November 16, 2017

President Philip Ryken released a new book on Nov. 2 that explores theological themes in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” The book, titled “The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth,” is based on the lectures Ryken gave for the Hansen Series at the Wade Center during the 2015-2016 academic year. The book compares the characters of Gandalf, Sam and Aragorn to the threefold role of Christ as prophet, priest and king.

Ryken said he had two years to work on his lectures, rereading and carefully annotating his own copy of the “Lord of the Rings” in the process. He was first introduced to the series as a child, when he “didn’t really want to have the enjoyment of the story clouded by trying to make a lot of theological connections.” He said he is thankful for the opportunity that the Hansen lectures gave him to reread his childhood favorites and connect them to his faith and role as president.

Laura Schmidt, chief archivist at the Wade Center, said she assisted Ryken in his research. A longtime lover of Tolkien’s work, she appreciates the emphasis that the Wade Center puts on enriching faith through the works of authors like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

“It was a nice supplement and a complement to faith,” she said of her discovery that her favorite books could serve a deeper purpose. “It wasn’t warring with faith, which was a question I had.”

Timothy Larsen, McManis chair of Christian thought at Wheaton, attended the Hansen lectures and was immediately struck by Ryken’s insightful way of examining Tolkien’s work.

“I had never heard anybody really dig into ‘Lord of the Rings,’” he said. “It was almost like a sense of camaraderie: ‘Oh you care about this too! You’ve thought about this too!’”

Larsen praised the way Ryken differentiated Tolkien’s work from allegory. Tolkien wanted his work “to be something that would lead people into the deepest, most important questions,” Larsen explained.

Ryken said he thinks that, “some Christians come with the expectation that Christian books should be allegorical … rather than being inherent or, one might even say, incarnate in a narrative.” He explained that the Christian truths in Tolkien’s work “are inherent in his stories because they were inherent in who he was as a follower of Christ.”