The screen version of the first and second parts of the famous trilogy by Tolkien has fired interest in the famous English writer’s heritage. Since not all the people who heard about this book have found time to read it, let’s recall in brief the contents of the work. This book describes a historic episode in a fantastic “pre-historic world” inhabited by all sorts of creatures such as elves, wizards, humans, dwarves, hobbits, orcs etc. The Dark Lord Sauron seeks to subjugate the entire world to his rule by casting it into chaos and violence, destroying all that is good and beautiful. He wages total war, but for his final victory, he needs to seize the magic ring kept by the hobbit Frodo. Frodo’s aim is to prevent the ring from falling into Sauron’s or anyone else’s hands (including himself), as in this case, the new owner would also fall under the power of evil and become another Dark Lord. The only thing left to do is to penetrate into the very den of Sauron and throw the ring into the fires of Mount Doom where it was forged in order to destroy it forever. The world can’t be saved without the participation of the world itself. All creatures are involved into the battle, but its result depends on success of Frodo’s quest. He gets to Mount Doom together with his fellow-adventurer Sam, but he can’t endure the temptation any more. He tries to put on the ring, but Gollum tries to seize it, but finally, by happenstance, the ring is thrown into the Cracks of Doom and is destroyed.
The Lord of the Rings turned out to be a considerable cultural event of the second half of the twentieth century, both due to its artistic value and due to its influence on the minds of several generations of young people. It hasn’t escaped the notice of Orthodox readers. Even when the book first appeared, disputes about its religious meaning arose; many different often-contradictory opinions were expressed about it. After the screenplay based on the trilogy was released, these disputes broke out anew. Taking this into account, and by no means having any aspiration to have some new or final opinion on Tolkien and his work, I’d like to share some reflections on this book, say, “as an ordinary reader”, no more. It’s well known that Tolkien as a thinker and as a writer had a number of ideas that are doubtful from the point of view of Christianity. The Gnostic concept of the Creation presented in the Silmarrillion is one example. However, here we shall not undertake to evaluate all the works of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien but will talk only about the relation of his main work to Christianity.
What’s The Lord of the Rings? Is it a “hidden Christian homily” (Maria Kamenkovich, Trojan Horse) or is it a tale “soaked with well-hidden paganism and occultism” (Roman Jolud, Talks around Tolkien)? Both of these extreme views appear to a Christian reader as two temptations, one chasing the other during the reading. For each, one can find enough grounds in the text, but we can accept neither of them without serious reservations. Therefore, in our opinion, there is another, more fruitful way. We should consider what does exist in the book rather than what should exist there. Moreover, in reality, both temptations do take place. Well, on the one hand, it’d be very strange if there were nothing Christian in a work meticulously created over many years by an author who sincerely considered himself a Christian. On the other hand, neither is it logical to expect 100 percent pure dogmatic views from a secular western writer of the twentieth century. Thus, in the work of Tolkien there are views close to, as well as remote from, Christianity. Let’s start with the latter.
The first problem is that in the book, Tolkien emotionally presents evil much more vividly than good, and, therefore, it appears more attractive. In essence, evil looks and has power that’s much more significant than good. It’s almost almighty, one can’t escape from it, and there’s no shelter from it. They say that Tolkien’s friend C. S. Lewis, having finished reading half of The Lord of the Rings, threw it away with the words, “You can’t write so long about evil!” (However, we heard another version, according to which Tolkien read half of The Screwtape Letters by Lewis and threw it away with the same words). In power and greatness, there’s no alternative to the personality of Sauron in the world of The Lord of the Rings. It’s difficult to consider such a world-view as Christian. The next problem is that, in general, the lives of all of Tolkien’s creatures (elves, dwarves, humans, hobbits etc.) look rather senseless. They struggle heroically, it’s described very vividly and breathtakingly, but all of them dream of a peaceful life, they struggle for it, and die for it. In their struggle, there’s sense. However, the peaceful life as their purpose looks extremely wan and senseless, like an old faded picture stuck onto the wall. Creating his world “before Christ”, Tolkien created his world “without Christ”, and as a Christian it’s rather difficult to plunge oneself unreservedly into this world, though not to the extent as other fantasy authors are concerned, for example, Tad Williams, with his open parody of Christianity.
Now, passing over to detecting Christian thoughts in The Lord of the Rings, we remark that we won’t consider, in general, all its good and positive moments, but only those that can be clearly specified as Christian and not “humanistic”. Primarily, such is the main idea of the book. The Ring is an allegory concerning evil, or sin. Moreover, one can defeat it by rejecting it personally. The main idea of the trilogy is Christian without a doubt; it contradicts all fantasy traditions after Tolkien. One can never use evil for good. If you use it, you fall under its power, and only multiply the overall evil in the world. If we follow the contents of the book, we’ll see that not only that its main idea’s Christian, but also its development. In the end, Frodo couldn’t overcome the desire to possess the ring, to resist its power and evil. Man by himself has no power to reject sin in himself. Moreover, good wins thanks to a lucky chance. However, for one who belongs to a Christian culture (for whom Tolkien wrote his books), it’s self-evident that there is no fate; rather, there’ God’s Providence. For those who don’t understand, one can find it in the book in the words of Gandalf, “It was prepared for him…” By whom? Answering this question, we should return to the very first lines of the book… its title. Who is the Lord of the Rings? To Whom does Tolkien dedicate his whole work? It’s evident that it isn’t Frodo or any of the Wise, or even Sauron… because none of them ever possessed all the magic rings. Further reflection gives us the only answer. The Master, or, more exactly, the Lord, of the Rings is He Who ever possessed them, since He possesses everything, but being possessed by nothing.
The next deep Christian thought in the book is found in its attitude towards enemies. Orcs, invisible to all, are elves who used to be the most wonderful of all creatures in Tolkien’s world, but mutilated by evil. Sowing horror everywhere, the orcs used to be the best samples of humanity, worthy to become ring-bearers, but they couldn’t overcome the temptation of evil, and they were captured by the Dark Lord’s power. The fallen Saruman the Elder was one of the Wisest. Tolkien teaches us to see our enemies in the light of their personal tragedies, and in this way, he brings us closer to an ever-possible attitude towards our enemies… compassion. In the trilogy, the idea that the final victory of good over evil became possible because of the act of mercy done by Bilbo towards his enemy is outlined several times. However, Tolkien doesn’t confine himself to pointing out that the villain has a prehistory of his fall. The enemy may bring repentance and change. The most striking example in the book is Gollum; the same happens to Grima, but even more deeply, it’s expressed in the last talk with Saruman when Frodo prevented his friend from killing the fallen wizard and said, “No, Sam! Anyhow, we shouldn’t kill him. The more so as he lies in the black evil. Once, he was great, he’s one of those against whom we’ve no right to lift up our hand. He fell now, but it’s not for us to judge him… who knows, maybe he’ll be great again…” Moreover, the great merit of Tolkien is that he explained in artistic and understandable language one of the commandments of Christ most difficult for us to understand… love towards enemies. He not only explained it, but also disclosed its grandeur and wisdom.
27 January 2003