J. R. R. Tolkien attracts readers who share a personality trait with him—one he also shared with the medievals he so loved. In the first chapter of The Discarded Image, C. S. Lewis defines that trait with characteristic precision: “Medieval man was not a dreamer nor a wanderer. He was an organiser, a codifier, a builder of systems. He wanted ‘a place for everything and everything in the right place.’ Distinction, definition, tabulation were his delight.”
From Christopher Tolkien’s massive 12-volume History of Middle-Earth to Humphrey Carpenter’s lovingly, if frustratingly, expurgated Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, from Scull and Hammond’s encyclopedic, three-volume J. R. R. Tolkien Companion and Guide to Karen Fonstad’s magisterial Atlas of Middle-Earth, from Peter Kreeft’s comprehensive Philosophy of Tolkien to Holly Ordway’s meticulously documented Tolkien’s Modern Reading, Tolkien scholars imitate his thoroughness, his love of detail, and his passion for subcreating a secondary world that’s almost as rich and multilayered as the primary world.
In this spirit, Austin Freeman has given a gift to Tolkien scholars and aficionados alike in a work I didn’t think could be written. Tolkien Dogmatics: Theology Through Mythology with the Maker of Middle-Earth painstakingly assembles, collates, and cross-references Tolkien’s legendarium, academic essays, and letters to construct a systematic theology. Though informed by the copious secondary material on Tolkien, Freeman’s work is firmly and faithfully grounded in the depth and breadth of the primary material.
Tolkien Dogmatics: Theology through Mythology with the Maker of Middle-earth
Austin M. Freeman
J. R. R. Tolkien was many things: English Catholic, father and husband, survivor of two world wars, Oxford professor, and author. But he was also a theologian. Tolkien’s writings exhibit a coherent theology of God and his works, but Tolkien did not present his views with systematic arguments. Rather, he expressed theology through story.
In Tolkien Dogmatics, Austin M. Freeman inspects Tolkien’s entire corpus—The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and beyond—as a window into his theology. In his stories, lectures, and letters, Tolkien creatively and carefully engaged with his Christian faith. Tolkien Dogmatics is a comprehensive manual of Tolkien’s theological thought arranged in traditional systematic theology categories, with sections on God, revelation, creation, evil, Christ and salvation, the church, and last things. Through Tolkien’s imagination, we reencounter our faith.
Broken into 12 chapters that explicate Tolkien’s views on God, revelation, creation, humanity, angels, the fall, evil and sin, Satan and demons, Christ and salvation, the church, the Christian life, and last things, Tolkien Dogmatics takes a deep dive into the theological convictions that grounded, inspired, and guided the maker of Middle-earth. In his aptly titled “Prolegomena,” Freeman makes clear his goal: “To set out as accurately as possible what Tolkien thought, without letting my or other people’s views intrude upon the matter” (17). He stays true to his promise.
Freeman is a lecturer at Houston Christian (formerly Houston Baptist) University and a classical school teacher who holds a PhD from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Though he writes as a Reformed evangelical, Freeman remains fair to Tolkien’s strong Catholic beliefs and practices, explaining and clarifying them without ever criticizing, parodying, or patronizing them.
Rather than try to provide an overview of all 12 chapters, I’ll focus on three of the chapters that expanded my own vision of Tolkien’s legendarium.
In his chapter on humanity, Freeman offers a powerful meditation on the distinctions between Men and Elves that takes into account some of the changes Tolkien made to his legendarium over the years. For example, he explains that although the divine gift of human freedom was always a central theme for Tolkien,
the gift of death is not present in the earliest drafts of the story. It is only during his middle period that Tolkien begins to conceive of death as an escape from the world to eternity. Tolkien’s mature position is that death is a curse which can be transformed into a gift if accepted with faith. (101)
Men aren’t the central characters in The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, or The Lord of the Rings, yet they are essential to the storyline. Freeman reminds us at several points that it’s through Men that Arda (the earth) will be restored and renewed. Tolkien’s Elves are well aware of this. They’re perennially melancholy, for they know their “doom is to love and beautify the world, never leaving it, and yet to make way for Men, fading as Men increase and come to enjoy the world that the Elves have prepared” (106).
Though the Elves are free to create art and beauty in a mode that surpasses our own, their lives are yet tied to the fate of Arda. Freeman is at his best when demonstrating how Tolkien allows us to view the riddle that is Man through the eyes of the Elves. What the Elves perceive in Men, which Men themselves often fail to see, is a “world-weariness or a longing to depart from the world for somewhere else. They are guests and strangers. This is because the gift of Men is mortality, freedom not only from fate but from being bound to the world” (107).
Men aren’t the key players in Tolkien’s stories, yet all leads up to them. It’s through Men that Arda (the earth) will be restored and renewed.
To fill out his portrait of Tolkien’s theological views on the nature of humanity, Freeman includes a brief but incisive section on gender that’s blissfully free from condescension. He states clearly, without apology or qualification, that, for Tolkien, “gender is part of the soul and not of the body only” and “souls are both gendered and familially related” (116). In Tolkien’s legendarium as well as in his life, male and female “share in the image of God equally but play different roles” (116).
Tolkien abides by gender roles out of fashion in modern society but hardly objectionable to previous generations. He is a traditionalist and complementarian overall. But Tolkien also offers a refreshing dose of realism by insisting that woman is neither passive and unrealistic object of affection nor merely identical to man. She is another fallen human with a soul in peril, just like a man, and should be treated with respect and concern as such. (116)
I can think of no fairer or more concise summation of this truth than the proud, involved husband and father we meet in Tolkien’s letters.
2. The Fall
For Tolkien, there can be no story without the fall. “The fall is the primeval disruption of equilibrium that precipitates the plot of history,” and that fall “is not simply a single isolated event but a recurring pattern” (155). Men, Elves, and angels all fall multiple times in the legendarium. In Middle-earth, each time evil is defeated, it “reincarnates and reiterates the fall. While the destruction of Sauron at the end of the Third Age is the last time evil will be physically embodied, it will continue to rise again and bring down the peace that has grown up in its absence” (156).
Freeman argues that Tolkien long resisted including a fictional version of the fall in his legendarium “for fear of making his work into a parody of Christianity” (162). That he ultimately overcame his resistance wasn’t known to fans of Tolkien until Morgoth’s Ring, the 10th volume of The History of Middle-earth, was published in 1993. For those unfamiliar, Freeman includes a synopsis of an illuminating conversation between a wise woman named Andreth and Finrod, the Elf brother of Galadriel who would later lay down his life for the human Beren.
The Silmarillion includes a section on the Fall of Númenor (“Akallabêth”) that recounts how the Dark Lord Sauron allowed himself to be captured by the long-lived but mortal Númenóreans. He does so to have the opportunity to poison them against the angelic Valar and even against Eru (God), convincing them that Melkor (Satan) and not Eru is their true benefactor. Sauron incites them to rebel against the Valar and their own mortality, meant as a gift from Eru to free them from the cycles of this world.
In her conversation with Finrod, Andreth reveals to the Elf that Sauron’s corruption of the Númenóreans wasn’t the first time a fallen angelic being tempted the race of Men to forsake the true God. In the beginning, though God had promised the first generation of Men that he had “sent them to live in the earth and in time to inherit and rule it,” Melkor, playing on their impatience,
tells them they may have riches, splendor, and ease through the things they can make—if they take him as a teacher. . . . He awakens new desires but is slow to aid in their fulfillment. He gives great gifts but also slowly begins to lie about the Creator, portraying God as an enemy seeking their destruction. (163)
In both cases, though God gives Men a paradise to live in, they hearken to the lies of a rebellious angel, bringing about “the denial of Eru, Satan-worship, exile, and the repentance of a righteous remnant” (165). In most ways, Freeman shows, Tolkien follows an orthodox, biblical account of both the goodness and fallenness of nature and man and of the long and bitter results of the fall.
Only in one area does his fictional account of the fall part ways with the Bible. Whereas Genesis makes clear that the earth was in a state of perfection before Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, Tolkien suggests creation was marred from the moment of its making because of the discord that Melkor injected into the creation song of Eru and his faithful Valar: “Tolkien’s universe was already imperfect when the primal sin of humanity occurred” (157).
3. Christ and Salvation
As Freeman turns his attention to Christ and salvation, he continues to caution his readers against looking for direct parallels to the Christian story in Middle-earth. For C. S. Lewis, Aslan is what the second person of the Trinity, God the Son, might have been like had he also incarnated himself in a magical world of talking animals and walking trees. His death on the Stone Table and his resurrection the next morning replay the gospel of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. In sharp contrast, Tolkien avoids bringing Christ into his world or replaying the salvation story. Still, readers can make connections.
Tolkien offers something that partly sounds like the mystery of the incarnation, that most unique of Christian doctrines:
The Wizards, previously spiritual beings, take on true bodies as part of their mission to heal Middle-earth. As such, we can cautiously read Tolkien’s comments on the nature of this embodiment as also applying to Christ’s human nature. For instance, the Wizards are clad in real bodies able to feel pain, fear, weariness, and hunger. This is a true incarnation, not merely a sort of avatar as the Valar can assume. (238)
Given this connection, one might assume Freeman will hold up Gandalf—who quite literally dies and returns to an embodied life—as the chief messianic figure in The Lord of the Rings. Instead, he argues that Tolkien presents Aragorn as embodying “the ideal divine king of Anglo-Saxon theology” (240). Tolkien had already invested Arthur (in The Fall of Arthur) and Sigurd (in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún) with something of that divine kingship, but he was able to go further with Aragorn since, in creating him, he was not “constrained by the beats of a preexisting plot” (241). Aragorn surpasses Arthur and Sigurd in his majesty, his spiritual power, and his ability to elicit absolute love, loyalty, and obedience from his followers. Like Christ, he commands, heals, and renews.
Tolkien avoids bringing Christ into his world or replaying the salvation story. Still, connections can be made.
Aragorn also points to Christ in the double victory he achieves. “At the time of the Anglo-Saxons,” Freeman explains, “and indeed for the first thousand years of the church, the most widespread and influential theory” of the atonement was not penal substitution but “Christus Victor, Christ’s victory over the devil. Significantly, Tolkien speaks of salvation virtually exclusively in this manner” (249). It’s true that Gandalf and Frodo participate in this victory over the evil of Sauron, but Aragorn embodies it with particular power when he leads the Men of the West against the Black Gates of Mordor.
Aragorn further embodies Christus Victor when he takes the Paths of the Dead to awaken and set free the Oathbreakers. Just as Christ, in the harrowing of hell, descended “into hell to rescue the saints born before his incarnation,” so “Aragorn offers the damned and forsaken dead men an opportunity for redemption” (251–52). In both cases, the act of leading captivity captive points to the messianic office of the one who sets free (cf., Eph. 4:8, KJV). Just as Aragorn, when he “emerges from the grave and from the hell where the cursed dead reside, . . . blows a horn and unfurls his royal banner,” so also “Jesus is frequently depicted holding a banner while leading the dead forth from hell, as he is in the carving above the chapel at All Souls College in Oxford” (252).
Tolkien Dogmatics overflows with insights like these and is a must-read for serious students of Tolkien. Those who don’t possess a firm grasp of Tolkien’s legendarium might get a bit lost at times, as Freeman shifts suddenly, usually without giving any context, from fiction to nonfiction to letters. But those who are strong of heart and who like their Tolkien, and their doctrine, served up systematic will want to join Freeman on his bracing theological journey through Middle-earth.