Jesus in Middle Earth
Jesus in Middle Earth, 3 September 2023
A sermon preached by Kenneth Padley, Canon Treasurer
Fifty years ago yesterday, an Oxford professor died. He was buried in due course alongside his wife in a quiet churchyard just outside the city. Their resting place is quite unremarkable – except in one regard. The gravestone refers to the couple under pseudonyms. He is termed ‘Beren’; she is called ‘Luthien’. Beren and Luthien: these are not people from our world. They are the eponymous subjects of an epic love poem, part of the backstory to the dead professor’s most famous work, The Lord of the Rings.
JRR Tolkien drafted several versions of the tale of Beren and Luthien, using both prose and verse. It is a fantasy within a fantasy, the story of a mortal man who falls in love with an immortal elf-maiden. In order to marry Luthien, Beren has to pay the impossible dowry of a silmaril, an ancient jewel that shone with divine light. Having traversed a quest of pain and struggle – even death itself – to win his silmaril, Beren also secures the hand of his beloved. In wedded bliss, he and Luthien founded the lineage from which is descended several characters who appear in Lord of the Rings. In having the names of Beren and Luthien inscribed on their gravestone, Tolkien is revealing much about his love for his wife Edith, and the significance of his marriage to his literary creativity. Edith and John were together the progenitors of a mythological world.
And it is an entire world which Tolkien created. The Lord of the Rings is not a linear plot which proceeds from A to B against little or no background. Tolkien inhabited Middle Earth, a context as complete to him as our world is to us. He had an attention to detail which forged in his imagination whole languages, ancient history, and distant locations. Middle Earth thus became the prism through which Tolkien viewed reality, the laboratory in which he articulated and probed his experience of ideas and movements in twentieth-century England.
- Tolkien was born in the late Victorian era and railed against the scars of industrialisation and mechanisation, for example, in his descriptions of the verdant Shire and the talking trees of Middle Earth.
- He experienced the trauma of modern combat in the trenches of the First World War, such that his novels are shot through with the fear and agony of incessant conflict.
- And his academic training in the linguistics and literature of the early medieval period informs the content and style of his creative narrative.
But what of Tolkien’s faith? Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic. It is thought that he played a seminal role in the conversion of his fellow English lecturer, CS Lewis, to Christianity. That said, Tolkien’s literary output is very different from the allegory which overtly announces Lewis’ Christianity throughout the Chronicles of Narnia.
- In The Magician’s Nephew Lewis retells the biblical story of creation.
- In The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe Lewis unpacks the message of Good Friday and Easter, as Aslan the lion is sacrificed and resurrected.
- And in The Last Battle Lewis flings the characters of Narnia into a coruscating realm of endless possibility, an explosive reimagining of the book Revelation, the culmination of Christian scripture.
Again and again, any reader who is aware of Judeao-Christian culture – whether a believer or not – cannot fail to read Christianity from the pages of CS Lewis. There is even one passage at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader where the child Lucy is told by Aslan that she has grown too old to return to Narnia but that she must learn to know him by another name in her own world. ‘This was the very reason why you were brought into Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.’
Tolkien has none of this. In Middle Earth, there is no God and no religion. Indeed, Tolkien was sniffy about the way in which CS Lewis used allegory for evangelism. Tolkien disliked allegory because he felt it restricted the capacity of the reader to think broadly about the applicability of story to real world experience. He did not deny that his faith could be deduced from his stories. And he wrote to a Jesuit friend that the Lord of the Rings is a ‘fundamentally religious and Catholic work’. However, Tolkien chose not to impose his faith overtly on his novels because, in his words, ‘the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism’. Tolkien’s intention was to draw on truths from our Primary world but to create enough distance, so as to deliberately refer us back to our world. He justified this process in a famous lecture ‘On Fairy Stories’ arguing it was literary distance between the Primary world and literary output which helped the reader rediscover the glitter, shape and colour of things which they had previously acquired, but had locked away and ceased to look at.
Personally, I find myself moved by Tolkien’s creative genius, in a way not dissimilar to my response to that amazing anthem which the choir have just sung for us. Even if Tolkien did not see a new heaven and a new Earth, he gives us a new prism onto our Earth. That was certainly my experience when I first encountered The Lord of the Rings in my early twenties. I sensed a whole new window onto the values and ideas of Scripture. In particular, I discovered the heroism of Jesus split across several of Tolkien’s characters.
- The wizard Gandalf echoes the otherworldliness of Jesus, most notably in his return from the dead. Gandalf possesses the powers of a healer and an exorcist, and can wield fire redolent of the Holy Spirit. He rides a magnificent white horse, just like Jesus in Revelation 19.
- Then there is the hobbit Frodo, in whom we see refractions of the human nature of Christ. Like Jesus, Frodo is explicitly said to have ‘little honour… in his own country’. Like Jesus, Frodo sets out on a one-way journey to a mountain where he expects to die. And, although Frodo does not pay the ultimate price, like Jesus he suffers temptation and doubt, imprisonment, stripping, mocking and whipping; and he is left with stigmata from his sacrifice, permanently scarred from where Gollum has bitten off his finger.
- Thirdly, there is Aragorn, a messianic kingly figure whose qualities far exceed the feeble human rulers of Middle Earth. Like God in the prophecy of Daniel, Aragorn is likened to an ‘ancient of days’. He journeys through the paths of the dead, similar to Jesus harrowing hell on Holy Saturday. And like Jesus in Revelation chapter 1, his banner is surmounted by seven stars.
Gandalf, Frodo and Aragorn are not Jesus. They are Gandalf, Frodo and Aragorn. Nonetheless the resonances and inferences to Jesus are innumerable as Tolkien’s characters cooperate together in a cataclysmic battle between Good and Evil which brings salvation to Middle Earth. Despite being wrapped in sagas and sorcery from an era that feels like Anglo-Saxon England, The Lord of the Rings is a timeless tale of Tolkien’s age and our own. The staggering profundity of his achievement has led to mountains being named after his characters in Canada and on a moon of Saturn. The Lord of the Rings is surely the greatest work of fantasy literature in the English language – but that should not surprise us, because it is inspired by the greatest story ever told.
 Voyage of the Dawn Treader, 209.
 Padley and Padley in English (2009).