Book Review: The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth (On Bad Literary Criticism)

Messiah Comes to Middle Earth_CoverPhilip Ryken. The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth: Images of Christ’s Threefold Office in the Lord of the Rings. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017, xiii +136pp., $16.00/£11.79

(Note: This review appeared originally on Transpositions, the blog for ITIA, the Institute for Theology, the Imagination, and the Arts here at St Andrews. I re-blog it here by permission.)

J.R.R. Tolkien never hid the fact that he was Christian. He was forthright as well regarding the fact that Christianity played an important role in the creation of The Lord of the Rings. At the same time, Tolkien had little patience for readers who were all-too-eager to ‘decode’ his books for their Christian significance. He wanted them, above all else, to be read for the story, to be enjoyed, and he wanted critical readers to avoid projecting their own presuppositions upon the tale. Tragically, the temptation has been far too strong for far too many, and a host of subsequent books have attempted to explicate and explain the ‘inner’ Christianity of Tolkien’s world. Oh, that more authors had heeded his advice—for few of these books have succeeded.

Regrettably, among them must be counted Philip Ryken’s 2017 volume, The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth: Images of Christ’s Threefold Office in the Lord of the Rings. In this book—originally offered as a series of lectures at Wheaton College’s Wade Center—Ryken links the threefold office of Christ (as Prophet, Priest, King) to three characters in Tolkien’s great work (Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn, respectively). Gandalf, for example, images the office of prophet in his performance of sign acts, words of council, and foretelling. Frodo and Sam image the priesthood (of all believers) in the bearing of burdens and friendship. Aragorn images the office of king by, you guessed it, becoming king. Each lecture follows a similar pattern: a focus on a specific office, a note of its theological pedigree (specifically, from the Reformation), discussion of the Tolkien character who mirrors that office, notation of Tolkien’s concerns about precisely this kind of reading, comparison of the office in question to the role of college president, and a concluding section of application. The resulting book is messy, intrusive, overplayed, and deeply dissatisfying, an awkward mash-up that exhibits invasive categories of evaluation and that, in the end, does real disservice to Tolkien’s clearly expressed concerns about theologically projective readings. It is, in short, one of the best examples of the very worst kinds of Christian literary criticism. In what follows, I want to use Ryken’s book to highlight some hallmarks of bad Christian literary criticism.

First, a key hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is disrespect for the source material. Tolkien has been explicit—in both the introductory text to The Lord of the Rings, as well as in his letters—about the kind of reading he hoped readers would perform. Above all else, The Lord of the Rings is meant to be read as a story—a reclaimed and pre-Christian mythology for England, but one that nevertheless honours the Creator in its architecture and execution. Christianity does indeed sit behind the books, but in a self-consciously implicit way. This makes any ‘Christian’ reading of the books suspect, and Ryken’s—despite his explicit acknowledgement of these factors!—even more so. The result, against Tolkien’s explicit wishes, is to read his book in a way it was never meant to be read—as a foil for Christian teaching.

In addition to being read as a story, Tolkien’s book was written as a kind of pre-Christian mythology—it is, in that sense, proto-evangelical more than properly evangelistic. Such a world, crafted as Tolkien intended, left a number of elements consciously on the outside. Among them, arguably, are any of the Semitic elements of Christian religion—such as prophets and priests. Let’s be explicit: there are no prophets in Tolkien’s world (if there were, they’d probably be Southrons). There is very nearly no religion, as a matter of fact. Consequently, Gandalf is presented as a figure of wisdom, of lore. His signs are due to magic, and he predictions are made on account of his wisdom and lore. In fact, if there is any corollary to be made with our world, then in Tolkien’s conception Gandalf most represents an angel.

In similar way—again because there is consciously no religion—there are also no priests. No one offers sacrifice, or performs religious rites. Frodo does indeed ‘bear a burden,’ but this looks very little—if at all—like priestly intercession. The very idea of introducing these concepts to the story commit an invasive violence to its self-contained harmony.

A second hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is the dominance of ‘Christian’ categories. By ‘Christian,’ let me be explicit, I mean evangelical categories—language, terms, ways of thinking. Take, as a brief example, Ryken’s treatment of Frodo as a priest. In order to make the connection, Ryken must appeal to the Reformation doctrine of the ‘priesthood of all believers,’ and from this to extrapolate a ministry of burden bearing and of friendship. But does such a concept of priesthood accurately reflect either a) Christ’s priesthood of self-sacrifice and intercession, or b) Tolkien’s concept of priesthood as a Catholic? I think the answer on both counts must be no. In this, and in many other places, it feels like Ryken’s evangelical language stands at odds with what we know to be Tolkien’s (staunchly!) Catholic convictions. For example, Ryken appeals on numerous occasions to the category ‘biblical’ as a meaningful reference point for his claims. But would Tolkien claim to be biblical? Or would he rather claim to be “Catholic,” or even simply “Christian”? In these ways, Ryken’s utilization of evangelical language sometimes feels like a whitewashing of Tolkien’s Catholic identity. In one place, Ryken even describes Gandalf as having a “gift of discernment”—a phrase so out of place in the world of Middle Earth that when I told my wife she exclaimed, “Gandalf no more has a gift of discernment than he has a size medium robe.” [15] It is an invasive, jarring presence that simply doesn’t fit Tolkien’s world.

A third hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is its preponderance of teachiness. There is a longstanding trend in evangelical thinking to prize something only when it can be utilized in teaching. If a book, a song, or a movie can helpfully illustrate a practical theological point, then it has spiritual value, but not otherwise. In view of this, at times Ryken’s book came to feel like a long, overdrawn, sermon illustration. In fact, Ryken’s appeal to his personal office as college president (which reads very oddly, I should say), and the three sections of application at the end of each chapter, both serve to reinforce this perception. The book ends up feeling like a (rather pedantic) sermon. Christ is a king, Ryken argues. Here are some scriptures to prove it. Aragorn is a king, Ryken argues. Here are some passages in Tolkien to prove it. As a personal example, college presidents are also like kings (or priests, or prophets), here are some reasons why. Point, proof-text authority for point, next point. This is teachiness in action.

In practice, what teachiness does to literary criticism is to keep us from reading the book on its own merits. Instead, we read it for some other reason, for something else that it can give us. In this way, Christian critics of literature are often little better than, for example, Marxist readers of the Bible. They read with large, coloured glasses on, glasses which only admit certain wavelengths of acceptable light. If the practice is infuriating when Christians want readers to read the Bible for what it is, how bad must be our witness when we execute the same injustice on other books?

Tolkien’s world possesses immense imaginative power—not only in its own creation, but in its capacity to operate as a kind of proto-evangelism. Christ is indeed present in the books, and yet his presence is masked; he is in the architecture, hiding in the walls, lurking in the laws and physics of Middle Earth. He is the Logos of both our world and Tolkien’s, and yet the conscious masking of his presence in The Lord of the Rings was and is a powerful rhetorical tool that we violate when we make explicit.

George MacDonald, writing about the fantastic imagination, once said, “We spoil countless precious things by intellectual greed.” Greed for meaning, greed for significance, greed, in Christian circles, for a kind of acceptable orthodoxy. May we not spoil The Lord of the Rings in such a spirit of greed. In fact, for God’s sake let’s just read and enjoy the books!

3 comments on “Book Review: The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth (On Bad Literary Criticism)

  1. Thank you so much for this extensive criticism. I agree with all your concerns, do I have not read this book so I can’t really comment on it in particular. My focus within the Inklings is CS Lewis, and even there the Evangelicalization of the man is far too prevalent.
    I wonder, if you know of any particularly good examples of Christian literary criticism. I agree that tokens work is soaked through with a Christian worldview, and I don’t think it’s outside of the bounds to think about the passion of Frodo in some sorts of parallel of similarity and dissimilarity with the passion of Christ. That’s just a small example, but I have given lectures on Hobbit’s theology, thought about Tolkien in the subject of Powers or leadership for the environment or self-sacrifice.who do you think does this well, that would avoid your threefold sin of breaking the author’s confidence, of washing the author’s worldview, or being overly didactic?

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hey Brenton! I didn’t mean to (and I hope I didn’t) underplay the Christian imagery Tolkien employs. I think my primary concerns are about our appropriation and utilization of that imagery. Regarding Frodo, I see what you’re saying, but something doesn’t sit right with me about it. I’m hesitant to identify any proper Christ-figure in the books, since that feels too on the nose. What would we say, “Greater love has no hobbit than this, that he give up the Shire for his friends (to continue to enjoy it).” Even there it’s not love of his friends that motivates him, but love of the Shire. There are too many steps and caveats for my taste.

      As far as good “Christian” literary criticism goes (in a general sense), I (like you, I suppose) am formed by Lewis’s literary criticism–which he would object to us calling “Christian.” He’d want it to be good literary criticism (disinterested castle building) done by a Christian. That’s precisely where I suspect so many of us fail. We’re aren’t doing the main thing well enough to bring it into dialogue with another thing (our faith).

      That being said, I’ve read a few that were really good. Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia is great literary criticism. And my favourite volume on Tolkien so far is “A Tolkien Celebration,” edited by Joseph Pearce. One essay in it encapsulated the heart of Tolkien’s world for me like no other has–I believe it’s the chapter called, “The Sense of Time in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings,” by Kevin Aldrich. Highly recommended (that single essay, at least!). (Caveat: I’ve not read enough Tolkien secondary literature for my judgment to be as solid as I’d like!)

      I’m contemplating a book (or long article) on Tolkien’s lessons for Pastoral Ministry. I’d like to try to bridge this gap well precisely because I don’t see it bridged well very often. Perhaps if I do it we can trade notes and critique one another’s methodology!

  2. Jeepers, I just reread my note (lost this thread in travels).I dictated it to a device with some hilarious typoes. But you have given a response here that I appreciate. There is a lot of poor work, but some good work. Translating your perspective of Lewis, he is perhaps saying that good literary criticism is good literary criticism. I must say, though, that I appreciate theologically intelligent literary criticism–as well as socially, culturally, historically, and anthropologically intelligent criticism, though not always criticism directed to those means. My hesitancy about psychological criticisms is that we don’t now yet much of psychology, it being such a new discipline and a little corner in the big house of human history.
    Nice “Greater love” misquotation, well done. But that is a Christ-figure, one who lays down his or her life for redemptive purposes. What of Tolkien’s character on the side of light not doing so? Each has to lose self and experience a kind of death or loss in order to find resurrection or recovery.
    I think what makes me freer to speak of it this way because none of it powders the air with allegory in my reading. The pattern is not a one-to-one with Christ and more than it is for your or me to live it. It is not a pattern for the sake of a message, it is the natural emergence in Tolkien’s work of the Pattern of all reality. Others do this, people who live in the Pattern like Lewis and Rowling and L’Engle and Cormac McCarthy in his own rough way. Even people who resist the Pattern find it in their work, like Phil Pullman. With Tolkien the most … emergent or organic part of his work, the little Hobbits of the shire, is also the least accidental. Can there be any more profound gospel principle than the fact that the fate of the world fits upon the shoulders of the least among them? In The Hobbit, there is kind of a “I’m not big but I’m small” motif, where Bilbo’s gifts emerge with his natural tenacity. It rises to self-givingness. But LOTR moves the motif into myth, an entire world of worlds with all its crises focused around the single reality of the Loss that brings Life.
    But perhaps in the milk and water literary critical world is filled by people that use “Christ figure” in their work without ever having met someone who is trying life out the “motif” in their own life. Dunno.
    And who has read all Tolkien’s secondary literature?! Not me


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