Redemption in Middle-earth
The Redemption – the redeeming of humanity from the slavery of Original Sin through the Life, Death and Resurrection of Christ - was central and axiomatic to Tolkien’s very understanding of the nature of reality. It is, therefore, not surprising that the Redemption serves as an omnipresent, if largely concealed, ingredient in Tolkien’s legendarium.
Tolkien wrote that “successful Fantasy” offered “a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth … a brief vision … a far-off gleam of evangelium in the real world”. Tolkien, in his own work, offers his readers this sudden glimpse, this brief vision, this far-off gleam of the underlying reality or truth of the Gospel in a multitude of ways, multifarious and subtle. Such is his genius that his work bears most fruit when it is read in much the same way that Christians read the Old Testament, as a story that prefigures the truth which will be revealed in the New Testament. In much the same way that Old Testament stories point to the Redemption still to come so Tolkien’s legendarium points in the same way to Christian truths still to be revealed.
In the appendix to The Lord of the Rings Tolkien reveals that the Ring is destroyed on March 25, a date that is so significant to Christians that it could be called the date of the Redemption itself. Christians believe that the Annunciation and the Crucifixion took place on this day, the two events which, alongside the Resurrection, constitute Christ’s Redemption of fallen humanity. As such, the Quest at the centre of The Lord of the Rings can be seen as a metaphor for the Redemption, most particularly with regard to Christ’s dying for our sin. The ring-bearer takes up his burden (his Cross) and walks through Mordor (Death) to Mount Doom (Golgotha, the place of the Skull) where the power of the Ring (Sin) to enslave the people of Middle-earth (humanity) to the will of the Dark Lord (Satan) is destroyed.
The necessity of the Incarnation to the Redemption of fallen humanity was central to “The Debate of Finrod and Andreth” (Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth) in Morgoth’s Ring, volume ten of The History of Middle-earth. In this story, Andreth tells of the “Old Hope” that Eru (God) would enter into Arda in person to save Middle-earth from Melkor (Satan). Finrod understands instantly why such an Incarnation will be essential to the Redemption of the people of Middle-earth from Melkor’s evil grip. Melkor-Morgoth’s “marring” of Middle-earth can only be rectified by the physical intervention of God Himself. “I cannot see how else this healing could be achieved. Since Eru will surely not suffer Melkor to turn the world to his own will and to triumph in the end. Yet there is no power conceivable greater than Melkor save Eru only. Therefore Eru, if He will not relinquish His work to Melkor, who must else proceed to mastery, then Eru must come in to conquer him.”
Morgoth’s Ring was written after Tolkien had finished The Lord of the Rings and some of these finer theological points are not evident explicitly in the earlier work. Nonetheless it is clear that Tolkien had the Fall and the Redemption very much in mind at the time he was writing The Lord of the Rings. Since, for example, Original Sin is the One Sin to rule them all and in the Darkness bind them, the connection between the One Ring and the One Sin is evident and obvious. It is also made manifest, albeit enigmatically, in the character of Tom Bombadil. “Eldest, that’s what I am,” says Tom, adding that he “knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless – before the Dark Lord came from Outside.” Tom is older than the Fall. He remembers when the world was innocent, before fear marred its happiness after the coming of the Dark Lord. Tom is Pre-Lapsarian. He pre-dates the Fall. It is, therefore, no surprise that he and presumably Goldberry, his wife, are the only creatures in Middle-earth over whom the One Ring (Original Sin) has no power. Clearly Tom Bombadil and Goldberry represent Unfallen Creation; they show the way things could have been if the Marring of Melkor (the Fall) had not happened. The fact that Tom and Goldberry represent primal Innocence and that Tom only has jurisdiction over his Garden remind us insistently of Adam and Eve, prior to the Fall.
Tolkien offers other clues pointing to the centrality of the Redemption in his legendarium. As a mediaevalist and a philologist he was well-versed in the relationship between typology and etymology. Take, for instance, Sauron. Etymologically it clearly echoes sauros, the Greek for lizard; typologically and iconographically, a lizard is interchangeable with “serpent” or “dragon”, the symbol for Satan. Saruman also contains saur and might be said to translate anagrammatically as “Dragonman” (though etymologically it has its roots in the Mercian form of West Saxon, “Searu-man”, which translates as “crafty man”). The philological wordplay continues with Wormtongue. The Old English word for dragon or serpent was wyrm; hence Wormtongue translates as Dragontongue or Serpent-tongue. Note also how Gandalf addresses Wormtongue: “Down, snake! Down on your belly!”, “See, Théoden, here is a snake!” Wormtongue “with a hissing breath” spits (venom?) before the king’s feet.
Ultimately Tolkien shows the effect of redeeming grace through the development of his characters. Those who cooperate with the grace grow in virtue, becoming Christ-like; those who refuse to cooperate with the grace wither into pathetic parodies of the people they were meant to be. Gandalf the Grey lays down his life for his friends and is resurrected and transfigured as Gandalf the White. Strider passes the self-sacrificial tests of kingship and ascends the throne as Aragorn. Such is the reward of those who accept the gift of redemption and who respond heroically to the sacrifices demanded of them. On the other hand, those who deny the gift and defy the call to heroic self-sacrifice diminish into grotesque shadows of their former selves. Saruman withers into Sharkey; Gríma slithers into Wormtongue; and, perhaps most tragically of all, Sméagol fades into Gollum.