It may not yet be as impressive as Bilbo Baggins’ “eleventy-first” birthday, but The Fellowship of the Ring—the first volume in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings—celebrated its sixty-sixth birthday last week.
The book’s enduring success is mystifying. Tolkien scholar Tom Shippery notes, “It is in fact hard to think of a work […] written with less concern for commercial considerations than The Lord of the Rings.” Nevertheless, few books have been more widely read, cherished, or influential. With more than 150 million copies sold, it is one of the bestselling works in history. A poll by Waterstone’s bookstore named it the “book of the century,” and Amazon customers voted it as the “Book of the Millennium.” How has such an odd book become so unexpectedly popular and beloved?
There are, of course, many possible reasons for its success. The most immediate explanation is simply that it’s a good book. Memorable heroes, big stakes, epic battles, an immersive fictional world—what’s not to love? But countless other stories have featured similar elements to far less impressive results.
Consider Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movie adaptations, which blew up the box office by earning nearly 3 billion dollars and immense critical acclaim. The final film alone won a staggering 11 Academy Awards, the most ever earned by a single film. Yet, unlike almost every similar success, it did not expand its genre. Iron Man popularized the superhero genre, Harry Potter and Twilight the YA genre, but more than 17 years after The Lord of the Rings trilogy, there have been no successful fantasy films on the big screen. Why?
I believe this is the reason: The Lord of the Rings is a fundamentally Christian work, reverberating in our souls in a way that few other stories can.
The Lord of the Rings is not about Christianity, nor is it primarily purposed to teach Christian theology, values, or truth. Rather, it is Christian. In one of his letters, Tolkien wrote:
“The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism” (Letter 142).
Perhaps the best way to understand Tolkien’s belief is to contrast him with his dear friend C. S. Lewis. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia is, at its core, Christian theology covered in the appealing cloak of imaginative fiction. The stories point toward and highlight the “Christian” elements (to “re-image” them, Lewis claimed). In contrast, in The Lord of the Rings, Christianity is infused into the very DNA and soul of the story. Rather than illustrate Christian truth, it embodies it.
In my opinion, this difference is a contributing factor to the comparative failure of the Narnia film adaptions, which began with promise but quickly fizzled out. Many children love journeying into Narnia, but, in large part, only Christian adults continue to dwell there. There is a degree of trickery, a religious bait-and-switch that turns many adults off, because they feel they’ve been hoodwinked into attending a Sunday school class. The dividing line between adults who love the Narnia stories and those who do not tends to be between those who share the author’s faith and those who do not.
The Lord of the Rings has had a vastly different reception. Tolkien’s devout Christian faith rarely deters readers who don’t share it. Indeed, director Peter Jackson is an atheist. The official Tolkien Society is made up of a vast array of people from radically different faiths and worldviews. Paradoxically, despite being less overtly and outwardly “Christian,” The Lord of the Rings offers an honest transparency of the author’s faith that has disarmed even its most militant opponents.
The book allows readers (and later, to a lesser degree, viewers) to experience Christian truth as living reality rather than a mere concept. It emphasizes the Christian virtues of perseverance, faithfulness, self-sacrifice, mercy; it provides a parable for overcoming evil and temptation. Its ending—a miraculous salvific victory coming in the darkest moment of defeat and desire (or what Tolkien called the “eucatastrophe”)—profoundly echoes the Gospel.
The Lord of the Rings is arguably the most re-read book ever written. Like many others, I make frequent pilgrimage to Middle Earth, re-reading the book at the start of every new year, and I find the experience consistently edifying. Unlike so much contemporary faith-based art, Tolkien’s great tale is not successful in spite of its Christianity but because of it. The world, whether they realize it or not, yearns for what Tolkien’s inspirational story embodies. The good news—indeed, it can rightly be called The Good News—is that, unlike the hobbits, elves, and dragons of Middle-Earth, the foundational spiritual reality at the heart of the beloved book is no work of imaginative fiction. It is the astonishing truth of Christianity that has beat at the heart of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings for sixty-six years and will undoubtedly continue to satisfy readers for many more years until the day when we all set sail from the Grey Havens toward the bliss of the Undying Lands.