In “The Lord of the Rings,” the One Ring and the One Sin are symbolic similitudes. As the One Ring is “unmade” on Mount Doom, so the One Sin is “unmade” on the hill of Golgotha, the place of the skull. Therefore, if the Ring is synonymous with sin in general and Original Sin in particular, Christ figures in the work become apparent.
J.R.R. Tolkien stated on December 2, 1953, that “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” Five years later, on October 25, 1958, he discussed the existence of a “scale of significance” appertaining to the relationship between himself and his work. At the very top of this scale of significance, as the single most important of the “really significant” elements, was the fact that “I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories), and in fact a Roman Catholic.” According to Tolkien’s friend, George Sayer, “The Lord of the Rings would have been very different if Tolkien hadn’t been a Christian. He thought it a profoundly Christian book.” Since, however, and as Tolkien explained, “the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism,” the accurate discernment of the presence of this “absorbed” religious element is necessary for anyone seeking an understanding of the deeper meaning of The Lord of the Rings.
The centrality of the hidden presence of Christ is discernible most insistently in the date that Tolkien ascribes to the destruction of the Ring. Gandalf tells Samwise Gamgee that “the New Year will always now begin upon the twenty-fifth of March when Sauron fell.” Elsewhere, in one of the appendices to The Lord of the Rings, March 25 is given as “the date of the downfall of the Barad-dûr,” and the New Year is said to begin on March 25, “in commemoration of the fall of Sauron and the deeds of the Ring-bearers.” This date is of singular significance in the Christian calendar. It is the Feast of the Annunciation, the date on which Christians celebrate the Incarnation of Christ, the Word becoming Flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. It is traditionally believed to be the date on which Christ’s Crucifixion occurred. Annunciation Day, as it was called, was also the start of the New Year in many countries in Christian Europe during the Middle Ages.
The theological connection between the Incarnation and the Crucifixion, and hence the logical assumption that the two events happened on the same significant date, is that both events were necessary for the Redemption of Man from Original Sin. Put simply, Christians believe that Original Sin was “unmade” by the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. Original Sin is “the One Sin to rule them all and in the darkness bind them,” as the ring in The Lord of the Rings is “the One Ring to rule them all… and in the darkness bind them.” The One Ring and the One Sin are symbolic similitudes. As the One Ring is “unmade” on Mount Doom, so the One Sin is “unmade” on the hill of Golgotha, the place of the skull.
March 25 is, therefore, the key that unlocks the deepest meaning of The Lord of the Rings. If the Ring is synonymous with sin in general and Original Sin in particular, the Christocentric aspects of the work become apparent. Frodo, as the Ring-Bearer, emerges as a Christ figure, the one who bears the Cross, and with it the sins and the hopes of humanity. He emerges also as an Everyman figure, in the tradition of the mediaeval Mystery Plays, who takes up his own cross in emulation of Christ. His journey through Mordor (Death) to the summit of Mount Doom (Golgotha/Death) is thus a reminder both of Christ’s archetypal via dolorosa and also of the path of sorrows that Everyman is called to follow in the quest for sanctity and salvation. This subliminal dialectic is signified still further by Frodo’s departure from Rivendell on December 25, connecting Frodo’s journey to the life of Christ, from birth to death.
Although Frodo emerges as the most obvious Christ figure, it should be remembered that Tolkien disliked formal or crude allegory. As such, Frodo is only a Christ figure insofar as he is the Ring-Bearer, and insofar as the Ring can be seen to signify Sin. In every other respect he is simply a hobbit of the Shire. He is not a figure of Christ at all times in the way that a character in a formal allegory is merely a personified abstraction of the thing or person he represents, such as, for example, the character of “Reason” in C.S. Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress. In this context it is important to recall Tolkien’s distinction between the formal allegory he despised and the allegorical applicability he espoused. According to Tolkien’s understanding of applicability, aspects of a story can be applicable to the world beyond the story, most notably to the world inhabited by the reader.
With regard to Christological applicability, it can be seen that other characters in the story, besides Frodo, emerge as Christ figures at certain applicable moments. Gandalf clearly reminds us of Christ in his “death,” “resurrection,” and “transfiguration,” especially in the way that Tolkien’s description of Gandalf’s “resurrection” resonates unmistakably with the Gospel accounts of Christ’s Transfiguration. Aragorn’s descent to the Paths of the Dead reminds us of Christ’s descent into Hell following the Crucifixion. Aragorn, like Christ, is “King of the Dead” who has the power to set the suffering souls free of the death-curse. Similarly, Aragorn is a Christ figure in his role as healer. As Ioreth, a wise-woman of Gondor, proclaimed: “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known.”
For Tolkien, as he insisted so memorably in his famous conversation with C.S. Lewis on the nature of mythology in September 1931, Christianity was the “True Myth,” the myth that really happened, the myth that gives ultimate meaning to all the lesser myths. Similarly, the Person of Christ is the True Hero who gives ultimate meaning to the heroism of all the lesser heroes. It is no surprise, therefore, that Tolkien’s heroes emerge as Christ figures, reminding his readers of the archetypal Hero who gives his own lesser heroes their meaning and their very raison d’être.
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The featured image is “Christ with Thorns” by Carl Bloch (1834–1890) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.