Tolkien's Orthodoxy:
A Response to Berit Kjos

By Professor Ralph C. Wood

Berit Kjos is to be commended for taking Tolkien's work seriously enough to contest it theologically in her critique of a collection on Lord of the Rings and Tolkien at To read The Lord of the Rings in the same fashion as fish swallow their food - unmasticated - is to do him a dishonor. But Mrs. Kjos has seriously misread Tolkien, interpreting him as a sub-Christian and often an anti-Christian writer whose work has duped naďve Christians. A response is surely in order.

Mrs. Kjos worries that Tolkien's God is some distant deistic monarch. The world of Middle-earth is indeed monotheistic rather than Trinitarian, but what else could it be since, like Beowulf, it depicts a pre-Christian realm? It is a fundamental error in literary criticism, as T. S. Eliot said, to supply the cadaver rather than to examine the text that lies before us. Yet in her determination to make Tolkien write another book than the one he has written, Mrs. Kjos ignores the many obvious overtones and suggestions of the Gospel. That she nowhere mentions The Lord of the Rings's radically Christian theme of unbidden mercy is ever so revealing. Unlike Mrs. Kjos, alert and sympathetic Christian readers will notice how deeply Tolkien's book echoes the Gospel of salvation not by moralistic good works but by faith and forgiveness alone. They will remember, as Mrs. Kjos does not, that ancient pagans (like their modern fundamentalist equivalents) regarded mercy as a vice, except when it was given to the pathetically helpless. Only a radically orthodox Christian such as Tolkien would have forgiveness offered to the terribly undeserving Gollum and Saruman and even Grima Wormtongue.

Mrs. Kjos gets terribly overheated because Ilúvatar creates the universe by the intermediary agency of the fifteen valar. According to her, this proves that Tolkien is polytheist. Again, Mrs. Kjos has ignored the evidence at hand. Ilúvatar in fact creates his own special Children - men and elves, who are two members of the same species - directly and not by mediation. That Ilúvatar uses the angelic valar as lieutenants in his other creative acts puts him in full accord (especially since Kjos is such a literalist) with the declaration of Yahweh in Genesis: "Let us make." The ancient Hebrew author of Genesis probably alluded to the heavenly court surrounding Yahweh, and it is such a notion that Tolkien perhaps has in mind.

Even in his pre-Christian world, Tolkien suggests that Ilúvatar is no autonomous monarch. Tolkien even hints at a trinitarian understanding of God in having Ilúvatar act communally rather than solitarily. Here again Tolkien is in accord with the central Christian tradition. Two of the church's greatest theologians, Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth, regarded angels as the invisible mediators of divine action in the world. Tolkien agrees. That he specifies the particular powers of all fifteen maiar is his way of helping us reverence God's constant angelic sustenance of all the good gifts of creation - fresh water, clean air, hot baths, nourishing food, broad daylight, the night sky, plus all the wonders of human making. Mrs. Kjos seems to remain opaque to such gifts.

Yet she would seem to have a valid point about Tolkien's unfortunate use of the word "re-incarnation" to describe the assumption of human mortality by the immortal elven - maiden Arwen. Again, however, Mrs. Kjos has not examined the particulars of the story. Arwen is not reincarnated in anything like the Hindu doctrine. She does not begin a completely new life, utterly unlike her former existence, because she has performed either meritorious or reprehensible acts in her previous life. On the contrary, she surrenders her immortality in unstinting love for the mortal Aragorn.

Again, anyone wearing Christian lenses would see that Tolkien here offers a powerful imaginative analogue of the Incarnation. Arwen is reflecting, in her own way, our Lord's refusal to regard his equality with the Father as a thing to be grasped and held. Just as Christ empties himself of his divine eternality in order assume the form of a mortal servant - becoming obedient unto death, even crucifixion - so in her infinitely smaller way does Arwen give up her undying life to perish alongside her beloved Aragorn. A fresh reading of Philippians 2 would make Mrs. Kjos a better interpreter of Tolkien.

Mrs. Kjos is such a poor biblicist that she ignores the rich Scriptural insistence that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of ancient human longing and expectation. Again, an unblinkered reading of Isaiah 53 or Romans 1 or Acts 17 would help. For God to have become incarnate in a world that had absolutely no notion of him would have been meaningless. Nearly all of the major theologians of the church, from Irenaeus forward, have insisted that God's unique self-identification in Israel and Jesus Christ does not obliterate what has come before. Divine grace not destroy natural goods but rather completes and perfects them. Tolkien's redemptive use of the Atlantis myth is thus akin to the Genesis writers making good use of ancient creation stories - for their own revelatory purposes.

Christianity spread rapidly throughout the ancient world precisely because the church saw in much of ancient culture what theologians have called a preparatio evangelium - a foretaste of the Gospel. God-given imagination, the faculty that Mrs. Kjos damns, remains the essential means for discerning this link between the Gospel and the world. This is precisely Tolkien's point in having the Company of Nine Walkers made up of unimportant folks who, rather than being virile and strapping heroes, remind us of Christ's own disciples in their weakness and frailty. Pagan culture was right to exalt bravery and loyalty and friendship, Tolkien shows, but wrong not to see that these virtues are embodied far more faithfully and redemptively in the Company of the insignificant and the unlike. These nine trusting friends are seeking to surrender the Ring of coercive power rather than to use it for supposedly good purposes - as both Judas and Peter insisted that Jesus should use his power.

Mrs. Kjos is terribly worried about the ambiguity in Tolkien's work that allows it to be interpreted in a variety of ways. She implies that the Bible itself is perspicuous at all points, as if there had not been two millennia of disagreement about its true interpretation! It is true that Tolkien can be read in a variety of ways, some of them non-Christian and even anti-Christian. Like Mrs. Kjos, I regret the humanistic reading that Peter Jackson's movies have made of The Lord of the Rings. It is also an outrage that some occultists have tried to co-opt Tolkien for their own evil ends. Yet Tolkien makes it ever so clear that Sauron is the true occultist, having created a Ring that coerces free creatures to do his own wicked will.

Here Mrs. Kjos ignores a fundamental Christian principle first formulated by St. Augustine: abusus non tollit usus (the abuse of a thing does not take away its rightful use). To deny this basic conviction is to make the oddly occultic claim that God's self-disclosure in Israel and Christ remains magically impervious to wicked uses. Surely Mrs. Kjos would not want to dismiss the work of Martin Luther because he made horribly anti-Semitic statements in the name of the Gospel, or to argue that the gospel of John is no longer valid because Hitler ordered copies of it placed in every Nazi knapsack.

Perhaps the worst of Mrs. Kjos's theological errors is to have ignored the fundamental Christian principle of interpretation - that followers of the crucified Lord are called to make the most charitable possible reading of texts and authors, always seeking out their best intentions and deepest truths, rather than landing like vultures on their flaws. Nowhere do I discern this theological charity at work in Mrs. Kjos's reading of Tolkien. It seems clear that she was set from the start to find nothing praiseworthy in his work. Instead, she seeks only to damn and dismiss this profoundly Christian writer, and she does so in the name of a biblicism that gives much of evangelical Christianity its justifiably bad name.

I make this harsh indictment as an evangelical myself, one who believes that we need to repent for having driven thousands of people away from the Gospel. We have their souls and their lives weighing against our own salvation so long as we are first determined to justify our own idolatrous literalism rather than to make faithful witness to the one true Lord. His Cross alone, as Flannery O'Connor so imaginatively said, has roots deep enough to encircle all the dead, and arms wide enough to embrace all the living - including such fallible and irascible readers of Tolkien as Berit Kjos and Ralph Wood.

Dr. Ralph Wood, Professor of English at Baylor University, is a Tolkien expert and has studied Christian literary classics and the Inklings (the close group of Oxford literary masters including C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and Tolkien). He taught for 26 years at Wake Forest University, where he won awards for distinguished teaching. His publications include "Traveling the One Road: The Lord of the Rings as a 'Pre-Christian' Classic," Christian Century 110, 6 (February 24, 1993): 208-11.