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.
The goodness of godliness 1 tim 4 v 8, nice stuff
Robert Mathiesen says
Neither Sam nor Frodo is a hero. Rather, each does his duty as well as he is able, and finds strength beyond what he supposed. But eventually the Ring corrupts even Frodo, for all his humility and virtue. Sam knows from the outset that it would have corrupted him even sooner, if he had been the one to bear it.
In the end, it is Gollum, with his base and desperate hunger, that saves the world, even though he lacks anything we might call virtue. At the decisive moment, Gollum does what no other actor anywhere in the story could or would have done, and he does it for the most wretched motives. (It cost Gollum his own life, of course, but that was an accident due to his loss of balance.)
And that, if you please, is Tolkien’s very, very moral vision of how life works in this world of ours. Evil, too, has its essential and salvific role to play in history, and had Gollum died, or had Frodo and Sam slain him — there was a point in the story when that nearly happened –, then all would have been lost forever, and Sauron would have triumphed.
And Tolkien’s moral vision has the right of things. This is just how things are, despite all theorizing and theologizing.
Could it be true then of the verse from Isaiah 53:6. we all like sheep have gone astray…or from Romans 3…There is no one righteous, not even one….regarding the human or hobbit abiltiy to overcome evil as it conspires to overthrow ?
Merriam-Webster defines a hero as “a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities or
one who shows great courage.” Regardless of Gollum’s contributuions I believe both Sam and Frodo qualify as heroic characters.