The Hidden Meaning of The Lord of the Rings

Christ figures and hidden symbols...

If you’re familiar with J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, you likely know that he was good friends with C.S. Lewis. While the two Oxford professors had much in common, there is one thing they disagreed about vehemently: allegory.

Lewis viewed allegory as a device that allowed an author to write a great story, but still ensure that the message he wanted to convey was understood by the reader. While Tolkien no doubt appreciated the reasoning behind this, he notoriously hated allegory: he considered it a cheap, intellectually lazy way to convey ideas.

So while C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series is rife with allegory (for ex: Aslan the lion represents the figure of Christ), no such obvious allegories are found in Tolkien’s work. This doesn’t mean he eschewed symbolism, however. On the contrary, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is packed with religious, specifically Christian symbolism. 

The key difference between Lewis and Tolkien lies in how the latter forwent one-to-one allegory and instead chose to convey different aspects of symbols through varying characters. Whereas Alsan is a clear representation of Christ, for example, Tolkien spreads his Messianic symbolism across three different characters: Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn, all of whom embody different aspects of Christ’s persona.

Today, we look at some of the main religious symbols in The Lord of the Rings. Remember though, this is no allegory — while characters or objects might embody certain aspects of a religious element, not everything they do is done in the spirit of what they represent. They are still their own characters, but when viewed holistically and in the context of the larger story, they carry enough force to convey Tolkien’s spiritual vision to the reader…

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The Three Aspects of Christ

Tolkien’s deep Christian faith permeates his epic, and this is best seen in the characters of Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn. Each of these central figures embodies different aspects of Christ’s persona, and together they bring the spiritual dimension of Tolkien’s work to the forefront of the story:

Frodo Baggins: The Suffering Servant 

Frodo’s journey to destroy the One Ring mirrors Christ’s sacrificial journey. Frodo bears the immense burden of the Ring (which symbolizes, among other things, sin and corruption), much like Christ bore the weight of humanity’s sins. Frodo’s suffering and perseverance during the journey to Mount Doom clearly reflects the Passion of Christ, and his eventual departure to the Undying Lands parallels Christ’s triumph over death and his ascension to heaven.

Gandalf: The Prophet and Guide 

Gandalf’s wisdom and guidance resemble Christ’s role as a teacher and prophet. His fight with the Balrog, including his subsequent death and resurrection, is a stand-in for Christ’s death, descent into hell (the “Harrowing of Hell” in Christian theology), and return from the dead. Gandalf’s reappearance as Gandalf the White brings hope and renewal to the Fellowship, which indirectly echoes the transformative power of Christ’s resurrection.

Aragorn: The Messiah and King

Aragorn’s journey from Ranger to the king of Gondor reflects Christ’s slow revelation as Messiah and King. His ability to heal, especially with athelas (a Middle-earth healing herb also known as kingsfoil), parallels Christ’s healing miracles. The prophecies surrounding Aragorn finally come to fruition as he is crowned King of Gondor, and his reign recalls the second coming of Christ and the onset of the Messianic age.

The Three Aspects of Mary

In addition to Christ-like figures, Tolkien also weaves Marian symbolism into his work through the characters of Arwen, Éowyn, and Galadriel. These, however, are much more subtle, and consequently they’re often overlooked.

Here’s how the three main female characters in Lord of the Rings embody different facets of the Virgin Mary, recalling her various roles and virtues…

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