Lord of the Rings and the Trinity

Tolkien's stories are nearly bottomless and all of it is rich in theology, so I'll just give a snapshot in the following article. Tolkien was a good and studied Catholic, so the origins of his gods are steeped in solid Trinitarian theology.


First off, where did Gandalf come from?? He's the wisest of the Maiar, who are minor Ainu. Huh? The Ainu, which means "Holy Ones," were the first of the creations of Eru Ilúvatar--they were born of his thought. The wizards--Gandalf, Saruman, etc.--were each a Maiar, and existed before Elves, Men, and Dwarves.

God the Father
Eru Ilúvatar is the Godhead of the Tolkien mythos. He is God the Father, the first person of the Trinity. The name, Eru Ilúvatar, means "The One" (Eru) and "Father of All" (Ilúvatar) in the ancient Elvish language of Quenya. You can make a direct connection between Eru and El, the word for God or "The One" in Hebrew, such as in Elohim ("the all-powerful One"), El Shaddai ("God Almighty"), Gabriel [Gabri-El] ("Strength of God"), and Michael [Micha-El] ("Who is like God?").
Gandalf and the other wizards and Maiar were born of the thoughts of Eru Ilúvatar (of God, the Father). Similarly, God the Father speaks the Word, which is the Son of God--the Word made Flesh is Jesus Christ. You might be thinking, "Tolkien's Trinity is way more than three persons."


Tolkien actually addressed all the gods, sub-gods, and co-gods in his mythology. In a draft letter to Peter Hastings, the manager of a Catholic bookshop in Oxford, Tolkien explained his mix of monotheism and polytheism and its seeming unorthodoxy. All these gods are "a tribute to the infinity of [God's] potential variety."(1) A creature, Tolkien argued, does not necessarily have to create in the same manner as he was created.
HOWEVER! There are powers reserved to Eru Ilúvatar alone, such as the power of RESURRECTION, and other interventions into the natural order. And so God the Son incarnated as Jesus was revealing something particular about his Divine Nature and the Christian Trinity when he said, "I am the Resurrection and the life" (Jn 11:25). Gandalf, unlike Jesus, did not share in the Divine Nature of Eru Ilúvatar. Gandalf, unlike Jesus, did not resurrect himself.


There's no single Christ, Messiah, or God-the-Son in Tolkien's mythology--this will be the subject of another article: The Christs of Lord of the Rings. God the Son, as a person of the Trinity, is splintered among many different characters. The other persons of the Trinity--God the Father and God the Holy Spirit--are not splintered and are very straightforward.


The Holy Spirit
God the Father is Eru Ilúvatar, as I've explained, but who is Tolkien's Holy Spirit? It is the Secret Fire or the Flame Imperishable, which is the power of life possessed by Eru Ilúvatar alone. Tolkien, himself, admits to this Trinitarian connection.(2)


Do you remember hearing about this Secret Fire in Lord of the Rings? It's definitely one of the cooler scenes from the movie. Gandalf, himself, finds his courage to stand before the Balrog of Morgoth (Morgoth is the Satan figure, a fallen member of the Valar) when he calls himself a "servant of the Secret Fire":


"You cannot pass," he said ... "I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. You cannot pass." (3)
I love this quote, not only because it shows what a bad mamma-jamma Gandalf is, but also because it reveals the good and evil of Middle-Earth and the discernment needed between them. There is the Secret Fire of Eru Ilúvatar, the Holy Spirit, which is purely good and all-powerful. At war against the Secret Fire is the "dark fire." The Balrog before Gandalf was created by Tolkien's Lucifer-figure, Melkor or Morgoth, in Tolkien's Hell-equivalent, the fortress of Morgoth, Utumno or Udûn.
Gandalf announces that he is a servant of Tolkien's Holy Spirit before the embodiment of evil, a creature made of the dark fire, itself. Gandalf's power is rooted in his faith. He stands on that narrow bridge, the razor's edge, guided by his faith. His willingness to sacrifice himself was further rooted in his faith in the resurrection--in Eru Ilúvatar, Himself. It was by the same faith that Abraham could sacrifice his only son, Isaac.


The power of the dark fire can only corrupt the creations of the Secret Fire; it cannot create on its own. Isn't this a true image of evil? of Satan? Evil can only pervert and destroy. Frodo explains this to Sam in Return of the King, as he describes the origin of orcs:
"The shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own."(4)
God the Son
As I said earlier, there's more than one Christ figure in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien splintered his Messiah into three characters: Gandalf, Frodo, and--of course--Aragorn. Each of these characters represents a different aspect of Christ:
  • Gandalf the Gray (and White) represents the Resurrection, but more importantly he represents the third person of the Trinity, The Word, who exists outside of time.
  • Frodo Baggins represents the Sacrifice (the Crucifixion), the journey which begins in sleepy, out-of-the-way Nazareth and ends on the slopes of Golgotha.
  • Aragorn, son of Arathorn represents the King, the restoration of the Davidic Kingdom.
Is Tolkien's Trinity a true Trinity? Eru Ilúvatar never exists, truly, in three persons. Though Tolkien has Christ figures, his Trinity does not include a full-fledged God, the Son, much less is Ilúvatar actually incarnated. Also, the Flame Imperishable does not seem to exist as a person or as equal to Ilúvatar. Rather, the Secret Fire seems to be something that is possessed by Ilúvatar.


An Old Testament Trinity: I would have to conclude that Tolkien's Trinity is not a New Testament Trinity. It more closely resembles the Trinity as expressed in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, the Trinity is only partially revealed. Also, Tolkien's Trinity is most developed in its action of creation.


Compare Tolkien's creation to the Book of Genesis. In Genesis, God the Son is the Word spoken at creation. He appears in Scripture whenever Wisdom and Truth are spoken of in capital letters. God the Holy Spirit is present at creation, also, as the spirit moving over the waters (Gn 1:2). This very similar to The Lord of the Rings:
  • The Son: the first of the creations of Eru Ilúvatar, the Ainu, were born of his thought, much as God spoke the Word at creation.
  • The Holy Spirit: the Flame Imperishable is the power of life possessed by Eru Ilúvatar alone, similar to the Spirit of God which is active in creation across the formlessness.  
The full doctrine of the Trinity won't be fully explained until the Gospel of John and Paul's epistles. This is how doctrine develops: as "through a mirror dimly" which clears through the passage of time (1 Cor 13:12).
 
St. Augustine was warned by an angel not to expect too much of his feeble mind when investigating the mysteries of the Trinity. Tolkien seems to heed the same warning; the creation of Middle-Earth is not simply a recapitulation of the Genesis story. His imagination has great power. Tolkien reveals the infinite wonder which can be found in just the natures of God and creation.


1. Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. (1981), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, #153, ISBN 0-395-31555-7
2. Clyde S. Kilby. Tolkien & The Silmarillion. Harold Shaw, 1976, p. 59.
3. Tolkien, J. R. R., The Fellowship of the Ring II 5: "The Bridge of Khazad-dûm"
4. Tolkien, J. R. R., The Return of the King VI 1: "The Tower of Cirith Ungol"

3 comments:

  1. In a letter he writes that a mind can only "badly" think of such ideas as the holy trinity. So no, no such allagory is in Lord of the Rings.

    Further more, he actually said "i hate allegory". So, sorry you did not know this before you took the time to write this, but i am sorry to say you are mistaken .

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  2. Actually, Tolkien never said that. Here is the quote:
    “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

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  3. "You shall not pass." One of the most badass moments of the film. I love it

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