Christianity in The Lord of the Rings (Part I): The Threefold Office

J.R.R. Tolkien’s legacy-defining book The Lord of the Rings is not an explicitly Christian work. In fact, Tolkien disliked on-the-nose allegory, when a story contains a one-to-one function to some exterior idea and permits a message to lead the story. Nonetheless, in a 1953 letter responding to a Father Robert Murray, Tolkien admitted the following of his magnum opus.

“The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 1981

There’s a wide range of symbolic elements in both the book and movie adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, so this article focuses on the figure of Christ, with follow-up posts to come on other Christian elements.

The Threefold Office

Throughout the Old Testament, priests, prophets, and kings appear repeatedly as important players in the biblical stories. Priests, like Melchizedek, intercede on the people’s behalf to God by sacrifice and service. Prophets, like Ezekiel and Zechariah, speak on God’s behalf. Kings, like King Solomon and King David, lead the people in economy, war, and culture, including the nation’s general orientation towards God. On this last point, I mean only that a devout king often inspires a devout nation, and a godless king encourages a godless nation.

Prophet (Elijah), Priest (Aaron), and King (David) figures of the Old Testament, representing the concept of the Threefold Office

The Catechism of the Catholic Church identifies Jesus as fulfilling all three roles simultaneously: “Jesus fulfilled the messianic hope of Israel in his threefold office of priest, prophet, and king.” This connection is between Jesus and the threefold office is evident in the name Christ, which comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Messiah, meaning “anointed”. In Israel, an anointing with oil was bestowed upon priests, kings, and sometimes prophets to consecrate them to God and commission these three offices for His purposes. Further, the Gospels evidence Christ’s life in terms of his roles as priest, prophet, and king. Jesus was the sacrifice for the atonement of sins, a role fulfilling that of the priest. Jesus foretold of his disciples’ persecution, his own crucifixion, and growth of the “kingdom” (the Church) satisfying that role of the prophet. Lastly, Jesus was explicitly crowned by thorns as King of the Jews in mockery, but rose again in kingship over death and the world.

Lewis, Tolkien, and the Threefold Office

Tolkien’s good friend C.S. Lewis similarly included the threefold office concept in his Chronicles of Narnia, wherein Aslan embodies priest, prophet, and king in direct allegory. Aslan is the sacrifice – a role of a priest in both servitude and offering of sacrifice. He is prophetic, knowing things that must come to pass and possessing foreknowledge of his own fate. Lastly, Aslan is the king of Narnia, a mighty warrior, and commander of many creatures.

Tolkien, unlike Lewis, didn’t like direct allegories, instead preferring symbolism interwoven subtly into the story. In fact, though devout, Tolkien didn’t write any overarching religion into Middle Earth, yet filled it with magic to serve as a conduit for religious symbolism. No single character embodies Jesus. Instead, the characters of Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn embody priest, prophet, and king, respectively.

Frodo: The Priest

Frodo, a hobbit and the lead protagonist of The Lord of the Rings, is the priest because his story is entirely one of sacrifice. He leaves the comfort and safety of the Shire into a long journey of fear, danger, and injury to complete his mission in destroying the Ring.

“It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”

Frodo in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien

Christ is often described as both a Lion and a lamb. The lamb, as we recall, was often the subject of sacrifice in the Old Testament. Frodo is the “lamb” aspect of Christ, because Hobbits in general are peaceful, quiet, gentle creatures, but more importantly because Frodo endured the greatest sacrifice of the Fellowship. He willingly carried the burden of the Ring, which represents the burden of the world’s sin that Christ carried.

Like all three Christ-figures in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo undergoes a Christ-like death and rebirth in two instances: 1) in Shelob’s lair where he is tranquilized and wrapped in the giant spider’s webbings, mimicking the burial shroud that Jesus was buried in, and 2) his entry into Mount Doom to destroy the Ring and subsequent victorious emergence, mirroring what is called the “Harrowing of Hell”. An integral part of the Christian faith as mentioned in the Apostle’s Creed, the Harrowing of Hell is the descent of Christ into Hell (or Hades) after the Crucifixion. Christ has taken upon the sins of the world just as Frodo has taken upon the burden of the Ring for the sake of all Middle Earth. Both emerge victorious: Christ from the Dead, and Frodo from Mordor.

Lastly, Frodo is not a warrior. The Jewish people believed (and to my knowledge still believe) the Messiah would be a conqueror or more likely a political leader that would free Israel, acting as a savior for the Jewish people from their persecution. Instead, Christ was something quite different. Likewise, Frodo was just a hobbit – the smallest of all the intelligent creatures of Middle Earth– not a great elven warlord or king among men.

Gandalf: The Prophet

Next, Gandalf, who goes by many names, serves the role of The Prophet, which is a role primarily of knowledge. Gandalf demonstrates prophetic characteristics throughout The Lord of the Rings, such as knowing the ancient histories of Middle Earth, its deepest mystical elements, and some ability to sense future events and possibilities.

Another more surface-level point of similarity between Gandalf and Jesus is that both essentially work miracles – Jesus through his nature as God incarnate and Gandalf through what we call magic – but magic and miracles might just as well be the same thing. Gandalf, like Christ, was also sent to Earth by the Valar (the highest beings of Tolkien’s lore) for a purpose, namely to help Middle Earth in its struggle with evil.

Gandalf’s death and rebirth is the most obvious, as he dies after defeating the Balrog in the depths of the earth and is “sent back” as Gandalf the White. Interestingly, in this encounter with the Balrog, Gandalf also refers to himself as a “servant of the secret fire”, where secret fire or holy fire is an ancient reference to the Holy Spirit.

“‘You cannot pass,’ he said. The orcs stood still, and a dead silence fell. ‘I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.'”

Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

But the death/rebirth nature is also alluded to in the Battle of Helm’s Deep, as Gandalf leaves them to find aid. He says he will return on the 5th day, much like Jesus foretold to his disciples (though through allegory) that He would rise on the 3rd day after his death. (An aside: Recall how Aragorn demonstrated his faith in Gandalf when he convinced King Theoden to ride out into the enemy; betting that Gandalf would indeed return with aid as promised on the morning of the 5th day.)

Aragorn: The King

Lastly, Aragorn embodies the kingly aspect of Christ. Aragorn’s transformation from a simple ranger to king of Gondor mimics the rise of Christ as the Messiah out of the small town of Nazareth. Aragorn’s lineage to Isildur is a central point of his storyline as well, much like the importance of Jesus’ lineage to David:

“I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, and am called Elessar, the Elfstone, Dúnadan, the heir of Isildur Elendil’s son of Gondor.”

Aragorn speaking to Éomer in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien

Further, Aragorn is the direct descendent of the Men of Numenor – the original race of men in Middle Earth whose descendants populated the land. The Numenorians were described in the books as living longer and retaining an air of magic more than the other men in the times of The Lord of the Rings. Again, this seems to point towards something akin to Jesus’ relationship to the the Prophets in the Old Testament, many of whom lived much longer according to Biblical timelines.

Humility is a key descriptor to both Christ and Aragorn in their kingly roles. One of my favorite scenes in all the movies is when Aragorn, newly crowned king, bows to the smallest of them all, the four hobbits, and says, “My friends…you bow to no one.” Christ did the same; washing the feet of his disciples as a servant, though he was the Messiah and Son of God.

Nonetheless, current leadership despised both Aragorn and Christ. Leading powers in Gondor, primarily the steward Denethor, were loathe to submit the throne of Gondor to this ranger from the North. In the Gospels, the elites – mostly consisting of priests – plotted against Jesus because he threatened their power.

Regarding Aragorn’s death and rebirth experience, he (very symbolically) descends into the Halls of the Dead – a clear pointer toward Christ’s descent into Hell after the crucifixion. And while in the Halls of the Dead, Aragorn by his lineage demonstrates his command over the dead, the ghosts of past warriors. This scene is ripe for analogy to the harrowing of Hell and Christ’s victory over death itself by walking out of his own tomb.

If Frodo is the lamb-like aspect of Christ, Aragorn is the “Lion”, as he’s a fearless and skilled warrior that ends as the King of Gondor and leads the final battle against Sauron. This appears to mirror that aspect of Christ which comes out in the book of Revelations – where Christ leads his army in a final battle against Satan.

Conclusions

This sums up how Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn together represent Christ by the Threefold Office of priest, prophet, and king. This triune allegory of Christ also brings to mind the Trinity and how all three members of the fellowship were necessary to defeating Lord Sauron.

There is much more Christian symbolism riddling the pages of The Lord of the Rings to cover, including the Ring, Sauron, figures such as Galadriel and Faramir, and more – all to be covered in a future post. In fact, I think the Threefold Office symbolism to be one of the least interesting – though most significant – Christian elements in the books, so I’m saving the best for later. Stay tuned.

Books to Read

Published by Christian Poole

Catholic | Father | Husband | Founder of ThinkingWest .com

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