Losing the Plot
For centuries, Western imagination was shaped by the biblical story of life as a pilgrimage. Modern Europe replaced hope in God’s future with faith in human progress. The traumatic 20th century shattered this unfounded confidence. A disillusioned postmodernity now rejects any big picture stories that direct life, leaving secular society with an “unslaked craving for transcendence… locked in a soul-starving present”.
As a result, Western literature increasingly lacks moral growth in its heroes and loses the plot in a spiritual dead-end. It seems the story of hope has run aground in “a dark and despairing final scene in which dashed hopes, failed plans and unfulfilled promise litter the stage like corpses”.
Western literature is inspired by the Judaeo-Christian Scriptures and pagan mythology. I will contrast their different worldviews, finding the Bible to be the main source of meaningful history, human dignity, fulfilled promise and transforming hope, especially for ordinary people. I then consider these themes in Oxford philologist J. R. R. Tolkien’s novel The Lord of the Rings. Repeatedly voted “book of the century”, this fantasy epic redeemed pagan despair and subverted postmodern cynicism with a promising story of scriptural hope.
The Bible: History, Resurrection and Unlikely Heroes
The ancient world was dominated by the annual seasons. For many pagan cultures, unseen reality mirrored this cycle, as seen in myths of perpetually dying and rising gods. Time had no beginning or end and the future repeated the past – as predictably as the rotating stars. Humans were trapped in the wheel of fate and had little significance, freedom, or hope of change.
By contrast, the Bible’s first word is “beginning”, raising the curtain on a drama with direction. God created men and women in his image with dignity and moral freedom. We rejected God, but he is still working towards a community of his love and peace in a new heaven and earth. This overarching biblical plot-line of creation, fall, redemption and new creation gives context and significance to individual life-stories, even, we will see, in Tolkien’s fictional Middle-earth.
Pagans often made vows to persuade their gods to further human plans. But the Bible’s God calls people to his purposes and makes promises to us. God called Abraham out of the time-worn wheel on a journey to a new future, with promises of land, countless offspring and global blessing. He freed Israel from Egypt and formed a nation whose annual agricultural festivals celebrated God’s historical actions, not cyclic pagan myths.
Other nations admired men of warlike ambition, and they despised poverty. Their gods “were fickle and petty and… functioned in terms of bribery and flattery”. This gave little hope for the strong, and none for the weak; the Bible associates pagan idolatry with social injustice. Israel’s God was different: forgiving and merciful – especially to the poor, faithful to his promises, and steadfast in love – these are all key virtues in Middle-earth. Even when Israel was exiled in Babylon and tempted to despair, God’s unchanging intention guaranteed their destiny: “I know the plans I have for you… to give you a future with hope”. Great oppressive empires – whether Babylon, Rome or Tolkien’s Mordor – may rise and fall, but God’s little pilgrim people go marching on.
In the New Testament, Christ’s incarnation reinforced the message that creation matters to God, history has direction, and individual people are significant. Christ’s risen body was the first fruits of the new creation; when he returns, the whole cosmos will be gloriously liberated from decay. This future hope should motivate us to transform society today. In fact, resurrection is a “revolutionary doctrine”, depriving tyrants of their ultimate weapon against freedom fighters: fear of death. So the apostles boldly proclaimed that Christ was risen. When suffering or persecuted, they had a living hope that God would also raise them to eternal life.
These ordinary, uneducated apostles demonstrated how God seldom chooses famous, first-born supermen. Classical pagan literature separated high drama, featuring nobles or gods, from comedy with common people. For philologist Erich Auerbach, the Bible overcame this divide, leading to realistic literature with three-dimensional characters that struggle, change and grow – like in Tolkien. From conniving Jacob to denying Peter, from the Israelites to hobbits to us, such heroes are an ambiguous mix of faithfulness and foolishness. As Paul discovered, God hides his treasure in clay jars and perfects his power in weakness.
Over and over, it seems God’s promise cannot be fulfilled and his people’s hopeful story is over. Barren wombs cut off the promised line, the Israelites are dwarfed by giants, the Psalmist sinks into the miry bog… their Messiah is nailed to a cross. But God’s unchangeable character anchors our hope of fulfilment. Through his grace, Sarah rejoices over her new-born son, Goliath lies slain, the Psalmist finds his feet on the Rock. Against all odds, Mordor’s storm clouds disperse, rescuing Eagles arrive, the White Tree blossoms in the wasteland. Dry bones come to life, and the tomb is vacant. Scripture is permeated with this “drama of brokenness and restoration”, the hope-filled transformation of chaos to creation, exile to homecoming, death to resurrection.
J. R. R. Tolkien: from Pagan Despair to Mythic Hope
All this gave early Christians a firm, bright hope. In Christ, their past was forgiven, all God’s promises were confirmed, and their future was without fear. By contrast, a popular pagan epitaph read, “I wasn’t, I was, I am not, I don’t care”. Many pagans, “without hope and without God”, were anxious as Rome crumbled under barbarian onslaught.
Further north, the mediaeval chronicler Bede depicted the pre-Christian English view of human life: the brief flight of a sparrow through a warm banqueting hall, preceded and followed by unknown wintry darkness. Discussing the early English epic Beowulf, Tolkien describes the age as “heathen, noble, and hopeless”. In the end, even champions, kings and gods were defeated by the monsters:
“…the outer darkness and its hostile offspring lie ever in wait for the torches to fail and the voices to cease.”
Tolkien’s 1939 essay On Fairy Stories paints a brighter picture. While fairy tales acknowledge darkness and failure, they deny “universal final defeat”, culminating in what he called “eucatastrophe”:
“…the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’… miraculous grace… giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien infused dark Anglo-Saxon epic with this biblical hope, forming “a fundamentally religious and catholic work”, while avoiding explicit religious allegory.
The novel illustrates the difference between pagan and biblical ideals. The larger-than-life epic warrior trusts in his own courage and strength. So he is tempted to overconfident pride or fatalistic despair – like the rulers of Rohan and Gondor. The humble “everyman” hero loves and depends on his friends in the diversely-gifted Fellowship. He may be unsure of himself, but perseveres and trusts in a higher power, slowly growing more brave, wise and compassionate. Tolkien admitted, “The ennoblement of the ignoble I find especially moving”. Hobbits like Frodo and Sam appear “not made for perilous quests”. Yet they are chosen, astounding the Great and Wise, called out of their comfortable homeland like Abraham was.
As Frodo contemplated this burdensome calling, the elf-lord Elrond said, “I do not lay it on you. But if you take it freely, I will say that your choice is right.” Unlike in Beowulf, Tolkien’s characters are not controlled by fate. On one occasion, Frodo was torn between good and evil forces, and then “he was aware of himself again. Frodo, neither the Voice nor the Eye: free to choose”. Such biblical free will makes heroism possible. The weighty responsibility, however, could become unbearable without transcendent guidance. As the wizard Gandalf assured Frodo:
“Bilbo was meant to find the ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.”
Because of this invisible moral providence, the softer Christian virtues are not simply foolish weakness, and hope is not merely vain, as pagan warriors would assume. Where the great are tempted, the Ring has little power over Sam’s faithful affection, humility and contentment with his garden. Many characters show mercy and spare the undeserving Gollum, running the risk of further treachery. The quest ends like Nordic tales do, as Frodo succumbs to the Ring’s evil influence. But in a final eucatastrophe, Gollum’s violent attack brings salvation. Gandalf’s prophecy that “the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many” has come true. Providence works all things – from stumbling failure to deliberate evil – for eventual good.
Sauron’s greatest weapon is despair and dread. Mordor’s power seems overwhelming. The few who sustain courage sense this quasi-biblical, providential goodness. Instead of focusing on present evil, they realise they are part of the Great Tale that stretches from past glories to prophesied future. Before they eat, noble Faramir’s beleaguered little band silently face West, “towards Númenor that was… and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be.” Tolkien’s posthumously published writings represent the full Bible story: creation, fall, and hope of restoration when “the One will himself enter into Arda [the world], and heal Men and all the Marring”.
Middle-earth still awaits this salvation, so joy is bittersweet, and its freedom fighters lack the Christian assurance of eternal life. Nevertheless, Gandalf’s miraculous reappearance suggests the greatest eucatastrophe of all: the resurrection of Christ that inspired Tolkien. As the hobbit Pippin said, “my heart will not yet despair. Gandalf fell and has returned and is with us.” Aragorn’s dying words also imply hope of transcending the deathly wheel:
“…we are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.”
In the meantime, the sustaining bigger story is easily forgotten. For Tolkien, fairy stories bring “recovery”, renewing our joyful wonder that is so easily lost in “the drab blur of triteness and familiarity”. His fantasy “recovers” many biblical images of hope. In the elves, we glimpse our true identity as caretakers of creation, and the unstained Edenic garden of Lothlórien awakes longing for our true home. Elven feasts give a taste of God’s end-time banquet, while the Shire’s wholesome homeliness recalls promises of peaceful prosperity.
The city of Minas Tirith, bulwark of the Free Peoples, resembles the New Jerusalem. When Frodo saw Minas Tirith from afar, “white-walled, many-towered, proud and fair… Hope leaped in his heart.” Foreshadowing Christ’s return to fully establish God’s Kingdom, the city’s glory is restored and hope fulfilled only when Aragorn, the long-awaited King, is crowned:
“…ancient of days he seemed and yet in the flower of manhood; and wisdom sat upon his brow, and strength and healing were in his hands, and a light was about him.” 
In Scripture and Middle-earth, such light often symbolises hope against despair and darkness or, more precisely, “the Shadow”. Tolkien shares the Christian belief that evil, while terrible, is a secondary, transitory lack of goodness, so it cannot last. Despite appearances, its terrifying power is finally as insubstantial as smouldering, fallen Babylon, or the collapsed battlements of Mordor when the Ring is destroyed. “The light shines in the darkness” and cannot be overcome, as Sam realised when he glimpses a single star:
“The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him… in the end, the shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”
The Return of the Wheel and Choosing Biblical Hope
J.R.R. Tolkien and his friend C.S. Lewis incorporated pagan mythology into a Christian worldview. They produced literature that inspires readers to love goodness, beauty and truth, persevere in choosing these, and trust in provident help when they do. Their novels effectively “baptise the imagination” with Christ’s Beatitudes, showing that the poor in spirit, persecuted in their hunger for peace and righteousness, will one day find their hopes fulfilled.
Both authors feared Western culture could lose its biblical heritage, returning to a pre-Christian paganism. In the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche did just this. He glorified the epic pagan hero, an aristocratic “Superman” who proudly exults in his “Will to Power” and scorns the weak masses. Nietzsche also saw that the “death of God” removes any purpose to history and he idealised “eternal recurrence” – the ancient wheel returns. Whatever his intention, such views soon brought disaster or despair, in both life and literature.
Almost as Aragon brought “the doom of choice” to Rohan, 20th-century existentialists proclaimed that humanity is “condemned to be free”. But in a godless, amoral and directionless universe, freedom brings little significance. Novelist and philosopher Albert Camus defined the “absurd” as our unfulfillable longing to make sense of a meaningless cosmos. Camus discovered an “absurd hero” in the Greek myth of Sisyphus, condemned by the gods to a futile cycle of hopeless labour, endlessly pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll back down.
Like the noble pagan Beowulf, Camus himself fought unjust oppression, although his philosophy gave little reason to care – or hope of success. Like heroes in Scripture and Middle-earth, however, his contemporary Martin Luther King knew that ultimate reality is moral and just. He was sure of reaching the Promised Land because God champions the underdog and will make all things new. Where there’s hope, there’s life; without such a vision, the people will perish.
As we have seen, Western literature draws on both pagan and biblical roots. The choice between their different world-views determines whether history seems a predictable, weary tragedy, or a surprising divine comedy. Whether we are trapped in the wheel like Sisyphus, doomed to defeat like Beowulf, or called to choose a hope-filled future like Abraham. Whether only the strong are significant, or even little people like Frodo can be heroic. Whether time is the destroyer that brings despair, or, in the end of God’s most promising story, the fullness of time brings hope.
Sing now, ye people of the Tower of Anor,
for the Realm of Sauron is ended for ever,
and the Dark Tower is thrown down.
Sing and rejoice, ye people of the Tower of Guard,
for your watch hath not been in vain,
and the Black Gate is broken,
and your King hath passed through,
and he is victorious.
Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
for your King shall come again,
and he shall dwell among you
all the days of your life.
And the Tree that was withered shall be renewed,
and he shall plant it in the high places,
and the City shall be blessed.
Sing all ye people! 
Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books, 1981.
Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Translated by Willard R. Trask. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.
Bassham, Gregory, and Eric Bronson, eds. The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy: One Book to Rule Them All. Peru, Illinois: Open Court, 2003.
Bauckham, Richard, and Trevor Hart. Hope against Hope: Christian Eschatology at the Turn of the Millennium. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans, 1999.
Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968.
Booker, Christopher. The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. London: Continuum, 2004.
Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.
Cahill, Thomas. The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels. New York: Doubleday, 1988.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. Translated by Justin O’Brien. London: Penguin, 1955.
Delbanco, Andrew. The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Dickerson, Matthew T. Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in the Lord of the Rings. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003.
Fiddes, Paul S. The Promised End: Eschatology in Theology and Literature. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.
Frye, Northrop. The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.
Griesinger, Emily, and Mark A. Eaton, eds. The Gift of Story: Narrating Hope in a Postmodern World. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2006.
Lane Fox, Robin. Pagans and Christians. London: Penguin, 1986.
McGrath, Alister. A Brief History of Heaven. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003.
Moltmann, Jürgen. Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology. London: SCM Press, 1967.
Petty, Anne C. Tolkien in the Land of Heroes: Discovering the Human Spirit. New York: Gold Spring Press, 2003.
Rutledge, Fleming. The Battle for Middle-earth: Tolkien’s Divine Design in the Lord of the Rings. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans, 2004.
Tolkien, J.R.R. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936.
———. The Fellowship of the Ring (FR). London: Allen & Unwin, 1954.
———. The Two Towers (TT). London: Allen & Unwin, 1954.
———. The Return of the King (RK). London: Allen & Unwin, 1955.
———. On Fairy Stories, in Tree and Leaf. London: Allen & Unwin, 1964.
———. The Silmarillion. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. London: Allen & Unwin, 1977.
———. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Letters). Edited by Humphrey Carpenter. London: HarperCollins, 1981.
Wood, Ralph. The Gospel According to Tolkien. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.
Wright, N.T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. London: SPCK, 2003.
———. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York: HarperOne, 2008.
Zimbardo, Rose A., and Neil D. Isaacs, eds. Understanding the Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.
Bible citations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
Other sites I’ve found with good Tolkien-faith-theology-ethics type thoughts:
- The Road Goes Ever On: An Inklings Sermon – a message on the journey of faith.
- Tolkien, Alignment, Non-Violence, and Why Hobbits are Required for Middle-earth to Survive
- Seeing Christ in ‘The Hobbit’?
- ‘The Christian World of the Hobbit?’
- The Hobbit: an essentially Christian story?
- The Flame Imperishable – “A blog about Tolkien, St. Thomas, and other purveyors of the Philosophia Perennis”, with lots of relevant material, such as:
- Faramir’s commentary on Beowulf
- Tolkien’s discovery of eucatastrophe as itself a eucatastrophe
 Delbanco, 1999, 107, 111, 114
 Booker, 2004, 7; Fiddes, 2001, 1ff, 183
 Bauckham & Hart, 1999, 44
 Written 1937-49, published 1954-55.
 This was first written in February 2010 for an international essay competition on the Bible, literature and hope. Unfortunately, the contest was cancelled one day before the submission date.
 Cahill, 1998, 63-64, 127-31, 247-48, Ecclesiastes 1:1-11
 Isaiah 65:17, 2 Peter 3:13, Revelation 21:1
 Cahill, 1998, 128-131; Moltmann, 1967, 78, 100ff, 144
 Genesis 12, Hebrews 11
 Cahill, 1998, 24
 Brueggemann, 1997, 226
 Deuteronomy, passim, Psalm 82:1-4, Jeremiah 7:5-9
 e.g. Exodus 34:6-7, Deuteronomy 32:4, Psalm 68:5-6, Psalm 136
 Jeremiah 29:11, 31:17, Lamentations 3:22-23
 Wright, 2008, 93, Acts 3:21; Romans 8:29-23
 Wright, 2003, 131; Wright, 2008, 75, 294-51
 Hebrews 2:40-15; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14
 e.g. Acts 2:32, 4:10-13, 13:33, 17:31, 23:6, 26:8
 Romans 5:3-5, 1 Corinthians 15, 2 Corinthians 1:9, Philippians 3:21, Titus 1:2, 1 Peter 1:3
 Auerbach, 1953, xviii, 17-18, 41, 555; Alter, 1981, 126-9
 Deuteronomy 7:7, 9:4-6, Jeremiah 6:6, 1 Corinthians 1:26-29, 2 Corinthians 4:7, 12:9.
 Hebrews 6:13-19, 11:11, Romans 4:20-21
 RK 203, 272, 302
 Brueggemann, 1997, 552-63. e.g. Genesis 1, Psalm 30, 40, 107, Isaiah 35, Ezekiel 37, Romans 4:17, 1 Corinthians 15:54, Revelation 21:5
 e.g. 2 Corinthians 1:20, Colossians 1:4-5, 1 John 4:17-18
 Wright, 2003, 32
 Ephesians 2:12
 Lane Fox, 1986, 38, 98
 Bede, 2.13
 Tolkien, 1936, 18, 22, 35
 Tolkien, 1964, 68
 Letters, 172, 220, 413, cf. 1 Samuel 2:8, Matthew 20:16, Luke 1:52
 Zimbardo & Isaacs, 2004, 37, 122ff, 195ff; Petty, 2003, 252-285
 cf. the body of Christ, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 2:14-22
 Letters, 220
 FR, 60, 70, 1 Corinthians 1:26-29
 FR, 284
 FR, 519
 FR, 65, original emphasis
 RK, 177
 FR, 58
 Romans 8:28, cf. Joseph in Genesis 50:20, Tolkien, 1977, 5
 TT, 321; Dickerson, 2003, 176
 TT, 355, my emphasis.
 Tolkien, 1977, 5-6; in Dickerson, 2003, 224
 Tolkien, 1964, 70-71; Dickerson, 2003, 227
 RK, 40
 RK, 425
 Tolkien, 1964, 58-60
 For biblical images of heaven, see McGrath, 2003, passim and Bauckham & Hart, 1999, 109-173
 Isaiah 2:2-4, 11:6-9, 25:6-8, Ezekiel 36:35, Luke 14:15-24, Revelation 19:9
 Psalm 48, Isaiah 54:11-14, Hebrews 11:10, 16, Revelation 21:2-22:5
 FR, 519
 RK, 298; Isaiah 52:8, Zechariah 9:9, Daniel 7:13
 Revelation 18:2, 19:20; RK 270, 273
 Isaiah 9:2, John 1:5
 RK, 244
 Dickerson, 2003, 216
 Frye, 1981, 86; Bassham & Bronson, 2003, 87-98, Bauckham & Hart, 1999, 21-23
 TT, 36
 Camus, 1955, 108
 McGrath, 2003, 150-60
 Proverbs 29:18, King James Version.
 RK, 292