The Christian as Author Exemplified: Tolkien and the Rebellion of Melkor

Well, last week I apparently was only semi-successful in communicating what I was looking for when I asked for examples of what a Christian author might look like according to the lines of the discussion we’ve been having here.   What I was looking for were examples where the Christian worldview has naturally arisen in someone’s work and produced superior results.* I’m hoping that as we go along, we can learn and be inspired by the methods of others.  When we see how people have done it before us (and gotten it very right), we will hopefully get a better idea of how to do it ourselves.

So, here’s my attempt to show  you what I mean:  One man who stands head and shoulders above others in this department is, of course, J. R. R. Tolkien.

Many people tend to forget that Tolkien is himself a tremendous example of a Christian who used his worldview intelligently and intentionally to influence his writing (with brilliant results).  After all, in the Lord of the Rings we see no particular religious “flags”–the characters don’t go to church on a regular basis, they don’t have salvation experiences, the Bible itself isn’t directly referenced, and Christ doesn’t even put in a cameo appearance.  The books are most definitely not an allegory for anything or anyone in particular (that was something Tolkien was most insistent about). They are simply good stories, and they can be read and loved by non-Christians and Christians alike.  That has led some overly zealous representatives of the modern cult of “Christian Bookstore Fiction” (my terminology) to declare the Lord of the Rings completely pagan.  Some non-Christians commit the same error by declaring them free from religious taint–meaning that what is there is subtle enough for people to pretend to ignore it.

Such shallow understandings of Tolkien are lamentable.  Tolkien was a Christian and an author in the very best, deepest sense of the terms.  He used his faith and the understanding of the world and human nature it gave him to construct vast tapestries of vivid, fantastic, and yet graspable detail.  His faith shaped much of what became Middle Earth, and the truths that resonated through that faith are part of what makes Middle Earth so real for those of us who journey there regularly.  His legendarium feels real because, in fact, there are aspects of it that are real and they strike us on a fundamental level.**

I intend to look at a number of examples from Tolkien (and others) that exemplify my basic point over the course of the coming weeks.  Of course, I’m not suggesting that Tolkien must necessarily be copied, but the simple fact is that he did it very well, and I would argue that the world–not to mention the church–needs more people like him, not fewer.

Since this week I had to give a substantial preamble, I’d like to draw our attention to a short point:  The Fall of Melkor during the Music of the Ainur. Eru (God, in effect) is creating the world of Arda (Earth) through music, and his angels, the Ainur, are singing the themes that bring the world into existence.  The most powerful of them, Melkor, begins to weave his own themes into the music, attempting to create original music himself rather than be subject to Eru’s theme.  In doing so, he subverts other Ainur with weaker wills to his own devices.  Each time he begins an “original,” intentionally dissonant theme, however, his compositions are incorporated flawlessly into Eru’s greater music, and are in fact nothing more than a deepening of Eru’s theme rather than something new and contrary.***

At his most basic, Melkor is jealous of Eru, and wishes to exalt himself and his subversions into the places rightfully held by God and His creations.  This quest to “be like God” (sound familiar, Son of Adam or Daughter of Eve?) is what leads to the events of the Quenta Silmarillion and, indeed, to evil, pain, and suffering far beyond it.  The comparison to Lucifer, a very powerful angel who rebels against God for what amounts to the very same reasons, should be obvious.

Eventually, Melkor (by then known as Morgoth) is overthrown by the Valar and cast into darkness.  Sauron, his chief acolyte, repents briefly, but then returns to Middle Earth to take up the mantle of his Dark Lord.  Sauron himself is finally defeated in the War of the Ring.

Of course, Melkor is neither an allegory for the devil, nor is he an analogy.  Therefore, while we can’t expect the details to line up perfectly, the source of Tolkien’s inspiration is clear:  Melkor is inspired by Tolkien’s understanding of his Christian faith.  I would argue that it is the depth of reality that such an inspiration gave Tolkien that makes Melkor so real to us–we understand him because we feel the same sense of rebellion lurking inside our own souls.  More on this later.

Any thoughts or other examples?  Please feel free to put them in the comments.

Next Week:  Some thoughts on pigeon-holing….

*What I’m not looking for is a list of specific items that we tack on ex post facto in order to transform something essentially secular into something suddenly “Christian.”  We’ve beaten that dead horse into a fine crimson mist on the pavement.

**I think that gives thinking Christians who read Tolkien another layer of meaning and understanding to wrestle with about which non-Christians often know nothing whatsoever.  I’m not saying that non-Christians are necessarily inferior readers–the themes that Tolkien hits on are universal to the experience of humankind–but intelligent Christians are better tuned to Tolkien’s mindset, and therefore more likely to pick up on nuance.

***This story is told in the opening pages of The Silmarillion.

Other Posts in the Christian as Author Series

  1. The Cesspool Of Christian Fiction
  2. What?  Me Christian?
  3. A Holistic Approach
  4. “Good Fiction” or “Good Christian Fiction?”
  5. Of Christian Authors and Christian Pizza Makers
  6. What does it look like?

Advertisements

About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on September 8, 2011, in Authors, Books, Brian Melton, C. S. Lewis, Children's Literature, Christianity, Fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien, Literary Criticism, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, The Chronicles of Narnia, Theology, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Let me be the first to say it. It’s not on the level of Tolkien (none of us is), but WAVERLY HALL, by one Brian Melton (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011) deserves mention here. No spoilers, but a young girl gets an opportunity to discover what Lewis called “a larger world” in ways that manage to be original while tipping their hats to our Masters from the past at the same time. Spiritual implications are clear without being obtrusive, which is not an easy thing to achieve. If you have not read it yet, you need to.

  2. First, I need to check my favorite authors and see what their background is. 🙂

  3. This is an interesting series; I look forward to reading it over the next several days. Tolkien is a great Christian writer, of course. . . however most of the time I hear him discussed as such, it’s because he uses broad, archetypal structures in his work that are borrowed from his religion. There are angel characters, and devil characters, those that sacrifice themselves, those that live again, &c. Do you feel his themes go any deeper than that? I get hung up on the way he dehumanizes the enemy. Who are all these hordes of orcs that we’re supposed to indiscriminately hate & slaughter? They are not spiritual forces, after all; they are flesh and blood. Should Christian fiction just gloss over that?

    Oh, and I’d like to put a vote in for M.T. Anderson’s YA fiction — particularly Feed and the Octavian Nothing series. Brilliantly Christian-themed, mainstream literature that I probably couldn’t teach at my old Christian school.

    • I actually recently presented a paper that (partially) dealt with the orc issue. I think it has more to do with the idea of there being real, complete evil in the world–evil you can’t negotiate with or coddle. One thing that I think is worth considering is that Tolkien (and Lewis) are both careful to depict human enemies (the orcs aren’t human–they’re descended from corrupted elves) as simply fallible people who made bad decision and are sometimes offered explicit redemption (think Rabadash in HHB or Sam looking at the dead Haradrim soldier in The Two Towers).

      One point I made in my paper was that ironically Lewis seems to be more hard core in his depictions than Tolkien. At the end of LLW Lewis basically describes a war of extermination against Jadis’s former followers. He notes that “in the end all that foul brood was stamped out.” Harsh stuff, for our modern world.

    • I’ve not much of substance to add to Brian’s replies here (both to this comment, and the one to your second comment in this thread), but my post this Saturday will touch on just how profoundly the structure of Tolkien’s narrative about the First Age traces the storyline of Scripture. And in the weeks following I am planning a series on The Children of Hurin that will address, in part, just how Christian this most “Northern” of Tolkien’s stories is.

      Cheers,
      David

  4. “Characters that sacrifice themselves . . . do any of his themes go deeper than that?”

    Is there anything deeper than that? Not sure what you’re asking.

    But if you are interested in some less obvious ways in which Tolkien’s work reflects the biblical world view, I recommend getting ahold of MERE HUMANITY: G. K. CHESTERTON, C. S. LEWIS, AND J. R. R. TOLKIEN ON THE HUMAN CONDITION (Nashville: Broadman, 2006).

  5. I’d love to read your paper, Brian! Is there any way I can get a copy online? I’ve been interested in the orc issue for some time — and in the fact that it usually gets overlooked, or summarily dismissed. You’re right that Tolkein is very careful about his human characters. . . but of course you know (and he knew) that most of the old mythological ghouls were just grotesque caricatures of people we don’t like — evil outcasts, alien tribes stripped of their humanity, &c. Grendel had a mother, & trolls have always lived under bridges. Tolkein & Lewis lived in an age suffuse with a similar kind of dehumanizing propaganda; it makes sense that it would find its way into their works. But doesn’t it also make sense that Christians would (lovingly) criticize them for it? It’s hard for me, personally, to accept Tolkein’s (or even Lewis’s) fiction as the Christian ideal, without at least addressing the issue.

    • I’d love to pass it along when I get a chance to whip it into shape–it was a conference presentation at Mythcon, and the actual manuscript isn’t in releaseable shape yet.

      I think that some of this question gets down to interpretation. I don’t think either author intended for that part of their story to be construed to imply anything more than to say that there is real, unredeemable evil in the world (i.e. the demons and Lucifer) and that good people need to face it bravely in order to bring about good changes and, very importantly, to protect the weak who are unable to protect themselves. I am an old-style believer in the idea of getting at original authorial intent, so its hard for me to take the criticism on that point further.

      On the other hand, I don’t think that there is anything wrong with bringing the point up. I think that some fans forget at times that Lewis and Tolkien were both human, and therefore for everything they’ve done right, they’ve also done things wrong. So, by all means! Bring the points forward. The fact that I (and people like me) am not currently swayed by them by no means implies that they shouldn’t be made. 🙂

  1. Pingback: Marketing or Pigeonholing?: The Christian as Author Part VI « While We're Paused

  2. Pingback: The Christian as Author Exemplified: C. S. Lewis and the Basis of the Chronicles of Narnia « While We're Paused

  3. Pingback: The Lawcourt for Writers (Part 3C): Judgment in Tolkien « While We're Paused

  4. Pingback: A Question of Palates: The Christian as Author Part VII « While We're Paused

  5. Pingback: The Children of Hurin (part 1): Somewhere North « While We're Paused

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: