While it is easy to understand the popularity of “The Lord of the Rings” movies filled with groundbreaking special effect, eye-popping battle sequences and magical, captivating characters, I believe the success of these movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels is due to something much deeper than that. True, Tolkien was an excellent storyteller, but there is also a level of Christian understanding present in his work that makes its themes timeless and gives it a richness and depth seldom seen in a work of fantasy.
Tolkien’s Christian worldview found its way into his writing on so many levels, and that is why these stories continue to resonate so thoroughly in the current culture. The challenge for today’s Christian is to communicate biblical truths in a culture that doesn’t speak the language of the church anymore. Tolkien’s fantastic stories containing Orcs, Wizards, Ringwraiths, Trolls and Balrogs are a great place to start.
The “Ring of Power” in Tolkien’s story is a powerful picture of sin and its effect on a person’s life. Gandalf says of Gollum, who has possessed – or rather has been possessed by – the Ring longer than anyone, “He hates and loves the Ring as he hates and loves himself.” In the Ring, we see a vision of how temptation and addiction work in our lives when we capitulate to sin. Gollum can’t stay away from the Ring, which consumes his thoughts, determines his actions and crowds out all else. But at the same time, he hates it and wants to be free of it. The Ring, with its allure and corrosive power, is such a true, biblical picture of sin – while it is enormously attractive and tempting, instead of bringing freedom it brings slavery. Although promising power, the Ring actually dominates a person, forcing him or her to do its will.
Tolkien gives us a haunting picture of the progressive, consuming nature of sin, even more relevant in our modern world, one drowning in pleasure and consumption. Tolkien’s Ring of Power is a visual representation of this Christian truth: Sin will take you farther than you want to go. Sin will keep you longer than you want to stay. Sin will cost you more than you want to pay.
The ugliness of evil, including images of hideous, twisted Orcs, Goblin-men and Trolls, is portrayed quite vividly in “The Lord of the Rings.” While these are not pleasant images, they are actually quite biblical. One of the effects of sin is its perversion of that which is good. Satan does not create anything: he only perverts the good things God has made. In the movie, Saruman explains how the Orcs first came into being: “They were Elves once – taken by the dark powers, tortured and mutilated – a ruined and terrible form of life.”
Treebeard says this to Merry and Pippin about the strength of Ents, compared to Trolls: “They are mighty strong. But Trolls are only counterfeits, made by the Enemy … in mockery of Ents, as Orcs were of Elves. We are stronger than Trolls.” Only God can create; Satan merely imitates. God is the maker of all that is beautiful and good; it is Satan’s constant goal to twist, contaminate and pervert those things.
Tolkien fleshes out theological issues in his work without using familiar theological terms. One of the major themes he deals with is free will versus predestination (i.e., destiny). The characters in Middle Earth clearly have free will, yet there is also a guiding hand behind everything that is happening – a cosmic order. Over and over, we see both at work in the story. Elrond tells the Fellowship before they depart Rivendell that “no oath nor bond is laid to go further than you will.”
Characters are able to make decisions freely instead of being forced into them. But at the same time, there is obviously a greater power at work orchestrating events. Elrond says to the council in Rivendell, “That is the purpose for which you are called hither. Called, I say, though I have not called you. You have come and are here met, in this very nick of time, by chance as it may seem. Yet it is not so. Believe rather that it is so ordered that we who sit here, and none others, must now find counsel for the peril of the world.”
One can hear echoes of Romans 8:28 when Gandalf says, “There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, in which case, you also were meant to have it, and that is an encouraging thought.” Tolkien’s characters have freedom and effect their outcome of the story with their choices, yet there is also a power working on behalf of good. This is one of the basics of Christian belief: my decisions are important, but God is in control.
Ultimately, “The Lord of the Rings” brings good and evil into sharper focus. It presents a world where evil is very real and where compromise with it only leads to danger. While it is tempting today to seek comfort and to just be a good person, Tolkien doesn’t leave us that option. In Middle Earth one is either fighting for good or being actively influenced by evil. Tolkien was acutely aware of evil and its power – he started writing his fantasy on scraps of paper in foxholes in World War I – and warns us of the danger of ignoring or placating it. C.S. Lewis (whom Tolkien helped bring to the Lord) touches on the reality of Middle Earth and our own world: “There is not neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan.”
“The Lord of the Rings” gives us the chance to discuss good (which God is always working) and evil (which is intent on dominating us) with our friends and neighbors, and to point them to the God who – in Tolkien’s words – “is the Lord, of Angels, and of Men – and of Elves.”
Ralph Clark serves as the dean of students at Oakdale Christian Academy in Jackson, Kentucky. This article first appeared in the July/August 2003 issue a few months before the release of “The Return of the King,” the third film in “The Lord of the Rings” film trilogy.1