This blog entry originally published in “A Word from Urbana Seminary” on January 24, 2014
Written by Dr. Melody Green
On October 25, 1958, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote a letter to Deborah Webster, who had asked him to explain what specific details from his life had influenced his writing. In response, Tolkien first explained that he did not tell people personal details about his life, then declared that he did not believe the details of an author’s life had much to do with what that person created. This was followed by the statement “I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories).”
Clearly, Tolkien believed that readers of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings should be able to see his faith reflected in his stories. As the books gained popularity, he frequently found himself explaining exactly how such odd stories could be considered “Christian.” Some readers felt that there could be nothing Christian about them; others saw symbols in places he had not intended. Fortunately for readers today, Tolkien explained his intention in multiple places, which can be found in The Letters of J. R. R.Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter; in the essay “On Fairy Stories,” and in the introduction to later editions of The Lord of the Rings itself.
Tolkien’s view of how Christianity works itself out in his books can be broken into four basic principles. The first is that these stories are not allegories or parables. Allegories are stories such as John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, in which each person, place or thing that the reader encounters symbolizes one specific thing— for example, in Pilgrim’s Progress a man named Christian travels to the Heavenly City and meets people with names like Giant Despair and Faithful. An allegory might be complex, but the symbolism is straightforward and doesn’t change. A parable, on the other hand, is a symbolic story with one main point. While both have been used at different times throughout the history of Christian literature, Tolkien frequently insists that The Lord of the Rings is neither.
The second principle is best explained in a letter Tolkien wrote in 1956 to Michael Straight, who had questions about what he saw as the Christian symbolism of the books. Tolkien replied that while specific symbol-hunting might lead a reader in the wrong direction, the characters actually enact Christian principles, just as real people do in real life. He gives Frodo’s relationship to Gollum as a rather complex example. Tolkien explains that this is an acting out of part of the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” The main point, he explains, of Frodo’s journey is that it was an impossible quest. No one could have succeeded, but failure meant the loss of everything. Because Frodo had earlier forgiven Gollum, however, the quest was accomplished in a way that no one expected. Ultimately, Frodo is credited with success through the same grace that he had earlier offered Gollum.
The third principle for understanding Tolkien’s fiction from a Christian perspective is that the structure of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is the story of salvation. Both start in an idyllic place (rather reminiscent of Eden); in both, that idyllic world is turned upside down (rather like the Fall of man). After a lot of suffering, at the very moment when all hope seems lost (rather like the death of Christ), salvation comes. After this, the work of restoration begins. The pattern of the story should be familiar to Christians, because it is the history of our world as understood through what Tolkien saw as a Christian lens.
The fourth principle Tolkien presents is in the introduction to The Lord of the Rings, in which he describes these stories as “applicable.” In other words, readers should be able to recognize situations in the stories and apply them to their own lives. One example of how this works is in The Hobbit. At one point the narrator states, “It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near it.” Now, the reader will never have to deal with a literal dragon (we hope), but will at some point face experiences that are dragon-like—oversized situations that are difficult and destructive. To make the applicability of the sentence clearer, rewording might be helpful: “it does not do to leave evil out of your calculations, if you live near it.”
Throughout the letters that explain these four principles to different readers, it becomes clear that he hoped his readers would gain more from reading his books than just playing a game of “spot the Christian symbol.” It is possible that the best explanation of whatTolkien was ultimately hoping for may be found in a letter Tolkien wrote to a young woman named Camilla Unwin, who had asked him about the purpose of his life’s work: “It may be said,” Tolkien responded, “that the chief purpose of life, for any one of us, is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks.”