There is no character named Jesus Christ in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. God also makes no appearance. The protagonists don’t attend church, or even pray. Yet The Lord of the Rings is a Catholic work, equal to or overshadowing C.S Lewis’s Narnia series in the depths of faith. Tolkien weaved Catholic theology, philosophy, and tradition throughout The Lord of the Rings, but he also despised the idea of allegory. Therefore, there is no character, such as Aslan in Narnia, who represents Christ. But there are characters, three in particular, who offer insights into the three traditional vocations of Christ: priest, prophet, and king.
King: Perhaps the easiest of Christ’s vocations to find in The Lord of the Rings is Aragorn. Aragorn is the “King returning.” Like Christ, he has an extensive lineage that dates back to the leaders of his people long ago and is fashioned by prophecy, but appears not in glory but humbly – “all that is gold does not glitter.” Aragorn reunites Arnor and Gondor through his reign and brings together the once feuding peoples of the Elves and Dwarves, as embodied by the friendship of Gimli and Legolas: how can one not see here parallels to Israel and Judah, or the Jews and the Gentiles? Aragon is a king that serves and heals. He does not meet the people’s expectations: he does not enter the city of Minas Tirith openly, and labors in shadows to defend the Shire with his Dunedain under the Hobbits’ noses. Nobility meets selflessness in the character of Aragorn, and the kingly vocation of Christ is quite easily noticed.
Prophet: Gandalf embodies many of the qualities and characteristics of the prophetic vocation of Christ. Certainly, Gandalf’s “death” hints at multiple moments in the life of Christ – for example, Gandalf wrestles with a demon in a deep underground tomb, dying only to return again in new form. That new form can also be seen as a “transfiguration” of Gandalf (bright white clothing and hair being a common feature); Gandalf’s struggle with a Balrog does not take place only under but also on top of a mountain. Like a prophet, Gandalf was sent by the benevolent gods of Middle Earth – the Valar – to work against Sauron. Also similar to many prophets, Gandalf does not originally desire to go, and he is mocked as unworthy by his compatriot Saruman. Saruman, as the foil to Gandalf, shows the temptation of the prophet fulfilled: taking power for his own. Instead, Gandalf guides without forcing, and his abilities come from knowledge, words and runes. Like Christ, Gandalf strangely balances the world of Middle Earth and the divine Valinor from which he comes, shaping in small ways the struggle against Sauron.
Priest: Finding the priestly vocation in The Lord of the Rings is probably the hardest of the three – after all, there are no “priests” because there is no open religion. Yet, Christ’s role as priest plays out in part by Frodo in Tolkien’s tale. Frodo bears the Ring throughout the tale, the embodiment of temptation, sin, and evil – in a sense, like Christ he bears the weight of the evil of the past and present that grows ever heavier as he approaches the Ring’s ultimate destruction. Because of this, Frodo seeks silence and solitude often. As well, Frodo’s path mimics the Via Dolorosa, the “way of tears” leading to Christ’s crucifixion, as Frodo goes through hardship after hardship: abandoned by friends, (seemingly) betrayed, tempted and tired. Frodo then “dies” through Shelob’s sting and arrives in Mordor, a very representative Hell, which Frodo is forced to harrow to save those he loves. Frodo, in short, is the sacrificial lamb, contending with Gollum as the mirror of his own soul’s fight ultimately brings about a new world.
The insights, of course, only go so far. As no character is Christ, there are limitations to each of them. Frodo, after all, ultimately fails to destroy the ring. Gandalf’s role might better be described as an angel than as a prophet. They are, in some capacity, all mortal and all flawed. But each present a new way of understanding the vocations of Christ, vocations that all Christians are called to live out in their own times. In following Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn, we follow Christ: in work, in suffering, and in glory.
Michael Fischer is a senior in the SFS and a Knight of Columbus. He serves as Baking Scheduler for the Nightly Mass Community and President of the Alpha Sigma Nu Jesuit Honor Society.