Our Inklings students read The Lord of the Rings around Christmas time in our curriculum, and then they follow it up immediately with the Gospel of John. ECA Tutor Timothy Lawrence highlights one of the many mirrors we have noticed over the years between The Lord of the Rings and the gospel story in his discussion of Mary and Galadriel. We hope this brief essay helps you to think well about the call to Christmas and what our humble response should be. Merry Christmas from the ECA Tutors and Staff!
Sandro Botticelli, The Virgin and Child (Madonna of the Book), c. 1480-1481
The Christmas story presents us with two figures who embody sharply contrasting responses to the coming of Christ. On the one hand, there is Mary, the Mother of Our Lord, who surrenders herself completely to the will of God, saying, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”¹ On the other hand, there is King Herod, who rages vainly against the loss of his power, slaughtering the innocent children of Bethlehem in an impotent attempt to hold onto the kingdom he has carved out for himself. When we prepare our hearts for Christmas, we are always faced with a choice between these two ways of responding to God. As Christians, we are called to emulate the surrender of Mary: to give ourselves with radical humility to the designs God has for us, putting aside all thoughts of ordering our lives as we see fit. If we are honest with ourselves, though, something inside us relates to the sheer terror that motivates Herod’s butchery. We are all afraid of losing control. Christmas always brings with it the temptation to be like Herod: to refuse Jesus’ lordship and play the tyrant in our own little ways, clinging desperately to power instead of bowing the knee before the King of Kings. We are tempted to distract ourselves with restless busyness instead of listening quietly for God’s voice; to prop up idealized images of ourselves, striving vainly to be perceived a certain way, instead of truthfully admitting our shortcomings; to grasp after happiness instead of receiving it as a gift. We typically enter the Christmas season with our own ideas of what we want that season to be like, and God typically has other plans. We are only able to truly enter into the joy of Christ’s coming when we surrender ourselves –– our souls, our bodies, our time –– to His will.
In The Lord of the Rings, we see the tension between Mary’s surrender and Herod’s grasping
play out in the figure of Galadriel, the Lady of Lothlórien. Like Herod, Galadriel stands to lose her power and her kingdom, and she is tempted to avert this loss by taking the One Ring from Frodo and setting herself up as a queen over Middle-earth. Instead, she chooses surrender, cementing her status as a Marian figure. The aura of beatific grace surrounding Galadriel and the reverent devotion shown to her by the members of the Fellowship would resonate with the Catholic Tolkien’s conception of the Blessed Virgin as the glorious Queen of Heaven. Indeed, despite his distaste for allegory, Tolkien himself admits in a letter, “I think it is true that I owe much of this character [Galadriel] to Christian and Catholic teaching about Mary.”²
We can infer that, when their moments of testing come, both Mary and Galadriel are able to
surrender because they have prepared their hearts through contemplation. Throughout the history of Christian art, many paintings of the Annunciation (for instance, those by El Greco and Paolo Veronese) depict Mary reading the Scriptures when the angel Gabriel appears to her. There is a poetic aptness to this: Mary reads the Word before she carries the Word made flesh in her womb. The implication is that Mary’s practice of contemplation –– that is, of meditation on the Word of God –– disposes her heart to respond rightly to the angel’s greeting. Mary is able to assent to God in faith and love because she has reflected deeply on the Scriptures that tell of God’s goodness. This extra-Biblical characterization of Mary as a contemplative figure comports with the way she acts in the Gospels. Her theological literacy is on display in her song of praise, the Magnificat, and in Luke’s account, she is always pondering and treasuring things up in her heart.³ Mary privileges contemplation over action; she does not take the initiative, but responds to God’s initiative.
Galadriel embodies a similar posture in The Lord of the Rings. Though she is one of the oldest and most powerful beings in Middle-earth, she does not leave her realm to contend with Sauron directly. She even refrains from advising the Fellowship on how to proceed: “I will not give you counsel, saying do this, or do that. For not in doing or contriving, nor in choosing between this course and another, can I avail; but only in knowing what was and is, and in part also what shall be.”⁴ Galadriel, like Mary, cultivates a contemplative posture rather than an active one; she is focused on knowing reality, not bending it to her will. The Ring preys on the anxious, restless desire to strive for control over the world, but Galadriel has practiced giving up control, and so she is ready to resist the temptation of the Ring when it comes to her.
This is not to say that surrender boils down to mere passivity, though. Galadriel and Mary are not indifferently throwing up their hands and refusing to do anything. Surrender may look like weakness to the world’s eyes, but in fact, it requires great strength. The surrender of Mary stems from an unwavering faith in God’s goodness, but this does not imply a naïve belief that everything will be easy or comfortable; as the prophet Simeon tells her shortly after Christ’s birth, “a sword shall pass through your own soul also.”⁵ After bringing the Son of God into the world, Mary watches as that world rejects and ultimately murders Him.
The cost of Galadriel’s surrender is similarly staggering. By refusing to take the Ring from Frodo, she accepts the risk that Sauron will reclaim it and destroy Lothlórien. Moreover, even if Frodo succeeds in his task, Lothlórien will still diminish and fade. Galadriel’s refusal to seize
power means accepting an almost unimaginable loss: “The love of the Elves for their land and their works is deeper than the deeps of the Sea, and their regret is undying and cannot ever wholly be assuaged.”⁶ Clearly, there is nothing indifferent about Galadriel’s surrender. She cares profoundly for the domain she is going to lose. Nevertheless, when Frodo asks what she wishes, her reply is simple: “That what should be shall be.”⁷ Galadriel’s answer reveals the complete surrender of her will to the providence that governs Middle-earth, echoing Mary’s response to Gabriel: “[L]et it be to me according to your word.”⁸ To pass this test, Galadriel does not only surrender the land she loves; she also gives up the vainglorious vision of herself as a great queen, “beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night… Stronger than the foundations of the earth.”⁹ Her humility –– “I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel”¹⁰–– recalls another key character from the Christmas story, John the Baptist, who prepares the way for Christ, declaring, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”¹¹
The fruit of this surrender is generosity, another of the great Christmas virtues. Once Galadriel has chosen not to cling to what she loves, she can begin to give it away freely. In the same way that Christians tithe, donating a tenth of their income which is symbolic of the whole, all of the gifts that Galadriel gives to the Fellowship –– Elvish cloaks, belts, bread, and so on –– are icons of her domain, small ways of embodying her complete surrender of Lothlórien. By loosening her hold on things, Galadriel loosens those things’ hold on her, and this virtue passes mysteriously to the recipients of her gifts. Dwarves are notoriously enthralled by beautiful objects, but Galadriel’s gold hair is freely given with a blessing that frees Gimli from slavery to gold: “I say to you, Gimli son of Glóin, that your hands shall flow with gold, and yet over you gold shall have no dominion.”¹² Pippin, captured by Orcs, casts away the brooch of his Elvish cloak to leave a trail for his rescuers, and Aragorn later commends him for this act, saying, “One who cannot cast away a treasure at need is in fetters.”¹³ Finally, the light-filled phial of Galadriel enables Frodo and Sam to defeat the dark monster Shelob, who “only desire[s] death for all others, mind and body, and for herself a glut of life, alone.”¹⁴ Shelob is a devourer who hoards life for herself, but Galadriel gives life to others.
In the end, Galadriel helps to bring about the end of Sauron not by grasping for power, but by giving it away. Her gifts empower the little people of Middle-earth to undo the dark power of Sauron. As Elrond puts it, “This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great.”¹⁵ The kingdom of Herod is so fragile that the birth of a little child threatens to undo it; all the terrible might of Mordor is brought low by a pair of weak, weary, frightened little hobbits. In the end, we might discern in Lord of the Rings an echo of Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat:
[H]e has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate.¹⁶
1. Luke 1:38.
2. Letters #320.
3. Luke 2:19, 51.
4. The Fellowship of the Ring 348.
5. Luke 2:35.
6. The Fellowship of the Ring 356.
7. The Fellowship of the Ring 356.
8. Luke 1:38.
9. The Fellowship of the Ring 356.
10. The Fellowship of the Ring 357.
11. John 3:30.
12. The Fellowship of the Ring 367.
13. The Two Towers 550.
14. The Two Towers 707.
15. The Fellowship of the Ring 264.
16. Luke 1:52.
Partnering Tutor & Curriculum Developer
Timothy graduated from Biola University and the Torrey Honors Institute with a degree in Cinema and Media Arts (with an emphasis on Screenwriting), and although he is no longer pursuing a career in Hollywood, he still loves movies and acts as the managing editor of a movie review site. He is also a contributing writer to the FORMA Journal through the CiRCE Institute.