollum observe the terrible landscape ahead of them:
But no day came, only a dead brown twilight. In the East there was a dull red glare under the lowering cloud: it was not the red of dawn. Across the tumbled lands between, the mountains of the Ephel Dúath frowned at them, black and shapeless below where night lay thick and did not pass away, above with jagged tops and edges outlined hard and menacing against the fiery glow. Away to their right a great shoulder of the mountains stood out, dark and black amid the shadows… (Lord 699)
Frodo travels through this “filth, [and] devestation” (Gunton 134), all the while “burdened like Christ with the object of his own torture” (Burns 112). Gunton says that Frodo’s journey through “that foulness” is in itself the hobbit’s great sacrifice, because he takes it upon himself to travel through what is essentially hell “in order to cleanse the land for the return of life” (132).
Not only this, but Frodo’s sacrifice is much more than just traveling through this horrid land. Frodo ultimately does not die in his quest, but he firmly believes that he will not make it back. Shortly after their joining with Gollum, Sam questions Frodo about how they are going to ration their food for the journey there and back. Frodo replies, “But Samwise Gamgee, my dear hobbit … what hope is there that we ever shall [finish]? And if we do, who knows what will come of that? If the One goes into the Fire, and we are at hand? I ask you, Sam, are we ever likely to need bread again? I think not” (Lord 624).
Although Frodo believes that he has little to no hope of success or survival, he still continues on his dangerous quest despite his own doubts and fears. The fact that he volunteered to take “the One” in the first place is brave in itself, but when faced with the reality that he will more than likely not make it back alive, he still presses onward, ready to achieve his goal or die trying.
The Penultimate Moment: Temptation and the Betrayer
The journey within itself is not even the crux of Frodo’s story, however, just as Christ’s walk to his death on Golgotha, while horrifying and traumatic, was not the extent of his great sacrifice. It is true that at the peak of the journey, Frodo’s mind is overtaken by the Ring and he refuses to give it up. “‘I have come,’ he said. ‘But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!’” (Lord 945). Frodo’s temptation and weakness here may be seen as a distinguishing factor between himself and Christ, but Colin Gunton points out that “if we recall Jesus’ temptation by the devil to worship him and gain power over all the cities of the world, we shall see the point of Frodo’s behavior” (131).
While Jesus did not give into the temptation, he was still tempted by the great power, just as Frodo is on Mount Doom. And there was a moment on the cross when Jesus gave into his despair and torment, just as Frodo gives in here. Matthew 27:46 says, “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Jesus’ surrender to his burden (the cross) is very much like Frodo’s surrender to his own burden (the Ring).
Indeed, Frodo does not fail at his task, even though he does have a moment of weakness. As with the story of Jesus, Frodo’s success is dependent upon the actions of a betrayer. Frodo’s pity on Gollum, the mercy that he shows to the creature in the beginning of the journey, comes into play at the climax of the quest. Because of Frodo’s hope that he might be able to save Gollum from the Ring’s power somehow, and because he allowed Gollum to stay with them, the Ring is able to be destroyed. Similarly, Judas’s betrayal of Jesus was what caused Jesus to be identified as the Messiah and to be arrested. It is true that “Gollum serves Frodo until the bitter end much as Judas remains in Jesus’ company; because his hate, his violence, plays a crucial role in the outcome” (McGrath 181).
Furthermore, Tolkien says in one of his letters that if Gollum had not arrived and fallen into the fires of Mount Doom with the Ring, Frodo would “have had to take the same way [as Gollum]: cast himself with the Ring into the abyss. If not he would of course have completely failed” (Letters 330). If Gollum had not attacked, Tolkien says that Frodo would still have enough of himself left to complete his quest. He would not, however, be able to separate himself from the Ring, and so he would throw the himself into the fires along with the Ring. Either way, Frodo’s sacrificial actions make him very much a Christ figure. In any case, Frodo does suffer lasting injuries from his quest: the Morgul blade wound, and the loss of not only his finger, but his innocence and peace as well. In many ways, Frodo is very much a Christ figure, even more so than Gandalf, because of the great burden he shoulders voluntarily and the march to his death for the rest of Middle-earth.
Aragorn as a Sacrificial Hero
Aragorn makes sacrifices as well, although his are not as extreme as Frodo’s or Gandalf’s. He puts his life on the line by going to war against Sauron. He is continually serving others, and he “lives only to serve even though he is spurned and shunned out of fear by those he serves” (McGrath 177). Jesus suffered the same persecution; the very people he sacrificed himself for were the same people who hung him on the cross. Even so, before he died, he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Both Jesus and Aragorn sacrifice their time and service for a group of people who want nothing to do with them. Despite this, they still care deeply about their people and are willing to die for them; just because Aragorn did not die in the novels does not mean that he was not prepared to do so in order to save Middle-earth.
Rewards for Altruistic Sacrifices
These sacrifices do not come without their rewards, although Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn do not make sacrifices and do good simply to have good done to them in return. Marjorie Burns discusses this idea in her article, arguing that everyone in the novel who serves someone else and “nourish others” grow and gain in one way or another. “Gandalf,” she explains, “is now Gandalf the White. Aragorn is King … Frodo, who has suffered the most … who has been outwardly (and almost ritualistically) marked by the loss of a finger, has grown too … Frodo will have his reward; he has gained something of an elvish nature and will go to the West to heal” (113). Much more than just becoming King, Aragorn’s reward also shows the reader that “with the return of the true king, he [Tolkien] shows us how power may come to one who has the inherited right but achieves it only after he has resisted the desire for unearned power” (Hill and Perkins 55). Like Jesus, whose reward is the church and paradise, which he speaks of before he dies on the cross (Luke 23:43), the Christ figures in The Lord of the Rings do not make sacrifices without gaining something in return. It is important to note, however, that none of the Christ figures expected any kind of reward to come out of their efforts. Their sacrifices were solely altruistic, meant to help their friends and those in need, and to defeat the evil of Sauron. Because of their bravery and sacrifice, they are given rewards, and they grow, although in actuality, Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn were all prepared to die for their cause without the hope of any growth or reward.
Who do you think is the most Christ-like in a sacrificial sense?
The second and final part: Gandalf, Frodo and Aragorn as Christ-figures: Prophet, Priest and King.
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