God in Tolkien’s ‘Middle Earth’ epic
God in Tolkien’s ‘Middle Earth’ epic
Philip vander Elst explores themes in J.R.R. Tolkien’s work
The single most important fact about ourselves, as human beings, is that we are creatures made in the image of God, our Creator. By creating an imaginary world, and imaginative beings like elves, and dwarves, and goblins, the writer of a ‘fairy story’ therefore takes on a subordinate but godlike role, acting as a ‘sub-creator’.
As a Christian, Tolkien believed that the powerful creative drive of creatures like us, is rooted in a poignant longing to imitate our great Father in Heaven by expressing ourselves through ‘making’ - whether that involves creating imaginary worlds, or producing beautiful paintings or sculptures. As God’s children, we long to express our love for Him,and our gratitude for His gift of life, by adding our own creaturely contribution to the wonders and beauty of His Universe, including His gift of Truth…
A powerful and beautiful fairy story can make such a creaturely contribution when it arouses our desire for the transcendent and the Divine, gives us a fresh and heightened insight into the difference between Good and Evil, and dramatizes and clarifies the natureof the conflict between them.
When it succeeds in doing all of these things, it feeds our minds and nourishes our souls, and by doing so, gives us greater access to the mind and heart of our wonderful and loving Creator. Tolkien’s great rolling epic fairy tale about his fantasy world of ‘Middle Earth’ unfolded in the Lord of the Rings and its equally important prequels, the Hobbit and the Silmarillion, is the supreme example of this kind of literature. Before discussing and illustrating some of its central themes, I must draw attention to Tolkien’s view of the link between the enjoyment of fairy tales and Desire.
Speaking of his own childhood excursions into fantasy and faerie, Tolkien wrote: “At no time can I remember that the enjoyment of a story was dependent on belief that such things could happen, or had happened, in ‘real life’. Fairy stories were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded.”
The fairy tale ‘myth’ and Christ
Tolkien’s friend and fellow Oxford academic, C.S. Lewis, believed that at some stage in their lives most human hearts are filled with an ‘inconsolable longing’ for some indefinable and transcendent beauty and reality behind or beyond the Universe, which may communicate itself through art, literature, and music, but is not identical with them, or with any other object of ordinary human experience. Lewis therefore concluded that this ‘inconsolable longing’ is an expression of humanity’s hunger for God, and evidence for His existence, since no earthly experience can satisfy or explain it. Tolkien took a similar view, which is reflected in his particular theory about the relationship between our attraction to fairy tales and fantasy, and the nature of the Gospel Story.
Tolkien believed that beautiful fairy tales offer us “A fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” As flawed human beings, living in a fallen world disfigured by evil, suffering, and death, we yearn for the Happy Ending of the archetypal fairy tale. We long to wake up from the nightmare of our existence, and find ourselves in a world in which our loveliest visions of goodness and beauty have, beyond all hope, become a living and eternal reality. And in this attitude of mind, in this deep-seated orientation of our being, Tolkien and Lewis believed we can see the providential goodness of God at work, for two reasons.
First, our longing for “Joy beyond the walls of the world” heightens and reinforces our dissatisfaction with our present state of being and existence, and therefore opens our hearts and minds to receive God and His Truth. Secondly, our love of myths and fairy tales, implanted by Divine Providence, can predispose at least some of us to respond favourably to those aspects of the Story of Christ that resemble a fairy tale or a ‘myth’ – but a ‘myth’ that came true.
‘Fairy tale’ characteristics
A King visiting His people in the guise of a servant, unrecognized by them, and constantly threatened by the evil usurper who has seized His Kingdom…a wandering Prince leading a small band of devoted followers in a deadly struggle for the liberation of the poor and the oppressed…hidden majesty, heroism, and self-sacrifice…and finally, beyond all hope, Life triumphing over
death, Joy over despair…
All these classic and romantic ingredients of countless myths and fairy tales are part of the greatest Adventure Story ever told – the wonderful story of Jesus, God the Son Incarnate, coming down to the earth He created to redeem and rescue His lost children, and destroy the power of their evil oppressor, Satan.
God’s great plan
Is it just a happy accident that God’s great plan of redemption has this ‘fairy tale’ quality, so appealing to the human heart and imagination, or is it part of a beautiful pattern deliberately woven in Eternity – like a recurring movement in some Divine Symphony whose Music began before the Dawn of Time and made all worlds?
To quote Tolkien’s answer to this question: “I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures [i.e. creative creatures], men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy stories…But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfilment of Creation.”
This truth conveyed by Tolkien played a key role in C.S. Lewis’s own conversion to Christianity. To quote his version of the same argument: “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact…It happens – at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences…By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.”
The overarching Biblical themes of Creation ex-nihilo, the Fall of angels and humans, Providence, and Redemption, are clearly mirrored in the history of Middle Earth and the stories involving its central characters, though it must be emphasized, as Tolkien himself insisted, that this does not mean that his work is allegorical in the strictest sense of that word. There is, for example, no obvious Christ-like figure in Tolkien’s long and epic saga, fulfilling the same redemptive role played by Aslan, the great Lion, in Lewis’s imaginary world of Narnia. Having said that, it is undoubtedly true, as Tolkien admitted, that no one but a Christian author and believer could possibly have written the Lord of the Rings and, above all, the Silmarillion.
The Christian and Biblical roots of Tolkien’s imagination clearly reveal themselves at the very beginning of his great epic about Middle Earth, in the very first pages of the Silmarillion, most of which deals with the ‘Elder Days’ - the ‘First Age’ of Middle Earth - that ‘heroic’ period of ancient history on which some of the principal figures in the Lord of the Rings look back with a mixture of nostalgia, awe, and sadness.
Creation, Rebellion, and Fall
The Silmarillion begins with the appearance of the eternal self-existent Creator God of Tolkien’s imaginary world, whose elvish names, ‘Eru’ and ‘Iluvatar’, are highly significant. Eru means ‘The One’ or ‘He that is Alone’, and Iluvatar means ‘Father of All’, so the Biblical parallels are obvious. There then follows a narrative of Creation, Rebellion and Fall whose Biblical parallels are again unmistakable, starting with Iluvatar’s creation of the Ainur, angelic beings described as “the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought.”
These originally holy, immortal, beautiful and powerful angelic beings are then invited by Iluvatar to co-operate with Him in the creation of the Universe and all forms of life, by participating in a great creative ‘Music’ whose origin and inspiration springs from the Mind of Iluvatar, their Maker. At first, all these angelic beings (or subordinate ‘gods’ & ‘goddesses’) are content to contribute their particular gifts and powers to this process of Divine creation, weaving their own subordinate musical themes and melodies into the central symphonic movement emanating from Iluvatar.
But then one of them, Tolkien’s original Satan figure, Melkor, the most powerful and gifted of them all, rebels. “…As the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Iluvatar,” for he wanted “to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.”
Note the parallels between this description of Melkor’s rebellious self-centred motivation and the Bible’s description of the rebellion and Fall of Lucifer/Satan: “How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! …You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God…I will make myself like the Most High’…” (Isaiah 14:12-14)
Melkor’s rebellion introduces discordance into the ‘Music’ of creation, ending its original harmony, but his discordant themes are then taken up by Iluvatar and woven into a new symphonic movement, beautiful but sorrowful, symbolizing the ultimate overcoming of evil by good, but at terrible cost.
Elvish names and their meanings
The subsequent opening chapters of the Silmarillion go on to describe the spiritual and physical consequences of this originally beautiful, tragically spoiled, but redeemed ‘Music’ of creation, of which the first is the creation of Tolkien’s physical universe, whose Elvish name, Ea, means, significantly, ‘It is’ or ‘Let it be’. This is morally and spiritually significant, because it is reminiscent of the words of creation used by God in the first chapter of Genesis, and emphasizes that in Tolkien’s world, like our own, all things were created out of nothing by God, and therefore all those made in Iluvatar’s image – be they Angelic beings, Elves, Dwarves, or Men and Women – rightfully owe Him unconditional gratitude, love, trust and obedience.
Set within Tolkien’s Universe, Ea, is the Earth, or to give it its Elvish name, Arda, meaning ‘The Realm’, and here again, we see the Christian roots of Tolkien’s imaginary world, since the English word, ‘Realm’, means ‘royal domain’ or ‘kingdom.’ This Elvish name given to Tolkien’s Earth therefore reinforces the spiritual message conveyed by that given to his Universe. As its Creator, Iluvatar is its rightful King, just as our own world belongs, by right, to Christ through whom “all things were made.” (John 1:3).
Unfortunately, of course, as we all know, Christ’s Kingship has been usurped by Satan, which is why the Bible describes our Enemy correctly as “the Prince of this world’, and Tolkien’s great epic about Middle Earth develops a similar theme.
Just as Satan’s oppressive rule and power ultimately lies behind all the evil and suffering we see around us, living as we do in an originally good but now spoiled creation, so in the Silmarillion, we see the same situation. Tolkien’s world of Arda is also, in the beginning, a beautiful planet, because it is created with love by the music of the Ainur, working in harmony with the great symphonic theme of Iluvatar, but it is then subsequently damaged – physically and morally - by the ugly music and power of Melkor. Not surprisingly, later in the Silmarillion, Melkor is renamed Mogoth by the Elves, meaning ‘the Black Enemy’ – and this again echoes the Bible since the word ‘Devil’ actually means ‘Adversary’ - the one who opposes God and therefore all His plans and children.
The struggle between Good and Evil
The main consequence of Melkor/Morgoth’s rebellion at the dawn of creation, as the story in the Silmarillion unfolds, is to initiate a titanic struggle for the control of Arda between him, the original and most powerful ‘Dark Lord’ of Tolkien’s fantasy world, and the rest of the Ainur, who remain faithful to Iluvatar, and exercise His delegated authority as the legitimate ruling ‘guardians’ or ‘powers’ of Arda, watching over the fate and lives of all the other living creatures. These ruling angelic beings, renamed the Valar by the Elves, meaning ‘the Powers of the World’, take shape as ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses’ in Arda, and dwell in Valinor, the ‘Blessed Realm’ – a distant, protected, and supremely beautiful ‘heavenly’ kingdom situated the other side of a great ocean, West’ of Middle Earth, but still part of the same planet of Arda.
The struggle against Evil in the Silmarillion, personified by Morgoth and the evil spirits and creatures who serve him, takes place during the ‘First Age’ of Middle Earth – the ‘Elder Days’ – and involves not only the Valar, but also Elves, Dwarves and Men, whose creation, first appearance, and interrelationships, forms a fascinating part of this first and little read portion of Tolkien’s great epic history of Middle Earth.
The corruption of the good
The brief but poignant explanation of the origin of Tolkien’s goblin figures, the Orcs, whocloom so large in the drama of the Lord of the Rings, is an equally fascinating little sectionvof the Silmarillion, because it further underlines the recurring theme introduced into Creation by the Fall - in Tolkien’s world, of Melkor/Morgoth - and in ours, of Lucifer/Satan. And that theme, of course, is the corruption of what was originally good, since nothing was evil in the beginning given that all forms of life were brought into existence by a Holy and Loving Creator God. The first Orcs were originally Elves, kidnapped, tortured, and remade by Morgoth.
To those, like me, for whom the beauty and goodness and immortality of the Elves is one of the greatest and most moving products of Tolkien’s extraordinary imagination, that revelation is truly shocking, if heartbreakingly true to spiritual reality. To quote from the relevant passage in the Silmarillion: “by slow arts of cruelty [these captive Elves] were corrupted and enslaved; and thus did Melkor breed the hideous race of Orcs in envy and mockery of the Elves, of whom they were afterwards the bitterest foes…And deep in their dark hearts the Orcs loathed the Master whom they served in fear, the maker only of their misery. This it may be was the vilest deed of Melkor, and the most hateful to Iluvatar.”
Here again, in his account of the origin of the Orcs, we see the Christian and Biblical roots of Tolkien’s imaginary world, and his ability to imagine the horror, pain, sorrow and anger that was surely in God’s heart when He looked upon the corruption of His children, angelic and human, brought about by Satan’s great rebellion.
The struggle between Good and Evil in the Silmarillion, ends with the final destruction of Morgoth’s oppressive rule over Middle Earth, and his final demise, but the victory over this first and most terrible ‘Dark Lord’ which brings the ‘Elder Days’, the First Age of Middle Earth, to a close, is not a final one. Evil takes shape again in the person of Sauron, another of Tolkien’s fallen angelic beings, who is Mogoth’s cruellest and most powerful servant in the Silmarillion, and having escaped his Master’s destruction, re-emerges in the Third Age of Middle Earth to become a second and almost equally terrible ‘Dark Lord’.
And this, of course, brings us to the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, since both the finding of Sauron’s lost Ring of Power by Bilbo Baggins, and his nephew Frodo’s subsequent quest, many years later, to destroy it, forms the connecting thread between these two books, and their central culminating theme.
Under the overarching Biblical theme of the age-old struggle between Good and Evil, between the ‘Dark Lord’ and the ‘free peoples’ of Middle Earth, are numerous and equally important Christian sub-themes illuminating the narrative of the Lord of the Rings, and some of these are listed below, in no particular order:
Our lives are part of a bigger Story, whether we acknowledge it or not
Life in a fallen world is a journey, a battle, and a quest
Following God in a fallen world is a call to adventure
The contrast between respect for life and the desire to nurture and protect it, and the
desire for personal prestige, power, and domination over others
The link between courage, mercy, faithful service, and God’s saving grace
God’s Providence is always at work in history and in our personal lives
The link between humility, wisdom, and personal growth
God’s great secret: He chooses the ‘weak’ to accomplish His great purposes
God’s use of the gift of friendship to enable His servants to accomplish great tasks
God is the creative source of all Beauty, & our hearts are filled with an inconsolable longing for the beauty of Heaven
The servant nature of true Kingship, whose majesty is often hidden but no less real.
Philip Vander Elst read philosophy and politics at Oxford, is a freelance writer and lecturer, and his publications include C.S. Lewis: a short introduction and Libertarianism: a Christian critique.