The Writer of Our Story
Divine Providence in The Lord of the Rings
by David Mills
The Lord of the Rings is a Christian work, though a surprising number of writers on Tolkien ignore his religion, and a surprising number of his readers dislike it, or would dislike it if they knew about it. But as he wrote one reader in 1953, the book “is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” Five years later he wrote another that “I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories), and in fact a Roman Catholic. The latter ‘fact’ perhaps cannot be deduced.”1
He did not contradict himself in saying that the book is a fundamentally Catholic work whose Catholicism a reader might not be able to deduce. His Catholicism decided the nature and shape of the world he created, but these are hard to deduce, with any certainty, from the story itself. The Catholic reader intuits them, but what he intuits he will have trouble saying. It is more clearly a Christian work, as I shall try to show.
God Peeps Through
It was not, however, an explicitly Christian work, which has given the unbelieving admirer his opening and confused some Christian readers. Although Tolkien wanted the book “to be consonant with Christian thought and belief,”2 he
As his first example suggests, the higher powers appear only through their effect on the characters and events, always in passive voice constructions. When Gandalf returns from the dead, for example, he says only that “I was sent back,” sent back by what Tolkien in letters—but nowhere in the story itself—called “the Authority” and “the Great Author.”4 And when Elrond opens the council that will decide what to do with the Ring, he tells them,
Yet this unnamed God comforts the people of Middle-earth, although they have no relation with him (or it) and little knowledge of the “something else” that is at work in their world. When Gandalf explains to Frodo how he came to have the Ring, he says that behind the facts of its history “there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.”
Tolkien described his reason for writing this way in his famous essay “On Fairy-stories,” first delivered as a lecture at St. Andrew’s University in 1939 as he was beginning to write The Lord of the Rings and considerably expanded while he was still writing the book.5 It explains why the book differs so much from the Narnia Chronicles of his friend C. S. Lewis—and is one of the reasons why I think The Lord of the Rings the greater work.
But that is not my subject here, though I would commend the essay and scattered comments in his letters to any reader interested in Tolkien’s work or in the questions of writing stories as a Christian.6 In this essay, I hope to show how The Lord of the Rings is a Christian work, in the sense that its Christianity might be deduced from the story by itself, though I will draw on his letters for confirmation. Its Catholicism I will leave aside, as requiring a much different and longer treatment.7 I will use the work’s presentation of the work of Providence as evidence, though it is only one among many examples of the book’s implicit, or deducible, Christianity.
I am assuming, by the way, a reader familiar with the book. If you have not read the book, you should know that I have to give away the ending.
A Christian Work
It is hard to explain what makes a story a Christian story. We know that the category is not limited to works with an obvious message, and most of us feel that these are actually at the bottom of the list, with the partial exception of works of genius like Pilgrim’s Progress.8
One has to derive a work’s Christianity from the assumptions it makes and the sort of world it describes, but this leaves unanswered many practical questions. What in the story itself, for example, distinguishes a belief in Providence from a unsupported conviction that things turn out well? What makes one story a Christian story of Providence working through the affairs of men and another a secular story of unjustified optimism? What distinguishes Providence from coincidence, and makes events that would be intolerably convenient as mere coincidences convincing and moving as acts of Providence?
The best one can do, I suspect, is to say that in comparison with the literature of other religions and philosophies, both types of stories are distinctively Christian in their hopefulness, though the optimistic one is most likely the work of a once Christianized mind that has lost its clarity but retained its general view of things. One can make a shrewd guess whether a particular story is one or the other by the degree to which Providence works as Providence, that is, to which it includes the requirements of obedience and the acceptance of permanent loss involved in the Christian teaching of Providence, and shows it at work in the plot.
In the once Christianized version, which has degenerated into optimism, the story ends happily almost no matter what has gone before, and as a result of the hero being good in the usual minimalistic sense but not virtuous or godly. If God appears, he appears only to pull the hero out of the trap at the last moment, not as one who guides events to an end, and who asks the characters to be good and lets much happen for good and ill depending upon their actions. The characters act “realistically” and “prudently” and succeed, while the virtuous fail.
In this essay, I will argue that The Lord of the Rings is a Christian work from the effect of the Christian mind and vision we can see in it, using its obvious belief in Providence as my example. I see his Christianity expressed in The Lord of the Rings in many other ways as well, as in its picture of original sin and our final inability to choose the good; in the way evil is incorporated into the plans of Providence and turned, despite itself, to good; in its picture of repentance and redemption; in its love of the humble and their ennoblement; in its moral clarity; and in its hope for the repentance even of Gollum.
Providence & Obedience
The Lord of the Rings is a study in the workings of Providence because events work out for the good when they should not work out at all, and in some cases in such a way that some supervening power is clearly at work. It is either a study in Providence or a horribly contrived plot, and I think the argument for the first much stronger.
Providence works in two ways in the book: first, when events seem to be arranged for the good without the heroes doing anything to deserve it; and second, when they work out for the good because the heroes do the right thing when it is, practically considered, the wrong thing. Tolkien usually only implies the first, but he often made the second almost obvious.
Tolkien made the work of Providence explicit in the book itself, as in the words of Gandalf already quoted, and explained this several times in his letters. The stories of Middle-earth are “about the achievements of specially graced and gifted individuals,” Tolkien wrote Rayner Unwin, whose favorable report on The Hobbit as a child had led his father to publish the book.
He did not say who had given the individuals the grace and gifts, had ordained them for his purposes, and had sent them an emissary. It is that which might be called Providence, or the God whose will is called Providence.
The First Type
The first type of providential action in The Lord of the Rings is, as I said, that in which events seem to be arranged for the good without the heroes doing anything to deserve it. Tolkien sometimes hints in the story that an apparent coincidence is a work of Providence, and knowing what we do of Tolkien’s intentions, I think we can take even those without a hint as examples of Providence at work.
Near the beginning of the book, for example, upon leaving the pub in Bywater, Sam thinks that if the weather clears tomorrow he will get to work in the garden. That night, while Sam was in the pub, Gandalf arrived at Bag End, to tell Frodo that the Ring he inherited from his uncle belongs to the Dark Lord and that he must flee the Shire. The weather does clear the next morning, and the passage seems written to emphasize that the weather is the weather Sam wanted.
And this, coincidence or Providence, saves the world. Because the weather is good, Sam can work in the garden, and because he can work in the garden, he can sneak under the window and listen to Gandalf and Frodo’s discussion of the Ring. Because he listens to it, he gets caught doing so, and because he gets caught doing so, he is ordered to go with Frodo, and because he goes with Frodo, and helps him in ways no one else could have (no one else realized that Frodo would try to sneak away from the company at Parth Galen, for example), the Ring is destroyed against all odds.
This is the sort of thing that happens continually throughout The Lord of the Rings. In some cases, someone suggests that the events are providential. At the beginning of the Hobbits’ journey from the Shire, the Black Rider almost finds them but is driven away by a group of Elves who just happen (it seems) to be passing by, and when a few days later they are lost in the Old Forest and caught by Old Man Willow, Tom Bombadil just happens (it seems) to come by. “In this meeting there may be more than chance,” the Elves’ leader says to the Hobbits, and Bombadil tells them that “Just chance brought me then, if chance you call it.”
In other cases, no one suggests that the events are providential, but I think we may safely take them as such. At the Battle of the Pellenor Fields, Merry stabs the Lord of the Nazgul with the only kind of sword that would hurt him, which he had happened (it seems) to pick up in the mound of the Barrow-wight at the beginning of their journey. When Frodo and Sam are about to be discovered in Mordor near the end of their march, disguised as Orcs, it just happened (“so it chanced,” the book says, I think ironically) that several companies of Orcs coming from several directions got to the entrance to the road at the same time, and in the confusion Frodo and Sam escape when they were certain to be caught.
The careful reader could give several other examples, so many that some critics have accused Tolkien of rigging the plot with unlikely coincidences. That might be true, if not for Providence: for the perfectly rational belief that Someone intends that good shall triumph and has the power to make it triumph. What the skeptical critic insists is a flaw in Tolkien’s plot is perhaps a flaw in the critic’s philosophy.
I think these are all examples of the work of Providence in the book, but in The Lord of the Rings we see the workings of Providence much more clearly in the way that good is achieved by obedience to “the Rules,” as Tolkien put it in one of his letters, even when that obedience seems foolish or even suicidal, and to risk not only one’s own life but the survival of the world.10 The world of Middle-earth is governed by a Mind with a will and a purpose, and in its world doing good always serves the good and doing evil, even if “realistic” or “prudent,” always works evil.
We see this in many cases, but I will take three: the decision of Aragorn and his companions to properly bury Boromir before chasing after the kidnapped Hobbits; Gandalf’s giving up his life in Moria to save his friends; and the greatest of all, the effect of mercy and pity upon Gollum.
At the end of the first volume, Boromir has tried to take the Ring from Frodo but repents and then dies defending the two Hobbits Merry and Pippin from a band of Orcs, who capture them and take them away. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas find Boromir just before he dies and learn that the Orcs have taken some Hobbits. They do not know if Frodo—and the Ring—are with them.
To obey the laws of their world, they must bury their fallen comrades, but if they do, they will lose several hours before they can chase the Orcs. “First we must tend the fallen. We cannot leave him lying like carrion among these foul Orcs,” says Legolas, and Gimli agrees. But Aragorn says, “But we do not know whether the Ring-bearer is with them [the Orcs] or not. Are we to abandon him? Must we not seek him first?”
It is, as Aragorn says, “an evil choice,” and as far as they know, one that will decide the fate of the whole world. The Orcs, they assume, are servants of Sauron and are taking the Hobbits to him. If the Orcs have captured Frodo, Sauron will get the Ring and the world they love will die. If the Orcs have only captured the other Hobbits, Sauron will torture them in unimaginable ways and learn from them Frodo’s plan and his last known location. Then it will not take Sauron long to find Frodo, and when he finds him, the world they love will die.
It is obvious, to most of us, that they ought to leave the body. Boromir had betrayed them, after all. Burying him could do him no good and would lead, almost certainly, to the final success of evil. And yet they bury him, because that is the right thing to do.
When I first read the book, as a typically secular-minded American twelve-year-old, this scene astonished me. It made no sense. It seemed to me a flaw in the story that these three heroes should do something so pointless and irrational and self-defeating. This is the reaction of those who do not believe in Providence.
Aragorn describes their chase of the Orcs as “but a small matter in the great deeds of this time,” and yet it proves a much bigger matter than he could have seen. Because the three spend several hours burying Boromir, they never catch the Orcs who had kidnapped their friends. Because they never catch them, Merry and Pippin escape on their own. (There is a small irony in Legolas’s claim, when they find evidence that Pippin briefly escaped, that “There will be no escape again, if we do not contrive it”—the Hobbits’ escape was contrived, but not by them.)
Because the two Hobbits escape, they meet the Ent Treebeard, who (it seems) just happens to be close by and who hears their story and rouses the other Ents to battle. Because the Ents are roused to battle, they destroy Saruman’s fortress Isengard, and they are the only creatures on earth who could.
They march from there to rescue the embattled armies just before they lose the battle of Helm’s Deep, and then kill an army of Orcs invading from the north, who would have ambushed and defeated the riders of Rohan on their way to Gondor. If the Ents had not killed the Orcs, the riders of Rohan would never have gotten to Minus Tirith in time to fight, if they made it at all. Because the riders arrive when they do, the Lord of the Nazgul leaves the gate of Minus Tirith before finishing his confrontation with Gandalf, which he might have won, and dies in the battle shortly thereafter.
Two Crucial Effects
Aragorn’s decision to bury Boromir as he should, even when doing so seems to lead to Sauron’s victory, has two other, and crucial, effects. First, the free peoples are saved from Saruman’s treachery, which would have forced them to fight on two fronts when they could not really fight a war on one front. If the Ents had not destroyed Isengard, Gondor might have fallen before Frodo reached Mount Doom, in which case he might not have reached it.
Second, it gives them the victory in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, for two reasons. It allows Rohan to ride to the aid of Gondor, where the disguised Éowyn and the Hobbit she brought with her kill Sauron’s lieutenant, the Lord of the Nazgul. It also saves Aragorn’s life so that he can gather the army of the dead and with it defeat the enemy armies to the south of Gondor, and then arrive at the Fields in the enemy’s ships just in time to turn the tide of battle.
In the work of Providence, Aragorn’s choosing to do the thing he ought to do led directly to events necessary for the free peoples to succeed in their battle against Sauron. Had they left Boromir’s body among the foul Orcs, Frodo might well have failed in his quest. Even if he had succeeded, the lands he was trying to save would have been ravaged and some, including the Shire, come under the control of Saruman, a tyrant only slightly better than Sauron.
I say that Frodo might well have failed in his quest because part of his success depended on the victory in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields and the free peoples’ decision then to march to Mordor to draw Sauron’s attention away from his own land, where Gandalf and the others hoped Frodo was still making his way to Mount Doom. As I noted already, Frodo and Sam escape from the Orcs, among whom they are marching in disguise, because several companies run into each other where two roads turned into one—and the companies were all going to the same road because “the Dark Lord was speeding his forces north” in response to the free peoples’ army’s march upon his land.
The working of Providence in Gandalf’s death in Moria is less clear, and I would not have seen it but for Tolkien’s explanation in his letters. Gandalf goes to his death fighting the Balrog, giving up his own life to save his companions. He and the Balrog are standing on a bridge over a chasm, the rest of his company near to escaping from Moria, the Orc army massed on the other side. When Aragorn and Boromir will not leave him but run back to help him, he breaks the bridge and with the Balrog falls into the chasm.
His death, Tolkien explained,
But Gandalf’s sacrifice works out for the good. The wizards who had been sent to Middle-earth to combat Sauron had failed, Tolkien continued,
Thus enhanced, with much greater wisdom and power, Gandalf leads the war against Sauron with an authority and effect greater than he had had before, which were badly needed. Tolkien mentioned his effect on Theoden and Saruman, his rescue of Faramir, and his defiance of the Lord of the Nazgul, but I would add his warning to Frodo as he exposed himself to discovery by Sauron in the chair at the top of Amon Hen (the voice telling Frodo, “Take it off! Take it off! Fool, take it off! Take off the Ring!”)11
Most Famous Example
The most famous example of the work of Providence in The Lord of the Rings is the fruit of showing pity and mercy to the wicked and treacherous Gollum—mercy that several creatures must show him at different times, always when they would be justified in treating him more harshly or killing him outright.
As recorded in The Hobbit, Bilbo is the first to show him mercy, but in The Lord of the Rings, others do as well. The first is Gandalf, of course, and the Elves who let Gollum out of his prison to climb in the trees because “Gandalf bade us hope still for his cure, and we had not the heart to keep him ever in dungeons under the earth, where he would fall back into his old black thoughts,” and from whom he escapes. Then Frodo and (unwillingly till the very end) Sam show mercy to Gollum, and Faramir does so also, though only at Frodo’s request.
The description of Providence comes in the second chapter of the book, “The Shadow of the Past,” which is its spiritual heart. Frodo, a bachelor living a placid and quiet life of great comfort, suddenly finds that the Ring he inherited from his uncle belongs to the Enemy, and that the Enemy wants to find him and get it back. He finds that the Enemy knows of him through Gollum.
In fear, he exclaims, “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!” And Gandalf replies: “Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership so. With Pity.”
Frodo is not moved, and declares that he feels no pity for Gollum. “You have not seen him,” Gandalf says.
And Gandalf replies:
Gandalf knows that Gollum is wicked, but sees that he is still to be pitied and may someday be cured, though it is not likely. He knows also that others, including himself, could have become the same sort of creature had they ever been tempted with the Ring.
And he knows one other thing, which Tolkien never explained. Gandalf does not think that Gollum will do good by choice, but that he may nevertheless do good. Later in the story, when he has learned that Gollum is leading Frodo and Sam into Mordor by the pass of Cirith Ungol, he tells Pippin he fears “the treachery of that miserable creature. But so it must be. Let us remember that a traitor may betray himself and do good that he does not intend. It can be so, sometimes.”
Gollum’s Final Treachery
And so it does happen. The wretched creature shown so much mercy does not respond and repent—though he almost does, and might have but for Sam. Instead, he turns on Frodo when he is half way up Mount Doom, trying to kill him when he finally realizes that Frodo is going to destroy the Ring by throwing it into the Crack of Doom. Frodo controls him with the Ring.
The first good that Gollum does not intend is strengthening the exhausted and starving Frodo for the final ascent. Sam has had to carry Frodo up the mountain and is about to break. The attack “was probably the only thing that could have roused the dying embers of Frodo’s heart and will.” Frodo walks up the mountain on his own.
Sam stays to battle Gollum, but finds him lying in the dust begging for his life. And then Sam, who has hated Gollum since their first meeting (and perfectly reasonably, too), shows him mercy and pity.
Sam had borne the Ring for a little while “and now dimly he guessed the agony of Gollum’s shriveled mind and body, enslaved to that Ring, unable to find peace or relief ever in life again.” Sam lets him go.
He then climbs up to the Crack of Doom and finds that Frodo has claimed the Ring for his own, which was inevitable. Sauron will soon get his Ring. The quest is lost. The world they love will die. And then happens something that could not have been predicted: Gollum rushes into the cave, takes the Ring from Frodo, and dancing in triumph falls into the fire. The quest, suddenly, is won.
That is the greatest example of the workings of Providence in The Lord of the Rings. Because Bilbo and Gandalf and the Elves and Frodo and Sam and Faramir all show Gollum mercy and pity, he does what no one could have done on his own, and what he does not intend to do: He casts the Ring into the Crack of Doom and saves the world.
A few other things may be said about the workings of Providence in The Lord of the Rings.
First, Frodo can be used by Providence not only because he is merciful but also because he submits to an authority that asked for mercy. He pleads for Gollum’s life at Henneth Annûn in part because Gandalf would not want Gollum killed and because he trusts Gandalf’s belief that Gollum has a part to play in the story. The same is true for Sam, who submits to Frodo’s wish that he be kind to Gollum and in practicing a mercy he did not feel learns to be merciful, with the fruit we have seen.
Second, the great—Gandalf, Elrond, and Faramir—all leave the Ring in Frodo’s possession, because it is his, though he seems the wrong person to have it and to take it on the quest. Gandalf explains to Frodo that he did not take the Ring from Bilbo because “I had no right to do so.” The great will not do evil even when they must have what someone else has, and can claim that they are acting for the greatest good.
Third, though the characters trust in Providence, it gives them only a partial and temporary victory. They are to do good without expecting that they will change the world forever. As Gandalf tells Frodo at the beginning, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” And as he tells the captains of the armies, who must decide how to fight Sauron when the war “is without final hope,” they must act so that “a great evil of this world will be removed” (if they succeed, which is doubtful), but
Fourth, Providence works to save us, if we let it, because we cannot save ourselves. Frodo at the Crack of Doom proves that, as Tolkien made clear in his letters. “It was quite impossible for him [Frodo] to surrender the Ring, in act or will, especially at the point of its maximum power. . . . [O]ne must face the fact: the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however ‘good’; and the Writer of the Story is not one of us.”12
It requires only that we do what we can, which is always much more than we think we can. “Frodo deserved all honor,” Tolkien wrote someone else at about the same time, “because he spent every drop of his power of will and body, and that was just sufficient to bring him to the destined point, and no further. Few others, possibly no others of his time, would have got so far. The Other Power then took over: the Writer of the Story (by which I do not mean myself).”13
Fifth, Providence does not require anyone to do evil even if it works through evil. A repentant Gollum would not have done in the Chambers of Fire on Mount Doom what the unrepentant Gollum did, but we are meant to hope for his repentance. Had he repented, his repentance would not have defeated the ends of Providence but been taken up by it and made a means to them. Tolkien wrote in a letter that had Gollum repented he would still have taken the Ring, because he would not have been able to resist it, but that having taken it he would “then have sacrificed himself for Frodo’s sake and have voluntarily cast himself into the fiery abyss.”14
Finally, Providence requires that we accept the burdens given us, and accept that we do not know why they have been given to us. When Frodo wishes that Sauron had not risen to power in his time, Gandalf agrees: “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
A little later, when Frodo asks why the Ring came to him, Gandalf explains that “Such questions cannot be answered. You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.”
The Lord of the Rings is a Christian work, not least in its picture of the workings of Providence, and of what will happen if we accept that we have been chosen for whatever adventure we have to undertake, and if we use such strength and heart and wits as we have. And that is an encouraging thought.
3. Ibid., p. 201. Faramir’s grace is described: “Before they ate, Faramir and all his men turned and faced west in a moment of silence. . . . ‘So we always do,’ he said, as they sat down: ‘we look toward Numenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be’.” See also pp. 204–207, 233–237, 251–252, 281n, 286, 288, 326, and 355 for Tolkien’s description of religion in Middle-earth.
5. “On Fairy-stories,” in J. R. R. Tolkien, The Tolkien Reader (Ballantine Books, 1966), pp. 3–84. Readers should note that the book begins with “The Homecoming of Beorhthnoth Beorhthelm’s Son,” which runs for 24 pages, so this page 3 actually appears about one-fifth of the way into the book. The final version was finished in 1945 and first appeared in Essays Presented to Charles Williams, edited by C. S. Lewis.
7. Two recent attempts to explain the book’s Catholicism, neither I think really successful, are Charles Coulomb’s “The Lord of the Rings: A Catholic View” in Joseph Pearce, ed., Tolkien: A Celebration (Ignatius Press, 2001), and Jason Boffetti’s “Tolkien’s Catholic Imagination,” in Crisis (November 2001).
8. Tolkien famously hated his work being treated as an allegory. He did grant that “it is impossible to write any ‘story’ that is not allegorical in proportion as it ‘comes to life’; since each of us in an allegory, embodying in a particular tale and clothed in the garments of time and place, universal truths and everlasting life” (Letters, p. 212).
13. Ibid., p. 253. He wrote earlier in the letter that this may be the meaning of “Lead us not into temptation.” “There exists the possibility of being placed in positions beyond one’s power. In which case (as I believe) salvation from ruin will depend on something apparently unconnected: the general sanctity (and humility and mercy) of the sacrificial person.”
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.
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“The Writer of Our Story” first appeared in the January/February 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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