On the Differences Between Tolkien and Lewis

In contrast to his friend C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien did not rely on allegory to communicate Christian themes in The Lord of the Rings. In the words of Ralph C. Wood, “The religious significance of The Lord of the Rings thus arises out of its plot and characters, its images and tone, its landscape and point of view—not from any heavy-handed moralizing or preachifying.”[1] This strategy places great trust in the imagination of the reader to make connections between Tolkien’s world and our own. Tolkien’s LOTR invites readers to enter a different world from our own—one full of fictional characters and fantastical phenomena. However, in entering that world, the reader is also confronted with a type of truth, for the experience takes us outside of our own time to a unique vantage point from which to compare our own world. Therefore, while we will not be looking for one-to-one allegorical connections, we will observe characters struggling to live virtuously in a world full of good and evil that has many points of contact with our own.

One such point of contact is the metaphor of journey. In both The Hobbit and the LOTR, Tolkien’s characters embark upon journeys fraught with peril and must navigate the road carefully to succeed in their calling. In one of the most well-known works of literature in the English language, the seventeenth-century Puritan John Bunyan allegorically drew from biblical motifs in describing the Christian life as a journey in his classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress. To this day, people often speak of the “journey” they are on when describing their own life stories. This motif is powerful because it recognizes the ability to make progress on the way toward a destination or goal. We even depict life as a journey in some of the songs we use for worship. In the famous hymn Amazing Grace, we sing, “Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come; ‘tis grace has brought be safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

On their journey, characters must resist the power and allure of evil. Indeed, the ring itself richly pictures how the heart is drawn toward evil, particularly in the form of lust for power, but also the bondage and death that results from giving in to it. In order to resist the ring’s power as well as the strength of outside enemies who will stop at nothing to possess it, the characters must rely on one another. Thus, we see the value of deep friendship as characters realize they cannot make it alone. Finally, we see the classical virtues of courage, temperance, wisdom, and justice as well as the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. Tolkien drew upon his exhaustive knowledge of classical literature and his deep knowledge of the Bible to plumb the depths of the human struggle with evil, and contemporary readers will benefit greatly from entering the world he created.

[1] Ralph C. Wood, The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-earth (Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2003), 4.

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