The Influence of Tolkien

written by Dr. Melody Green

In 2000 and 2001, several magazines, newspapers, and publishers put together lists of the “best” authors of the twentieth century. While these lists were organized in different ways and focused on different criteria, J. R. R. Tolkien frequently showed up near the top, if not at the very top, of them.  More recently, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the most recent installment of the more-than-a-decade-long film interpretations of Tolkien’s work, has done quite well in the box office. While many who are familiar with Tolkien’s work may be unhappy with specific ways that these have depicted, left out, or changed specific details, one thing is clear: J. R. R. Tolkien, a Christian author, is quite influential in contemporary culture.

This is a good reason for Christians who are interested in contemporary culture to pay attention to Tolkien, the influence he has, and why he has it. For many who have loved these stories, their connection began with one sentence: “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.”  Thus begins the story of Mr. Bilbo Baggins, a quite respectable hobbit who enjoyed peace, tranquility, and six meals a day. The one thing he did not want was any sort of adventure, thank you very much.  After all, adventure makes one late for dinner! Bilbo was comfortable, and wanted things to stay just the way they were.  But just as it does for many people in this condition, this all changed in ways he had never imagined. For Bilbo, this change occurred abruptly one day when a rather odd character named Gandalf showed up on his front step.  Before the hobbit knew what was happening, Gandalf sent him off on a journey that changed his life. Bilbo met people he had never dreamed existed, had adventures he didn’t know were possible, and saw places of indescribable beauty.  He came home richer, happier, and wiser than he had ever been before, even though if he had had his own way, he would have never left his comfortable home in the first place.

Bilbo’s nephew Frodo had a similar experience in The Lord of the Rings. Frodo also lived a life of relative ease, until one day Gandalf also sent him on an adventure. But his quest was different. As Frodo  explained to a few of his hobbit friends who wanted to take the journey with him, “this is no treasure-hunt, no there-and-back journey. I am flying from deadly peril into deadly peril.”  Where Bilbo’s adventure ultimately led to a deeper understanding and enjoyment of the life he had before taken for granted, Frodo’s travels led to a very different place.  Where Bilbo learns courage, leadership skills, and develops as a character, Frodo learns both hope and sacrifice. These two complimentary stories have led countless readers into wonder and delight, while at the same time often helping them see their own experiences in a different light.  Like Bilbo, many people find themselves facing things did not expect. Like Frodo, many people carry burdens that threaten to destroy them, the people around them, and everything they hold dear.  Many readers have found comfort and encouragement in the stories of Bilbo and Frodo.

Intriguingly, because these stories come to mean so much, some readers even create their own art in response to them—as a different way of thinking through what is going on and what really matters in these stories. On February 1, Urbana Theological Seminary will be hosting our second Tolkien conference, at which three of the papers will be focusing on how this works. This includes Jef Murray, a Tolkien artist who has designed calendars and illustrated books, who will be explaining some of his work and how he views creating such art as a Christian discipline. Urbana Seminary student Bryan Mead will be discussing film adaptations of Tolkien’s work, and Melody Green will be focusing on fiction stories in which Tolkien appears as a character, and the implications of this.  Two other fascinating papers on Tolkien will also be presented: Rick Williams, also an Urbana Seminary student, will be presenting on Tolkien as a teacher, and Father Charles Klamut of St. John’s Catholic Newman Center will be speaking on Stewardship and what it means in Tolkien’s work.  For more information on the Tolkien conference, follow this link:

We hope you can join us!