“The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the Imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism” -J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 142.
Tolkien and Lewis
Unlike his friend, contemporary and fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis, Tolkien did not approve of nor employ direct allegory. In the Chronicles of Narnia, (contrary to what Liam Neeson would want you to be believe) Aslan IS Jesus. Lewis had the idea that if Jesus were to become incarnate, as He did on earth, in a world mostly populated by talking animals, He would do as a lion. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Aslan tells Lucy that must remain in her world and not return to Narnia again. When her cousin Edmund asks him if he is also present in their world, Aslan responds “I am. But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name.” That name is, of course, Jesus Christ.
In The Lord of the Rings, there is not just one character who is analogous to a figure in salvation history. For example, he has three characters who personify different aspects of Our Lady. Galadriel is the powerful and beautiful “Lady of Light” who represents Mary as Queen. Arwen, who chooses bear marry Aragorn and bear his son, knowing that their deaths will cause her immeasurable sorrow, is the Sorrowful Mother. And Éowyn is the Woman (“No living man am I!”) who fatally strikes at the serpent’s (Dragon/”fell beast”) head.
The same is true for Christ. Aragorn, living a hidden life in exile before ascending to the throne of his ancestors, is obviously Christ as King. Gandalf, warning of the growing power of the Enemy, is Christ as Prophet. And Frodo, who bears a burden of evil that is not his up a mountain so that it may be destroyed, is Christ as Priest. The sacrificial nature of the Passion connects it to the priestly aspect of Christ. Thus, Frodo suffers greatly in his body. Besides being stabbed by the Witch-King and stung by the Shelob, he is wounded in his hand and bears the mark of his suffering there for the rest of his life.
Samwise the Brave
In the Passion Narratives in the Gospels, the Apostles flee upon Christ’s arrest. The Gospel than focuses on three of the Apostles: Peter, John and Judas. Like the Apostles, Frodo’s Fellowship is broken and scattered and he must continue on his quest alone. He is accompanied only by his faithful friend Samwise who stays with him through all his sufferings and is there with him “at the end of all things.” Although he briefly serves the role of Simon of Cyrene, temporarily bearing Frodo’s burden and when that fails, bearing Frodo himself (“I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you!” still gets me every time), Samwise clearly represents St. John, the Beloved Disciple.
Similarly, Gollum/Sméagol rather clearly represents Judas Iscariot. He enters the service of Frodo and even refers to him as “Master.” Yet, he betrays him. In the end, that betrayal enables Frodo to accomplish his mission. Frodo fails at the very last moment and Gollum forcibly takes the Ring from him, only to fall into the lava of Mount Doom and destroy the Ring along with himself. This to assert (as a certain movie blasphemously did) that Judas is the true hero of the story nor that Jesus could not have accomplished his mission without the betrayal of Jesus. Tolkien having Frodo fall is not a denigration of Christ but rather an affirmation that no Christ-figure is a perfect representation of Our Lord because it is by definition a figure of Christ and not Christ Himself.It is also an affirmation of the role of Providence. Christian creative imagination, from Dante’s Divine Comedy to modern vampire movies, has damned the betrayal of Judas as a singular evil.
Jesus Himself said, “It would have been better for him had he never been born.” Yet, the evil act facilitated the greatest good ever. When Frodo wishes that his uncle Bilbo had killed Gollum when he had the chance, Gandalf rebukes him. “[D]o not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends…My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end.” In the same way, though Judas no doubt deserved death, as Gollum did, at the same time he is pitiable, and he had an important part to play in the Passion. As my brother once commented , “Judas is the Gollum of the Gospels.”
This article originally appeared on the author’s personal blog as part of an ongoing series on the Passion. Please check it out at Pope Damasus and the Saints