While parable is arguably the best way to describe how The Lord of the Rings relates to Christianity, there is certainly no argument about the series being a mythical story. But the meaning of the word myth needs some clarification here. We normally think of myth as the stuff of legend—“fairy stories” that probably never happened yet often teach us something important about the real world. But Tolkien believed Christianity was the true myth: the fairy story that actually occurred in history, and he helped convince his good friend C. S. Lewis of that belief too.
Why use myth over any other genre? C. S. Lewis answers the question in his review of The Fellowship of the Ring: “The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which had been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity.’”[i]
Likewise, Tolkien advised that “we need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.”[ii]
People in the West may have heard the Christian story so much that its familiarity breeds a kind of apathy. So rather than speaking academically about the historicity of the New Testament or allegorically about Christ’s rise from the dead, Tolkien aims to make us feel that Christianity should be true; that a returning King would be good news.
He does this by creating a vast, enchanted universe full of adventure, with mythical creatures, cunning villains, epic heroes, and enough plot twists to draw us into a morally depraved world that seems just as bad as our own. Tolkien’s storytelling also makes us feel the importance of virtues such as courage, self-control, wisdom, justice, faith, hope and love, and even counter-cultural Christian values such as the power of weakness, the willingness to suffer, and the offer of mercy. That’s what Jesus does through parables. Stories are often the best way to teach virtues and theology.
The reenchanted world of Middle-earth also helps us to break out of the stunted materialistic worldview that holds sway in our culture—not the “He who has the most toys wins” kind of materialism, but the kind that reduces all of us to mere molecules in motion and everything that happens solely to physical causes
Materialism asserts that nothing but matter and energy exist, which means the entire spiritual realm, including God and objective morality, can’t exist either. Most atheists assert materialism is true because they have no coherent way of explaining how immaterial reality can exist without God.
Unfortunately for them, materialism undercuts itself. For if true, the rationality necessary for us to find truth—including the assumed truth that only matter and energy exist—can’t be trusted because our thoughts are merely the product of blind physics rather than reason.
No one revealed the bankruptcy of this atheistic worldview better than C. S. Lewis, who wrote:
Suppose there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen for physical or chemical reasons to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a bye-product, the sensation I call thought. But if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It’s like upsetting a milk-jug and hoping that the way the splash arranges itself will give you a map of London. But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an atheist, or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I can’t believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.[iii]
As usual, Lewis is spot on. Unless we were designed to have a mind with free will that can transcend mere physics—something atheism denies—then reason shouldn’t work. Yet here we are, thinking away. In other words, since we obviously can trust our thinking, we should not trust any worldview that makes real thinking impossible by their, literally, unreasonable assumptions. Atheistic materialism does just that.
In the blind predetermined world of materialism, meaning and morality don’t exist either. For if human beings are nothing but molecular machines—mere moist robots—driven completely by the laws of physics, then not only are your thoughts untrustworthy, but you have no responsibility for your behavior (physics made you do it!), and your life and the lives of your loved ones ultimately amount to nothing.
Do you really believe the people you love the most are nothing but bags of chemicals? Do you really believe murder is not objectively morally different from love? Do you really believe there is no such thing as good or bad, saint or sinner, rationality or irrationality, love or justice? You have to believe those things to be a consistent materialist, and you have to take them on blind faith, since materialism makes thinking unreliable.
Tolkien and Lewis both understood that materialism is far too restrictive a worldview to explain the dignity of human beings and the virtues that we all know exist and we all long for. Today, our impulse for justice and utopia is just as strong as theirs. We all know this world is fallen, as the headlines and protests attest, and we all long for the world to be set right. Tolkien’s world amps up the reality of injustice and virtue to get us to better recognize them in our own world. In this sense, The Lord of the Rings is not an escape from our world, but an awakening to our world as it really is.
[i] C. S. Lewis, quoted in Kreeft, Philosophy of Tolkien, 12.
[ii] J. R. R. Tolkien, quoted in Jahosky, 85–86.
[iii] C. S. Lewis, Broadcast Talks (London: The Centenary Press, 1942), 36, https://www.fadedpage.com/showbook.php?pid=20140875. These were originally broadcasts that Lewis gave on BBC radio during WWII. These talks later served as much of the material for Mere Christianity, which was published in 1952.