But when Aragorn arose all that beheld him gazed in silence, for it seemed to them that he was revealed to them now for the first time. Tall as the sea-kings of old, he stood above all that were near; ancient of days he seemed and yet in the flower of manhood; and wisdom sat upon his brow, and strength and healing were in his hands, and a light was about him. And then Faramir cried: ‘Behold the King!’
-The Return of the King
In the early 1930s, a young professor in Oxford sat down to grade papers. After some time, he came upon a blank page. Suddenly inspired, he wrote the words, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” These words began the first book of a series which a British newspaper would later call “among the greatest works of imaginative fiction of the twentieth century.”
The book was, of course, The Hobbit, the prelude to J.R.R Tolkien’s towering work The Lord of the Rings. I recently re-read Tolkien’s classic series, after having read them for the first time in middle school. As it turns out, this was a great gift. Since much of my initial reading was either forgotten or over my head, it felt like I was reading them for the first time this summer.
‘Lightning from a Clear Sky’
I hesitate to say this (for there are many great stories I have yet to read), but I think the LOTR is the greatest story I have ever read. There is a depth and richness in its pages I have never seen before. Tolkien’s Middle Earth–the histories, the names, the languages, the geography, the characters, the creatures, the poetry, the songs–possesses such detail and nuance that it feels authentic.
I am definitely not alone in my thinking. In a 1999 poll, Amazon.com customers chose the LOTR as the greatest book of the millennium. Writer and Christian theologian C.S. Lewis had this to say about the series:
“Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart.
[The Fellowship of the Ring] is like lightning from a clear sky; as sharply different, as unpredictable in our age as [William Blake’s] Songs of Innocence were in theirs.
Nothing quite like it was ever done before…. The utterly new achievement of Professor Tolkien is that he carries a comparable sense of reality unaided. Probably no book yet written in the world is quite such a radical instance of what its author has elsewhere called “sub-creation”. The direct debt (there are of course subtler kinds of debt) which every author must owe to the actual universe, is here deliberately reduced to the minimum. Not content to create his own story, he creates, with an almost insolent prodigality, the whole world in which it is to move, with its own theology, myths, geography, history, palaeography, languages, and orders of beings–a world ‘full of strange creatures beyond count’. The names alone are a feast … [and are] best of all … when they embody that piercing, high, elvish beauty of which no other prose writer has captured so much.”
But Lewis is not the only Christian apologist with an affinity for the books. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City, said he regularly re-reads Tolkien’s series because they “baptize my imagination.” Even more incredible is his wife Kathy’s love for the series:
“I’ve read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings every year, sometimes twice a year, for more than 40 years. I regularly re-read Lewis’s Perelandra and Narnia as well. Those are for the joy that pierces my heart. I’m not particularly given to joy; my highest aspiration is usually to contentment. But those books, as well as classical music, give me a taste of worshipful joy that I can both take into worship and also read through worship.”
Indeed, as I read Tolkien’s story I too experienced a “joy that pierced my heart.” This blog post is about how that joy led me to an even greater joy in the story of the Bible. Here’s how it happened.
How LOTR Actually Helped Me Love the Old Testament
I’m reading through the Old Testament of the Bible right now (for the first time). To be honest, it’s really difficult to understand at times. And other times it seems, well, rather boring–there are long genealogies, censuses, detailed lists, stories about kings (some good, most not so good), battles, etc. I’ve found it tough to connect these people, places, and events with the larger narrative of the Bible. To put it simply, parts of the Old Testament just don’t seem like a good story.
But as I read the LOTR, something interesting happened. I found myself in the midst of a grand, sweeping story–a story so beautiful and so wonderful that I almost wished it were true. In particular, I felt this way about the story of Aragorn.
Of all the stories and sub-stories within the LOTR, his captured me the most. I read about the Numenoreans, an ancient race of Sea-kings who fled their home of Numenor and landed on the shores of Middle Earth. There they built the vast kingdom of Gondor. Over the years many kings of Gondor, (some good, some not so good) fought against the evil powers of Mordor.
In the first age they formed an alliance with the Elves to battle Sauron. The dark lord was defeated for a time when Isildur, Prince of Gondor and heir to the throne, cut the ring of power from his hand. Instead of destroying the ring once and for all, Isildur kept the ring for himself. Shortly thereafter he was killed, and the ring was lost. The line of kings was broken. From then on the house of the stewards ruled Gondor in the absence of the king. For many many long years the line of stewards ruled the kingdom, and during that time Gondor declined.
But prophecies were foretold that one day the true king would return to Gondor and reclaim the throne. According to the legends he would have the hands of a healer, and he would pass through the Door to the Paths of the Dead.
As I continued to read this story–of how Aragorn, a warrior of great strength, wisdom, and compassion, arose from the wilderness and obscurity to lead the fellowship of the ring, about how he was the fulfillment of all the prophecies (for he had the hands of a healer and passed through the door of the Paths of the Dead), about how he became the true king of Gondor–something deep inside of me longed for him to be real. His story was just so epic and beautiful, it made my heart rise with wonder. It made me want to believe that someone like him existed, that a story like that could be true.
And then it struck me: if the Bible is true and if Christianity is real, then the best parts of this fictional story that I love are true.
Suddenly, I had new eyes for the stories of the Old Testament. I came to see them in the same light as the rich history of Gondor and its kings: as the background stories that set the stage for the hero of the main story–Jesus. Without these background stories, the main story loses some of its magic, its wonder.
Indeed, in the Old Testament we find the story of a kingdom called Israel, God’s chosen people. Not unlike Gondor, this kingdom had a long succession of kings (some good, most not so good) over the years. It rose to a legendary status and then because of its people’s rebellion the kingdom fell. The line of kings was broken, and the Israelites were taken into captivity.
But there were also many prophecies that foretold of a day when God would raise up a man, a King, who would come and redeem his people. According to those prophecies, he would be “pierced for our transgressions” and by his wounds we would be healed (Isaiah 53).
And then suddenly, out of the wilderness and obscurity he rose–with great wisdom and power and glory and compassion. He too had the hands of healer. And he too passed through the Door of the Paths of the Dead, only to rise victoriously three days later.
Don’t you see? The Bible’s story is just like that story that my heart loves, except better–for it’s true! Jesus is the true and greater Aragorn, except he’s infinitely more wise, loving, humble, and powerful.
I’ve often heard that the Bible is the greatest love story ever told. But until I read the LOTR, I didn’t realize that it’s also the greatest epic adventure story ever told. It’s the very reason why we love stories of heroes, villains, battles, and magic. It’s the reason why we love Star Wars, Hunger Games, and Braveheart. All of those stories find their root in God’s story of redemption.
All in all, I am incredibly thankful for Tolkien’s series, for it gave me new eyes for the beauty and wonder and magnitude and epic-ness of the Bible’s story.
So do me (and yourself) a favor. Please justify this incredibly long and rambling blog post by picking up a copy of the Lord of the Rings and reading it. You won’t regret it.