J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings Symbolism
This hub is a conglomeration of many things for me. I have always loved Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and have dreamed of writing great works like them. I have always loved theology, and have striven to find interesting ways to bring this love to other people.
I find that fiction is a wonderful way to do this. In my opinion,Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, being my two favorite authors, need to be recognized also for their theological contributions, as well as their literary contributions.
The purpose and thesis of this article are the same--Tolkien should be thought of as not only a great fantasy writer, but as a great theologian as well, because his works imprint on the reader truths about God and our relationship with him and each other in a spiritual sense.
Who Wrote the Better Series?
Tolkien and Lewis
Many are familiar with both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, but perhaps few are aware of the long, yet sometimes rocky friendship that the two had. There are a few details that are important in understanding Tolkien's Theology, especially if you are more familiar with Lewis' form.
Similarities: We would not have Lewis without Tolkien, for it was Tolkien himself who helped bring Lewis to Christianity and each encouraged the other to write. Both were teachers at Oxford and involved in an informal writing club called the "Inklings". Finally, both endowed their books with highly Christian themes.
Differences: Ironically, both authors disliked the work of the other. In particular, Tolkien thought Lewis' books were too blatantly Christian (whereas Tolkien's are definitely not) as well as containing too many confusing elements. Perhaps the biggest rub however, was when Lewis converted to Christianity, he choose to be Anglican instead of Catholic and even exhibited some anti-Catholic tendencies which angered the devout Catholic Tolkien.
Results: There are a few results stemming from this theological interplay. First, one tends to either like Lewis or Tolkien more. Which works are greater will not be discussed in depth here, as it is a bigger issue than I care argue. I personally cast my vote for Lewis. Secondly, Lewis' work tends to be more widely known as being theological, whereas many people regard the majority of Tolkien's writings as fundamentally Fantasy. Finally, Lewis' fans are often those who enjoy the blatant theology of his books, while those of the Tolkien ilk tend to value the depth and complexity of his world.
Tolkien was philologist--a lover of historic language--and this was indeed one of his true loves. He taught at Oxford for many years as a professor of both the Anglo-Saxon and English languages. He was an extremely devout Catholic, and buried theology deeply into every one of his works. He was also a Lieutenant in the First World War, but was hospitalized due to injury.
It was during this time that he started writing his first great works, which originally took the form of poems. It is rumored that Tolkien's sons fought in WWII, and that this was much of his inspiration in writing the Lord of the Rings series--his most famous writings--which he published in the early 1950s.
The main character Frodo, is said to be a portrayal of one (or all) of his sons. Tolkien was also a lover of Mythology--especially ancient Norse and Celtic--which additionally shaped the language and world which he created.
It is important to remember that it was Tolkien's love of language, friendship with Lewis, devout faith, family, and war experience that worked together to form the whole of his writings. Without these elements, we would not experience the complexity of the Tolkien epics we read today.
Finding His Symbolism in the Epic Myth
Tolkien appreciated the value of a good myth. Being both a scholar and a Catholic, he realized the deeply etiological nature of the Old Testament, and in his writings, strove to bring forth this archetypal "mythos" in a typological fashion.
In other words, much like the Old Testament, Tolkien used deeply rooted symbolism and archetypes to parallel theological truths about God and Metaphysics. Of course, because they are symbols, and because the collective unconscious of man is vast, these symbols can, and do, have multiple meanings. However, Tolkien stated himself,
"The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like 'religion', to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism."
Tolkien's works are vast, and so for the sake of being an introductory article, we will use symbols only from his most famous work, the Lord of the Rings. For those of you who have neither read nor seen the movies, BEWARE OF SPOILERS.
The Ring symbolizes sin; specifically the lure or temptation of sin. Thus, the quest to destroy the ring is the journey to destroy sin and its effects. This is the Call of all Christians— to fight against evil and destroy sin and its temptation.
Mordor/Mt. Doom symbolizes pure evil, or Hell. Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mordor symbolizes the journey that each of us take to examine ourselves and our tendency to do evil. Only by coming to terms and accepting our sins and failures can we move past them and resolve not to do them again.Thus, as Christians we are all called to self-examination .
Frodo is the hero of the story and the person whom we should see ourselves in the most. He is the first to volunteer at the Council of Elrond, taking on more than he thought he would ever have to. Often as followers of Christ, we end up doing more than we ever thought possible. He is a Hobbit, who many would think to be small and insignificant, but who is a primary means by which evil is overthrown. This theme is also seen in the hobbits Merry and Pippin, who seem inept and even stupid, but whom later on cause the fall of Sauromon (also Evil).
The Fellowship symbolizes the Church as a whole. It is made up of many different people from different races (some who don’t always get along). Each person in the fellowship pledges their life to the cause of fighting against evil, but all have different gifts (bow, axe, etc.) and go about it in different ways. So, though all have the same general calling, each has a different specific calling. This is the same as the Church of which we are a part. Also, the fellowship symbolizes community, which is necessary to carry out one’s vocation and is a fundamental teaching of the Church.
Gandalf himself, if time is taken to read other of Tolkien's works, is found to be a sort of angel or mediator between men and the Gods. He is sent to guide and protect the people of Middle Earth, and is even sacrificed in his battle against the Balrog and then resurrected.
Because of his background, Tolkien was able to create wonderful works of both Fantasy and Theology. Through his not-so-blatant use of "archetypal mythos" and typology, he has been able to communicate the theological truths of God, the World, the Church, and Believers in a way that few other writers have ever been able to do. It is my belief that, in examining the fundamental theological nature of Tolkien's texts, they become even richer and present an even more accurate view of reality.
© 2009 R D Langr