Finding Meaning in Middle-earth

By Dr. Melody Green, Adjunct Instructor in Christian Thought

Shortly after J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings were published, C. S. Lewis wrote in a review of the series, “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron.  Here is a book which will break your heart.” Since that time, Tolkien’s stories about Middle Earth have drawn in a countless number of readers with their sweeping landscapes, rich histories, and moving characters.  One question, however, has continually been raised ever since their publication: sure, these stories are beautiful, but what do they mean?

Many people, including the original publisher (Allen and Unwin), have argued that The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are essentially allegories. Those who interpret the stories this way view individual characters as symbols either of specific characters in the Bible, or as symbolic of specific values or ideas.  For example, many have argued that Gandalf, Frodo or Aragorn are the “Christ-figure” of the books, while others have seen Sam Gamgee as a symbol of faithfulness or loyalty. The ring which could destroy all of Middle Earth has been interpreted as sin, addiction, and even nuclear warfare.  While there is much to think about in interpretations that develop these ideas, Tolkien himself did not see his creation as allegory. Instead, he explains in the introduction to The Lord of the Rings, the stories that take place in Middle Earth are better thought of as “applicable” stories.

What Tolkien meant by “applicable” was that instead of looking for the one thing that the author meant by the symbols he uses, readers need to pay attention to the stories themselves, finding which parts of the stories are relevant not only to their own lives, but to their own understanding of the world in which they live.  The point of such stories is not an academic   game of hide and seek in which the author has hidden meaning in certain places, but the point is to lead the reader to re-think his or her own ideas and values.

The applicability of the stories does not, however, mean that anyone can simply find any meaning that they want in these stories. There are specific themes that run throughout them, some beginning in The Hobbit and developing throughout the whole series.  One of the most important themes in the series is forgiveness. While this can be seen in many places throughout the series, one of the more striking places the question of forgiveness occurs is in the relationship between Frodo, who carries the ring that could destroy not only him, but everyone and everything that he cares about, and Gollum. While Gollum is a traitor and a murderer who would love to regain his precious ring, Frodo continually treats him with kindness, at one point even expressing a hope that Gollum can one day be “cured.”  The development of the relationship between these two characters leads not to pat answers, but to questions worth thinking about: can someone such as Gollum be forgiven? If so, what is the cost of forgiveness?  Possibly the most important question that is asked in Tolkien’s fiction, however, is “what does it mean to love your neighbor?”  This question is constantly brought to the forefront through the struggles of Frodo, the self-denial of Aragorn, and the sacrifice of Gandalf.  It can be found every time travelers enter new lands or meet new strangers; it appears every time one character offers an unexpected act of kindness to another.

        The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings do not offer easy answers to these questions. They do, however, require the reader to not only enjoy the world they present, but to think about the implications of the situations that the characters find themselves in. Because of The Hobbit movie coming out this year, this summer Urbana Theological Seminary is offering a class on the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien in order to better examine the questions and themes raised by Tolkien’s stories.