Examining Tolkien: The Return of the Priest, Prophet, and King

By: Patrick Frazier, Franciscan University of Steubenville

I love The Lord of The Rings. I cannot state this fact enough. While there are many works of fiction that have a special place in my heart, nothing has had as much of an influence on my life as Tolkien’s epic. When discussing the various works of fantasy out there, from Skyrim to Narnia, I’ll often refer to this tale of Hobbits and evil jewelry as “the ultimate myth.” Meanwhile, Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptations are undoubtedly my favorite film trilogy of all time. But what’s every bit as fascinating about Middle-Earth is the creator of that universe. J.R.R. Tolkien was an incredibly devout Catholic, often attending daily Mass and fostering a strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Tolkien once described the Eucharist in one of his letters as “the one great thing to love on Earth,” claiming that in the Eucharist one would find “romance, glory, honor, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon Earth.” Naturally, it would make sense that Tolkien’s masterwork would reflect the Catholic worldview of its author. Tolkien himself affirmed this, saying that The Lord of The Rings was a fundamentally Catholic work. However, it’s important to state that The Lord of The Rings is not an allegorical story. Tolkien wrote in another one of his letters that he disliked allegory, and had done so from a young age. However, what Tolkien had no problem with, and in some cases embraced, was applicability and influence. An especially interesting example of such ideas comes from the way that Frodo Baggins, Aragorn, and Gandalf the Grey all reflect aspects of Christ. 

Now, when I say this, I’m not referring to the ways one might initially think that the three reflect Christ. Yes, Aragorn is the true king who comes from unexpected origins, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Yes, Gandalf does sacrifice his life against the demonic Balrog, but if that had been what I wanted to talk about, this post could have just as easily been about The Chronicles of Narnia, The Death of Superman, or Bionicle: Mask of Light. No, what makes the parallels between these three characters and Jesus Christ particularly interesting is how they mirror the Messianic offices of Christ. The Messianic offices are the threefold roles that Christ was to fulfill as Messiah. Those three offices are the roles of the Priest, the Prophet and the King. By our baptism, we too share in that role, meaning that, yes, reader, you too have something in common with a hobbit, a wizard, and a ranger. Each of these roles is on display in The Lord of The Rings, with Aragorn representing Christ the King, Frodo standing as Christ the Priest, and Gandalf serving as Christ the Prophet. 

Frodo’s role as priest is maybe the most obscure of the three, but trust me, it makes sense. In the times of the Old Testament, the role of the priest was to make offerings and sacrifices for the good of the Children of Israel. Such a role would also involve a lifelong commitment to that priesthood. Over the course of The Lord of The Rings, Frodo dedicates his entire life over the course of the trilogy to make a sacrifice that will benefit all the Free People of Middle-Earth. After he sets out from Rivendell on December 25th in the Shire-Reckoning, his mind is focused on one purpose and one alone: to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom. Not only is this journey and its ultimate goal a sacrificial offering by itself, but as one can tell by the changes in Frodo’s personality and the entire life story of Gollum, the Ring is very precious to its bearer. The most powerful sacrifices in the Scriptures are the ones that involve a sacrifice of something very dear to the priest. The parallels between Christ the Priest and Frodo are even greater than that sacrifice. As the journey to Mordor progresses, Frodo becomes increasingly weary, even to the point of death on the slopes of Mt. Doom. Obviously, the connections of Frodo nearly dying on the mountain where he makes the sacrifice that will save Middle-Earth and the ultimate sacrifice of the Son on God on the slopes of Golgotha hardly need explanation. Sacrifice. It is through this idea that the priestly aspects of Frodo shines through. 

Given the fact that he’s the titular character of a book named The Return of The King, it might be obvious that Aragorn mirrors the kingly aspect of Christ. However, there’s more to it than just “they’re both kings.” To start with, both come from quite humble origins. If one were to see Aragorn during his years in the wilderness as Strider, or Jesus during the hidden years in Nazareth, they probably wouldn’t immediately see their kingly identity. However, as Tolkien’s poem The Riddle of Strider reminds us, “All that is gold does not glitter.” Both prove themselves to be the prophesied kings that they truly are, culminating in Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension, and Aragorn’s coronation. Both are also responsible for healings, with Christ having dozens of miraculous healings recorded in the Gospels and Aragorn using the Kingsfoil plant to save Frodo from his stab wound after the Ringwraiths’ attack at Weathertop. 

Gandalf the Grey is one of The Lord of The Rings’ most fascinating characters. He’s one of the chief characters that takes the reader from the whimsical, fun The Hobbit-esque tone of the early chapters to the epic, high fantasy tone of the subsequent chapters, and, as one dives deeper into Tolkien’s lore, is one of several angelic beings sent by Middle-Earth’s creator god to aid its people. It’s thanks to this divine mission that Gandalf stands as Prophet. The role of the prophet was to act as the connection between God and His Children. Gandalf also gives a spiritual tone to the Fellowship, lending a sense of mysticism to the quest. This becomes especially clear during Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog in Moria. Throughout his dialogue against the Balrog, Gandalf calls back to the earlier days of Middle-Earth, referring to things such as the “Secret Fire,” an object connected to Eru, the supreme being that created Middle-Earth. Gandalf and the Balrog display the battle between the forces of good and evil that first began in the opening moments of The Silmarillion. It’s also during this battle against the devilish servant of Morgoth that Gandalf gives his life so that the Fellowship might escape Moria and continue to Mordor, before being resurrected so as to complete his mission, thus becoming Gandalf the White. This sacrifice is one of the more obvious parallels between Christ and the Grey Rider. Through these examples, we can see how Tolkien’s Catholic faith influenced The Lord of The Rings in subtle and incredibly clever ways. Tolken was right. The Lord of The Rings is a fundamentally Catholic tale, and that Catholicism let Tolkien’s sub-creative genius to reflect Divine Beauty in the world he made. 

Edited By: Ariel Hobbs

2 comments

  1. I agree I totally with your analysis and had thought of this recently. I will also offer this: each of these had his foil or anti. Gollum for Frodo, Denethor for Aragorn, and Saruman for Gandalf. Each of these dies from his own sins of pride.

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