The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth, a book review

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Having just re-watched the Lord of the Rings film series, I was excited to get this book and I have not been disappointed.

I first read The Lord of the Rings while I was in college—how did I find time to read in college, but seem to have so little time to read now?—and fell in love with the series. I have tried to re-read them a few times over the years, but the story, partly because of the film series, was too familiar and I was not drawn in.

Philip Ryken’s book, The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth: Images of Christ’s Threefold Office in the Lord of the Rings, changed all that. Yes, the story is familiar, but Ryken’s book has taken off blinders and opened up a whole new dimension to me.

Mind you, this is not a whitewashing of the gospel onto the Lord of the Rings series. J.R.R. Tolkien never intended that. But, Tolkien was a Christian and his beliefs come out in his writing, whether intentional or not. These books provide a new view of the world and the Gospel in the world. Tolkien achieves this through escapism. Tolkien explains:

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy–stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word continue outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers of Escape are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. 1

“Note that Tolkien is not talking about escapism or an avoidance of reality, but rather the idea of escape as a means of providing a new view of reality, the true transcendent reality that is often screened from our view in this fallen world.” 2

In other words, through this story, in particular, but others too, we gain insight into this fallen world and the transcendent impact of the Gospel on all of creation. Or as colleague and Tolkien friend C.S. Lewis wrote, “In reading great literature I become a thousand men yet remain myself…Here as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself, and am never more myself that when I do.” 3

Tolkien’s work extends “the fulfillment of our Lord’s mission: ‘to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free’ (Lk. 4:18 NIV)” 4

This literature gives me (us) a glimpse into the Kingdom—not any in Middle Earth, but the Kingdom of God. This is what excites me about re-reading these three volumes.

The chapter titles give away the gist of the book:

  1. The Prophetic Ministry of Gandalf the Grey
  2. Frodo, Sam and the Priesthood of all Believers
  3. The Coronation of Aragorn Son of Arathorn

In other words, Jesus’ threefold office of Prophet, Priest and King.

I will not go into a dissection of these chapters, for I want you, the reader, to grasp what Tolkien, Lewis and other great authors give us—they pull back the curtain and we see the Kingdom of God and the Gospel in a new light and that light illuminates the darkness and cannot be extinguished.

So, like me, pick up a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring and read it with eyes renewed, seeing, perhaps like never before, the Kingdom. Be refreshed. 5
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1 J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy–Stories,” in Tales from the Perilous Realm (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 375—as quoted in The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth, ix
2 Philip Ryken, The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), ix–x
3 Messiah, x–xi
4 Messiah, xi
5 I probably have not conveyed the full impact that Ryken’s book has on the reading of Tolkien and so I encourage you pick up a copy and read it first.

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