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Secularizing Middle Earth

With the release of part one of the film version of The Lord of the Rings this week, newspapers and magazines have been filled with articles exploring every aspect of author J.R.R. Tolkien’s life and his world of Middle Earth. Well, nearly every aspect. While journalists are enthusiastically detailing everything from Tolkien’s passion for inventing new languages to his views on war, one topic seems curiously taboo: Tolkien’s Christianity.

The media’s neglect of Tolkien’s spiritual life exposes our culture’s reluctance to recognize public expressions of faith, even in the arts. In this case, that reluctance is especially unfortunate, because one can’t hope to grasp the full meaning of Tolkien’s epic without understanding its Christian roots.

A devout Roman Catholic, Tolkien regarded The Lord of the Rings as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” Indeed, he believed that in its most basic sense “The Lord of the Rings… is about God, and His sole right to divine honour.” According to Tolkien himself, the story is driven by the Satan-like character Sauron’s quest to take the place of God.

Tolkien’s saga draws several key themes from traditional Christian theology. Perhaps the most pronounced is the concept of the Fall, the Biblical idea expressed in Romans 3:23 that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” According to Tolkien, the concept of fall was one of the three great themes in his mythology of Middle Earth, and the utopian attempt to deny the reality of the Fall forms the essential backdrop to his story.

In Tolkien’s mythology, Sauron became the incarnation of evil by seeking to create through his own powers an earthly paradise that would rival the real heaven. Sauron’s efforts instead bring forth an earthly hell. Tolkien’s story stands as a powerful indictment of how even good intentions can go awry, and how foolish it it to think that human beings can ever produce a perfect society.

Another deeply theological theme embedded in The Lord of the Rings is that of grace—the Christian idea of undeserved mercy, the belief that human beings are unable to save themselves through their own efforts and must therefore rely on the unmerited favor of God.

This concept of undeserved mercy is the linchpin on which Tolkien’s whole plot rests, especially mercy to the treacherous creature Gollum. Throughout the story, the good wizard Gandalf and the humble Hobbit-hero Frodo steadfastly refuse to kill Gollum, even though his evil deeds richly deserve death. The sparing of Gollum is a counter-intuitive act of undeserved mercy. But by the end of the story, this act of undeserved mercy miraculously makes the resolution of the story possible (for those of you who haven’t read Tolkien yet, I won’t spoil the ending by saying more). Tolkien’s emphasis on the necessity of grace, and the inability of even the most moral of creatures to save themselves through their own efforts, places his epic in stark contrast to the heroic self-sufficiency extolled in many modern fantasy stories.

The theme of grace is closely intertwined in Tolkien’s story with the idea of Providence, the understanding that there is a guiding hand moving behind the events of history. Those who have read Tolkien’s entire story know how much hangs on events and circumstances outside the control of the actors in the story. Yet those events and circumstances seem to conspire to bring about a foreordained result. Could there be a purpose to history? Early in the story, Gandalf hints at the answer, telling Frodo that “there [is] something else at work” in history, “beyond any design of the Ring-maker” Sauron, and at the very climax of the story this “something else at work” becomes most explicit.

While Tolkien’s Christian faith may be integral to fully understanding his story, perhaps it should come as no surprise that we are being offered sanitized, secularized interpretations of The Lord of the Rings. What else can we expect in an America where some school-children (and even some government employees) are chided for telling their classmates and co-workers “Merry Christmas”?

The attempt to rid the public square of anything even remotely religious is usually justified in the name of protecting “diversity,” but the diversity being touted seems closer to compelled uniformity.

True diversity allows those of us with different faith traditions to share—rather than suppress—the beliefs that give ultimate meaning our lives. True diversity invites us to explore—rather than ignore—the spiritual roots of great works of art and literature. Above all, true diversity allows us to celebrate—rather than denigrate—cultural expressions of faith like The Lord of the Rings.