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Human or Divine? Tolkien and the Hypostatic Union of Christ

In the foreword to The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien addresses the issue of allegory: “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of the reader. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author” (Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings xvii). All the same, years of research and speculation have laid allegory onto The Lord of the Rings, including political, historical, and religious allegory. In terms of religious allegory, the characters of Christ, Mary, and the apostles have been projected into the narrative of The Lord of the Rings, but these interpretations are no more than individual readings that do not relate to the author’s intent. Nevertheless, Middle-earth is composed of faith and divinity, and bears undertones of Catholicism even without allegory. One could argue that the work is specifically Catholic, because of intonations and nuances that correlate to tenets of Catholicism. Tolkien did not pursue direct allegory, but acknowledged perceived allegory as the outgrowth of experience: “An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience” (Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings xvii). It is reasonable to assume, then, that Tolkien used his characters as a medium to explore his beliefs, much as he used Middle-earth as a forum to create history and mythology.

One Catholic dogma that plays a role in Tolkien’s world is the belief of the hypostatic union, the dual nature of Christ. According to this belief, Christ has a human and a divine nature, and each constitutes His full person. Christ is fully God and fully Man (Ott 146). This tenet can be stripped down to a basic duality of divinity and humanity, and several major characters in The Lord of the Rings exhibit such a duality, particularly Gandalf the Grey, Galadriel of Lothlórien and Elrond of Rivendell.

Tolkien, either consciously or as a subconscious expression of belief, used these characters to explore the duality between divinity and humanity, and thus to incarnate without direct allegory the hypostatic union of Christ. Each character represents one aspect of the humanity/divinity dialogue: Gandalf deals closely with humanity while maintaining a separate, divine purpose; Galadriel is a divine being who wrestles with human temptation; and Elrond serves as a flip side to the coin—the choice between two natures.

The question of the nature of Christ dates back to the 400s A.D., when different interpretations led to the rise of major heresies (Arianism, Monophysitism, and Nestorianism) and the need for unified doctrine. In 451, Pope St. Leo “The Great” presided over the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, the fourth ecumenical council of the Catholic Church. This council established the Chalcedonian definition, which affirmed: “there is a hypostasis in Christ, a union of the Divine and the Human natures in one person” (religioustolerance.org). Other branches of Christianity also base their teachings on the hypostatic union, but the original controversies and teachings were connected to Catholicism.

Logical questions still surround the issue of the hypostatic union. Could Christ “turn off” his human nature, to avoid temptation or pain? The Catholic answer is no. Both natures were always fully present, without division or separation, and this validates the Crucifixion as sacrifice and covenant. Tolkien, having been aware and accepting of this teaching, might have used the characters of The Lord of the Rings to better understand how Christ reconciled divinity and humanity, how He remained human while acting as God. The first of Tolkien’s characters to bear a similar dual awareness, from the first time readers encounter him in The Hobbit, is Gandalf the Grey, the character of divine resurrection.

It is painfully easy to point at Gandalf and label a direct allegory for Christ, simply because of his sequence of death and resurrection. However, one can argue that although Tolkien wrote a resurrection scene, he did not write it allegorically. An allegorical resurrection would mean a sacrifice resulting in salvation, as opposed to one turning point in a larger battle. Gandalf’s resurrection does not save humanity, so he is most likely not Tolkien’s Christ—but he does, in many ways, capture Christ’s balance between humanity and divinity.

Among Tolkien’s divine characters, Gandalf is most associated with the specific narrative of The Lord of the Rings. In The Hobbit, he acts as a mentor, and the only indications of his separate purpose are his mysterious disappearances, such as his unexplained departure when the company leaves Beorn’s home (Tolkien, The Hobbit 131). In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf deals with more of a forced balance; he must remain close to his friends while dealing with a larger battle of good and evil stretching back to the beginning of time.

Gandalf’s duality undergoes a major shift during the “resurrection” scene. Prior to “The Bridge of Khazad-dum,” Gandalf is enigmatic but congenial. When he interacts with hobbits in The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, he is entirely approachable, someone who will sit with friends in a hobbit hole or mention his power lightheartedly: “…see that Sam Gamgee does not talk. If he does, I really shall turn him into a toad’” (Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings 64). Gandalf hints at his involvement in more ancient, spiritual battles when he meets Frodo in Rivendell and reveals his captivity in Orthanc. Gandalf uses this moment to allude to the darker role he will play in the story: “‘There are many powers in the world, for good or for evil. Some are greater than I am. Against some I have not yet been measured. But my time is coming’” (214). After battling the Balrog, however, Gandalf must transform and also change how he approaches the trials of Middle-earth. When he returns to the company, he reveals himself in gleaming white, with eyes that are “bright, piercing as the rays of the sun” (484). A raised Catholic cannot help but remember the Transfiguration of Christ, in which Christ is revealed in his full divinity with prophets at his side (The Catholic Youth Bible, Matthew 17:1-9). When Gandalf claims to be “Saruman as he should have been” (484), he takes leadership of the Istari, embodying the divinity that ties the race of wizards to the Valar.

In Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, Tolkien’s essay entitled “The Istari” details the origins of the race of wizards and confirms that Gandalf is divine. The beginning of the essay reveals that the Istari, often mistaken for old men or Elves, originally came from “over the Sea out of the Uttermost West” as emissaries of the Valar (Tolkien, Unfinished Tales 387). The Istari are sent forth with the consent of Illúvatar, and had once been ranked among the Maiar (one tier of angels, capable of incarnation). Gandalf, then, has his origins in the divine realm, and bears at all times the power and authority of an emissary of God. Even so, Tolkien is careful to emphasize Gandalf’s humility: “…merry he could be, and kindly to the young and simple…he was not proud, and sought neither power nor praise” (391).

Despite his inherent divinity and the impact of the transformation, Gandalf remains close to the fellowship through the end of the narrative. The only observable difference is that he increasingly lets go of his position as friend and mentor in order to carry out his final divine “tasks,” such as parlaying with Saruman in Orthanc and Denethor in Minas Tirith. The amicable, mischievous Gandalf of The Hobbit only resurfaces in rare moments of calm, such as the scene in The Prancing Pony immediately preceding the Scouring of the Shire.

Even as this divinity becomes more apparent, Gandalf never ascends to the level of deity. He is not fully God or fully mortal. He simply bears facets of both, and must reconcile them in his life: the echoes of the dual nature of Christ.

The first angelic descriptions of Galadriel are found in the chapter “Of Eldamar” in The Silmarillion, at the end of a genealogical listing reminiscent of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament. The Silmarillion also briefly mentions Galadriel’s decision to leave her home and travel to Middle-earth, revealing a headstrong nature and a desire for freedom: “Middle-earth had kindled in her heart, for she yearned to see that wide unguarded land and to rule there a realm at her own free will” (Tolkien, The Silmarillion 84).

In The Fellowship of the Ring, when the Company enters Lothlórien, Boromir mentions some superstitions that surround the wood and portrays Galadriel in an evil light. Aragorn defends her and the Company is welcomed into Galadriel’s realm, but the fearsome power contained within the Golden Wood is undeniable. After Frodo looks into the Mirror, he offers Galadriel the Ring, since he knows that she is fair, good, and powerful. This leads to another type of transfiguration, in which Galadriel, tempted by power, becomes “tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful” (Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings 356):

And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair! (356)

In this moment, Galadriel falls prey to human temptation. She wrestles with her desire for power and that desire almost overcomes her, despite her divinity. After the temptation passes, Frodo sees Galadriel in her simple vulnerability; she becomes “shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white” (356). This scene serves as a reminder that Galadriel is human in the sense of fallibility. The reader is led to believe that the struggle with temptation could have gone either way, but that the goodness in Galadriel barely won out.

Much as the essay “The Istari” offers insight into Gandalf’s divinity, a compiled chapter within Unfinished Tales elucidates Galadriel’s connection to the divine. Although Tolkien himself wrote conflicting passages in Galadriel’s history, her origins are known to be among the Noldor, the second of the Three Kindreds of the Eldar, Elves with a special tie to the Valar. Tolkien presents her as “the greatest of the Noldor, except Fëanor maybe” (Tolkien, Unfinished Tales 299). And yet, Tolkien hints at Galadriel’s personality flaws early, describing her as “proud, strong, and self-willed” (230). In most of his accounts, Tolkien suggests that Galadriel initially dreams of dominion in Middle-earth, and in all but one account she is among the Noldorin Elves who revolt against the Valar. As punishment for her role in the uprising, Galadriel is exiled to Middle-earth, where her wisdom grows. The moment in which she rejects Frodo’s Ring is reconciliatory, because Galadriel relinquishes her youthful lust for power and knows that she will be able to return to the Undying Lands, having passed the final test.

In the New Testament, Christ undergoes a forty-day period of fasting in the desert. As a human, Christ fully feels starvation and the harshness of the elements. The devil approaches Him then, at the greatest moment of vulnerability, and offers food, drink, power, and unquestioning love from a persecuting people. In return, the devil asks only for a display of divinity. However, Christ is also divine, and dispels the devil with the words: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Luke 4:12). Ultimately, as God, Jesus is beyond temptation, so Galadriel is clearly not Tolkien’s Christ. She is neither God nor human; she holds herself to a divine purpose but is not invulnerable to human desire. She captures the essence of Christ’s duality without serving as allegory.

Elrond is particularly interesting to examine in terms of humanity and divinity because he, unlike Christ, is given a choice between two natures. As descendents of the line of Beren and Lúthien, Elrond and his brother Elros are named Half-elven, and Illúvatar “judge[s] that to the sons of Eärendil should be given choice of their own destiny” (Tolkien, The Silmarillion 261). Elrond and Elros must choose between the mortal life—the “human” option—or the “divine” path of being named one of the Eldar. Elrond chooses to live the immortal life of the Elves while Elros chooses to become a King among Men, the first of the line of Númenor.

Elrond becomes one of the Wise along with Galadriel and Círdan, a divine entity and keeper of Vilya, a Ring of Power. The fact that these three characters—Gandalf, Galadriel, and Elrond—bear the three Elven Rings of Power is a mark of their divinity, both in terms of raw, ancient power and in terms of goodness. Galadriel is keeper of Nenya, and Gandalf (by means of Círdan) is keeper of Narya. Along with these Rings, Gandalf, Galadriel, and Elrond bear the pure-hearted divinity that Christ embodies, because none of them is ever corrupted by the burden of a Ring.

With Elrond, Tolkien might be toying with the idea of Christ’s duality, which is one way of incorporating spirituality into the narrative. Elrond’s situation brings up an interesting question: what if Jesus had been given the choice to be totally divine, to avoid human pain and suffering? What if, being totally God, He did have the choice, and allowed Himself to be human in order to make the sacrifice of the Crucifixion complete? The question of choice was one basis for heresy in the early Church. The heresy of Arianism, for example, arose in the fourth century and took the stance that Christ was not “consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father, and therefore not like him” (Barry 2). This relates back to the nature of choice: if Christ were fully man and not divine, He would have led a different life, and the miracles and sacrifices of his life would have had a different meaning, akin to the life of the prophets. The heresy of Nestorius, on the other hand, claimed that the two natures of Christ were not in union, and that He was instead “one Christ and one Son” (Chapman 1-10). These heresies were problematic within the context of Catholic belief. However, they related to natural questions that any Catholic might have regarding the details of the hypostatic union, and Elrond’s choice plays with the division that could exist between those two natures.

Naturally, Elrond does not become a deity when he chooses the Elven life; he is not, after all, an allegory for Christ. Still, the matter of choosing between divinity and humanity is intriguing to consider in terms of Catholic teachings, where dogma is absolute and the two natures inseparable. Tolkien may not have intended for Elrond’s decision to present a hypothetical scenario for Christ, but the basic ideas of duality, separation, and human versus divine nature are clearly part of the decision that Illúvatar presents to Elrond and Elros.

In the end, Tolkien does not allow any of his characters to embody a totally human or totally divine nature. Gandalf, Galadriel, and Elrond each bear characteristics of both, and must therefore balance their divinity with their human friendships, desires, and decisions. In this way, Tolkien toys with the idea of Christ’s duality, which is a cornerstone of the Catholic faith and dogma within the tradition of the Church.

Each of the three Wise Ring-bearers has a direct connection to Illúvatar and represents a unique facet of the humanity/divinity struggle. First is Gandalf the Grey, who begins as friend and mentor and eventually, through resurrection and transformation, must find a balance between having human relationships and fulfilling the higher purpose of the Istari. Gandalf has divine power and divine tasks, so he cannot ignore his higher calling. All the same, his personal connections make him humble and accessible, and he serves as friend and guide in a very human way. Galadriel is a divine being who, like Christ, undergoes severe temptation. Temptation is a human failing, and Christ, being totally divine, could overcome it without question. For Galadriel, the same choice proves more difficult to make, especially given her lifelong desire for power. Temptation diminishes her and strips her for a moment of the otherworldly persona of divinity, but in the end it does not overcome her. Elrond serves for speculation, a hypothetical question in relation to Christ: how can someone choose between humanity and divinity? Could Christ have made this decision without negating His purpose on Earth? Elrond may be a character that Tolkien used in order to experiment with the tenets of Catholicism.

In his Summa Theologica, one of the most important texts in the history of Catholicism, St. Thomas Aquinas addresses the following assertion regarding the hypostatic union:

As Augustine says (De Trin. xiii, 18): ‘God was able to assume human nature elsewhere than from the stock of Adam, who by his sin had fettered the whole human race; yet God judged it better to assume human nature from the vanquished race, and thus to vanquish the enemy of the human race.’ And this for three reasons: First, because it would seem to belong to justice that he who sinned should make amends; and hence that from the nature which he had corrupted should be assumed…Secondly, it pertains to man’s greater dignity that the conqueror of the devil should spring from the stock conquered by the devil. Thirdly, because God’s power is thereby made more manifest, since, from a corrupt and weakened nature, He assumed that which was raised to such might and glory. (Summa Theologica, Third Part, Question 4)

St. Thomas implies that both natures of Christ are essential for the validity of the Crucifixion. Jesus had to be divine for the sacrifice to apply to all human sin, and human for His death to be a true sacrifice at all. In Tolkien’s “dual-nature” characters, the balance between divinity and humanity also exists out of necessity—without their power but also without their humanity, Gandalf, Galadriel, and Elrond would not be able to guide other characters to the ultimate salvation of Middle-earth. In regards to the hypostatic union, there are moments of almost perfect parallel between Tolkien’s narrative and Catholic tenets, but also moments that capture only the essence of the dogma or deviate completely. Regardless, these three characters can be seen as a platform that Tolkien used to explore the dual natures of Christ, the forced balance between two natures, the lure of temptation, and the question of choice.

Works Cited

Barry, William. “Arianism.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 9 May 2011. New Advent. Web.

Chapman, John. “Nestorius and Nestorianism.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 9 May 2011. New Advent. Web.

“History of Christianity.” Religioustolerance.org. Ontario Consultants, 2005. Web. 1 March 2011.

“The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas.” New Advent. Online 2nd and Revised Edition. Kevin Knight, 2008. Web. 1 March 2011.

The Catholic Youth Bible. Winona, MN: Saint Mary’s Press, 2000. Print.

Ott, Ludwig. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. 4th ed. Rockford, IL: 1960. Print.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. 5th ed. Great Britain: HarperCollins, 1995. Print.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. Great Britain: HarperCollins, 1991. Print.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion. 2nd ed., USA. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co. 2001. Print.

Tolkien, J.R.R. Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1980. Print.

Added December 9, 2011

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