Devin Brown

Is ‘Lord of the Rings’ Christian? Searching Middle-Earth for God

Today we commemorate the birthday of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, born 130 years ago on January 3, 1892. And today, as the works of so many of his contemporaries are being forgotten or relegated to reading lists for specialized literature courses, Tolkien’s two great masterpieces, The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954–1955), continue to live on — on the page and screen, and in the hearts of millions of readers all over the world.

So why have Tolkien’s works not just survived but actually increased in popularity in the decades since their release? We could point to their intricately woven plots, unforgettable characters, amazing settings, and wonderful descriptions, but none of these elements can adequately explain the passion that Tolkien readers typically display, or their desire to reread these long narratives again and again. For a better answer, we might look below the surface and ask, What makes Middle-earth the kind of world so many readers long for?

‘Fundamentally Religious’

On December 2, 1953, Tolkien typed out a fairly short, five-paragraph letter to his good friend Father Robert Murray, which would go on to become the most cited of all his collected letters. Father Murray had read and commented on parts of The Lord of the Rings and had reported that the work had left him with strong sense of a “positive compatibility with the order of Grace” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 171–72).

Tolkien responded that he thought he understood exactly what Murray meant. Then he made his now-famous, often-quoted declaration: “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision” (172).

The Lord of the Rings is a fundamentally religious work? Despite having the author’s own word, at first glance this may seem a strange claim. The word God is never used in either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, nor do we find any of the elements we typically associate with religion. The key to understanding Tolkien’s statement to Father Murray hinges on the word fundamentally. Paraphrasing Tolkien, we could say that The Lord of the Rings is in its fundamentals or at its foundations a religious work.

So how should we approach The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to find the Christian elements? One further letter from Tolkien offers a clue.

Tolkien the Christian

In the fall of 1958, three years after The Return of the King was released, the final installment in The Lord of the Rings, an American scholar named Deborah Webster was asked to give a talk on Tolkien. Finding little about the author in print at the time, and there being no Internet, she took out pen and paper and wrote to ask Professor Tolkien if he would be willing to share some information about himself.

On October 25, Tolkien wrote back. He began by lamenting that insignificant details having nothing to do with an artist’s work are often the ones “particularly dear” to researchers, such as the fact that Beethoven swindled his publishers (Letters, 288). With regard to himself, Tolkien pointed out, some facts — such as his preference of Spanish to Italian — had an effect on The Lord of the Rings but did little to explain it.

Tolkien went on to say, however, that a few basic facts, “however drily expressed,” were “really significant.” For instance, the fact that he was born in 1892 and spent his boyhood in a pre-mechanical setting much like the Shire. “Or more important,” he continued, “I am a Christian,” and added, “which can be deduced from my stories.”

“The Christian element in Tolkien’s stories is present but not directly evident; it must be deduced.”

Here the word deduced is key. The Christian element in Tolkien’s stories is present but not directly evident; it must be deduced. In addition, the author tells us it can be determined from the stories themselves. While Tolkien’s letters and essays can shed additional light on the Christian aspect in his fiction, if we look below the surface, we can find it without needing external sources.

Founded on Faith

In an interview, Tolkien told Wheaton professor Clyde Kilby, “I am a Christian and of course what I write will be from that essential viewpoint” (Myth, Allegory, and Gospel, 141). Here, instead of the word fundamentally, Tolkien uses the word essential. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are in their essence Christian works, not on the surface. So while some Tolkien scholars label as Christian the fact (reported in the Appendices) that the Fellowship sets out from Rivendell on December 25 and the fall of Sauron is achieved on March 25 (a traditional date for the crucifixion), these details may seem more superficial than fundamental.

Instead, we might look for Tolkien’s Christian element in the profound sense of purpose that Bilbo, Frodo, and the other members of the Fellowship find in giving themselves to help others. We can also discern it in the objective right and wrong that Tolkien’s protagonists experience, even when facing their most difficult decisions. But perhaps the best illustration of the Christian foundations of Middle-earth can be seen in the divine providence we find there.

In his recent book Providence, John Piper notes that in reference to God, the word providence has come to mean “the act of purposefully providing for, or sustaining and governing, the world” (30). He suggests that another way to express what we mean by God’s providence is say that God “sees to it that things happen in a certain way.” Both ways of speaking about how divine providence works in our world also apply to Middle-earth.

Providence in Middle-Earth

In Gandalf’s final words on the last page of The Hobbit, Tolkien provides a hint of what has been behind all the so-called lucky events in the story. It is some years after Bilbo’s return to Bag End, and one evening Gandalf and Balin arrive for an unexpected visit. On learning that prosperity has come to Lake-town and people are making songs that say the rivers run with gold, Bilbo remarks how the old prophecies are turning out to be true.

“Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself?” asks Gandalf. Then he adds, “You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?” (272). In Gandalf’s question, we find the first of several direct suggestions provided by Tolkien that there is far more than just luck or coincidence at work behind the scenes in Middle-earth.

Power Beyond the Ring-Maker

In the second chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien returns to the topic of who or what has been behind Bilbo’s adventures, specifically his finding the Ring. As Gandalf recounts its long history, he comes to Bilbo’s arrival at just the right time and putting his hand on the Ring blindly in the dark. Then Tolkien makes explicit what has previously been implied as Gandalf tells Frodo that the Ring was picked up by Bilbo not by luck or blind chance but because “there was more than one power at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker” (56).

In Middle-earth, as in our world, the workings of providence are typically veiled, making them sometimes discernible only in hindsight. In words that briefly pull back this veil, Gandalf concludes, “Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it” (56). Here Gandalf uses the passive voice without specifying who or what it was that intended these events to take place, thus implying the work of divine providence in a way similar to the person who says, “God had a plan. We were meant to meet that day.”

More Than Mere Chance

Nine chapters later, at the Council at Rivendell, Elrond uses similar words to allude to the hand of providence. He begins by asking those in attendance, “What shall we do with the Ring, the least of rings, the trifle that Sauron fancies?” (242). Then in a reference to the benevolent power at work in Middle-earth, he explains, “That is the purpose for which you are called hither. Called, I say, though I have not called you to me, strangers from distant lands” (242). Here again, Tolkien uses words that readers themselves might use when speaking about providence in their own lives. Sometimes we, too, may believe that we were called by God to do certain task or to be at a certain place.

“In Middle-earth, as in our world, the workings of providence are typically veiled.”

As in our own world, divine providence in Middle-earth typically chooses to work behind the scenes in ways that are not directly visible. Because of this, some characters see not providence but mere chance. Elrond tells the members of the Council, “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” (242). Tolkien’s point is that while the actions of providence have intention and purpose, to some they may appear as sheer coincidence.

Light from an Invisible Lamp

Do you need to be Christian to enjoy Tolkien’s works? Certainly not — as is evident from the millions of readers who have enjoyed Tolkien’s fiction without sharing his faith. In fact, one of the most remarkable aspects about The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is their unique ability to engage and inspire people from all sorts of backgrounds. At the same time, as scholar Joseph Pearce points out, to fully understand Tolkien’s fiction, serious readers “cannot afford to ignore Tolkien’s philosophical and theological beliefs, central as they are to his whole conception of Middle-earth and the struggles within it” (Tolkien, Man and Myth, 100).

Born on January 3, 1892, J.R.R. Tolkien died 81 years later in 1973. Two years before his death, Tolkien received a letter from a fan who wrote, “You create a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp” (Letters, 413). Tolkien responded by pointing out that if sanctity inhabits an author’s work or as a pervading light illumines it, this sanctity “does not come from him but through him.” Today, all those who have experienced this light that permeates Tolkien’s fiction join in celebrating both his life and his remarkable achievement.

Narnia Meets Middle-Earth: The Friendship of Lewis and Tolkien

ABSTRACT: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were united through a common university (Oxford), a common writers’ group (the Inklings), and many common interests (mythology, philology, and theology). From the late 1920s on, their many similarities forged a friendship that would deeply influence both men and, through their writings, millions more. Without Lewis, Tolkien would never have finished Lord of the Rings; without Tolkien, Lewis may never have become a Christian and written Chronicles of Narnia. Their honest, faithful, realistic affection for each other tells the story of one of the world’s great literary friendships.

For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors and Christian leaders, we asked Devin Brown, professor of English at Asbury University, to tell the story of the friendship between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

On December 3, 1929, C.S. Lewis began a letter to Arthur Greeves, his boyhood friend from Belfast. Having just turned 31 and in his fourth year as an Oxford don, Lewis described how he had gotten “into a whirl” as he always did near the end of the term.

“I was up till 2:30 on Monday,” Lewis wrote, “talking to the Anglo Saxon professor Tolkien who came with me to College from a society and sat discoursing of the gods and giants and Asgard for three hours, then departing in the wind and rain. . . . The fire was bright and the talk good.”1

This was Lewis pre-conversion and Tolkien before The Hobbit, two men virtually unknown outside their small circle at Oxford. Years later in The Four Loves, Lewis would note how great friendships can often be traced to the moment two people discover they have a common interest few others share — when each thinks, “You too? I thought I was the only one.”2 For Lewis and Tolkien, it was a shared interest in old stories.

Beginning of a Friendship

The two had met for the first time three and a half years earlier at an English faculty meeting. Not long afterward, Tolkien invited Lewis to join the Kolbitar, a group that met to read Icelandic sagas together. But Lewis’s suggestion that Tolkien come back to his rooms at Magdalen on that blustery December night marked a pivotal step in their friendship.

During their late-night discussion, Tolkien came to see that Lewis was one of those rare people who just might like the strange tales he had been working on since coming home from the war, stories he previously considered just a private hobby. And so, summoning up his courage, he lent Lewis a long, unfinished piece called “The Gest of Beren and Luthien.”

Several days later, Tolkien received a note with his friend’s reaction. “It is ages since I have had an evening of such delight,” Lewis reported.3 Besides its mythic value, Lewis praised the sense of reality he found in the work, a quality that would be typical of Tolkien’s writing.

At the end of Lewis’s note, he promised that detailed criticisms would follow, and they did — fourteen pages where Lewis praised a number of specific elements and pointed out what he saw as problems with others. Tolkien took heed of Lewis’s criticisms, but in a unique way. While accepting few specific suggestions, Tolkien rewrote almost every passage Lewis had problems with. Lewis would later say about Tolkien, “He has only two reactions to criticism: either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all.”4

And so began one of the world’s great literary friendships.

‘Has Nobody Got Anything to Read Us?’

While millions worldwide have come to love and value Tolkien’s stories of Middle-earth, Lewis was the first. His response, exuberant praise as well as hammer-and-tongs criticism, would also be the pattern for their writing group, the Inklings. And this blend of encouragement and critique provided the perfect soil in which some of the most beloved works of the twentieth century would sprout.

The informal circle of friends would gather in Lewis’s rooms on Thursday nights. Lewis’s brother, Warnie, provides this description of what would happen next:

When half a dozen or so had arrived, tea would be produced, and then when pipes were alight Jack would say, “Well, has nobody got anything to read us?” Out would come a manuscript, and we would settle down to sit in judgement upon it — real, unbiased judgement, too, since we were no mutual admiration society: praise for good work was unstinted, but censure for bad work — or even not-so-good work — was often brutally frank.5

“While millions worldwide have come to love and value Tolkien’s stories of Middle-earth, Lewis was the first.”

Tolkien read sections of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Lewis read from The Problem of Pain, which he dedicated to the Inklings, as well as from The Screwtape Letters, which he dedicated to Tolkien. Other Lewis works debuted at Inklings meetings included Perelandra, That Hideous Strength, and The Great Divorce. Warnie read from The Splendid Century, his work about life under Louis XIV. Charles Williams read drafts of All Hallows’ Eve.

The Inklings were not without flaws. Rather than trying to help improve The Lord of the Rings, several simply disparaged it. Hugo Dyson was so negative that Tolkien finally chose not to read if he were present, saving his chapters for Lewis alone. A letter to Tolkien’s son Christopher in 1944 provides a window into what those private meetings were like, as Tolkien reports, “Read the last 2 chapters (“Shelob’s Lair” and “The Choices of Master Samwise”) to C.S.L. on Monday morning. He approved with unusual fervor, and was actually affected to tears by the last chapter.”6

Unpayable Debt

Years later, Tolkien would describe the “unpayable debt” he owed Lewis, explaining, “Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby. But for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more I should never have brought The Lord of the Rings to a conclusion.”7

Without Lewis, there would be no Lord of the Rings. We might also say that without Tolkien there would be no Chronicles of Narnia, not because of Tolkien’s literary interest in them but for a different reason. Today we know Lewis as one of the greatest Christian writers of the twentieth century, but while it was clear from the start that Lewis would be a writer, it was not clear at all that he would become a Christian. Before his midlife conversion, he would need Tolkien to provide a missing piece.

Addison’s Walk

In another letter to Arthur, this one dated September 22, 1931, Lewis tells about an evening conversation that would change his life. He explains that he had a weekend guest, Dyson, from Reading University. Tolkien joined them for supper, and afterward the three went for a walk.

“We began (in Addison’s walk just after dinner) on metaphor and myth,” Lewis writes. He then describes how they were interrupted by a rush of wind so unexpected they all held their breath. “We continued (in my room) on Christianity,” Lewis adds, “a good long satisfying talk in which I learned a lot.”8

What Lewis learned was critical. He had previously ended his disbelief and became a theist. As he states in Surprised by Joy, “In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”9 After this first step — with help from Christian friends and Christian authors like G.K. Chesterton, George Herbert, and George MacDonald — Lewis began the step that would lead to belief in Christ.

Lewis explained to Arthur that what had been holding him back was his inability to comprehend in what sense Christ’s life and death provided salvation to the world, except insofar as his example might help. What Dyson and Tolkien showed him was that understanding exactly how Christ’s death puts us right with God was not most important but believing that it did. They urged him to allow the story of Christ’s death and resurrection to work on him, as the other myths he loved did — with one tremendous difference: this one really happened.

Nine days after that special night on Addison’s Walk — during a ride to the zoo in the sidecar of Warnie’s motorbike — Lewis came to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Years later he stated, “Dyson and Tolkien were immediate human causes of my own conversion.”10

‘It Really Won’t Do’

Given Lewis’s encouragement of Tolkien and Tolkien’s role in Lewis’s acceptance of Christianity, we can say, in one sense, that without the other’s contribution, we would not have Narnia or Middle-earth. But only in one sense. For while Lewis appreciated Tolkien’s stories about Middle-earth, Tolkien did not like Lewis’s books about Narnia.

“We can say, in one sense, that without the other’s contribution, we would not have Narnia or Middle-earth.”

Perhaps too much is made of Tolkien’s dislike for Narnia, particularly since Tolkien seems never to have made that much of it. While there is a good deal of speculation on the reasons for Tolkien’s disapproval, this speculation is based on secondhand reports. In Green and Hooper’s biography, we have several vague, disapproving, private comments Tolkien made about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, such as, “It really won’t do, you know!”11

George Sayer, who knew both men personally, includes two paragraphs in his Lewis biography summarizing Tolkien’s objections but offering little in terms of direct quotes. In addition to their jumble of unrelated mythological elements, Sayer claims that Tolkien thought the Narnia stories showed signs of being “carelessly and superficially written.”12

In a letter to David Kolb, we have a brief instance where Tolkien directly expresses his opinion of Narnia as he states, “It is sad that ‘Narnia’ and all that part of C.S.L.’s work should remain outside the range of my sympathy.”13 Here we find the suggestion that Tolkien’s narrow tastes may have been part of the problem. We do know that when the Tolkiens’ granddaughter Joanna was staying with them and went looking for something to read, her grandfather directed her to the Narnia books on his bookshelf.

‘I Miss You Very Much’

As the two men grew older, they were less close — another aspect scholars sometimes make too much of. Evidence that they remained friends, though in a less intense and intimate way, is found in a number of places.

In the autumn of 1949, twelve years after first starting it, Tolkien finished typing a final copy of The Lord of the Rings. Lewis, now 50, was the first person to whom he lent the completed typescript. “I have drained the rich cup and satisfied a long thirst,” Lewis wrote on October 27, 1949, declaring it to be “almost unequalled in the whole range of narrative art known to me.” Recalling the many obstacles Tolkien had overcome, Lewis declared, “All the long years you have spent on it are justified.” Lewis closed the world’s first review of Tolkien’s masterpiece with the words “I miss you very much.”14

It took more years for Tolkien to secure a publisher. In November 1952, when he learned Allen & Unwin was willing to publish the long-awaited sequel to The Hobbit, Tolkien immediately wrote Lewis with the good news. Lewis wrote back with warm congratulations, noting the “sheer pleasure of looking forward to having the book to read and re-read.”15

In 1954, after Lewis had been passed over more than once for a chair at Oxford, Tolkien played a key role in Lewis being offered and then accepting Cambridge’s newly created Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Studies. And in 1961, less than three years before his death, Lewis was invited to nominate someone for the Nobel Prize in Literature and put forth Tolkien’s name.

In November of the following year, Tolkien wrote to Lewis inviting him to a dinner celebrating the publication of English and Medieval Studies Presented to J.R.R. Tolkien on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday — a collection to which Lewis had contributed an essay. Citing his deteriorating health, Lewis thanked him but graciously declined.

A few days before Christmas, Tolkien wrote again. We do not know the topic but do know that on Christmas Eve, 1962, Lewis wrote back thanking him for his “most kind letter.” Lewis closed by saying, “Is it still possible amid the ghastly racket of ‘Xmas’ to exchange greetings for the Feast of the Nativity? If so, mine, very warm, to both of you.”16 By the next Christmas, Lewis was gone.

Lewis died at home on November 22, 1963, a week shy of his 65th birthday. Shortly afterward, Tolkien wrote his son Michael about the loss. Although they had become less close, Tolkien stated, “We owed each a great debt to the other, and that tie with the deep affection that it begot, remains.”17 Here Tolkien, always careful with words, does not say that his tie and deep affection with Lewis remained all the way up until Lewis’s death, but that it remains. Presumably, it still does.

‘Much Good’

At the close of his biography, Alister McGrath seeks to explain Lewis’s enduring appeal, especially in America. McGrath proposes that by “engaging the mind, the feelings, and the imagination” of his readers, Lewis is able to extend and enrich their faith. Reading Lewis not only gives added power and depth to their commitment but also opens up a deeper vision of what Christianity is.18

I know this was true for me. Lewis was able to help extend and enrich my faith at a time when help was desperately needed. For those like me, Lewis’s books become lifelong companions, reminding us again and again of who we are and why we are here, seeing us through difficult times, and helping to shape and add meaning to our experience.

Tolkien wrote in his diary, “Friendship with Lewis compensates for much, and besides giving constant pleasure and comfort has done me much good.”19 Today, on the anniversary of Lewis’s birth, people all over the world, from all walks of life and stages in faith, would agree. Yes, it does. And yes, it has.

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