Part Two – A Journey of Recovery: Natural Theology in “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien


“Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.”

~ J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Lord of the Rings”

Part Two:  “Written on their hearts”

 For whenever the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, these who do not have the law are a law to themselves. 15 They show that the work of the law is written in their hearts, as their conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or else defend them .. Romans 2:14-15

In the struggle to destroy the Ring of Power and defeat its creator, Sauron, Tolkien has given the world an intense depiction of good and evil.  More powerful still is his portrayal of virtuous action in spite of tremendous fear and almost certain loss.  It is significant that the “least of these”, the Hobbits, are given the most difficult task of entering Mordor and destroying the Ring.  Middle-earth, therefore, is a world in which there is the chance for the “ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble.”[1]  Upon learning the truth behind the Ring that he has inherited from Bilbo, Frodo immediately understands that in order to preserve the Shire and all the security and stability for which it stood, he must submit to a life of exile and “a flight from danger into danger.”[2]  He remarks, “And I suppose I must go alone … but I feel very small, and very uprooted, and well – desperate. The Enemy is so strong and terrible.”[3]

This is but the first of many pictures of great courage in the face of certain defeat in The Lord of the Rings.  In the final chapters, when Frodo and Sam are struggling through the forsaken lands of Mordor, Gandalf concludes that the gathered forces at Minas Tirith must “make [themselves] the bait” to keep Sauron’s eye away from “his true peril” even “though his jaws should close on [them]”.[4] Gandalf communicates a similar kind of sacrificial heroism that is willing to lay down its life for something greater:

“We must walk open-eyed into that trap, with courage, but small hope for ourselves. For, my lords, it may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands; so that even if Barad-dûr be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age. But this, I deem, is our duty. And better so than to perish nonetheless – as we surely shall, if we sit here – and know as we die that no new age shall be.”[5]

Middle-earth is not unlike our own world where “there is room for development and action” as well as “choice – and thus for the tragedy and inconsolable grief that are endemic to mortal life.”[6]  Here, actions indeed have consequences, good as well as bad, and these are continually either pushing the characters towards greater virtue or towards destruction.  In this we perceive that, though Middle-earth is a fallen world that is “full of peril, and in it there are many dark places”, there still remains “much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”[7]  Even the most seemingly sanctified are not immune to this principle of change, as is shown with the temptation of Gandalf and Galadriel to take the Ring and use it for good ends.  As a result, the contrast between ennoblement and self-destruction is put on intense display, with virtue made all the more striking, in the end.

As has been noted, Tolkien portrayed evil as a marring of the Good.  Evil is parasitic, and must take the good of Middle-earth and distort it.  It especially liked to prey upon the virtues one might possess in greater strength.  The Ring and its effects on those that wield its power, even for good, represent the means by which virtue can be rerouted towards evil ends.  For Gandalf, pity would be “the way of the Ring to [his] heart:  “pity for weakness and the desire to do good.”[8]  His wish to show mercy would be twisted into an absolute “power to forgive all evil, thus lessening the necessary tie between mercy and justice, pardon and repentance.”[9] For Galadriel, who “had pondered what [she] might do, should the Great Ring come into [her] hands,” it would be her great beauty and holiness that would be turned into tyrannous weapons, compelling all to worship her and “despair.”[10]  Thankfully, both Galadriel and Gandalf know that the virtues cannot exist alone, but must be all be present and in harmony with one another.  An isolated virtue quickly swells into a discordant note.  Pity without truth and beauty without humility are tools that evil can use to subvert and destroy.

Yet in this subversion, evil is ultimately self-defeating.  Wood writes that “Tolkien wisely describes evil as the Shadow:  it is something secondary and derivative from the Light, not something primary and positive.”[11] In the end, it is nothing, as empty as “the black abyss” that Frodo saw in Galadriel’s Mirror, from which there “appeared [the] single Eye” of Sauron.  It is significant that Tolkien represents Sauron as a disembodied eye.  The Ring of Power not only confers control over the other rings, it also allows the wearer to become invisible, allowing them to see without being seen, giving them access to knowledge that would be otherwise hidden.  But the consequence of using this power of invisibility is that the wearers eventually become permanently hidden themselves.  Sauron’s most powerful servants, the Ringwraiths, demonstrate the truth of King Théoden’s words that “oft evil will shall evil mar.”[12]

Arguably, all that remains after evil has distorted goodness is a self-devouring will to power.  As a “gigantic lidless Eye,” Sauron may be able to gain knowledge from the outside, but without a “sympathetic imagination” he is powerless to comprehend the motives of those that are not similarly dominated by a lust to control.[13]  Though Sauron is wise, and his malice the driving force behind his obsession over obtaining detailed knowledge, “the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts.”[14]  Therefore, Gandalf concludes, “into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it.”[15]  This was how the Quest was able to steal past his watchful gaze and into the heart of Mordor with his precious Ring.  Their cloak was Sauron’s own folly.[16]

“Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men.  It is Man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.” – Aragorn 


The Journey:

Introduction: Natural Theology in “The Lord of the Rings” 

Part One: Natural Theology in “The Lord of the Rings” – “Through what has been made” –  For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made.  Romans 1:20

Part Three: Natural Theology in “The Lord of the Rings” – Divine Providence in Middle-earth


[1] Humphrey Carter, ed., The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 237.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition, loc. 1516, Kindle.

[3] Ibid., 1518.

[4] Ibid., 17654.

[5] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition, loc. 17661, Kindle.

[6] Ralph C. Wood, The Gospel According to Tolkien, 12.

[7] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition, loc. 7280, Kindle.

[8] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition, loc.1497, Kindle.

[9] Ralph C. Wood, The Gospel According to Tolkien, 62.

[10] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition, loc. 7621, Kindle.

[11] Ralph C. Wood, The Gospel According to Tolkien, 51.

[12] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition, loc. 12095, Kindle.

[13] Ralph C. Wood, The Gospel According to Tolkien, 59.

[14] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition, loc. 58707, Kindle.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 5703.

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