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The Presence of Christ in The Lord of the Rings | Peter J. Kreeft
This essay is an excerpt from Peter J. Kreeft's 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
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
providencein fact, the single point of all other examples, of all
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
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 who uses that dialog format in a series
published by Ignatius Press, called "Socrates Meets..." So far,
Dr. Kreeft has written Philosophy
101 by Socrates, Socrates
Meets Marx, Socrates
Meets Machiavelli, Socrates
Meets Sartre, and Socrates
Dr. Kreeft has written more than forty books, including C.S.
Lewis for the Third Millennium, Fundamentals
of the Faith, Catholic
to Virtue, Three
Approaches to Abortion, and The
Philosophy of Tolkien. His most recent Ignatius Press books include
Can Understand the Bible, The
God Who Loves You, and Because God Is Real:
Sixteen Questions, One Answer. (A complete list of Ignatius Press books
by Kreeft can be viewed on his IgnatiusInsight.com
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