"The Lord of the Rings" and Christian Symbolism
Tolkien's Faith and His Writings
The first installment of the epic Lord of the Rings Trilogy was first published in 1954. Since that time, the world of Middle-Earth has fascinated readers and transformed lives. Today, I desire to delve into this incredible story and share with you how Tolkien’s enduring faith is expressed in his novels. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic and believed firmly in the truths of Christianity. Now before I begin, I want to state that The Lord of the Rings can be enjoyed without reading through Christ-colored glasses, and I will never accept the idea that The Lord of the Rings is a Christian allegory.
On the contrary, Tolkien 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’ Chronicles of Narnia, no one character fully embodies the Christ figure of the story; rather, each of these three characters clearly symbolizes a different aspect of Jesus Christ.
1. Gandalf: The Wandering Pilgrim and Savior of Middle-Earth
The dominant symbol of Christ in The Lord of the Rings is Gandalf; 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. In a similar way, Christ left heaven to come to Earth and took on bodily form to rescue humanity from sin and Satan.
When we first meet Gandalf in The 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.
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 hand-wringing 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 Moria 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 here.
After falling from the bridge, Gandalf chases the great demon through the deepest and darkest catacombs of the Earth and slays the Balrog. This last 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 and is no longer hidden under the veil of Gandalf the Gray. He reunites with Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli in Fangorn Forest, and orchestrates 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 can be discerned by a fifth-grader. In the person 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 who lives in obscurity and never seeks 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. 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 The 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. Upon the fall of Sauron and the flight of Sauron’s armies, Aragorn is crowned King with much praise and exaltation. Aragorn’s coronation signaled the restoration of the ancient Kingdom of Gondor and began a time of unparalleled peace.
The Christ symbolism in 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 is 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 since I am asserting that Sam is a Christ-figure in the story. Admittedly, the symbolism of Sam is a bit trickier to see. Through Sam, readers catch a glimpse of the suffering Christ who loves his friends so passionately that he will never abandon us.
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 The Fellowship of the Ring, it is Sam alone who goes with Frodo into the land of darkness. Sam refuses to be parted from Frodo, and is always faithful to their friendship and the cause of good, even when Frodo becomes unlovable and begins to give his mind over to the sway of Gollum. 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 has mistreated him and rejected him, he turned back around and decided to rescue Frodo from whatever terrors may lie before him.
The last section of Sam’s and Frodo’s quest sees Sam rescue Frodo from an orc-filled tower, Sam encouraging Frodo to never give up, and Sam carrying Frodo on his shoulder when Frodo no longer had the strength to press on.
Most people have heard the poem called “Footprints in the Sand.” In this poem, 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.
A Few Final Comments
Gandalf the White, Aragorn the King, and Samwise the Brave. These three characters are 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."
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© 2010 Jarrod1240