The Elusive Christian Worldview in the Writings of Tolkien
Many a Christian calls Tolkien a favorite, but few can articulate Christianity from his writings.
Every time we think we’re on to a thread of biblical thinking, we lose the strand and our trail of faith disappears. Like hobbits lost in the rocky crags of Anduin, we wander in search of the Christian elements without realizing they are overarching the narrative, dispersed in the plot, illustrated but not named. They require piecing together, like connecting dots to create segments that coalesce into an image.
In a new work dedicated exclusively to understanding these Christian elements, An Encouraging Thought: The Christian Worldview in the Writings of J.R.R. Tolkien (Christian Publishing House, 2018), Donald T. Williams provides perhaps the best explanation of an elusive strand of thought.
As Forrest Scholar at Toccoa Falls College, Williams is like Tolkien: a Professor of English Literature and philologist who appreciates creative writing. This combination allows him to recognize a serial theme in a piece of literature, connecting its pieces into a whole value. He does so in three ways in An Encouraging Thought: (1) parading Tolkien’s impetus to create, (2) identifying the elements from his own biblical training, and (3) appreciating the power of epic, in which explicit deeds and adventures combine into a triumphant whole.
Tolkien wanted to create. Like an architect who dreams of a final product or a builder who lives to give shape, this great author loved language and thrived in creativity. Williams describes how Tolkien’s desire to make a language led his imagination to give that language a people, and that people a home. Such creativity stems from the imago Dei, or image of God, in us all (Gen. 1:26). Like our Creator, we naturally love to create. For Tolkien, “The core of the imago Dei is language” (p. 61).
Tolkien’s Christian worldview finds illustration in ways that we know well. The selfless sacrifices by Frodo and Aragorn conjure biblical imagery of heroic figures. The wandering activities and visionary wisdom of Gandalf provide reminders of Old Testament prophets. Providence confuses pilgrims as they grapple to understand why they are an inevitable part of something they never sought out. These qualities are subtle, employing traditional biblical imagery in the form of fantasy. And so, when light shines into darkness, when weakness triumphs over strength, and when goodness outlasts evil, Tolkien’s foundational worldview is revealed. Episodes like creation and the fall of Melkor in the Silmarillion offer more obvious counterparts for the Christian reader.
For the very reason that Tolkien subtly but firmly embeds values into the Middle Earth narrative, Williams has a particular obsession with detesting Peter Jackson’s modifications in the Lord of the Rings film series. Simply put, when Jackson took directorial latitude, he shifted the values and missed the point. Chivalry dies as Aragorn is hesitant to take up kingship. Arwen makes an oath, breaks an oath, and then takes the original oath. Gollum has an easy conversion when he casts out Smeagol, disregarding the power that sin can have over an individual. “[Jackson] apparently thinks the characters Tolkien gave us are too simply good to be fully believable to modern audiences” (p. 74). While Williams allows Jackson to operate out of either ignorance or hubris, the book author reveals his certainty that the cause is hubris. Williams’ irritation might run too intensely, though, forgetting the advice of Elrond: “It is perilous to study too deeply the arts of the Enemy.”
Ironically, figures in classical literature are often characterized by fatal flaws to which they were blind. Williams confesses that Tolkien helped him overcome one personal flaw: fear that Christianity would not sufficiently answer the hard questions and so capture his imagination. Yet, while wrestling with God in the 1960’s, he discovered Tolkien: “It was the key that opened the door….to a life full of meaning and of joy here and now, so much so that it was worth living for all eternity” (p. 13). Like a ring on a cave floor, Tolkien was discovered to deliver someone in need. And just as God gave manna to sustain his wandering people (Ex. 16:15), An Encouraging Thought reveals to us that there may something more subtle and providential behind lembas bread than we realize. For Christians claiming Tolkien who can’t really articulate a Christian element of Tolkien, Williams sustains and provides for the faithful.