Why is there something—a text, a work of art—rather than nothing? Because a human author at a particular place and time activated the linguistic resources that were to hand, put a socio-linguistic system in motion, and did something in order to make a difference in the social world.

—Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?

In the beginning, God created language; it is his good gift, designed to be enjoyed by his creatures. Moreover, it is the preeminent instrument for cultivating personal relationships, between one human and another and between humanity and God. As such, language is a kind of semantic sacrament, a means of communicating meaning through verbal signs.

—Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?

A distant, glorious echo

In his foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien boldy declares his dislike of allegory and notes that, whatever critics and readers have suggested, the novel is most certainly not an allegory. Nonetheless, Christian readers have insisted on finding parallels to Christian theology throughout his works, to the extent that they commonly consider various characters—Gandalf in particular—to be explicitly Christ-figures.


The Tower of Orthanc—Illustration by Alan Lee

Given Tolkien’s adamant rejection of any sort of allegorical reading of his text, we surely cannot admit of an accidental allegory; such a thing would not make sense. More, when we hold The Lord of the Rings up against works that are explicitly allegorical—C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, for example—we note that there is a real and even profound difference between the two in character and tone. We should therefore grant that Tolkien is not to be argued with here and move on.1

Still, Christian ideas keep popping up in his works: the death and resurrection of Gandalf, the unambiguously demonic evil that the heroes oppose in its various incarnations of Sauron or the Balrog, the king returning to claim his throne after a long stewardship, the long-awaited marriage of that triumphant king to a radiant bride, and so forth. While these do not have the sorts of explicit allegorical turns that characterize, for example, Lewis’ explicit identification of Aslan with Jesus, clearly there is something going on here. What is more, Tolkien himself would freely admit it.

The answer is simple enough. What many readers have mistaken for allegory is typology instead. Read on, intrepid explorer →

“Stories don’t need to be new to bring you joy. Some stories are like familiar friends. Some are dependable as bread.”

—Kvothe, in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear

But there is also, I suppose, a real question of taste involved: a judgment that the heroic or tragic story on a strictly human plane is superior. Doom is held less literary than ἁμαρτία [sin]. The proposition seems to have been passed as self-evident. I dissent, even at the risk of being held incorrect or not sober.

—J. R. R. Tolkien, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”

Announcement: The World As It Is

I’m writing a book. The kind that gets published, not just the kind that people talk about and then never finish. I’d better finish it: I have a deadline for the manuscript and a publisher who already has cover art done. You might call that pressure. (I do. But it’s of the very best sort: the kind that makes me buckle down and get things done.)

In which case, you’re guessing about the sort of book it’s going to be. After all, I’m posting it here, on Ars Artis—not on Ardent Fidelity—then it’s going to be about art. You’d be right, of course, though I had to think a little about where to post this.

It’s called The World As It Is: A Theology of Art. Read on, intrepid explorer →