Everything in Middle-earth changes when that golden ring falls into the fires of Mount Doom. Sauron is vanquished, the power of evil is broken, and hope dawns anew. It only takes a few seconds; the journey to get there, though, was long and perilous. Frodo Baggins, a lowly hobbit, had to carry the corrupting One Ring, for it would destroy anyone else. His humility qualifies him for the task.
Frodo didn’t set out to save Middle-earth. In response to Gandalf’s revelation that Sauron was seeking the ring, Frodo simply does the task in front of him. He’s full of valor, but motivated by resolute determination to do what’s right and remove this peril from his beloved Shire. His humble love for home and hearth—and the other hobbits—sustains Frodo through terrible suffering.
Even though the ending of J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings series isn’t entirely happy, we rejoice that something has been made right. The humble triumph over the power-hungry, and peace extends across the land. We long for that to happen in this world, too. And so these lowly hobbits help us comprehend, deep in our hearts, the beauty of humility and the horror of self-serving power.
Command and Desire
In his famous essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien describes the core of the fantasy genre: “Fairy-stories were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded.” What makes a difference here is that we grow to deeply love these hobbits not despite their lowliness, but because of it. They awaken our desire for a world in which humility triumphs.
Tolkien biographers Philip and Carol Zaleski describe how the theme of humility is echoed in other ways throughout The Lord of the Rings:
The corrupt figures—Sauron the Dark Lord and Saruman the wizard—cannot bear to accept their own diminishment; they are consumed by a diseased will to power and by the wrath and envy that their failures provoke. . . . In contrast, the faithful among the Valar, Elves, and Men accept their place in the created order and humbly repent when they err. Galadriel, the visionary Elven queen with the light of the Two Trees in her golden hair, has so far conquered her will as to refuse the One Ring when Frodo offers it to her and to declare, in words reminiscent of John the Baptist (John 3:29), “I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.”
So we see the beauty of humility when we read the series, particularly exemplified in the hobbits. But this leaves us with two questions.
1. Can It Be True?
As a child I threw myself into the world of books. I loved to read, especially stories like Harry Potter. It actually ached that I didn’t get to meander through Hogwarts or clamber through the wardrobe leading to Narnia. But as I’ve grown up and learned more of Christ, I’ve found that all those childhood longings actually planted seeds in my heart that have borne fruit in a deep longing for eternity.
Those books awakened my desires for many things—for adventure, for meaning, for sacrifice and friendship and love. Now I see those things amplified and answered in the kingdom of God. I’ve found what my heart really longed for. We may not want to experience that dark journey through Moria or battle with Shelob at Cirith Ungol, but we do want to live in a world where the bad guy loses and those he’s oppressed are finally free. We want those who humbly served others to receive their recognition and find rest.
But everything in our world screams that this simply doesn’t happen. The sheer weight of human suffering caused by abuses of power threaten to overwhelm us. According to the Zaleskis, Tolkien himself would surely have felt this acutely:
He had a deep admiration for ordinary people—butchers, police officers, mail carriers, gardeners—and a knack for befriending them. He valued their courage, common sense, and decency, all of which he had able opportunity to observe in the trenches. Love for the man and woman next door ran deep in Tolkien; it pervades his fiction and explains why he wrote tales of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
But these ordinary men were mowed down senselessly on the battlefield. Of Tolkien’s three closest friends from school, only one made it through World War I. As far as Tolkien could see, violence won over gentleness, cruelty over humility.
Some people think fiction is a waste of time because it’s about escaping reality and living in a false world. But these secondary worlds can actually help us to live rightly in our world, by giving us eyes to see reality and hearts that long for good. They show us what’s really true.
These secondary worlds can actually help us to live rightly in our world, by giving us eyes to see reality and hearts that long for good. They show us what’s really true.
In “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien uses this language of primary and secondary worlds. The primary world is the one we inhabit, and we create secondary worlds through art. But, for a story to really matter, it shouldn’t stand far off from our primary world, even if it’s inhabited by otherworldly creatures like elves and orcs and hobbits. The innate value and beauty of Faerie includes the fact that it tells us something true—not just a world that’s internally consistent, but one in which the primary world breaks through.
This idea doesn’t lack biblical precedent. When King David takes in Bathsheba and has her husband murdered, the prophet Nathan tells a story about a rich man who takes the only beloved lamb from a poor man. David is outraged, but Nathan says “You are the man!” (2 Sam. 12:7).
In that moment, David realizes the enormity of what he has done. Through a story he starts to see the world, and his actions, as they really are. A secondary world can open our eyes to reality when we’re blinded by selfishness and prejudice.
So, with love for the hobbits pulsing in our hearts, when we read biblical commands about humility (e.g., Eph. 4:2; Phil. 2:3; 1 Pet. 5:5), we have a new desire to follow them. We believe Jesus when he says: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5).
2. Can It Be True for Me?
But there’s still a problem. For all my admiration for the hobbits, I have to admit that I often see more of myself in prideful Boromir or power-hungry Saruman. I’m selfish, self-serving, and proud. When I see the beauty of humility in the hobbits, I want to want it. But I wonder if it can ever be true for me.
When I see the beauty of humility in the hobbits, I want to want it. But I wonder if it can ever be true for me.
As well as our own failures, our admiration for Frodo’s humility is dealt a blow by his failure at the end of the story, when he refuses to cast the ring into the fire. Power overtakes him in the end. Can anyone, then, stand in the face of this temptation? It’s not enough for us to see the beauty of virtue; we also need a way into it.
As C. S. Lewis wrote in a review of Lord of the Rings, speaking of those “predestined” to truly understand the depths of this book: “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart. They will know that this is good news, news beyond hope.”
How is the triumph of humility good news when we are so often on the other side—power-hungry and selfish?
We find that good news beyond hope in Jesus Christ. He is the one who perfectly embodied humility, superseding the examples of humility we find in Middle-earth. He’s the King made crown-less for a time; the lowly one who takes on a tremendous burden on behalf of the world. He resisted offers of worldly power from Satan, passing the test to qualify himself as our Savior and King.
We find that good news beyond hope in Jesus Christ. He is the one who perfectly embodied humility, superseding the examples of humility we find in Middle-earth.
But he’s more than an example. We can’t produce this virtue on our own, or change our hearts, or make humility triumph. Our pens conjure up dreamworlds we can’t bring about in our own lives. Jesus’s humble death on the cross paved the way to life. And even though the power-hungry put Jesus to death, this wasn’t the end. He rose from the grave to rule over the whole world. Because of him, we can change. The way is perilous, just as it was for Frodo, fraught with danger and weakness. But when we love Jesus and see the beauty of the path he calls us to, we want to follow him. Our hearts beat for him, and that love sends us lower and lower into humility.
We can’t let our affections rest in Middle-earth. Our love for humility must begin and end in the one who is the Alpha and the Omega. All virtue is on radiant display in Jesus Christ. His humility is our joy, our hope, our salvation.
Whispers of Hope
So it doesn’t matter that Middle-earth isn’t real, that we can’t traverse the plains of Rohan or gaze on the White City or plant flowers in the Shire with Samwise Gamgee. Tolkien’s fictional world whispers to us that there is hope: that the King is coming and he is better than we could ever imagine. The life ahead is the one we were made for.
Tolkien’s fictional world whispers to us that there is hope: that the king is coming and he is better than we could ever imagine. The life ahead is the one we were made for.
Through his skillful weaving of a race who loved peace and quiet and tilled earth, but left it behind to save the world, Tolkien elevates humility so that we love and desire it, both in this life and also in the world to come. We may now inhabit a world full of oppression and evil, but one day Mount Doom will crumble. The chains of slavery in the Shire will break. Joy will dawn, and the humble will leap for joy, exalted forever. When we take that first step beyond death into eternity, we will say with Tolkien, “This story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified.”
The Gospel Coalition