I teach the Catholic faith to adults and teens alike. The problem is most of them have been so compromised by the pop culture that they immediately hit the boring button when I explain the Biblical story. However, thanks to author J.R.R. Tolkien’s work in Lord of the Rings there is an alternative way to teach people the Catholic faith. In Lord of the Rings, Tolkien uses a tactic that moms often use when feeding spinach to a baby. The only way the baby can get the nutrition they need in them is the mom has to sneak it in by way of cover – like pretending the spoon is an airplane. To give people the nutrition they need, Tolkien implants the Biblical message into another story that people in the pop culture will perceive as “cool.” In one of his letters, Tolkien revealed that: “The Lord of the Rings is, of course, a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” Now, if you’ve read the book or have seen the movies you might be thinking – what? Lord of the Rings hardly seems anything like the Biblical story. The whole point of Tolkien was to showcase this in a hidden and subtle way in which the reader has to hunt for it.
Let us now take the journey into the heart of Lord of the Rings to unlock the Catholic imagery on full display. In the story, forces are gathering momentum for a battle that has cosmic significance. Here, there exists a clash of civilizations in which mysterious powers beyond human control are operating behind the scenes. There are two cultures pitted against one another. One is a culture of life, and the other is a culture of death.
Lord of the Rings focuses on middle-earth. Middle-earth represents our world a long time ago. At the beginning of Lord of the Rings is the creation story as it mirrors the Genesis account. In the book, the elves tell of this creation story in which the One, who represents God, designs a great music of creation. One’s (God’s) design comes with a powerful gift. The gift is free will. In the beginning of the story, the free will One creates is embodied by rings he gives to his creation. Like God giving humanity free will, One provides his creation rings. One’s creation is asked to do something with this gift of free choice. One asks the elves to participate and play in his great symphony of music with him. The mightiest of One’s elves, Melkor, possessed the most powerful ring (choice) as One created him as the strongest being.
As the elves were playing this grand music to the glory of its composer, Melkor refused to play. Melkor decided he wanted to perform his own tune. In this, Melkor succumbed to pride. When Melkor played his own music, disharmony and discourse enter the music and ruined everything. Melkor the great then lost the right to his name, and after his fall he was forever known as “Morgoth.”
Morgoth used his immense power to influence others elves and recruited these mighty beings underneath him. The greatest of Morgoth’s demons is Sauron, the dark lord. Sauron like Morgoth is a fallen angel. Further down the dark hierarchy are these deformed creatures called Orcs. Orcs are warped and fallen elves. With the imagery of Sauron and his evil empire, Tolkien is illuminating what evil is. Evil is not a created thing. Evil is when a created thing decays and withers away by its own choosing. Thus, evil is like the cavity in your tooth or a rusted out car. Cavities and rust appear when a created thing goes bad. Of course, in the Biblical story evil is brought about by the repeated choice to sin. In these vile creatures, Tolkien shows us what sin is. Sin takes the real you away and makes you a wretched version of the person you were meant to be. The more you sin, the less you is there. You become a false version of yourself. You become like the rust on a car. The rust is an eating away of the good, natural version of that created being. Therefore, evil is like a parasite; an emptying out of what was once good.
The image of evil being and ugly nothingness is showcased throughout the story. Sauron is depicted as this vapid floating eye. There is no substance to him. He has been eaten away by his addiction to sin. In the ring race, there are these wicked figures that aggressively ride around looking for the ring. But, they are just empty cloaks – there is nothing in them. They have no face and no inner being in them. The point is that the lust for power eats away at you and turns you into an ugly, empty, non-being creature. Look at the countryside of Mordor – the land of evil. It is an aired, lifeless, emptied out wasteland. In Mordor and the Orcs, Tolkein illuminates that this land is a place of cloned and artificially created beings removed from the natural pattern of life created by God. In these images, Tolkien shows us a picture of what evil is and what sin does.
What decays all these creatures and causes this evil? The ring does. The ring has destructive power. The ring is craved by all and becomes addictive to anyone who lays eyes on it. Sauron wants this ring of power back, and with it, he will be able to dominate middle-earth. The ring represents sin. From the Biblical perspective, sin is the death of God’s soul in a person. When you put the ring on what happens? You disappear. While you physically disappear from this pure world that God created, you become more visible than ever to Sauron. Here, you enter the warped dimension of Sauron. As you become visible to Sauron, he draws you into him so he can take you over and destroy you. The ring takes you away from who you really are. Your authentic self disappears and you become a fake version of yourself. With the ring, we see what sin does to a person. Sin makes the real you fade away and slowly destroys your soul. While Lord of the Rings shows the physical destruction caused by the ring, the Christian story identifies the immaterial destruction of the soul by sin.
The longer you have the ring on the harder it is to get it off. If you get in the habit of putting the ring on you become addicted to its power. Being addicted to the ring is like being addicted to sin. Tolkien showcases the destructive nature of the ring most clearly in the character of Gollum. When you look at Gollum, you look at the decaying power of sin. Our soul dies with sin. Since our soul is the totality of our thoughts, Gollum is what your soul would look like if people could know all your inner thoughts.
Gollum used to be a good, normal, healthy hobbit named Smeagol. However, his possession and addiction to the ring turned him into a nasty little creature named Gollum. Notice that Gollum calls the ring his “precious.” When you become addicted to the sin, all you want is the sin – your precious. At this point, you begin to rot and wither away. You become a pathetic parity of the person you were meant to be. Gollum is obsessed with his cause, with his possession of the ring. Gollum has no self left. He talks to himself more than to others. He makes no distinction between himself and his “precious.” He’s confused about who he is. He even speaks of himself in the third person: “Don’t let them hurt us, precious!” Listen to that. “Don’t let them hurt us, precious.” It’s the ring that’s now the precious, and Gollum has lost his true preciousness – his personhood. The ring has become his master. You let the object become your subject, your master. In fact, the object has now become the person, the self, the actor, and Gollum has become its object, its “it.” He can’t distinguish himself from the ring. He is the ring. At this point, the person has become a an object. He’s lost his soul. This is the psychology of damnation.
We want this Gollum character to go away in the story. But, he is there for a reason because he represents what our soul looks like when we keep putting the sin on. As sin is always there, Gollum is always there. Now, if you’re overcome by sin, what do you lose? You lose the divine image. You lose the holiest thing of all – your personhood created in the image and likeness of God. Gollum gradually loses the ability to say I. When speaking with himself he often says “we” and “us” and in most scenes, he showcases a multiple personality in which Gollum controls Smeagol.
Tolkien counters the evil characters with a group of smaller, friendly characters called hobbits. Hobbits live in a comfy cozy, warm hobbit hole in the Shire. Hobbits enjoy a simple life of farming, reading, smoking their pipe, and social gatherings with family and friends. They are very comfortable in their hobbit hole in the Shire. The worst thing a hobbit wants is an adventure. The hobbits view adventures as annoying, uncomfortable situations in which their cozy routine is demolished. This image can be clearly seen in The Hobbit when Bilbo becomes very reluctant to join the dwarfs on an adventure. To which, Gandalf replies, “You can use a good adventure, Bilbo.” The hobbits are meant to be like us. We want to stay in a comfortable, convenient setting and refuse the adventures of life as they elicit too much suffering and trials. Throughout the Biblical story, God forces people to break out of their self-fulfilling comfort zone and moves them to a larger mission beyond themselves (Moses, Joseph, Jacob, Jonah, the 12 disciples, Paul, etc.).
The Christ figures in Lord of the Rings figures are displayed subtly but their roles are reflected in that they give themselves up through a dying of the self and rising of the self. Moreover, these Christ characters fit perfectly with the titles that Jesus has in the Bible of Priest, Prophet, and King.
Priest – As Frodo is the ring bearer he represents a Christ figure. If wearing the ring is committing a sin, bearing the ring is carrying the cross. Frodo represents a priest because he embraces sacrificing himself for the good of the world. Frodo carries the ring on himself to destroy it much like Jesus physically carried the cross to destroy the effects of sin. In both stories we see that carrying the weight of sin is a painful process. Look at what happens to Frodo as he bears the ring on himself on the journey. The ring mentally and physically drains Frodo throughout the story.
Prophet – Gandalf represents Christ as a prophet. Gandalf is displayed as the wise teacher that prophesizes and explains the story throughout the journey. Additionally, Gandalf lays down his life for his friends. He dies at the bridge of Khazad-dum fighting the great dragon. In fact, when he is battling the beast Gandlaf reveals his nature by saying, “I am a servant of the secret fire.” This is the only line in the story that directly references God. The secret fire, of course, is a direct reference to the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2: 3-4). We think Gandalf is dead for hundreds of pages. He then rises from the dead, and when he does, he changes in a transfiguration from Gandalf the gray to Gandalf the white. The dying and rising of Gandalf reflect the Biblical motif of the resurrection of Jesus. Moreover, the scene where Gandalf first appears resurrected to the Fellowship is reminiscent of the transformation backdrop where Jesus is dramatically transformed on the mountain. In this setting, both character’s gleaming white robes are so bright that those around them have to shield their eyes from becoming blind (see Matthew 17:2).
King – Aragorn is the king. He is the return of the king of Gondor much like Jesus is the return of King David (only much bigger). Aragorn goes under the mountain to the realm of the dead to rescue the lost souls and calls them into battle. This scene is reminiscent of the line in the Apostles Creed that states “Jesus descended into hell.” Both kings go to the realm of the dead to rescue the lost souls. Aragorn then calls the lost souls back to fight in arms with him and leads them into battle. Aragon much like Jesus is the king that has gone down to the realm of the dead and now has risen. Moreover, the scenes of Aragorn with “the sword of Anduril” parallels Jesus statement “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). The sword Jesus is referring to is the truth (see Hebrews 4:12, John 18:37, Ephesians 6: 14,16). Much like Aragorn brings a physical sword to fight physical evil, Jesus brings the sword of truth to destroy “the father of lies” which is evil itself in the devil (see John 8:44). Indeed, truth (Jesus) and lies (devil) are in a constant battle within our culture today, and this conflict is showcased in the many battle scenes throughout Lord of The Rings.
Mary figure – Galadriel signifies the Blessed Mother – Mary. In the scene where the Fellowship comes to greet Galadriel, the elves are singing the mystical hymns of Mary (like Salve Regina). In the mirror scene, Galadriel did not give into the temptation of the ring – she passed the test when sin tried to enter into her. At the Annunciation, Mary did not give in to the temptation of doubt despite not understanding how she was to bear God into her. Additionally, it was Galadriel that gave Frodo his instructions of how to carry out his mission – that he is to go alone on his journey. Therefore, she initiates his mission. Who was it that initiated Jesus’ mission? It was Mary in the scene at the wedding in Cana (see John 2:3-4).
Frodo was frightened to carry out his mission. With this, Galadriel gave Frodo a charm called the light of Earendil to have during his journey and instructed him to recite a certain passage with this charm. When she gave Frodo the charm she said, “May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.” This charm represents praying the rosary. Indeed, Mother Teresa called the rosary “a great weapon against darkness.” Throughout the story, Galadriel looks over Frodo and the mission much like a guiding mother figure. Indeed, when Jesus dramatically told his disciple “behold your mother” (John 19:27) right before he died, he was giving us his mother as our mother to be our comforting guide throughout our journey in life.
Sacrament of Confession – This is showcased in the scene of Boromir’s death. Boromir confesses his sins before his death. He told Aragorn, “I have paid. I have failed. I tried to kill Frodo and take the ring.” Aragorn – acting as a priest in the person of Christ says, “No, by confessing you’ve won a great victory.” Thus, the king forgives Boromir’s sin in this dramatic confessional scene. With his confession before he dies, Boromir has obtained the grace to die in honor. He is then honored in the story as a worthy man because of his confession. Throughout the story, the character of Boromir embodies the repentant sinner. In fact, when he first meets Galadriel (Mary), he begins crying due to his sorrowful, sinful past. In Boromir, we see that a person receives grace and honor through the Sacrament of Confession and repentance.
Exorcism – In the Bible, Jesus performed numerous exorcisms as it reads “he cast out many demons” (Mark 1:29-34, see also Matthew 8:16, 8: 28-34, Luke 4:41). There is only one church in the world that can successfully perform the rite of exorcisms. In fact, the Vatican routinely holds conferences on exorcism healing. Gabriele Amorth is the lead exorcist at the Vatican, and in his book, An Exorcist Tells His Story, he showcases the over 40,000 exorcism cases he has overseen. Tolkien displays the rite of exorcism in the scene where the Fellowship approaches the city of Rohan. Here, Théoden, King of Rohan, has been under the dark spell of the demonic figures of Saruman and Wormtongue. This demonic spell has caused Théoden to lose all judgment and physically wither away. Gandalf performs the exorcism of Théoden by tricking the evil powers into thinking his humble presence poses no threat. When Gandalf performs the exorcism of King Théoden, he uses his staff and has to recite certain words. Gandalf’s staff represents the holding of the crucifix and the reciting of specific words is meant to showcase the prayers that break a demonic spell in an exorcism. Interestingly, Father Amorth points out in his book that humility, the crucifix, and reciting certain prayers are the key ingredients for priests in performing exorcisms. We see parallels of all three of these in this particular scene in The Two Towers.
The Saints – In Lord of the Rings, the race of elves in Middle-Earth play a prominent role in the story. Besides being recognized by their pointy ears, long hair, and serious demeanor, the elves come across as mystical figures that have wisdom and hold certain powers. The elves are immortal and can only die in battle. As we further study the characteristics of the elves in Middle-Earth, we can see that they signify the canonized saints. These are all the saints from St. Thomas Aquinas, to St. Teresa of Avila, to, St. Clare, St. John Paul II and many more. The elves are somewhat frustrated with the race of men because men are so weak and easily give in to the power of the ring. Indeed, many of the saints detached themselves from the modern world of man because they saw the current culture as so corrupt and void of God. Both the elves and the saints battle evil for mankind’s behalf. In fact, the book of Revelation reveals that the saints prayers and their blood (by their martyrdom) are a great weapon to be used in the battle of evil (see Revelation 5:8, 8:3-4, 6:9-11).
Judas Figure – Saruman initially was one of the good guys that opposed the dark lord Sauron. However, he was taken over by his lust for the ring and eventually submitted himself to Sauron’s dark power. In a similar vein, Judas was originally a committed follower of Jesus. Indeed, to be called a disciple as he was, he needed to give up everything for God. However, the dark powers overtook Judas and entered into him when Jesus’ teachings began to run counter to Judas expectations (see John 6: 70-71). Once the devil entered into him, Judas choose the pleasure of the world over God as he exchanged Jesus for greed – gaining thirty pieces of silver for handing him over (see Matthew 26: 14-16). Both characters showcase the sad reality that the demonic can transform a good person into a wicked person.
The Eucharist – What was the food that Frodo and Sam had to eat to sustain them on their journey into Mordor? It was called Lembas bread. In the book, we learn that Lembas bread means “life bread.” Therefore, this bread was the source of survival for the Fellowship on their voyage from one land to the next land. In this “life bread” Tolkien is illuminating the great Catholic teaching of the Eucharist. As it reads in the book:
“Eat little at a time, and only at need. For these things are given to serve you when all else fails. The cakes [bread] will keep sweet for many many days, if they are unbroken and left in their leaf-wrappings, as we have brought them. One [God] will keep a traveler on his feet for a day of long labor.”
In the above passage, Tolkien is showing that this bread is much more than a symbol and that, in fact, One (God) is physically in the bread. In the book, the elves commented, “We call it lembas or waybread, and it is more strengthening than any food by men.” In The Fellowship of the Ring, before departing Lothlórien, Legolas commented to Merry and Pippin that “one small bite is enough to fill the stomach of a grown man.” The description of the Lembas bread throughout the book sounds curiously like the “bread from heaven” passages in Exodus 16 and the “bread of life” passages in John 6. What is also interesting is the recipe for the Lembas bread comes from Galadriel , who then passed it on to the elves. Hmm…the actual bread of life coming through Mary – where have we heard this before?
The bread was very nutritious, stayed fresh for months only when wrapped in mallorn leaves, and was used for sustenance on long journeys. In sustaining people for long trips, we see the Catholic teaching that the Eucharist sustains us on our journey from earth to heaven. Also, with the importance of the bread being kept in mallorn leaves, we see the similarities of God’s original instruction to Israel to keep the bread from heaven placed in a “golden urn” in order to keep it good (see Exodus 16: 32-34, Hebrews 9:4). Of course, these instructions still go on today in the Mass. We notice the Eucharist is placed in a golden urn – the Tabernacle in the church after Communion. Like other items of the elves, the bread was offensive to creatures corrupted by evil. Gollum outright refused to eat it, and in one scene Gollum frantically destroyed the bread. In that particular scene, Gollum had already been taken over by the demonic.
At this point, we’ve hit the ground running unlocking the Catholic themes throughout Lord of the Rings. There are much more hidden gems in this story to uncover, but in part II of this article, I’ll zoom out and look at the big picture of this story. A bit of a word of caution – the book will showcase these themes much more than the movie. As is typically the case, the Hollywood movies have watered down the deeper message of the author in the book.
Once people understand the hidden meaning of the Bible displayed through an epic story like Lord of the Rings, they are less likely to hit the “boring button” and more likely to hit the “I’m interested button.” Check out J.R.R. Tolkien’s story now in a new light.