J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings has become one of the most widely-read books of modern times. In fact, I suspect that only the critics were surprised when a British survey of 2000 named it as the book of the century. Tolkien was a devout Anglo-Catholic, and considerable attention has been given to the influence on his work of the Bible and other Christian writings. In this paper I would like to look at the connections between The Lord of the Rings and a specific part of the New Testament, the Gospel of John and a work traditionally connected to it, the book of Revelation. To my knowledge these connections have never been fully explored. In the first part of this article I will discuss some distinctively Johannine literary themes and techniques that also appear in The Lord of the Rings. In the second part I will turn to characterisation, and how the Gospel of John’s distinctive portrait of Jesus is reflected in the characterisation of Gandalf.

Part 1: Themes and Literary Techniques

The contrast between light and darkness is one that appears frequently in both the Gospel of John and The Lord of the Rings. The use of light and darkness in the Gospel of John has been the subject of much discussion; here I will mention only those things which are relevant for our purposes here.

Both John and Tolkien symbolise the conflict between the opposing forces in their narratives as a conflict between light and darkness. Before we go any further, there is a caveat which I must state. In his letters Tolkien makes it clear that he did not like people describing the conflict in The Lord of the Rings as Light vs. Dark, or Black vs. White, or Good vs. Evil.[1] He seems to have felt that such categories did not do justice to the complexity of his narrative; and rightly so. For characters can, and do, fall from the light into the darkness, as do Saruman and Boromir (though Boromir redeems himself somewhat); and hope is persistently held out that characters who are in the dark will come to the light. Gandalf says, “I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it’.[2] He holds out the same hope for Saruman, and Frodo follows his example. I suggest that if we keep in mind that “nothing is evil in the beginning,” as Gandalf puts it, we may proceed, using these categories.

Indeed it is difficult not to see the conflict in The Lord of the Rings in these terms. Gandalf tells Théoden that he is going “into great hazard, setting silver against black” (p. 523). Haldir of Lothlórien also explains the conflict to Frodo in these terms: “In this high place you may see the two powers that are opposed to one another, and ever they strive in thought; but whereas the light perceives the very heart of the darkness, its own secret has not yet been discovered” (p. 352). (Haldir’s remark sounds very similar to John 1:5 “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not comprehended it.”)[3] The opponents to Sauron preceding the beginning of the narrative are known as the White Council, and Gandalf becomes the White, able to use light as a weapon (pp. 809, 820, 890f). Frodo also uses light as a weapon, in the form of the star-glass which Galadriel gives him (and of which she says, “It will shine still brighter when night is about you. May it be a light to you in dark places when all other lights go out”). And Minas Tirith is also called the White Tower. On the opposing side, Sauron is called the Dark Lord, and his fortress of Barad-dûr the Dark Tower. He is able to use darkness as a weapon, in the form of a dark cloud which he spreads toward Minas Tirith as he prepares to attack. His chief servants, the Nazgûl or Ringwraiths, are called Black Riders by the hobbits. And the Enemy is often referred to as the Shadow. Add to this the frequency of the element mor-, “black,” in place-names associated with the Enemy, such as Mordor, Morgul, Morgai, etc., and it is difficult to avoid the impression of a conflict between light and darkness, or black and white.

There is a similar opposition between light and darkness in the Gospel of John. I have already quoted John 1:5. And in 3:19-21 we read,

And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.
[Similarly Treebeard says, “It is a mark of evil things…that they cannot abide the Sun” (p. 473). And Faramir says that “many [Númenoreans] became enamoured of the Darkness and the Black Arts…” (p. 677).] After this passage in John 3, the reader is not surprised when Jesus says that he is the Light of the World (8:12; cf. 9:5; 12:35). It is as the Light of the World that Jesus calls on all people to walk in the light and avoid stumbling in the darkness (8:12; 11:9f; 12:35). And it is as the Light of the World that he says, “For judgement I have come into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind” (9:39). And at 13:30 Judas the betrayer (called “the one destined to be lost” in 17:12) goes out of the upper room into the night. Finally it is at sunrise that the risen Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, at the dawn of a new beginning [by contrast the narrative of The Lord of the Rings ends “as the day was ending once more” (p. 1031). Thus the narrator draws attention not to the dawning of the Fourth Age, but to the ending of the Third.]

One important theme in the Gospel of John, especially chapters 13—17, is community. As the narrative progresses the people of God are redefined. Membership in the community is no longer based on ethnic descent but on belief in Jesus as Messiah. This relationship with Jesus is to lead to a love for one another which will be the distinguishing mark by which everyone will know that they are his disciples (13:35) —a vital testimony to the world. This is why Jesus prays that his then and future disciples will be one (17:11, 22). If in the Gospel of John Jesus’ disciples are all Jews and none are Gentiles, there is still a noteworthy diversity among them. Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip and Nathanael are all Galileans, but Philip’s Greek name may indicate his family’s origins in the Diaspora. The Gospel of John does not say that Peter and Andrew are fishermen, though it is Peter’s idea to go fishing in 21:3; Nathanael, meanwhile, is seen by Jesus under a fig tree (1:48) —in Jewish tradition the place for studying. Nicodemus is a leading member of Jerusalem’s priestly elite, circles to which the anonymous Beloved Disciple seems to be somehow also connected (18:15). That many Jews come from Jerusalem to visit the bereaved Mary and Martha of Bethany (11:21) may indicate that they and their brother Lazarus are members of the same circles. And the active, impulsive Peter is contrasted with the more contemplative Beloved Disciple.

Community is also an important theme in The Lord of the Rings.[4] Indeed it has been said that The Lord of the Rings is about male bonding. This is perhaps a slight exaggeration; but there can be no doubt that community is an important idea in Tolkien’s narrative. It is no accident that the keyword of the title of the first volume of the book is “fellowship.”

At the beginning of the narrative, community is based on ethnic and family ties. The Shire-hobbits keep to themselves, regarding even hobbits who live outside the Shire proper, such as the Bucklanders and the Bree-hobbits, with suspicion. Pippin says, “We hobbits ought to stick together” (p. 272). Similarly Bilbo tells Frodo, “Hobbits must stick together, and especially Bagginses” (p. 278). And it is not only hobbits who hold this attitude. Gildor tells Frodo, “The Elves have their own labours and their own sorrows, and they are little concerned with the ways of…any other creatures upon earth” (p. 84). And the longstanding mutual hostility between Elves and Dwarves nearly derails the Council of Elrond. But at the Council it is decided that all the Free Peoples must work together to defeat the Enemy. A short time later Gandalf asks Legolas and Gimli as individuals to set aside the grievances of their respective races and unite to accomplish the Company’s purpose (p. 295). By the end of the narrative, Elf and Dwarf are fast friends; indeed Legolas is willing to return to Helm’s Deep with Gimli even though he does not like caves, and Gimli agrees to return to Fangorn Forest with Legolas in spite of his discomfort there.

It is not only the members of the Ring’s Company who set aside racial prejudice to unite against the Enemy. This begins at the Council of Elrond, where Glóin suggests, “It might be well for all…if all these strengths were joined, and the powers of each were used in league” (p. 268). If it is Glóin who voices this idea, it is certain that this is what Gandalf and Elrond intend the Council to decide. And if Haldir and his brothers hesitate at first to admit a Dwarf into Lothlórien, they soon do so. Indeed Celeborn takes Gimli’s arrival as “a sign that …better days are at hand, and that friendship shall be renewed between our peoples” (p. 355).[5]

If unity is characteristic of the Free Peoples, the opposite is true of the Enemy. When it is discovered that in attempting to save Faramir from premature cremation, a soldier of Minas Tirith has killed the porter, Gandalf exclaims, “Work of the Enemy!...Such deeds he loves: friend at war with friend; loyalty divided in confusion of hearts” (p. 851). The various tribes of Orcs and their chieftains are forever competing with each other and conspiring against one another. As Aragorn puts it, “It is difficult with these evil folk to know when they are in league, and when they are cheating one another” (p. 566). Just before Frodo and Sam enter Mordor, Frodo is captured by Orcs and taken into one of their outposts. Sam is able to rescue Frodo, because the Orcs fight among themselves over Frodo, and kill one another. A short time later, when the hobbits see one Orc kill another, Frodo says, “That is the spirit of Mordor, Sam.” (p. 926). In chapter 1 of Book 6, this rivalry leads to the death of all the Orcs in the Tower of Cirith Ungol. It is contrasted with the mutual love of Frodo and Sam, which allows the hobbits to survive their ordeal. Behind this competition, I suggest, is the desire for power. This will to dominate also shows itself in the desire of Sauron, Saruman, and Denethor to possess the Ring for themselves.

Similarly in the Gospel of John, disunity is characteristic of Jesus’ opponents. “The Jews” are frequently divided about Jesus.[6] In 7:50-52, Nicodemus, a Pharisee, reminds the council that the law does not allow them to judge anyone without a hearing. (Here, I suggest, Nicodemus is not yet standing up for Jesus, only for proper procedure). His fellow Pharisees are quick to ridicule him. And when the Romans enter the narrative, the mutual distrust between the Jewish and Roman authorities soon becomes clear. In 11:48, the council express the fear that if they themselves do not deal with Jesus, the occupation force will react with a violent crackdown which will affect all Israel: “the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and the nation.”

Throughout Jesus’ trial, Pilate and the Jewish authorities oppose each other as much as they oppose Jesus. They try to outmanoevre each other, the Jewish authorities pressuring Pilate into convicting Jesus of a crime of which he is not guilty (and which at first they try to avoid clearly spelling out, 18:30), finally implicitly threatening to report him to Caesar (19:12), and Pilate taking revenge by eliciting from them an admission of allegiance to Caesar. Another noteworthy characteristic of the Gospel of John has to do with choice. A recurring idea in this Gospel is that people who encounter Jesus must decide for him or against him. Pilate tries to avoid making a decision, but this is impossible; to avoid making a decision about Jesus is to decide against him. But in 6:44 Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.” The necessity of choice does not turn people toward Jesus, or against him. Rather the choice they make shows what they have really been all along. “Just as all cats are black in the dark, so men do not show up in their true colors until the light of Christ shines upon them.”[7] But this does not mean that humans have no choice in the matter. Throughout the Gospel there are calls for people to believe, calls which indicate that people have the ability to make a choice. Some of these statements are placed intriguingly close to predestinarian statements—for example, 6:36 (“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”) is juxtaposed with 6:44, and 12:36 (“While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light”) with 12:39 (“And so they could not believe“). The two strains of thought lie side by side, and the tension remains unresolved.

“The outward revelation in the word of the Son must be supplemented by an inward prompting from the Father, but the individual must also ‘learn’ that is, accept the word of Jesus, supported by the Father’s attraction…This explanation leaves the collaboration of God and man in the emergence of faith a mystery still but this much is clear, that faith is not possible for human beings without God’s ‘pull,’ the prior assurance of his grace to them, and yet human beings are not spared their own decision. The paradox of the doctrine of grace remains.”[8]

There is a similar tension between predestination (or doom, as Tolkien calls it) and free will in The Lord of the Rings[9]. First we may note that a choice is necessary: to hide the Ring is only to put off making a choice until it is too late to choose (p. 266). Similarly Aragorn demands of Éomer, “Will you aid me or thwart me? Choose swiftly!” (p. 433). He tells Éomer that he brings “the doom of choice” (p. 434). His message to Théoden is that “open war lies before him, with Sauron or against him. None may live now as they have lived…” (ibid.).

The classic predestinarian statement in The Lord of the Rings comes early in the narrative. Gandalf tells Frodo that “there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it” (p. 56).[10] But shortly before this, as Gandalf tells Frodo that Sauron has arisen again, Frodo says, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” His use of the word "need" may also be predestinarian. But Gandalf replies, “So do I,… and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us” (p. 51). This seems to indicate the possibility of free choice. On Amon Hen Frodo is “free to choose” whether to leave the Ring on or take it off, but after taking it off he says, “I will do now what I must (p. 401, emphasis mine). As Frodo and Sam head for Cirith Ungol, Frodo says, “so our path is laid” (p. 711). But this predestinarian statement is at the beginning of a lengthy conversation about the great stories, and how what makes them great is that the people in them choose not to turn back even when they have the opportunity (pp.711-13). Throughout the narrative there are both predestinarian statements and statements indicating the possibility of free choice, and as in the Gospel of John, they are often placed close together, and the tension between the two is not resolved.

There are some literary techniques which appear in both the Gospel of John and The Lord of the Rings. The Johannine narrator uses verbal links to connect the Jewish authorities with the Romans. In John 18:37 Jesus tells Pilate, “Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.” This is a veiled invitation to be one of those who are of the truth, an invitation which Pilate promptly and firmly declines. 18:37 also resonates with 8:44f. In 8:44f. Jesus tells his Jewish listeners that they do not believe him because he speaks the truth. Because they are like their spiritual father, Satan, they have no truth in them, as Satan does not. In 19:1?3 the Romans mock Jesus, ending by slapping him across the face. There is a clear parallel here with 18:22, where a temple policeman slaps Jesus. Thus the narrator connects the Jewish authorities and the Romans by the treatment they give Jesus. In 19:9 Pilate asks Jesus, “Where are you from?” Jesus’ origin is a key question in this gospel. But Jesus does not reply, because Pilate would not understand a complete answer. The Jewish authorities also raise this issue, in 7:41b-42 and in 9:29f. But they cannot understand a complete answer any more than Pilate. These verbal echoes link the Jewish authorities and the Romans as enemies of Jesus.

In a similar way, Tolkien uses verbal echoes to link Saruman with Sauron. First, the similarity of their names is noteworthy. Second, at p. 258, Gandalf says that at his last encounter with Saruman, he noticed that Saruman was wearing a ring; the narration gives the impression that Gandalf has not seen this ring before. Is this to be connected with Sauron’s association with rings? This is suggested by Saruman’s taking of the title Ringmaker (p. 259). Gandalf calls Sauron the maker of the Ring (p. 51). Third, at the Council of Elrond Gandalf says that when he arrived in Rohan he found “the lies of Saruman” at work (p. 262); almost immediately Boromir says that the idea that the Rohirrim are paying a tribute of horses to Mordor “is a lie that comes from the Enemy” (ibid.). Thus Sauron and Saruman are linked by a common character trait, deceitfulness. These two characters, then, are closely connected as opponents of the Company almost as soon as Saruman appears in the narrative. So the reader is not surprised to find that Saruman is making use of Orcs, in imitation of Sauron, and that his design for Orthanc is an (unwitting) imitation of Barad-dûr (p. 255). Nor is the reader surprised to read of similar phenomena at Sauron’s end and at Saruman’s:

…a huge shape of shadow…reared above the world, and stretched out toward them a vast, threatening hand, terrible but impotent: for even as it leaned over them, a great wind took it, and it was all blown away, and passed; and then a hush fell (p. 949).
…about the body of Saruman a grey mist gathered, and rising slowly to a great height like smoke from a fire, as a pale shrouded figure it loomed over the Hill. For a moment it wavered, looking to the West; but out of the West came a cold wind, and it bent away, and with a sigh dissolved into nothing (p. 1020).

One literary technique used by John which has been much discussed is a form of irony in which characters say more than they know. “The Jews,” for example, say more than they know when they ask if Jesus intends to leave Israel and teach the Greeks (John 7:55). The reader knows that 1) before the end of the narrative some Greeks will come to see Jesus (12:20-22); 2) while Jesus himself will not go to the Greeks, his disciples will. And Caiaphas says more than he knows when he says that it is expedient that one man die for the people rather than the entire people perishing (11:50). The narrator promptly explains that Caiaphas is unwittingly prophesying about the effect of Jesus’ death (11:51f). And Pilate says more than he knows with his famous “Behold the man!” (19:5). On one level, Pilate is saying that the bruised and bleeding Jesus is no political threat; on another level, the reader catches an allusion to the Son of man, who is being lifted up as he predicted (cf. 3:14; 8:28; 12:32).

Tolkien also uses this technique. Wormtongue, for example, says more than he knows when he calls Gandalf “Láthspell…Ill-news” (p. 513). He means to say that Gandalf will bring trouble to the Mark. And Gandalf’s coming is indeed bad news—for Wormtongue himself, who soon finds himself unmasked as a traitor and sent away from Edoras in disgrace. Gandalf’s arrival in Edoras is also bad news for Sauron, because it leads to Théoden’s restoration, which leads to the Battle of Helm’s Deep and, eventually, to the ride of the Rohirrim to the aid of Gondor on the Pelennor Fields. The people of Minas Tirith also say more than they know when they call Pippin Ernil I Pheriannath, “Prince of the Halflings” (p. 768). He does not consider himself a prince, but he is a member of one of the Shire’s leading families, and eventually becomes Thain (p. 1097).

Another important Johannine literary technique is the pairing of binary opposites. Indeed this dualism is so prominent in the Johannine corpus that some scholars have said that John has been influenced by Gnosticism (in fact I suggest that the influence runs in the opposite direction; but that is a subject beyond the reach of this essay). I have already discussed the contrast between light and darkness. Geographically, Galilee and Samaria are places where Jesus is believed, while in Judea he is rejected. Among the characters, Nicodemus (3:1-21) is contrasted with the Samaritan woman (4:1-42). He is a man, a leading member of the religious elite. She is a woman, a Samaritan (therefore in Jewish eyes a heretic), an outcast among her people. He comes to Jesus at night, while she comes to him at noon. In 5:1?16 Jesus heals a sick man who then informs the authorities on him; he is contrasted with the blind man whom Jesus heals in 9:1-39, who, when questioned by the authorities, stands up to them and even makes them look foolish. Jesus himself is contrasted with Moses, as the bringer of grace and truth instead of the law (1:17) and the giver of living water instead of manna (6:30-58). The Pharisees who reject Jesus are contrasted with some Greeks who want to see him (12:19-21). A group of faithful women at the foot of Jesus’ cross is contrasted with the male Roman soldiers who have no idea that they are carrying out anything other than a routine execution (19:23-26). And the fallible Peter is contrasted with the Beloved Disciple, the ideal disciple.

Binary opposites are also an important part of The Lord of the Rings. Geographically, the fertile, contented Shire is contrasted with barren, desolate Mordor; the Old Forest is contrasted with Fangorn Forest; rustic but vital Edoras is contrasted with sophisticated but decaying Minas Tirith; and the “tower” of Caras Galadhon, which is a tree, is contrasted with high-tech Orthanc. Among the characters, the Elves are contrasted with the Orcs, and Men with the Ringwraiths (note that they are former Men).[14] The contrast between Boromir and his brother Faramir is similar to that between Peter and the Beloved Disciple; Théoden is contrasted with Denethor; and Aragorn, King of Gondor, with the Chief Nazgûl, formerly the Witch-King of Angmar. And Gandalf’s self-sacrifice for the Company contrasts him with “Saruman who falls self-tempted and who tempts others to fall to the service of self.”[15] Indeed Gandalf says, “I am Saruman,… Saruman as he should have been” (p. 495). It would appear, then, that Tolkien shared John’s dualistic vision of the world.

There are several other things which may briefly be alluded to here. Galadriel’s “Do not let your hearts be troubled” (p. 357) is a quotation of John 14:1 (note that Galadriel offers the Company comfort after Gandalf’s death, just as Jesus offers his disciples comfort in view of his own impending death). Faramir’s “Behold the King!” at Aragorn’s coronation (p. 968) is virtually a quotation of John 19:44.[16] The eagles’ rescue of Frodo and Sam (p. 951) reminds one of the eagle’s rescue of the woman in Rev 12:14.[17] The white gem which Arwen gives to Frodo (p. 975) is reminiscent of the white stone which the risen Jesus promises to “him who conquers” (Rev 2:17), and the White Tree of Gondor parallels the Tree of Life of Rev.22:2,[18] as does the mallorn tree which Sam plants in the Party Field. The mallorn’s location is noteworthy, for it replaces the Party Tree (p. 1023), which appears only at the beginning and the end of the narrative. So also the Tree of Life appears in Gen. 2:17; 3:22, and then vanishes from Scripture until it appears again in the book of Revelation.

In The Lord of the Rings the Fourth Age is inaugurated with a pair of weddings, that of Aragorn and Arwen and that of Sam to Rosie Cotton. So also in the Johannine corpus the eschatological age is inaugurated with the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11) and the marriage of the Lamb (Rev.19:7-9).[19] The Eagle’s song announcing the fall of Sauron (“Sing now, ye people of the Tower of Anor…,” p. 963) is reminiscent of the victory-songs of Rev 12:10-12; 18:21-24.[20] As Mary Magdalene thinks that the risen Jesus is the gardener (John 20:14f.), so the Three Hunters at first think that the returned Gandalf is Saruman (p. 494). In John 12:28f. a voice from heaven speaks to Jesus; the crowd thinks that it is thunder, or an angel. Similarly Gandalf wonders what observers, had there been any, would say about his fight with the Balrog: “Those that looked on from afar thought that the mountain was crowned with storm. Thunder they heard, and lightning, they said, smote upon Celebdil…” (p. 502).

Part 2: Gandalf and the Johannine Jesus

I turn now from literary themes and techniques to focus on one of the main characters of The Lord of the Rings, namely Gandalf. In discussions of the Christian aspects of The Lord of the Rings it has occasionally been noted that Gandalf in some ways resembles Jesus. I would like to go into this more deeply, for Gandalf resembles the Johannine Jesus more than the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels. Before we proceed, however, there is a point to consider. Tolkien in his letters makes it clear that he did not intend to make Gandalf a Christ-figure. For Tolkien, there could only be one Incarnation, and that was the one that happened at Bethlehem. He felt that to make one of his literary creations a Christ-figure would be very arrogant.[21] I would certainly wish to respect Tolkien’s reverent reticence, not to mention his statements as to his own conscious intent. What I wish to argue here is not that Gandalf is the Johannine Jesus, but that in some ways he resembles the Johannine Jesus.

The Gospel of John opens with the statement that Jesus, the Word, was with God in the beginning, and was God. In 10:31 Jesus says flatly, “The Father and I are one” (he also refers to his oneness with the Father in 14:10f., 20; 17:20, 23). This is not an idea that appears in the Synoptic Gospels, though it may be hinted at in Mark 2:5-12 parr. In the posthumously-published Unfinished Tales we read that Tolkien originally thought of Gandalf as one with Manwë, the greatest of the Valar, and a manifestation of Manwë. But we must note that he soon rejected this idea.[22]

The Johannine Jesus frequently characterises himself as having been sent (38 times throughout the Gospel). This is not an aspect of Gandalf’s character that is very prominent in the narrative, though he does say, “Naked I was sent back —for a brief time, until my task is done” (p. 502). But Tolkein’s letters make it clear that he saw Gandalf in this way. “Tolkein’s favourite term of definition for Gandalf is ‘emissary’ (usually capitalized). He is an emissary of the Valar and therefore of the One.”[23] Likewise Jesus is the Father’s Emmisary, sent for the purpose of giving himself to obtain eternal life for us. Having accomplished this mission he returns to God. As the Johannine Jesus gives himself for the life of the world (John 6:51), so Gandalf gives his life at Moria, to save Middle-Earth.

One prominent and distinctive characteristic of the Johannine Jesus is elusiveness.[24] On the geographical level, Jesus moves about between Galilee, Judea, and Samaria. His opponents seek him, but they cannot find him until his hour has come (8:20). On the level of language, neither Jesus’ disciples nor his opponents understand what he says. In 3:1?21, for example, Nicodemus does not understand what Jesus says about spiritual birth; he can only ask, “How can this be?” (v. 9). And when Jesus tells his disciples that he has food that they do not know about, they ask if while they have been absent someone has brought him something to eat. They do not understand that Jesus’ food is to carry out his Father’s will (4:33f.). And when he tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world, Pilate thinks that he is speaking politically (18:36f.). Similarly Gandalf travels about the West of Middle-Earth, turning up at unexpected times and places. “Ever he goes and comes unlooked-for,” says Háma (p. 528). And shortly thereafter, when Théoden asks if Gandalf has been seen, a scout reports, “Many have seen an old man in white upon a horse, passing hither and thither over the plains, like wind in the grass. Some thought it was Saruman” (p. 529). But the scout and the reader both recognise Gandalf and Shadowfax. Gandalf shows this characteristic from the beginning of the narrative. Saying goodbye to Frodo just after Bilbo leaves Bag End, he says, “Look out for me, especially at unlikely times!… Expect me when you see me!” (p. 41). And over the next several years he turns up in the Shire at irregular intervals, “coming unexpectedly after dusk, and going off without warning before sunrise” (p. 46), and then absenting himself for nine years before reappearing to tell Frodo about the Ring.

On the level of language, what Gandalf says is often misunderstood. A comic example of this occurs at Bag End: accused by Gandalf of eavesdropping, Sam replies, “Eavesdropping, sir? I don’t follow you, begging your pardon. There ain’t no eaves at Bag End, and that’s a fact” (p. 63). The reader will understand and appreciate this wordplay easily enough. Another example of Gandalf’s elusive language comes in a remark which Bilbo repeats to Frodo. “Gandalf said: ‘The Ring has passed on, Bilbo. It would do no good to you or to others, if you try to meddle with it again.’ Odd sort of remark, just like Gandalf” (p. 232). Clearly Bilbo has not understood Gandalf, though Frodo and the reader, having had more information about the Ring’s history, might. It is also noteworthy that Bilbo describes this “odd sort of remark” as “just like Gandalf,” as characteristic of him. Such language is so characteristic of Gandalf that after his return Aragorn says to him, “In one thing you have not changed…you still speak in riddles” (p. 496). This reminds one of John 16:39, where the disciples say to Jesus, “Yes, now you are speaking plainly, and not in any figure of speech.” But although they say that Jesus is not speaking in riddles, the reader has reason to believe that they do not understand him as well as they think they do.

Another prominent characteristic of the Johannine Jesus is that there is a division of opinion about him. In John 7:12, for example, “There was considerable complaining about him among the crowds. While some were saying, ‘He is a good man,’ others were saying, ‘No, he is deceiving the crowd’.” (There are similar divisions in 7:30f, 40-44; 8:30; 10:19-21). Their dilemma is summed up in a later chapter: “Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?”(9:19). Similarly there are divisions of opinion about Gandalf. Háma says to one of Théoden’s guard,

‘Ever he [Gandalf] goes and comes unlooked-for.’ ‘Wormtongue, were he here, would not find it hard to explain,’ said the other. ‘True enough,’ said Háma; ‘but for myself, I will wait until I see Gandalf again.’ ‘Maybe you will wait long.’ said the other” (p. 528).
There is also division in the hall at Edoras, where Wormtongue opposes Gandalf while Éomer supports him. There is a similar division at Minas Tirith, where Faramir supports Gandalf, but Denethor believes that the Wizard is plotting to overthrow him, and messengers say, “Not all will follow Mithrandir” (p. 825).

This is the place to mention a way in which Gandalf does not resemble the Johannine Jesus. Early in the narrative, Gandalf warns Bilbo that if Bilbo persists in refusing to give the Ring away, Gandalf will become angry; “Then you will see Gandalf the Grey uncloaked” (p. 34). When Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli meet the returned Gandalf, as he approaches them “there was a gleam, too brief for certainty, a quick glint of white, as if some garment shrouded by the grey rags had been for an instant revealed” (p. 493). As he sits down on a large stone, “his grey cloak drew apart, and they saw, beyond doubt, that he was clothed beneath all in white…he stood, grown suddenly tall, towering above them. His hood and his grey rags were flung away. His white garments shone” (p. 494). The reader gets the impression that Gandalf is a divine being who has put on a physical form as a disguise. But this is not what John says about Jesus. John says that Jesus, the Word, “became flesh, and lived among us” (John 1:14). The Word did not put on flesh, he became flesh. He became fully human, without giving up his divinity. The difference between becoming flesh and putting on flesh is crucial; it is an important difference between orthodox Christianity and the early heresy of Gnosticism.

There are several incidents involving Gandalf which, I suggest, show a Johannine influence. When the returned Gandalf the White shows himself to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, the narrator says, “His hair was white as snow in the sunshine, and gleaming white was his robe; the eyes under his deep brows were bright, piercing as the rays of the sun; power was in his hand” (pp. 494f; cf. p. 951). This is clearly reminiscent of the description of the risen Jesus as seen by John at the beginning of the book of Revelation: “I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed in a long white robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace…In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force” (Rev 1:14-16).[25] A short time later, Gandalf leads a company of Rohirrim, scattered but now regathered under Marshal Erkenbrand, in a surprise charge against the enemies besieging Helm’s Deep: “The White Rider was upon them, and the terror of his coming filled the enemy with madness. The wild men fell on their faces before him” (p. 542). Aragorn calls Gandalf the White Rider (p. 501; the term is used several times after this). The risen Christ of Revelation also appears as a white rider: “Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war” (Rev 19:11).

As Frodo and Sam prepare to be honoured on the Field of Cormallen, “Gandalf, as if he were their esquire, knelt and girt the sword-belts about them…” (p. 955). Similarly at their last meal together, the Johannine Jesus acts as servant to his disciples, removing his outer robe and wrapping a towel around himself (thus dressing like a slave), and washing their feet (13:4f.). Some of Gandalf’s dialogue resembles that of the Johannine Jesus. After Pippin has looked into the Palantír, Gandalf warns him, “Mark this! You have been saved… mainly by good fortune, as it is called. You cannot count on it a second time” (p. 594). Similarly Jesus warns a man whom he has just healed, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you” (John 5:14; cf. 8:11). Later, Gandalf says to Denethor, “The rule of no realm is mine, neither of Gondor nor any other, great or small” (p. 758). This is reminiscent of John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Denethor believes that Gandalf has political ambitions; Pilate asks if Jesus is a revolutionary bent on overthrowing the Roman government. Denethor does not understand Gandalf any more than Pilate understands Jesus.

When Gandalf arrives in Minas Tirith, “men [fall] back before the command of his voice” (p. 751) when they recognise his voice. There is a similar reaction when he encounters the Mouth of Sauron at the Black Gate. “Before his upraised hand the foul Messenger recoiled…” (pp. 890f). This is reminiscent of Jn. 18:5?9, where the party sent out to arrest Jesus fall down at his “I am he” and implicitly grant his request to let his disciples go.

Before Gandalf leaves Middle-earth, he commissions the remaining members of the Fellowship to continue what he has started. “The Third Age of the world is ended, and the new age is begun; and it is your task to order its beginning and to preserve what may be preserved,” (p. 971) he tells Aragorn. “I shall go soon. The burden must lie now upon you and your kindred” (ibid.). In a similar way Gandalf commissions the hobbits to mend things in the Shire:[26] “You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for” (p. 996). His “I am with you at present, but soon I shall not be” (ibid.) is reminiscent of Jesus’ “Little children, I am with you only a little longer…a little while, and you will see me no longer”(John 13:33;16:16). It is noteworthy that in this speech Gandalf calls the hobbits “my dear friends;” only in the context of the farewell discourse does Jesus call his disciples friends (15:14f.). So also Jesus prays, “As you [i.e. the Father] have sent me into the world, so I have sent them [i.e. the disciples] into the world” (17:18), and tells the disciples, “As the Father sent me, so I send you” (20:22). (Note that, as I said earlier, Gandalf has also been sent.) Of course, there are also important differences between Gandalf’s farewells and Jesus’. Chief among these is that while Gandalf tells Aragorn and the hobbits that they are now on their own, Jesus tells his disciples that they will not be alone, because the Paraclete will be with them and in them. And while Gandalf tells the hobbits, “You no longer need my help, or anyone else’s,” Jesus tells his disciples that they must remain connected to him, the Vine, “for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). But the similarities are of interest for our purposes.

We can see, then, that there are numerous connections between the Johannine corpus and The Lord of the Rings. Themes that appear in both places include the conflict between the opposing forces as dark vs. light; community; and an unresolved tension between predestination and free will. Literary techniques that appear in both places include verbal echoes; irony in which characters say more than they know; and the pairing of binary opposites. We can also see a strong resemblance between Gandalf and the Johannine Jesus. I do not suggest that the Johannine corpus is the only source to be drawn on by Tolkien, only that it was one of them.

[1]Fleming Rutledge, The Battle for Middle-Earth: Tolkien’s Divine Design in The Lord of the Rings (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004) p. 13, and citations there, n. 13, from Tolkien’s letters.
[2]J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, p. 59. Subsequent page references to this work will be in the body of the text, in brackets. All references are to the 50th - anniversary edition of 2004. In this article I will be referring to the book, not to Peter Jackson’s excellent film trilogy of The Lord of the Rings.
[3]All Bible quotations are from the NRSV.
[4]On the unity of the Company see Ralph C. Wood, The Gospel According to Tolkien (Louisville: WJK, 2003), pp.127f.
[5]Of the Free Peoples only Boromir and Denethor do not think of the common good; they think only of what is good for Gondor and for themselves. This may in part explain their downfalls.
[6]It should be noted that when the Johannine narrator uses “the Jews” in a negative sense, he is referring to the leadership (also called “the scribes and Pharisees”), not to the entire Jewish people.
[7]J.N. Sanders and B.A. Mastin, A Commentary on the Gospel According to St. John, (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1968) p. 131.
[8]Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to St. John, (London: Burns & Oates, 1968), 2:259.
[9]On this see also Patricia Meyer Spacks, “Power and meaning in The Lord of the Rings,” Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo eds., Tolkien and the Critics: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968) pp. 86-95.
[10]On Providence in The Lord of the Rings see Rutledge, Battle, passim.
[11]For a fuller discussion of this see my “Intertextuality, Verbal Echoes, and Characterisation in the Gospel of John” Revue Biblique 108:2 (April 2002) pp. 210-216.
[12]So also Schnackenburg, St. John 3:250; Brown, John 2:869.
[13]Noted also by UBSGNT ad 18:37.
[14]“For each of the creatures on the chain there is a perverse counterpart. Treebeard says that the creations of the Enemy are perversions or mockeries or counterfeits (II, 89)” (Rose A. Zimbardo, “Moral Vision in The Lord of the Rings” Isaacs and Zimbardo eds., Critics, p.103.
[16]Wood, Gospel, p. 142.
[17]Stratford Caldecott, Secret Fire: the Spiritual Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien, (London: Darton , Longman and Todd, 2003), p. 35.
[18]Gracia Fay Elwood, “The Good Guys: A Study in Christ-Imagery,” Good News From Middle-Earth:Two Essays on the “Applicability” of The Lord of the Rings, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), p.140.
[19]That the eschatological age could begin early in the Gospel narrative may be ascribed to John’s “realised eschatology:” with the arrival of Jesus on earth, there is a sense in which the eschatological age has also arrived.
[20]Rutledge, Battle, p. 148.
[21]See e.g. Letters, p. 237.
[22]Unfinished Tales, p. 395. Did Tolkien drop this idea because he felt it would make Gandalf too much of a Christ-figure?
[23]Rutledge, Battle, p. 298 n. 75, and citations of Tolkien’s letters there.
[24]On this see M.W.G. Stibbe, “The Elusive Christ: A New Reading of the Fourth Gospel,” JSNT44 (1991), 20-39; idem, John: A Readings Commentary (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), pp. 17, 82, 91f.
[25]So also Gracia Fay Elwood, Good News, pp.108f. By bringing in the book of Revelation I am not making any statement about its authorship, but considering it as part of the Johannine corpus.
[26]Wood, Gospel, pp. 85f., briefly addresses this scene and its connection with the Johannine farewell discourse.