Much has been written about the influence of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Christian faith on The Lord of the Rings and the entire canon of Middle-earth literature, so it may seem that there is very little left to be said. However, Donald T. Williams brings a fresh perspective to five different themes that echo throughout The Lord of the Rings and point to the centrality of Christianity in the work of Tolkien in An Encouraging Thought. In contrast to Peter Kreeft’s The Philosophy of Tolkien which answers fifty philosophical questions or Frodo’s Journey by Joseph Pearce which seeks to decipher the specifically Catholic influence on Tolkien’s world, Williams focuses on five general themes supported by details rather than answering specific questions. The thesis is introduced in the first chapter, touched upon through the four intermediate chapters, and revisited in the final chapter which reemphasizes their importance. Each of these themes is reinforced not only by evidence from the text itself but also set in parallel with Williams’s devotional reflections on Christianity.

The first major motif that Williams highlights in his first chapter entitled, “’An Encouraging Thought’: The Christian Vision of Middle Earth,” is the symbolic nature of darkness and light. While the connection to Biblical imagery is clear, this same emphasis is strongly echoed in The Lord of the Rings. Williams explains, “Sauron is the Dark Lord who lives in Mordor, where the shadows lie.  His most powerful servants are the Black Riders . . . Arrayed against the forces of darkness is Gandalf, the White Rider.”[1] It is evident that Tolkien follows the template laid out in Scripture that associates light with good and darkness with evil.

This connection leads Williams to quote one of the most famous passages of the story.

Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.[2]

The light is ultimately triumphant and cannot be defeated, no matter how dark the times may seem in Middle-earth. Williams explicates:

The Shadow which oppresses us and seems invincible is in the larger scheme only a small and passing thing.  Final victory is forever beyond its reach, just as the clouds billowing from Mount Doom could never rise above the atmosphere to really put out a star in the heavens.[3]

This is the first time that Williams refers implicitly to hope, but it is the foundational theme that underlies all five concepts he pulls out of the narrative. Not only does this have direct connections to the Christian worldview, but the beauty of the story is that good does indeed triumph. The hope is ultimately well-merited.

Williams then moves on to his second main idea that victory does not come by might. A physically small hobbit, far from a fierce warrior, is the one who brings deliverance from evil. However, Williams is quick to point out that attributing success to Frodo alone is not an accurate depiction of what really happened.

The last part of their journey seems to be nothing but failure.  Frodo fails to reclaim Gollum from evil, Sam fails to protect Frodo from Gollum, Frodo fails to resist the temptation of the Ring and finally to secure it from Gollum, and even Gollum, who finally succeeds in his desperate quest to recover the Ring, cannot succeed in keeping it.  Yet somehow out of all this failure — indeed, precisely as a result of it — victory is won.[4]

Reminiscent of Tolkien’s conception of eucatastrophe, a term that Williams explores later in this book in the intermediate chapters, even when hope seems to disappear, there is a sudden turn of events that brings about a positive result. That turn of events is not orchestrated through those who would appear to be mighty; it occurs through the small.

Next, Williams advances to the explicitly Christian connection with the theme of sacrifice. Just as Jesus Christ laid down his life for the salvation of the world, many characters throughout The Lord of the Rings make sacrifices for those they care about. Williams clarifies, “It is not an atonement — for that we would need Christ (or Aslan).  But it is vicarious suffering which becomes the key to deliverance for others, given freely and nobly.”[5] This motif is most obvious in Frodo and the physical strain that bearing the Ring for the salvation of the world has on him, but even among the Fellowship, there are numerous instances of his companions sacrificing for Frodo as well.

The fourth chief theme relates to Providence, and it is actually the inspiration for the title of the book. Gandalf tells Frodo, “I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker . . . And that may be an encouraging thought.”[6] Sauron created the Ring for his own evil purposes, so the purpose Gandalf is referring to must belong to someone else. There must be some kind of higher power guiding the action to an alternative target. Williams highlights Tolkien’s intentionality by saying, “Things that don’t have a person behind them don’t happen for a reason; they just happen because they happen to happen.”[7] Then in the context of the story, he writes, “If Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, there had to be someone to mean that he would find it, someone working behind the scenes to ensure he would find it; it wasn’t just an accident.”[8] This Providential hand, working for the side of the good and the ultimate downfall of evil, provides the encouraging thought Gandalf shares.

The fifth and final theme speaks to the presence of partial Christ Figures. The Lord of the Rings is not The Chronicles of Narnia where Aslan is a clear parallel of Jesus Christ. Instead, Tolkien’s work shows the characteristics of Jesus Christ but in a variety of different characters and situations. Specifically, Williams alludes to the traditional three offices held by Jesus Christ: Prophet, Priest, and King. “Gandalf is the Prophet.  He is an unerring source of not just wisdom but also vision.”[9] “Frodo . . . plays the role of the Priest . . . Frodo makes great sacrifices for the sake of The Shire and voluntarily takes on great suffering so that others will not have to.”[10] “Finally, Aragorn is the King.  He is the rightful king, the heir of Isildur, but we spend most of the trilogy waiting for his kingdom to come.”[11] The offices of Christ are fulfilled, but they are exhibited in a combination of three characters rather than all combined into one full Christ figure. It is a nontraditional presentation of a Christ figure, but the symbolism remains.

As he relates in the beginning of the second chapter, “’Eucatastrophe’: Middle Earth and the Christian World View,” Williams sensed these five themes as a young man reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time, and it made him “seriously wonder whether Tolkien might, if such a thing were not impossible, be a Christian.”[12] His journey led him to Tolkien’s famous essay, “On Fairy-Stories.” In that essay, he realized, “Tolkien was explaining such stories as an example of his notion of sub-creation: Human beings are creative because they are created in the image of the Creator.”[13] This led to the revelation that:

All the hints of Christian truth and meaning I had seen in the Trilogy must not be accidents or figments of my imagination after all, but flowed from their author’s own deepest convictions about the world — this world, as well as his own, created one.[14]

In other words, Tolkien’s Christian worldview was woven into his writing implicitly. He took his worldview, “a unified way of looking at the world in the light of those beliefs held as true,” and did not preach but rather wrote a story that was consistent with that perspective and understanding.[15]

Williams wrote that this distinctly Christian worldview literally altered the way that Tolkien processed literature. “He read the same fairy stories as everybody else, but because he believed the Gospel and treated it as true, he saw things in them that others had missed.”[16] After providing a brief apologetic argument for the Christian faith itself, Williams highlights the connection of The Lord of the Rings to the Christian worldview and explains why these stories might potentially be so popular:

We are thus able to experience the universe anew as a world of purposeful creation that allows darkness and light, the strength of dedicated weakness, significant sacrifice, personal providence, and Christlike heroes to have meaning again.  Middle Earth becomes a lens through which we learn to see such things even in the contemporary world we inhabit.[17]

Experiencing this universe causes different reactions in the Christian and the non-Christian according to Williams.

One reason believers have loved The Lord of the Rings is that it reminds them that this is the way the world is . . . And one reason I think many non-believers love the book is that it gives them an escape from a secular and meaningless world into a place where meaning and purpose not only exist but are believable.[18]

The depths of Middle-earth are combed even further as Williams moves into the third chapter, “’In the Beginning was the Word’: Language and Creativity in Middle Earth.” After all:

Everybody notices how good his names are, and how appropriate they sound to the people and places they refer to.  That is not an accident, nor is it a trivial factor in the beauty of his writing.  It flows directly from his philology.[19]

As man is created in the image of God and uses his power of sub-creation to create language that describes the world around him, Williams proposes the language used throughout The Lord of the Rings similarly describes the world the characters experience.

Tolkien, the philologist, did not set out to create an imaginary world and then use his expertise in philology to give it nice-sounding names.  What he wanted to do was make his own language, one that would not just be a personal code but have the feel, the grammar, the deep structure, of an actual language like the ones he had been studying.[20]

This level of authenticity connects directly to the believable world that both Christians and nonbelievers experience when they read The Lord of the Rings. It feels like a real world, and a large reason why it does is because Tolkien, the linguistic virtuoso, built the foundation of his world just like humans, the sub-creators made in the image of God, developed language to communicate our experience of our own world. As Williams succinctly puts it, “Tolkien made Middle Earth because he was made in the image of the God who spoke the world into existence.”[21]

Following this chapter, Williams turns the reader’s attention to a discussion of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings. This chapter, “’You’re not Telling it Right!’ Peter Jackson’s Betrayal of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Vision,” is well-written and highlights many of the issues that dedicated fans have expressed with these film adaptations such as the substantial alteration to the moral character of Faramir and the changes in the climax at Mount Doom portraying Gollum’s demise. He discusses the difference between the written word and film and brings in references to Plato and Philip Sidney as well to illustrate the differences in forms of media. That being said, this chapter does not necessarily lend itself in support to the greater argument Williams is making throughout this book about the five key motifs that provide evidence of Tolkien’s Christian worldview, so I will not make further commentary on it at this point. It does illustrate the importance of his Christian worldview, and it shows how Jackson’s failed appreciation for that central vision created interpretive differences on screen, but it does not explicitly link to the five themes. As a result, this chapter might have fit better as an appendix for the reader who needs more evidence that the Christian worldview matters in The Lord of the Rings by showing what it looks like without it.

The fifth chapter, “’Lord, Teach Us to Number our Days’: The Significance of Tolkien’s Elves,” brings the focus back to these five key themes, and Williams suggests that the elves specifically speak to readers most powerfully. He comes to this conclusion because of their transience.

It is precisely because the time of the elves is passing away that the beauty associated with them — by implication, all beauty — strikes us so deeply when we walk through the imagined countryside of Middle Earth.[22]

The elves have a defined time in the world, and the ultimate success, the destruction of the Ring, spells the end to their tenure in Middle-earth. In pointing towards a higher power again, Williams emphasizes, “It is the simple truth that it is not given to us to possess the beauties of earth.  They belong to Another, and we are but allowed to behold them for a moment.”[23] Middle-earth for them is simply “a land of pilgrimage in which there are many goodly inns but no final dwelling place, in which all paths lead inexorably out across those borders which admit of no return.”[24] As important as the five important motifs are in The Lord of the Rings and in our own world, the elves turn our eyes towards eternity and remind us that there is something even more significant than what we experience on earth right now according to the Christian worldview.

Williams brings everything together in his conclusion, “’The Road Goes Ever On’: Tolkien and the Quest,” by restating his five themes and the argument he has developed through the preceding chapters. He expresses his desire that, “I want my readers to follow it if they can, pursuing it with weary feet until it joins some larger way where many paths and errands meet.”[25] He leaves the reader exactly where he began the book. “And whither then?  I cannot say.  But I can tell them that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker.  And that may be an encouraging thought.”[26]

Interspersed throughout this book and packaged in the appendices at the end, Williams does provide a great amount of additional content. He includes several poems that he authored, a poem by Clyde Kirby, and an additional essay entitled, “Tolkien, Middle Earth, and Narnia: Tolkien’s Objections and the Mythical Structure of Narnia.” Williams finally includes an annotated bibliography as well as a general index for the convenience of the reader.

Donald T. Williams has written a worthy addition to the vast collection of Tolkien commentary. An Encouraging Thought draws a substantial amount of evidence from the text itself to support his five-pronged approach to understanding the Christian worldview as the underlying foundation of The Lord of the Rings. While the Christian will undoubtedly resonate more strongly with many of the connections that Williams makes on a personal level, the undeniable impact Tolkien’s faith had on his writing makes it important for any Tolkien scholar to understand these books from a Christian worldview. As Williams states regarding his five themes, “Together they add up to a story that resonates powerfully with Christian doctrine and with a biblical view of life and the world.”[27] There is no way to properly understand these stories while disregarding the conclusion Tolkien himself reached.

Citation Information

Zak Schmoll, “Book Review: An Encouraging Thought,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 1. (Spring 2020), 173-188.

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[1] Donald Williams, An Encouraging Thought: The Christian Worldview in the Writings of J. R. R. Tolkien (Cambridge, Ohio: Christian Publishing House, 2018), 19.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002), 922.

[3] Donald Williams, An Encouraging Thought: The Christian Worldview in the Writings of J. R. R. Tolkien (Cambridge, Ohio: Christian Publishing House, 2018), 21.

[4] Ibid., 24.

[5] Ibid., 28.

[6] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 56.

[7] Williams, An Encouraging Thought, 31.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 34.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 35.

[12] Ibid., 38.

[13] Ibid., 38-39.

[14] Ibid., 40.

[15] Ibid., 43.

[16] Ibid., 45.

[17] Ibid., 53.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 58.

[20] Ibid., 64.

[21] Ibid., 65.

[22] Ibid., 94.

[23] Ibid., 95.

[24] Ibid., 101.

[25] Ibid., 109.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., 19.