Question: "What are the Christian themes in The Lord of the Rings?"
Answer: The Lord of the Rings series is extremely popular, well-written, and fascinating to millions of readers. With the creation of the movies, the series has reached millions more worldwide. Because the author, J. R. R. Tolkien, professed to be a Christian, many assume The Lord of the Rings is Christian-themed or is in some way an allegorical presentation of Christianity.
Typically, when a book or movie is said to contain Christian themes, it centers on a hero who imitates Christ in some behavior or decision. For example, Christ’s death provided atonement for sin, and in this way He redeemed men to Himself. Therefore, a hero in a book or movie who provides atonement for others through self-sacrifice is said to be a “Christ-type” hero. A good example of this would be in the book “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens. One character goes to death in the place of another and delivers the famous line “Tis a far, far better thing I do than ever I have done before.” In this hero, Dickens is pointing out a Christian theme—that to be like Christ is the best thing a human can achieve.
Many stories contain Christian ideals or morals, but because many morality tales can be compared to other “moral” religions, a story that is said to be specifically “Christian-themed” must center on a Christ-type hero. Christianity is the only religion that proclaims man to be entirely lost without God’s intervention, and no other religion contains a god who sacrifices his own life for men to redeem them from their lost state. These truths are specific to Christianity.
Now, back to The Lord of the Rings. Is there a Christ-type hero in The Lord of the Rings? If there is a hero who comes close, it is Samwise. He is indeed a very inspiring character. His selflessness, his devotion to his master, and his strength in resisting evil are all qualities that are seen in true, mature believers in Christ. So, Sam portrays a true Christian. But he is not a Christ-type hero. In the end, he cannot save Frodo from himself. There is a vague sense of Providence that seems to guide Frodo, and an “evil power” that is present. The elves present an atmosphere of spirituality, and Tolkien creates a sort of religion or religious system with the “gods” of Middle Earth, such as Elbereth, Gilthoniel, etc., whom the characters pray to and draw on for strength. All of these things are simply a literary device Tolkien uses to draw the reader in and make Middle Earth seem a real and believable place.
But the Christ-type hero is not present in The Lord of the Rings. Even the wizard Gandalf is a guide and teacher, but his character is presented more along the lines of a guru than a Savior. Some might look to Gandalf’s “fall” in the mountains of Moria and consequent glorified return as pointing to Christ’s resurrection, and it is possible that Tolkien had the resurrection in mind while writing that part of the story. The difference between Christ’s resurrection and Gandalf’s is that Gandalf is not in control of what happens to him. The reader gets the impression that Gandalf is almost as surprised to be back in Middle Earth (and not dead) as the other characters are surprised to see him there. Also, his death and return do not affect the salvation of anybody else. In the end, he is always a helper, not a savior. Many religions, especially Eastern mysticism, contain this sort of “spirit guide” or guru who “strays out of thought and time.” Therefore, Gandalf is not a specifically Christian character in any sense.
Tolkien’s association with the Catholic Church is most likely the source of his desire to include religion in his fantasy world and to make his good characters exhibit Christian morals and ideals. It is also important to remember that Catholicism tends to lean too heavily on the character and righteousness of men as an important element of their salvation. In that way, Tolkien’s story reflects his beliefs, and it could be said that The Lord of the Rings supports Catholic themes rather than Christian themes: man’s responsibility or duty, the importance of resisting temptation (the ring), the presence of a variety of heavenly intercessors between creature and Creator, etc.
But there is one specifically Christian element that does not appear, and that is the redemption of evil men. According to the Bible, evil lives in the heart of man, but God redeems us, through Christ, from certain consumption by our evil nature (Romans 3:9–12; 5:7–9; 7:21–25; Ephesians 1:7). According to these verses, if Tolkien’s intent was to accurately and biblically reflect Christianity in The Lord of the Rings, he would have included a Christ-type hero who brings about the salvation (or turning from the evil side to the good side) of some of the evil characters. But this never occurs in The Lord of the Rings. Sauron, Saruman, the Orcs, Wormtongue—none are redeemed or changed. None. Good characters remain good; evil characters remain evil. But this is not the case in real life. All humans are evil, according to Romans 3:9–12. All are in need of redemption. The only picture of a kind of redemption occurs in Theoden’s hall, but it is not truly a redemption because Theoden is simply a good king imprisoned by an evil spell cast by Saruman, not an evil king who repents and changes his ways.
Even more ominously un-Christian is the fate of Frodo. He fails in his quest and proves himself stained by evil, yet conspicuously absent is his absolution. No hobbit, man, or elf gives him relief from his obvious suffering in the years after his failure. He declines in health and eventually is taken away with the elves, but is never offered forgiveness or true restoration. If The Lord of the Rings was Christian-themed, Frodo would have returned to the Shire, having found peace through forgiveness, and the lifting of his burden from a compassionate Christ-type hero. Instead, he carries his own burden of guilt and sadness and separation from the “good” people, until he is taken over the sea. And even then, we are not assured that he is truly forgiven and forgetful of his sins. This is very different from the Bible’s description of heaven as a place where every tear is wiped away (Revelation 7:17b). Redemption and the changed life it imparts is the essence of Christianity and, because of this, it cannot truly be said that The Lord of the Rings is a Christian-themed series.