In three separate polls to mark the year 2000 Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien was voted the nation’s favourite book. More recently the books have been adapted into films under the director Peter Jackson, each becoming one of the top ten earning films of all time.
Tolkien was good friends with C. S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia stories for children and apologist for Christianity. Both were Oxford dons. Lewis become a Christian in part through his conversations with Tolkien.
Lewis describes how Tolkien enabled him to see Christianity as ‘true myth’. What he means is this. Lewis was moved by pagan stories – especially stories of sacrifice and divine sacrifice. They moved him, they enriched him, they changed him. But all the time he rejected Christianity. Tolkien pointed out the inconsistency of this. Lewis relished pagan myths, but rejected Christian myth. But in fact there was an infinitely greater reason why the so-called Christian myth should move us and shape us which is: it is true. Lewis and Tolkien spoke of the central truths of Christianity as ‘truth myth’. The Son of God becoming man in the person of Jesus, the death of the Son of God on the cross, the resurrection of Jesus to life, the return of Christ in the future to judge and renew the earth – these are what they called ‘true myth’.
By myth Tolkien and Lewis did not mean something made-up. They meant a story whose meaning transcended what could be stated in cold prose; a story that expressed truth and emotion that could not be expressed in ordinary statements. At the end of The Two Towers Sam talks about ‘the stories that stayed with you – that meant something even if you were too small to understand why’.
The big and crucial difference between Christianity and other myths was that the Christian story relates events that really happened. It is not the story of events that happened in an unknown world at an unknown time. It is the story of events that happened in our world ‘under Pontius Pilate’ (as the creeds say). Lewis wrote: ‘Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths.’ Or again, he writes: ‘Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact … By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.’
So Christianity is myth in the sense that the story of Jesus transcends this world, transcends history, gives meaning to our lives and hope for the future. But more than that, it is true myth because it is based on historical events. It is not one myth among others, but the truth. It is the story which gives meaning to our lives and to history.
When Tolkien creates Middle-Earth and Lewis creates Narnia, they are creating their own mythological worlds – stories than convey truth in a way that transcends what can be said in simple prose. But all the time they are trying to reflect the true myth of the story of Jesus. In conversation with Lewis, Tolkien once said: ‘We have come from God and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. It is that splintered fragment of the true light that we are going to explore. The truth that Lewis and Tolkien want to convey in their stories is the truth that is found in the story of Jesus.
For Lewis Jesus is represented by Aslan – the lion who is both gentle and fearful. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan dies on the altar in the place of Edmund so that Edmund can go free and escape the punishment he deserves. It reflects the story of Jesus who dies on the cross in our place so that we can go free and escape the punishment we deserve.
What I want to do in future posts is explore some of the ways in which Lord of the Rings reflects the truth we find in the story of Jesus. Tolkien did not write an allegory where each person and event represents some other truth. We should not expect to see direct parallels with the Christian story. But we do find a splintered fragment of the true light.
 The quotes from Lord of the Rings are taken from the film version because this paper was originally given as talk illustrated with film clips and because more people have seen the films than have read the books. Though the films are generally faithful to the books, there are some points of divergence.
 Cited in Humphrey Carpenter, JRR Tolkien: A Biography, p. 151.