Christian Symbols and Christ Figures in "The Lord of the Rings"
Tolkien's Faith and His Writings: Gandalf, Aragorn, and Sam as Symbols of Christ
The first installment of the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, was published in 1954 by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, more commonly known by his pen name—J.R.R. Tolkien. Since that time, the world of Middle-earth has fascinated readers and transformed lives.
Films, art, fan fiction, and literature on the significance and symbolism of Tolkien's work and tales of Middle-earth have created a significant cultural impact that's reverberated throughout the decades—the most significant of which is the tale of Frodo and the One Ring as told in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Today, I delve into this incredible story and share with you how Tolkien’s enduring faith is expressed in his novels. Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic who believed firmly in the values of Christianity, which is reflected in his plotlines, characters, and backstories.
Now, before I begin, I want to state that The Lord of the Rings can be enjoyed without reading it through Christ-colored glasses, and I will never accept the idea that The Lord of the Rings is a complete Christian allegory—and Tolkien himself did not intend for the series to be taken as such.
On the contrary, he detested allegory and stated himself that his novels were never written with the intent of preaching religion; however, Tolkien was always quick to admit that all of his works were written in the Christian tradition and therefore were full of Christian symbols.
In the entire canon of Tolkien’s primary work, three characters emerge in the story as symbols of Christ: Gandalf, Aragorn, and Samwise Gamgee. Unlike Aslan in C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, no single character fully embodies the Christ figure of the story; rather, each of these three characters clearly symbolizes a different aspect of Jesus Christ.
Christ-Like Traits of Gandalf, Aragorn, and Sam
Dual identities: a common man and a powerful, mystical figure
Accepts his leadership role and embraces his destiny
Disciple-like; self-sacrificial and faithful
Sacrifices himself for the rest of the Fellowship
Does not question his purpose
Resurrected as "Gandalf the White" after his sacrifice
Overcomes evil; reigns in peace and righteousness
Literally carried Frodo up Mount Doom in the final stages of his journey to destroy the One Ring, helping him to complete his mission, and carrying his burden as he struggles to fulfill his purpose (as Jesus carried the struggling believer)
1. Gandalf: The Wandering Pilgrim and Savior of Middle-earth
Gandalf is the dominant symbol of Christ in The Lord of the Rings; evidence of this can be found by first looking at how Gandalf came to Middle-earth and then considering his actions throughout the story. Gandalf was sent by the Valar from the land of Valinor to rescue the people of Middle-earth from evil and to protect them from Sauron.
For those who have not read The Silmarillion, the Valar are basically the gods and goddesses of Middle-earth, and Valinor is the land of bliss in which they dwell. In The Silmarillion, Gandalf is introduced as a spirit named Olorin, and he only took on the flesh of men so that the people of Middle-earth would trust him and have faith in his mission. Similarly, Christ left heaven to come to Earth and took bodily form to rescue humanity from sin and Satan.
When we first meet Gandalf in Fellowship of the Ring, we encounter a wizened old man with a long, gray beard; bushy eyebrows; a flowing cloak; and a wooden staff worn from travel. Like Jesus, everywhere Gandalf goes, he seeks to help others, restore hope, and fight evil. He travels so extensively that the elves and men of Gondor call him Mithrandir, which means "the gray pilgrim." Also like Jesus, Gandalf possesses several different names that each have a unique meaning: Incanus, Lathspell, Mithrandir, Olorin, Tharkun, etc.
Tolkien presents a duality—Galdalf's as Olorin, the spirit who takes on earthly existence to save humanity, and the more lowly identity of "the gray pilgrim" and the images it conjures of the elderly, gray-bearded, bushy-eyebrowed man. Therefore, one can see where Tolkien began to craft a symbol of Christ—whose humility on Earth was counterbalanced by his sanctity—through the character of Gandalf.
The symbolism of Christ becomes most evident in Gandalf’s actions as leader of the fellowship that was appointed by the Council of Elrond in Rivendell. When things become tough on the road, Gandalf and the entire fellowship are forced into the Mines of Moria in an attempt to pass under the Misty Mountains.
The slow journey through the mountains comes to a terrifying climax when the fellowship is chased by a fiery demon of the ancient world called a Balrog. In this heart-pounding moment, surrounded by fire, darkness, whizzing arrows, and terrified screams, Gandalf realizes that no one will escape the mines alive unless he puts his life at stake for his friends.
As Jesus once said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend (John 15:13).” As the fellowship begins to cross the treacherous Bridge of Khazad-dûm, the Balrog closes in from behind, but Gandalf takes the rear guard and turns to face the monstrous beast alone.
Standing on the bridge surrounded by darkness, Gandalf faces his enemy of flame and shadow and willingly sacrifices his life to save his friends. Tears are shed by the Hobbits, hope is lost by others, and Aragorn’s heart wavers at the loss of his mentor. But Gandalf’s story does not end with his sacrifice.
After falling from the bridge, Gandalf chases the great demon through the deepest and darkest catacombs of Middle-earth, where he slays the Balrog. This final exertion of power causes Gandalf to die. Without Gandalf, the fellowship feels lost, but the Valar decide that Gandalf’s mission is not complete, and he rises from the dead more powerful and glorious than before.
He becomes Gandalf the White; no longer hidden under the veil of Gandalf the Gray, he reunites with Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli in Fangorn Forest. Gandalf goes on to orchestrate the forces of good to defeat Saruman and Sauron by uniting Rohan, inspiring Gondor, and giving Frodo a chance to destroy the Ring and, therefore, Sauron, forever.
The direct symbolism in these actions are easily discerned—through the character of Gandalf, Tolkien attempts to show his readers the power of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, descent into darkness, resurrection, and glorification in his new body.
2. Aragorn: The Healer and Glorious King
Aragorn is a Ranger of the North, also known simply as "Ranger" (Aragorn's Ranger name was "Strider")—a mysterious, hooded individual who wanders the northern parts of Middle-earth and protects the lands he patrols, living in obscurity and never seeking glory for himself. He is a character torn by his desire to do what’s right and his fear of fulfilling his destiny of becoming King of Gondor.
Aragorn: An Everyman of the People
Tolkien describes Aragorn as someone that none of us would really be attracted to. As Tolkien would put it, “All that is gold does not glitter" (Fellowship of the Ring ch.10). This sounds very familiar to a passage of scripture that describes Jesus:
"He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him; nothing in his appearance that we should desire him." — Isaiah 53:2
Furthermore, in Return of the King, Aragorn dies a figurative death when he enters the Path of the Dead to summon the deceased traitors of the mountain to fulfill their ancient oath and fight for Gondor. Though Aragorn himself did not die, he willingly entered into a world in which the line between life and death is very blurred. Moreover, being surrounded by ghosts, darkness, evil, skulls, and other symbols of death emphasizes Aragorn’s metaphorical death. Once Aragorn emerges from the dark Path of the Dead, he leads his newfound army of the dead to liberate Gondor from the forces of darkness.
Finally, by his courage and excellent leadership, Aragorn leads an army that distracts Sauron so that Frodo has a chance to destroy the Ring.
The Rangers of the North are equipped with knowledge of plants and herbs and their healing and restorative qualities, and Aragorn, too, shares in this wisdom. Aragorn heals Faramir, Merry, Eowyn, and many others after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in Return of the King, leading a Gondorian nurse to recount an old legend: "The hands of the King are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known." His healing prowess helped restore him to his rightful role as king, as the people of Gondor understood his abilities to mean he was the true heir of the throne of Gondor.
Upon the fall of Sauron, flight of Sauron’s armies, and Aragorn's healing of the people of Gondor, Aragorn is crowned king with much praise and exaltation. His coronation signaled the restoration of the ancient Kingdom of Gondor and began a time of unparalleled peace.
The Christ symbolism of Aragorn largely draws from the Jesus of Revelation. In Christian theology, Jesus Christ is going to return to the world and rescue all those who have faithfully served God. When Jesus returns, the book of Revelation describes Jesus as a warrior much like Aragorn:
“I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God.” (Revelation 19:11-13)
In addition, Jesus will be restored to the throne and rule over the heavens and the earth. Christian theology also teaches that Christ’s reign will be characterized by a great renewal of the Heavens and Earth and everlasting peace. When Jesus comes, it will truly be "the return of the king." Therefore, Aragorn represents Christ the warrior and liberator, as well as the coming king who will reign with glory!
3. Sam Gamgee: The Suffering Servant and Faithful Companion
Many of you are probably thinking that I am crazy to assert that Sam is a Christ figure in the story. Admittedly, the symbolism of Sam is a bit trickier to see than that of Gandalf or Aragorn. Through Sam, readers catch a glimpse of the suffering Christ who loves his friends so passionately that he will never abandon them.
Sam is a rustic Hobbit who possesses incredible integrity and unique, simplistic wisdom. When Frodo leaves the fellowship to find Mordor on his own in chapter 10 of book 2 in Fellowship of the Ring, it is Sam alone who goes with Frodo into the land of darkness.
Sam, the Ever-Faithful
Sam refuses to be parted from Frodo and is always faithful to their friendship and the cause of good, even when Frodo becomes nearly unlovable and begins to succumb to the will and manipulation of Gollum. Gollum is the Hobbit-like creature who was tempted and corrupted by the One Ring's power long before it came into Frodo's possession, causing his everlasting love and obsession with it, which would ultimately lead to its ruin, as well as his own. As the Ring and Gollum gain more power over Frodo, Gollum manages to deceive Frodo into believing that Sam is plotting to take the Ring from Frodo.
The irony is that Gollum is actually plotting to kill Frodo and take the Ring. When Frodo tells Sam to leave because he has decided to place his trust in Gollum, Sam is shattered. Sam obeys Frodo and painfully begins the journey home with tears pouring down his face. But Sam realized that he could not abandon Frodo. Sam loved Frodo so much that even after Frodo had mistreated him and rejected him, he turned back around and decided to rescue Frodo from whatever terrors may lie before him because he recognized that Frodo was being manipulated by Gollum's wicked lies.
The final section of Sam and Frodo's quest sees Sam rescue Frodo from an orc-filled tower, encourage Frodo to never give up, and carry Frodo on his shoulder when he no longer had the strength to press on.
Many people have read the poem “Footprints in the Sand,” in which a person realizes that no matter what happened in life, God never abandoned him, and when life’s most tragic moments struck, Jesus carried that person to safety. Like Frodo, Satan and the world are constantly trying to deceive us, and sometimes we fall for these lies and tricks. Nevertheless, Christ never leaves the sides of his followers:
“Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any power, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Paul, Romans 8:38-39)
The faithfulness of Christ is seen in the faithfulness of Sam, and like Frodo, all those who follow Christ should be thankful that we serve a God who loves us passionately.
Isn't Frodo Also a Christ Figure?
Frodo is often seen as the part of Christ that experienced suffering and sacrifice. His journey to take the One Ring back to Middle-earth can be interpreted as a representation of Christ's sacrifice—dying for the sin of man. In the end, Frodo's sacrifice cost him his life; he could no longer return peacefully to the Shire with his fellow Hobbits, Sam, Merry, and Pippin.
However, in some ways, Frodo represents the everyman of the Christian world. He represents each of us struggling to destroy our sinful nature or temptation, which is represented by the One Ring. Just before he destroys the Ring, he nearly succumbs to its power—which is contrary to Jesus' angelic nature. Although there are certain biblical passages that reflect that Jesus may have felt lonely and abandoned at certain times during his difficult journey, he never truly despaired and gave up in the way Frodo did just before the destruction of the Ring.
In fact, in the end, Gollum was the one who destroyed the Ring. He attempted to steal it back from Frodo after Frodo had claimed it for himself at the very edge of the Crack of Doom of Mount Doom, where the Ring was forged. Gollum's desire for the Ring, which resulted in him attacking Frodo for it and ultimately falling over the edge into the lava, was what destroyed the Ring in the end—not Frodo's sacrifice.
"The Lord of the Rings" is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like "religion", to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.— J.R.R. Tolkien
Other Tolkien Characters Who May Represent Christian Figures
Some posit that Galadriel, the "Lady" of the Lothlórien Woods, represents the Virgin Mary. She is beautiful and innocent, and she is generally considered to be a pure and good figure. She also displays motherly characteristics in the way she cares for the members of the Fellowship when they come to stay with her in Lothlórien Woods. Her home is even described as being somewhat womb-like—safe and closed off from the outside world.
Sauron appears to be a depiction of evil and perhaps even a literary representation of Satan—he is the exact opposite of the Christ-like figures of Gandalf, Aragorn, and Sam in that he is purely self-motivated and diabolical. However, those more familiar with Tolkein canon and The Silmarillion will know that another character, Morgoth, who was not present in The Lord of the Rings, who served as Sauron's master. This character is the ultimate embodiment of Satan; however, in the context of The Lord of the Rings, Sauron does serve as the character most closely aligned with Satan.
The Ring of Power exemplifies the dark magic of the corrupted will, the assertion of self in disobedience to God. It appears to give freedom, but its true function is to enslave the wearer to the Fallen Angel. It corrodes the human will of the wearer, rendering him increasingly 'thin' and unreal; indeed, its gift of invisibility symbolizes this ability to destroy all natural human relationships and identity.— Stratford Caldecott, author of "The Lord & Lady of the Rings"
Religious Symbols in The Lord of the Rings
The White Tree of Gondor
The White Tree of Gondor, with its seven stars and seven stones, represents the connection between the people of Gondor (men) and the Elves. To those who view its beauty, it serves as a symbol of renewal and hope, as it was replanted numerous times throughout the history of Middle-earth.
When Aragorn ascends the throne of Gondor in Return of the King, he again replants the tree from a sapling found on the slopes of Mindolluin, and faith and hope are restored in the people of Gondor. The tree itself serves as a symbol of resurrection—the tree was left dead as the stewards kept watch over Gondor for nearly 1,000 years before Aragorn was restored as its rightful king but bloomed again when the glorious king returned.
Mount Doom and the One Ring
Mount Doom is the only place where the One Ring can be destroyed—and it is also where the ring was forged by Sauron. The ring symbolizes the evil that lurks within all humans. It is a representation of pure evil; all those who come near it are lured by its power and promise, and only the purest of heart can resist it.
Christian Themes in "The Lord of the Rings"
Is The Lord of the Rings a Metaphor for World War II?
Actually, World War I had a much more profound impact on the creation of the Lord of the Rings tale than did World War II. Gandalf's iconic line ("You cannot pass" in the novel, and "You shall not pass" in the film) is thought to be an homage to "On ne passe pas" ("One shall not pass"), a famous phrase the French used at the battlefront of the Battle of Verdun in 1916.
However, Tolkien's son served in World War II, and this was thought to have reinvigorated Tolkien's passion for writing, as he sent snippets of the tale to his son in letters during the war.
Other Famous Tales With Christian Symbolism
The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis: Likely one of the tales most known for Christian symbolism, aside from The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia explores the concepts of good and evil and serves as an allegory for Jesus' death on the cross and recounts the gospel in a timeless, family-friendly fantasy tale.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath allegorizes the Book of Exodus as a Depression-era story filled with Christian symbolism and religious imagery.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare: Shakespeare is known for his use of religious allegory and symbolism in many of the numerous plays attributed to him. Hamlet, one of the most well-recognized dramatic works in the history of theatre and Shakespeare's repertoire, is riddled with religious allusions, including Hamlet as Christ and references to the Trinity.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding: Students and academics have long drawn comparisons between Jesus and Golding's wise and mysterious character of Simon. The novel can be interpreted as a Hobbesian take on human nature that posits that evil is inherent in human nature and not a scourge on humanity precipitated by Satan.
Which "Lord of the Rings" character do you think best exemplifies the characteristics of Jesus Christ?
Gandalf the White, Aragorn the King, and Samwise the Brave—these three characters can be interpreted as Tolkien’s symbols for Christ in his epic trilogy. I hope that this article blesses your day, opens your eyes, or, if you disagree with me, sparks your mind for debate. Please leave your thoughts as a comment below. In the words of Gandalf, "Farewell, my friend, until our next meeting."
© 2010 Jarrod1240