Reading The Lord of the Rings—this time as an adult—remains an overwhelming experience
By Gene Edward Veith

Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart.”

That blurb on the back cover of the old Ballentine edition of The Lord of the Rings captured exactly the way I felt, as a 14-year-old having just finished the last book of Tolkien’s trilogy. The comment seemed so apt that the name of the critic stuck in my mind: someone named C.S. Lewis. Not too long after that, I was browsing in a bookstore and saw his name on a book of his own: Screwtape Letters. I opened it up and saw that it had been dedicated to J.R.R. Tolkien. Surely, I had to read this book by someone whose taste in literature was so much like mine. Eventually, I would read Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which opened up to my broken heart the sword-piercing beauties of Christianity.

Still later, when I was in college, an off-handed remark about “the one ring” helped me connect with a young woman who turned out also to be a big Tolkien fan. We ended up getting married. Which led to having our children.

How odd that a work of fantasy should have such an impact in my real world. While many Tolkien fans re-read the trilogy over and over, I never did, being content to keep savoring my first impression. Now that a trilogy of movies is coming out based on Tolkien’s saga—the first of which, The Fellowship of the Ring, is scheduled for release on Dec. 19—I resolved to ready myself by reading the books again.

Then I was 14; now I am 50. Then I was just waking up to a love of reading; now I am an English professor, a professional reader (something else I probably owe to the impact of the trilogy). Then my world was a lot smaller and my experiences much more limited than they are now, after 36 years of living. Reading it again after all those years, I could remember how the different events in the story struck me the first time and compare that with my reactions as I am today. I know I understood it better this time—seeing it not as just a children’s book but as a work that raises issues only adults can fully grasp—and I can say that it was just as good and maybe better the second time around.

“The world changes,
and all that once was strong now proves unsure. How shall any tower withstand such numbers and such reckless hate?”

—The Two Towers

Fittingly, my reading project had an auspicious beginning. I started The Fellowship of the Ring in earnest the week after the Sept. 11 attacks. I was taking my first plane trip after the hijackings, one of the few passengers in a big airliner bound for Detroit, uneasy, frisked at the gate, still overwhelmed by the magnitude of the assault upon our country.

Here I was, reading about those complacent, ordinary, homebound folks, the hobbits, whose comfortable lives were interrupted by the Shadow. In the weeks ahead, as our nation geared for war, and then as our forces attacked, what I was reading had a special resonance. It was not just that Tolkien kept referring to two towers, or the suspense that kept building through the first two books and the weeks after the attack that would finally break out in a spectacular war. Here was the city of Gondor, a once great civilization in palpable decline, having to regain its history and its nerve. Here, for all of the military exploits of great warriors, the real heroism was on display in ordinary folks that the high and mighty had always overlooked.

As I was flying in that airplane under terrorist alert and reading my book, something else compounded my intimations of mortality: turning 50. The AARP sign-up cards had already arrived in the mail, I was feeling my age, and I had been finding myself fantasizing about retirement. But before we landed in Detroit, I read about how both Bilbo and Frodo began their adventures on their 50th birthdays. I left the plane oddly exhilarated.

“Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the GoldenWood as in his own house.”
—The Two Towers

As Lewis tells the story of his conversion in Surprised by Joy, it was Tolkien’s witnessing—and his arguments—that led him away from atheism into the Christian faith. Those stories they both loved, drawn from legend and fantasy, about a Dying God, about resurrection and redemption: These are not just myths, Tolkien argued. They became true in the Jesus Christ of history. Jesus is really who He said He was, God in the flesh, who died and rose again to bring human beings new life.

When Lewis accepted this truth, he became a great apologist for the faith. Tolkien, on the other hand, kept writing fantasy.

Some Christians are leery of fantasy, even of Tolkien’s, which contains wizards, wraiths, and the demonic Sauron, who is, in fact, the Lord of the Ring. Might reading this sort of thing lead to meddling in the occult? In the debate over Harry Potter, defenders but also some critics of J.K. Rowling’s wildly popular children’s novels about a school for witches are saying that The Sorcerer’s Stone is no different from The Lord of the Rings.

But there is a difference. As Richard Adanes, author of Harry Potter and the Bible, points out, Tolkien’s Gandalf is not a wizard at all, in the Harry Potter sense; rather, in the Middle Earth universe, he is a being roughly equivalent to an angel. In The Silmarilion, in which Tolkien gives the background and the details of his imaginary realm, he begins with a Genesis-like creation story, along with a fall. He writes of one God who makes all of Middle Earth and fills it with beings with natural—not occult—powers of their own.

As pastor Joel Brondos points out, the themes of the two fantasies are practically opposites. Harry Potter is about an outcast boy who seeks and acquires power. The Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, is about the rejection of power. The whole point of the story, on which the whole plot depends, is that the power of the Ring, because it has been forged by the Dark Lord, must not be used. Though the temptation to use its occult power is great, to do so corrupts the user, even if it were used for a good end or to defeat Sauron. The user would become a new Sauron. The forces of good—Gandalf, the elves—know that the Ring must be destroyed but that they themselves dare not touch it. So they ask the weak but strong-charactered hobbits to go to Mordor, the lair of its evil maker, to destroy the Ring by throwing it into the volcanic crack of Mt. Doom.

The trilogy is filled with Christian motifs—resurrection, providence, sacrifice, the promise that a king will return—but it is not (like The Chronicles of Narnia) an allegory, a genre Tolkien disliked. Tolkien called what he was doing a “sub-creation.” God created the universe so human beings, made in His image, can imitate Him, though faintly, by making creations of their own. Whereas God’s creation is real, an author’s creation (or, rather, “sub-creation”) is fictional, existing only in the mind and the imagination, though potentially meaningful and valuable nonetheless.

“Orcs, and talking trees, and leagues of grass, and galloping riders, and glittering caves, and white towers and golden halls, and battles, and tall ships sailing, all these passed before Sam’s mind.”
—The Return of the King

In his essay “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien deals with the charge of “escapism,” the objection that fairy tales, fantasies, and stories like his merely provide escape. The assumption, he said, is that escaping is always a bad thing. For someone who is imprisoned, the most healthy thing he can do is to escape the walls that shut him in.

Non-Christians are indeed in a prison. They think that nothing exists beyond what they can see—the hard, stone walls of the material world. They have no understanding of spiritual realities, that good and evil are not mere psychological states but objective truths, that they can be freed from their bondage of sin into an everlasting life wonderful beyond their conception. They need an evangelism of their imaginations.

What The Lord of the Rings offers and conveys is a Christian sensibility. It gives readers a taste of the attractiveness of Goodness and the repulsiveness of Evil. It evokes a sense of mystery and longing, a sense that this world has cosmic significance, as does the part each of us is called to play.

“‘Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?’

‘No, they never end as tales,’ said Frodo. ‘But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended. Our part will end later—or sooner.’

‘And then we can have some rest and some sleep,’ said Sam.”

—The Two Towers.