Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

A Wind from the West: The Role of the Holy Spirit in Tolkien's Middle-Earth

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

A Wind from the West: The Role of the Holy Spirit in Tolkien's Middle-Earth

Article excerpt

Tolkien's unofficial declaration to Fr. Robert Murray that "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work" has resulted in a storm of criticism looking for hidden Christianity in Tolkien's publications (Letters 172) (1) In general, the search has been rewarded. Aided by his published letters and his Christian-tinged essay "On Faerie Stories" Tolkien's faith is now nearly as well-documented as that of his friend C. S. Lewis. Yet we do damage to Tolkien's work when we treat him like Lewis. Ralph Wood reminds us that Tolkien was neither as evangelistic nor as Protestant as his Oxford counterpart. Tolkien was easily Lewis' spiritual match, but in terms of depth rather than breadth. To a Roman Catholic Christian like Tolkien, "God" was not a mere one-dimensional figure, but a Trinity: a Divine unity composed of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit (Degani 2). We have known for some time where the first two have been hiding, but a dedicated search through Tolkien's writings for the third Person of the Trinity does not exist.

Tolkien helpfully explains that Eru-Iluvatar is "The One" that is, God the Father (Letters 204), and several scholars have uncovered Christological components in Earendil, Aragorn, Frodo, Gandalf, and others (Kreeft, "Worldview"). Gunnar Urang and Colin Duriez provide models for what seems to have become the typical approach to the Christian elements of Tolkien's legendarium: Iluvatar receives credit for providential events and cosmology--serving as an analogue to God the Father--while Gandalf and Earendil, both of whom "die" and return to life, serve as analogues to Jesus Christ (Duriez 60; Urang 122). (2)

We might grant that the surplus of studies seeking references to God the Father and God the Son stems largely from the surplus of references Tolkien himself makes to them. Tolkiens overt proclamation of the evangelium in "On Faerie Stories" presents an irresistible lure for critics on the scent of Jesus allusions. Even Tom Shippey concedes that readers have little choice but to see Iluvatar as the Creator and Earendil as a Savior (239). Fleming Rutledge, however, places this chase in a more balanced light by saying that while Gandalf's character arc certainly shares parallels with Christ's, Tolkien in no way means for Gandalf to "be" Christ in any sort of allegorical fashion (163). This is a timely reminder that while the furnishings of Tolkien's mind were richly populated with Christian narratives, the gospel story was rarely, if ever, a conscious thought as he wrote The Lord of the Rings, at least not until he revised his manuscripts for publication. As Tolkien himself stressed, only in hindsight did Tolkien ever interpret his writings religiously (Letters 204). Rutledge's reminder will apply to our examination of the Holy Spirit in Tolkien's writings as well.

Tolkien's specific references to the Holy Spirit are much more subtle than those to the Father and the Son, but they certainly exist--if one looks carefully. Aside from Gandalf's invocation of the Secret Fire before the Balrog of Moriah in The Fellowship of the Ring, a handful of references also exist in the published version of The Silmarillion. Christopher Tolkien uncovered an even greater stock of references found in his father's drafts, which were published in volume ten of The History of Middle-earth: Morgoth's Ring.

Scholarship studying the Holy Spirit in Tolkien's writings is likewise scarce. Clyde Kilby made the well-known first claim by revealing that the "Secret Fire" which Gandalf serves actually refers to the Holy Spirit. Regrettably, Kilby's declaration is only a passing reference to a conversation Kilby had with Tolkien, and no analysis attends the comment. Instead Kilby merely moves on to what has now become the typical theological approach (Kilby, Tolkien 59; "Myth" 132-33). Most critics, of course, never broach the subject. Certain scholars like Peter Kreeft, Anne Petty, and Ralph Wood seem to prepare the reader for such a discussion but never actually land on the topic (Kreeft 50; Petty 138-54; R. …

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