As a director at Manitoba Pioneer Camp, I gave a series of morning devotional table talks over the course of three summers based on The Lord of the Rings. Staff would act out a scene, and then I would give a short reflection based on it. The practice of reading Tolkien with a view to preaching to children was really tremendous fun. It’s wonderful material for talking about Christian themes. While it’s purposely unallegorical – there is no equivalent to the incarnation in Middle-earth – it does concern a world that needs saving, and an unseen divine force that saves it.
For my talks, I focused on a theme for each book of the trilogy: “Call” in The Fellowship of the Ring; “Faith” in The Two Towers; and “Freedom” in The Return of the King. The threefold pattern of call, faith, and freedom describes, in my view, both the overall shape of the salvation of Middle-earth and the trajectories of the individuals involved.
The fellowship of the Ring is defined by its call and its task. At the formation of the fellowship in Rivendell, Elrond says that they have been called there: “Called, I say, though I have not called you to me, stranger 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.” The fellowship is not bound together by any oaths, and its task is to participate in the redemption of a world threatened by encroaching enslavement. That is, the task is neither to escape Middle-earth to the Grey Havens, nor to hunker down in the various unspoiled bastions that provide them hospitality – Tom Bombadil’s house, Rivendell, and Lothlorien.
The fellowship is also spiritually equipped to carry out its mission. A particularly clear example of this is the way that the Phial of Galadriel, a crystal that held the light of a star, comes to Sam’s aid when he fights off Shelob the spider. It does not give him super-hobbit strength, but confirms and strengthens him – in fact it makes him more himself: “and he was Samwise the hobbit, Hamfast’s son, again” (The Two Towers).
So too the community of God is called into being, defined by its task, and spiritually equipped for that task. “You did not choose me; I chose you” (John 15:16) said Jesus to the disciples. And we are not called to seek to escape a general perdition by way of rapture, nor to carve out communities of purity within a sullied world, but to announce and participate in the redemption of this world. We live not by optimism, but by cold hard Christian hope, which, like the Phial of Galadriel, may lie dormant but then suddenly shine with the light of the resurrection, and make us most ourselves again.
Middle-earth is saved through a series a covenants that hold through adversity: the covenant of the fellowship of the Ring and the covenant of the old alliance between Rohan and Gondor, through personal allegiances, such as that of Pippin to the Steward of Gondor, and through personal loyalties, such as those between Gandalf and Faramir. The word “faith” comes up fairly often throughout all three books, and it always refers to keeping such covenants. It’s a matter of keeping, proving, or breaking faith. It’s not a matter of “having faith” in the sense of merely believing something to be the case. Faith means faithfulness.
The triumph of the fellowship and of Gandalf’s allied forces is the triumph of covenant faithfulness. Aragorn, at his coronation, says of Gandalf, “he has been the mover of all that has been accomplished, and this is his victory” (The Return of the King). Gandalf exercises his power and authority by building alliances, and by calling people to remain faithful to alliances.
In one sense, the fellowship ultimately fails when Frodo, at the supreme moment, breaks faith by betraying the fellowship’s task. But in that moment it is his personal faithfulness to Gollum – not a member of the fellowship – that strangely saves the day, and in a most unanticipated way. In The Two Towers, Faramir had advised Frodo at the Forbidden Pool to ditch Gollum, and Frodo had answered, “I have promised many times to take him under my protection and to go where he led. You would ask me to break faith with him?” Frodo’s refusal to break faith with Gollum is mysteriously key to the mission’s completion.
So too the word “faith” in the New Testament is always covenantal in meaning – it refers to the covenant between God and God’s people, the covenant which is Jesus Christ. And so too the disciples fail Jesus, and the Church signally and continuously fails in its mission, and most pointedly, Judas betrayed Christ. Yet “if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).
The story concerns the redemption of the Middle-earth, that is, securing its freedom over the unfreedom of coercive and manipulative mastery.
The act of redemption, of movement from unfreedom to freedom, is perhaps most evident in King Théoden. In his first introduction in The Two Towers, Théoden is holed up in Meduseld, the Golden Hall, telling himself that he is free from commitments and ties, free to exercise power over his people, free to pursue self-interest and self-sufficiency. His information-diet is limited to the manipulative hissings of Wormtongue, who really serves Saruman (ultimately disloyally), who in turn really serves Sauron (ultimately disloyally). There is a whole chain of coercion and manipulation. The substance of the lies is, on the one hand, that the world is basically dark, menacing, and hopeless, and on the other hand, that Théoden is weak, helpless, and besieged.
Gandalf bursts into this prison of shadows like glorious day, exposing the lies and calling Théoden to remember his real self, strength, and commitments. He calls him to covenant faithfulness, to honour the old alliance between Gondor and Rohan. Finally, in The Return of the King, we see Théoden most gloriously free in the muster of Rohan on behalf of this covenant, “Ride now! Ride to Gondor!”, and supremely, in his final moments, “Up Eorlingas! Fear no darkness!” He is most free when he keeps those commitments he willingly entered.
Those who try to serve themselves, such as Wormtongue and Saruman, end up inadvertently serving an unworthy lord who rules through coercion and manipulation. Those who find freedom find it in serving a worthy lord. Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn are lords worth serving because they enact their lordship through service. Aragorn says of Gandalf, “He has passed through the fire and the abyss. We will go where he leads.”
So too, the gospel concerns the redemption of the world from its state of enslavement. And so too in this world, we foolishly seek our freedom by exercising mastery over others, while true freedom is found in service of the author of peace and lover of concord: “To serve you is perfect freedom” (Book of Alternative Services, Collect for Peace). And so too we have a captain who has passed through fire and the abyss, and we will follow where he leads us. He is a lord worth serving, for he exercises his lordship in serving us. “For we were called to freedom, brothers and sisters” (Galatians 5:13).
In short, I see in The Lord of the Rings the imprint of the basic shape of the gospel in the pattern of call, faith, and freedom. We are called in Christ, for Christ was first called; we are faithful in Christ, for Christ was first faithful; and we are free in Christ, for Christ was first free. This is the shape of the Christian life. And it is so because this is also the shape of the salvation of the world, through the election, covenant faithfulness, and redemption of Jesus Christ.