At this year’s Desiring God National Conference, Joe Rigney, Assistant Professor of Theology and Christian Worldview at Bethlehem College and Seminar, gave an interesting talk about Narnian Discipleship and has since released a book titled Live Like A Narnian: Christian Discipleship in Lewis’s Chronicle. This prompted some thinking on my part. I love C. S. Lewis and Narnia, but my first love is his fellow Don at Oxford University J. R. R. Tolkien and his Middle-earth.
Granted, C. S. Lewis’s Narnian books provide an easier garden bed for making observation about something like Christian discipleship. But Tolkien doesn’t write about Middle-earth in a vacuum. His world is distinctively Christian. It operates and is controlled by a god who very much resembles the Christian God of the Bible. The values, morals, and sins are very much our values, morals, and sins.
So what can we learn from Tolkien’s Middle-earth? First, I must say these observation aren’t drawn as an allegory. Tolkien despised allegory. His Middle-earth was more subtly Christian. He mined the depths of his Christian worldview for truths big enough to create another world. Those are the truths we will examine today. Those truths allow us to talk about living like free peoples of Middle-earth and connecting that in with Christian discipleship.
The Sovereign Theme
To live like free peoples of Middle-earth, you must understand God is sovereign and governing the affairs of this world, including evil.
The theme of sovereignty is huge in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I’m reading through these novels with a fresh set of eyes this year, and realizing even more how much sovereignty and providence play in the affairs that we find in Tolkien’s major works. Consider only the tale of the One Ring. In the second age, the free peoples were laying siege to Mordor and Isildur cut the One Ring from Sauron’s hand. Against the wishes of Elrond and Círdan, the fallen elf lord Gil-galad’s lieutenants, Isildur kept the ring as a family heirloom. Evil befall Isildur on his journey home when a band of orcs waylaid him and the One Ring was consider lost in the great river Anduin.
Long after these events, a hobbit like creature Sméagol (you may know him as Gollum) possessed the ring by treachery. He was cast out of his community for using the ring for evil purposes. He kept it hidden and safe for many years until Bilbo encountered him by chance during the tale that began in The Hobbit. He carried it to the Lonely Mountain and then back home to Hobbiton where it stayed for many years. It was finally discovered that this ring was the One Ring and Gandalf the wizard encouraged Biblo to pass it along to his heir Frodo. That it was freely given is a crucial element to the tale because none had done so before Biblo.
What’s so amazing in all of this (and we will return to this later) is that creatures so homely, unknown, and small are able to possess the ring for so long without being destroyed. Even gollum as evil as he is has held up well by all accounts and in The Lord of the Rings shows glimpses of good in the sometimes humorous dialogue when journeying with Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom. This kind of “luck” in the Ring’s lineage is nothing short of miraculous. Tolkien describes the Ring as having a will bent towards Sauron, but there seems to be something else at work ordering even the evil intent of the Ring. This providence draws the Ring into the hands of hobbits who are unexpectedly hardy and good-hearted.
His Good Purpose
Also, The Lord of the Rings reads much like Esther in the Old Testament. No explicit mention of God but His hand present in every thing that occurs. You have bread crumbs of providence, sovereignty, and governance through out The Lord of the Rings. Here are a few examples drawn from The Fellowship of the Ring and its major chapter concerning the lore of the One Ring.
[Gandalf says,] “Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again.’
[Frodo replies,] ‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us. And already, Frodo, our time is beginning to look black. The Enemy is fast becoming very strong. His plans are far from ripe, I think, but they are ripening. We shall be hard put to it. We should be very hard put to it, even if it were not for this dreadful chance.” The Fellowship of the Rings, Chapter 2 “The Shadow of the Past”
[Gandalf says,] “Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.” The Fellowship of the Rings, Chapter 2 “The Shadow of the Past”
[Gandalf says,] “And he [Gollum] is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least.” The Fellowship of the Rings, Chapter 2 “The Shadow of the Past” (also, Gandalf emphasizes this later in chapter 11, “But he may play a part yet that neither he nor Sauron have forseen”)
“I do really wish to destroy it!’ cried Frodo. ‘Or, well, to have it destroyed. I am not made for perilous quests. I wish I had never seen the Ring! Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?’
‘Such questions cannot be answered,’ said Gandalf. ‘You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.’
‘But I have so little of any of these things!” The Fellowship of the Rings, Chapter 2 “The Shadow of the Past”
[Gildor the elf says to Frodo after providing him critical advice concerning leaving Hobbiton immediately without waiting for Gandalf,] “The Elves have their own labours and their own sorrows, and they are little concerned with the ways of hobbits, or of any other creatures upon earth. Our paths cross theirs seldom, by chance or purpose. In this meeting there may be more than chance; but the purpose is not clear to me, and I fear to say too much.” The Fellowship of the Rings, Chapter 3 “Three is Company”
“Tom sat on a while beside them in silence, while each of them tried to muster the courage to ask one of the many questions he had meant to ask at supper. Sleep gathered on their eyelids. At last Frodo spoke: ‘Did you hear me calling, Master, or was it just chance that brought you at that moment?’
Tom stirred like a man shaken out of a pleasant dream. ‘Eh, what?’ said he. ‘Did I hear you calling? Nay, I did not hear: I was busy singing. Just chance brought me then, if chance you call it. It was no plan of mine, though I was waiting for you.” The Fellowship of the Rings, Chapter 7 “In the House of Tom Bombadil”
“You have done well to come,’ said Elrond. ‘You will hear today all that you need in order to understand the purposes of the Enemy. There is naught that you can do, other than to resist, with hope or without it. But you do not stand alone. You will learn that your trouble is but part of the trouble of all the western world. The Ring! What shall we do with the Ring, the least of rings, the trifle that Sauron fancies? That is the doom that we must deem.
‘That is the purpose for which you are called hither. Called, I say, though I have not called you to me, strangers from distant lands. You have come and are here met, in this very nick of time, by chance as it may seem. Yet it is not so. Believe rather that it is so ordered that we, who sit here, and none others, must now find counsel for the peril of the world.” . . .
“He is Aragorn son of Arathorn,’ said Elrond; ‘and he is descended through many fathers from Isildur Elendil’s son of Minas Ithil. He is the Chief of the Dúnedain in the North, and few are now left of that folk.’
‘Then it belongs to you, and not to me at all!’ cried Frodo in amazement, springing to his feet, as if he expected the Ring to be demanded at once.
‘It does not belong to either of us,’ said Aragorn; ‘but it has been ordained that you should hold it for a while.” The Fellowship of the Rings, Chapter 11 “The Council of Elrond”
So you can see especially as it regards the lore of the One Ring, sovereignty and providence are critical for understanding what’s happening. Tolkien does as masterful job as anyone at describing what God working all things together for good looks like. That’s our first point. If you wish to live like free people in Middle-earth than you must realize everything is orchestrated by God for the good purpose of His will (if you want to see Tolkien flesh this out even more, read The Silmarillion’s opening chapters).
So evil intended by the Sauron is turned to good in the end. So as we navigate this dark world and the “Shadow takes another shape,” we must acknowledge there’s much about God’s orchestrated will we don’t understand. We must humbly acknowledge just because we cannot in our finite understanding see any good purpose amidst the pain, suffering, and evil, we mustn’t assume God has none.
Tolkien coined the term eucatastrophe which describes the good that comes from a seeming tragedy. The Christian faith hinges on an eucatastrophe. The ultimate evil killing Jesus Christ is ordained by God, but completed by the evil intent and purpose of men according to Peter in Acts 2. Surely looking on his disciples could see no good reason for the death of the Messiah, but oh how wrong they were. That one act of evil and suffering released a deluge of good on the world covering it to the highest mountains.
Mathew Sims is the author of A Household Gospel: Fulfilling the Great Commission in Our Homes. He’s married to LeAnn and they have three daughters. He also loves to read, hike in the woods, and cook. Follow him on Twitter: @GraceForSinners.