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A distant, glorious echo: Tolkien and typology

February 21st, 2013 | 4 min read

By Chris Krycho

In his foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien boldy declares his dislike of allegory and notes that, whatever critics and readers have suggested, the novel is most certainly not an allegory. Nonetheless, Christian readers have insisted on finding parallels to Christian theology throughout his works, to the extent that they commonly consider various characters---Gandalf in particular---to be explicitly Christ-figures.

Orthanc, illustrated by Alan Lee The Tower of Orthanc, illustrated by Alan Lee

Given Tolkien's adamant rejection of any sort of allegorical reading of his text, we surely cannot admit of an accidental allegory; such a thing would not make sense. More, when we hold The Lord of the Rings up against works that are explicitly allegorical---C. S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, for example---we note that there is a real and even profound difference between the two in character and tone. We should therefore grant that Tolkien is not to be argued with here and move on.1

Still, Christian ideas keep popping up in his works: the death and resurrection of Gandalf, the unambiguously demonic evil that the heroes oppose in its various incarnations of Sauron or the Balrog, the king returning to claim his throne after a long stewardship, the long-awaited marriage of that triumphant king to a radiant bride, and so forth. While these do not have the sorts of explicit allegorical turns that characterize, for example, Lewis' explicit identification of Aslan with Jesus, clearly there is something going on here. What is more, Tolkien himself would freely admit it.

The answer is simple enough. What many readers have mistaken for allegory is typology instead. Allegory is "a story, poem, or picture which can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one" (per The Oxford English Dictionary). By contrast, typology is the manner in which the Old Testament often presaged the New in its themes, patterns, and events. To borrow a common Sunday School illustration: when David fights Goliath on behalf of Israel, he prefigures---he serves as a type---of Jesus Christ, the other anointed king from Bethlehem who delivers the people of God from an otherwise undefeatable foe. David is not Christ, but he hints at Christ; he suggests a shadow or an outline of what the coming messianic king would actually be like.

Tolkien is up to something similar in his works.2 Unlike Aslan's substitutionary death in Edmund's place in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Gandalf is not accomplishing some magical or spiritual end when he dies. He simply dies after fighting a demon. To be sure, he rescues his friends in so doing, but there is nothing mystical in his actions, and no hint that his death has Christ-like effects in the world. He is sent back not to demonstrate the power of something greater than evil, but simply because his task is not done.

In other words, like David facing Goliath, although to a far lesser degree, Gandalf illustrates a pattern that fits Jesus' story. The link is simply by analogy rather than by allegory. We might say the same of the other examples noted above, and especially those to do with the king motifs that surround Aragorn. They are echoes or reflections of something true, but they are not the truth in disguise.

Nor is Tolkien's legendarium alone in this sort of echoing of the biblical narrative. Rather, it stands in a long line of other works---especially in the mythological and heroic epics---that have strong thematic and analogical relationships to the Christ story. These sorts of stories were the tales Tolkien studied for his bread and butter, and it was this very commonality of theme and thought that he drew on in persuading C. S. Lewis that Christianity was true. All the myths, he said, point to the one myth that really happened. They all represent the longing of the human heart for the sorts of things that only ever happen in "faerie tales." The Christ narrative is myth at its best; it is also true.

Of course Aragorn looks like Jesus in some ways, then: he is an interpretation of the archetype of the king coming into his own after a long exile, and that archetype comes true in Christ. Aragorn is, like David, an echo of the real king, though of course shorn of actual historical existence and special revelatory character. Our hearts leap at Aragorn not because he represents Jesus but because he reminds us of him. He is not a picture or an image of Christ, as Aslan admits himself to be. He is more like the smell of grass on a summer day reminding us of football two-a-days; or mistaking a corner-of-the-eye glimpse total stranger for a dear friend; or the reflection of the moon on a lake hinting, just a little, at the splendor of the sun.

Neither Gandalf nor Aragorn---indeed, no character in Tolkien's works3---has anything like an exact correspondence to a character or event from Scripture (or even history). But that is exactly as it should be, and it is exactly why Tolkien's works are so powerful. They resonate deeply with our experience, especially with our experience as Christians, precisely because they echo. To borrow Tolkien's word, he simply subcreated. He was content not to ape the real by allegorizing, and instead to simply be a distant, glorious echo of the Christ-song.

This piece was also posted at Ars Artis, my personal blog with reflections on and collections of art.

  1. I leave aside the question of how we should deal with his creation narrative (‘Ainulindalë’) in The Silmarillion. Even there, I am not sure allegory is the right term, but it is a complex issue. That is, in any case, the singular exception for which an allegorical intent might be argued persuasively in all his substantial body of work.

  2. Of course The Lord of the Rings is not inspired by the Spirit and is making no claim to be revelatory Scripture. The confusion of some overly enthusiastic folk notwithstanding---and yes, it is a strong indictment for me to call other fans of Tolkien overly enthusiastic.

  3. Save perhaps Eru Ilúvatar, the maker-God of The Silmarillion, but this falls under the first footnote above.

Chris Krycho

Chris is a husband and dad; theologian, composer, poet, and essayist; software developer; runner and triathlete; podcaster; and all-around nerd.