Christian Truth and Middle-earth Myth

J. R. R. Tolkien wrote in a letter to a friend, "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Christian work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision." This is borne out in an examination of his life's work, the creation of the mythological history of Middle-earth.

Before we see how that's true, I should clarify that it is essential to distinguish between Professor Tolkien's book, The Lord of the Rings, and Peter Jackson's movie of the same title. The movie drew its material from the book, and follows the mechanical elements of the storyline, but they are not the same story in terms of purpose or effect. This article is about the book, not the movie. If I had seen the movie but not read the book, I would not have come to the conclusion that it was a Christian story, though I might have recognized hints of a Christian worldview in the dialogue - assuming I had noticed the dialogue among the dazzling onslaught of violent special effects.

Tolkien's work has been generally well accepted by evangelical Christians. But from time to time, some have lodged the charges that his books are dangerous, demonic, or in violation of Scriptural mandates to avoid witchcraft. Such suspicions seem very odd to those of us who know his work well. To be consistent, one would also have to forbid his children to observe St. Patrick's Day, to eat Lucky Charms™, or to speak of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. None of that would hurt, but it wouldn't reduce their involvement in the occult one whit. In my opinion, the charges are the result of neglecting to distinguish between magic as practiced by pagans and occultists, and that found in the time-honored literature and legend of Northern Europe, from Beowolf to the works of Chaucer, Spencer, Shakespeare, and finally Tolkien and his compatriots.

: Magic :

"Magic" in the literature of Tolkien's Middle-earth is closely related neither to that practiced in the occult nor to the illusions of entertainers. It is different from both in its essential nature and in its purpose in the story. As to its nature, in Lord of the Rings an elf expresses surprise at a hobbit's use of the word "magic" in respect to certain elvish activity, and is disturbed that the same word should be used by humans and hobbits for both the "deceits of the Enemy" and the artful devices of the elves. The idea given is that elves only seem magical to those who don't know how to do what they do. They have lived thousands of years; combined with their intimate connection with nature, their long experience in the world has taught them to make use of natural forces unknown or little known to men and hobbits. Scientist and novelist Arthur C. Clark made a similar comment: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

While the magic of Middle-earth's elves and wizards is not technological but natural or (rarely) supernatural, the analogy holds. Tolkien thought of it as "Art, delivered from many of its human limitations; more effortless, more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation" - which is not to say that it could not be used as a weapon when necessary for defense of the Good. Tolkien also said that Middle-earth magic, whether performed by elves, wizards, or the Enemy, "is not to be come by by `lore' or spells; but is in an inherent power not possessed by Men as such."1

The purpose of magic in the stories is two-fold. First, it serves to help set up an environment that is "other" than what Tolkien calls the Primary World, that is, the real physical world. It captures our imagination, a technique essential to the effect of a fairy story, to the sub-creation of a Secondary World.

Second, it serves to point to the existence of things beyond our perception, ken, and ability. The magic of the elves hints that our knowledge of God's creation is sketchy and spotty. Our wisdom is inherently and incurably finite. At the same time, it reminds us of the shortness of our lives: how much more might we accomplish had God left man with his ante-diluvian life-span! Thus, we are reminded of our mortality and finiteness.

That theme is common in Scripture, especially the Psalms. And it runs contrary to New Age, Eastern mystical, anti-Christian philosophy and religion, which purport to offer man ascension to the status of gods--as the Serpent did in the Garden.

While elf-magic is an artful use of their natural abilities, some magic used by wizards is from beyond this world. It points us to the reality of the spiritual realm. A wizard may use his supernatural magical powers with either good or evil intent. In the latter case, it is considered a form of sorcery, while in the former case it is not. Sorcerous magic further corrupts the user, and his powers and rank may be stripped from him if he does not repent. Saruman's fall from the vaunted head of his order into utter ruin is an example of that in The Lord of the Rings, as is even Sauron's catastrophic defeat.

: Wizards :

So what about these "wizards" in Tolkien's stories? The word "wizard" comes from the word "wise" plus the suffix "-ard".2 As a "drunkard" is one who is characterized by his habitual drunkenness, so a "wizard" is one who is characterized by his habitual practice of secret knowledge. It means one who has possession of, and makes use of, high and rare knowledge. In Celtic and German literature, it usually applies to men who have studied secret spells and incantations. But it can also apply simply to a man of great insight and wisdom, analogous to an Old Testament prophet, if you will, such as Merlin is sometimes portrayed in the Arthurian legends.

Tolkien's wizards are said to have come from over the Western sea, from the land of Aman, beyond the circle of the world, from which the Valar, the guardians of Middle-earth (angels), supervise the events of the world under the authority of God (called "Eru" and "Illúvatar" - note the similarity of both names to the Hebrew El-). Gandalf the wizard, then, is a servant-class angel, so to speak, who has been given the ability to take human form, and charged with interacting directly with the inhabitants of the world to prevent the ultimate triumph of Evil. He is an instrument of God's providence. His "magical" acts no more resemble witchcraft than do the works of angels in the Bible.

Interestingly, Tolkien distinguishes clearly in his stories between wizards and sorcerers. The wizards were all on the side of Good when they were sent to Middle-earth, their mission to encourage good wherever they could find it, and hinder evil wherever it sprouted. Sorcerers, on the other hand, are evil. They work spells of corruption and death in dark dungeons and towers. He uses the term "necromancer" interchangeably with "sorcerer."

: Fortune Telling :

One of the chief attractions of the occult is prediction of the future. Astrology, Ouija™ boards, palm reading, tarot cards, and psychic hotlines all offer the promise of gaining greater control over your life through mystical knowledge about your destiny and specific future events. In The Lord of the Rings, however, the wizard Gandalf tells Frodo "even the wise cannot see all ends." There are palantri, seeing-stones, about in Middle-earth. But they are not crystal balls in the sense that we think of being used by gypsy witches. They are more like video phones, allowing communication between those who possess them. They also show shadows of things far and near, but the viewer can never be certain whether he is seeing what is, what was, or what may or may not be. Similarly, Galadriel's mirror shows many things, but with no clear indication of whether they are real or may be realized, or neither. The future is firmly hidden to all in Middle-earth, even the eldest and wisest. As to astrology in particular, Faramir counts as one of the reasons his country has fallen from its former glory that its kings began to inquire of the stars.

Not only does The Lord of the Rings affirm the foolishness of attempts at fortune telling, but it depicts all of the course of world events as sovereignly supervised by Providence. More often than not, Frodo and his companions don't have a clear idea of where they are going or what they will do when they get there. They know that their only hope for freedom from the Dark Lord's imminent complete domination of the world is to destroy the One Ring that he made, and that the only way to destroy it is to cast it into the furnace of Mt. Doom where it was forged. But they have only the vaguest notion how to accomplish that. In fact, it seems quite impossible. Yet their paths are watched and guided every step of the way from Above. As Aaron Belz wrote in Books & Culture magazine3, "It was Tolkien's purpose to show characters who don't know where they are going, but who from an omniscient perspective are part of a grand narrative." He was a man of deepest faith in the sovereignty of God.

: Paganism :

The fundamental doctrine of paganism and the occult is relativism: that there is no such thing as objective good and evil; usually mixed with hedonism: do what thou wilt. Anyone who has even so much as perused Tolkien's literature cannot help but recognize that the viewpoint of his stories could be no further from witchcraft in that regard. A theme of the stories, perhaps their greatest theme, is the triumph of good over evil, both very real and objective in every sense.

Yet neither is his portrayal a simplistic one. The pagans teach that we all are essentially good, and need only find ways to access and reveal the light within us. Tolkien's characters, on the other hand, all struggle with evil desires, and they all must come to recognize their inner bent toward temptation, and exercise faith in the God of creation to overcome it if they are to survive the imminent threat of the darkness around them. Even Gandalf feels the temptation to use the One Ring against Sauron. But he is wise enough to avoid all appearance of evil, as says the Authorized Version, and to advise others to do so, as well. If The Lord of the Rings communicates anything about the occult, it is to beware of it, hate it, and fight against all manifestations of it.

Critical thinking leads to the conclusion that Tolkien's literature exudes a Christian worldview. The accusation that Tolkien's work is occultic arises from a superstitious worldview.

But doesn't the Apostle Paul warn us to "have nothing to do with godless myths"? (I Timothy 4:7) For a treatment of that subject and the attending scripture passages, please read my brief article Mythology & the Apostle Paul's Warnings About Myths.

QUOTES

First, from posts to the internet discussion list of The Mythopoeic Society, devoted to literature of the Inklings (including Tolkien and Lewis).

From Michael Martinez, Fri, 15 Feb 2002

The Bible only proscribes seeking knowledge outside of the path laid down by God. It's an act of rebellion (a sin, usually punishable by death under the Mosaic Law) against God to seek direction or wisdom from an unGodly source. Mediums, sorcerors [sic], witches, et. al., are usually portrayed in the Bible as deriving their power from spirits other than God.
 
Where Christians have fallen off the Biblical track regarding Harry Potter, the Narnia books, and even in some cases Tolkien, is that they have confused any use of the word "magic" with a reliance upon some spirit other than God. Tolkien's use of the word was based on linguistic principle, not vulgar conceptions. All the good characters in Tolkien who use "magic" are, in fact, using a God-given native ability, which he usually called a sub-creational faculty.

From David Bratman, Mon, 24 Dec 2001:

LOTR is outstanding among the secondary-world fantasy novels that have followed in its wake in how =little= sorcery of any kind it contains. (Which may be part of why Peter Jackson kept saying he was making a "historical" film, not a "fantasy" film as generally understood.) Not to mention fantasies with a putatively primary-world setting, like Harry Potter, which are usually loaded with magic, sorcery, and spellcasting of all descriptions.
 
The magic that LOTR is loaded with ... is not spellcasting at all. Tolkien thinks of magic, specifically elven magic, not in terms of spells, but in terms of the natural acts of the elves which cannot be distinguished magical from unmagical... What the hymns and cries to Elbereth are is prayers. They invoke supernatural aid, but if they're magic, then so are prayers in our world, and Tolkien undoubtably felt exactly that way about his own prayers. Which only emphasizes the point that we really can't tote up magic in Tolkien because we can't draw a line.
 
By the "ordinary, everyday sort" of hobbit magic, I think he means magic in the same sense that we would describe a particularly entrancing (note the word) theatrical performance, say, as "magical" - again, a blurring of the definition of magic, and emphatically not spellcasting...

Now let's hear what J. R. R. Tolkien himself has to say about his work.

From On Fairy Stories4, a lecture given by Tolkien about the purpose and value of mythological stories, and about how his stories reflect the gospel.

On supernatural elements in his stories, he says,

...it is man who is, in contrast to fairies, supernatural (and often of diminutive stature); whereas they are natural, far more natural than he. ... The road to fairyland is not the road to Heaven; nor even to Hell, I believe, though some have held that it may lead thither indirectly by the Devil's tithe.

Of the magic of his mythical stories (and of fairy stories generally), he says that it is

of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific magician.
Fantasy can, of course, be ... put to evil uses. ... But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them... But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. [Here he inserts a Latin proverb5 that might be paraphrased: Abuse does not prohibit (proper) use.] ... We make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.

Of the reflection of the gospel in fairy stories, he says,

Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite--I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.
... [The event in the story that causes] the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous "turn" ... is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies ... universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium [Greek for "gospel"], giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. ...
The peculiar quality of the "joy" in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth [of the tale]. It is not only a "consolation" for the sorrow of this world, but ... an answer to the question, "Is it true?" ... But in the "eucatastrophe" we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater--it may be a far off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.
... God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting this aspect, as to others, of their own strange nature. The Gospels contain ... a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels--peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: "mythical" in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man's history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation.
... the joy which the "turn" in a fairy-story gives .. looks forward (or backward: the direction is this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind... But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified.
... The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the "happy ending."

From the book The Lord of the Rings6

It is perilous to study too deeply the arts of the Enemy, for good or for ill. ~ The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 2, Ch. 2.
In nothing is the power of the Dark Lord more clearly shown than in the estrangement that divides all those who still oppose him. ~ The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 2, Ch. 6.
To crooked eyes truth may wear a wry face. ~ The Two Towers, Book 3, Ch. 6.
Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear. ~ The Two Towers, Book 3, Ch. 2.
Do not trouble your hearts overmuch with thought of the road tonight. Maybe the paths that you each shall tread are already laid before your feet, though you do not see them. ~ The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 2, Ch. 8.
War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend. ~ The Two Towers, Book 4, Ch. 5.
It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them. ~ The Return of the King, Book 6, Ch. 9.
It is not said that evil arts were ever practised in Gondor... Yet even so it was Gondor that brought about its own decay, falling by degrees into dotage, and thinking that the Enemy was asleep, who was only banished not destroyed. ...[they] hungered after endless life unchanging. ...[they] asked questions of the stars. ~ The Two Towers, Book 4, Ch. 5.
One who cannot cast away a treasure at need is in fetters. ~ The Two Towers, Book 3, Ch. 9.
It is useless to meet revenge with revenge: it will heal nothing. ~ The Return of the King, Book 6, Ch. 8.

LINKS

The following are articles online, written by Christians, demonstrating the Christian perspective of Tolkien's work.

Search for more books about Tolkien's Middle-earth.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES

Tolkien understood literature to be a means to "assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation." (On Fairy Stories, Epilogue). He knew Scripture, legend, myth, and fairy tale, and he sanctified the latter three by bathing them in the light of the former, in loving service of his Savior and King, our Lord Jesus Christ.

The same can be shown to be true of C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, and even more easily, since they are largely allegorical of Christian doctrines. But we'll save that for another page.

David Finnamore has read all of Tolkien's completed Middle-earth books several times, and has catalogued the proverbial sayings from them and all references to music in them. They are, by far, his favorite works of fiction.

Footnotes:
1Tolkien, Letters
2American Heritage Dictionary, ©1997 TLC Properties Inc.
3Tolkien Canonized ©Books & Culture magazine, January/February 2002, p. 27, Intervarsity Press
4 From Tree and Leaf ©1964 by George Allen & Unwin Ltd.
5 Abusus non tollit usum.
6 ©1954, 1955, 1965 by J.R.R. Tolkien. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company, 512 Park Avenue South, NY, NY 10003


David J. Finnamore
Orlando, FL

Free Ground Shipping on Homeschool Products!

  BACK TO THEOLOGY PAGE  BACK TO MIDDLE-EARTH PAGE    DAVID'S HOME PAGE