Author J.R.R. Tolkien was a devout Catholic from an early age, even raised by a priest after his mother died. Later he became a professor at the University of Oxford. Even though Catholicism sincerely influenced his lifestyle, Tolkien stated that this series was written for his pleasure and not as an allegory. Yet he also maintained that The Lord of the Rings was a fundamentally religious work.
Some Tolkien readers see obvious links to Christianity. Frodo, is often seen as a depiction of Christ with readers pointing to his lowly nature as well as his burden and quest to rid Middle Earth of evil. Others find this explanation too simplistic, instead they see three characters, Frodo, Gandalf and Aragorn, as representing Christ in The Lord of the Rings. Following that theory, Frodo represents the suffering Christ, Gandalf, the teacher Christ who wields great power and Aragorn is the triumphant Christ.
There are other similarities as well. Joseph Pearce, a professor of literature at Ave Maria University in Florida and a Tolkien scholar notes the parallels between the dates of Middle Earth and the unreformed Catholic calendar. According to the unreformed Catholic calendar, Christ was crucified and rose again on 25 March. The same date the ring is destroyed in Middle Earth.
“We have to be careful, because Tolkien explicitly warned against reading his work allegorically,” says Brigham Young University (BYU) historian Paul Kerry, co-author of The Ring and the Cross, a new book exploring the debate over whether The Lord of the Rings is a Christian or fantasy novel. “You can’t simply say, ‘Oh, this equals that.’ More fruitful is to look for correspondence, themes and patterns.”
The Christian argument becomes particularly messy at the end of the trilogy when Frodo chooses not to destroy the ring.
The Christian, perhaps, sees this moment of failure as a demonstration of the necessity of grace, the power of mercy and a witness to the workings of Providence. A secular perspective, however, might see the lure wealth and power hold for even an ordinary man.
“Those who wish to seek a Christian meaning in the end of the quest are able to do so; but it was not Tolkien’s primary purpose to expound one,” writes Ronald Hutton, a professor of history at the University of Bristol and a pagan expert, in his chapter of Kerry’s book titled “The Pagan Tolkien.”
Kerry seems to agree.
“The book upholds certain moral values. You have to piece the clues together on many levels.”
Which explains why Kerry chose to present his book as a debate. The Ring and the Cross engages scholars and readers in a lively discussion of whether The Lord of the Rings contains Christian influences or is simply a pagan fantasy. It presents different, sometimes even strongly contrary, points of view from scholars in such a way that they can be discussed civilly.
“I wanted readers to be able to weigh the arguments in the book and draw their own conclusions, based on the strength of the evidence presented and their own experience reading Tolkien’s masterpiece,” Kerry concludes.