Recent events threaten our grasp of the true and the lovely, and with it, our encouragement of our kids. Riots seethe on the streets. Some of us grieve loved ones lost; others, the crumbling of dreams we’ve spent decades nurturing. Our hands ache to pass the peace, but connect only with alcohol-based sanitizers. In such moments, we can forget that God’s steadfast love and faithfulness endure forever (Exod. 34:6), and that Christ is with us even now (Matt. 28:20).
As we wrangle with our own anxieties, our children look to us for assurance. They search our expressions with eyes made wider by the masks swallowing their faces, and wonder if they should be scared, too. They ask when the coronavirus will end, and if they’ll ever see their friends again. They question if they’re safe. Such moments call for hugs, family prayer, and a cleaving to the Word that lights our path (Ps. 119:105).
This year, after the prayers have been whispered and the Word studied, such moments have also churned up my gratitude for Tolkien.
Into Middle Earth, in the Shadow of the Cross
While COVID-19 has clenched the world in its jaws, the time confined at home this year prompted our family to explore Middle Earth together. Through our meanderings, we’ve discovered that the realm of hobbits and elves unearths gospel themes in luminous brushstrokes that offer courage to even the youngest adventurer.
Tolkien reportedly hated allegory, but he also believed that all myths reflect fragments of God’s design, the way a prism splinters a brilliant sunbeam. His own mythology in The Lord of the Rings glitters with such fragments. The entire arc of the gospel springs from the crags and hillocks of Middle Earth, with Christian themes cresting upon every note. Reading the trilogy with an alert mind can spark rich conversations with our kids about who God is, who we are, and why we have reason to hope.
Glimmers of the Gospel
As you journey through Middle Earth with your own kids, here are just a few themes to spark discussion. Pause when you encounter them, linger over them, and be quick to seek out Scripture to help deepen their understanding.
- Our Fallen Nature – The Ring of Poweris one of the best metaphors for sin described in literature. As Boromir chimes, ‘it seems so small a thing,” yet it tempts all who gaze upon it, from the humblest of riverfolk to the wisest elf in the heights of Lothlórien. It holds sway over every created being, just as this side of the Fall sin infects each of our hearts (Rom. 3:23).
The ring encumbers Frodo with a heaviness reminiscent of Pilgrim’s burden in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. It consumes and corrupts its wearers, as sin humankind. Tolkien depicts this degradation physically, often with striking imagery: Boromir’s eyes flash and his face hideously changes, Galadriel appears at once terrible and beautiful, and even Gandalf’s face is lit afire. The best example of the transforming power of the ring, of course, is its effect on Sméagol. The ring so subdues the meek fisherman that he commits murder to claim it, then slinks into dark depths where he devolves into the grotesque, unrecognizable creature Gollum.
Tolkien’s treatment of the Ring of Power provides stark, memorable illustrations of the power of sin to entice and destroy. His imagery gives texture and shape to a concept that children might otherwise find abstract.
- Our Redeemer – So formidable is the threat of the Dark Lord, that only the most breathtaking of rescues could offer hope. Tolkien delivers with an epic victory over evil, and along the way he offers three characters who remind us of our risen Savior: Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn. Although none of these characters is a perfect type of Christ, they all point toward Jesus’ sacrificial love, and the hope we have in his return.
During the passage through Moria, Gandalf confronts the Balrog, a demon of smoke and flame, to permit the Fellowship’s escape. He’s drawn to his death in the process, giving up his own life so others might live (Matt. 20:28). Later in the narrative, when Gandalf is raised to life in an exalted form, we can remind our kids of Jesus’ resurrection and glorification, and the promise that he will return (Acts 1:11).
Frodo bears the ring, and endures all the suffering that burden carries, for the sake of the world. Of all the lords and magical creatures in Middle Earth, only he can fulfill the crushing task of destroying the ring, and he accepts his role humbly. His agonizing slog through Mordor evokes parallels with Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, and at the cross, when he endured horrific suffering on our behalf (Isa. 53:5, Matt. 26:38-39, John 3:16). Just as Frodo suffered for the world, so also Jesus was the suffering servant who bore all our afflictions (Isa. 53:4).
Finally, after many years away, Aragorn returns to besieged Gondor to reign as its rightful king, and to usher in a new era of peace. As we read of Aragorn’s crowning, we remember the promises of John’s Revelation, and how Christ, seated upon the throne, will make all things new (Rev. 21:5).
- Our Discipleship — Tolkien based the character Samwise Gamgee on enlisted soldiers with whom he fought in World War I. Like those soldiers, Sam’s devotion to Frodo inspires him to incredible acts of bravery, including mismatched battles with monstrous spiders and orcs that he wins on sheer nerve. When Frodo collapses in exhaustion at the foot of Mount Doom, Sam hoists him onto his back and completes the climb.
Jesus taught, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). In a time when friends connect only over Zoom, Sam Gamgee offers our kids a vivid portrait of such sacrificial love for neighbor, and what it means to love one another as Christ loved us (John 13:34).
No fiction can replace God’s inspired word. Yet during these strange times, the right stories – those that applaud goodness in the face of terror, and hope against all hope — can help point our kids to the one, true Story. Tolkien offers such direction in abundance, through a narrative that we all desperately need during dark times. He provides our kids with glimpses of God’s love when they most need reminders.
He reminds them, when the shadow encroaches, that nothing – not a ring, not sin, not even a pandemic – can wrench us from God’s love for us in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:38-39).