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Sermons, Classes, and Lectures

The Fellowship: Lewis, Tolkien and The Inklings

February 6, 2019 Speaker: The Rev. Brian K. McGreevy Series: The Fellowship: Lewis, Tolkien And The Inklings

Topic: Christian Education




J.R.R. Tolkien: The Missionary’s Ideal Companion



I was fifteen, about to embark on my first overseas experience. I had my passport, my visa, and my clothes (expertly packed), but I was lacking one item essential for transcontinental travel: a book. In the end, Terry Brooks and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were consigned to my checked baggage, and J.R.R. Tolkien took his honored place in my carry-on. That flight to Fortaleza inaugurated what has since become an established ritual for me.

You see, during times of extreme change in my life, I (re)read The Lord of the Rings. I still have the same paperback that accompanied me to Brazil and, according to the tally on the epigraph page, I’ve read it six times. The book was my companion during two cross-country moves, my marriage, and my time serving as a missionary in South Asia.

I would argue that Tolkien’s fantasy epic is an excellent applicant to any missionary’s library. When you’ve exhausted the in-flight entertainment system and your Kindle’s running dry, J.R.R. can still spin his tale under your reading lamp. When the Road ahead does indeed go on and on, and home is far behind, Tolkien is the ideal companion. Here are a few reasons why.


The Great Escape

Many a self-styled literary critic has sneered at fairy tales as escapist, as flights of fancy that draw the reader out of the “real” world. And they are perfectly right. As Tolkien himself said in On Fairy-Stories, “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”

The Lord of the Rings is an escape, not out of reality, but into it. We live our twenty-first century lives hemmed in by the incessant lie that this world is all there is, that truth, goodness, and beauty are nothing more than random sparks in the simian brain. We’re told repeatedly that chance and reproductive impulse are all that govern the universe. But Tolkien will have none of that foolishness. He leads us out of physical facts through glorious fantasy so that we may finally arrive at eternal Truth.

“The Lord of the Rings is an escape, not out of reality, but into it.”

For you see, this tale of talking trees and wandering wizards invites the reader to believe in truths that are more real than anything we can hold in hands of flesh. It insists on the existence of courage, justice, redemption, and friendship. It holds fast to the dream that small and insignificant folk can “arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great.” It clings to Sam Gamgee’s mad hope that one day, “everything sad [is] going to come untrue.” It’s a clear and gentle call to keep believing everything worth believing in, and few need to hear that call more desperately than the missionary.

There and Back Again

My flight to South Asia took me farther away from home than I’d ever been in more ways than geographical. I stepped off that plane and deep into a land of shadow, a land where precious few had heard of the Light of the world. But Tolkien’s world was a familiar path through a strange forest. I could journey with Strider and his hobbits as they journeyed with me, and they gave me space to feel my homesickness while staying true to my quest. “I feel,” as Frodo does, “that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again.” Middle-Earth was warm and familiar, even if it was fantasy, and I needed that breath of familiar air as home faded fast behind me.

Because, for many missionaries, even the flight back to the States is not truly a homecoming. We’ve changed. We no longer fit into the spaces we left. We’re surrounded by friends and family who love us deeply but who can’t really understand the world we’ve seen, any more than Sam’s Gaffer could understand the songs of Lórien or the dungeons of Moria.

“Even as I longed, sometimes even wept, for home, Tolkien faithfully reminded me that, truth be told, I haven’t been there yet.”

But as Frodo observes, “It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them,” and that is as true for gospel worker as it is for the Ringbearer. A missionary gives up home, not just for a time, but often for a lifetime, so that others can be brought home to the family of God. And they return to their respective Shires with an elvish air, a touch of strangeness about them, as if they don’t quite belong in this world. Because, after all, they don’t. No Christian does. We are “strangers and exiles on the earth . . . seeking a homeland . . . a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:13–16 ESV).

Homeward Bound

Even as I longed, sometimes even wept, for home, Tolkien faithfully reminded me that, truth be told, I haven’t been there yet. I knew, like Master Samwise, that “in the end the shadow [i]s only a small and passing thing: there [i]s light and high beauty forever beyond its reach,” and that Light is my true home. I tread and retread the paths of Rivendell and the streets of Minas Tirith with the confidence that, even in their glory, they are but a small foretaste of the eternal home waiting for us.

The missionary makes their home on the ragged edge of the kingdom of God, joining their voices each day with all creation as it groans for redemption. We confidently hope in truth we cannot see (Rom. 8:18–25). But through Tolkien’s masterpiece, we catch a flash of the day when “the grey rain-curtain turn[s] all to silver glass and [i]s rolled back, and [w]e beh[o]ld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”

Jaclyn S. Parrish worked as a writer for IMB in South Asia. She currently serves in the US as a writer, editor, and social media associate for IMB. You can follow her on Twitter at @JaclynSParrish.







Bilbo Baggins throws a party for himself and his protégé, Frodo. At the party, Bilbo announces that he is leaving his home to his heir, Frodo. He returns home and is met by his close friend, the wizard Gandalf. Gandalf insists that Bilbo remove the Ring that he has owned since the events of the previous adventure, chronicled in The Hobbit, and give the ring to his young heir. The Ring has special powers, the most obvious of which is to make the wearer invisible. Then Bilbo disappears.

For many years Frodo lives in Bilbo’s home at Bag End. Just like Bilbo, Frodo appears not to he aged. In his fifties, he grows restless. One day Gandalf comes to Frodo and tells him that he is in danger. It seems that the Ring originally belonged to Sauron, the Dark Lord. Sauron wants the Ring back so that he can conquer the world. Sauron is using Gollum, an evil hobbit who also wants the Ring, to find out who has it and where it can be located. Gandalf tells Frodo that the ring is a corrupting power, and that anyone who uses it will ultimately be destroyed by it if they do not part with it. Further, he tells Frodo that the Ring can only be destroyed by tossing it into a volcano at Mount Orodruin. Frodo tries to give the ring to Gandalf, but the wizard tells him that he (Frodo) was chosen to bear the responsibility; it is his fate.

It is decided that Frodo will take the ring to the Crack of Doom in Mount Orodruin. He is to be accompanied by his friends Sam, Merry, and Pippin. As they travel, the Black Riders of Sauron pursue them. The Black Riders are bodiless horsemen who want the Ring. The travelers meet up with Aragorn, a friend of Gandalf, and together they continue their journey with the aid of some new companions.

Gandalf leads the companions through the mines of Moria. Gandalf battles a dreadful spirit and falls into an abyss. Aragorn becomes the leader. After many small battles, the company realizes their task will be very difficult. They meet Lady Galadriel, of the elves, and are given some assistance. Boromir, a representative from Gondor, tries to persuade Frodo to give him the Ring to take to his father and thus defeat their enemies. Frodo refuses and the two men fight. Frodo must use the Ring to escape Boromir. Boromir is instantly sorry he has been overcome by the allure of power. Frodo decides to travel alone, fearful of the consequences of his friends being corrupted. Only faithful Sam is allowed to accompany him.

Boromir is killed and given a hero’s burial; everyone knows he never meant to fight Frodo. They attribute his sudden corruption to the Ring. Orcs attack and Merry and Pippin are taken captive. Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas pursue them, trying to save their companions. The riders of Rohan appear, having been summoned to help. They destroy the orcs near Fangorn forest but cannot find Merry and Pippin. Merry and Pippin have come into the area inhabited by Treebeard the Ent. He is the oldest living thing in the forest. He sustains them and rouses his troops to avenge the hobbits.

Meanwhile, Gandalf has come back from death as Gandalf the White. He approaches Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas and tells them what has happened to him. He introduces them to King Theoden of Edoras. Together Gandalf and his men join Theoden in fighting the orcs and looking for Merry and Pippin. Along the way they defeat Saruman, who has been causing trouble and impeding Frodo in his quest.

Sam and Frodo are still making their way to the Crack of Doom. Gollum, who still craves the Ring, follows them. They capture Gollum and try to persuade him to forsake his evil and return to his old likable self as the character Smeagol. The three make their way through the forest until they are met by an army from Gondor, led by Faramir (Boromir’s brother).

When Faramir releases them, Gollum leads Sam and Frodo into a trap--the lair of the giant spider Shelob. Frodo is wounded so badly that Sam fears he is dead. Gollum disappears. Sam decides to take the Ring and continue on in order to destroy it and fulfil Frodo’s responsibility. Orcs come along and steal Frodo’s lifeless body. By listening to the orcs, Sam discovers that Frodo is not dead but is merely drugged. He pursues them to save his good friend.

Gandalf and Pippin arrive in Gondor, where they meet Denethor (Boromir and Faramir’s father). Pippin is befriended by Beregond. Aragorn has revealed himself to Sauron and decides to travel ahead through the Paths of the Dead in order to reach Sauron quickly and thereby assist Frodo and Sam. Eowyn, niece of Theoden, begs to be taken along but Aragorn refuses. He goes to the Paths of the Dead and offers the dead peace if they will fulfill their promise to fight against Sauron.

Merry is not allowed to accompany Theoden into battle, but the resourceful young hobbit hitches a ride with a fierce young soldier named Dernhelm.

Theoden, meanwhile, receives an urgent message to help Denethor at Minas Tirith. He refuses to let Merry join him, but Merry is offered a ride by a young rider named Dernhelm. Denethor is displeased with his younger son Faramir for having helped the Ring bearer rather than claiming the Ring for Gondor. He sends his son into battle, and when Faramir is seriously wounded, his repentant father goes mad with grief. He tries to set himself and his son’s body on fire.

The story continues with the ride of the Rohirrim, allies of Gondor. They are attacked by Nazguls. Theoden falls beneath his wounded horse, but the young rider Dernhelm reveals himself as the fir Eowyn and kills the Lord of the Nazguls. Aragorn, meanwhile, rides into Gondor with the help of the forces of the dead and Sauron’s evil minions are defeated.

Gandalf removes Faramir from the funeral pyre, but Denethor sets himself alight and dies. Merry and Pippin are reunited and Aragorn heals Merry, Eowyn and Faramir. The army then moves out to Mordor, where an emissary of Sauron produces Frodo’s cloak and sword saying that if the troops do not withdraw, Frodo will be tortured. Gandalf snatches the objects from him and another war begins. Pippin saves Beregond from a troll, but faints just as the eagles come to their rescue.

Sam rescues Frodo and they make their way toward Mount Doom. Gollum, however, overtakes them and just as Frodo comes to the Cracks of Doom, Gollum obtains the Ring biting off his finger. Gollum is so excited about having the Ring back that he falls into the abyss, carrying the Ring with him. Mount Doom erupts with the force of the destroyed Ring. Sauron is defeated for good.

The eagles rescue Sam and Frodo from the erupting volcano. Faramir woos Eowyn Arwen marries Aragorn. The company then goes to Rohan for Theoden’s funeral, and then Gandalf and the hobbits begin their homeward journey. The meet Saruman, who is unrepentant, then make their way to Rivendell, where they meet Bilbo. After this the hobbits reach the Shire, which has been completely transformed by Saruman and his servants. It is a barren military wasteland. The Shire hobbits manage to regain control and defeat Saruman. They restore the Shire with some help from Lady Galadriel.

The novel ends with Frodo’s retirement. Elrond, Gandalf and Galadriel accompany him and Bilbo to the Grey Havens. Sam, Merry and Pippin return to live a full life in Hobbiton.—thebestnotes.com