The Gospel According to Tolkien
by Ralph C. Wood
Westminster/John Knox Press (Louisville, Kentucky), 169 pp., $14.95 paper, 2003.
It is a remarkable irony and a sign of the times that a book written by a Baptist professor at a Baptist university and published by a press that proudly claims the name of John Knox should be as sensitive and sympathetic to Tolkien’s Roman Catholicism as this book is. Ralph Wood is a professor of English at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, the nation’s leading Baptist university. Wood grew up in a small town in a culturally uniform east Texas, without a single Catholic church. Under the influence of Catholic writers like G. K. Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor, Dante, Hopkins, and Tolkien, Wood has become a thoroughly ecumenical thinker, one of the most insightful critics of contemporary Christian literature.
The “Gospel according to X” is a formula for a title that has been used and misused with great frequency. (I think the earliest example was Robert L. Short’s The Gospel according to “Peanuts” of 1979, also published by Westminster/John Knox. The genre also includes such absurdities as The Gospel According to the Simpsons, The Gospel According to Disney, and The Gospel According to Harry Potter.) It is another remarkable irony that this formula should apply so aptly to Tolkien, given Tolkien’s insistence that the Gospel is too great a thing to be reduced to a mere allegory, as his friend C. S. Lewis had attempted to do in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Tolkien’s literary works are, at first glance, almost entirely devoid of explicit religiosity and, of course, are widely read and appreciated by many without the slightest interest in historic Christianity.
Nonetheless, Tolkien insisted that The Lord of the Rings was a deeply Christian and Catholic work, whose “religious element is absorbed into the story and symbolism.” It would be a grave error to look in Tolkien’s masterpiece for a Christ figure (like Aslan), but Wood is right to examine the story and the symbolism of The Lord of the Rings for that religious element that Tolkien so deftly transmuted into the substance of his fantasy.
Wood structured his book around the essential story line of the Christian gospel: a chapter each devoted to Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation. In addition, Wood inserts a fifth chapter, on the moral life, between the chapters on the Fall and the Redemption. The inclusion of the fifth chapter, a chapter on the virtues of a nature wounded but not destroyed, reflects Tolkien’s implicit Thomism. Although the chapter on the natural moral life, chapter 3, is indispensable to the overall structure of Wood’s book, it is the least interesting chapter in the book, merely a laundry list of virtues, with illustrations of each from The Lord of the Rings. Nothing in this chapter would be surprising to any intelligent or reflective reader of Tolkien’s work. Who, for example, would find it informative to be told that Gandalf is a paradigm of wisdom, or that Bilbo and Frodo displayed mercy to Gollum?
Wood is of course right to find in Tolkien’s work a rousing affirmation of the goodness of the created order. Tolkien’s love of the land and of living things, especially trees, is beyond question, as is his appreciation of the delights of the body, as illustrated by the earthy hedonism of the hobbits. Wood touches briefly on one of the most interesting, and controversial, aspects of Tolkien’s naturalism: his assertion of the goodness of human mortality. The most common view among Christians is that death is unnatural, a consequence of sin and the fall, but Tolkien seems clearly to disagree. The Elves speak, especially in The Silmarillion, of mortality as God’s gift to mankind. Tolkien suggests that we think of death as an evil because it, like the rest of creation, has been marred by evil. In a paradisial world, Man would have experienced death as a griefless transition to a glorious transcendence of nature. Tolkien uses the deathless Elves to illustrate the ambivalentcharacter of an earthbound immortality: the endless life and unbounded memory of the Elves casts a profound and ever-growing sadness over their hearts.
Tolkien’s understanding of the fall of man is thoroughly Augustinian, as Wood amply demonstrates. Evil is never a fully positive, self-subsistent reality but instead a marring or corruption of something essentially good. As the scholastics put it, goodness and being are convertible: being as such is always good. In The Author of the Century (Houghton Mifflin, 2000), Tom Shippey argued that Tolkien’s theory of evil was inconsistent, oscillating between a Boethian conception of evil as privation and a Manichaean theory of evil as a positive force. Fortunately, Wood avoids this false dichotomy. Boethius himself, while denying that evil exists, describes sin as a kind of infection, clearly implying that corruption has the power to corrupt. Of course, even this power to corrupt is parasitic on the goodness that remains, but Shippey commits a non sequitur in thinking that the Boethian conception of evil as privation entails that evil as such is utterly powerless.
Tolkien’s work can be seen, in fact, as an imaginative exploration of the power of privation to perpetuate itself. The coercive power of the One Ring is, as Wood points out, the clearest example of this. Tolkien, along with St. Paul and Augustine, sees the power of evil lying in its capacity to enslave the will itself. Nothing in Tolkien’s corpus is more jarring and shocking than Frodo’s ultimate failure, before the Cracks of Doom, to throw the Ring away. This plot turn was a stunning repudiation of Pelagianism, denying the human capacity to overcome evil through our own, unaided efforts. Only the unforeseen grace of Gollum’s intervention could do so.
Wood brings to our attention a number of additional illustrations of divine grace in The Lord of the Rings. Wood quite plausibly finds a close parallel between Christian faith and the trust that the Hobbits place in Strider at the Prancing Pony, despite Strider’s unsavory appearance and the absence of compelling evidence of his trustworthiness. Like Augustine, the Hobbits must first believe before they can understand.
Wood also recognizes the two parallels to Marian devotion: the hobbits’ invocation of Elbereth (the queen of the heavenly Valar) and Sam’s intense devotion to the other-worldly Elf Galadriel. Here too we find intimations that something supernatural is at work: when the Hobbits call upon Elbereth for aid, they use words that they themselves could not supply. It seems that the Holy Spirit is actually praying through them, as St. Paul describes in the eighth chapter of Romans. Wood does, however, overlook the evocation of the sacrament of the eucharist by the hobbits’ reliance on the lembas bread of the Elves.
Tolkien’s attempt to mediate between paganism and Christianity generates a number of complexities and tensions in his work. Tolkien modeled himself after the Christian author of Beowulf: seeking simultaneously to preserve and to transcend his pre-Christian literary sources. The resulting tension is clearest in the contrast between the pagan virtue of stoical courage in the face of utter hopelessness and the Christian virtue of hope and the renunciation of despair itself. Tolkien’s heroes seem, paradoxically, to exemplify both characteristics, sometimes simultaneously. Frodo and Sam seem to gain strength by renouncing all hope of success as they approach Mount Doom, and yet their actions make no sense except as presupposing at least the bare possibility of that very success. Tolkien obviously admires the courage of those who cling to virtue with no hope of an afterlife: it is a recurring theme that the Men of Middle-Earth have no inkling of what lies beyond the grave. Yet, in an appendix to The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn reassures Arwen on his deathbed by affirming, “We are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.”
As Wood points out, the love of one’s enemies is another Christian virtue imported somewhat incongruously by Tolkien into his pre-Christian world, as exemplified by Gandalf’s offer of forgiveness and reconciliation to Saruman, or Frodo’s pity for that same wizard after the scouring of the Shire at the close of the trilogy.
In his fifth chapter, Wood turns to a piece written by Tolkien in the 1950’s, not included either in The Lord of the Rings or in Christopher Tolkien’s compilation of The Silmarillion, “The Debate between Finrod and Andreth” (published in the collection, Morgoth’s Ring). In this dialogue, Finrod the Elf and a wise Woman Andreth discuss mortality, the soul and the body, and the possibility of an Incarnation. Finrod presses the idea that mortality is a gift of God to Men that has been marred by sin. Both characters endorse a kind of Platonism about the human spirit as desiring a good that transcends the material universe. However, they also insist that the human body is as essential as the human soul, implying the need for some sort of resurrection. Finally, they discuss an ancient prophecy of a future Incarnation in which “the One himself will enter into Arda (earth), and heal Men and all the Marring from beginning to end.” (Morgoth’s Ring) Clearly, this piece is clearly the most theological and explicitly Christian passage in all of Tolkien’s corpus. It certainly illustrates the consistency of Tolkien’s universe with the tenets of the Christian faith, but Tolkien was certainly right not to include it, or anything like it, in The Lord of the Rings. The “Debate” comes perilously close to violating Tolkien’s own strictures against a re-telling of the Gospel. The Gospel, as the One True Myth, is cheapened and degraded by being merely re-told in fictional form. Tolkien was right to locate his story resolutely within a pre-Christian world.
In his fiction, Tolkien aimed at illuminating the relationship between divine providence and human responsibility. The workings of providence in Tolkien’s world are, in Wood’s words, “slow-moving, uncoercive and mysterious.” Tolkien’s wisest characters, especially Gandalf and Elrond, refer to providence obliquely: Bilbo “was meant” to find the Ring, the Fellowship was brought together by “chance, as it may seem”, and so on. Although providence in no way nullifies human freedom or responsibility, it nonetheless incorporates and anticipates those free decisions. The plot thus embodies a Thomistic or Molinist (one might say, almost Calvinist) conception of an all-encompassing divine plan and purpose. Tolkien’s work is a useful counterweight to contemporary tendencies to downplay such divine providence: the new Catholic Catechism, for example, mentions providence and predestination only negatively (in the course of denying, rightly, that God in any sense predestines anyone to be damned).
There are several aspects of the relationship between Tolkien’s work and Christianity that Wood neglects to address. For example, the influence of Catholic social doctrine in general, andof Distributism in particular, is clear in the agrarian utopia of the Shire and in the emphasis on Elvin craftsmanship, in contrast to the technical, industrialized juggernaut unleashed by the villains Sauron and Saruman. In contrast, Bradley Birzer’s J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth (ISI Books, 2003) covers these topics with insight.
Wood’s book does not penetrate very deeply into the way in which Christianity has been incorporated, not only into the story and the characters, but into its very language and into the creative process of Tolkien as a fantasist. Tolkien saw the “sub-creation” of fantasy as a divinely sanctioned imitation of the creation itself. In both cases, creation is by means of the Word. Tolkien’s understanding of language was of course profound—Tolkien was arguably the greatest linguist of the twentieth century. In addition, he had absorbed the insights of Owen Barfield (a fellow member of the Oxford Inklings), who argued that, by means of poetic “metaphor”, we are enabled to recover the “ancient semantic unities” that modern utilitarian and operationalist thinking had suppressed. Tolkien took these ideas of discovering ancient unities very seriously (as Verlyn Flieger has argued). It is no understatement to say that his works are the by-product of a kind of linguistic archeology, in which Tolkien attempted to reconstruct the mythology implicit in Indo-European language. Tolkien consistently insisted that he had discovered, and not created, the world of Middle-Earth. The amazingly wide and deep reception of Tolkien’s works throughout the Westerm world provides ample confirmation of the genuineness of his discovery. Tolkien believed that by reconstructing this pre-Christian mythology, he could enable modern readers to escape the tyranny of technology and scientism, providing the reader thereby with an indispensable preparation for the Gospel.
The most important of Tolkien’s discoveries as a literary theorist is that of the eucatastrophe. In his lecture on fairy stories, Tolkien argued that the eucatastrophe, an unexpected and mysteriously unpredictable turn of good fortune, is an essential element in the fairy story. The parallel to Christianity is, of course, unmistakable. The Gospel itself is the purest form of eucatastrophe. Tolkien’s liberation of the modern imagination from naturalism and so-called realism, with their inherent pessimism and cynicism, has to a remarkable degree re-enchanted the world disenchanted by the Enlightenment. The long-range impact of this re-enchantment will take many generations to assess.
Robert C. Koons is professor of philosophy at the University of Texas. He works on contemporary metaphysics and philosophical theology.