Roads Go Ever Ever On…

December 22, 2009

Spiritual Applications of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

Her son was having trouble going to bed again. I waited downstairs while she attempted to reason with a defiant three year old. Scanning her bookshelf, my eyes fell upon a hardback set of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I picked it up and thumbed through it until there was peace upstairs. Finally, she reappeared.

            “That’s a great series, have you read it?”

            “No,” I said, “I own it though; I was hoping to read them before the movie comes out.”

            “Well, you better get started,” she laughed, “that’s only a few months away!”

And I’m glad I did. This series of books kept me inspired during my return to college and journey to finally get my bachelors degree. Long story short: I got married my freshman year of college right out of high school, had a kid, and dropped out. After the second child came along, I began taking classes part-time, but after a divorce, I was forced to get a second job just to make ends meet. The deferment of my dream to finish college and become a teacher seemed certain. Was this my fate; to stay in a series of dead end jobs that gave me no fulfillment, no sense of purpose? What kind of legacy would I leave my children? “Dad never finished college; he just gave up on his goals.” When things seemed darkest and most impossible, an opportunity to return to school full time appeared, but just like the Ring Bearer and his companions in Tolkien’s epic, this journey would come with many sacrifices and have an uncertain ending. In The Lord of the Rings, the evil forces of a once defeated Lord Sauron are rising up again. This Sauron once gained power through a Ring he wrought in secret. Through a series of seemingly meaningless events, this Ring came into the possession of Frodo Baggins, a hobbit of Middle Earth. When the power of the Ring is discovered, nine companions representing five different races of Middle Earth are chosen to carry the Ring to the only place it can be destroyed; the furnace of Mount Doom in the heart of the land of the enemy. The fellowship is eventually broken up, and Frodo and his servant and friend, Samwise Gamgee, must complete the quest on their own while the rest are forced to defend what’s left of Middle Earth in battle.

As I read The Lord of the Rings I was constantly inspired by the innocent determination of the four hobbits, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin, the quiet confidence of Legolis, the elf, the gruff stubbornness of Gimli, the dwarf, the strength and valor of the men, Aragorn and Boromir, and the wisdom of Gandalf, the wizard. Right from the beginning, Tolkein began to teach me through Gandalf. I doubted my ability to handle going back to school full time as an adult with two kids to take care of and help to provide for, but in the second chapter of the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring, I read Gandalf’s advice to Frodo as he doubted his own ability to complete his task. Frodo was wondering how he ended up in such a situation and Gandalf encouraged him with, “Such questions cannot be answered…you may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and wits as you have” (95). I have determined to do likewise in my own adventures. I don’t know if I “have been chosen” to teach, but I am certain that God desires us to use the talents he’s given us for the good of others, and ultimately for the good of his kingdom. For me, teaching English made sense. In his forward to The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien states, “As for any inner meaning or ‘message,’ it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical” (10). However, Tolkien is a Christian, and I think that God took advantage of his imagination. There are many life lessons and principles in his epic that come straight out of the Bible. The more I read these great books, and the more I watch the movies, the more treasures I find. I will only mention a few here.

The Ring of Power, wrought with evil intention, corrupts and ultimately destroys any good in anyone who possesses it and wields its power no matter how good their intentions are. Not even Gandalf, with his wisdom and strength of many years, was willing to risk the temptation of the Ring. Yet, for a time anyway, the innocent and pure heart of Frodo, the hobbit, was able to bear the burden of the Ring. Hobbits are childlike creatures, smaller in stature than men, and they possess a joy, peace and innocence in living that only children seem to possess in our world. It is no wonder that Jesus said if anyone wishes to possess the Kingdom of Heaven he must become like a little child, and likewise, the greatest among us will be like a little child (Matthew 18:2-4). If we work to put down our pride and seek to live a simple life of trust in God and his provision and his wisdom, if we become like little children, we also will be able to resist temptation when evil comes our way; however, if we trust in our own wisdom, and desire glory for ourselves, we will not be able to withstand the burden of our enemy, Satan. Only through childlike faith in Jesus can we be saved. We need to learn to trust in our Heavenly Father, and through that trust we can regain the childlike imagination to dream the impossible. 

Children are not as concerned with the lust for power and domination that has caused so much grief in the world, but as we all know, they do succumb to greed. Every parent cringes when they hear their bright-eyed, lovely child screech “Mine! Mine!” when friends are over. Likewise, Frodo finally succumbs to the power of the Ring at the end of his journey. Gollum is a creature who once possessed the Ring for many years. It is rumored that he was once very much like a hobbit himself; however, overtime the Ring eventually possessed him and slowly turned him into a wretched creature whose only thought was consumed in lust and greed for his “precious,” the Ring. Gollum tracks down Frodo and tries to kill him in order to take back his “precious.” Frodo gets the upper hand and has many opportunities to put Gollum to an end, but he heeds the advice of Gandalf to take pity on him. When he is finally standing at the furnace of Mount Doom, Frodo is unable to complete the purpose of his journey and destroy the Ring for his own greed to possess it. However, Gollum once again appears and fights for the Ring. He gains possession of it, but only to fall into the fire in the fight, thus destroying himself and the Ring. Gandalf’s advice for pity, and Frodo’s faithfulness to follow through is the principle that Jesus teaches us to show mercy to our enemies, and to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:43-48). We are to trust in God’s judgment and his justice, and just as Jesus died for us while we lived as enemies of God through our rebellious and sinful actions, we are to show the same love for others in hopes of their repentance. Additionally, we see the principle that God works all things out for the good of his purposes (Romans 8:28). We learn that even the purposes of evil can be manipulated to result in good. If Frodo had justifiably killed Gollum early in his journey, Gollum would not have been there to take the Ring from Frodo. Frodo would have eventually died at the hands of Sauron who would have taken possession of the Ring for his evil purposes, and if Frodo somehow did survive, he would have become like Gollum. However, Gollum’s life was taken only by his greed, and through no intentions of his own, he ended up saving Frodo from the pitiful fate he succumbed to.

Another Biblical principle found in The Lord of the Rings is that the trials and persecution of evil in our lives are often used to build character and train us for a greater purpose (Romans 5:4-6). We learn this in the journey of the hobbits and of King Aragorn. Aragorn first appears in the epic as Strider the Ranger, a mistrusted nomad who could use a bath, but we quickly learn the Rangers roam the land for the protection of travelers and they help anyone who is in need. Aragorn happens to be the sole heir in the broken line of the kings of men. There are many ancient prophecies that point to his purpose in Middle Earth, but he is at first unsure of himself and his ability to accomplish what he is called to do. As he walks out his journey and gives his life in service to others simply trying to help, he passes through many difficult trials that only increase in intensity. However, with each trial he survives he gains more confidence in himself and more honor from others. At the end of his journey he is a man with the strength and stature of a warrior, yet he is a warrior who possesses humility and wisdom from his experiences. He is a man worthy to take the crown of a king. Additionally, the hobbits, perhaps losing some of their innocence, gained much wisdom and strength in their journeys. When they were placed in the midst of violent battles, Merry and Pippin learned how to be valiant warriors. Upon returning to the Shire, their homeland, the group of hobbits found it overrun by a number of ruffian men. Merry and Pippin rallied together the hobbits and developed key battle strategies that enabled them to take back their home. This was their initiation into spiritual maturity, into adulthood in a sense. Before their return, Gandalf warned them of the dangers at home, but assured them they could handle it, “I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for…you will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high…” (Tolkien, The Return of the King, 341).

In the same way, Sam, who faithfully remained with his master and friend, Frodo, developed leadership skills and eventually became the mayor of the Shire. In my opinion, Sam is the most important character in the series. If Sam had not been so devoted to Frodo, Frodo would likely not have made it. We are called to carry each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), Sam would often give up sleep, food and water to keep Frodo going, and at the end of their journey when Frodo could no longer walk at Mount Doom, Sam literally picked him up and carried him up the mountain. What a beautiful picture of servanthood! Jesus teaches us that whoever wants to be the greatest must become the least and the servant to all (Matthew 20:25-28). Sam, the man in the background, is the true hero of the epic. He always put others before himself, and he never sought any recognition for his sacrifices. Since Frodo had such long contact with the power of the Ring, he was plagued with unrest and was unable to stay at peace in the Shire. This testifies to the reality, that there are consequences from prolonged exposure to evil, whether we have spent much of our lives in sin, or if we suffered greatly at the hands of evil men. In Frodo’s case, he made a great sacrifice for the sake of others, and he also gained wisdom in his journey. He was given the honor of living among the elves and with Gandalf in the Grey Havens, a type of heaven, where he would be at peace, but he had to leave the home he loved and fought to protect. Sam is the most upset, but with the elf-like wisdom he had gained, Frodo explained to his faithful friend, “It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them” (Tolkien, King, 382). Both Sam and Frodo teach us that we are to be willing to sacrifice our time and money, our very lives, for those in need. Most of us will not find ourselves on epic journeys to save the Earth; however, we are all wrapped up in the epic battle between good and evil everyday of our lives whether we choose to accept it or not. The choices we make often have epic proportions. Who knows how far and deep into the soul of a man the seed of a good deed may go, and how much fruit that seed may bear in others. Likewise, we don’t really know the consequences of our selfish actions either. We must be willing to follow the example of Jesus, and take up our cross daily for the common good of our fellow man.

And so this reality has hit home to me. I have already made many sacrifices for the protection of my children through my divorce; I have been forced to sacrifice many adult-relationships in order to spend quality time with my children during my time in school. Higher education was not cheap, and choosing to become a humble high-school-English-teacher has forced me to make many financial sacrifices for both myself and my children. Yet despite these trials, despite the daily battles I face for and with my students, and my battles with a world full of temptations that would lead me to destruction and distortion of the truth, I know I am doing what my God has called me to do. I have made many mistakes along the way: I have gone down wrong paths; I have given up true treasure for the sake of fool’s gold; I have fallen many, many times. Yet each time, my God has sent my fellowship of friends, brothers and sisters, to help me and encourage me in the journey, and this help assures me that he too is walking with me; and that, despite my foolish detours, he is constantly guiding me back on the right path and taking me further along to become the man he has called me to be. I have learned through the Word of God, and I have been vividly reminded through Tolkien’s imagination, that humility brings honor, trials produce strength and character, and often doing what is right and needed comes with great risk and sacrifice; yet we must persevere and always do what is right. The Lord of the Rings is a masterpiece. Tolkien’s ability to communicate truth through fantasy is as incredible as it is inspiring. Had it not been for the movie coming out when it did, I might have put off reading this classic series, but typical of his actions for his children, God lovingly brought it to me when I really needed the inspiration, at the beginning of my own new adventure.   

  • Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. Parts 1, 2, & 3. Ballentine Books, New York: 1983.

Peter L Richardson
Fall 2001, revised December 2009.

“Roads Go Ever On”
 -John Ronald Reuel Tolkien

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on,
Under cloud and under star.
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen,
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green,
And trees and hills they long have known.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone.
Let others follow, if they can!
Let them a journety new begin.
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

Still ’round the corner there may wait
A new road or secret gate;
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.

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2 Responses to “Roads Go Ever Ever On…”

  1. springerfox Says:

    This was truly, truly, TRULY inspirational for me. For quite some time now, I have been attempting to read The Lord of the Rings, but I have found it extremely lengthy, and at times, downright boring.
    However, I have heard so much about Mr. Tolkien, and at times I have picked the books up, and continued reading, plodding along much like the characters do in their journey.
    I felt that it would help me with my story that I am writing, (The Chosen) and I think that perhaps it has.
    Really, this comment that you have written about your life and how it relates to Tolkien’s books, has helped me to see the whole series in a plain, easy to understand way.
    And the main thing I kept getting the whole time was, servant.
    Servant of the Lord, putting others first, before self.
    It’s extremely easy for me to simply say that, and yet it is sooo much harder to practice what you preach!
    After reading this, I have one word to say to you, which I think is essential.
    Shabat.
    Resting in a place of peace, The Grey Havens.
    Thank you, Lord, for putting this man’s story across my path.

  2. peterrock12 Says:

    Thanks so much for the kind words! Walking the walk is so much harder than talking the talk, but it is God’s grace that gets us through! I am humbled and honored to be able to be used as a source of encouragement for you. I would love to get a copy of your book when it is finished. Please let me know. You can find me at facebook under “Peter Lewis Richardson”. And, I will take your advice of “shabat” to heart. I needed to hear that today!

    God Bless,

    Pete


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