• This essay is an excerpt from Peter J. Kreeft's new book, The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings.
Can any one man incarnate every truth and virtue?
Throughout the New Testament we find a shocking simplicity: Christ does not merely teach the truth, He is the truth; He does not merely show us the way, He is the way; He does not merely give us eternal life, He is that life. He does not merely teach or purchase our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption, but "God made [Him] our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption" (1 Cor 1:30). How can all these universal values and truths be really and completely present in one concrete individual person? Only if that Person is divine (thus universal) as well as human (thus particular); only by the Incarnation; only by what C. S. Lewis calls "myth become fact".
J. R. R. Tolkien, like most Catholics, saw pagan myths not as wholly mistaken (as most Protestants do), but as confused precursors of Christianity. Man's soul has three powers, and God left him prophets for all three: Jewish moralists for his will, Greek philosophers for his mind, and pagan mythmakers for his heart and imagination and feelings. Of course, the latter two are not infallible. C. S. Lewis calls pagan myths "gleams of celestial strength and beauty falling on a jungle of filth and imbecility" (Perelandra, p. 201). One of the key steps in Lewis's conversion, as recounted in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, was his reading the chapter in Chesterton's The Everlasting Man that showed him the relationship between Christianity and pagan myths of salvation, death, and resurrection. Christianity was "myth become fact".
Tolkien's Catholic tradition tends to have a high opinion of pagans who know and follow the "natural law", for it interprets these pagans not apart from Christ, but as imperfectly knowing Him. For Christ is not just a thirty-three-year-old, six-foot-tall Jewish carpenter, but the eternal Logos, the Mind of God, "the true light that enlightens every man" (Jn 1:9). So Christ can be present even when not adequately known in paganism. This is exactly what St. Paul told the Athenians (in Acts 17:23): "What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you." Christ's presence is not limited to the presence of the explicit knowledge of Christ, or the revelation of Christ. As the Reformed tradition puts it, there is also "general revelation" as well as "special revelation".
So even though The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory of the Gospels, we can find numerous parallels to the Gospels in The Lord of the Rings, since the Person at the center of the Gospels is omnipresent in hidden ways, not only in His eternal, universal nature as Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, but even in His particular historical manifestation, His Incarnation. For instance, Frodo's journey up Mount Doom is strikingly similar to Christ's Way of the Cross. Sam is his Simon of Cyrene, but he carries the cross bearer as well as the cross.
There is no one complete, concrete, visible Christ figure in The Lord of the Rings, like Aslan in Narnia. But Christ is really, though invisibly, present in the whole of The Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings is like the Eucharist. Under its appearances we find Christ, who under these (pagan, universal) figures (symbols, not allegories), is truly hidden: quae sub hisfiguris vere latitat.
He is more clearly present in Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn, the three Christ figures. First of all, all three undergo different forms of death and resurrection (see section 5.1 of The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings).
Second, all three are saviors: through their self-sacrifice they help save all of Middle-earth from the demonic sway of Sauron. Third, they exemplify the Old Testament threefold Messianic symbolism of prophet (Gandalf), priest (Frodo), and king (Aragorn). These three "job descriptions" correspond to the three distinctively human powers of the soul, as discovered by nearly every psychologist from Plato to Freud: head, heart, and hands, or mind, emotions, and will. For this reason many great tales have three protagonists: Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn; Mr. Spock, Bones McCoy, and Captain Kirk; Ivan, Alyosha, and Dmitri Karamazov; St. John the philosophical mystic, St. James the practical moralist, and St. Peter the courageous leader and Rock.
A fourth hidden presence of Christ in The Lord of the Rings is in the theme of divine providence (see section 2.2); for from the New Testament point of view Christ is the supreme example in history of divine providence–in fact, the single point of all other examples, of all history.
A fifth presence of Christ in The Lord of the Rings is in the creative power of its language (see sections 9. 1 and 9-3). Christ is the Logos, the Word of God. He is mentioned in the Bible as early as Genesis 1:3 (cf. Jn 1:3), but as a verb, not a noun.
A sixth presence is ecclesial. Tolkien was a Catholic and called The Lord of the Rings "a Catholic book" (see section 2.4). He removed "churches" from The Lord of the Rings not only to avoid anachronism but also to show the presence, in the depths of his plot, of the universal ("catholic") Church. For the Church is not only an organization but also an organism, an invisible, "mystical" Body, a "fellowship". The word "church", from the Greek ek-klesia, means "the called out". A good description of the Fellowship of the Ring.
For the Church, too, is a "fellowship of a ring", but her ring is exactly the opposite of Sauron's. It is the Eucharist: a little wafer that is equally round, but full rather than empty; the humble extension of the Incarnation of God into man rather than the proud self-exaltation of man in order to make himself God. The Ring takes your life, your blood, like Dracula, a perfect opposite to Christ, Who comes to give His blood, to give us a blood transfusion. The two symbols are perfect opposites: the Ring of Power and the Bread of Weakness, the Lord of the Rings and the Lamb of God.
The whole of history, as revealed in the Bible, is the cosmic jihad between Christ and Antichrist, martyr and vampire, humility of God versus pride of man. Throughout the Bible there is vertical symbolism exemplifying this contrast. Paradise is made in Eden by God's self-giving descent and lost through man's self-taking, man's succumbing to the devil's temptation to become "like God". The apparent rise is really the "fall". After Paradise is lost, the City of Man tries to rise up to Heaven again by its own power, in the Tower of Babel, and falls. And when Paradise is finally regained, the New Jerusalem of the City of God descends from Heaven as a grace.
The most fundamental Christian symbol is the Cross. This also is perfectly opposite to the Ring. The Cross gives life; the Ring takes it. The Cross gives you death, not power; the Ring gives you power even over death. The Ring squeezes everything into its inner emptiness; the Cross expands in all four directions, gives itself to the emptiness, filling it with its blood, its life. The Ring is Dracula's tooth. The Cross is God's sword, held at the hilt by the hand of Heaven and plunged into the world not to take our blood but to give us His. The Cross is Christ's hypodermic; the Ring is Dracula's bite. The Cross saves other wills; the Ring dominates other wills. The Cross liberates; the Ring enslaves.
The Cross works only freely, by the vulnerability of love. Love is vulnerable to rejection, and thus apparent failure. Frodo offers Gollum free kindness, but he fails to win Gollum's trust and fails himself, at the Crack of Doom, to complete his task. But his philosophy does not fail.
He could have used the philosophy of Sauron, of the Ring. He could have used force and compelled Gollum, or even justly killed him. But no one can make another person good by controlling his will, not even God. Frodo nearly won Gollum by his kindness, but Gollum chose not to trust and lost both his body and his soul. Frodo failed.
There is no room for failure in the philosophy of Sauron. There is room for failure in the philosophy of Tolkien, for the philosophy of Tolkien is simply Christianity. And according to Christianity, the most revealing thing that ever happened in history happened at another Crack of Doom, when Christ "failed", lost, died. That was how the meek little Lamb defeated the great dragon beast (see Rev 17, especially verse 14): by His blood. Frodo did what Christ did, and it "worked" because Christ did it, because it was real, not fantasy, and it was real because the real world is a "Christian" world. Only in a Christian world can this "failure" have such power.
It is a very strange philosophy. A few pagan sages like Lao Tzu understood the principle of the power of weakness, but he did not know it would come from a literal, bloody event in history. Neither did Frodo. Like Socrates, Buddha, and Lao Tzu, Frodo did not see Christ, yet somehow believed: "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe" (Jn 20:29).
Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965.
He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: C.S. Lewis for the Third Millennium, Fundamentals of the Faith, Catholic Christianity, Back to Virtue, and Three Approaches to Abortion. In addition to Socrates Meets Sartre, his most recent Ignatius Press books include You Can Understand the Bible and The God Who Loves You.
Dr. Kreeft's personal web site | Dr. Kreeft's author page at IgnatiusInsight.com, with full listing of books in print