Book Review: The Messiah Comes to Middle-Earth by Philip Ryken
In The Messiah Comes to Middle-Earth, Philip Ryken reflects on the three-fold offices of Christ as Priest, Prophet, and King as they are echoed in the characters of Gandalf, Frodo (and Sam), and Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. The book is comprised of three lectures given by Ryken, as well as a response to each lecture.
It's a short and inspiring read for any bookish Christian searching for encouragement as they journey alongside Gandalf, Aragorn, and the hobbits.
Towards the beginning of the book, Ryken spends while reflecting on the question, "How would Tolkien feel about this interpretation of his story?" While recognizing that Tolkien disliked allegory and did not intend for The Lord of the Rings to be read as a mere parallel to Christianity, he also recognizes that Tolkien acknowledged the Christian influence within Middle-Earth.
I appreciated that he took the time to make this distinction, pointing out that Tolkien might not have approved of all of the arguments or interpretations Ryken intends to make -- and that's okay. "My reading of Tolkien is only one reading, not the only reading or even the only Christian reading," he writes (p. 26).
Overall, The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth is a quick and easy read, written for those who may be familiar with The Lord of the Rings but are just beginning to delve into its philosophy and Christian influence.
"If Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn remind us in various ways of Jesus Christ, it is not because the novelist had this explicitly in mind. It is rather because a biblical worldview so thoroughly penetrated his imagination that inevitably it pervaded his literary art." - The Messiah Comes to Middle-Earth, page 46
A Catholic Perspective
"There is no one complete, concrete, visible Christ figure in The Lord of the Rings... He is more clearly present in Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn, the three Christ figures... They exemplify the Old Testament threefold Messianic symbolism of prophet (Gandalf), priest (Frodo), and king (Aragorn)."
As Catholics, both Kreeft and Tolkien himself held a much different understanding of the priesthood than Ryken, who relies heavily on Evangelical theology (specifically the teachings of Martin Luther) to draw his conclusions about the priestly role of Christ and the hobbits.
Rather than reflecting on Frodo's priestly role in the traditional Catholic understanding, which is also consistent with the priesthood of the Old Testament, Ryken instead focuses on the Protestant understanding of the Universal Priesthood, or 'priesthood of all believers'. As a convert to Catholicism, I was unfamiliar with the differences in beliefs regarding this topic and I thought this debate transcript from Jimmy Akin was helpful.
While I believe Ryken missed an opportunity to delve into the similarities between Frodo's character and the vocation of the Catholic priesthood which Tolkien understood, I did find his reflection insightful in a way I hadn't expected. His discussion of the sacrificial friendship, duty, and accompaniment of the hobbits was an inspiring reflection on the call of all Christians to live in a similar manner.
Overall, I did enjoy reading this book and would definitely recommend it to those who are newer to reading Tolkien and interested in understanding his works from a Christian perspective.
Below are some of the quotes that I highlighted as I was reading the book, since I know some of you asked.
"The character of Christ is not a single thread in the story but is deeply woven into the entire narrative fabric." - page 3
"In short, by doing their duty, the lowly have become lordly." - page 55
"Amon Hen is the hobbit's Gethsemane, where he wrestles with his calling and chooses to surrender; he sets his face toward Mount Doom, just as Christ set his face toward the Hill of Calvary..." - page 62
"According to Caldecott, Tolkien "shows us that we begin to become heroes simply by being friends," ... We were never meant to bear our burdens alone, but always to share them in community with other Christians. Frodo's initial intention to travel alone is one of the conflicts that drives Tolkien's plot..." - page 68
"As faithful friends, Frodo, Sam, and the other hobbits are models of Christian virtue and exemplars of the priesthood of all believers. They nobly bear one another's burdens, even unto death, and accomplish far more for the kingdom together than they ever could alone." - page 76
"The assumptions that Hobbits make about friendship and companionship challenge our tendency to self-sufficiency." - page 77
"Aragorn is called to pass through death before he comes back to life..." - page 108
"But the most compelling attribute of Aragorn as king is found in the shared love of Aragorn that allows Gimli and Legolas to set aside generations of enmity between their peoples." - page 129