Priest, Prophet and King
My introduction to serious Tolkien study was an article by Verlyn Flieger published in Mythlore, titled "Missing Person," dealing with the perennial question of whether The Lord of the Rings has a Christ figure. This entire set of essays would be incomplete without an attempt at answering this question. So I'm including it (the attempt), even though the thoughts contained in it are far from original and are almost completely from Professor Flieger and other authors whom I've read since.
In the strict sense, there is no Christ figure in LotR. Middle-earth has no parallel to Narnia's Aslan. As mentioned before, this is primarily because Middle-earth is meant to be our own world in a far distant past, and introducing a Christ figure would take away the unique place of Jesus in our world's history. As a believing Christian, this is something Tolkien would not do. Also, LotR is not an allegory in the sense that the Narnia stories are; that is, nothing and no one "stands for" something else in the way that Aslan stands for Christ.
This doesn't mean that there aren't Christ-like characters in LotR or, maybe better, characters who have Christ-like qualities and do Christ-like things. There are such people in the real world - I've had many of them in my own life, thank God - so Tolkien's view of how the world and life work would include them, too.
The title of this essay is a list of roles that Catholics, and many other Christians, give to Christ. They are also roles that Christians are called to fill. As brothers and sisters of Christ we have royal blood, and that gives us certain rights as well as responsibilities. As His followers, we are called to offer sacrifice (of ourselves and our lives*), which is the role of a priest, and to fulfill the prophet's role of speaking the Word of God.
Most of those on the side of Good in LotR fill these roles in some way at various times. As one example, Pippin's status as future monarch is alluded to when the people of Minas Tirith call him "Prince of the Halflings"; he shows himself to be a humble future monarch when he introduces himself to Bergil as the son of a farmer rather than the son of the Thain, and when he places himself in fealty to a steward. Elrond is an almost purely prophetic figure in the story. Sam certainly fills each of the roles at different times.
But I'm not being at all original in choosing to concentrate on Frodo as priest, Gandalf as prophet, and Aragorn as king. Even these roles aren't consistent enough to make the characters allegorical; Aragorn and Frodo are both prophetic on occasion, while Gandalf displays virtues of leadership as well as offering himself as a sacrifice in Moria.
One of the prayers of the Mass reminds us that Jesus is "the priest, the altar, and the lamb of sacrifice." The same could be said of Frodo - and of anyone who completely offers the totality of their being to follow the will of God. In the role of a priest, Frodo offered himself in sacrifice; as the alter, his very self was the place where the sacrifice occurred; as the lamb, he was the sacrifice offered. In a way, Frodo's Quest is something like that of the Biblical scape goat. Every year on the Day of Atonement, all of the community's sins from the past year were symbolically placed on the goat's head, and he was sent off into the desert "carrying" that sin, as an image of God removing the sins from His people.
There's also a statement Paul made about Christ that is reminiscent of Frodo, although he doesn't embody it perfectly: "He who knew no sin was made sin for our sake." Frodo shows this imperfectly, of course, because he wasn't any more sinless than the rest of us. On the other hand, seeing how Frodo was "made sin" for the sake of Middle-earth emphasizes the power of Paul's statement about Christ. Being "made sin" is much different from being affected by sin or sinfulness; it speaks of taking on the entire burden of sin. That's the weight Frodo carries across Mordor and up the slopes of Mount Doom. In response to a reader who asked if Frodo was a Christ figure, Tolkien denied it using one argument: in the end, Frodo failed. Providence, along with Frodo's own practice of mercy, provided the means for the Quest to be completed, but Frodo on his own was unable to complete it. The same is true for each of us, no matter what our own Quest might be; the only way we can complete it is through the grace of God present within us and around us. Only Christ was able to take on the burden of being "made sin" and carry it all the way through to the complete fulfillment of his Father's will. Frodo sacrificed his all, but his all was simply not enough - he may be saintly and Christlike, but he doesn't have the ability to fill the role of Christ. As we know from the Letter to the Hebrews, the only sacrificial blood that has the power to cleanse and save is that of Jesus.
It seems strange to me to write a section like this about Frodo that's shorter than the two following ones on Gandalf and Aragorn. But later on, we'll spend an entire section following Frodo's spiritual Road. Even when not dealt with directly, his priestly role is always part of that journey.
If anyone is speaking for God during the last century or so of the Third Age, it's Gandalf. Out of the wizards/istari sent by the Valar to deal with the evil of Sauron, the job eventually falls on his shoulders.
I'm most aware of his prophetic role when he calls others, much as Samuel anointed Saul and then David. Like Samuel, Gandalf has to trust that God doesn't choose someone by appearance but "looks into the heart": after all, the people Gandalf calls are predominantly hobbits! For some reason that perhaps not even he understood, Gandalf had been taking an interest in hobbits - especially the descendants of the Old Took - long before he chose Bilbo as the dwarves' burglar.
As readers, we have the same challenges the author did in trying to bridge the gap between The Hobbit and its sequel. The Gandalf who chuckles as he puts the mark of a burglar on Bilbo's door** doesn't seem much like a prophet. But even within The Hobbit the story grows deeper, and the Gandalf whom Bilbo meets in the enemy camp has grown more serious; by that point, it's also easier to see Gandalf's wisdom in choosing Bilbo for the task. His statement at the beginning of the book that the journey will be "good for" Bilbo would be true even if the story ended at Bilbo's return home (as, of course, Tolkien thought it did when he wrote it).
But those who've read both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have a limited experience of the "Eternal Now," as we know Gandalf's choice of Bilbo will have wider consequences than just making Mr. Baggins a wiser hobbit, as well as the instrument used to fulfill some ancient prophecies. Bilbo's being "meant to" find the Ring was dependent upon Gandalf making that choice. As will be discussed more later, Bilbo's experience of the world outside the Shire is an essential part of his preparation to be a mentor for Frodo. Because of what happened in The Hobbit, neither Gandalf nor Elrond need to choose Frodo; they merely confirm that he has, indeed, been chosen, as Samuel does with David. Gandalf is also responsible for sending Sam with Frodo, and for convincing Elrond to add Merry and Pippin to the Fellowship. (It's interesting that the one member of the Fellowship who isn't chosen by either Gandalf or Elrond is Boromir; Aragorn simply announces that Boromir will be part of the group because their roads lie together.)
There are other ways Gandalf speaks as a prophet. As Old Testament prophets often called leaders of the people to a change of heart, so he calls Théoden, Denethor, and Saruman; Théoden accepts Gandalf's words and acts on them, while the other two have too much love for their own power to hear anything else. Gandalf has words of guidance for many, especially Aragorn and Frodo. One of his most prophetic moments, it seems to me, is when he directs Aragorn in the finding of the sapling of the White Tree.
But Gandalf also fills a prophetic role - as well as a priestly one - on the bridge of Khazad Dûm. He doesn't speak on his own authority; no true prophet does. Before he commands the balrog ('You shall not pass!'), he says, 'I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor." The exact meaning of "the flame of Anor" is one of those things Tolkien readers have been debating for decades. But ever since the publication of The Silmarillion, there's been no legitimate way to question that in Tolkien's cosmos the Secret Fire is the power that belongs only to the One. Unlike "wizards" in most fantasy epics, Gandalf doesn't act through any magical power he possesses himself; the balrog is cast down by the power of God.
The role of a king is the most difficult one on this list for Americans to relate to, and my Catholic background doesn't give me much help. The only Lord and King American Christians of any stripe know is Jesus Christ. In some ways this clarifies things, but it does limit our understanding of the rich imagery of kingship. A minor example is the Catholic custom of genuflecting when entering and leaving the church. That's the only use of the action that American Catholics would relate to: it's a way to acknowledge the presence of Christ. For people in European societies who have a history of being ruled by monarchs, genuflecting is what you do in the presence of the king; doing so in the presence of Christ is acknowledging his kingship, a layer of symbolism that's foreign (literally) to Americans.
This lack of experience with royalty has an effect for American Christians that I think might surprise Tolkien: turning the role of the king into something very close to an allegory. It's no surprise to us that "the hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and thus should the true king be known." When Jesus instructs the disciples of John the Baptist to return to John and tell him what they've seen, he says this report should specifically include "The blind see, the lame walk, the dead are raised to life and the poor have the good news preached to them," because those are actions spoken of by the prophets through which the Messiah can be recognized. "Messiah" and "Christ" translate literally to "anointed one," and anointing was the sacramental act in Israel that showed someone was chosen to be king. So, through a couple of layers of symbolism, healing was a major part of how the true King shall be known. People who've been ruled by all-too-imperfect monarchs may find this more difficult to accept than Americans do.
Note that anointing showed someone was chosen to be king; it wasn't the equivalent of a crowning. When Samuel anointed David, David didn't immediately start his reign. He had to go through a lot first. But through all those difficulties and dangers, David operated with the assurance that he had been chosen - that he was the true king. Aragorn didn't have to defeat the forces of the previous king in order to take the throne, but he certainly lived a life of difficulties and dangers as he prepared for that moment. Aragorn, too, knew that he was the true king; but like the coming of the Messiah, his kingship had to await the proper time.
And, like the coming of the Messiah, the wait was a long one for the people, as generations kept alive the hope that the chosen one would, indeed, appear, and be recognized through his healing hands. (I love the fact that Tolkien gives this important bit of prophecy to Ioreth - one of the most common of common people - instead of having Gandalf think of it himself.) In the person of Denethor and, to a lesser degree, Boromir, we can see what happens when that hope dies. Speaking of his stewardship, Denethor doesn't say, "until the king shall come again," but "unless the king should come again." It's not something he awaits with hope. Denethor himself probably didn't completely understand how much of his refusal to recognize Aragorn as king came from an authentic desire to protect the kingdom from a possible usurper and how much came from his own desire to claim the king's power (if not the kingdom) for himself. The same could be said of at least some of the leaders of the people who refused to recognize the Messiah. As Tolkien said in one of his letters, things such as this can be seen as allegories only because "all power... does so work."
Although the Shire-folk considered themselves subjects of the king, even when there was no ruling king, this didn't normally have much effect on their daily lives. But when legitimate power was needed, it came from the king. Pippin - in Gondorian uniform - proclaims himself to be a messenger of the king when dealing with ruffians in the Shire. Far back in their history, when the Shire was first granted to them, the line of the Thain had been established by the king, and in "The Scouring of the Shire" we hear from Farmer Cotton, 'You see, your dad, Mr. Peregrin, he's never had no truck with this Lotho, not from the beginning: said that if anyone was going to play the chief at this time of day, it would be the right Thain of the Shire and no upstart.' But, still, all the Thain has been able to do is keep the ruffians out of Tookland; he doesn't have the power of the kingship himself.
The Shire also gives us a look at one difference between American and British understanding. This is a generalization, but when Americans talk about the wonderful year of 1420 S.R., they usually connect it to the Ring having been destroyed, removing the shadow of Sauron from Middle-earth. More British writers on this subject, though, seem to connect it to the return to rule of the proper king. This goes back at least as far as Arthurian legend, where the physical fruitfulness of the kingdom is related to the position of the king. If the king fulfills his role honorably and well, the land of his kingdom flourishes. I doubt if many of the hobbits would have cared which of these scenarios was correct - as long as they got their "proper fourteen-twenty."
*In Catholic theology, Christians also act as "God's priestly people" in another way. Those who have joined themselves to Christ are spiritually joined to Him even in His sacrifice on the Cross - as we are in His Resurrection. But this aspect of the term doesn't come into our discussion here, since we're looking at a pre-Christian time.
**Since first writing this essay, I've read "The Quest of Erebor," which was meant to be included in the appendices of LotR but was left out because of space limitations. It tells, through Gandalf's words, the backstory of how he came to choose Bilbo to accompany the Dwarves - and how he convinced Thorin to agree to it, which was much more difficult. I read it as the first appendix in The Annotated Hobbit: Revised and Expanded Edition, with annotation by Douglas Anderson, but I expect it's available other places. I especially appreciate that the account makes it pretty clear that Gandalf is laughing at Thorin as he puts the mark on Bilbo's door, rather than at Bilbo (although I doubt if the feigned historian realized this when originally writing about it). More importantly, the piece allows Gandalf to take us through his discernment process, from his first thought of involving a hobbit to his understanding that it was absolutely imperative that this hobbit go on this adventure - although he didn't know why. Its main interest to me is that it shows how Tolkien thought about this earlier history at the time he was finishing the writing of LotR.