Finding God in Middle-earth
Good fairy tales can play an important role in the search for ultimate meaning and truth by presenting Christian themes about God and human destiny in a fresh, attractive, and non-biblical context.
Beautiful imaginary worlds peopled by archetypal heroes and villains, in which the role of free will, and the eternal consequences of human choices, are given a dramatic and ‘larger than life’ setting, can have a greater impact on spiritually lost but hungry hearts than a thousand sermons or church services. They can also refresh the spirits of Christian believers by widening and deepening their understanding of God’s nature, beauty, righteousness, and love. That, at any rate, was a vision shared by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and wonderfully displayed in Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien’s two epics about his imaginary world of Middle-earth, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.
Tolkien’s view of the role and importance of fairy tales
In Tolkien’s view the single most important fact about ourselves, as human beings, is that we are creatures made in the image of God, our creator. By creating an imaginary world, and imaginative beings like elves, and dwarves, and goblins, the writer of a ‘fairy story’ therefore takes on a subordinate but godlike role, acting as a ‘sub-creator’.
As a Christian, Tolkien believed that humanity’s powerful creative drive is rooted in a poignant longing to imitate our great Father in heaven by expressing ourselves through ‘making’ – whether that involves creating imaginary worlds or producing beautiful paintings or sculptures. As God’s children, we long to express our love for him, and our gratitude for his gift of life, by adding our own creaturely contribution to the wonders and beauty of his universe, including his gift of truth.
Tolkien believe the most important fact about human beings is that we are creatures made in the image of God
A powerful and beautiful fairy story can make such a creaturely contribution when it arouses our desire for the transcendent and the divine, gives us a fresh and heightened insight into the difference between good and evil, and dramatises and clarifies the nature of the conflict between them. When it succeeds in doing all of these things, it feeds our minds and nourishes our souls, and by doing so, gives us greater access to the mind and heart of our wonderful and loving creator.
Tolkien’s great rolling epic fairy tale about his fantasy world of Middle-earth, unfolded in The Lord of the Rings and its equally important companions, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion, is the supreme and greatest example of this kind of literature. But before discussing and illustrating some of its central themes, I must first draw your attention to Tolkien’s view of the link between the enjoyment of fairy tales and desire.
Speaking of his own childhood excursions into fantasy and faerie, Tolkien wrote:
At no time can I remember that the enjoyment of a story was dependent on belief that such things could happen, or had happened, in ‘real life’. Fairy stories were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded.
Tolkien’s friend and fellow Oxford academic, C.S. Lewis, believed that at some stage in their lives most human hearts are filled with an ‘inconsolable longing’ for some indefinable and transcendent beauty and reality behind or beyond the Universe, which may communicate itself through art, literature, and music, but is not identical with them, or with any other object of ordinary human experience. Lewis therefore concluded that this ‘inconsolable longing’ is an expression of humanity’s hunger for God, and evidence for his existence, since no earthly experience can satisfy or explain it. Tolkien took a similar view, which is reflected in his theory about the relationship between our attraction to fairy tales and fantasy, and the nature of the gospel story.
In a fallen world disfigured by evil, suffering and death, we yearn for the happy ending of the archetypal fairy tale
Tolkien believed that beautiful fairy tales offer us ‘A fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.’ As flawed human beings living in a fallen world disfigured by evil, suffering and death, we yearn for the happy ending of the archetypal fairy tale. We long to wake up from the nightmare of our existence and find ourselves in a world in which our loveliest visions of goodness and beauty have, beyond all hope, become a living and eternal reality. And in this attitude of mind, in this deep-seated orientation of our being, Tolkien and Lewis believed, we can see the providential goodness of God at work, for two reasons.
First, because our longing for ‘Joy beyond the walls of the world’ heightens and reinforces our dissatisfaction with our present state of being and existence, and therefore opens our hearts and minds to receive God and his truth.
Second, because our love of myths and fairy tales, implanted by divine providence, can predispose at least some of us to respond favourably to those aspects of the story of Christ that resemble a fairy tale or a ‘myth’ – but a ‘myth’ that came true.
The ‘fairy tale’ characteristics of the Gospel Story
A king visiting his people in the guise of a servant, unrecognised by them, and constantly threatened by the evil usurper who has seized his kingdom; a wandering prince leading a small band of devoted followers in a deadly struggle for the liberation of the poor and the oppressed; hidden majesty, heroism, and self-sacrifice; and finally, beyond all hope, life triumphing over death, joy over despair.
All these classic and romantic ingredients of countless myths and fairy tales are part of the greatest adventure story ever told – the wonderful story of Jesus, God the Son incarnate, coming down to the earth he created to redeem and rescue his lost children, and destroy the power of their evil oppressor, Satan.
Is it just a happy accident that God’s great plan of redemption has this ‘fairy tale’ quality, so appealing to the human heart and imagination? Or is it part of a beautiful pattern deliberately woven in eternity – like a recurring movement in some divine symphony whose music began before the dawn of time and made all worlds?
To quote Tolkien’s answer to this question:
I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures [i.e. creative creatures], men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy stories…But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfilment of Creation.
This truth conveyed by Tolkien, played a key role in C.S. Lewis’s own conversion to Christianity. To quote Lewis’s version of the same argument:
The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact…It happens – at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences…By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.
Christian themes in The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings
The overarching biblical themes of creation ex-nihilo, the fall of angels and humans, providence and redemption, are clearly mirrored in the history of Middle-earth and the stories involving its central characters. However, as Tolkien himself insisted, this does not mean that his work is allegorical in the strictest sense of that word. For example, in Tolkien’s world there is no obvious Christ-like figure to fulfil the same redemptive role played by the great lion Aslan in Lewis’s imaginary world of Narnia. But it is undoubtedly true, as Tolkien admitted, that only a Christian author and believer could possibly have written The Lord of the Rings and, above all, The Silmarillion.
The Christian and biblical roots of Tolkien’s imagination clearly reveal themselves in the very first pages of The Silmarillion, most of which deals with the ‘Elder Days’ – the ‘First Age’ of Middle-earth – that ‘heroic’ period of ancient history on which some of the principal figures in The Lord of the Rings look back with a mixture of nostalgia, awe, and sadness.
The Christian and biblical roots of Tolkien’s imagination reveal themselves in the very first pages of The Silmarillion
The Silmarillion begins with the appearance of the eternal self-existent creator God of Tolkien’s imaginary world, whose elvish names, ‘Eru’ and ‘Iluvatar’, are highly significant. Eru means ‘The One’ or ‘He that is Alone’, and Iluvatar means ‘Father of All’, so the biblical parallels are obvious. There then follows a narrative of creation, rebellion and fall whose biblical parallels are again unmistakable, starting with Iluvatar’s creation of the Ainur, angelic beings described as ‘the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought.’
These originally holy, immortal, beautiful and powerful angelic beings are then invited by Iluvatar to co-operate with him in the creation of the universe and all forms of life, by participating in a great creative ‘music’ whose origin and inspiration springs from the mind of Iluvatar, their maker. At first, all these angelic beings (or subordinate ‘gods’ & ‘goddesses’) are content to contribute their particular gifts and powers to this process of divine creation, weaving their own subordinate musical themes and melodies into the central symphonic movement emanating from Iluvatar. But then one of them rebels, Melkor, the most powerful and gifted of them all. ‘As the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Iluvatar,’ for he wanted ‘to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.’
Note the parallels between this description of Melkor’s rebellious self-centred motivation and the Bible’s description of the rebellion and fall of Lucifer/Satan:
How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! …You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God…I will make myself like the Most High.’ (Isaiah 14:12–14)
Melkor’s rebellion introduces discordance into the ‘music’ of creation, ending its original harmony. But his discordant themes are then taken up by Iluvatar and woven into a new symphonic movement, beautiful but sorrowful, symbolising the ultimate overcoming of evil by good, but at terrible cost.
Spiritual significance of three Elvish names
The subsequent opening chapters of The Silmarillion go on to describe the spiritual and physical consequences of this originally beautiful, tragically spoiled, but redeemed ‘music’ of creation. The first is the creation of Tolkien’s physical universe, whose Elvish name, Eä, means, significantly, ‘It is’ or ‘Let it be’. This is morally and spiritually significant, because it is reminiscent of the words of creation used by God in the first chapter of Genesis. In Tolkien’s world, like our own, all things were created out of nothing by God, and therefore all those made in Iluvatar’s image – be they angelic beings, Elves, Dwarves, or men and women – rightfully owe him unconditional gratitude, love, trust and obedience.
In Tolkien’s universe, the Earth is called Arda, an Elvish word meaning ‘The Realm’. Again, we see the Christian roots of Tolkien’s imaginary world, since the English word, ‘Realm’, means ‘royal domain’ or ‘kingdom’. This Elvish name given to Tolkien’s Earth therefore reinforces the spiritual message conveyed by that given to his universe. As its creator, Iluvatar is its rightful king, just as our own world belongs, by right, to Christ through whom ‘all things were made.’ (John 1:3). Unfortunately, Christ’s kingship has been usurped by Satan, which is why Jesus describes our enemy correctly as ‘the Prince of this world’ (John 14:30), and Tolkien’s narrative develops a similar theme.
In Tolkien’s world, like our own, all things were created out of nothing by God
Just as Satan’s oppressive rule and power ultimately lies behind all the evil and suffering we see around us, living as we do in an originally good but now spoiled creation, so in The Silmarillion we see the same situation. Tolkien’s world of Arda is also, in the beginning, a beautiful planet, because it is created with love by the music of the Ainur, working in harmony with the great symphonic theme of Iluvatar. But it is subsequently damaged – physically and morally – by the ugly music and power of Melkor. Later in The Silmarillion, Melkor is renamed Morgoth by the Elves, meaning ‘the Black Enemy’. This again echoes the Bible since the word ‘Satan’ means ‘adversary’ – the one who opposes God and therefore all his plans and children.
Melkor/Morgoth’s rebellion initiates a titanic struggle for the control of Arda between him, the original and most powerful ‘Dark Lord’ of Tolkien’s fantasy world, and the rest of the Ainur, who remain faithful to Iluvatar. The Ainur exercise Iluvatar’s delegated authority as the legitimate ruling ‘guardians’ or ‘powers’ of Arda, watching over the fate and lives of all the other living creatures. The Elves rename these ruling angelic beings Valar, meaning ‘the Powers of the World’, and they take shape as ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses’ in Arda. They dwell in Valinor, the ‘Blessed Realm’ – a distant, protected, and supremely beautiful ‘heavenly’ kingdom situated the other side of a great ocean, ‘West’ of Middle-earth, but still part of the same planet of Arda.
The struggle against evil in The Silmarillion, personified by Morgoth and the evil spirits and creatures who serve him, takes place during the ‘First Age’ of Middle-earth – the ‘Elder Days’. The conflict involves not only the Valar, but also Elves, Dwarves and Men, whose creation, first appearance, and interrelationships, forms a fascinating part of this first and little read portion of Tolkien’s history of Middle-earth.
A central theme: evil results from the corruption of the good
The brief but poignant explanation of the origin of Tolkien’s goblin figures, the Orcs, who loom so large in the drama of The Lord of the Rings, is an equally fascinating little section of The Silmarillion. The first Orcs were originally Elves, kidnapped, tortured, and remade by Morgoth:
By slow arts of cruelty [these captive Elves] were corrupted and enslaved; and thus did Melkor breed the hideous race of Orcs in envy and mockery of the Elves, of whom they were afterwards the bitterest foes…And deep in their dark hearts the Orcs loathed the Master whom they served in fear, the maker only of their misery. This it may be was the vilest deed of Melkor, and the most hateful to Iluvatar.
To those, like me, for whom the beauty and goodness and immortality of the Elves is one of the greatest and most moving products of Tolkien’s extraordinary imagination, that revelation is truly shocking, if heartbreakingly true to spiritual reality.
In the origin of the Orcs we see the Christian and biblical roots of Tolkien’s imaginary world
This theme of the corruption of what was originally good is central to Tolkien’s narrative. This corruption enters creation by the fall: in Tolkien’s world, of Melkor/Morgoth – and in ours, of Lucifer/Satan. In both worlds nothing was evil in the beginning given that all forms of life were brought into existence by a holy and loving creator. Thus in the origin of the Orcs we see the Christian and biblical roots of Tolkien’s imaginary world, and his ability to imagine the horror, pain, sorrow and anger that was surely in God’s heart when he looked upon the corruption of his children, angelic and human, brought about by Satan’s great rebellion.
The struggle between good and evil in The Silmarillion ends with the final destruction of Morgoth’s oppressive rule over Middle-earth, and his final demise. But the victory over this first and most terrible ‘Dark Lord’ which ends the First Age of Middle-earth is not a final one. Evil takes shape again in the person of Sauron, another of Tolkien’s fallen angelic beings, who is Morgoth’s cruellest and most powerful servant in The Silmarillion. Having escaped his Dark Master’s destruction, Sauron re-emerges in the Third Age of Middle-earth to become a second and almost equally terrible ‘Dark Lord’.
And this, of course, brings us to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, since both the finding of Sauron’s lost Ring of Power by Bilbo Baggins, and his nephew Frodo’s subsequent quest, many years later, to destroy it, forms the connecting thread between these two books, and their central culminating theme.
Subordinate Christian themes in The Lord of the Rings
Whilst Tolkien’s biblically rooted vision of the age-old struggle between good and evil continues to unfold in The Lord of the Rings, setting the context for the conflict between the ‘Dark Lord’ and the ‘free peoples of Middle-earth, numerous and equally important Christian sub-themes illuminate the narrative of the Lord of the Rings. These will be fully explored and illustrated in a subsequent paper, so watch this space! In the meantime, here is a provisional list of them:
- Our lives are part of a bigger story, whether we acknowledge it or not (as the Hobbits find out)
- Life in a fallen world is a journey, a battle, and a quest (ditto)
- The contrast between respect for life and the desire to nurture and protect it, and the desire for personal prestige, power, and dominion (Gandalf and the Elves versus Sauron and Saruman)
- The link between courage, mercy, faithful service, and God’s saving grace (Frodo’s mission to destroy the Ring saved from ultimate failure by Gollum’s attack and demise)
- God’s great secret: He chooses the ‘weak’ to accomplish his great purposes (Frodo and Sam)
- God is the creative source of all beauty, & our hearts are filled with an inconsolable longing for the beauty of heaven (the songs of the Elves about Valinor, ‘the Blessed Realm’)
- The servant nature of true kingship, whose majesty is often hidden but no less real (Aragorn)
 Unless otherwise stated, all quotations are drawn from J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay ‘On Fairy Stories’
 C.S. Lewis, ‘Myth Became Fact’ in C.S. Lewis: Essay Collection & Other Short Pieces, Harper Collins, 2000, p.141.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘The Music of the Ainur’, The Silmarillion, George Allen & Unwin, 1977.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘Of the coming of the elves’ The Silmarillion, George Allen & Unwin, 1977.