J. R. R. Tolkien once wrote ruefully, “Being a cult figure in one’s own lifetime I am afraid is not at all pleasant.” His popularity still has its unpleasant side effects. The peculiar enthusiasms of many of his fans, the existence of fantasy as a lurid paperback genre, and the flavor of the recent movie adaptations have given The Lord of the Rings a frivolous or even Dungeons-and-Dragons image, in spite of Tolkien’s own seriousness both as a writer and as a Catholic. Ralph C. Wood’s The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-Earth seeks to counter this trend. Wood examines The Lord of the Rings “to trace the way it discloses . . . the principal claims of Christian faith.” He calls his project “not a scholarly study so much as a theological meditation on The Lord of the Rings .”

Wood begins with a consideration of Tolkien’s cosmology. With St. Thomas Aquinas and the Christian theological tradition, Tolkien sees the universe both as intrinsically hierarchical and intrinsically good. Some created beings are nobler than others, but all are good: wizards, high-elves, dwarves, hobbits. A hobbit is not a failed or faulty creation because he is not an elf or a man, and Tolkien’s wiser characters know this. Even lowly inanimate things are good: the hobbits’ love of eating and drinking together is not despicable but healthy. Cakes, ale, and pipeweed are even magical, in their own way. Indeed, as Wood points out, one of the chief virtues of fantasy is its power to make us see the ordinary things of the world, and the world itself, as new, strange, and wonderful.

For Tolkien, as for St. Augustine, evil is not a positive reality, but a falling-away from the reality the creator planned for the creature. He speaks of evil as a marring of what was made, and as a shadow. All beings have been created good, even Sauron and his orcs. They fall away from their intended goodness by rejecting what their maker intended for them. In the Silmarillion , the demonic Melkor first sins by inventing his own dissonance instead of singing the part God gave him in the angelic harmony. Rejecting one’s own created nature is the original sin. Lesser beings also sin by trying to re-create themselves. Part of why the Ring tempts mortals so strongly is its promise to let them escape the physical mortality God has intended for them. The sinner seeks a more independent existence, but he ends up losing his individuality. The Ring-wraiths fade to shadows and puppets of Sauron. Gollum falls so far that he loses his true name and even his nature, scarcely remaining a hobbit.

Tolkien’s heroes use ancient weapons against evil: they strive for and often exemplify the cardinal virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance. In this, Tolkien is no more Christian than all the philosophers who have followed Plato in praising these virtues, or than the pagans whose folklore he himself studied. However, in Tolkien’s world, these natural virtues take on a Christian character. Here a simple-minded hobbit can make a wiser choice than a sophisticated aristocrat of Gondor because of his humility. Justice is tempered with a mercy that a pagan would not comprehend. Again and again, Gollum is spared his just punishment because of pity. At first the hobbits are as shocked by this pity as pagans would be, but in the end it saves the quest when Gollum de-stroys the Ring.

Courage, too, becomes Christian in this story. The quest to destroy the Ring has almost no chance of success, but the fellowship does not set out in pagan fatalism. Rather, they have an almost Christian hope in what is not seen. Hope is what makes some characters persevere more courageously than others: it is what makes Gandalf a better general than Denethor, and Sam more constant than Frodo.

Temperance, too, becomes supernatural in this story; Sam and Frodo are purified, not by mere moderation, but by painful and heroic self-denial. Wood also makes the interesting observation that peaceful acceptance of death and the unknown is part of temperance for mortals.

Tolkien depicts the natural virtues as perfected and fulfilled by the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Naturally, it is a fulfilment that remains shadowy and mysterious to the inhabitants of this pre-Christian world, especially the hobbits. In moments of great danger, Frodo and Sam pray, but without any conscious understanding of what they are doing. When Gandalf speaks of faith and hope to Frodo before the quest begins, telling him he should take comfort in knowing that someone besides Sauron meant him to have the Ring, Frodo does not understand him. Only much later do he and Sam realize that their experience is part of a greater story in which they can place their faith. Similarly, in the beginning Frodo disapproves of Bilbo’s pity and charity towards Gollum; later he risks his own life to save Gollum. As Wood points out, this pity is at the heart of the story: we hear in all three volumes that “the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.” Pity is not a mere feeling here but a duty, as Gandalf sternly tells Frodo: “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.” The pity he commands is closely akin to the forgiveness of Christian charity.

The most successful chapters of The Gospel According to Tolkien are those that illustrate this co-dependence of natural and Christian virtues (although they might be more readable and enjoyable if they were not always so relentlessly biblical). When Wood moves on to try to find more explicit statements of Christian doctrine, he is much less convincing. Tolkien’s distaste for allegory is well known. He strenuously resisted being read as some kind of theological encoder; as he wrote in a letter, “I don’t feel under any obligation to make my story fit with formalized Christian theology, though I actually intended it to be consonant with Christian thought and belief.” Wood knows this, but he falls increasingly into such readings towards the end of his book, even searching Tolkien’s posthumously published jottings for evidence that the author imagined or even planned an Incarnation in Middle-Earth, concluding: “It is neither idle nor fantastic, I believe, to imagine Ilúvatar entering Arda in the form of a hobbit. The average Jew of Jesus’ day was perhaps little if any larger than Tolkien’s hobbits. Yet it is from such hobbit-souls that the kingdom of God is truly made.”

In The Mind of the Maker , Dorothy Sayers wrote that “it is desirable to bear in mind”when dealing with the human maker at any rate”that his chosen way of revelation is through his works. To persist in asking, as so many of us do, ‘What did you mean by this book?’ is to invite bafflement: the book itself is what the writer means.” Literary criticism that seeks a “teaching” in fiction can be worthwhile, but it is a delicate and difficult business. Wood’s baptism of every element of the story often drowns the story itself, washing away any truths that are not specifically Christian.

To take one example among many, when he discusses the battle-joy of the Rohirrim, Wood jumps almost immediately to the conclusion that Tolkien is advocating just war theory and sanctioning war “only for defensive, non-retaliatory purposes, and in behalf of the freedom and civility that war may sometimes secure.” No doubt Tolkien would agree with the moral conclusion expressed here, but as a reading of the story it rather misses the point. The moment of unexpected beauty when we hear that “the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the City” arises from a truth, not about Christians, but about men, and perhaps not only about virtuous men, either.

Wood generally treats human friendship and trust as specifically Christian virtues. He also seems to infer from Tolkien’s affection for the Shire that it is a Christian vision of utopia. Tom Bombadil is treated the same way. Because he cannot fit the character into a Christian cosmology, Wood concludes that “Bombadil may be Tolkien’s own monkish gift to Ilúvatar”a creature not meant for our understanding but for the enjoyment of God alone.” I don’t exactly know what this would mean: perhaps it would make Tolkien some sort of mystic, but it would also make him an inferior storyteller. If Tom Bombadil belongs in the story, it is because he is part of the story’s truth as a story, not because he conveys some coded message.

It’s not that stories don’t mean anything, but they mean something as stories, and Wood’s approach often obscures this kind of meaning more than it illuminates. This is disappointing, especially since in an earlier book, The Comedy of Redemption , Wood discussed Christian authors with great sensitivity and perceptiveness about their intentions as artists. He may have changed his approach because of a difference in his intended audience: the Tolkien book seems primarily intended for use in undergraduate courses on religion and popular culture, or in church youth and study groups. (It is being marketed as part of a series begun by The Gospel According to Peanuts .) Perhaps Wood insists on finding such an explicit blueprint for Christian life in Tolkien’s book because his primary intention is catechetical, but I suspect such an approach is counterproductive even in this sphere. Although I am a Catholic, I find it irritating to be told repeatedly that the elven-bread lembas is “eucharist-like.” I imagine the eucharistically unconvinced would find it even more irritating.

Certainly grace builds on nature, but we need to let nature be nature before we start building. We need to know what natural wisdom, justice, courage, temperance, and friendship are before we can know them as supernatural. Dorothy Sayers put it this way: “This is the weakness of most ‘edifying’ or ‘propaganda’ literature. There is no diversity. The Energy is active only in one part of the whole, and in consequence the wholeness is destroyed and the power diminished. You cannot, in fact, give God His due without giving the devil his due also.” Tolkien did not write such propaganda, but a reader of Wood’s book might think so. His praiseworthy intention is to send his readers “back to the story itself in eager desire.” He could have done that better if he had been more willing to give the devil his due.

Anna Mathie is a graduate student of philosophy at the Catholic University of America.

Articles by Anna Mathie

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