The end of the year is nearing—and so is the release of the final, filmed installment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s mammoth The Lord of the Rings.
“The Fellowship of the Ring” was released in December 2001, “The Two Towers” hit theaters in December 2002, and now “The Return of the King” awaits moviegoers this Christmas.
A number of books have surfed this wave of popularity, and here’s another: The Gospel According to Tolkien by Baylor professor Ralph Wood. This tome is the latest in The Gospel According to … series from Westminster John Knox Press—a series that has included titles on the Peanuts comic strip, “The Simpsons” TV show and even the Harry Potter phenomenon.
“I seek nothing more or less than to make the Christian dimension of this great book accessible to the ordinary interested reader of Tolkien,” writes Wood. He succeeds in making a Christian dimension of the book accessible, though making the Christian dimension accessible might be too lofty a task for even Tolkien himself.
Wood calls the book a “massive epic fantasy” that maintains continuing relevance on account of its gospel components. The book may rely on a pre-Christian setting, but its content is not pre-Christian, Wood asserts.
Another Tolkien book just on the market—Tolkien in Perspective: Sifting the Gold From the Glitter by Greg Wright—would probably take issue with two of those claims; namely, that the book is fantasy, and that its content is not pre-Christian. (Watch for upcoming review of Wright’s book.) However, the issue may be more semantic than anything, and Wood’s argument is well taken.
Wood writes that Tolkien has embedded “the gospel as the underlying theme of his book, its deep background and implicit hope.”
Wood writes of his aim with the book:
“We shall trace the way it discloses—not by overt preachment but by covert suggestion—the principal claims of Christian faith. In so doing, I shall undertake not a scholarly study so much as a theological meditation on The Lord of the Rings. Accordingly, I shall use the major doctrines of the Christian faith as the template for my reading of Tolkien.”
Wood provides an introduction and then five main chapters that, essentially, deal with Tolkien’s take on “history” as expressed through his story about the One Ring.
Chapter one treats Tolkien’s literary expression of divine creation; chapter two shows how that perfect harmony was disrupted by evil; chapter three deals with how such evil can be combated; chapter four allows Wood to show Tolkien’s vision of redemption; and chapter five illuminates a harmony regained.
It must be said that Wood’s book really deals with Tolkien’s literary work—not Peter Jackson’s popular film realization. So, the book is packed with names and events that will be unfamiliar to those knowledgeable only about the films.
For example, chapter one, which deals with Tolkien’s fantastical version of creation, relies on Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. That work, while part of Tolkien’s mythology, really finds no outlet in the films. However, Wood’s work will give fans of the films some interesting background and make their movie experience more enjoyable.
Wood points out a variety of themes that should interest Christian readers: the reality of death; the presence of hope; the relationship of humanity to earth; the nature of consumption; a reliance on technology; the power of one’s tongue; the call to a quest; the importance of community.
Wood also states that even though Tolkien was fascinated by ancient and heroic Germanic cultures, his devout Catholicism found them lacking because they were not buttressed by a reliance on ultimate good. Thus, Tolkien embraced the hope offered by Christianity and infused his mythology with it.
Wood also deals with how the fellowship exhibits Christian qualities of faith, hope and love. This chapter, “The Lasting Corrective: Tolkien’s Vision of the Redeemed Life,” is particularly worthy as it deals more in depth with the characters of Sam Gamgee (Ring-bearer Frodo’s trusted servant and friend) and Gollum (a former Ring-bearer now consumed by lust for the Ring).
“Nowhere is The Lord of the Rings made more manifestly Christian than in its privileging of pity—mercy and forgiveness—as it central virtue,” Wood writes. He must certainly be right, and those familiar with the interactions of Gollum, Frodo and Bilbo will know why. Those unfamiliar with the tale should use Wood’s book as an opportunity to pick up Tolkien and learn why his character Gandalf tells Frodo, “The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.”
The book’s last chapter may be necessary from a “there and back again” perspective, but it reads anti-climactically instead of forcefully and inevitably. The book would perhaps resonate more powerfully had it ended with the more interesting chapter four—and Wood’s claim that Bilbo’s pity of Gollum “is the key to our own transformation as well.”
Along the route of analysis, Wood deals with the nature of truth, and whether it can be revealed through fantasy. He also considers some of the larger complaints about Tolkien’s work: that it’s male-centered, not relevant to urban existence, and that it shouldn’t serve to springboard Christian readers into fun parallels with the Gospel.
All in all, The Gospel According to Tolkien is another worthy addition to this series examining popular culture phenomena. Anyone serious about understanding faith dimensions to Tolkien’s masterpiece would no doubt benefit from having Wood’s book on the shelf.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
Buy the book now from Amazon.com.