Christian Heroism in J.R.R. Tolkien
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Heroism. Deeds of valor. Courage. Bravery. Chivalry. All of these phrases strike a deep and innate chord in men. We see it in boys. When I was about eight, my brother and I lived in an imaginary world of heroes. We were cowboys shooting it out with the outlaws. We were American soldiers storming the beaches of Normandy . We were Crusaders fighting the Muslim in the Holy Land. We were Robin Hood and Little John, thwarting the malicious Sheriff of Nottingham.
Grown men don't have the privilege of running around with wooden swords, so they express their sense of valor in different ways. They participate in the roughhousing of sports, watch movies like Braveheart, and sometimes, fight on behalf of their country.
It is no surprise then that millions of men and boys have eagerly devoured J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, first published in the 1950s, and the recently released movie adaptation by Peter Jackson. The story is chock-full of heroes (and villains) straight out of the epic world of Beowulf, Achilles, and yes, King David and Sampson.
What is so encouraging about Tolkien, however, and what we can fully embrace as Christian men, is his specific portrayal of Christian heroism through his characters. After all, paganism has a definition of heroism quite different from that of Christianity. Achilles was the greatest Greek warrior, yes, but his was a selfish thirst for immortality and glory through bloody carnage. The heroes of our day—we usually call them “celebrities”—are mostly defined by their immorality. In contrast, Tolkien offers us a version of heroism that is noble and righteous. We see three different levels of heroism present in his story.
By Sword and Bow
The first level of heroism that is easily recognizable is that which is expressed in physical courage exerted in a noble cause. The more prominent warriors in The Lord of the Rings —Aragorn, Boromir, Legolas, Gimli, and Faramir—are men you would not want to be on the wrong side of the battlefield against.
How many of us, if we had the choice of a noble or ignominious death, would rather die like Boromir, pierced with many arrows, broken sword in hand, with our dead enemies piled around us? Or would we not want to be like noble Aragorn, carrying his sword Andúril, “Flame of the West”, into battle, striking terror in the hearts of our enemies. Perhaps we would cry like Gimli “The axes of the dwarves! The axes of the dwarves are upon you!”
What is more important is that these heroes express their physical prowess and courage in the right direction. They fight because they must. If they sit idly by, the hosts of Mordor will overrun Middle-earth, destroying all that is good. War then is not for glory alone. As Faramir, the brother of Boromir, declares, “I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”1
In the Bible, physical courage is certainly extolled. David declares that “[The Lord] teaches my hands to make war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze….I have pursued my enemies and destroyed them; neither did I turn back again till they were destroyed. And I have destroyed them and wounded them, so that they could not rise; they have fallen under my feet. For You have armed me with strength for the battle; You have subdued under me those who rose against me.” (2 Samuel 22:35, 38-40) Throughout the history of Israel we read of brave men whom God raises up as mighty warriors. But their courage is always directed in the right cause. As Nehemiah declared to the people of Israel when their enemies were conspiring to thwart their work on the wall of Jerusalem : “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, great and awesome, and fight for your brethren, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your houses.” (Nehemiah 4:14)
The Hearts of Hobbits
There is another level of heroism in The Lord of the Rings , and it is represented by the hobbits: Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry. Unlike their companions, they are not fearsome warriors. Indeed, we learn that the race of hobbits does not boast of any warriors of renown, nor do they keep implements of war, but instead love peace and order. This puts them on more of the level of average people like you and me. The hobbits become warriors born out of necessity, and they fight with their hearts more than with great skill and prowess. Though they are often ignored when it comes to planning great battles, they have their great moments. Sam, in hot wrath over what appears to be the death of Frodo, fights the great spider Shelob in the passes of Cirith Ungol. Merry, left behind at the Battle of Pelennor Fields, arrives by stealth, and has a hand in the killing of the dreaded Witch-King, Lord of the Ringwraiths. Pippin, as a Guard of the Citadel in Minas Tirith, does not stand upon the walls of the city holding the orcs at bay with a mighty sword, but he saves the life of Faramir from the madness of Denethor. The hobbits are examples to us that we can be heroes with hearts of courage, even if we are not great warriors.
Bearing the Burden
The last type of heroism is hardly the least; in fact it may be the greatest. It is moral courage and internal strength, and it is best represented by Frodo.
Frodo is not a warrior. In fact, he is always being defeated. He is stabbed by the Witch-king on Weathertop. He is speared in the Mines of Moria. He is stung by Shelob. He must be rescued by Sam from the Tower of Cirith Ungol . In the end, he is too weak to climb up Mount Doom . He is ultimately overcome by the power of the Ring, and it is only by the actions of the sniveling wretch Gollum that the Ring is destroyed. Frodo is a failure—or is he?
For their worth, all the great warriors, even Gandalf himself, cannot bear the Ring. It is Frodo's task. And even all the great battles and deeds of valor are only a distraction to buy Frodo time.
Frodo must not slash through orcs to get to Mount Doom . Instead, Frodo has to fight an internal battle against the overwhelming evil of the Ring that is trying to destroy his very soul. He grows weaker and weaker, and yet somehow he continues. Frodo describes his situation like this: “No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it with my waking eyes, and all else fades.”2
In this way, Frodo's heroism reflects that of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Jesus did not come as a warrior-messiah, marching at the head of huge armies to defeat Rome . He came to defeat a much more terrible enemy. As Frodo bore the weight of the Ring, so Christ bore the terrible weight of sin, and struggled with the horror of enduring His Father's holy anger in full force. His soul was burdened to the point of death, and he too was separated from goodness as the wrathful countenance of His father bore in upon the stench of sin that lay upon Him. Both Frodo and Christ were heroes in an ironic way. They were heroes through weakness and defeat.
Frodo is like Christ, and yet he is not because he ultimately fails at his task. In this he is more like those of us who imperfectly follow Christ. As Leon J. Podles writes in Touchstone Magazine , “[Frodo] is a Christian hero because he shows the glory and inadequacy of heroism and indeed of all human effort. We do our best—and then we fail. Success comes from without, like a lightning bolt.”3
In Tolkien, then, we find exemplified through his memorable characters Christian heroism, whether it be expressed in physical skill, courageous hearts, or persevering wills. Let us then glean what encouragement we may, that we may stand strongly and boldly as men of God, both by sword and by Spirit.
1. The Two Towers, New York: Ballantine Books, page 314.
2. The Return of the King, pages 229-30
3. Leon J. Podles, “The Heroes of Middle Earth: J.R.R. Tolkien and the Marks of Christian Heroism,” Touchstone Magazine, www.touchstonemag.com/docs/issues/15.1docs/15-1pg29.html
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I liked the way you draw the comparison between Christian heroes, and other symbols of heroism since Achilles. At first I though you were stretching the point way too much. By the end of my reading, I know you make valid points for us - men and women - to consider deeply in our Christian lives. I was taken aback when you said Frodo and Christ were similar, but you did conclude with the wonderful quote that all human endeavor end in failure -- until Grace descends -- always unexpectedly. I thank you for opening my eyes to another perspective on Tolkien, in reality, a staunch Catholic.
Good writing. Excellent take on the Lord of the Rings. Certainly a different point of view than I have thought before. Refreshing. Thank you.