A Labor of Love

Michael Metzger

This past Saturday (September 2nd) of Labor Day weekend marked the 75th anniversary of the death of J. R. R. Tolkien, a man who labored to write The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Today is Labor Day and it’s worth noting the word “labor” has positive connotations in Christianity. The Apostle Paul described his work as laboring, or striving, to present every believer in a state of perfection to Christ.[1] The Greek word for striving is agonizomai, where we get our word “agonize,” which is Tolkien did in agonizing, or laboring for a full 12 years to write The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The reason was largely due to Tolkien being a devout Catholic. He knew scripture, tradition, as well as the works of Augustine, Irenaeus, Origen, and Bede. Tolkien shared their ambition: to appreciate the beauties of the Christian tradition.

But he also shared Augustine’s vision of two cities, of the struggle to defy evil, and of the costs that it imposed. This was the vision “that kings and saints had held to, back in the early years of Christendom; and Tolkien was much moved by it.”[2] So moved, that Tolkien described The Lord of the Rings as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” declaring, “I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories).”

This explains why Tolkien labored for a full 12 years to write his trilogy. He felt the mysteries of his faith required giving his readers an entire world for their imaginations to inhabit. Hence, the trilogy is densely written, with paragraph upon paragraph describing the geography of Middle-Earth, including wizards, humans, dwarves, elves—and evil beings. Tolkien sought to instill the feeling we get when we visit the great cathedrals of Italy and look up at the ceilings. The heavens and the earth are saturated with spiritual beings.

I believe there are several take-aways from Tolkien’s trilogy. First, Tolkien, like Augustine, interpreted all of history as the record of human iniquity. But he recognized that the idea of evil had gone into eclipse in modern times. “I am a Christian, and indeed a Catholic, so I do not expect “history” to be anything but a “long defeat”—though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpse of final victory.”[3]

Second, Augustine’s view of history is in short supply today. In the last year of World War II, Tolkien wrote that “we are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring. And we shall (it seems) succeed. But the penalty is, as you will know, to breed new Saurons.”[4] Augustine’s point, echoed in Tolkien’s letters, is that “culture wars” are never “won.” The struggle to defy evil is never ending in this life.

Third, like C. S. Lewis, Tolkien recognized we live in a post-Christian age, so his 12-year labor of love included “latent” or “hidden” elements of the Christian faith. In The Lord of the Rings, the fall of Mordor came on March 25—the very day that according to Christian tradition Christ entered the womb of the Virgin Mary.

It would take another five years after Tolkien completed his writing to get The Lord of the Rings published (1954). The trilogy was not well received at first. Most reviewers were bewildered, if not contemptuous, especially in Tolkien’s insistence that good and evil actually exist. But The Lord of the Rings would go on to be the most widely read work of fiction of the twentieth century, and Tolkien its most read Christian author.

If you’d like to know more about J. R. R. Tolkien, Holly Ordway’s biography is now available: Tolkien’s Faith: A Spiritual Biography. It sheds new light on his deeply-held beliefs and conviction. You might enjoy it, even read it on this last day of this Labor Day weekend.


[1] This aligns with II Cor.11:2 where Paul told the Christians in Corinth that he “betrothed (married) you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ.”

[2] Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, (Basic Books, 2019), 478.

[3] J. R. R. Tolkien, Letters, 54.

[4] J. R. R. Tolkien, Letters, 255.


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