Friday, December 19, 2014

Is Tolkien Christian?

Many Christians love Tolkien's fiction. Some love the books. Some love the movies. Some love both.

However, for some, this is a guilty pleasure. That's because C. S. Lewis is a Christian novelist in a way that Tolkien is not. Lewis uses thinly-veiled Christian symbolism and overt analogies. 

As a result, some Tolkien fans resort to special pleading to make his fiction more Christian than it is. They offer typological interpretations.

Now in some cases I suppose that's more plausible. You could claim that Gandalf is a Christ-figure who dies for his friends, then is "resurrected." Mind you, that would be more plausible if Gandalf in general were more Christ-like. 

i) I think one problem is when Christians feel the need to justifying their enjoyment of something that isn't Christian. But something can be good–artistically good–without being Christian. Even unbelievers must take their materials from God's hand. 

ii) That said, I think there's a way of offering a more Christian interpretation of Tolkien. It seems to me that the genre is basically in the medieval chivalric tradition. Gandalf is priestly or monkish. Aragorn and Legolas are knightly. Saruman is an evil monk and sorcerer. Frodo is the holy fool. Gollum is an apostate. Sauron is a fallen angel. And medieval literature had mythological creatures which have their counterparts in Tolkien. 


  1. I would analyze this question differently. All emotionally stirring stories point to the one great story. The one great story is the story of an ugly duckling who returned as a swan. It is the story of a man who died to save the one he loved, the story of a hero who went alone to face the enemy and died. And, in The Lord of the Rings, it is at least three stories: one about a king, who comes into his kingdom unannounced, to heal the sick; one who dies to save his friends, and returns transformed; and one who sacrifices his ability to feel the pleasures of human life, so that the world may be redeemed.

    1. I'd hesitate to say that any of Hayao Miyazaki's films (or Akira Kurosawa's) really "point to the one great story". We could suggest that the Lewis/Tolkien proposal about the mythology that is true could still have been restricted to more Western than Eastern mythology and that even this approach isn't exactly the same as Campbell's reductionist monomyth that flattens out too many variables to account for the European and American variations on the Faust legend.

  2. "There is [another] way in which the Virgin Mary is present, and that is through her reflections in certain feminine characters, specifically Galadriel and Elbereth. Galadriel is one of the pivotal elvish characters: Bearer of one of the three Rings and preserver of the land of Lothlorien, Tolkien himself calls her 'unstained' (a word that Catholics normally only use of the Virgin Mary), adding that 'she had committed no evil deeds.' In another letter he wrote: 'I think it is true that I owe much of this character to Christian and Catholic teaching and imagination about Mary.'"

    The Lord & Lady of the Rings: The Hidden Presence of Tolkien’s Catholicism in The Lord of the Rings

  3. The phrasing in the title seems to me to be asking the wrong question.

    Tolkien believed himself to be a faithful Catholic. However, unlike Lewis, he was not writing to specifically to explore Christian ideas. Indeed, his writing was influenced by Danish myths (such as Beowulf) and re-working them in an English context. So while the Hobbit, LotR, and other works are heavily influenced by Christian thought, they are not "Christian". Short version: Tolkien may well have been a Christian, but his works are not specifically so.

    In contrast, Lewis's works of fiction are mostly "Christian", in that they are written with explicitly Christian ends in mind.

    1. The title is shorthand for is his fiction Christian?