Christ in Middle Earth

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken January 11, 2004

It is rare for a movie to attract as large and as wide an interest as The Return of the King, which is the final episode of an epic film trilogy based on The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. The films are of particular interest to Christians because they reflect a generally Christian view of the world. According to Tolkien's own testimony, the first draft of The Lord of the Rings was an implicit expression of his faith, but its final version was explicitly and self-consciously Christian [see Andrew Coffin, “Baptized Imagination,” World (December 20,2003), p. 20]. Although the books are not allegorical like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, they are deeply Christian in their general perspective and in many of their specific motifs.

What especially interests me is the number of characters whose actions seem to exemplify the ministry of Jesus Christ. Many books and movies center on a single protagonist—the hero who drives the story. What distinguishes The Lord of the Rings and enables it to hold people's interest for ten hours of movie-watching, is the unusually large number of heroic figures. There are faithful hobbits, brave dwarfs, wise elves—even some heroes and heroines from the race of men. And by their actions, many of the central characters in the trilogy remind us of Christ in his service and sacrifice.

This is perhaps most obvious in the character of Frodo Baggins, the brave hobbit who is called to destroy the one ring of power in the cracks of Mount Doom. The fate of Middle Earth rests on his shoulders, because unless the ring is destroyed, the dark lord Sauron will destroy everything that is good. Frodo has many helpers and companions, but he alone bears the heavy burden of the ring and must carry it to the very fires of hell. Although the ring is not a burden of sin, Frodo's heroic act reminds of the Savior who carried the great weight of our iniquity all by himself (see Isa. 53:4-6), enduring the fires of hell to bring salvation.

Then there is the great wizard Gandalf, on whom all the other heroes and heroines depend for counsel. He is like Christ because of his wisdom, and also because he goes through a type of resurrection. At the end of the first movie (The Fellowship of the Ring), a horrible, fiery Balrog drags Gandalf down to the depths of the earth. His companions give him up for dead. But in the second movie (The Two Towers) he comes back, as if from the dead, and he is shimmering with glorious light. To the amazement of his followers and friends, he has slain the Balrog and returned to help them on to victory. Again we are reminded of Christ, who was buried in the depths of the grave, who descended into hell, and who rose again in a glorious body of resurrection light. This is the gospel: Jesus died, Jesus was buried, and Jesus rose again to bring salvation to all who trust in him (see 1 Cor. 15:1-4).

Another Christ-figure in The Lord of the Rings is the elf princess Arwen Evenstar, the daughter of the elf king Elrond. Arwen is like Christ because for the sake of love, she takes on the suffering limitations of mortality. The other elves leave Middle Earth and pass on to the West, where they will live forever. But Arwen chooses a different path. She falls in love with a man—Aragorn—and promises to remain with him in Middle Earth. This will bring her great suffering because eventually her beloved will die, and she herself will suffer the loss and grief that come with mortality. This reminds us of Jesus Christ in the suffering limitations of his humanity. When he came to earth, God the Son was choosing to follow the path of suffering, loss, grief, and death (see Phil. 2:5-8).

This brings us, finally, to Aragorn himself, who at the end of the story becomes the ruler of Gondor and the high king of Middle Earth. It is his return to which the title of the third film refers. And he too is like Christ. He is like Christ in the bold stand that he takes against evil, rushing the gates of Mordor to make a frontal assault on its diabolical lord. Aragorn is also like Christ in his royal kingship. In one of the movie's climactic moments, Aragorn is crowned as king at the very pinnacle of the great city of Minas Tirith, to the acclamation of his people.

But there is more. By itself, his coronation is incomplete. He must also take his beloved Arwen to be his beautiful bride. It is only when she steps forward to become his wife that the joy of Middle Earth is full. Here again is a picture of Christ and his gospel. Our story does not end with his triumph over evil through the cross and the empty tomb. Christ must also be crowned as king, and with his coronation there will be a wedding—the royal wedding in which Jesus takes the church to be his beautiful bride (see Eph. 5:25-32; Rev. 19:6-9).

This is the way that all the best stories end. The hero takes the burden of salvation upon himself, whatever hell he has to face. Out of seeming defeat he snatches ultimate victory, enduring suffering for the sake of love. And in the end he gets the girl.

Do you know why all the best stories seem to end this way? Because in the world there is only great story of salvation, which all the other good stories can only imitate. The Lord of the Rings is a better story than most because its mosaic of heroism produces a full, rich portrait of Jesus Christ.

[Many of the insights for this Window on the World came from a conversation with my colleague Dr. Bruce McDowell, who serves as Minister of Missions at Tenth Presbyterian Church].

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