The Passion in Tolkien’s Middle-earth

Blog / Produced by The High Calling

The great twentieth-century author J.R.R. Tolkien did not like intentional or conscious allegory. Certainly his fantastic writings do not lend themselves to interpretations in the same way that his friend, C.S.Lewis’s, do, so if you are looking for a single allegorical representation of Jesus in Tolkien’s writings, you won’t find one.

Because he wanted his fantasy to be Christian at the deepest level, he removed the outward trappings of “religion.” His faith worked at a much more subtle, and perhaps even subconscious, level—but one that is still deeply moving to me as I suspect it was to him.

As we approach the final days of Lent, I wanted to share three elements of Jesus’ Passion in The Lord of the Rings; elements of Tolkien’s understanding of the Messiah, spread among three characters and scenes.

Choosing the Paths of the Dead

Like Jesus himself, Aragorn comes to Middle-earth as a king descended from a great king of old. When we meet him, he has no political power and is despised by many, living as something of a “wanderer” with a small body of followers. Eventually, he does come into political power and takes up the sword, but Aragorn has his own Garden of Gethsemane moment, and it is a key moment in the book.

What Aragorn is called to do, if he is to defeat the evil one (Sauron), is journey on the Paths of the Dead. He must leave the land of the living and enter the world of the deceased.

Particularly moving to me is the mental anguish he endures. Aragorn has no desire to follow the course given to him, and were there any other hope of victory, he would certainly have chosen the substitute. His friend, Legolas, describes the scene:

Aragorn spends the night alone “in a high chamber… He has neither rested nor slept, I think. He went thither some hours ago saying that he must take thought, and only his kinsman, Halbarad, went with him; but some dark doubt or care sits on him.”

I’m reminded of Jesus’ own wrestling as he prayed in Gethsemane, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:36-46).

When Aragorn finally emerges from the high chamber, his will set on obedience, many of those who love him question his decision. Éowyn may be most passionate of all: “Aragorn, why will you go on this deadly road?” To which he replies, “Because I must. Only so can I see any hope of doing my part in the war against Sauron.”

Imprisoned and Scourged

The second element of the Passion is the scourging that Jesus suffered at the hands of his captors. This parallel we find, not in the great leader and healer Aragorn, but in the small and lowly hobbit, Frodo.

When Frodo (who, interestingly enough, once spoke of his willingness to give up his own life—quite literally all his privilege and possessions—in order to “save” the Shire) is captured and tortured by orcs, he suffers greatly. And, like Christ, he is alone. It is the only time when even his most loyal follower, the determined and faithful Sam, has temporarily abandoned him. The narrator does not describe the depths of Frodo’s torment, but only gives one brief vision of the whip raised and cracking down. When Sam finally finds him, Frodo “was naked, lying as if in a swoon on a heap of filthy rags: his arm was flung up, shielding his head, and across his side there ran an ugly whip-weal.”

Sacrifice, Death, and Loss

Finally we are brought to the death itself, the culminating moment of Christ’s Passion. Here, Tolkien gives us the clearest glimpse in the wizard, Gandalf. Gandalf is not God incarnate. But he is a spiritual being—in a personal letter Tolkien once described him as Middle-earth’s equivalent of an angel—who takes incarnate form. Gandalf gives his life to save his followers. He fights a battle with a demonic foe that carries him to the depths of the earth, in words that for any Greek reader would kindle images of Hades.

Ultimately, he returns to life, resurrected. In this triumphal scene, we read that

“His hair was white as snow in the sunshine; and gleaming white was his robe; the eyes under his deep brows were bright, piercing as the rays of the sun; power was in his hand.”

I’m left thinking of the resurrected Jesus when the two Marys saw him on Easter morn: “His face shone like lightning, and his clothing was as white as snow” (Matthew 28:3).

That joyful moment, however, does not happen for many long days. Instead, readers remember the period of sorrow, sadness, loss, and uncertainly, when even Aragorn says that they must now do “without hope.” Thus we find ourselves mourning with Gandalf’s companions on Dimrill Dale when “Grief at last wholly overcame them, and they wept long; some standing and some silent, some cast upon the ground.” At the cross on the evening of Good Friday, Easter Morning feels like an undreamt-of impossibility.

How did Jesus’ disciples feel during those interminable hours? What grief overcame them? How did they wrestle with their complete loss, as the one who had led them, and in whom they had put their hope, was suddenly taken away in death?

Literature and art help me consider these questions. They deepen my appreciation and understanding of Jesus’ experience on Holy Week.

How have contemporary cultural artifacts deepened yours? And to what particular aspect of Jesus’ sacrifice, suffering, or death have they brought meaning for you this season?

Image by yara gad. Used with permission via Flickr. Post written by Matthew Dickerson, co-author of Narnia and the Fields of Arbol: The Environmental Vision of C. S. Lewis.

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