The Lord of the Rings

The Secret World of JRR Tolkien

Many children and adults share a fascination with the stories of JRR Tolkien, particularly The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Both stories are set in the fantasy world known as 'Middle Earth', a place peopled by intelligent races such as elves or dwarves - and where an epic battle between Good and Evil is being played out. The Hobbit introduces this with a journey through Middle Earth to find and steal treasure captured by a dragon. On the way, a magical ring is found and kept. This is later revealed in The Lord of the Rings trilogy as the Ring of Power, which enables its owner to control the whole world. What should be done with this power? That question drives the rest of the story, as different characters do their best to capture, steal, control or destroy it.

Film versions

The Hobbit was written for a younger audience than The Lord of the Rings, but the current film versions of The Lord of the Rings have made this darker and more complex story much more accessible. Unfortunately, some scenes in the films will make it unsuitable for showing in primary schools, although many older primary children may have seen the film with their families or friends. Teachers may find that the stories lend themselves to the discussion of profoundly Christian ideas.

Religious, but not allegorical

Tolkien was a devout Christian. He declared that "The Lord of the Rings is, of course, a fundamentally religious and Catholic work . . . for the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism." Despite this, he did not aim to preach, and his world of Middle Earth is notable for containing no obvious signs of organised religion. Neither are there any obvious allegorical references. Although he was a good friend of CS Lewis, Tolkien disliked the obvious Christian references found in the Narnia books. His 'Gandalf' is not meant to be an allegory of Jesus, as Lewis intended 'Aslan' to be.

Judeo-Christian themes

Tolkien's narratives, however, are underpinned by a great many Judeo-Christian themes, including:

  • Dealing with temptation
  • The ripple effect of sin
  • Pride as a corrupting influence
  • Alienation
  • Personal sacrifice
  • Repentance
  • Reparation of the sinner
  • Working together to challenge evil
  • Strength in weakness

All these ideas can be handled with children in an appropriate way by referring to the story.

The Ring of Power

Consider the idea of the Ring of Power. All the main characters in 'The Fellowship' (the first part of The Lord of the Rings trilogy) can be defined by their attitude to the Ring - put simply, the Ring contains the power to control others. All are tempted by this - and those who surrender to the temptation are destroyed by it, as their personalities are warped by ambition. The Nine Kings become the evil Dark Riders, Boromir becomes desperately devious, and Saruman a traitor. The only characters that can be trusted with its protection are those who are prepared to give up power to serve a greater good, such as Aragorn. This directly parallels the gospel accounts of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, when he was offered physical comfort, personal security and world power in exchange for worshipping the devil.

Strength in weakness

Another theme is 'strength in weakness'. It is the vulnerable (unambitious?) hobbits who are seen as the safest agents for transporting the Ring to its place of destruction. (Gandalf won't even touch it.) Weakness here is seen as a definite strength, because the hobbits have never harboured delusions of grandeur. However, their greatest temptation is to use the Ring for their own protection, and this contains its own dangers - Gollum was a hobbit before 'His Precious' twisted him into a monster. The first film conveys that self-destructive (addictive?) longing very well in the scene where Bilbo implores Frodo to let him touch it - and for a second we see Gollum. It is a chilling piece of cinema, the better for being so unexpected.

Working together to confront evil

Another idea is the problem of 'working together to confront evil'. During the Second World War, Tolkien supported the struggle against Hitler, but commented in a letter that: "You can't fight the Enemy with his own Ring without turning into an Enemy." He had grave doubts that the world that emerged in 1945 would be much better than the one he knew in the 1930s. In his stories, we can see many characters struggling with mixed motives as they face a common evil - each of the 'races' would quite like the Ring for themselves, but they have to decide either to work together for a common purpose, or fall separately. Their sense of personal identity has to change and broaden, losing parochial ideas of ethnic self-interest. This is a direct parallel with St Paul's idea that ". . . in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek . . ." and the challenge of Jesus to his disciples, to leave everything behind, take up their crosses and follow him.

Middle Earth in RE?

Should we bring the stories of Middle Earth into our RE lessons? Tolkien commented, "I fancy that Our Lord actually is more pained by offences we commit against one another than those we commit against himself." Perhaps our PSHE and Literacy work sometimes contain more 'religion' than we realise!

Quotations taken from Letters of JRR Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien 2000 HarperCollins Publishers Ltd