Ralph Wood, author of The Gospel According to Tolkien, tells us that often his students “have confessed that they feel ‘clean’ after reading Lord of the Rings.” Indeed, one of the most compelling features of Tolkien’s work is the sweeping, grand, and refreshing vision of the moral character of its heroes. It is not just the lack of bad language and sexuality, but the positive presence of attributes like conviction, loyalty, integrity, and courage. There is an “other-worldliness” about the heroes of the Lord of the Rings. They seem to come from a distant time and place where people still behaved like we know they ought—and the way we wished they would.
But, Tolkien’s moral vision was not shallow. He understood that there was real evil in the world. And he recognized that even the heroes themselves had setbacks and struggles that they overcame. Saruman’s character stands as an abiding example of how people who were once good can be deceived and drawn from the light and into darkness. He is a warning about the treachery of sin. Thus The Lord of the Rings does not offer a sanitized vision for life in this world. It is not a story about how people are perfect. But, it is still a story about heroes.
Sam Gamgee is the classic example. A gardener by trade, he finds himself drawn into an adventure that he did not choose. He would rather cook than fight. But, in the end, it is Sam’s loyalty, honor, courage, and faithfulness that allow Frodo to complete the quest. He is the most unlikely of champions. Never in Sauron’s wildest imagination did he envision that he would be overthrown by a hobbit gardener from the Shire. He is the quintessential example of biblical humility. He is the tiny mustard seed that grows into a tree.
Tolkien explained that one of the reasons for writing Lord of the Rings was “the elucidation of truth and the encouragement of good morals in this real world, by the ancient device of exemplifying them in unfamiliar embodiments, that may tend to ‘bring them home.’” He understood that there is something edifying and encouraging and uplifting about seeing others follow truth. This, of course, is the whole point of Hebrews 11, to look back to the saints of old and see how they faithfully trusted the Lord. Why? So that we can say, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” (Heb 12:1).
But, as edifying as Tolkien’s works are, we should not have to look only to fictional stories to find heroes. We also ought to be able to find them in the modern day. Sometimes what keeps us running the Christian race is when we look at others around us who are running it well. This is the attraction of Christian biographies. We look to the stories of others not because they are perfect but because they are a reminder to us that what we believe is real. They remind us that there is power in the gospel. It really does change lives.
Tolkien then has offered us a compelling vision for the importance of moral examples in the Christian life. His work reminds us that how we live really does matter. It matters not because we somehow earn our salvation by our moral life. No, Christ had done that fully by his redemptive work. But, it matters because our moral life can be a godly motivation to others who need encouragement to keep running the race. It matters because the church still needs Sam Gamgees who are faithful and true.