You may have noticed that if a Christian is reading a fantasy book, it’s very often The Lord of the Rings (or The Chronicles of Narnia, which we'll talk about in another article). Why do so many Christians like The Lord of the Rings? Is The Lord of the Rings a Christian allegory? Does it have any overtly Christian or spiritual themes? Or is it considered non-Christian fiction?
First of all, it’s helpful for us to define Christian fiction and non-Christian (or secular) fiction. You might want to refer to the article Is it OK to read secular or non-Christian fiction?. If you’ve read that article, you know the unfortunate truth that whether or not something is “Christian” is a pretty tricky question. What's healthy for one person’s faith might not be beneficial for another person's. So, as with all things, The Lord of the Rings should be approached with spiritual discernment, paying attention to how it personally influences you and your faith.
In the case of The Lord of the Rings (and other books set in Middle Earth), we’re talking about books that were written by a devout Christian Catholic man named J.R.R. Tolkien, published by a secular publishing house (1954, 1954, 1955), and enjoyed and read by people of just about every belief and background on earth. The massively successful movie adaptations of the books (2001, 2002, 2003) were also created by entirely secular production teams.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s faith was so central to his own life that he was often asked how it impacted his writing. In a letter he wrote to a priest in 1953, the author explained: “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...' the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”
From this, we can understand that The Lord of the Rings is not a "Christian" work in the sense that it does not directly mention Christian practices, does not talk about Jesus, and does not even reference those things with metaphors or allegories. So what exactly does he mean when he says that The Lord of the Rings is "fundamentally religious" if it doesn’t specifically talk about any of the key elements of Christian faith? Let’s look at three of the themes that are “absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”
“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” —John 15:13
John 15:13 shows us that Jesus gave His life as a model for the truest kind of love. This was most evident in Jesus’ death on the cross and ultimate resurrection. If you dig deeper, this verse references the fact that, even outside of those three days, Jesus lived every day of His 33 years on earth in a consistent posture of surrender and sacrifice on humanity’s behalf. When He gave His time to society’s outcasts, He laid down His life. When He stopped everything to truly acknowledge the sick and heal their wounds, He laid down His life. When He chose humble presence with people over seizing power by force to rule over them, He laid down His life.
This is the model we see in the heroes of The Lord of the Rings—most strikingly in the characters Aragorn and Frodo. Aragorn was a rightful king who chose to work in danger and obscurity in order to protect others. Frodo was a quiet, simple-living Hobbit who chose to take on the responsibility of quite literally saving the world, knowing it would very likely cost him his life.
In the end, some of the characters in The Lord of the Rings pass through the threat of death to live peaceful, full lives. But some of them, like Frodo, ultimately really do give away their life. At the end of book 3, The Return of the King, Frodo says, “It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.” When he says that, he’s echoing that same John 15 truth: the greatest love is the love that’s willing to let go of everything you have for the sake of someone else.
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” —Philippians 4:8
This verse might be one of the most crucial reference points when we’re trying to decide what media to spend our time with. It’s particularly fitting when it comes to The Lord of the Rings, a complex work in which Tolkien intentionally chases beauty and otherworldly wonder. From the beauty of the locations he describes to the songs he writes in detail to the lilt of the Elvish language he created, Tolkien created these elements with the unshakable belief that beauty echoes the divine.
Perhaps C.S. Lewis, Tolkien’s contemporary and dear friend, said it best when reviewing The Lord of the Rings and talking about its transcendent beauty: “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart.”
The beauty of this story serves, like any good art, to break your heart open so it can receive something supernatural—a hunger for Heaven.
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” —2 Corinthians 4:8-10
The concept of redemption lies at the heart of the Christian faith, captured by the way Jesus took death itself and revealed it as a pathway to new life. This pattern of death and resurrection lies at the heart of our experience as believers as well. We die to our old way of thinking in order to come alive—in and by and through grace.
Turning the darkness inside out is a core theme of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien called the idea “eucatastrophe,” or the “good catastrophe,” which he described like this: “It is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy; Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
It is in this theme of relentless redemption that The Lord of the Rings is most of all a profoundly Christ-saturated story. Towards the end of The Return of the King, after victory is achieved where it seemed impossible, Sam asks, “Is everything sad going to come untrue? What's happened to the world?”
You might have felt that same kind of feeling when you encountered the redeeming love of Jesus for the first time. You’re likely to feel it again as you continue to encounter His deliverance in your life, over and over again.
These are just a few of the core themes in the story that point to the beliefs at the heart of the Christian faith. Like with any story, the ways it could impact your life are ultimately unique to your own walk with God.
Let us know in the comments if you'd be interested in a future Bible study that would go for 8-12 weeks and have a more in-depth discussion of several Christian themes found in The Lord of the Rings. Comment "YES PLEASE!" and if we get enough affirmatives, we'll get to work!
Although The Lord of the Rings does not directly talk about God or Jesus, the devoutly faithful author J.R.R. Tolkien worked several Christian themes throughout the story. As a result, some Christians find that the story indeed strengthens their faith.
Mary is a fan of stories about grace—whether they show up in writing, music, or photography form. She's been listening to and telling those stories as a professional writer for over 10 years. Mary is the founder and editor of Rock on Purpose, where she talks about rock music centered around truth and redemptive justice.