Anyone with a vague familiarity with Tolkien understands that he did not like Allegory. Tolkien preferred the genre of myth. He believed that allegory was much too explicit and believed that myth, as implicit, was much better at conveying truth. As such he was a bit prickly whenever someone sought to allegorize his work. Still, Tolkien’s work, saturated in a Christian World-view as it is, there are aspects of his mythopoetic work which clearly reveals allegorical imagery.
The theme of the Triology, in its macro sense, is the contest between good and evil. In this contest sin is seen in the ring. It is interesting that the effect of sin upon people is to claim and seize unwarranted authority and control over other peoples. In Tolkien’s thinking the effect of sin is tyranny and enslavement. There is a extraordinarily anti-statist, and anti-centralization theme that saturates Tolkien’s work and Tolkien makes the ring do the work of communicating the worst effect of sin when someone claims to possess the ring is to create Despotic social orders. That this observation is accurate is seen in the effect of the ring upon those who are tempted to claim it,
Upon Boromir’s tempting
“The Ring would give me power of Command. How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all men would flock to my banner! How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all men would flock to my banner!’
Boromir strode up and down, speaking ever more loudly: Almost he seemed to have forgotten Frodo, while his talk dwelt on walls and weapons, and the mustering of men; and he drew plans for great alliances and glorious victories to be; and he cast down Mordor, and became himself a mighty king, benevolent and wise. Suddenly he stopped and waved his arms.”
Upon Galadriel’s tempting,
And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of a Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark but beautiful and terrible as the morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the Earth. All shall love me and despair!’
She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illuminated her alone and left all else dark. She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.
‘I pass the test,’ she said. ‘I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.’ ”
Upon Gandalf’s tempting,
“With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly….Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused. The wish to wield it would be too great for my strength. I shall have such need of it. Great perils lie before me.”
Upon Sam’s tempting,
“His thought turned to the Ring, but there was no comfort there, only dread and danger. No sooner had he come in sight of Mount Doom, burning far away, than he was aware of a change in his burden. As it drew near the great furnaces where, in the deeps of time, it had been shaped and forged, the Ring’s power grew, and it became more fell, untameable except by some mighty will. As Sam stood there, even though the Ring was not on him but hanging by its chain about his neck, he felt himself enlarged, as if he were robed in a huge distorted shadow of himself, a vast and ominous threat halted upon the walls of Mordor. He felt that he had from now on only two choices: to forbear the Ring, though it would torment him; or to claim it, and challenge the Power that sat in its dark hold beyond the valley of shadows. Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dur. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be.
In that hour of trial it was his love of his master that helped most to hold him firm; but also deep down in him lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense: he knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden, even if such visions were not a mere cheat to betray him. The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.
‘And anyway all these notions are only a trick, he said to himself.”
In each of the temptings the power of the ring (the embodiment of sin in Tolkien’s work) is unto becoming a Tyrant in a Statist reality where all are slaves who serve the possessor of the ring. So, for Tolkien, sin is corporate and while effecting the possessor of the ring, its broader effect is to create centralized statist social orders. For Tolkien, sin is Statism.
Of course as the ring is sin, then Frodo becomes the sin bearer and his quest is a Via Dolorosa. However, Frodo is not the only Christ image in the Trilogy. Tolkien has three characters that answer to the imagery of Christ. Gandalf is Christ in his office as Prophet. It is Gandalf’s wisdom that guide the Fellowship. Gandalf is known as a truth speaker and without the counsel of Gandalf the Fellowship would not have made it through Moria. Gandalf, also gives his life for the Fellowship and is reborn (Resurrected ?) to lead his people against evil. Aragorn is Christ in his office as King. Aragorn, as Strider, goes through his humiliation, but as he keeps faith, he is finally exalted to his rightful place on the throne and takes a name (Elessar) to which all must bow. Frodo, fulfills the Christ imagery serving as Christ as Priest. The free people’s of Middle Earth are saved by Frodo’s representative and substitutionary sacrifice for them. Frodo, as the Priest, bears the sin of Middle Earth and expiates the effect of the Ring by bearing it to the crack of doom.
Tolkien’s work finds Frodo, the sin bearer, being supported by the Church. In Tolkien’s creation of the “Fellowship of the Ring,” we have a picture of the Church. For Tolkien the Church is comprised of men from “every tribe tongue and nation,” and yet all members of the Church still retain their people group identity. The Church comes together in order to do the work that it is called to do, but it does so on the distinct and separate strengths of each people group who still retain their particular ethnic identity (Dwarves, Elves, Men, and Hobbits). So, while the Church is Universal for Tolkien, it is also particular at the same time. Tolkien, thus honors the idea of the “One and the Many” in his vision of the Church. It is also interesting that Tolkien gives us a Church with tares. In the fall of Boromir we see a Church that is not perfect. And yet even for Boromir there was repentance. Another thing we must not miss in Tolkien’s view of the Church is that it is the Church militant. For Tolkien, the Church is at war against wickedness in high places.
Another Tolkien view of the Church might be found in the character of Samwise. Samwise is a picture of the Catholic laity. He serves the needs of the sin bearer and is the servant of Fellowship. Samwise, as the Church, fills up the sufferings of Christ and so identifies with the sin bearer that he himself will bear the ring for a period of time thus imitating his master. Samwise identity in the novel is wrapped up in Frodo’s identity. In the Trilogy we see the Samwise Character grow (he is sanctified) as he serves the needs of his master Frodo.
The Fellowship of the Ring, as the Church, is given grace for the contest of the quest in a sacrament of the Lembas. The Lembas strengthen the Church as they are relied for sustenance. The more the Church has to rely upon the Lembas the more the Lembas tie spirit and will to physical exertion. The sacredness of the Lembas is seen in how the wicked blanch and sputter when they come into contact with the Lembas. The Lembas are for the Church and those outside the Church find as much death in the Lembas as the Church finds life in them.
And though as a Protestant I have no use for Mary-olatry it is clear that Galadriel is Tolkien’s virgin Mary in the Trilogy. Galadriel gives gifts to the Fellowship and the ring-bearer in order for them to complete their quest. She is seen as having a privileged position among those who are considered the great. She is responsible for organizing the White Council and creates beauty in all she touches. She so thoroughly woos Gimli (the Tolkien Protestant?) that in a act of repentance for his previous unbelief he asks for a lock of her hair as a gift upon their parting.
In closing, I would like to return to the idea of the ring representing sin — a sin that always creates a Tyrant in those who claim it. That Tolkien hated Statism and made possession of the Ring equivalent to establishing Statist and Centralized social order is seen again in a different way at the very end of the book. In the chapter “The Scourging of the Shire,” Tolkien gives us a Shire where the effects of the Ring (Tyrannical social order) has turned the community of the Hobbits ugly. Frodo, takes sin to the crack of doom and upon his return home he finds the work of sin he cast away having done its work in his home. In this chapter, we see again, what we see throughout the Trilogy — a tyrannical social order created by the lust of power can only be overcome by stiff resistance at great cost.