Philip Ryken. Messiah Comes to Middle Earth. Downers Grove IL: Inter-Varsity P, 2017. Print.
Ursula LeGuin, may she rest in peace, complained that critics usually treated science fiction and fantasy works far less seriously than other types of fiction. Indeed, this reviewer recognized the literary quality of a novel by Philip K. Dick, and some of Heinlein’s and Jules Verne’s works are classics of literature. The earliest sci-fi like that of Swift and Cyrano were political satires. Some of the greatest works in world literature are truly fantasy; think of Homer or Vergil or many of the King Arthur tales.
This reviewer confesses, however, that even though I once taught The Hobbit in an English literature class, I fell into that view LeGuin disdained regarding The Lord of the Rings trilogy (LOTR). I have enjoyed the series immensely; they are the only novels apart from ones that I have taught that I have read three times in my lifetime. Still, I never considered looking at them as a literary critic or even as an English teacher. The closest I probably came was when I helped a team from my school win a trivia contest which included a number of questions from LOTR.
Messiah Comes to Middle Earth stunned me. This is an excellent book, full of examples and quotation from LOTR and familiar with Tolkien’s other writings and letters as well as what others have said about his work. This is truly literary criticism as much as anything by Harold Bloom. Of course, Tolkien was a college professor and author of various scholarly works in addition to his Middle Earth stories.
The book is pretty straightforward. Tolkien admitted that he did not intend to write a specifically Christian story, unlike, say, Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia where Aslan clearly symbolizes Christ. Ryken does point out that Tolkien admitted that, as a Christian, he wrote from a Christian worldview, even if it was not consciously so.
LOTR entertains, but it can also inspire and motivate. I once had an article published in a now-defunct webzine on Aragorn’s “Men of the West” speech before Mordor after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Ryken shows one way it can both inspire and motivate.
No, there is no Aslan figure in LOTR. Gandalf does seem to come back from the dead—his apparent death saving the rest of the Fellowship from the Balrog—but Ryken makes a case that Gandalf is more of a prophet than a savior.
That is where the title comes in. The words Messiah and Christ both mean “anointed.” In ancient Israel three offices were often formally anointed: prophets, priests, and kings. So Jesus as Messiah is traditionally seen as having all three offices, as did Moses and, possibly, Samuel in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Jesus prophesied during his earthly ministry, both in the sense of speaking God’s words and predicting future events. He is also credited in Ephesians 4:11 with giving prophets to the church.
Similarly, as Jesus died on the cross, the veil of the Temple was torn (an event confirmed in the Talmud) symbolizing access to God for all. So today Jesus is said to continually intercede for His people as a priest was supposed to do (Hebrews 7:25) and He is compared to the ancient priest Melchizidek. (Hebrews 6:20; Psalm 110:4)
Jesus is also described as a king. He was welcomed as a king in fulfillment of prophecy (See, for example, John 12:12-15). He is described as a king, sitting on God’s right hand (Mark 16:19), and coming in the future to literally rule the earth. (See many verses such as Matthew 25:34 or Revelation 19:16)
So Ryken shows though many quotations from LOTR that Gandalf is the prophet of the stories. Not only does he look like the traditional images of the prophet (long beard and a robe), but he shares wisdom and guidance to others and performs an occasional miracle like Moses, Elijah, or Elisha. This becomes a powerful description in Ryken’s hands, so much so that this reader was put under some conviction. I believe the Lord was using this to encourage me to be more direct about my beliefs.
Frodo, Sam, and the other Hobbits in particular are compared to priests: Not priests in the formal or Hebrew sense, but in the post-Resurrection New Testament sense. Peter and John both say that all Christian believers are now priests. (See I Peter 2:9 and Revelation 1:6) The Reformers along with Ryken call this the priesthood of all believers.
So Frodo and Sam in particular find courage they did not know they had in order to save Middle Earth. It is really based on loyalty—both to each other and to their homeland of the Shire. They were acting on behalf of the rest of Middle Earth. The character sketches in this section of Messiah Comes to Middle Earth are especially moving. Sam and Frodo believe that they will die in Mordor, but that is OK because their people will be OK if they complete their quest.
Of course, Aragorn is the king. Like Jesus, he is not always recognized as such. The experiences he has as Strider the Ranger, as Isildur’s heir in the Paths of the Dead, and as a military leader prepare him. (As I write this I note a parallel with Jesus as the itinerant rabbi, dying and descending to the place of the dead, and coming back someday as a conquering king). Aragorn’s return has been prophesied by many, but many others are skeptical. Ultimately, he does prove himself. Like a righteous king, he also recognizes the contributions of many others. He is able to form alliances even at great risk. Yes, he is political, but in the most noble manner.
There is a lot to this little book. It has made me think that perhaps it will soon be time to read LOTR once again. My thanks to the colleague who gave me a copy of this book.