(Spoiler Alert) In part 1 of our study on the meaning of Lord of the Rings, we looked at the hidden Catholic themes in the story such as devotion to Mary, Confession, Exorcism, the Saints, Eucharist, and the meaning of the ring. In sum, the ring represents sin, and as a person puts the ring on his real self disappears. Tolkien showcases that the ring takes people away from the good world – their natural, pure self, and it makes them visible to Sauron. Becoming visible to Sauron slowly destroys the real person into a destructive version of themselves. Notice at the beginning of the Return of the King movie the sad transformation of Smeagol to Gollum. This ugly conversion is because of his addiction to the ring (i.e., sin).
This transformation of good to bad is what happens in the human story beginning in Eden. We who began as the Adam (man) became the golem, the “un-man.” I think it’s no accident that Tolkien chose the name Gollum for Smeagol; in the Jewish legend, of course, golem is the “un-man.”
The ring brings a person immense power. However, by putting the ring on a person’s real self is removed and that person becomes a sad, wretched version of the good person they used to be. So, while the ring may bring you power, it takes the real you away. In fact, Jesus states this clearly:
“What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?” – Luke 9:25
Gollum illustrates one-half of the paradox; Frodo and Sam show the other half. They attain their real self and save themselves only because they give themselves away—for others, for the Shire, for the Middle Earth; not for something (such as the ring) that gives them power. Sam and Frodo avoid the power of the ring because they know the ring destroys their true personhood. This idea is played out plainly in Matthew 16:2 “Whoever wants to save their life, will lose it [Gollum -get the ring for the self]. But whoever looses his life, will find it” [Frodo & Sam – give up their life for others].
It is important to note that all the epic battle scenes in Lord of the Rings is meant to illuminate the great spiritual battle that has been going on since the dawn of man. The term Paul used in Ephesians chapter 6 is “spiritual warfare.” Since the word “spirit” means non-physical, this battle is unique from our typical understanding of warfare. Unlike a physical battle with swords and spears in which people physically attack each other, spiritual warfare is a clash of ideas that govern how we think. Try as you may, you can’t avoid this clash. Wherever you go you’re constantly hearing opposing views on how to act, how to think, and what is true. Ultimately, how a person lives is represented by some world view they’ve attached themselves to. Competing ideas constantly battle on what is true and ultimately, you’re going to accept one teaching or another. Therefore, whether you know it or not, you’re in this grand battle of ideas known as spiritual warfare. At the root of these opposing ideas stands the source of these ideas – God’s message vs. the pop culture’s message. These two entities stand in stark contrast and are in battle precisely to communicate their message as people will eventually embrace one over the other. This conflict of ideas is much greater than physical war as spiritual warfare is a fight over souls – over your thoughts. What the war scenes in Lord of the Rings reveals is that the spiritual battle is intensely dramatic, challenging, and needs to be viewed with the utmost importance.
A major part of the battle plan within the story is that the ring needs to be eliminated. What is the solution to destroy the ring? Somebody has to take this ring of power and has to go back to where it was made to demolish it. That is, the ring needs to be taken out by the root. The very place that caused the ring is the place that will destroy it. Our instinct is to say get the strongest, most powerful, largest army to go into Mordor to destroy the ring. Actually, no, you find the smallest, humblest least likely character, and he is the one who will effectively undermine the enemy. After all, no one would expect a hobbit to be the one to take down evil. In this battle plan, Tolkein is illuminating the Biblical teaching that humility always conquers pride.
At the heart of the fellowship of the ring are these two little hobbits. They are tiny, and can sneak under the radar. They don’t look like great heroes so nobody would notice them. They don’t come with a large army. If Sauron saw the armies of Middle-Earth coming into Mordor, Sauron would crush them. The hobbits creep quietly in, and can go right into the heart of darkness to destroy the ring.
In addition to Frodo, Sam is also a Christ figure. Sam is with Frodo all the way as a loyal, faithful friend. In fact, Sam carrying Frodo up Mount Doom is reminiscent of Jesus carrying the cross up Mount Calvary. Also, at the decisive moment when Frodo wants to destroy the ring, he is seduced by it. Frodo falls for the temptation of the ring. It was Sam who resisted the temptation and was ready to complete the mission. We are not going to be saved by the human kings because they are so liable to corruption and power. But Sam who wants nothing more than to smoke his pipe, hang out with friends, and play with his kids, represents the true Christ figure. Sam wants nothing to do with the powers of this world. He holds a simple life and reflects the humble nature of a loyal servant much like Jesus’ loyalty to God the Father.
In showcasing the small, humble nature of hobbits destroying the ring, Tolkien is illuminating the humble nature of God taking down sin, evil, and the corrupted kings and armies of the world. God does not come to humanity as a great warrior or a radiant, majestic king in appearance to the center of power in Rome. Rather, God comes to humanity as a regular looking carpenter from a middle of a no-where Roman occupied hick town. He was not born in a grand palace surrounded by the kings of this world. Instead, he was born in a tiny stable surrounded by smelly animals. He did not have a large following where he was honored and adored by thousands. He only had twelve followers, was often misunderstood, and was executed like a common criminal. Much like the hobbits, Jesus humble nature allows him to slip through darkness and destroy sin.
The Battle Plan
The plan to defeat evil can be understood by what is called in martial arts as aikido. Aikido is a tactic in which you engage the enemy non-violently. In aikido, you use the aggression of the enemy against them. So, if someone is coming at you at full speed, with aikido you move out of your enemy’s way at the last second. You allow your opponent’s momentum to take him down by getting out of his way. In the big picture analysis of how God takes down evil is that he uses the great aikido move on evil at the cross. God uses the aggression of sin to defeat sin. In Lord of the Rings, ironically it is Gollum (who represents evil) that ends up destroying the ring (which represents evil).
To be able to destroy the ring the armies of Rohan and Gondor need to go to the gate of Mordor to lure the evil army out so Sam & Frodo can slip in to destroy the ring. This scene is part of the great aikido move. The good army is using the aggression of the orcs, the dragons, and Sauron against it. By luring them out into battle, Sam and Frodo can sneak in to extinguish the ring. What is important to realize is that the armies of Rohan and Gondor know that they are involved in a suicide mission in which they will lose many if not all men. They have 500 men while the army of Mordor has 10,000 fresh fighting orcs ready to pounce on them. In fact, the scene in the movie shows this in a dramatic way with the picture of the large army of Mordor in-circling what is left of the armies of Middle-Earth. The army of Middle-Earth knows they will most likely die. But by bringing the orcs out to kill them they give Frodo and Sam the opportunity to destroy evil. This move by the armies of Middle-Earth is what love is – to give up yourself for the good of others.
Another key point to be made about the battle plan is that if you use evil to overcome evil, you then become evil. Notice they didn’t defeat the armies of Mordor by force or by using the ring, but by allowing evil to take down itself. This aikido move can be seen even more clearly in that dramatic scene in which Frodo is about to destroy the ring. At the end, Frodo is ready to eliminate the ring. It is what we’ve been waiting for 800 pages or 8 hours of watching the movies. But he can’t do it. In fact, he is taken over by the ring. But then, out of nowhere, Gollum appears and a struggle ensues for the ring. Gollum bites Frodo’s finger off to get the ring. Frodo in his anger knocks both him and Gollum off the cliff. Gollum’s sin and rage are used against evil to eliminate evil. Therefore, evil destroys itself in an ironic internal suicide. So, who finally ended up destroying the ring – the corrupted character of Gollum. However, there is more than irony going on in this tale.
It is Gollum’s evil addiction to the ring that destroys the ring, but it was love that kept Gollum alive to do it. The important question to ask is why is Gollum there at the end in the first place? In the Fellowship of the Ring, as Frodo notices Gollum following them, Frodo says, “It is a pity Uncle Bilbo did not destroy that creature when he had the chance.” Gandalf says in reply, “Pity? It is pity that saved his hand.” Later on, Frodo has the opportunity to kill Gollum, but he says “I do see him. I do pity him.” On the foot of Mt. Doom, Sam also has the opportunity to kill Gollum, but then relented and showed mercy towards Gollum. So, Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam could have used their rage and killed Gollum at various points in the story.
But, ironically if they did this then Gollum does not destroy the ring. If any of these three figures kill Gollum the ring does not get destroyed. Because notice it was Gollum that destroyed the ring, but it was mercy that kept Gollum alive. Interestingly, it was mercy and love that destroyed the ring. Love working over evil is what won in the end. This is the Catholic idea of virtue in the giving of grace to overcome vice.
Jesus could have crushed his enemies by any means, but that means his enemies would not have crushed him. That means he would not have died to overcome sin. The battle plan reveals a ironic paradox in that through death Jesus defeats death (see Hebrews 2:14). Through taking on the effects of sin, Jesus defeats sin. God overcomes evil by letting evil consume him. This is actually love in disguise. This same strategy is used in Lord of the Rings to destroy the ring.
It is interesting to note that in both stories the ending catches people by surprise. In Lord of the Rings, the reader probably thinks Gollum ends up destroying evil? That is not the way it is supposed to end. The good guys are supposed to deliver the final blow to the bad guys. Ahh, but rewind the tape. What kept Gollum alive in the first place? The hobbits following the commandment to “love thy enemy.” Similarly, at the cross the disciples all probably thought – why was Jesus put to death by the evil Romans and corrupt Pharisees? This is not the way it is supposed to end. Ahh, but rewind the tape. He didn’t have his life taken away. In fact, Jesus said that no one can take his life from him, but only that he will give it up (see John 10:18). Then, he began to give up his life at the Last Supper and earlier when he said “Greater love has no man than this, that a man may lay down his life for others” (John 15:13). So, it is love that actually dealt evil the final death blow in both stories.
Jesus does not battle evil on evil’s own terms. He doesn’t come as a physical warrior with a sword and say I will beat violence with a greater violence. Rather, he allows the evil of the world to spend itself on him on the cross. He journeys into Mordor carrying the cross much like Frodo and Sam carrying the ring into the land of sin and death. Jesus then explodes evil from within by swallowing it up in Divine Mercy.
In the recent year of Divine Mercy it is now interesting to see that Divine Mercy is a major theme in the Lord of the Rings. As the Biblical story and the Lord of the Rings illuminate, evil ends up exposing itself and eventually killing itself in the end. And once evil dies, love is then on full display.
I invite the reader to enjoy the epic tale in Lord of The Rings, and keep a close eye on the Catholic themes embedded throughout the story.