Editor: In our Family History Series we are seeking to understand how Christians of the past have pursued making disciples. We want to connect the church’s current efforts to make, mature, and multiply disciples to its historical roots as well as encourage the church to learn from her rich past. So far in our series:
- 4 Simple Ways Fred Elliot Discipled His Children
- 4 Lessons from St. Patrick for Making Disciples the Irish Way
- 3 Counter-Cultural Lessons from Elisabeth Elliot
Like many during the early twentieth century, John Ronald Ruel Tolkien’s family moved around the globe. His father Arthur was a banker and took a job in South Africa, but tragedy struck the family. After only four years, Arthur Tolkien died. Mabel, his wife, Hillary, his sons, and young John moved back to England where they would stay. Less than ten years later Mabel would die leaving her two sons and daughter to be raised by family and their priest. Early on John showed a unique grasp on linguistics and he even started a literary club the “T. C. B. S.” (Tea Club, Barrovian Society) during his grammar school years.
He followed his passion for language to Exeter College, Oxford where he would go on to spend the majority of his professional career. The first World War interrupted his studies. Many believe his experience in the War forever altered his worldview and informed his later writings especially The Lord of the Rings. After the War was over, he worked in several positions in his field until finally returning to Oxford as a professor of language.
Before his arrival at Oxford, the world of Middle-earth had already started taking form as he had been in continuous work on The Lost Tales as well as an Elvish language. However, while at Oxford, the story goes, while grading papers, he stopped and jotted on one paper, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”—one of the most memorable lines in literary history. This started Tolkien’s more conscious journey through Middle-earth.
His writing were also influenced by a second literary club he started while at Oxford called The Inklings which included C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Neville Coghill to name a few.
While The Hobbit sold well, it wasn’t until The Lord of the Rings that his reputation was launched in earnest. A loyal and passionate following gathered around Tolkien which continues to this day. After his rise to fame and following his death (due in part to his plodding writing pace), many of his more “historical” and often unfinished works were gathered and edited by his son Christopher and published.
It should also be noted that he was a loving husband until the end. One of his most passionate stories Beren and Luthien—a man Beren who loved and wed the elf Luthien—was inspired by his own affection for the love of his life Edith. Their shared tombstone carries the inscription “Luthien” under her name and “Beren” under his. His faith played no small role in the world that he built and so many things can be learned from Tolkien’s Middle-earth, although the lessons may take the skill of a Dwarf to unearth.
The theme of sovereignty must not be underestimated in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (TLOR). Sovereignty and providence play major roles in the affairs that we uncover in Tolkien’s major works. Consider the tale of the One Ring. In the second age, the free peoples were laying siege to Mordor and Isildur, the King of Men, cut the One Ring from Sauron’s hand. Against the wishes of Elrond and Círdan, the fallen elf lord Gil-galad’s lieutenants, Isildur keeps the Ring as a family heirloom. Evil befalls Isildur on his journey home when a band of orcs waylay him and the One Ring is 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 and “found” the Ring. He carried it to the Lonely Mountain and then back home to Hobbiton where it stayed with him 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—and one that didn’t happen by chance.
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 TLOR 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.
[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”
“‘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.” The Fellowship of the Rings, Chapter 2 “The Shadow of the Past”
This providence draws the Ring into the hands of hobbits who are unexpectedly hardy and good-hearted. They remind me of what man and woman were pre-Fall.
Also, TLOR reads much like Esther in the Old Testament. No explicit mention of God but his hand present in every thing. You have bread crumbs of providence, sovereignty, and governance through out TLOR. Here are a few examples drawn from The Fellowship of the Ring and its major chapter concerning the lore of the One Ring. Especially note how the twisted desires of Gollum are turned to good in the end:
[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”)
Early on as the hobbits journey out of the Shire, Tom Bombadil rescues them from their first danger by chance:
“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”
“‘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.” The Fellowship of the Rings, Chapter 11 “The Council of Elrond”
Every step of the way as the Ring makes its way out of the Shire and into Rivendell something is guiding Frodo. Tolkien masterfully describes what God working all things together for good looks like. 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).
As we navigate this dark world and the “Shadow takes another shape,” we must acknowledge there’s much about the way God orchestrates our lives 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.
FRIENDSHIP, FELLOWSHIP, & FOOD
The Hobbit starts with the unlikely friendship of Biblo and Gandalf. This friendship binds this story together. Without it, you do not have Gandalf’s counsel of Frodo and the Ring may have fallen into the hands of Sauron. To the wise the friendship of the hobbits and Gandalf seems foolish. Saruman didn’t understand the value of hobbits and would not have sullied himself by being friends with those of a lesser station than him unless he was using them for his purposes.
The dwarves are unwelcomed friends at first but soon enjoy table fellowship—feasting, eating, and singing. They rehearse their shared history in Middle-earth. As the story proceeds, you have the lack of hospitality by the goblins in the mountains and the friendship of the eagles. They repeat the slow arrival technique practiced at Bilbo’s at Beorn the shape-shifter’s home as they escape the goblin’s lair. Beorn is dangerous but hospitable.
From there, the party enters Mirkwood and the hand of fellowship is not extended by the wood elves. They capture and imprison the dwarves and later lay siege to the Lonely Mountain asking for a split of the treasure. The dwarves and Biblo are welcomed by men but are not welcomed by Smaug.
After Bard the Bowman kills Smaug, the dwarves now reject friendship of men and elves (maybe justly in the case of the latter). This lack of hospitality brewing in the story comes to a head here and is only relieved by Gandalf and the common enemy of the goblins as they attack the companies of men and elves and the Lonely Mountain. In this battle, Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the dwarves dies which brings us to a major passage in The Hobbit:
“Bilbo knelt on one knee filled with sorrow. “Farewell, King under the Mountain!” he said. “This is a bitter adventure, if it must end so; and not a mountain of gold can amend it. Yet I am glad that I have shared in your perils—that has been more than any Baggins deserves.”
“No!” said Thorin. “There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. But sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell!” The Hobbit, “The Return Journey”
This same theme is carried over to TLOR (I’ll be briefer here). The book starts with a farewell party for Biblo. He disappears leaving Frodo everything and lives with Elrond at the last homely house. From the start, Frodo’s journey is uncertain, but is unexpectedly bolstered by the friendship of Sam, Merry, Pippin, and Fatty. They have been spying on him and plan to accompany him from Hobbiton to Rivendell. In another twist, they are adamant about joining the fellowship of the Ring. As the name of first book in TLOR suggests fellowship is central to the ring-bearer’s quest. That quest is almost destroyed by the lust of Boromir, but is saved by his final act of friendship and sacrifice.
In the second book, The Two Towers, friendship is again central. The friendship of Glóin the dwarf and Legolas the elf and also the deep bond between Glóin and the lady of Galadriel (although in book one). Also, the friendship of Aragorn (and the kingdoms of men, in general) and the men of Rohan is essential. The unlikely friendship of Merry and Pippin and the ents. And most importantly the friendship of Frodo and Sam which is contrasted with the twisted relationship of Frodo and Gollom. However, the relationship of Sam and Frodo carries the theme of friendship through out the entire journey. It’s also the reunited friendship of the free peoples of Middle-earth which makes the defeat of Sauron possible.
This truth that friendship is absolutely necessary is one that is also through out Scripture. Not only that, the importance of fellowship around the table and the rehearsal of our common story of the gospel is central to Christian discipleship. That kind of rehearsal of common history is paramount in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. It’s the suspicion of friends which causes damage in Middle-earth and friendship’s restored and a remembered save the day.
Tolkien does something that few other writers I’ve encountered do—he makes me long to return to his created world Middle-earth. It’s hard to walk away from that place and not find yourself more concerned with the world around you, more joyful in your fellowship, and more willing to sacrifice for the good of others. Tolkien gives us a glimpse of the good life and does so in a way that’s not preachy or superficial.
Mathew B. Sims is the Editor-in-Chief at Exercise.com and has authored, edited, and contributed to several books including A Household Gospel, We Believe: Creeds, Confessions, & Catechisms for Worship, A Guide for Advent, Make, Mature, Multiply, and A Guide for Holy Week. Mathew, LeAnn (his wife), and his daughters Claire, Maddy, and Adele live in Taylors, SC at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains with their Airdale Terrier. They attend Downtown Presbyterian Church (PCA). Visit MathewBryanSims.com!