It is nothing new to observe that The Lord of the Rings trilogy is filled with Christ figures. This is commonplace. Much gets made of how sacrifice, weakness, and death (not to mention compassion, mercy, and love) in many of the characters lead to life, strength, and victory. The primary examples are usually Frodo, Aragorn, and, of course, Gandalf.
While it may seem a strange connection to some (ok, probably most), when Advent rolls around each year I find myself drawn back to those stories and films. Advent is, it seems to me, the perfect time to read and watch again. I won’t say that I do it every year, but I am drawn there.
Tolkien acknowledged that Gandalf is Christ-like, and is explicit in the way he characterizes how in his death, his “perishable body put on imperishability” (1 Cor 15:53-54).
“Gandalf the Grey does indeed die in the mortal flesh in the encounter with the Balrog. Gandalf the White, who returns, is the angel in the incorruptible body of resurrection” (Understanding The Lord of The Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism, 29).
LOTR is, apparently, all about Advent. And this Advent I stumbled on another, subtler messianic connection in the character of Gandalf. [This may be or have been obvious to others, but I am just getting it.] I got there, not while watching or reading the stories, but when I read an article by my friend Phil Quanbeck on apocalyptic literature. Towards the end of his article Phil makes this observation:
“J. R. R. Tolkien likely owes much to John of Patmos when he creates the world of Middle Earth. The Lord of the Rings trilogy constructs a world and invites the audience into that world. Viewers of the Lord of the Rings films, for example, did not have to parse out the nuances of J. R. R. Tolkien in order to experience some sense of thrill when Gandalf arrives with the rescuers for Helm’s Deep—just at dawn, just when he said he would come, just when hope was all but lost. Revelation is not “just a story,” but it does create a world. In that world wrath is to be feared, death is an enemy, and faithfulness, in the midst of evil, accounts for something.” (“Preaching Apocalyptic Texts,” [Word and World 25/3 (2005): 317-327], 325.)
Phil’s observations here are interesting and helpful. And because of them, what struck me, for the first time, was the dawn language. As Phil points out Gandalf arrives at Helm’s Deep, coming with the dawn.That brought to mind what was, for me, one the most striking scenes from The Hobbit. Bilbo and the company of Thorin Oakenshield have been captured by mountain trolls, who settle down to bickering over how best to eat them. Bilbo stalls for time, and, at jut the right moment, Gandalf appears once again, striking a bolder with his staff and crying out as the new sun appears, “The dawn take you all!”
The trolls are turned to stone, and the company is delivered.
And what does this have to do with Advent?
All of this is, believe it or not, reminiscent of the exhortation and promise spoken in Hosea 6:3,
“Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord;
his appearing is as sure as the dawn;
he will come to us like the showers,
like the spring rains that water the earth.”
While in its original context these lines were spoken of the Lord, they were quickly associated with Jesus in the early Christian church, both in seeking to understand what the resurrection meant and in terms of the messianic expectation that Jesus would, one day, come again. Jesus was and is the promised one.
And Tolkien, in his turn, borrowed this Old Testament language to describe the Advent of Gandalf, an image of the One Who Is to Come…with the Dawn.
From Gandalf, through Hosea, to Jesus. Happy Advent!