In a letter from 1958, J.R.R. Tolkien noted that his fantasy epic, The Lord of the Rings, was “mainly concerned with Death, and Immortality.” Although Middle-earth is full of vast beauty and great light, the dark shadow of death indeed looms over all the story of the Ring. Mortal peril is the character most often present in nearly every scene.
Yet Tolkien does not tell of perpetual danger in order to simply write a suspenseful story, rather it is his understanding of the Christian narrative, which he and Lewis called the ‘True Myth’, that shapes every turn of his heroic plot. In his essay, On Fairy Stories, Tolkien explains that the Gospel contains and “embraces all the essence of fairy-stories.” The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the joyous Reality on which Tolkien as an author and sub-creator “hopes that he is drawing.”
Jesus described the Gospel story as the way of the seed which all men are ordained to follow. He taught that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” God Himself became mortal and was crucified so that the door of death might be transformed into the Way of indestructible life. As it is the way of wheat to die as seed and rise anew in spring, so it is now the way of men to gain eternal life through the portal of death. The rejection of the Way is the cause of every evil while its embodiment is the source of every joy. This pattern of death and resurrection shapes every turn of Tolkien’s plot, for The Lord of the Rings is “mainly concerned” with finding the courage to follow this Way of the Cross.
Thus, the journey of each character in The Lord of the Rings brings him to a point of decision between the Way of the Cross and the Way of the Ring. All roads lead to this climactic choice, for as Bilbo “used to often say there was only one Road; … it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary.” Death and suffering will come — for it is the lot of mortals — yet each person must choose whether to walk freely along this road or flee from it in vain. This is the decision which the Lady Galadriel presented to each member of the Fellowship as she searched their hearts in Lothlorien. As Galadriel looked into the eyes of each, he “felt that he was offered a choice between a shadow full of fear that lay ahead, and something that he greatly desired: clear before his mind it lay, and to get it he had only to turn aside from the road and leave the Quest and the war against Sauron to others.” All choices are incarnations of this ultimate choice: whether to grasp after our natural desires or deny them for the sake of others. One must either lose his life in order to save it or cling to his natural life only to find it lost forever. This is the source of what Chesterton calls the “Doctrine of Conditional Joy” that shapes every true fairy tale, for “according to elfin ethics, all virtue is in an ‘if.’” You will live happily ever after if only you will not touch the Ring of Power, if only you will deny yourself this one thing, if only you will not turn aside from the Way. The battle for Middle-earth is won or lost at this crossroad which runs through the heart of man.
The men of Middle-earth turn to evil when they fear or reject the Way of Death appointed for them. In order to resist death, men must seek powers that are not their own. Thus, resistance to the Way is intrinsically evil, for all powers are granted to each being in due measure. To increase one’s own power beyond its God-given measure, another must decrease in power. This is not the Way of the Cross but the Way of the Ring. The power and domination granted by Sauron’s small, enclosed circlet of gold is the opposite of Christ’s self-giving love. The Ring grants power by taking power away from others, yet as Stratford Caldecott explains in his book, The Power of the Ring, “In making devices like the Ring to increase our domination of others, we inevitably make ourselves weaker by becoming dependent on them. They magnify our power but also externalize it, so that we ourselves wither by their use.” Thus, as the Ring keeps its possessor from physical death, in return it brings spiritual death. The Way of the Ring centers around the infinitely small cosmos of the isolated self; it is utterly closed off from the self-giving Life of God. For those who spend their lives for the sake of others, death is but a gateway to eternal life, yet for those who seek the self-consuming Way of the Ring, life itself becomes an eternal death.
Resistance to the Way of the Cross deforms mortal man. In another letter from 1958, Tolkien wrote that any “attempt by device or ‘magic’ to recover longevity is thus a supreme folly and wickedness of ‘mortals’. … it leads the small to a Gollum, and the great to a Ringwraith.” As an annual which outlives winter becomes gangly, discolored, and sterile, so the creatures of Middle-earth teach us that men who fear death and seek a natural immortality become deformed and less human. The Ring of Power extended the life of Gollum far beyond its natural measure, but this illicit immortality slowly wasted him until no one could even recognize his species. By clinging to this life wrongly, Sméagol’s body, mind, desires, and habits all became distorted. He hissed and ate like an animal and hated the light. The Way of the Ring made Gollum’s life repulsive and pitiful, yet it twisted those who were greater than he into forms even more abhorrent. The terrifying Nazgul were great kings of old who utterly rejected the Way of Christ by succumbing to the nine rings given them by Sauron. Seeking power and immortality in this world, the Nine turned over their souls to Sauron. Rejecting the light of truth, they became invisible and blind; no longer could they see in the light or be seen by it. The Ringwraiths are no longer men at all but hideous shadows living in immortal deformity, terrible in measure to the glory they have rejected.
Yet while the fear of death and the path of pride deform a man, one who courageously follows the Way of the Cross is transformed and glorified. This transformation is most evident in the restoration of King Théoden. By heeding the self-preserving councils of Wormtongue, the King had begun to shrink back from his moral duty to oppose evil. In fear of the growing darkness, Théoden attempts to preserve his mortal strength, yet in this withdrawal from the battle, he slowly loses his life and grows “so bent with age that he seemed almost a dwarf.” Gandalf, however, breaks the spell of deception which darkened Théoden’s heart and restores the vision of the King. As he again takes his sword, “It seemed to the watchers that firmness and strength returned to his thin arm. Suddenly he lifted the blade and swung it shimmering and whistling in the air. Then he gave a great cry.” His knights rally to his call, and Théoden declares, “I myself will go to war, to fall in the front of the battle, if it must be. Thus shall I sleep better.” He prepares to lose his mortal life so that he might gain the prize of triumphant life.
Théoden resolves to sow his remaining strength in the battle against evil which awaits him in the city of kings. And as he boldly follows the Way of Christ for the love of His people, for the sake of good, and in the hope of an eternal victory, the aged Théoden is supernaturally transformed. When he calls the Riders of Rohan to charge the city, “He cried in a loud voice, more clear than any there had ever heard a mortal man achieve before.” The king is
Borne up on Snowmane like a god of old, even as Oromë the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young. His golden shield was uncovered, and lo! it shone like an image of the Sun, and the grass flamed into green about the white feet of his steed. For morning came, morning and a wind from the sea; and darkness was removed.
Théoden’s offering transforms both himself and the world around him. In the face of death, Théoden displays the glory of a man fully alive. He has won true immortality, and his obedience to the Way brings new life to the earth under his feet and the sunrise of victory to a once darkened sky.
The victory over evil embodied by Théoden’s triumphant ride is not won by the mortal strength of men; it is supernatural. At Helm’s Deep, on the fields of Pelennor, and before the Black Gate of Mordor, the armies of the West are ever too small and weak to conquer the swelling host of Mordor in a match of arms. The road to victory in the War of the Ring descends again and again into hopeless battles and deadly peril, into the cold terror of the Barrow-Downs, through the deadly horrors of Moria, along the dreadful Paths of the Dead, across the ghastly lights of the Dead Marshes, and up the cruel, wasted steeps of Mount Doom. This is the Way of the Cross: it is not a road of prudent hopes in the physical might of mortal men, but a road of moral hope in the ultimate power of good over evil.
The fall and miraculous return of Gandalf testifies to the supernatural hope granted to those who are willing to lose their lives in order to save it. Despite Aragorn’s warning that a dark fate would befall him on the road through Moria, still Gandalf resolves to lead the company into this dark realm, which like the way of death itself is full of both glory and doom. On the narrow Bridge of Khazad-düm, a Balrog overtakes the Fellowship. Gandalf stands against the black fire demon and proclaims, “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.” The powers of hell cannot pass over the narrow Way of the Cross nor prevail over the fire of eternal love which lights all life. As a keeper of this Secret Fire, Gandalf’s life cannot be destroyed. He returns from his symbolic death in a glorified form, greater in power and robed in white. As the green blade which rises from the buried grain, so Gandalf’s supernatural triumph over evil and return from the abyss testifies to the hope that death is not the end but a new beginning.
It was the tragic error of both Boromir and his father Denethor to forget this supernatural hope. These valiant men of Gondor were tempted to seek the Ring because they believed that victory must be won by the strength of arms. According to the calculations of mortal might, Frodo’s quest was a desperate endeavor; it was, as Boromir protests, tantamount to “running willfully to death and ruining cause.” Yet Frodo had been called to turn “against the way that seems easier. Against refusal of the burden that is laid on . Against … trust in the strength and truth of Men.” As Boromir’s confrontation with Frodo confirms, there will be “no hope while the Ring lasts.” So long as men resist the Way of Death unto Resurrection, the darkness will rule them. Yet after Boromir’s lust for the Ring causes Frodo to flee the Fellowship, Boromir grieves his faithlessness and dies a redeemed man, freely giving his life in the impossible yet glorious defense of Merry and Pippin. As he lies pierced by many arrows, Aragorn blesses Boromir in his moment of triumph: “You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory.” Denethor, however, dies in tragic despair because he pondered the mortal power of Sauron rather than the moral power of the Light. Unlike his son, Denethor rejects his opportunity to repent. If he could not hope for victory in this world, he would not hope at all. He dies as did the “heathen kings, under the domination of the Dark Power … slaying themselves in pride and despair.” Although Denethor did not fear death itself, yet in suicide he threw away his life, refusing to offer himself in faith as a seed of hope and as a sign of love for his people.
It is not through the strength of men but through the Way of Hope-Filled Death that Middle-earth is saved. Frodo begins his Quest, as Bilbo did, on September 22, the date of the autumnal equinox. Frodo is destined to follow the way of the seed, sowing his own life in the dying season of fall, yet in the hope of a new shadowless spring. With a gardener as his faithful companion, Frodo dies a thousand deaths along his long journey to Mordor, repeatedly denying his own fears and desires in order to carry death unto death. Inch-by-inch, the Ring slowly consumes Frodo’s heart, soul, mind, and strength. Even before they reach the arms of Mount Doom, he is barely present to the land of the living. He confesses, “I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades.” It is then Sam’s love and courage which saves Frodo and enables him to complete the Quest. He too is a Ring-bearer and one who suffers so that death might die. It is Sam’s love and willingness to die for Frodo that gives him the supernatural strength to finish their climb up Mount Doom. When Frodo becomes unable to walk, Sam hears “all the arguments of despair would not listen to them. His will was set, and only death would break it.” Sam picks up his beloved master and carries him up to Orodruin.
By the time they reach the Cracks of Doom, the Ring has eroded not only Frodo’s physical strength but also his will-power. In the final moments of his Quest, Frodo can no longer resist the Ring. He cannot ultimately do what he came to do. Yet Frodo’s weakness becomes the moment of eucatastrophic triumph, for as Caldecott explains, “While we cannot save ourselves, we can yet be saved.” Frodo’s mercy to Gollum is transformed into a “sudden and miraculous grace” granted in the story’s darkest hour. Thus Caldecott maintains that “in the end it is not Frodo who saves Middle-earth at all… nor Gollum … It can only be God himself, working through the love and freedom of his creatures.” Sam and Frodo’s self-sacrifice is supernaturally transformed into a “good catastrophe,” the “sudden joyous turn” wherein everything sad can become untrue. Through this Way of Death and Resurrection, good men can defeat evil without themselves becoming evil. If strength of arms were the true means to victory, then the world would be ruled by the will to power, one tyrant against another. Thus, at the Black Gate of Mordor, Gandalf proclaims, “We cannot achieve victory by arms, but by arms we can give the Ring-bearer his only chance, frail though it be.” True victory lies in the decision of each man, both the warrior and the martyr, to hope not in the might of armies but in the rescue of heaven.
It is the Lord Aragorn’s commitment to a life of hopeful self-sacrifice that wins for him the kingdom of Gondor. Although he has long known himself to be the heir of Isildur, Strider did not grasp after his throne but waited for the day of victory ordained for him. His “strange-looking weather-beaten” body bears the marks of long, wearing service to protect the Shire and all the peoples of the North. Although it might have cost him his life and kingdom, Aragorn refuses to desert Frodo on his desperate quest or abandon Merry and Pippin to the orcs. At the battle of Helm’s Deep and before the dark gates of Mordor, Aragorn is first in battle and last in retreat. Because he has long walked in courageous hope and faithful self-sacrifice, the Lord Aragorn is worthy to become King Elessar. Yet to claim his kingdom at last, Aragron must tread the Paths of the Dead. There, men who long ago refused to face death in the battle against Sauron were cursed by Isildur and doomed to live in the perpetual shadow of death until they could fulfill their oath. As Malbeth the Seer had prophesied, Aragorn, “the heir of him to whom the oath they swore,” called the Oathbreakers to battle so they might rise up to transform the curse of death into resurrection and the black ships of Mordor into vessels of triumph. “Thus came Aragorn son of Arathorn, Elessar, Isildur’s heir, out of the Paths of the Dead, borne upon a wind from the Sea to the kingdom of Gondor” to claim the kingdom appointed to him.
When Arwen Undómiel is wed to Aragorn the King Elessar in the City of the Kings, Frodo prophesies that “this is the ending. Now not day only shall be beloved, but night too shall be beautiful and blessed and all its fear pass away!” Aragorn’s courageous virtue wins not only a kingdom but also his bride, Arwen, Evenstar of the Elves. Although she was immortal and need never die, Arwen chooses the sorrowful Way of Death for love of the Lord Aragorn and in faithful hope of the resurrected life promised to men. Their marriage is a prophetic sign of the eternal life which awaits beyond death’s final threshold. The Elves call man’s mortality the “Gift of Ilúvatar,” for when men willingly sow their mortal life in love for God, death becomes a gateway to eternal life. The day will come when death will be no more and the dark doorway will be closed. Then the night too shall be beautiful, for as Sam sees even on the black plains of Gorgoroth, “in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.”
Annie Crawford, “Courage at the Crossroads,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 1. (Spring 2020), 25-40.