Middle Earth is full of characters exhibiting Christian symbolism through their words, actions, and relationships, as covered in Parts I, II, and III of this series on Christianity in The Lord of the Rings. However, the Christian symbolism extends beyond characters to include objects and places. Already, the Ring was covered in Part III due to its inseparable ties to the figures of evil. In this Part IV, other significant objects and places are highlighted for their relation to Christian theology.
Missed Part III? See it here: Part III: Evil in Middle Earth
The Light of Galadriel
The light of Galadriel, given to Frodo in the form of a phial containing water holding the light of Earendil’s star, was often a saving grace to Frodo throughout his journey, from aiding in the defeat of Shelob, to comforting Frodo when resisting the Ring, to helping Sam get past the bewitched barriers at Cirith Ungol.
The light of Galadriel resembles in both name and function the light of Christ.
“Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”John 8:12
Galadriel, in Christ-like fashion, offers her light freely to Frodo as a gift. Through the light of Galadriel, evil is repelled, temptation is subsided, and seemingly impossible barriers lifted. Likewise, the light of Christ pushes away the darkness, drives sin out of our hearts, and is the source of miracles.
Lembas bread is the mysterious and elevated waybread of the elves. As any Catholic might quickly realize, lembas bread is Tolkien’s hint at the eucharist – the real body of Christ consumed at every Mass. In The Return of the King, quite some time after the elves gifted it to the fellowship, Tolkien wrote the following concerning this special food of the elves:
“The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam’s mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats. And yet, this way bread of the Elves had potency that increased as travelers relied upon it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.”
This spectacular sustenance provided by the elven waybread recalls miraculous stories of saints, such as St. Catherine of Siena, St. Joseph Cupertino, and St. Catherine of Genoa, who lived on the Eucharist alone for periods far beyond what is physically thought possible.
Further, Tolkien indicates that the elven waybread is more than just a “super food” that sustains one physically on long journeys, but that it “fed the will”. This feeding of the will, in a world devoid of an explicit religion, invites an interpretation of the “will” to mean the “spirit”. This spiritual feeding again mirrors the purpose of the Eucharist, as described by the Catechism:
“What material food produces in our bodily life, Holy Communion wonderfully achieves in our spiritual life. Communion with the flesh of the risen Christ, a flesh “given life and giving life through the Holy Spirit,” preserves, increases, and renews the life of grace received at Baptism. This growth in Christian life needs the nourishment of Eucharistic Communion, the bread for our pilgrimage until the moment of death, when it will be given to us as viaticum.”1392, Catechism of the Catholic Church
Recall the detail provided by Tolkien that “this way bread of the Elves had potency that increased as travelers relied upon it alone and did not mingle it with other foods.” While seemingly minor, this point reflects Tolkien’s understanding of the Eucharist, as the Catechism also describes how the Eucharist works to disengage us from our worldly dependence:
” As bodily nourishment restores lost strength, so the Eucharist strengthens our charity, which tends to be weakened in daily life; and this living charity wipes away venial sins. By giving himself to us Christ revives our love and enables us to break our disordered attachments to creatures and root ourselves in him”1394, Catechism of the Catholic Church
The more the Fellowship relied on the lembas bread alone, the more effective it was in sustaining them physically and spiritually. Likewise, the more we depend on Christ alone, the less we will depend on the things of this world.
The Creation Story
The creation story of Middle Earth shares several commonalities with the Genesis account, with both establishing one supreme creator, a number of subordinate but powerful creations (the Valar, much like angels), and the conjuring of all matter and life out of prior nothingness.
Even the acts of creation themselves bear striking similarities. In Tolkien’s Silmarillion, the supreme being called Eru Iluvatar created the world containing Middle Earth through the music or chanting of the Valar. Likewise, much of creation in Genesis is accomplished through God’s word, as he speaks things into existence. In both Tolkien’s work and Genesis, the “thought-made-audible” is the source of creation.
“Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”Genesis 1:3
This all ties into the concept of the Logos, the preexistent second nature of the Trinity that is Jesus Christ, or the Word.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. – John 1:1
I don’t pretend to fully understand of how the concepts of the Logos, Jesus Christ, and the speaking into existence all of creation tie together. However, I know enough to say that somehow speech is inherently tied to the emergence of order from chaos, as logical speech and language creates something – perhaps the concept of the idea – from nothing. Then, it is appropriate that Tolkien adhered to the archetypal creation story reliant on language, or song in his case.
Mordor and the Shire
Even the landscapes of Middle Earth mimic Christian concepts. The Shire exudes an Eden-like aura of peace, safety, plentiful food, and lots of sunshine. One had to leave to find danger until the Ring (sin) invited evil into the Shire. And, like in Genesis, once the Ring (sin) disrupted the harmony of the Shire (Eden), it was never the same. As mankind was barred from returning to Eden, so the hobbits returned from their long journey to destroy the ring only to find that Saruman had corrupted the Shire.
At the other end of the spectrum is Mordor, by all accounts a nod to Hell with its focus on darkness and fire – imagery made popular in the Christian imagination by Dante Alighieri. Mordor, like Hell, is the dwelling place of supreme evil in Middle Earth. Mordor is surrounded by mountains that isolate it from the world abroad, calling to mind the idea of Hell as a separation, albeit from God rather than a physical barrier.
In between Eden and Hell is where we are now – in the turmoil of Earth, a place of great graces and beauty, but also of evil. So, too, between the Shire and Mordor is a mix of beauty and corruption. Glimpses of Eden are found in the peace of Rivendell and the majesty of Minas Tirith. But between these glimpses are everywhere shadows from Mordor. Good or evil may be at every turn in Middle Earth and in our Earth, too.
No Religion in Middle Earth?
For a work so widely regarded as a Christian work, The Lord of the Rings curiously has no reference to organized religion, meaning the intelligent creatures of Middle Earth don’t seem to partake in explicit religious practice. Tolkien actually addressed this observation during an interview in the 1960s, concluding that such a religion with multiple gods of competing interests – like those of the ancient Greeks – did not make sense in a world like Middle Earth. He further explains that, while there is no well-defined religion in his books, the lore supposes a religious acknowledgment of higher beings. For example, The Silmarillion clearly explains a religious or supernatural origin to Middle Earth. Nonetheless, in The Lord of the Rings books themselves, there is an acknowledgment by its characters of fate or purpose guiding their story. When Frodo laments of his ever having found the Ring, Gandalf responds:
“So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides that of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, in which case you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.”Gandalf to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings
Gandalf references “other forces at work…besides that of evil”, supposing there is such a force to oppose the obvious force of evil. This is interesting because it supports the modern inclination, even of non-religious people, to acknowledge the reality of evil. Evil, for whatever reason, is more recognizable to us than Good. Gandalf also says that Bilbo and Frodo were meant to the find the ring, implying there is a meaning or master plan to the events of Middle Earth.
The Norse Aesthetic
It’s no secret that Tolkien borrowed many names from Norse mythology, such as from the 13th century work Voluspa. For example, the dwarf Durin is borrowed directly from the Norse dwarf Durinn, and Gandalf is both a wizard in mythology and in Tolkien’s world. Many internet comments have pushed back against the idea of the The Lord of the Rings being an inherently Christian work because Tolkien drew significant inspiration from Norse mythology.
However, there are a few problems with taking a handful of references to Norse names and extrapolating this to become the fundamental lens through which all of Tolkien’s Middle Earth should be viewed. First, there is always a distinction between the form of something (in this case, a name) and its function. The forms of some Tolkien names are indeed Norse, but their functions are not to draw the reader into a Norse world, but rather to create an alternate, blended mythology for northwestern Europe. Second, Tolkien’s influences were not limited to that of Norse mythology, but also included obvious influences from his native country. The name “The Shire” is about as English as it gets. The third problem with the claim that The Lord of the Rings is not a Christian work is that Tolkien himself has refuted that idea in later correspondences, such as that quoted in Part I of this series on Christianity in The Lord of the Rings.
In true Tolkien fashion, myth, legend, religion, and history blend into a homogeneous yet decipherable mixture in the fantasy world of Middle Earth. As I’ve presented here and throughout this series, Tolkien’s Christian beliefs were dispersed throughout his magnum opus rather than summed up in one-to-one allegory.