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I remember the first time I entered the world of Middle-earth. I was twelve or thirteen and noticed an interesting little yellow book on my mother’s shelf. I’m not entirely sure if she ever read it or not—as that kind of book was not what I remember her reading. But I asked if I could read it and eagerly dove in. At that age I don’t believe I was even aware there was a sequel to the book. But from the first few moments I was hooked.
Fantasy literature isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and all books in the genre of fantasy are not created equal. Few rise to the level of art achieved by J.R.R. Tolkien. His books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, are among the most widely read in the English language. And like countless readers of Tolkien before me, I found the world he crafted to be enchanting and alluring.
Tolkien’s world, the land of Middle-earth, is a place readers long to return to. Yet spending time in Middle-earth is not an exercise in futility or a way to check out of the here and now. In an ironic fashion, Tolkien’s world inspires noble efforts in the real world, and calls us all to live better and nobler lives.
Tolkien scholar Devon Brown, elaborates on this quality of Tolkien’s works:
[I]t might also be argued that the biggest reason his works have been so deeply loved, both in the previous century and the present one, is because they not only entertain readers—they also enrich their readers’ lives and make them more meaningful. (p. 11)
A Christian world?
Brown explores the world Tolkien made in a new book The Christian World of the Hobbit (Abingdon Press, 2012). In this work, he demonstrates how Tolkien’s Christian worldview bleeds through his written works and permeates the world he made. This aspect of Tolkien’s work is puzzling to many. His books have almost no references to God or anything remotely similar to church or religion, and yet they are hailed by many as Christian novels advocating a Christian worldview. Sure there is a fight between right and wrong, and right wins—but is that enough to classify the book as Christian?
Brown’s analysis uncovers abundant clues from the author himself, both inside the covers of his books, as well as from his own reflections and letters about them, which put this question to rest. Tolkien’s use of the term “luck” and “good fortune” is an ironic way to point the reader toward the conclusion that it wasn’t just luck or fortune, but Someone behind it all. Gandalf’s statement to Bilbo on the final page of The Hobbit makes this clear: “You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventure and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?” Brown points out that Tolkien as much as acknowledges this in one of his letters:
In a letter, Tolkien offers this additional statement about the veiled power at work in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings: “The story and its sequel are … about the achievements of specially graced and gifted individuals. I would say… ‘by ordained individuals, inspired and guided by an Emissary to ends beyond their individual education and enlargement.’ This is clear in The Lord of the Rings; but it is present, if veiled, in The Hobbit from the beginning, and is alluded to in Gandalf’s last words.” (Letters 365) [pp. 49-50]
Additional evidence is found in Tolkien’s statements about his work being “fundamentally Christian” in nature:
- “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision” (Letters 172). [p. 24]
- “I am a Christian” and then adds in parentheses “which can be deduced from my stories” (Letters 288). [p. 26]
Tolkien’s work is Christian at its core, but not in a superficial manner. Tolkien despised allegory, and would frown on much of what passes as Christian fantasy today. Brown considers works of this type as merely “Christianized.” In contrast, Tolkien’s thoroughly Christian worldview shapes the very fabric of his stories in a subtle yet profound way. And Tolkien did desire his readers to entertain that worldview for themselves after encountering it in his stories.
Brown also explores the morality inherent in Tolkien’s view of Middle-earth. The struggle to better one’s self plays a prominent role throughout the story. Bilbo Baggins is no ordinary hero, conquering by his skill with the sword and enduring thanks to his bravado and courage. Instead Bilbo takes on himself and wins. He faces the darker parts of his heart head on: he steps out of his cottage to begin the adventure, he resists the greed and selfishness that entice him to abandon his companions, and ultimately he finds a life spent in service of others is the only truly satisfying way to live.
This book is well-written, lucid and clear. And the artistic touches throughout make it a pleasure to interact with - even in the Kindle version. It abounds with quotations from Tolkien’s work and letters, and includes pertinent quotes from other Tolkien scholars. The life of Tolkien, and his own Christian journey are recounted, as well as his famous literary society and its influence on his career. C.S. Lewis features prominently in the book - as he both knew Tolkien as a friend and appreciated his literary output (Brown is also a Lewis scholar). Throughout the book, Brown’s first-rate grasp of Tolkien scholarship is apparent and yet he manages to keep the book very accessible.
For those who have read The Hobbit more than once, Brown’s work will be a joy to read. Even if you are familiar with Tolkien’s work only through the films by Peter Jackson, reading The Christian World of The Hobbit may spur you on to read the books that have endeared themselves to generations of readers. J.R.R. Tolkien was a Catholic Christian, but his view of morality and Divine providence as conveyed through his stories, is something evangelical Christians will appreciate. Brown allows us to enter Tolkien’s universe with a well trained eye, ready to see the glimmers of the Christian worldview that permeates it all. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and highly recommend it.
About the author
Devin Brown is a Lilly Scholar and a Professor of English at Asbury University where he teaches a class on Lewis and Tolkien. He is the author of Inside Narnia, Inside Prince Caspian, and Inside the Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He has spoken at Lewis and Tolkien conferences in the UK and the U.S. Devin has published numerous essays on Lewis and Tolkien, including those written for CSLewis.com, ChristianityToday.com, SamaritansPurse.org, and BeliefNet.com. Devin earned a PhD at the University of South Carolina and currently lives in Lexington, Kentucky.
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